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Media Review – April 2019

Posted in Blog, Media Review

Here we are once again. It’s been real hectic lately with the summer coming in, so let’s talk about what I read and played in April.

Books: Guns at Cyrano’s; How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe; Farewell, My Lovely

Games: Shift Quantum, Dead Cells

Let’s jump right in.


Guns at Cyrano’s by Raymond Chandler (1936)

Guns at Cyrano’s is the last short story in the Red Wind collection, and it’s one of the longer stories in it. And with length comes complexity, with fixed boxing matches, blackmail, murder, and political corruption, as well as a lady shooting someone dead, which Chandler seems to have a thing for. I’m not sure what it is, but Chandler likes to have women be the instigating factor for nearly all of his stories–usually by having a woman murder someone. Equal opportunity crime and all that, I suppose.

There’s really not much I can say about Guns at Cyrano’s that I haven’t already said about every other short story by Raymond Chandler, except that Guns at Cyrano’s is written in third person, and that it’s always weird to read Chandler’s third person because his first person is so iconic. I don’t think the third person inherently makes a story worse, but I definitely prefer first person for mystery-type stories. I find it more coherent to lash the mystery to a single viewpoint character and their thought process trying to figure out who murdered who compared to a third person narrative where you’re expected to do a lot more footwork on your own, so to speak.

As in many of Chandler’s more complicated stories, I had some difficulties reading Guns at Cyrano’s because I’m horrible at remembering more than a few characters at a time, especially when they’re introduced so close to each other and don’t have clear connections to each other. I had the same problem back in And Then There Were None, because I sure didn’t know who was who until about a solid 30% through the book, after people started dying. I think part of the problem, especially in stories like Chandler’s, is that not only are there a ton of characters, but a lot of them are one-off characters who cease to have relevance after their scene, so it’s impossible to know on a first read-through which characters you need to remember and which ones you need to forget. There’s probably a way to handle that, but I’m not sure what it is, except to have fewer characters, or to give characters more relevance…but that has its own problems, too.

Anyways, did I enjoy Guns at Cyrano’s? I think so. But that being said, if I were to recommend a Chandler short story, I’d definitely suggest Red Wind or Goldfish instead, which are both easier to follow and concise and, incidentally, written in the first person.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (2010)

I found this book through a recommendation through a blog I follow. I saw it at the bookstore a little while later, and then picked it up at my library to see what it was all about, because I was curious and I try not to buy books I probably won’t re-read.

It’s an…odd book. The premise is this: Charles Yu–narrator, main character, and author both in-universe and in real life–is a time machine mechanic who has to fix things when people use their time machines to do stupid stuff, like try to change the past. That’s simple enough, but the actual plot is…well, it’s hard to explain. It’s not really a linear plot the way some typical adventure story is, which is fair enough because How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is not an adventure story. It’s a story about Charles trying to hide from responsibility by living in his time machine, accidentally shooting his future self and causing a time loop, and trying to find his dad who is a mostly failed scientist who came up with time travel concepts and then went missing, all while coming to terms with a few things about himself.

As suggested by the title, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a book with more than a touch of postmodernism, and I realize that my constant claim that I hate metanarratives will start sounding insincere if I keep reading stuff like this, but do me a favor and ignore that for a second. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe explicitly takes place in one of many science fictional universes. There are heroes and bystanders, there are different genres and the time travel itself is grounded in narrative and grammar through the usage of verb tense. That might sound weird, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider the fantastic utility of English verb tense, which lets you describe events at a certain time frame relative to another time frame (such as present from present “I walk”, past from present “I walked”, past from past “I had walked”), not to mention the distinction of actions occurring or in progress. There’s a testimonial quote about the book that says something to the effect of the book making the metaphorical slide into the literal, which is certainly the case–it’s difficult to think of a way for this book to be more blatantly meta. In case having the story explicitly take place in a science fiction universe that is referred to as such or having a main character named after the author isn’t enough, over half the book involves the main character writing How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe at the behest of the future self he just shot in the stomach, which I swear makes more sense in context.

I think the main reason this book doesn’t give me hives is because beyond the trappings of the metaphor and metanarrative and time travel, the story is really, really about Charles and his relationship with himself and his parents. A real strength in that narrative is how genuine it reads. It reads like someone who has conflicted feelings about himself and his parents, who cares about them but still suffered from them. Charles does not have a terrible childhood, but it’s not a happy one, either. It’s one that’s colored by relative poverty and expectations from parents and a chronically tired and absent father and the feeling that by trying to achieve certain things, he’s missed out on what “should” have been his childhood. Now in the present, as much of a present as you can have in a novel like this, he’s estranged from his mother who’s living in an hour-long time loop of a happy family dinner together and from his father who went missing years ago, and you can tell there’s space between Charles and his family he’s both blindingly aware of and still trying to navigate.

