Cover of the book, depicting a smiling, middle-aged Feynman at a chalkboard.

The idea to reread this collection of Richard Feynman memoirs, last read around 1997, probably took root a few years ago after watching the Feynman lectures that appear in The Witness. Not sure what finally moved me to take it off the shelf, but I feel so glad I did. Reading these stories fresh out of college entertained me; today, most unexpectedly, they energize and inspire me. I feel called to emulate Feynman’s deep curiosity about the world around him, his impatience to accept the surfaces of things, and the joy he expresses in diving as deep as he can, again and again.

Despite all the changes wrought in me and in the world since the last century’s end, the stories here hold up so well — even if some feel like they want a few additional contextualizing caveats. The collection dates from 1985, and a deft preface in more recent editions could serve as the missing apologia, acknowledging and preparing the reader for the hairier bits. (Amazon suggests that the latest edition, from 2018, has a new foreword by Bill Gates — who, eh, is not who I would have picked.)

Very aptly subtitled “Adventures of a Curious Character”, Surely You’re Joking collects essentially episodic adventures — albeit sometimes loosely glued-together, based on long conversations recorded by biographer Ralph Leighton — that follow Feyman catching a whiff of some topic and then throwing himself wholly into its investigation through personal practice, sometimes occupying months or years of his time.

My favorite may be the chapter “O Americano, Outra Vez!” where a chance conversation with a hitchhiker about South America leads to Feynman landing an academic guest-post in Brazil. After immersing himself in Portuguese, he takes every opportunity to explore the streets of post-war Rio de Janeiro, where he falls for the local rhythms so utterly that he winds up in a samba band as its novelty-foreigner frigideira player. (He misses the beat so often in practice that his bandmates make a catchphrase of “the American, again!”, giving the chapter its title.) The band goes on to dominate a local competition, then completely falls apart at the grand Carnival.

Feynman relates the entire adventure, and many others like it, with such soaked-through joy and even gratitude, the tales of a man who wrung every drop from the life given to him. Maybe I had to be a little older to appreciate it as such! Crucially, while the stories are often instigated or informed by his “day job” as a renowned physicist, they all make clear that one needn’t be a genius to open up the world the way Feynman does. His stories are driven by curiosity and the will to explore, and not by cold intelligence.

And so importantly, the Feynman of these tales is honest to a fault. Never once does he describe himself deceiving anyone, and he remains always forthright about his intentions to anyone who asks. The one story in Surely You’re Joking where unvarnished truth presents any obstacle has Feynman seeking companionship after the war, and finding that coming in hot with stories about how he worked on The Bomb would quickly end any first date — because it made him sound like a damn liar! So he switched tactics to admitting he worked as a physicist for the government during the war, but didn’t want to talk about his specific project. Of course, this accidentally gave him an air of mystery, and thus yet another thing he could have some fun exploring.

This leads into the difficult material. I knew going in, both from memory and from encountering more recent critiques about Feynman’s autobiographies and reputation, that Surely You’re Joking has a gnarly chapter where he employs shockingly sexist language. Titled “You Just Ask Them?”, it recalls his introduction to pick-up artistry under the tutelage of a sybaritic mentor in 1940s Las Vegas. Feynman dives into the lessons with his usual fervor, taking the mentor’s advice — just as applied by “PUA” creeps today — to denigrate the women he has his sights on, starting in his mind. So in his honest accounting of this adventure, he recalls his mental frame of seeing all the women in the venue as a bunch of selfish bitches.

By the end of the chapter, Feynman grows uncomfortable with this approach and abandons it. He begins to instead practice a sort of degenerate form: he engages in his usual singles-bar socializing, and then one drink in asks “Say, do you want to have sex later?” Naturally, he finds this method to have at least as high a hit-rate as the louche’s approach, with none of the high psychological costs to either party. While I love this memorably sex-positive twist ending, those earlier words still sit right there on the page, and I recognize them a real hurdle to the modern reader — just like the fact that young Feynman, however briefly, thought that the whole sordid business was ever worth trying in the first place. And then elderly Feynman laughs the whole thing off! If he expressed any regrets about his 1940s behavior, his 1980s biographers chose not to include them here.

