Committing to writing one of these posts every month was probably a mistake because it means I get increasingly regular doses of oh-my-god-time-is-slipping-away that I have to work through, type up, and stick on the internet.
Like every so often I’ll be listening to a YouTube video and it will be casually mentioned that said video was recorded in 2018 and I’ll think to myself “oh, that’s pretty recent” and then I’ll think “no it isn’t, that was four years ago.”
Stop the world. I want to get off.
But that hasn’t stopped me Liking some Things recently. Here are a few of them.
I’m aware my audience isn’t really a super-duper videogame audience and definitely isn’t a super-duper nostalgia-videogame audience but if you did want to spend the princely sum of three dollars on a pixel graphics game where you kill wave after wave after wave after wave of monsters in a bullet hell / wave survival / Castlevania tribute game with a lightly gothic theme then this game is for you. Honestly I’m not even sure why I like it—I was never really into the classic games that it’s a tribute to (there’s a whole “-vania” subgenre that I honestly know precious little about) but there’s something about the core gameplay loop I find deeply satisfying. Monsters attack you, you kill them, then you eventually get overwhelmed, then you unlock powerups and try again. Rinse. Repeat.
I suspect the fact that it’s three dollars helps. It’s very hard not to enjoy something that costs three dollars, especially in our new depressing world of microtransactions and games-as-service. Hell these days I think if I paid three dollars for a game and it consisted of nothing but a text box saying “you don’t have to spend any more money on this game” I’d be pretty overjoyed.
Kill monsters. Get gold. Kill more monsters. Yes it’s not proposing meaningful solutions to the systemic issues that cause monsters to exist in the first place, but what do you expect for the price?
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
I like Agatha Christie. I especially like televised adaptations of Agatha Christie because they’re such a fixture of British television that there’s something that feels almost like home about them. And I especially like it when you get adaptations of the more obscure stand-alone stories because, well, there’s a lot of Poirot and Miss Marple out there (both of them had massive TV runs and David Suchet did very famously manage to adapt every single Poirot story for the screen over the course of the 1990s and 2000s) and it’s nice to remember that there are some really good Christie stories that don’t involve her iconic recurring characters.
I will admit that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans isn’t quite the classic that some of her other stories are. Although to be fair when you’re talking about Christie that’s a high bar because so many of her stories either originated or provided iconic examples of such genre archetypes as “the narrator is the killer”, “the detective is the killer”, “the suspects are all being picked off one by one”, “what seems to be a serial killer is actually just one person obfuscating the murder of their single real target”, “the killer was a psychotic child” and of course “the killer was all of them.” But I enjoyed it, and I think a big part of what I enjoyed about it was that it’s one of the more, as it were, deep genre stories in the canon.
Something I sometimes find myself circling back to, as somebody who enjoys, reads, and writes genre fiction of all sorts, is how closed genre fiction can sometimes feel. While I don’t have much time for the implicit value judgement that comes from dividing books into “literary” and “genre” works, I do think it’s fair to observe that genres can sometimes get the teensiest bit own-tail-eatey. And to a large extent this is inevitable. If you put a magic sword in a fantasy novel, then a reader is going to immediately bring a whole lot of context to that sword and is going to want to know if it’s Excalibur or Sting or Stormbringer or just a Sword of Monster Bashing +1 and are going to expect the writer to be familiar with all those archetypes as well. Basically reading fiction in an established genre you’re not familiar with is like walking into the middle of a conversation between six strangers who’ve been talking for an hour already about a party you weren’t at with people you don’t know.
How precisely this ongoing conversation effect manifests varies a lot from genre to genre but in crime fiction, at least in cosy crime fiction, at least in the highly specific kind of cosy crime fiction that Christie writes, it tends to manifest as complexity.
Sidebar: something else I liked this month that I didn’t have quite enough to say about that I thought it deserved its own segment was a YouTube video about the history of MMORPGs. One of the things that YouTuber pointed out was that a major problem facing MMOs as a genre—and the reason that MMOs today can never quite have the magic they did back in the day—is that the player base has just got too damned good at them. Content that would have lasted months in the early days of the genre gets chewed through in hours today by a voracious player base that the developers pretty much can’t stay ahead of.
Classic mystery stories were kind of the same. This was Christie’s fifteenth novel, so not that far into her career in absolute terms, but certainly deep enough in that she had a dedicated following who knew all of her tricks (she’d already published The One Where It’s The Narrator and The One Where It’s Everybody by this point) but who still demanded to be baffled, yet could experience bafflement only in the most convoluted of circumstances.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans is about young Bobby Jones who, during a round of golf, finds a dying man at the bottom of a cliff. The dying man’s last words are “why didn’t they ask Evans?”. There follows an action-packed sequence of events in which Bobby and his childhood friend/romantic interest Lady Frankie Derwent engage in ever more dangerous shenanigans as they try to find out who “they” are, who “Evans” was, what “they” might have “asked” them and why “they” “didn’t”.
