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Media Review – March 2019

Posted in Blog, Media Review

Fuck, shit. Dammit. I watched and read a ton of stuff this month, so this is going to be a long one.

Books: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us, Proposal, Remembrance, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room, The Maltese Falcon, Goldfish, Hope Never Dies, Only To Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel

Movies: North by Northwest, Bringing Up Baby, Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard

Games: Plague Inc.; Dude, Stop; Stick Fight: The Game

Okay. Let’s get started.

Books

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (2013)

So to be perfectly honest, I picked this book up because, as I have previously mentioned, I am using my library’s online ebook lending service, and I thought I’d try reading some Neil Gaiman because I have faith that he’s a good writer. This book was one of the two that weren’t on hold, so I got it. By which I’m trying to say, going into this book I had absolutely no idea what would happen in this book.

It’s…a horror book. I think. It has to do with the protagonist whose name I have completely forgotten, a forty-something year old man having an extended flashback to an incident when he was seven where he accidentally ended up becoming embroiled in some transdimensional monster fuckery and getting affiliated with a family of women with god-like powers who are also implied to be extradimensional. I realize that, this being a Neil Gaiman story, this description does not really narrow down what the book is about.

This is the book that made me realize perhaps Neil Gaiman has a thing for writing stories about extremely powerful god-like entities, eldritch monsters, and kids having really fucked-up shit happen to them. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I have my thing for ghosts and demons (or in the instance of my book, demons that are ghosts), so if you’ve got something you really want to write several stories about, that’s cool and fine.

I’m at a bit of a loss for words on what I should say about this book. Was it well-written? Definitely. Was it vivid and appropriately horrific? Yeah, although I wouldn’t say I was scared–I don’t think that was really the purpose. Did I like the characters? I suppose so. It wasn’t the sort of story where any specific character’s story really caught me, but the characters are good and they serve the story. And did I cry at the end? Fuck, I sure did, so I guess Gaiman’s doing something right.

Emotionally, I think the book falls in a sort of middle ground for me. I wouldn’t heartily recommend it, but I wouldn’t tell people not to read it, either. I’d say it’s pretty good–it’s just not really the kind of story for me.

This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us, by Edgar Cantero (2018)

I found this book on the New Releases shelf at my local library (in physical format, not digital this time) and was intrigued by the cover and title, which together seemed to imply that the story would be a detective story about two people in the same body. Upon reading the inside dust jacket, this assumption turned out to be entirely correct. I didn’t read it at the time because of reasons, but when I came around to wanting to see what this book was about, it was on hold, so I had to put it on hold for like six weeks.

Anyways, This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us is the story of two detectives who are chimeric twins in some not entirely well-defined way that means they basically share a body and they’re not happy about it. One of them is a boy, Adrian, and he’s hypercompetent at mathematics and sciences but has the emotional and empathetic range of a slime mold, and the other is a girl, Zooey, who’s good at arts and emotional stuff as well as being extremely ADHD and addicted to sex and illicit substances. Anyways, they’re private detectives and they get called on to help out an undercover cop named Daniel in figuring out who assassinated the son of a crime boss. Fair enough. In addition to the detective stuff it’s also about the relationship between Adrian and Zooey which is basically them hating each other 90% of the time and caring a lot about each other the other 10%, as it is with siblings.

Reading this book after reading the 30s and 40s era hardboiled novels I’ve been reading was like a punch in the teeth because Adrian and Zooey are the Sherlock style of detective, meaning they’ll see a stain on your clothes and tell you what you ate for dinner and that you were cheating on your wife. The sort of instant deduction ability from small details thing is definitely a detective thing that I’m less enthused about compared to the Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe school of figuring things out, which is actually going and learning facts the way a normal person would–i.e., looking through correspondences, investigating crime scenes, and talking to people and trying to not get the shit kicked out of them in the meantime.

This book is extremely aware of its genre, to the point of literally discussing tropes, and that’s fine, I guess, but I have a general burning hatred for metanarrative, so that’s the sort of thing gets on my nerves. It’s not so bad in this case because the entire story is kind of played for absurdity, so having that awareness of the narrative structure is more acceptable. I get the feeling that the book is supposed to be funny, but I don’t really remember finding it that funny. I don’t really blame it for that, though. It’s just not the kind of humor that lines up with me, and the plot works fine on its own without needing comedy or absurdity to prop it up, though the actual solution to who did the murders is (admittedly intentionally, considering the structure of the novel and how it discusses tropes) a little out of left field.