These young-and-thirsty stories to one side, I would describe the older, story-telling Feynman’s attitude towards women as “genial, if not progressive”. He names, without special remark, various women as his colleagues in stories set decades after the war. He also never remarks upon the complete absence of female scientists in his college, wartime, and mid-century adventures, casually using gender-exclusive language throughout these recollections. I don’t see any ill-will here, but rather the specific blindness of a man whose society just doesn’t teach awareness of certain sorts of systemic inequalities to the same degree that mine does.

In this vein, Feyman struggles both in his stories and in his story-telling with the notion of relative social-power levels between people, including those between influential men and their female subordinates. In his latter-career tales as a Nobel Prize winner, Feynman expresses painful awareness of his own celebrity status, regarding it as an obstacle to work around. But then he’ll recall how, during his deep dive into figure-drawing, he would ask female undergraduates to pose nude for him, and they’d often agree, and how surprising and delightful that was: the power of asking nicely! And the modern reader wishes to say: come on, Dick.

So, Surely You’re Joking offers memoirs by a man of his time, through and through. I finish the book convinced that Richard Feynman made his very best use of all the gifts granted him, within the society that molded him. I would absolutely recommend this collection of amazing grandfatherly tales to a modern reader of any age — so long as they are willing to have a charitable heart for filling in the now you see, back in those days explanations missing in this telling.

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Photograph of a detailed, grafitti-like mural.

I quietly launched a new microblog called Jots, scraps, and tailings a couple of days ago on jmac.org, my personal domain. I wanted someplace to post both short thoughts and sparse, utilitarian notes that didn’t quite seem right for Fogknife. The two posts it contains at this moment show one example of each, respectively: a pull-quote from a letter I came across, and an RSVP to an online meetup that happened earlier this week.

While Fogknife largely comprises long (usually thousand-word-or-more) articles, the composition of which inevitably takes me hours apiece, Jots gives me a space to write loosely and quickly, without deep concern for complete, essay-length flow. That means short posts, a requirement I prove my willingness to enforce by posting the article you now read to Fogknife instead of Jots — by the time it grew a third paragraph, you see, I ruled it disqualified as a microblog entry.

I had originally intended Jots to expressly contain what IndieWeb calls “notes”, and after exactly two posts I may have already irrevocably veered from this. By IndieWeb’s strictest definition, notes limit themselves to plain text, and never have titles — two conditions that let them fill the same role as tweets. But, I have found that I value links and basic typographical styling too much, and after slight experimentation I decided that I wanted to keep titles, as well. I like the idea of simple, bold-faced slug-lines leading from one otherwise unrelated tiny post to another, reminiscent of a daily newspaper’s “blotter-page” of miscellaneous items.

Jots’s launch follows a few tweets I’d posted a couple days prior on the subtle difference between sharing thoughts on Twitter and sharing the same thoughts on my own, private-but-public website. I feel pretty good about this new space, and look forward to seeing where it goes.

Art: Detail of “Graffiti, Market St” by Salim Virji, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Photograph of an American flag by the door of a home. The flag waves directly between the camera and the sun, which burns like an eerie flame in the middle of the cloth.

I want to tell you about two mistakes I made regarding my participation in American democracy, one in 2008 and one in 2016. I don’t blame myself for making them, due to my own ignorance both times — but I see the errors so clearly now, and I hope not to repeat either one. One of these, in fact, I plan to fix right now, with this post.


I can’t do much about the 2008 mistake today, but I hope to get the chance make amends in half a year’s time. After Obama won the White House, you see, a general sense of “Hooray, we won forever!” took hold among all my social and political circles, and swept me along as well. At last, after eight exhausting and infuriating years of the second warmongering Bush administration, the time had come when we could all stop worrying about politics and get on with our lives.

No matter what happens this November, I pledge right now that I will never allow myself to feel that way again.

The work is never complete. The temptation exists, in a democracy, to “retire” as a political actor once things go your way: close the book, put away the tools, and enjoy the fruits of a job well done. I see now how the better metaphor might involve building and then maintaining a dam: successfully launching a great, world-improving project represents only a first step.

After that, the time comes to shift your stance but stay present, indefinitely. You must invest some energy every day into making sure the thing you helped build stays well-funded and fully functional. If you don’t, the project will start to deteriorate, and not work as well — and in due course, the forces that naturally oppose it will tear it down and wash it away.