Their plans for this involve staging a car crash, faking concussion, and breaking into an asylum.
Vital clues in the mystery include a throwaway reference to the apparent suicide of a character who never appears in the story, and one of the supporting characters being very good at doing impressions.
The actual solution to the mystery is a fabulously this-era-of-crime-fiction-ish mix of the screamingly obvious and the ludicrously opaque. On the screamingly obvious side, there’s a scary man in black who keeps popping up and looking menacing and it turns out that yup, he’s basically the killer. On the frustratingly opaque side, the killer was working for the real villain/villainess combo who were trying to cover up a seduction/murder scam they’d done before the story even started where they’d faked the will of the dead millionaire who gets offhandedly referenced in the first episode, motivated entirely by the fact that they found out that Bobby Jones had heard the phrase “why didn’t they ask Evans” and decided that obviously the best thing to was to do a bunch of other murders to make sure that this single meaningless-out-of-context phrase didn’t lead to them getting caught for a murder that they had definitely already got away with. The main characters even lampshade this, pointing out after the villains have abducted them and tied them up to be murdered that they’re only in danger because the killers falsely assumed that either of them knew what the hell “why didn’t they ask Evans” meant.
Also, again, a major plot point is that a character is, like, really good at doing impressions.
Overall it’s enjoyable hokum. But I think my single favourite thing about it is the title.
Agatha Christie’s explanation for the inspiration behind this book is as follows: “You go to tea with a friend. As you arrive, her brother closes a book he is reading – throws it aside, says: ‘Not bad, but why on earth didn’t they ask Evans?’ So you decide immediately a book of yours shortly to be written will bear the title, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? You don’t know yet who Evans is going to be. Never mind. Evans will come in due course – the title is fixed.”
Words cannot describe how much I love this. Firstly, I love that she talks like this is something that happens to her on the regular. Like the highly specific circumstance of going to tea with a friend and arriving just as her brother is finishing a book and making a highly specific comment about it is a thing that just pops up all the time in her world. Secondly, I love it because I kind of know exactly what she means. Essentially the title of this book is a sort of memefied description of a plot hole. Writing a mystery novel called “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans” is like writing a fantasy novel called “Why Didn’t They Use the Eagles” or, for that matter, a romance novel called “Why Didn’t They Just Talk About It”.
And on an even more meta level, I love the dynamic that suggests existed between Christie and her readers. There’s a subgenre of very hard logic puzzle that takes the form “X and Y both have limited information. X is asked if they know what Y’s information is, and says no, then Y is asked if they know what X’s information is, and says no as well, and then X says ‘oh, now I know what Y knows’.” This story is basically that, but a murder. The real mystery isn’t “who killed the dead man at the golf course”, the real mystery is “what kind of crime could have been committed such that knowing that somebody investigating said crime considered Why Didn’t They Ask Evans to be an important question would allow you to solve it”. And that’s kind of brilliant.
M&S Collection Truffle & Olive Oil Crisps
This is the sort of thing which makes me feel I’m betraying my working class roots but I can’t tell if it’s betraying in the sense of ‘turning against’ or betraying in the sense of ‘revealing’. Because the thing about truffle crisps is that, on the one hand, truffles are posh. But, on the other hand, they’re still fucking crisps. Like, they’re mass produced in a factory. They don’t actually cost that much more than, like, Walkers Sensations. And Walkers Sensations, although they are more expensive than other Walkers crisps, are not … how to put this … are not targeted at people too affluent to turn down a buy-1-get-1 free deal. The thing is, I really like truffle flavours in general but, unfortunately, because I know that false consciousness is as thing I can’t never decide whether I like the flavour of truffles because I have been told that they are a luxurious thing or because it’s actually nice. Like, I think it’s actually nice? It’s probably actually nice. And these crisps are in black and gold packaging so they must be special. In fact, they’re so special they used to do only do them at Christmas. But, unlike other Christmas foods, they’re actually pleasant to eat so they’ve started doing them all year round. The M&S Christmas-only crisp is, I believe, winterberries and prosecco which is about as awful as it sounds.
First things first, I understand how TV works. But, seriously folks, if the premise of your show is that you’ve got a bunch of fuckboys on an island trying to fuck women just fucking call it Fuckboy Island.