Another thing that struck me is that Charles and his family are conspicuously Asian (and probably Chinese, specifically, judging from the last name). His mother is Buddhist, his father is constantly working at the expense of his relationship with his family, and they eat things like winter melon and rice, but it’s more than that. It’s the family dynamics that seem particularly relatable–no extended family because of parents being immigrants, struggling to exist in a new community, and the particular flavor of overbearing mother (loving very strongly but having difficulty expressing it) and overworked father (whose work and duty are suffocating even at home) and the sort of isolation that comes out of all these elements rings true, regardless of the setting. These experiences are by no means exclusive to Asian immigrant families, but they are things I, as someone from an Asian immigrant family, feel is commonly found in those communities. It’s clear that the main character, and perhaps the author, has mixed feelings about these experiences, and that’s the conflict that suffuses the entire story, much more than the time travel or the science fiction or any level of metanarrative.

Leaving all that aside for a moment, the actual reading of the story is a weird experience. It’s told colloquially, so it’s pretty easy to parse most of the time, except that a lot of the language and metaphors are unnecessarily technical (or, more likely, just technical sounding), which makes for some literary stumbling blocks. I don’t think it’s a problem, but if you’re the sort of person who really has to understand all the metaphors and hates having to skim over lines, maybe this is not the book for you. Otherwise, I’d recommend this book. It’s really a personal story more than a physical journey or mystery or anything like that, and it’s definitely a trippy narrative at that. If that appeals to you, absolutely pick it up and give it a shot.

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler (1940)

I didn’t really mean to buy Farewell, My Lovely. I stopped by the bookstore to see if there was anything new and exciting, and saw they had Farewell, My Lovely on the shelf. At that point, I decided that since I’d recently re-read The Big Sleep, I ought to get the other Philip Marlowe books too, because I would like to have physical copies of them all sooner or later, so it may as well be sooner. So I guess I’m on a mission to get all the books and read them again, now.

As with all the Philip Marlowe books, I already read Farewell, My Lovely once, about a year or two ago. If you were around back in January, you’ll also know that I have seen Murder, My Sweet, the (first) film adaptation. So I am not a stranger to the story in Farewell, My Lovely, which is a great benefit, because as I’ve said before, I had a hard time reading it the first time through. I didn’t know what characters I needed to remember and which ones were only around for one scene, not to mention that Farewell, My Lovely was effectively the second book I’d read from the time, and I was not well-versed in the 40s vernacular then. I’m hardly an expert now, but I’m a lot better with it now, so reading the book is much less impenetrable. Reading the book a second time makes things make a lot more sense.

Moving on. Farewell, My Lovely is one of the more well-known and ‘classic’ of Chandler books, along with The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye (or The Long Good-Bye as it was originally styled) and it starts out with Marlowe getting a case from a large and scary man just out of prison named Moose Malloy, who wants to find a woman named Velma Valento. Malloy then proceeds to murder a black man, then runs away before he can be arrested. After briefly searching for Valento, Marlowe gets another case involving a jewel theft, and things get more complicated from there. Multiple murders occur, and Marlowe gets sapped about five times over the course of the book.

This is the book where it will quickly become obvious that it was written in 1940, because it’s the one where people, including Marlowe and his narration, use ‘Negro’ and terms adjacent to it. I’m…fairly certain that said adjacent term was already considered offensive in America by this time, as seen from And Then There Were None getting its name changed for the American release, though other more frequently featured terms like ‘shine’ or ‘dinge’ were probably not considered pejorative the way they are now. If you set aside the…unfortunate language (and maybe you’d rather not), I don’t think the treatment of black people in Farewell, My Lovely is as blindingly horrible as, say, anything H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote (though that particular bar is somewhere near the bottom of the Marianas Trench). Malloy drags Marlowe into a black bar and it’s clear that the whole time Marlowe doesn’t want to be there because it’s not his place to be, and the black people Marlowe interacts with, they’re written about how you’d expect a black person in a 1940 novel to be written, phonetic accent included, but Marlowe talks to them and treats them just about the same way he does anyone else. He later discusses with a policeman the fact that the police don’t particularly care about the murder of a black man, which is unfortunately, then as now, true. It’s really not my place to analyze the treatment of race in this book and 1940s America–all I’m trying to say is that Farewell, My Lovely shows some of its age in that respect.