This new resolve to think ahead leads into my second mistake. Between February and September of 2016, I posted eight Fogknife articles with “Trump” in the title. I wrote four posts on the specific topic of envisioning the personal and societal effects of an imagined Trump victory, a concept that so fascinated and horrified me, watching its low but increasing likelihood, that I felt compelled to keep returning to it. And in the meantime, I didn’t write a single post about what I would have liked to see from a Hillary Clinton administration.

In doing so, I kept pouring more energy and attention into this future that felt too bizarre to exist. Which is to say that in a small but literal way I helped to shape this future. Under the guise of contingency-planning, I in fact bent all my publicly visible political attention adding more details to this terrible future, making it very slightly more realizable with each visit — until one day, pop, there it was, all around me.

In writing about Nick Montfort’s The Future a couple years ago, I said this:

The future isn’t a house we merely move into: it’s one we all play a role in building. The book tells us that if we want to live in a better future, then each of us should decide on a personal path that will help make that future real — however modestly — and then strike out upon it.

Let this post stand as my declaration that starting today, I will focus my imaginative attention towards the future I want to see. And I begin with this exhortation, to myself and to others: if America succeeds in electing a new Biden administration in November — and whether or not it seizes the Senate from Republican control — we can rest and recover our strength, but we cannot stop pushing.


Under Trump, the GOP has revealed its true face as America’s regressive party. I do not expect Republican congresspeople who survive the election — or the many judges they have installed — to abandon this direction after Trump’s defeat. In fact, I expect them to embrace full-throated nihilocracy, seeking to not just block all new progress but wreck progress already achieved within a nation they cannot directly control. Following the mandate of their truest leader, Republicans will strive to continue sowing division and discord, hoping to regain the levers of power amidst the chaos.

The Democrats, in the meantime, will need their constituents to help steer them while also holding them accountable at every step. This party is in the unusual position of containing the nation’s empowered progressive and conservative factions within itself. Maybe this will lead to a natural, healthy mitosis; I would like that. If we all falter in our attention, though — or if we deny that this fissure exists at all — it presents the regressives with an attack vector to destroy the sole political path America has towards a viable future.

Let’s agree now to not let that happen. I don’t know how it’ll work! We’ll have to figure it out when we get there. But I know that we can begin preparing for this future struggle today.

This struggle will lead to years of dysfunctional pain on a national level, as we wrench all traces of power from the Republicans at an excruciatingly slow speed while also making sure the famously self-conflicted Democrats keep to the path. I wish that this didn’t represent our best way forward as a nation, but here we are anyway. I’m going to hold this future in my mind.

Right now, I imagine myself on July 4 2021, bruised and aged from more than a year of horrifying pandemic and political malfeasance, but holding a hope I hadn’t felt in years, and feeling like an active participant in a national project moving in a clear, correct direction.

See you then.

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Image credit: “Burning Away my Freedoms” by Michaeldavid54 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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A still from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' music video.

For several hours every night, I find myself living in what history may record as a remarkable side-alleyway of our present layered crises: the memetic plague of amateur fireworks that first gripped cities across the United States several weeks ago, and which remain in full force as I write this. My own neighborhood appears to be a local focus of this activity, surrounding me in window-rattling airbursts every night from just before sunset to sometime after 2 AM, night after night.

As I also find myself between jobs at the moment, I have shifted my sleep-schedule forward by a few hours to accomodate this unexpected symptom of the lockdown. (Not to enjoy it better, but to disallow the exploding shells, which often fly screaming from a neighboring rooftop or alleyway, from continuing to slap me awake.) I don’t feel like sitting at my desk during these unasked-for wee hours, so I wash dishes, browse my bookshelves — and I watch movies, with a circumstantial penchant towards the negatively enegetic, dark or creepy or angry. Thus my backdrop last night for seeing Annihilation, Alex Garland’s 2018 adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of horror novels.