Anyway, the premise of Fboy Island is… well. Basically, it’s every dating reality TV show which is “it’s Love Island but.” And, in this case the “but”, is that there’s only three girls but there’s a whole bunch of guys and half of them are self-proclaimed “nice guys” and the others are self-identified “fboys” (that is to say, fuckboys, the f stands for fuck, everyone knows it stands for fuck). The aim for the girls is to find a boy who isn’t shit and date him—at the end of which the happy, non-shit couple will receive £100k. The aim for the boys is, if they’re a nice guy, to date the girl sincerely so they can share the 100k with her and, if they’re a fboy, to date the girl insincerely so they can run off with the money.
There’s a lot about this format that really works. Because there’s only three girls, and they have all the power, it means there’s a lot less of the difficult woman versus woman stuff that those kind of shows can sometimes trade on. The guys very very quickly got divided by some kind of atavistic herding behaviour into three equal pools, one per girl, and there was pretty much no tension or cross-pollination about that. This dynamic also weirdly meant that the guys could have genuinely good relationships with the girls they weren’t trying to f alongside the girls also being friends with each other. For this kind of dating show, it’s relatively self-aware (or at least gives a good impression of it) and manages some genuinely illuminating and heart-warming moments, as well as some truly epic dramas. Like, there’s a bit where one of the girls—CJ—has been let down by an fboy and she turns up at the elimination ceremony dressed like she’s going to a funeral in 1863. And when the host asks if she’s all right and has lost anybody, she promptly replies “MY HOPE.” Which, y’know, fair play CJ, I don’t think I’ve ever loved a reality TV contestant more.
Fun and games aside, there are couple of things about the series that didn’t quit work for me. While I thought the setup was interesting and, weirdly, got around a lot of the problems that dating shows often have the implicit “nice guys versus fboys” dynamic is obviously grounded in some complex assumptions about, um, what men are like. For example, there were a couple of contestants who entered as “nice guys” because they were looking for a relationship, but were also clearly very sexy, good at sex, and comfortable talking to women in a flirty way, and this was kind of framed as unusual. Even though it’s, like, not? Like, when you get right down to it, “has a lot of casual sex”, “is cool”, and “is an arsehole” are unrelated traits. You can, in fact, be nice and fuck a lot. You can definitely have difficulty getting laid but still be kind of a prick. Hell, you can even have a lot of casual sex but be bad at it and not have very much game. Because trying to pick people up in a low stakes environment is like one of those skill checks in a video game you’re allowed to retry endlessly. Like, if you want to find somebody to have casual sex with, and you don’t much mind who, you will eventually find someone who is willing to have casual sex with you. It’s a pornier version of the stable marriage problem.
I think the biggest problem, however, was that the people making the show doesn’t seem to have realised that “fuckboy” isn’t a technical term and, therefore, people who label themselves that on a reality TV show can have a, um, a problematic range experiences, motivations and personalities. Frankly, most of the fboys on fboy island were just kind of young guys who liked to fuck and didn’t care much about other people’s feelings because they were young and liked to fuck. And you can definitely imagine a situation where, either in real life or on a reality TV show, you could get with a guy like that and it could be hurtful because, well, people who don’t care about your feelings tend to do hurtful things. But the problem would be immaturity, not anything darker. But, the thing is, there is also a more messed up side to guys who have a lot of casual sex. Because, um, like PUAs were a thing and are still kind of a thing even if they don’t called themselves PUAs any more and that style of interacting with women can still very easily go places that are manipulative and involve a certain amount of disregard for consent. And the specific issue with Season 1 of Fboy Island is that there was exactly one guy who was like this. Let’s be very clear, he makes for excellent TV, but it’s excellent in a way that I have very mixed feelings about.
Spoilers for Fboy Island.
By a remarkable coincidence that definitely wasn’t engineered by the producers the final episode boiled down to the three women having to choose between an fboy and a nice guy. To give a little more context, about two-thirds of the way into the series the show actually reveals who came in as fboy and who came in a nice guy so by that point the premise kind of shifted from “can you work out who the fboys are and eliminate them” to “can you redeem an fboy” which, let’s face it, is as concept the romance genre is very familiar with. And, once again, my respect for CJ knows no bounds because she had plenty of to-camera moments where she was basically “well I do really like this fboy and he’s making me a lot of promises about how he’ll change so I could probably fix him up or I could just go with the guy who’s already nice to me.”
