Well, the UK had a massive heatwave and the usual suspects made a big deal about how people were making a big deal out of it and about a thousand people died. So mainly what I’ve been Liking this months was the few moments when I could actually move, think or act. Other stuff I’ve Liked, in no particular order has been…
The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story
This is a lavish, and by genre standards very expensive, FMV game from Square Enix. For the parts of my audience who aren’t habitual gamers, Square Enix are a video game company, most famous the increasingly inaccurately named Final Fantasy series and FMV games are games shot using “full motion video”. Which is to say, they use real actors and real sets as opposed to CGI. Back in the day, games companies used to do this because graphics were, well, shit and so using live actors was a way of making things look glossier (although, in practice, it often failed hard). These days, it’s more of a style choice and I’ve actually blogged about this before, although many years ago, so I won’t go into the full history of the genre here.
And, on the subject of going into the full history The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story casts you the protagonist as a mystery novelist who is recruited by her researcher friend to investigate the discovery of a skeleton on his family’s estate and its potential ties to the dark history of the Shijima family (including the murders that keep happening, the rumours of dark human experiment and researches into immortality).
The interesting thing about FMV games as a subgenre is that, because recording technology has got waaaaay cheaper, you can get pretty decent quality on a pretty shoestring budget. This game, however, is not on shoestring budget. Or, if it is, those are some impressive shoelaces. It has a relatively large cast, it has multiple sets in multiple timelines, it has location shots, it feels genuinely like an interactive movie. Although, obviously, it’s less interactive than, say, a different sort of game.
It reminds me a little bit of the Poirot game I reviewed what feels like a couple of months ago but was probably actually, like, a year or something in that it has a mechanical structure that represents your character reasoning through the process of solving whatever the crime de jour is. Unlike the Poirot game, however, it’s a lot more transparent about what’s abstract and what’s actual reasoning. If (and there’s no reason you should) you remember my wittering about Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot: The First Cases you’ll be aware that it had a system where you’d go into Poirot’s mind and you’d have to make connections between clues, but in practice those connections were often arbitrary and I often wound up making deductions not on the basis of in-world logic but on the basis of the connecting lines usually going horizontally or vertically.
The Centennial Case has a similar system in that it will present you with a mystery (in the form of a red hexagon) and then you have to slot the right clues (in the former of yellow hexagons) next to the mystery in order to form a hypothesis (represented by a white hexagon). But as well as the clues connecting to the mysteries via their actual contents each hexagon also has at least one symbol on it and if the symbols match, then the clue and mystery match. And this sounds like it would be unsatisfying because all you’re really doing is symbol matching, not really thinking about the evidence, but how it feels in play is that you get a sense of the clues clicking together to give you a picture of what might have happened. And then the actual deduction part comes from deciding which hypothesis is the right one and what that means in the context of the story. It’s not totally seamless but it feels smooth. I think it helps that part of the premise is that your mystery novelist’s detective has a catch phrase: the path of the logic lines up. And the reasoning mini game is specifically building a path so the abstract thing you’re doing is concretely connected to what your character is doing in the world through the language that your character’s fictional detective creation uses to describe his reasoning. Gosh that’s long-winded.
Anyway, I’m only halfway through the game because it’s kind of epic (not so much by video game standards but the thing about FMV games is that they feel like watching a movie and ten to twenty hours of movie is a lot of movie). But I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve played so far. The mysteries are all very cosy rather than hardboiled and one of the things your character talks about at the start is that every detective story has a “trick” and the key to solving it is to work out the trick. So, for example, one of the mini-stories is a locked room mystery, one of them is an impossible alibi mystery, one them is “the victim isn’t the intended victim” and, honestly, I’m seriously holding out for “the detective is the murderer.” In any case, there’s a sort of genuine mystery solving pleasure in engaging with the game’s systems and using those to unpack the kind of mystery story you’re being told. As someone who plays a lot of slightly variable FMV/crime-solving games, The Centennial Case is probably one of the better ones.
It is, however, priced like a triple A game and I’m not sure I’d have got it if it wasn’t on sale.