And here, by the way, we find a Fogknife first: returning to comment on the film adaptation of novels whose reading I recorded here years ago. (The film takes its title, setting, and characters mostly from the first book, but mixes in concepts from all three.) The closest I’d come before involved a post about Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which I watched immediately after reading its own source-novel. The thought occurred to me, while watching Annihilation, that if I hadn’t read the novels and you told me it was actually an American remake of Stalker, I’d have believed you. This binds up all these works into one common mass of writhing, damp-smelling, spore-sprouting tendrils: delightful.

I recall critical reaction to this film that praised its unusual setting and characters but felt let down by its inscrutably dreamlike final act. I assert that they got it all backwards. The best parts of Annihilation, which mostly come in the final act, make for an amazing music video featuring the otherworldly electronic squirms of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. The whole work should have contained itself within twenty minutes, compressing its storytelling down to exist entirely within in the interstices of the music. I would note that The video for Ladytron’s “The Animals” contains the first “Based on the novel…” credit I’ve noticed in that medium, implying room for plenty more novel-to-music-video adaptations.

Alas, Annihilation’s filmmakers felt the need to stretch its runtime to a full two-hour length, and the movie suffers for it. I found the first act a particular slog, slow-walking its setup of the protagonist’s background and motivations that neither requires nor achieves any real complexity. Where the novels get to the weird stuff very quickly, the movie’s lengthy sequence leading up to the doomed party finally mounting its venture into the alien-scarred wetlands feels wholly unnecessary.

Once it finds its boot-sucking footing in its true setting, the movie gets a lot more comfortable with itself, becoming stranger and scarier by rapid degrees. At last it rises to a truly delightful crescendo I’d never have predicted, including the introduction of what may become one of my all-time favorite movie-monsters, who grabs the soundtrack and pulls it around itself as the movie reveals its true form.

I’d love to see a cut of Annihilation that reduces it down to the true quarter-hour or so of its essence, keeping all its characterization intact while letting the alien horror of its soundtrack shine its terrible light throughout. While not at all a literal retelling of the VanderMeer novels, this movie recasts its concepts into a sensual delight whose flavors I’ll well recall despite its unfortunate dilution.

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A hand-drawn, jolly-looking 'WHIM' logo.
“It puts the ‘Hi!’ in Webmention.” (A draft project logo by the author.)

I have released Whim, a command-line program for any Unix-based OS (including Linux and macOS) that can send, receive, and display webmentions: those multi-purpose messages between websites whose potential to transform the web has fascinated me for years.

I intend to have Whim replace the experimental (and half-baked) Webmention support that Plerd — the software that powers Fogknife, and a few other blogs here and there — has contained since 2018. Until then, Whim supports Webmention for my personal website, jmac.org — including receipt and display of the webmentions on Whim’s own homepage. A nice bit of eating my own cooking!

My thanks go out to Adam Herzog and Brian Wisti for their encouraging assistance as early code reviewers and contributors. Whim is, of course, a free and open-source project, one that I hope to continue working on for the rest of 2020, with the goal of friendly stability and a semblance of utility to a userbase not limited to myself. I welcome all questions, comments, and requests about it, from those simply curious about the concept to those trying to actually use the thing.

An aside: This project follows Sweat as part of my ongoing exploration of the command line, which I’ve used for decades but have never really wrote programs for until only the last couple of years. It feels real good to finally add my own contributions in the tradition of this ancient and vital interface, whose unchanging nature I have come to appreciate more than ever in times like these.


As a supporting work, I have also published a Webmention resource page. It provides introductory material, live examples, and resources around the web to help one get familiar with this technology.

I’ve long felt the lack of any single, easy-to-read starting point for learning about Webmention. Chris Aldrich’s article in A List Apart has served as the closest thing for a couple of years, but I have always wished I could share more of a quick-access “resource springboard” than that deep, magazine-style feature. So, I finally pulled one together, linking to Aldrich’s piece and many others besides, organized by category and topped with a few introductory paragraphs of my own devising.

I hope that both of these works help spark more interest in Webmention — or, at the very least, help explain to concerned friends and family why I’ve obsessed over it for so long.

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Photograph of an Aeropress coffee maker.

I have sworn by the Aeropress manual espresso-making gadget ever since receiving one as a wedding present over six years ago. We had requested no gifts, but a friend gave us this thing anyway. I quickly came to not only understand why, but to emulate his kind error, passing through a phase of Aeropress evangelism that saw me sending new kits uninvited to any friend who, it seemed, could use one.