Also worth noting is that the book is written in a really unconventional way. It skips between prose and scripting and also screenplay format (only at the beginning) which was weird, but was perfectly legible, so it was fine, I suppose. There’s not really any reason to it that I can discern, but if it tells the story, any format is fine.

As someone who read way, way less published fiction after middle school, there’s a few things that always come up extremely jarring to me–people using the fuck word and references to anything more contemporary than a GameBoy. This book has a reference to that one hot tub vine and seeing that kind of stuff gives me instant whiplash because I exist in some world where I frequently forget published books are being written right now, by living people who exist. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just something that’s extremely noticeable to me because I literally never expect it.

I guess the question is: Did I like this book? It was okay, I think. Again, not really for me. I probably would have liked it more if I found it funnier than I did, or if I enjoyed genre parody and satire more than I do, but I didn’t and I don’t, so here we are. I don’t regret reading it, and I’d be willing to give it a conditional recommendation.

Proposal (2016) and Remembrance (2016), by Meg Cabot

These are books that I basically ran into by accident. I was trying to look up Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-U series on the digital library because I read the first book a long time ago and I thought I’d give another crack at it, except it wasn’t on the digital library, so y’know. Shit. But I saw Proposal and Remembrance, which are sequels to Cabot’s Mediator series, which I really enjoyed back in middle school. I mean, it’s a series about a girl who sees ghosts and also has to punch them a lot–what do you expect? Also it was a romance but if you weren’t into the romance that was fine too.

Well, the Mediator series was written like ten years ago, but she came back and wrote some more books in it, except the newest ones feature the protagonist grown up and college/post-college age and still having to deal with ghosts, her hot Spanish ghost boyfriend, and her not-ghost ex, who is also a massive creep.

I can’t really say that much about the plot of these two books without disclosing major series spoilers, but basically Suze Simon (that’s the main character and narrator) has to deal with more ghost problems of the murder variety, similar to the ones she used to deal with in high school, except now she’s getting married to her ghost boyfriend (the details of which is where the spoilers come in). The flavor of the books is still the same, kind of sarcastic narration that’s characteristic of a girl who needs to deal with dead people and frequently does so by punching them until they listen to her.

It’s a very good continuation, I think! It’s definitely more adult-oriented compared to the main series, which is more teenage-focused, what with Suze being older and everyone moving on with their lives and doing new things and also everyone is more horny. There is some sex now, but it’s not explicit, thank fuck for that. I think if you enjoyed the rest of the series, you’d definitely enjoy these continuations of it.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket (1999)

I already talked about this series last month, and my opinions haven’t changed. I’m just listing this for the sake of completeness.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

This is another one of those books that have been on my to-read list for a long time, and I’ve finally read it. Having seen the film version, it’s really weird to read the book because the movie is an extremely faithful adaptation, up to and including dialogue pulled directly from the book. I think part of the reason why the adaptation is so faithful is because a) The Maltese Falcon is written in an extremely limited third person with no entry to any character’s internal thoughts, and b) the plot isn’t loopier than a crocheted bramble bush. Of course, some things are changed–some of Dashiell Hammett’s weird tangents where Sam Spade talks to his lawyer or tells a weird rambling story to Brigid O’Shaughnessy were omitted and also Sam Spade as described in the book does not look like Humphrey Bogart, because Sam Spade is blond, tall, angular, and has yellow-grey eyes. I still cannot get over the fact that Sam Spade has yellow fucking eyes. Why the fuck did Dashiell Hammett give Sam Spade yellow eyes. And it’s not a one-off description, either, because Hammett keeps bringing up Sam Spade’s glowing yellow eyes.

Anyways, Sam Spade is a dickbag. This should be a surprise to pretty much no one, but it’s worth repeating that Sam Spade is a dickbag. He’s macking on his partner’s wife, he’s talking shit to the cops, he’s fleecing his client for all the money she’s worth, and he’s constantly figuring ways to stab people in the back while getting himself out safely. He’s not a very emotional man, except for when he’s confronted with a gay young man, I guess, in which case he gets extremely violent, in a scene that reads a lot more like sex than most sex scenes do. All in all, Sam Spade comes off as a pretty unpleasant person, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. He’s cutthroat and constantly maneuvering around people and he gets stuff done, which is admirable in some way. It helps that the narrative isn’t telling us that Sam’s a super cool guy we should necessarily like.

