Wow, so I haven’t done one of these in a while. It’s almost like there’s been some gigantic global event that disrupted everyone’s normal patterns of behaviour. Anyway, looking back over the year, I was a bit sad to realise I hadn’t really blogged very much at all. I mean, I know it’s an obsolete form of social media internet but it’s my obsolete form of social media, dammit. So, yeah, basically hoping to blog more in 2021, and bring back Things I Liked (spoilers: I may also bring back reviewing Star Trek episodes by bobbins-ness, but please don’t hold me to that because, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m extremely flaky).
In the spirit of Liking Things again, here are some Things I Liked from the holiday period.
Thousand Year Old Vampire
Due warning: this is a solo RPG, a genre of game guaranteed to be alienating both to non-gamers (for whom the term RPG either means Rocket Propelled Grenade or that someone has forgotten the late Justice Ginsburg’s middle name) and to gamers (for whom an RPG means murdering orcs with your friends, not writing a little journal about your feelings). Although I should that when I played this game with my partner, we journaled probably far less than we were meant to. Preferring instead to, well, bullet point. So I suppose we bullet journaled.
Superficially, TYOV resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure (although that’s actually a brand-name and apparently companies that make CYOA-style books mostly prefer the term Choosable Path Adventure) or Fighting Fantasy novel, but it’s actually nothing like one. What it’s actually like is … well … a solo roleplaying game. In that you create a character, and most of the entertainment value comes from describing what that character does and (if you’re massively less self-conscious than I am) pretending to be this fictional person you’ve made up.
That person, in Thousand Year Old Vampire, being—and stop me if you’ve already worked this out—a thousand year old vampire. Or, I suppose, initially a zero year old vampire who eventually gets older and vampireyer until they get destroyed somehow.
The way the game works is that you define your character by giving them a list of skills, resources, and supporting characters, and then writing down your character’s Experiences (this is a game mechanical term) as a series of Memories (this is also a game mechanical term). As your character grows older they will forget things, keep Vampire-Diaries style Diaries, and generally do a lot of random murder.
The actual gameplay consists of reading little prompts like “you lose control and kill someone you care about” or in one memorable case that came up in both of our playthroughs “the way mortals transport goods has changed” and deciding how your vampire reacts to them. You write down what your vampire actually does as an Experience within a thematically coherent Memory (one memory is three experiences) but the twist is that you’re only allowed five memories at once, so you gradually forget stuff as you age. Prompts also tell you to either gain or lose skills, gain or lose resources or “check” a skill (which means “you do the thing that the skill is about in a relevant way in this situation) and if you’re told to do one of these things and you can’t, your vampire dies.
And it was that last rule that made our first playthrough so unintentionally hilarious. Deciding to take the game Very Seriously (well, as seriously as you can take a solo RPG you’re playing at stupid o’clock in the morning on Xmas Eve) we elected a play a former gladiator, based loosely on the criminally underrated Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand (known in our household as Spartacus: Blood and Sandals – seriously, though, watch it, it’s great). Because our character was inspired by a Starz series, one of his defining skills was being very good at sex (because I’d also been watching early TNG recently, the skill was named “Multiple Pleasuring Techniques”). But, for some reason, in our Very Serious Vampire adventure, being really good at doing the sex with ladies was never really a practical solution to the situation at hand. Unfortunately, because of the rule that says that once you’ve checked a skill, you can only check it once, and because the game is designed to destroy you eventually (so you gain quite a lot of skills and resources in the first half and lose a lot in the second) we experienced the gradually dawning realisation that whatever our next major problem was we’d have to fuck it.
The problem turned out to be an Italian scholar (named Giovanni, after a dancer from Strictly) had found one our abandoned journals and was now attempted to blackmail us into turning him a vampire. So we seduced him to stop this happening, then—in our very next encounter—were called upon to check another skill. Having no such skills, we were left with no other option but to walk into the sun.
Basically, our character who had been resolutely heterosexual for more than a thousand years (he just kinda had that vibe) had one gay experience. Then immediately died. It was like the series finale of Supernatural up in here.