The lockdown has put both Amy’s office and my daytime coffee-haunts out of reach, and so I use the Aeropress more than ever, typically pressing out six or eight drinks a day. (An even number, always.) As such, my small annoyances with using the device have amplified — and chances to experiment with my own fixes have multiplied. I shall report one of each to you now.

The Aeropress works best if you can make a nice, slow, even press with the plunger, gradually forcing the column of steamy air down through the sodden grounds for several seconds before the rubber surface actually touches the coffee. This requires focused, muscular pressing — so when the plunger accidentally breaks its airtight seal against the sides of the outer cylinder, which happens far too often, the force of your pressing will instantly squish it down into the grounds. This leaves you with nothing to do but salvage the espresso by pressing with all your might, like squeezing out the last bit of toothpaste. The result often ends up okay, but not what you’d aimed for.

I hypothesize a solution to this:

While preparing the device for use, run the plunger’s rubber tip under hot water for several seconds, and then run the outer cylinder under cold water. Then proceed as normal.

No need to be obsessive about it: if you’re like me, the plunger needs cleaning from its last use anyway (even if that happened yesterday afternoon), so just rinse it off as usual — but make sure the whole surface spends several seconds inundated with nice hot water. We want to encourage that rubber to expand a bit, you see? And then turn your kitchen sink’s tap from hot to cold, pick up the outer plastic cylinder — the thing that you press the plunger through — and roll it around in the stream for five seconds. The idea being, of course, that we subject it to a soupçon of shrinkage.

Now set up and use the Aeropress as usual, and see if you don’t experience delightful friction between the two parts, giving you that satisfyingly slow press.

And that’s my whole idea. I’ve been practicing this habit for a few weeks now, and with absolutely no empirical evidence at all I believe that it helps me make better coffee. I have not tested this hypothesis through even the most trivial scientific verifications that we might devise. Certainly I invite other Aeropress users to run their own experiments, if they wish. In the meantime, I will keep pressing out my pairs of Double Americanos, and hope that this suggestion proves useful to some other quarantined coffee-brewer.

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Photograph of a mural remembering George Floyd and other black American victims of police violence.

I support, unreservedly, the right of my fellow Americans to protest the systemic injustices that still lie marbled through the nation’s laws and culture.

As one of its worst effects, the state’s constabulary continues to feel empowered to take the lives of any of my black neighbors and friends, for no reason at all, without expectation of repercussion.

They power their actions on poisons that still course through the country’s heart, present ever since America at its founding declared human enslavement a necessary evil, worthy of compromise. Ensuing generations have covered up and perfumed over this original sin, but have never truly sought to extract and strangle it. The root remains.

George Floyd, born the same year as me, was for a moment last week only the latest of many, many victims of his homicidal assumption. Its continued operation weakens and frays the many-colored American fabric by terrorizing those at its margins, every day.

I call for this to stop now. I stand with every American marching to pull out this corrupt institution, and offer gratitude to every global citizen declaring their sympathy. I pledge to seek avenues where I can lend my help more materially and practically.

And I condemn the cowards in power who can only deny and threaten and fulminate from their cold-war bunkers and their TV studios. I look forward to outliving their relevance, and I demand that my black neighbors all outlive it, too. I will work every day to make this new future: today, and in November, and beyond.

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Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe in Proof (1991)I first saw 1991’s Proof on the little television in my first all-by-myself apartment in Bangor, Maine. I had caught it by happenstance, the way one did with movies on TV in those days. I enjoyed the unexpected treat very much. Some recent reading jogged my memory of it, and today being today I queued it up for an on-demand rewatch immediately. I hoped that I’d still like it, decades later — and I did, though for very different reasons than I remember!

My main recollection involves the poisonous and mutually manipulative relationship between a cranky blind photographer (Hugo Weaving) and his cruelly sardonic housekeeper (Geneviève Picot). Their bizarre relationship thrilled me, and in retrospect I see how it would inform the cartoon fiction I experimented with in my twenties, which often focused on this sort of twisted pairing. With my first experiments in dating still in the future, I probably envisioned myself in a situation like this, bound to a captivatingly horrible snake-woman.