I know that there’s supposed to be some kind of thing going on between Spade and O’Shaughnessy, but I don’t really buy it. There’s approximately 5000% more chemistry between Spade and his secretary, because they work with each other and clearly know each other well and implicitly trust each other, whereas Spade doesn’t trust O’Shaughnessy further than he can throw her, which, considering she’s constantly lying, is probably the safe thing to do.

I definitely enjoyed reading this more than reading The Glass Key. Sam Spade might be a dickbag but I have a much better handle on what the hell he’s trying to accomplish at any given time compared to Ned Beaumont. The writing style as always doesn’t have too much to say–it’s generally inelegant but functional and robust, as Hammett’s style always is. The language isn’t going to turn any tricks, but it’ll get you from point A to B in telling the story well enough.

So yes, The Maltese Falcon isn’t the sexiest book, but it’s a good read if you enjoy the genre, or want to see where the movie came from.

Goldfish, by Raymond Chandler (1936)

This is another one of Raymond Chandler’s short stories, originally published in the Black Mask. The main character in this case is referred to as Ted Carmady, and feels very Philip Marlowe-esque in the way that it’s narrated. It’s definitely easy to see where the style and character of the books came from, reading this.

The gist of the story is that there’s some missing, very expensive pearls that have been missing for twenty years, and there’s a twenty thousand dollar reward for finding them. Carmady’s friend Kathy Home has gotten a lead on them, so of course Carmady goes after them. It’s a little longer than some of the other short stories Chandler put out, and not nearly so complicated as Blackmailers Don’t Shoot which is a plus if you ask me. Considering the length of the story, a whole lot happens in it–there’s some corpses, some backstabbing, and still enough time for Carmady to get slipped a mickey.

I enjoyed this one–it was a good, fun read. There’s really not much I can say about it that I haven’t said about the other Chandler short stories. If you don’t have the patience to read something like The Big Sleep, you could get some of the same flavor from reading Goldfish.

Hope Never Dies, by Andrew Schaffer (2018)

This is a book that, bear with me, is about Barack Obama and Joe Biden reuniting after the presidential term to solve the death of an Amtrak train conductor. Surprisingly for the synopsis, Hope Never Dies is actually mostly played straight. That isn’t to say there isn’t some amount of humor, because it is there, but if you’re expecting a ridiculous madcap adventure of Barack Obama and Joe Biden doing hilarious things on a road trip across America while solving murders…that’s not what happens. It’s a murder mystery largely taking place in one city in Delaware, featuring Joe Biden (who is old and has a shitty knee) and Barack Obama (who is less old and goes water skiing in his free time).

I guess one of the most surprising things about this book is just how sincere it is. The book covers a lot of themes about aging and friendship and responsibility. A pretty major part of the story is about Joe Biden and Barack Obama rekindling their friendship, which kind of fell out after they stopped being in contact after the end of Obama’s 2016 term. And, again, this element of the story is played surprisingly sincerely. Leaving aside the fact that there’s a scene in which Biden and Obama check into a motel for a night and there’s only one bed, they have some frank conversations with each other about their feelings and the fact that they miss being friends. And Biden, being seventy or something, does about as well as you’d expect a seventy-something amateur to solve murders. He gets into a car chase at some point and that goes about as well as you’d expect.

As for the murder mystery element, that’s fine. There’s drug trafficking, a motorcycle gang, some backstabbing, two corpses, a few cops who don’t like Biden and Obama, and a private investigator who is not Biden or Obama. And yes, it’s pretty ridiculous that they go into a motorcycle gang hideout and intimidate them by bluffing that SWAT is outside or get into car chases at the tender age of seventy-something, but most of the story is played pretty close to the ground. Biden and Obama aren’t Sherlock Holmes. They’re not even Philip Marlowe. They’re dudes with one secret service guy and no day job, going around and poking their noses into a death that isn’t even proved to be murder, except for the fact that the guy had heroin in his pocket.