As in many of the Philip Marlowe books, Chandler’s got an axe to grind, and this time it’s about corruption in the police and politics, as well as your general police brutality. Marlowe gets the shit kicked out of him by just about everyone in this book, but especially the police, which he meets several of over the course of the story. Some of them make snide remarks at him, some of them talk tough with him and make his life hard, and some of them straight-up beat him up and put him into some quack house to get doped up to the gills. The thing is, when you read a book from 1940 where the main character–and by extension the author–complains about society and what’s wrong with it, you really see that nothing’s changed in the last eighty years.

“You know what’s the problem with this country, baby?”

“Too much frozen capital, I heard.”

Yeah. So that’s pretty much always been a problem.

Something that stands out about Farewell, My Lovely is that it’s not straightforward. It’s not a tight narrative. Marlowe follows leads and comes out to dead ends, and multiple times he has to back up and try a different tack. You don’t feel the driving force behind the plot like you would in a more conventional novel, and you might go so far as to call the book meandering, though it’s not exactly that, either. A lot can be trimmed from the book and still retain the same overall plot–the movie proved that well enough–but I wouldn’t call all those parts filler, either. There’s a cohesive line that Marlowe follows from point to point, even if it’s sometimes running against the line of the plot. You could tighten the narrative, but in doing so, you’d lose not only a large bulk of the story, but a lot of the substance, too, and that betrays a certain truth: Farewell, My Lovely is not about the plot. It’s about the mystery, it’s about the deceit, it’s about the racketeers on all sides lining up to take a swing at the back of Phil’s head, it’s about sneering at the police and drawing lines between all these elements that don’t seem to connect.

Philip Marlowe is a lonely character. He has almost no friends (and the one he has doesn’t show up in this book) and his professional network is mostly limited to people he sometimes calls on the phone. He doesn’t have a secretary or partner or inside man at the police station to discuss his thoughts with or someone he implicitly trusts to assist him, or that he can fall back on, putting every personal interaction on unstable and uncharted ground. Everything he does he has to gouge out with his own hands, and that colors his interactions throughout the entire book. He makes his own judgement calls, and he succeeds or fails entirely on his own merit. It’s loneliness that characterizes Philip Marlowe much more than his wisecracking or getting beat up, and it’s that same loneliness that builds the story around him. The book isn’t about him, and yet that’s all it is about, because he watches and listens and reacts, thereby becoming the linchpin holding the entire story together.

Farewell, My Lovely is not a book for everyone. It’s a difficult book to get through, especially on the first try, and parts of it have not aged well. It’s roundabout and convoluted and there’s a lot of scenes that do not strictly need to exist. But if you like the hardboiled genre, Farewell, My Lovely is the genre. Chandler has a way with words that makes his stories atmospheric in a way a most books can only dream of, and Philip Marlowe, in my mind, is among the best characters ever written. I would not recommend Farewell, My Lovely as someone’s introduction to early twentieth century hardboiled fiction (Double Indemnity takes that place) but if you’re interested in these sorts of stories, Farewell, My Lovely is practically required reading.


Shift Quantum (2018)

Back in 2008, I played a lot of Flash games, and some games I played a lot of were SHIFT and its three sequels and a little of that weird other remake/spin-off/whatever it was that had push blocks, two characters, and tons of lag. I didn’t really keep up with SHIFT after that, so I don’t know what happened with the series after that, if anything, so imagine my surprise when I found Shift Quantum, a puzzle platformer with a black and white aesthetic. Naturally I looked at it to see if it was the SHIFT I remember, and yes, it absolutely was.

For the uninitiated, SHIFT is a puzzle platformer that’s made entirely in black and white with a grid-based level design. The basic premise is that you must get to the exit door by platforming there and avoiding getting killed by spikes, except you can Shift, which makes you go through the floor, rotate the screen 180 degrees, and switch your character from being black to white or white to black, turning all the negative space into platforms and vice versa. That simple concept was carried through the sequels and expanded with more puzzle mechanics such as tiles that changed your orientation and keys that rotated platforms, then in the third game, an expanded map system analogous to how the levels are set up in Kirby and the Amazing Mirror. If I’m remembering correctly, anyways. It’s been ten years.

So: Shift Quantum. How does it stack up? Extremely well, actually.

For the first thing, Shift Quantum has an incredibly solid production value. There’s 3D graphics now, a solid soundtrack, and well-animated and well-transitioned models, as well as the same solid puzzle design that was always inherent in the series. It’s everything a remake/re-imagining should be: a game that takes the mechanics from the old game and expands on them and adds polish so it shines from all angles. As a puzzle game, it’s tight and makes good use of all of its mechanics and clearly demonstrates how all the pieces work and interact with each other through gameplay. Difficulty-wise, it’s not a mind-bendingly difficult game like English Country Tune or Sokobond, and you can find your way through most of the levels through a process of educated trial and error.