Look, I read a lot of Updike novels during these days as well, all right? I had to work through all this.

Returning to today: I found every bit of all that still in Proof, just as I remembered it, and had fun seeing it all again. I did not expect to find that movie does not at all center on that messed-up relationship, however! Instead, it concerns the unlikely friendship that Weaving’s photographer strikes up with a kitchen worker (Russell Crowe), after rescuing his alley-cat pet from an accident. The film centers on the rapidly flowering bond between the two men, which survives various disasters and obstacles — the venomously jealous housekeeper chief among them — and ultimately lets the photographer let go of a self-punishing weight that had stunted his own emotional growth.

Proof provides an honestly simple and sweet story of friendship, trust, and growth between two adults, with just a couple of slightly larger-than-life dramatic twists for flavor. Though “buddy films” constitute a genre unto themselves, this one seems to fall outside the tropes, what with the protagonists embracing almost immediately and unhesitatingly. Furthermore, it treats the genre’s ever-present question of homoeroticism uniquely: even after bullies casually queer-bash them at a drive-in theater, the two at no point voice any kind of concern that their deep relationship — their love, as the housekeeper correctly names it, despite the lack of literal romance — is strange in any way, and neither does the movie.

My total amnesia for the film’s actual plot, versus its spicy added flavoring, reflects the appropriately half-developed priorities that my much younger self held in the realm of desired interpersonal relationships. I suppose that I can take some measure of relief that they’ve shifted enough since then to let me appreciate the whole picture.

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An ink-and-watercolor drawing of a middle-aged woman wearing a leather girdle over a white top and gray skirt, deep in thought, with a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other.
Bellis Coldwine by Marina K. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Prompted by Aaron Reed’s own revist, I just finished a re-read of The Scar, the second of China Miéville’s “New Crobuzon” novels of steampunk excess. My friends seem to consider it the best of the three; I first read it maybe ten years ago, and remembered almost nothing about the book other than my enjoyment of it. This created the best conditions for a re-read, where everything comes as a surprise, and yet I carry near-certainly that I’ll have a great time. I did — and my experiences with the fiction I’ve consumed in the years since gives me greater insight about why it worked for me.

Bellis Coldwine, the The Scar’s core protagonist, is practical, determined, analytical — and spends every page in a position of painful weakness, getting absolutely played by one villain’s schemes after another. A middle-aged urbanite intellectual, she has absolutely no business on the high-seas adventure among pirate factions and imperial navies that misfortune tumbles her into, and quite honestly proves terrible at it. But she never falters in holding fast to her motivation: returning to the city she loves. She knows that giving in would mean — even in the very best outcomes — never seeing her home again, and she decides early on that this will never do. Her jaw thus set, she fights like hell, providing a burning spirit that gives a novel full of otherworldly wonders and pitched sea battles its true motive force.

Experienced but antisocial, Bellis makes precious few friends while at sea, and makes many more gut-wrenching mistakes — inevitable given her need to improvise constantly in an alien setting that (literally!) never stops shifting under her boots. She suffers terribly, but never surrenders, and grows stronger from all the injury. Bellis emerges at the end reforged, with all the doubt and baggage she didn’t even know she carried burned out of her. The Scar has so many amazing things to show you, but on this re-read I found Bellis’s human-scale struggle, and the personal growth she wins at dear cost, the most compelling reason to keep returning.

But the book’s most memorable character — honestly, the one detail I recalled at all from my first visit — is Uther Doul, the pirate lords’ super-powered lieutenant. As much as I’d love to see a film adaptation of The Scar, I would need to resign myself that all its merchandise would center on this brass-and-leather Darth Vader. A swordsman and gunfighter of preternatural skill, enormous intellect, and monkish calm, Doul wields an outstanding artifact-weapon whose nature I won’t spoil here. His bloodily colorful exploits give him throngs of piratical fans — and even turn Bellis’s crank a bit, despite her better judgment.

Crucially, we almost never see Doul except through Bellis’s eyes, and the narration stays outside his thoughts: he remains terrifyingly unknowable, even as Bellis draws closer to him. And I assert that this is absolutely correct, from a storytelling standpoint! Doul as a sympathetic character would not fit The Scar at all; he would weigh the story down with the presence of a brooding but infallible anime hero, at best. Instead, Doul inhabits the world as another force of nature for Bellis to negotiate with, in a novel already full of sea monsters and living storms. That this particular force has invested itself in the shape of a man just makes life harder for Bellis — another in the pile of difficulties which, as we have already determined, provide the diesel that this story propels itself on.