There’s certainly some humor derived from the concept and other reviewers apparently say that the book is funny, but honestly I’m not sure I’d call it a ‘funny’ book. But if you’ve read these media reviews, you’ll know that I don’t really find any books all that humorous. I guess I’m just not that kind of person.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Would I read it again? Probably not. I think it’s definitely worth at least one read, in the sense that it’s a decent book with a solid plot, characters, and some amount of intrigue.

Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel, by Lawrence Osborne (2018)

Only to Sleep is a book that I picked up because it features Philip Marlowe. So I’m predictable. Sue me. Apparently, every so often the Raymond Chandler Estate calls up authors and goes, “hey, do you want to write a Philip Marlowe novel?” and when that happens, are you really going to say no? Anyways, Only to Sleep features Philip Marlowe except it’s the eighties now and Phil’s seventy-something years old, going through Mexico on a case from an insurance company trying to see if a life insurance claim is fraud.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. This is published fan fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s what it is. And while I’m at it, let’s get another thing out of the way: I think Only to Sleep is a good story. If it were on AO3, I’d give it kudos and bookmark it and think it was all very impressive. But here’s the other thing: Only to Sleep is not a good Philip Marlowe book, in the spirit of the Chandler Philip Marlowe books.

I realize that might be harsh of me, but Only to Sleep doesn’t really capture the spirit of a Philip Marlowe book. It doesn’t really even capture the skeleton or the meat of one, except that Phil’s the main character, and to be fair, he’s pretty in-character. Part of the problem, as it were, is that the plot of Only to Sleep is extremely, incredibly straightforward. For a murder mystery, there’s no mystery. There’s hardly even murder. 95% of the book is Philip Marlowe tailing a guy across Mexico to reveal a plot twist that was already spoiled in the book jacket, and since that is the only plot twist in the entire story, the book isn’t really so much about intrigue as it is about Phil going on a road trip across Mexico. Is it good at what it does? Sure. It’s a good book. It’s a good story. But it’s not the things that I want when I read about Philip Marlowe.

I guess the inherent problem about trying to write Philip Marlowe is that Philip Marlowe is more than just a character. He’s a narrative style, he’s a story, he’s an atmosphere. There’s a pace to him, a melancholy and lonely feeling in his words, a sharpness to his conversation. And nobody can really capture that the way Chandler did because nobody can really write the way Chandler did. That’s not because Chandler was some unreachable pinnacle of writing–it’s just that Chandler’s style was his, and there’s really no way to capture that from the outside. Osborne doesn’t really attempt to replicate Chandler’s writing style, and it’s probably for the better because that would be disastrous, but the problem is that the style is so integral to the story that you can hardly separate them and expect to still have a Philip Marlowe story.

Anyways, being seventy years old means that Phil’s got a cane (with a sword in it), arthritis, dresses like he’s from the 40s, and doesn’t get shot at or shoot anybody. He’s retired and has a dog. He’s really tired, and he should rest. At least he doesn’t get the shit kicked out of him by the police this time.

Movies

North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest is a Hitchcock film featuring Cary Grant. You may know it as the movie where Cary Grant runs away from a crop duster, or the movie that has the ending scene on Mount Rushmore. I picked it up because I read the synopsis, which is that Cary Grant is mistaken for an international spy and now there’s a bunch of dudes trying to kill him, which is pretty wild. It’s the first Hitchcock film I’ve ever seen.

It’s a technicolor movie, which is always a bit weird because the colors don’t look quite right–everything looks kind of green-screened in, even when that’s definitely not what actually happened. There’s actually a lot of things about North by Northwest that are kind of weird, like the extremely long scene where Cary Grant’s just waiting around with his thumb up his ass before the crop duster scene happens–that’s not something you can get away with in a modern movie.

It’s a pretty campy movie, I’d say, and it’s basically a spy movie except instead of the main character being someone cool, it’s some advertising businessman schmuck. Cary Grant bumbles his way into getting mistaken for a spy, bumbles his way out of getting assassinated, bumbles his way into investigating the spy he got confused with, bumbles his way into getting framed for murder, bumbles his way into getting seduced by a sexy lady who’s literally twenty years younger than him, bumbles his way into getting nearly murdered, etc. It really is a story of a dude who’s caught up with stuff that’s way above his head and by the end of it he’s really figuring out how to at least tread the water before he gets murdered for real. Cary Grant has pretty much one skill in the movie and that’s his ability to climb and run. The plot isn’t exactly what I’d call deep, and the romance between Cary Grant and the sexy lady isn’t really what I’d call all that believable, but I guess in this kind of movie you have to put in a sexy lady and romance or you’ll get stomped on by the Hollywood brontosaurus.