In an effort to avoid this happening again, we decided our next character would be a lesbian nun from the 13th century, to whom we gave the skill “Gay As Fuck” – and used it at the first opportunity. Perhaps because we weren’t constantly dancing around the “oh my God, we’re going to have to shag it” issue, she wound up having a much more serious and satisfying story, involving a crisis of space, a war on the divine, murdering an angel and eventually using the industrial revolution to build a stairway to heaven where she was imprisoned for eternity.
10/10 would vampire again.
If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself—and I do recommend it, although I do find its rhetoric of edgy psychodrama and staring into the dark abyss of your own soul a little bit not to my taste—you can find it here.
Dark Nights with Poe and Munro
On the subject of things that self-define as dark, and have a strong Choose Your Own Adventure angle, Dark Nights with Poe and Munro is the latest FMV game from the people who made The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective, both of which I have reviewed on this blog and both of which—to get the difficult bit out of the way first—I liked a lot better. In The Shapeshifting Detective the player often listens to a local radio station, hosted by, well, Poe and Munroe. You interact with them in the second act of the game and there’s a reasonable chance you might get Munro killed which is why, spoiler, this game is a prequel.
There’s a lot I like about D’avekki Studios, although you might read a fair amount into the fact I’m starting my comments on this game by saying “well, I like the company that made it.” And one of the things I like about them is that, of the three games they’ve made so far, each has had a very distinct style, both aesthetically and mechanically. In Dr Dekker you play a psychiatrist interviewing people in a single claustrophobic set that’s basically just one sofa. In Detective you explore the village of August and grill people for information by using your mysterious supernatural powers to impersonate other villagers.
Poe and Munro changes up the formula again by being an anthology series. Each of its six episodes is relatively self-contained (I think there are a couple of call backs but choices from one episode don’t seem to affect another) and, I understand, although I obviously didn’t see this in a single playthrough, branch quite significantly. But in a way that’s not the biggest change the game makes. The thing I found hardest to adjust to with Poe and Munro, and the perhaps the reason I had less of a good time with it than I did with Dekker or Detective, is that “you” aren’t a character. In each of the first two games, you are a person interacting with other people, mostly by asking them questions. In P&M you are … sort of a viewer? Prodding a TV show in different directions by clicking on things that are momentarily highlighted and which don’t necessarily make it clear what choice you’re being asked to make. And once you get used to that it’s … fine? I guess. But it does mean you always feel like you’re watching a TV show in a slightly inefficient way. And I know FMV games occupy a weird space between game and movie, but this is very, very movie. And what I liked about the other two games was that they managed to be quite cinematic within the constraints of their budget (they’re all very competently filmed and acted, which I appreciate is kind of faint praise, but they’re clearly made on no money and ‘competently filmed and acted’ isn’t the sort of thing you can take for granted with an FMV game) but still very much felt like games.
And from the reading around the game I’ve done, it is clear that not giving the player any strong sense of what their choices actually meant was a deliberate creative choice. It’s just, well, I don’t understand why that creative choice was made? Some comments seem to suggest that it’s intended as part of the mystery but that feels … tenuous is a strong word, but that feels tenuous to me? If nothing else, I really thought chooseable-path-adventure media had got over having the players make totally uninformed choices back around the days of Deathtrap Dungeon. And I suppose you could argue that P&M isn’t intended as a game per se so much as a non-linear storytelling experience (like that one episode of Black Mirror I can’t be arsed to watch) except I’m not sure that was totally successful. Of course, I’m on thin ice here as a creative professional who has made a number of choices in my time that I’m sure a lot of people are profoundly questionable but I do think that “well, it was meant to be like that” doesn’t really address something that feels subjectively dissatisfying to a particular consumer.