My comparing Bellis and Doul, and admiring the way that the book allows them to co-exist interestingly by granting only the weaker party any transparency, reminds me of my very different experience between Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its first follow-up Ancillary Sword. Even though the books have the same main character, and while I enjoyed the first novel quite a bit, I lost interest in the second somewhere around the halfway mark.

This happened in large part because the hero, imbued with godlike abilities but also utterly broken and lost at the start of the first novel, succeeds in finding herself at the end. And so the second book finds her at the well-deserved height of her powers, commanding a starship as a hyper-competent super-captain, surrounded at all times by a cloud of scrambling redshirts ever amazed and agog at her leadership, resourcefulness, and athleticism.

Certainly it felt real nice to see my old friend happy and doing well in her new life. As one chapter followed another, though, I felt like a guest overstaying his welcome; the captain had better things to do than entertain me. Naturally the story had stakes and tension and so on, but at no point did I have any doubts that she would handily carve through it all, and I feel safe saying that she felt the same way. Eventually I decided to just quietly leave her to it, and saw myself out.

Thinking about it, I could name more examples of main characters I’ve adored from various other media who, to one degree or another, defined themselves through suboptimal performances; dear, naive Mae from Night in the Woods comes to mind. I suppose that a protagonist doesn’t have to be terrible at their job in order to set up an interesting story with room for them to grow through cycles of error and correction. But, when done well, it does seem to be a pattern I appreciate!

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Character art of Estel from Street of Rage 4, a muscular policewoman performing a flying kick.

No doubt it says more about the point in my own life when my tastes in video games calcified, but Streets of Rage 4 gives me everything I want from a wholly action-oriented game: a simple, satisfying experience I already find myself returning to again and again. It succeeds in decanting the soul of the early 1990s Sega Genesis “brawler” games into a beautiful new format, adding just enough modern features to feel native to a contemporary console while foregrounding the fundamentals that made the older games great.

You likely know the Streets of Rage games, even if you’ve never seen them before. Starting with 1987’s Double Dragon, brawlers like this were ubiquitous in both arcades and home game systems for many years. They all give you control of a little dude who punches and kicks their way through short, linear levels where low-powered thugs swarm you (and, often, one or more co-op friends) until you get to a set-piece battle with a colorful boss before you move on the next level. The Streets of Rage games for the Genesis brought an interesting emphasis on grapples and throws to the usual formula, as well as a searingly memorable dance-beat soundtrack.

Streets of Rage 4 preserves all these features, and then keeps things refreshingly basic, eschewing the temptation to add anything resembling RPG elements. Every character is as strong as they’ll ever be, from the outset, with all their moves and powers immediately available: at no point do you “level up”, or pause to assign “skill points”. (Not even the NES adaptation of Double Dragon, released over thirty years ago, could avoid adding progressive “power levels” that unlocked new moves.)

The game counterbalances this by offering a surprising level of opposition right from the get-go. On my first dive in, even as I revelled in feeling these familiar controls again, I fell to a Game Over before finishing the first round. This came as a shock to someone who used to play through the entirety of Streets of Rage 2 in one go as a post-exam cool-down exercise in my college days. But of course I had only achieved that level of mastery after replaying its stages many times, enough to anticipate the emergence of each batch of mid-level mooks, and to counter the special attacks of each stage-ending boss. And so it would have to be with Streets of Rage 4, as well!

But: no longer a college student with nothing better to do, I nodded in respect to this, and backed off. Then I dropped the difficulty down to Easy, and convinced my wife (and fellow veteran of 1990s Sega games) to pick up another controller, and we had a grand time smashing our way through the place together, learning its pugilistic geographies at our own pace. I can report with pride that I can now hold my own at Normal difficulty, which is to say that I got better at it, rather than just raising my character’s “stats” until the novice’s strategy of numb button-mashing can prevail. Boss battles that initially seemed impossible, with their unpredictable movement and flurries of super-attacks that smashed me to the mat every time, have through a bit of repetitive practice become challenging but surmountable.