Was it a good movie? I’d say so. I definitely enjoyed it, though I don’t expect I’ll watch it a second time unless it’s with another one of my friends. It’s not really action-filled in the way that a modern movie would be, but it’s got a pretty solid plot, as much of a plot as there is. I wouldn’t call it a particularly compelling film, in that I’m not really thinking about it after it’s done, but I had fun watching it.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby was an excruciating experience. It’s a screwball comedy featuring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and a leopard, and it was an absolutely unfun movie to watch.

The main reason why it was so bad to watch is basically because most of the humor derives from Katherine Hepburn being an absolutely terrible person trying to woo Cary Grant, such as stealing his car, throwing rocks at windows, stealing another car, and basically trapping him into helping her with her leopard problem, and literally destroying his life’s work, and unfortunately I do not find people being the actual worst particularly funny. And then by the end of the movie we’re supposed to believe that Cary Grant is in love with Katherine Hepburn? Natch.

Anyways, the plot is that Cary Grant, a paleontologist, is trying to get a million dollar grant (so it’s like a seventeen million dollar grant in modern money) by appealing to the lawyer of the sponsor, but then he runs into Katherine Hepburn who steals his golf ball, and then his car, which kind of fucks that up. Anyways, Katherine Hepburn apparently decides at this point that she’s gonna get Cary Grant and through many shenanigans, she ropes Cary Grant into helping her take a leopard (named Baby) to her rich aunt’s house. More shenanigans happen and anyways, everyone briefly ends up in jail and there’s two leopards going around and Cary Grant does not get the money and his marriage is ruined.

I understand that some people would find this movie hilarious, but I am not one of them. Would not recommend.

Casablanca (1942)

Everyone already knows Casablanca. Everyone knows about it, at least, even if they haven’t seen it. I saw it once before back in Film Studies when I was in high school, but seeing it again now that I’ve got a wider background of the time is pretty wild.

For the uninitiated: Casablanca takes place in Casablanca (in Northern Africa, for the uninitiated), which was recently occupied by Nazi forces. In Casablanca, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns an extremely popular bar which also has gambling in it. Meanwhile his old girlfriend, Isla Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, Laszlo (whose last name and actor escapes me) come in. Laszlo is an extremely influential Czech resistance leader, and the Nazis would very much like him to be dead, but for some inexplicable reason they can’t just arrest Laszlo in Casablanca, so they’re trying to keep him trapped there because he can’t get out without top-clearance transit papers. Transit papers that, due to certain circumstances, Rick currently has. Conflict ensues.

Casablanca is a romance. Let’s not make any mistake about that. But the romance doesn’t eclipse the main story, which is about WWII and sacrificing personal gain and safety to help others, and also saying fuck you to Nazis, which is a sentiment I believe we can all get behind. I’m not about to say that Rick and Isla have the strongest chemistry I’ve ever seen in a movie or anything, but their relationship and the aftermath of it is certainly much more convincing than in most movies I’ve seen.

It’s kind of weird seeing this movie after seeing other movies because now I can actually recognize actors like Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet. I realize that then, as now, there’s a limited number of actors going around the different studios, but it’s weird to remember that of course there would be the same actors in different movies at the time, because someone did have to make the movies, after all. And of course, it’s always a bit strange to see Casablanca after the fact of its cultural impact. Casablanca is iconic, and it’s always pretty wild to see the roots of something like that–the original context of quotes and dynamics.

I know that there are some movies that are considered art that are pretty excruciating to watch (Citizen Kane, for example, may have been very artistic and a great achievement in movies, but it is not actually an enjoyable experience) but Casablanca does hold up, even this many years later. I definitely think that people who are interested in film history, or films of the era, or just want to watch a nice film, should watch Casablanca at least once.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is…well, it’s pretty well-known, but not so well-known that I had any idea what it was actually about before I watched it, except that it starts out with a dead guy. Which it does. It starts out with a writer who’s floating dead in a pool, then flashes back to the start of the story, which is about a broke B-list Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis, ending up at the house of an aging silent film star’s mansion on the titular boulevard. Said aging silent film star, Norma Desmond, wants to make a comeback and has an extremely awful script written up that she gets Gillis to look over, except she’s basically an editor’s worst nightmare because she won’t accept any changes because everything is perfect just the way she wrote them. Anyways, Gillis ends up basically being tricked into being Desmond’s gigolo and most of the film is watching William Holden (Gillis’s actor) be incredibly uncomfortable.