Queer as Folk
I have complicated feelings about the original Queer as Folk—and by original, I mean the original UK version, not the original US version, because I understand both are a thing. In any case, the original Queer as Folk was important because it was the kind the only thing about queer people on British TV, although by queer people I specifically mean white cis gay men. There’s also the whole difficult “banging a 15-year-old but in an empowering way” plotline that at the time was controversial in that difficult way where about half the criticisms were “it’s bad because it’s gay” and the other half were “it’s bad because he’s fucking fifteen” and they tended to get conflated in the discourse. And, obviously, particularly in the UK where the age of consent is 16 (although, I think, when QAF was originally filmed it was older for men having sex with men) 15 is a difficult age in that two 15 year olds who want to have sex with each other aren’t really business although laws are there for a reason and people should think carefully about sex in general. But a confident adult with a long sexual history doing a fifteen year old should be a red flag in pretty much any situation.
So, enter a US remake of, I suppose the US remake of a not unproblematic British TV show from the late 90s/early 2000s. And, you know something, it’s really good. I was, if I’m honest, dubious when it started because all the characters are introduced the most obnoxious, try-hard way possible but then again people being flawed (whatever their identity) has always sort of been a theme in QAF anyway. That and shamelessly angling for job directing Doctor Who.
Anyway, once it settles down, the QAF Remake Remake has a lot of heart to it. Do be aware if you want to get into it that the through line involves a mass shooting a queer club in New Orleans which very explicitly parallels what happened in Orlando and that may just be something you don’t want to think about or deal with. Obviously I don’t have standing to say whether something like this is handled well or not but, for me, I thought it was sensitively done, focusing on the emotional journey of the survivors rather than anything more graphic or gratuitous. Also it does give the whole series a shape and a vulnerability that a story whether or not you should bang a fifteen-year-old kind of doesn’t.
Which is not say there isn’t a plot thread about whether or not you should bang an, in this case, seventeen-year-old but I personally felt the show had a more nuanced attitude to the emotional consequences of this instead of buying wholly into the young person’s fantasy that this is uncomplicatedly cool. The QAF Remake Remake does have several plot threads that exist in homage to its source material: there’s a heavy emphasis on club culture (although it’s not on Canal Street, obviously), there’s a sexy, selfish playboy type at the centre of it, one queer couple is having children together. But where it genuinely transcends its origins is its broader scope and more diverse cast. For example, in the original QAF there’s a lesbian couple who are having a baby but they’re barely in it except to provide the occasional Moment. In the QAF Remake Remake the kid-having couple are a trans woman and her non-binary partner and they both have their own shit going on, around their relationship, around the shooting, round what parenting means for a queer couple, especially for a trans woman and a nonbinary person whose body is being put into a very culturally gendered space.
It’s also got Kim Cattrall in it. So, y’know, instant win?
Okay I know I complained last month about the difficulty of watching stuff week-by-week and how streaming the whole thing as you want it is just objectively better, but I will admit that there is a slight downside in that I inevitably wind up blogging about things long after the zeitgeist has passed. I’m pretty sure everybody has already seen Severance, already talked about Severance, and now pretty much forgotten about Severance.
But I’ve just watched it, so go me.
Severance is a sort-of-dystopian-sort-of-thriller with the guy who plays Ben Wyatt in Parks and Rec in the lead role. Its premise is that there is technology which allows you to geographically “sever” your memories so that while you’re at work you remember nothing of your life outside while when you’re outside you remember nothing of your life at work.
Sidebar: something I always like in dystopian fiction is when the dystopian elements are arguably better than the real world. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would absolutely love to live in a universe where once their workday ended they clocked off and their boss was actually neurologically incapable of bothering them.
In a lot of ways, Severance is like an episode of Black Mirror fleshed out to a nine-episode miniseries (or as we say in the UK “series”). This is sort of mixed praise because I lost the ability to take Black Mirror entirely seriously towards the end, thanks in no small part to that one Toast article which famously summed the entire series up as “what if phones but too much”.