It has been a long time since any video game has won this level of patience from me. Why did I stick with SoR4 long enough to get better at it, while Dark Souls and its ilk — which also demand rote practice and pattern-memorization across multiple failed attempts — tend to drive me away? It must come down to some mix of the brawler’s brighter attitude, its much more streamlined play-style (no skill-point assignment, no inventory management — heck, it just barely has a second spatial dimension), and its willingness to let you very easily bring friends along to help, right from the start.

That leads into one of the two major modern-console fetaures specific to SoR4 that I love: online play works great, even when playing with “randos”. Every time you have an opportunity to choose a character, you can also tap a single button to open your game up to a second player to join you via the internet. The game advertises this feature without insisting that you try it. When I finally did, my enjoyment of the game suddenly magnified tenfold. It gives you neither need nor ability to talk to your anonymous co-op buddies: you just have the joy of slamming through levels together, picking up gameplay tips just from watching each other play, and communicating as needed by improvising (such as jumping up and down near a health pickup to suggest that your worse-off partner come collect it). I unironically compare the experience to Journey: shallower and stupider, perhaps, but recognizably the same core pleasure of effortlessly connecting with a stranger over a shared goal.

Here is a video of me playing through the final level with one such ad-hoc partner. We got up to the final boss together, and I ended up landing the final blow with a sliver of health left. This made my week.

The other new feature is the far more obvious one: every character in the game, whether hero or foe, has become a large, gorgeous, hand-drawn animated figure. I felt real happiness to unexpectedly see these friends from college again like this, older but filled out, never looking so good before. I very much appreciate the designers’ rejection of the obvious “retro” look in this regard. Turning the characters from piles of pixels into big, lushly animated two-dimensional cartoons striding around an old-fashioned linear brawlscape feels like an absolutely correct way to have Streets of Rage keep its core shape while also filling out all the extra room afforded by a modern console.

(One thing that this game takes away from the Sega games of my memory: pausing the game now blanks out the screen to display a big pause-mode menu, in accordance with modern convention. But ancient consoles, of course, would merely freeze the action until you un-paused. How I would have loved the chance to stop time at will and admire the animated artwork with all the characters in mid-stride/leap/kick/fall!)

I observe with interest that, while all the enemies look great, foes original to this game tend to have a much more interesting appearance and animated style than the old-school Streets of Rage baddies making a return. The art directors clearly put a lot of effort into giving the more familiar enemies costumes, postures, and attack styles recognizable from the older games. This limits their expressive range, and also rather dates their appearance to a certain kind of MTV-era aesthetic, all muscle-dudes and Wendy O. Williams-oids shuffling at you in ripped denim and fishnets.

New enemies, unburdened by such constraints, enjoy quite a bit of memorably novel behavior. Favorites include ridiculous “kicker” enemies who flip and soar around the screen without ever taking their hands from their pockets, and punk-rock-science girls who fling vials of acid around for wide-area attacks. You will learn to dread the black-shirted cops whose standard attack involves a one-armed grapple that flings a hero to the floor, then stabs down at their prone body with a taser. (The game contains, as an aside, a surprising — some would say delightful — amount of hero-on-cop brutality, with one level dedicated to storming an entire precinct station, culminating in a battle with a white-haired but roided-out commissioner.)

Character art of Blaze from Streets of Rage 4, a lean woman wearing a revealing and club-ready red outfit and leather jacket, in a fighting stance.

Of the playable characters, series frontman Axel Stone seems to have received the most attention from Streets of Rage 4’s art team, with a new look that has transformed him from a generic punchy dude into a sort of battle-hobo, with a full beard and layers of raggy clothing that flap and bounce as he tears around the playfield. I do wish that my long-time favorite Streets of Rage character, Blaze Fielding, had received as much of a makeover! While I won’t deny that she looks fantastic in the new game’s style, its lore puts the original fighters in their mid-thirties now, and it would have been nice to see her in a costume more seasoned than the classic club-kid look that she continues to sport.

That said, I would never truly deny that Blaze, the woman who spent far more time in my dorm room than any other, can dress any way she wants.

Anyway: this game is pretty great.

This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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