It’s very Hollywood, as in it’s very about Hollywood and very in Hollywood. The story is about Norma Desmond, who’s clinging to her fame as a 20s silent film star who’s obsessed with her past and doesn’t quite realize that she’s beyond her prime and that the movies have moved past her. I suppose I could draw a comparison to The Artist, which was about the decline of a silent film actor and the simultaneous rise of a talkie film star, except this film isn’t a silent film and the romance between Desmond and Gillis, if you can call it a romance, isn’t particularly romantic so much as uncomfortable and weird. Besides the storyline, the movie does actually literally take place in Hollywood, as well as featuring real directors and actors as themselves. It’s got a pretty tongue-in-cheek treatment of how Hollywood operates, but also, y’know, Desmond goes completely delusional and Gillis gets killed.

One of the things that struck me is Joe Gillis’ character, because, for sure he’s kind of a dickbag, but he’s also got integrity. He tries to trick Desmond into giving him a paying job looking over her awful, awful script and gets counter-tricked into basically becoming a gigolo. He doesn’t want her to buy him all this expensive shit and he wants to do his job. When Desmond starts getting the hots for him, he tries to shut that shit down, much to her dismay, and when things go poorly, Gillis tries to genuinely figure out how to get out of this with minimum collateral damage. He wants to do actual writing and helps out a woman who he thinks has good ideas. He accidentally strikes up a friendship/romance with the woman, who’s engaged to one of his friends and he, despite liking her, decides to basically tell her he’s a gigolo and happy that way so she can go be with her fiance and be actually happy. He decides to leave Desmond and go back to Ohio and write newspaper columns because Hollywood just isn’t for him. And then, of course, he gets shot. He’s far from a good person, but he’s not all rotten.

It’s not all serious–there’s humor in the movie, for sure. It’s not really a comedy (though Wikipedia tells me it used to be one) but there’s definitely parts that made me laugh from absurdity or just being funny. Billy Wilder’s good at that, I think, having humor without sacrificing the gravity or integrity of the overall story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Sunset Boulevard. I’d definitely recommend it.

Games

Plague Inc. (2012)

Did you ever play Pandemic 2 back in the day on Kongregate? Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen the Madagascar memes. For the uninitiated, Madagascar was consistently the hardest country to infect in Pandemic 2 because it had no land borders and only one seaport that no one ever seemed to go to, so Madagascar would often be the destroyer of runs, as it frequently was when I tried to get the “President Madagascar Assassin” achievement on Kongregate, where you have to beat the game in less than (I believe) 100 in-game days. Anyways, the point I’m trying to get to here is that Plague Inc. is basically Pandemic 2 but with better graphics and more mechanics. And as a bonus, Madagascar is no longer a fucking nightmare to infect! Now it’s Greenland you have to worry about instead!

So if you don’t already know, Plague Inc. is a game where you create a disease and then use it to try and kill everyone in the world with it by mutating symptoms and transmission methods and resistances. Compared to Pandemic 2, there’s a lot more different types of diseases to go with, including zombie viruses, brain worms, and vampires. There’s way more symptoms and a more complicated symptom tree, and the drug resistance isn’t busted (in Pandemic 2, you used to be able to blitz all the way up through drug resistance IV and they’d never finish the vaccine) and there’s a severity/transmission/lethality system that determines how well your disease spreads and gets noticed and kills people and gives you DNA points. There’s also genetic modifiers to affect your game (which need to be unlocked through beating the game), to increase the amount of DNA points you get or to make it better in certain environments even before starting. Also, in Plague Inc. you can actually choose your starting country.

The Plague Inc. method of giving you bonus DNA points by popping bubbles is nice because it means the game isn’t as aggressively AFK as Pandemic 2 was. All in all, the added and expanded features make it more interactive than Pandemic 2 was, and the planes and ships graphics are a lot better–you can better see where they’re going a lot more easily, and you can see which ones are infected instead of staring at little moving ship icons and hoping they infect Madagascar.