The trailers make some pretensions to a cyberpunk story, but as far as I can tell, that doesn’t really happen. I suppose the game has always been like that–the original game had a story that vaguely cribbed from Portal of the characters being run through a series of test chambers for some poorly defined reason, by which I mean to say that story has never been the strong point of the series, and it still isn’t now. It’s admittedly weird because the game cold opens with a cutscene, which makes you think there will be more cutscenes or that the whole happiness corporation plot will come up again, but as far as I’ve gotten into the game (I haven’t finished it yet), it hasn’t. And there’s also something going on with a small girl who helps you out on a few levels, but I’m still not sure what’s up with that, either.

The game is currently available on Steam for 20 USD, though the price can come down to 10 USD during sales. I’d say the game is worth the sale price point, but not so much the regular price, though that is a decision to make at your own discretion. I think the biggest metric of whether you should get this game heavily depends on how much you enjoyed the original series (which you can still play on Armor Games and other Flash game websites), because if you liked the original series, you’ll definitely like this.

Dead Cells (2018)

Dead Cells is the reason this month’s games list is so short. I got the game and promptly played about thirty hours of it (not consecutively, but close enough) and I’m still trying to beat the game on hard and collect upgrades, to say nothing of the even harder difficulty levels after that. So let me start out by saying that Dead Cells is good. It’s really good. It’s fast, smooth, and fun with phenomenal gameplay, graphics, and sound design.

Dead Cells is a platformer/combat roguelite game with metroidvania influences. Essentially, you have to find your way through each level, which is semi-randomly generated, and get through all the enemies in it without getting your shit kicked in, meanwhile picking up money for weapon upgrades, cells from killed enemies for permanent unlockables, and stat boosts to increase your health and damage so you can fight the bosses. Combat is the meat of the gameplay, with a huge number of weapons and abilities options, of which you can use two weapons and two abilities/traps/grenades at a time. You can defend yourself with dodges or parries and use traps or grenades to assist your combat. Enemy attacks are clearly telegraphed and you’re rewarded for finishing levels quickly as well as for getting kills without taking damage. I suppose you could say the combat is a bit Dark Souls-esque, though that is not something I can say with certainty, having never played a Dark Souls game.

Let’s get this out of the way: Dead Cells is hard. It’s an unforgiving game, with few healing items and permadeath with no saves and bosses that will break your kneecaps and kick you while you’re down the first time around, and maybe a few times after that, too. It takes a while to get out of the early stages of the game when you have to get cells and buy the permanent upgrades that can make each run less miserable, and even beyond that it is not a game that the average player should expect to ever beat 100%. That being said, the difficulty is manageable. I managed to beat the game on normal difficulty, and I can do so pretty consistently now, so the game isn’t terribly unbalanced; I am, after all, not very good at games. That said, after beating the game on normal difficulty, you unlock hard difficulty, then very hard, expert, and nightmare/hell difficulties, and there’s absolutely no possibility of me ever beating those. I can’t get past the final boss on hard, and it’s hard enough to just get there with most of my dignity intact.

In addition to fantastic gameplay, Dead Cells is gorgeous. The graphics are pixel art with non-pixel effects and lighting. The character sprites are all rotoscoped cel-shaded 3D models with bold coloring and smooth animation. The environments look amazing and the character designs are all on point. The main character, only known as ‘The Prisoner’ or ‘The Beheaded’, only interacts with other characters through gestures on account of having no mouth to speak with, and those character animations are simple and expressive. Frankly, I can’t think of any way to significantly improve the graphics as they are now.

Dead Cells also has a story, though it’s hardly the main focus. Every so often while navigating the levels, you’ll find lore rooms like guards’ quarters or prison cells or dead bodies or laboratories where you can learn a bit more about the island and what happened to it as well as get some small bonus resources for your run. Breadcrumb stories work well with this genre, where the gameplay is tied to both repetition of random environments and exploration. It adds in more replay value besides running through the same dungeons over and over to grind cells for upgrades, and it’s interesting to get those little tidbits about the Malaise that wrecked everyone and the King who really shat the bed trying to take care of it. Besides that, there are little asides in the loading screens that tell you a little about the area you’re going into, and that’s a nice bonus, too. The story is everything it needs to be for a game like this–extra flavor and secondary to the gameplay without detracting from it.

I wholeheartedly recommend Dead Cells to anyone who enjoys roguelite platformers. The skill ceiling is unbelievably high to get 100% and beat the game on all the hardest difficulties, but it’s still a great and full experience on the starting difficulties. It’s currently on Steam for 25 USD, and it’s definitely worth the full price if you can’t wait for the sales.

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