Anyway, of the three women, CJ picked the nice guy (although, to clarify, CJ’s nice guy was this incredibly alpha romance hero dude who paid professional football, was covered in tats, gave no fucks, had nothing to prove and was strongly implied to be excellent at sex), Nakia picked the fboy but he’d been genuinely (well, TV genuinely) falling in love with her over the course of the series and so, therefore, agreed to share the money, and that left Sarah. Sarah’s fboy was the guy with the full PUA strat and he had been, honestly, actually unpleasantly manipulative for the entire fucking show. Like, his to camera segments were basically him explaining how PUA tactics work. Like one of his choicest lines, after he’d shared some personal details about the fact he was adopted with Sarah, was “I like to open up a little bit to women so they open their legs to me.” He was very notably the only one of the guys that actively made the woman he was trying to get with work for his attention and feel insecure about whether he liked her or not (again, this is PUA 101 stuff). And, funnily enough, it worked and she picked him at the end and he took the money. Which was an amazing TV moment. And then the presenter came on and said “actually, we’re not letting you have it, because we don’t want to reward this behaviour, so we’re giving it to a charity of Sarah’s choice.”
And … I have complicated feelings about that.
If this was always the plan if someone picked an fboy and the fboy chose to take the money then … okay, fair enough, I guess? Although firstly, how the hell are you going to recruit people for season two, and secondly haven’t you then still recruited people for a rigged competition? And, obviously, all reality TV is rigged but literally not giving someone the money that they have won under the terms presented to them would, I think, actually be illegal in my country.
What gives me even more complicated feelings is the possibility that this was the company that made the show trying to save face because they suddenly realised that this series was going to end with a man being give £100k for emotionally manipulating a woman and exploiting some really problematic gender dynamics. And, on the one hand, yeah I agree, that’s not the kind of shit you should reward. But, on the other hand, maybe if you don’t want to reward that kind of shit don’t make a show the premise of which is that guys can win £100k by convincing women they care about them.
Sidebar: one of the things I kind of liked about Fboy Island is that it didn’t have the implicit sex negativity of, say, Too Hot To Handle. But, on reflection, a show that is set up with the assumption that the girls obviously want a long term relationship, because that’s what girls want, and that people who are just interested in casual sex are doing wrong is … not great? Like, it should technically be completely valid for the girl to pick a fuckboy in the final choice and be like, “okay mate, here’s the deal, I really like banging you and I obviously don’t want you to take all of my goddamn money but can we admit here and now that neither of us are in this to find a life partner, we’re here to boost our Instagram follower count, so let’s go halfies, no harm no foul.”
Unsidebar: the thing is, I do think rewarding men for doing full on PUA shit on a reality TV show is a really difficult line to walk. And I do think there is a world where the producers set things up expecting all the fboys to be charming, slightly immature lads who just liked to bang and would either be redeemed or not by the end, and therefore were not remotely prepared for someone to turn up with a skillset that at least overlaps with that of a sexual predator. I can definitely imagine them having a meeting around episode 6 where they just say “oh my God, this guy does not a play in a post #metoo world, what the fuck are we going to do if he wins it” and I can equally well imagine some member of the amoral algorithm cult standing up and saying “it’s all right, we’ll pretend it was a moral lesson.”
I’m not saying that definitely happened but I am saying that if it did happen then, um, we now have a situation where the company felt it was morally wrong to give this many the money he won fairly but not morally wrong to keep all the advertising/streaming revue they got from putting him on TV every week. Which is, y’know, a thing.
Basically this one of those situations where the only way out of the situation I can think of is to not to get in the situation in the first place. Like, either it was planned from the beginning as a gotcha for any naughty fuckboys in which case I genuinely think that’s unethical because you’re a running a competition and you have set the terms of that competition and then just arbitrarily changed them at the last minute for whatever the streaming equivalent of clicks is. Or it was a last minute course correct because they decided having someone that manipulative winning was bad in which case I’m sorry but if he can’t keep the money, you can’t keep the money either. It is clearly not okay for a corporation to say, “this man can’t profit from his immoral behaviour but we can profit from it just fine.”
I think what particularly messes with my head is that a lot of what was unacceptable about the evil fboy’s behaviour was that he used a lot of strategies that, when you think about it, were the same kind of strategies that the show itself was using to make good reality TV. It’s just the show was doing it in a depersonalised way that no-one had to take responsibility for. For example, the whole thing where they reveal who the fboys are about two-thirds of the way into the series is, ultimately, putting strong social pressure on the female contestants to at least consider picking an fboy. Like, one of the gross manipulative strategies that some kinds of men use to pressure women into sex is to “admit” that they’re a bad guy and that getting with them is risky and that it’s, y’know, something you might not want to do because you, y’know, might not be ready for it. And that’s not okay when a guy does it to someone’s face but, in that case, it’s equally not okay when the structure of a television programme that you are on, controlled by people who basically control your life for the duration of your tenure on that programme, do the same thing but with a script.
Anyway. That’s Fboy Island. Having written all this, I feel quite bad for having enjoyed it. But, well, I did. What have you been enjoying this month? Tell me in the comments. Or don’t.