In addition to the base game, there’s also scenarios that have special situations, like all the land borders are closed, or you’re trying to replicate the bubonic plague or you’re spreading mad cow disease, or you’re spreading brain worms to make everyone happy for Christmas, or you’re making a board game, which adds some more spicy variety to your gameplay.

I haven’t played all of the scenarios and I haven’t played on higher difficulties, but I’ve had fun with the game for the time I’ve played it. It’s definitely a touched-up and expanded–greatly expanded–Pandemic 2. If that’s worth the price is an exercise for the reader, but I think it’s definitely worth taking a look.

Dude, Stop (2018)

Dude, Stop is a game where you do a bunch of little puzzles correctly or incorrectly and the narrator yells at you for solving his puzzles wrong. It’s kind of a similar vein as The Stanley Parable in that sense, except the narrator’s voice in this is less “suave narration voice-over man” and more “somewhat English upset game developer”.

As far as meta-narrative goes, Dude, Stop is a lot less nuanced than The Stanley Parable was, and there’s not really a story, except that the narrator wants you to do the game properly because he wants to not lose a bet with one of his buddies. It’s not super substantial but the puzzles are small and they’re…well, not exactly fun on their own, but they’re fun in that you’re trying to figure out how to do them right and also how to do them wrong. It’s not really challenging, but it’s not supposed to be. You get cups for being nice or being a monster in all of the puzzles in a puzzle set or for doing extremely weird solutions, like throwing away the knife after making a Nutella sandwich or cutting all the crusts off your pizza instead of cutting it into eight pieces like you’re supposed to.

I realize that I say this a lot, but I’m not a huge fan of meta-narrative. I’m not here to really examine the relationship between me and the media that I consume or the relationship between a content creator and their content, because a lot of it ends up being head-up-ass pretentious. I don’t really mind it so much in this instance because it makes no pretentions to its premise and it’s a silly game–trying to dig into deeper meaning is kind of missing the point. And was the game funny? Well, it wasn’t unfunny. I don’t think I ever laughed out loud or anything but it had a light tone and the presentation is solid.

Overall, it’s not as thought-provoking as The Stanley Parable, or as clever or absurd. It’s a popcorn game–you can finish it in a couple of hours depending on how much you fuck around and try to get all the cups, or in less than an hour if you go straight through the levels as fast as you can (like I did the second time around because there’s an achievement that can only be gotten by playing from a clean file, which I’m not super happy about, but on the other hand I guess I cared enough about the game to do that). I had fun–not so much fun that I’d really ever bother to play it a second time (third time), but the experience wasn’t a slog or frustrating. I guess my recommendation of this game is dependent on whether you like this sort of game, which I realize is not super helpful.

Stick Fight (2017)

Stick Fight is a multiplayer versus fighting game where you control some ragdoll-ish stick figures, and you fight your friends (or enemies, I suppose) until there’s only one person remaining. There’s a ton of different stages and stage hazards and weapons sometimes drop down from the sky that you can grab and use to shoot, stab, or snake your enemies.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Stick Fight is not a precision fighting game. It’s extremely loose in just about every aspect, from the movement to the actual combat itself. I guess in that sense it’s kind of like a 2D Gang Beasts. It’s also rapid-fire. When someone wins a round, the game instantly boots up the next stage and the fighting starts again. Most rounds won’t go longer than two minutes, which makes for a very fast, very good flow.

There’s a huge variety of stages (with and without destructible scenery) and a huge variety of guns, along with the snake bazooka, swords, and spears that you can use to break things or attack your opponents. The scenery elements include slidy surfaces, lava, lasers, death spikes, moving platforms, and snakes. There’s also some nice slow-motion when the last opponent gets killed, right before you get thrown into it again.

It’s a good game. I’m not sure exactly how much skill is involved, but it’s a fun party game to play for half an hour or an hour before you go do something else. Maybe that’s worth the price, or maybe not. Of course, the amount you’d get out of the game is really limited by how many friends you can physically be with at a time, since I doubt playing online would be nearly as fun. Good news is, though, you can run it on a laptop and easily take it to someone’s house if that’s what you want to do.

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