But this is supposed to be a Things I Liked, so I will say that there’s still lots of really good stuff in Poe and Munro. Like most anthologies it’s a bit hit or miss, but there’s some nice individually creepy stories, the two stars have genuine chemistry, even though (and, again, I’m sure this is personal taste) she seems, like, way too good for him. Like, way, way too good for him. It’s partly that she’s noticeably extremely conventionally attractive whereas—and I don’t mean this in an insulting way—he looks like the guy who used to run your Vampire: The Masquerade game. By which I mean, she looks kind of like a film star. And he looks kind of like someone you might know in real life. There’s also the fact that he’s explicitly cheating on his wife and they sort of try to make this better in later episodes by revealing that his wife cheated on him first. But that just feels like a deliberate attempt to shift the blame. Especially because they’re constantly flirting live on radio to the point that episode 2 (or possibly 3) is them trying to raise money for the station by doing a live 24-hr webcast from bed?! With her in a skimpy nightie and, now I come to think of it, him fully dressed, which is weird. All of which mean, I really really felt bad for Poe’s wife. And spent of most my playthrough yelling “kick him to the kerb, girlfriend” and taking every opportunity to leave him for dead.
So this is a much more tentative recommendation and I’d say to only check it out if you’ve already checked out and enjoyed Dr Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective.
Tesco Salted Caramel Chocolate & Peanut Pretzel Mix
These are amazing but disgusting but amazing.
It’s the salt and the sweet and the Tesconess.
Unfortunately, they’ve stopped doing them. I think it was just an Xmas thing.
Also, even more weirdly, I can’t find pictures of them on the internet so maybe it’s some kind of Xmas ghost story and they were never really there, or they were actually made by a factory that burned down in 1864 and I’ve been eating ghost pretzels for the last month.
Christmas at Pemberley Manor
The only thing I love more than a cheesy Xmas movie, is a cheesy Xmas movie with a spurious Austen connection, and the only thing I love more than cheesy Xmas movie with an Austen so shallow it doesn’t not even rise to the level of spuriousness.
In Christmas at Pemberley Manor, Elizabeth Bennet (a woman with no sisters, no pressing need to money and a perfectly reasonable career in which she is successful) is an event-planner who goes back to her hometown for Christmas (because this is a Hallmark Christmas movie and they’re only allowed one plot) in order to event-plan their extremely locally important but extremely shit Christmas festival. It’s supposed to be held in the town square but the town square collapses due to a burst water main (you’ll notice this cleverly parallels the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Netherfield Hall … um is let? At last?) and so she has to find a suitable local venue. That venue being the “grounds” of “Pemberley Manor.” Pemberley Manor is just a slightly big house in this woman’s town with a garden just large enough to hold a slightly shit Christmas market.
Pemberley Manor is, of course, owned by the dark and brooding William Darcy who, um, is going to sell it for condos? Again, cleverly paralleling the way in which Regency gentlemen would not give a toss about preserving their family’s estates and would regularly flog them off to appease their Board of Directors (also why does Darcy Inc have a Board of Directors? It’s a family business. Also this house used to belong to his aunt and uncle – why is it also the property of his father’s mega-corporation?).
Sidebar: I’m sure it also tells us something about late stage capitalism that the setup for the conflict in this movie is that the Bad People want to sell the Big Empty Rich Person House That Nobody Actually Lives In so it can be used to be build apartments that people might actually use.
Anyway, Darcy is very briefly reluctant to have the front lawn of the property he’s selling turned into the venue for a rubbish civic event, citing perfectly legitimate liability concerns. But Elizabeth pranks the buyers into worrying about a lack of community goodwill so they lean to let them have the Christmas festival in the “grounds” of “Pemberley Manor.” The remainder of the conflict is him not particularly wanting to have his photograph taken? Once again, cleverly paralleling that plotline in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy doesn’t want to take credit for forcing Wickham to marry Lydia, and Elizabeth convinces him to announce it in a local newspaper.
Also, in another incredibly subtle allusion to the source material, the groundskeeper at “Pemberley Manor” is literally Santa Claus.
Look, this movie is terrible. But I heartily recommend it. It’s even safe to watch with Austen scholars because it has so little to do with Pride and Prejudice that they cannot possibly be bothered by it.
The Goes Wrong Show
As anyone who has read my books will know, I have an incredibly juvenile sense of humour. You can take all the satire, wordplay, and sharp observational comedy in the world. But nothing will be as funny as someone falling off a high thing through a thing that breaks while somebody else tries to pretend it isn’t happening.