Severance is what if work-life-balance but too much.
I really enjoyed Severance, and it gave me enough to think about that I was half tempted to do a long thinkpiece about whether the technology in it is Good Actually or Bad Actually before I realised that this Things I Liked article is already overdue. I found the first few episodes intense enough that I couldn’t quite binge them and then found the second half of the series compelling enough that I settled into a sort of semi-binge pattern of two-episodes-then-break.
Something I’m always a bit iffy about with modern TV, especially modern SF TV is that it can often give off strong making-it-up-as-it-goes-along vibes (I think I was partly burned by Battlestar Galactica because the Cylons, in retrospect, definitely did not have a plan). Severance mostly avoids this by coming across, at least half the time, as more satire than mystery. Yes the “innies” (the name given to the experientially-trapped-at-work halves of the Severed characters, their everyday selves are called “outies”) work in a Kafkaesque nightmare, but a lot of the time it seems that the weirder elements of the setting are intended more as satirical takes on stuff that just straight-up exists in the real world. The bizarre, quasi-religious corporate culture of Lumon industries, for example, in which people build actual literal shrines in devotion to the company founder Kier Egan is honestly only a hop and a skip away from the way a lot of modern corporations expect their employees to feel about the company.
At other times, though, the series seems more focused on the actual SF premise of the Severance technology and an implied conspiracy by Lumon to put chips in everybody’s brains because … reasons? And that’s something that I think will be harder to make work.
I found the first season compelling and I was literally on the edge of my seat in the final episode. But in retrospect I can’t help but notice that the last two episodes included a lot of exciting revelations that weren’t actually about the show’s central mysteries. We find out things about the core cast’s lives outside of Lumon, we discover that Certain Characters Are Actually Certain Other Characters and those payoffs—don’t get me wrong—are really good. I always feel the mark of a good plot twist is that you work it a few minutes before it gets revealed, and that’s how both of the big twists in Severance land. But while I felt emotionally carried along by discovering [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] and I felt clever for saying “but what if [REDACTED] is really [REDACTED]” shortly before it was revealed on screen that [REDACTED] really had been [REDACTED] all along I do, looking back, find myself asking “okay, but what the fuck was up with the goats?”
I’m definitely looking forward to the next season, but it’s with a bit of a where-does-it-go-from-here feeling that isn’t helped by the fact that I’ve just checked Wikipedia and noted that the creators list their inspirations as including Brazil, Dilbert and the Stanley Parable. Those are all in their own ways good things, but none of them scream “builds cohesively towards a satisfying conclusion” except maybe Brazil and even that’s pretty opaque.
Also it’s executive produced and directed by Ben Stiller. And I know he isn’t actually Zoolander in real life and that actors going on to direct and produce things is totally normal. But this does still mean that I’ve just watched a TV series that was directed by Zoolander and based on a Half-Life mod.
Bit videogame heavy this month but, like I say, I haven’t been able to do anything that involves moving or thinking.
Dorformantik is single-player Carcassonne on a computer. I appreciate that you might not know what Carcassonne, although long-time might remember it as the game that Ardy and Caspian in Kinlochbervie (spoilers).
In Dorfromantik you put down little hexagonal tiles that have idyllic rural things on them like trees and fields and little houses and you get points for matching them up and if you get enough points you get more tiles and sometimes you can make a river and sometimes you can put a boat on the river and it is very nice.
I feel like I’m probably bad at it because I like making pretty landscapes more than I like doing things the game mechanically rewards you for doing. But that kind of doesn’t really matter because, well, it’s a tile-laying game about making pretty landscapes. If you put down enough tiles you get a train.
Basically, it’s very relaxing, very kinetically and aesthetically pleasing, and probably it could be an interesting puzzle game if you cared to treat it like a puzzle game, rather than treating it like a toy. I appreciate to some of my readers the difference between games and toys is very much academic but, as someone who enjoys both, I find things that sit in the middle quite fascinating.
Did I mention you can get a train and a boat?
I like trains and boats. Tell me what trains and boats you’ve liked this month below. Or, as ever, don’t.