The Goes Wrong Show is that. Constantly. For two Xmas specials and one and a bit seasons. The evolution of the show is actually really interesting. It started out on stage as The Show That Goes Wrong which I never saw but understand was well-received. A couple of years ago they did an Xmas version of the show called Peter Pan Goes Wrong which was broadcast on the BBC and which you can buy along with their next year’s production A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong for ten quid off Amazon. I really liked Peter Pan Goes Wrong—I thought it was a perfect illustration of how clever you have to be to be stupid sometimes. You can see almost all the jokes coming a mile away but that doesn’t make them any less funny. And they’d obviously put a lot of thought into telling what amounted to two parallel stories, one of which was about this hopeless amateur dramatic group trying to put on a play, and the other of which was—obviously—Peter Pan. They seem to have tried to have build on this in Christmas Carol but it didn’t work quite as well for me. They were on a full-on costume drama set rather than a stage and that meant it lost some of its theatricality and the attempt to keep what you might call the “underplot” about the actual personal relationships between the cast felt a little forced.
But when they made the transition to a short-format series it forced/enabled them to double-down on the core gag. Which is “this is supposed to be a serious play but it’s going wrong in hilarious ways.” There’s no longer space for subplots about actual relationships between the cast members but they aren’t particularly missed and the groundwork that was done in establishing those characters means that the actors in the shows do feel meaningfully differentiated in a way that is consistent between productions. So there’s the pompous director who’s always taking it far too seriously. The “principal actor” who thinks acting means shouting. The guy who is just not taking it seriously at all. The one who cannot remember lines for love nor money. And the one who, beleaguered by technical failures, just can’t get on the set. Sadly, now I come to lay it out, I notice that the women are slightly less differentiated: I think one of them is supposed to be trying too hard to be sultry but they don’t have obvious gimmicks the same way the male cast members do.
On the subject of obvious gimmicks, the other advantage of the half-hour format over the feature length is that it lets them steer into big one episode jokes that would wear out their welcome over a longer production. For example, the last episode of the first series is called “90 Degrees” which, as the Director explains in his introduction, is intended as an allusion to the sweltering heat of the play’s Tennessee setting. But which has led to a portion of the set being constructed with the flaw you would expect from a show with that title.
I just find it endlessly enjoyable. And it probably says something about society or maybe just about me that it feels like a harmless flavour of humour, even though it specifically involves laughing at people doing something stressful and hurting themselves. I think it’s because it’s the kind of humour that invites empathy—you laugh at it because you know it could so easily be you and are very, very glad it isn’t. With the exception of a Christmas Carol it’s filmed in front a live audience and whenever a character is horribly injured or has to do something slightly disgusting to maintain the flow of the scene the laughter is always tinged with a real undercurrent of regret. Which is, honestly, how I like my comedy.
tl;dr: it’s a group of people putting way more thought than seems necessary into an incredibly lowbrow premise. I’ve seen quite a lot of this kind of theatre in my time and The Goes Wrong Show is the sort of thing that could easily be funny for ten minutes and then incredibly wearing and self-indulgent for the rest of its runtime. And the reason it works is because the team behind it have clearly realised that the making something madcap and anarchic work long term ironically requires a tremendous amount of artistry, foresight and discipline
This game is eight years old but it’s been supported continuously since release (although it’s now it’s sort of been superseded by its multiplayer sequel because everything has to be multiplayer these days, thank you Fall Guys and Among Us) and I grabbed it as part of a bundle in the Steam sale. It’s an excellently crafted survival sim in which you play one of a range of characters all of whose names begin with W in a beautifully rendered 2D world that is definitely trying to kill you.
Things that have killed me so far:
- Giant chickens
- Giant spiders
- Angry cows
- Angry trees
- A forest fire I started
It’s one of those theoretically simple, actually incredibly complex games where you start out cutting down trees and picking berries so you don’t die and you end up capturing fireflies to make a miner’s helmet so you can descend into caves to look for gears to make machines to build teleportation platforms. I think I’ve played it for about six hours so far and I totally suck.
A Muppets’ Christmas Carol
Indubitably the best Christmas movie of all time, even if you count Die Hard.