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Sorry for the missed column last week; I hadn't had a chance to go to the local library last week, so it took a while to gather up enough reading material for a full column. I really stocked up this week, so hopefully it won't happen again.

Currently I'm reading The Boy Detectives: Essays on the Hardy Boys and Others, edited by Michael G. Cornelius. I've... never actually read the Hardy Boys, but I was a big Encyclopedia Brown fan (I remember having a crush on him and everything), so I was hoping this book would have something that touched on him. Unfortunately, it doesn't, but there's still a lot I enjoyed. There's an essay on Hardy Boys adaptations, some of which I've never heard of; an essay on Christopher Cool, TEEN Agent, a little-known book series from the late 60s about a boy spy, and why it failed; essays on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Boy Detective Fails; and even a retrospective on the Three Investigators, which I never read, but made it sound like a really great series.

Unfortunately, even some of my favorite essays are marred by an... amateurishness, I guess I'd call it? For example, the essay about the Three Investigators opens with a three page (ha!) digression about the nature of trios in psychology and art, and it's like, okay man, I got your point the first couple of paragraphs in, no need to take it any further. It just felt so self-aggrandizing, and it's hard to imagine how it got past the editor for this collection. It's not a bad read, but it could use some tightening up.
(Technically none of these books are about Hellboy per se, but they take place in the same universe.)

Currently I'm reading a bunch of Mignola-verse books. First off is Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland, written by Kim Newman and Maura McHugh with art by Tyler Cook and Dave Stewart. It's about special agent Sir Edward Grey, paranormal investigator to Queen Victoria, and his misadventures in a newly industrial town that holds a lot of secrets. The art is beautiful, and the story brings that special Hellboy weirdness that I love so much. I don't think it's as good as the previous Witchfinder book (the one set in the Wild West), but I still enjoyed it bunches.

Next, we have the first two books in the Abe Sapien series, The Drowning, by Mike Mignola and Jason Shawn Alexander; and The Devil Does Not Jest and Other Stories, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Patric Reynolds, Peter Snejbjerg, James Harren, and Dave Stewart. The first book, Drowning, was pretty okay, but it left me feeling lost at times; part of it may because I'm not too well-read on my Hellboy volumes (hey, I gotta work with whatever my library has in stock at the moment, alright?), but I think Mike Mignola has a tendency to just throw the reader in deep waters without warning when he's writing on his own. With a co-writer, like Arcudi in The Devil Does Not Jest, he seems able to rein things in much easier. The Devil Does Not Jest also has the benefit of being a short story showcase, which I think is where the Hellboy universe really shines. The epic stuff is alright, but it's pretty overwhelming, especially for a newcomer; the short stories deliver the weirdness in these great, bite-sized packages without the bloat. I liked both, but The Devil Does Not Jest is better.

Am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah, I reread Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Hunter this week, too. Verdict: still a great crime read, still not as good as Parker: The Outfit, Parker's surprisingly cute in this one, RIP Cooke mourn ya 'til I join ya. See ya next week!
So! It's been a while since I've done this.

I actually finished this book a while ago (in fact, I first checked it out in February), but... currently I'm rereading Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks (edited by David Lavery), a book of essays on Twin Peaks, published a few years after its first run in the 90s. I first got it because I was making a Twin Peaks-inspired game for the Veeder Expo, and reading some books on the show would have been faster than actually watching all 30-something episodes of it. It's sort of a dry book; most of it is made up of essays on psycho-analytical and post-modern readings of the series. But there is one article that I keep coming back to: "'Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?': alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery" by Henry Jenkins, a rough overview of the Twin Peaks fandom on Usenet. Theories of literary criticism, it seems, may come and go, but fandom ethnography is forever.

Click here to see me blab about Gravity FallsCollapse )

I'm also reading The Simon and Kirby Library: Horror! (By Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, natch.) It's a bunch of horror stories written before the Comics Code kicked the industry in the keister. They're all weird and nightmarish in a way that kinda bridges the gap between the Golden and Silver Ages. It makes for an interesting contrast between the stories in The Jack Kirby Omnibus Volume One: Starring Green Arrow, which were all written post-Code. The stories in the former get to be gritty and rough in a way the latter never attempts to match. I think my favorite of the collection is a story called "The Head of the Family", which is... well, I'll try not to spoil it for you, but let's just say it's about one of those Kirby-esque weird families that really deserves their own ongoing series. Highly recommended.

XYZZY Catch-Up: Oppositely Opal

For the past couple weeks, I've been going over games nominated for the 2015 XYZZY Awards that I hadn't played yet. Today, we'll be reviewing the last game in this series, Oppositely Opal, by Buster Hudson.

In Oppositely Opal, you play as a witch who is trapped by a rival in a cursed cabin. You have to get out in time to compete against her in a potions contest, but all of your spells keep going wrong. Can you work around it until you make the potion you need for your getaway?

Oppositely Opal was nominated for both Best Puzzles and Best Individual Puzzle (catching the pixie), so let's talk about that for a bit. The basic structure, of casting spells to change the game world, is reminiscent of Suveh Nux, one of my favorite games of yesteryear that doesn't get talked about often these days. There's a real delight in figuring out which form your tampered spells will take. Unfortunately, I got caught on a few parts and had to resort to the walkthrough to make progress; the nominated puzzle was one of them, so I'm afraid I can't judge how good it is on its own merits. I think some more cluing when you're on the wrong track would help here. For example, there was a bit in the pixie puzzle where I couldn't tell which spell would turn an object into a trap, and the responses I got when I had taken a wrong guess weren't helping me choose the right spell. In this case, I think including even a short phrase personalized to each spell used would be helpful in visualizing the solution the author wants.

Much more successful in my eyes is the character of Opal, who was nominated for Best Individual PC. She's a real riot, and her (somewhat try-hard) witchiness is what makes the game for me. A couple choice quotes:

Your black and gray striped familiar was found as a kitten in a trash heap somewhere. You decided to name him Lord Doomclaw, Prince of Darkness, and raise him to hate everything as much as you do. Unfortunately, he never grew any less adorable, and he only attacks people with soft meows, playful antics, and unremitting cuteness. You renamed him Killjoy.

and

A stuffed puffin—not stuffed like a cuddly toy, but stuffed as in a once-live puffin that was killed then stuffed. What a terrible fate.

UGH, no, that's not right. You meant to think it was a wonderfully evil thing to do cackle cackle cackle. You scold yourself for the slip in proper witchiness.


But there's also a sadness tinged around her edges, which we see mostly in flashback. I think what makes Opal so great is that she can work so well as both a comic and tragic character; all three of the endings I got in my playthrough were fairly sad, and this worked for me because the game had built up enough of that element in Opal that it didn't seem out of place. A good game to end on.

And that's a wrap for now! I do intend to review Spy Intrigue, which I tried on Wednesday but didn't finish, but that'll have to wait until after the award ceremony. See you then!

XYZZY Catch-Up: Arcane Intern (Unpaid)

For the next week, I'll be going over games nominated for the 2015 XYZZY Awards that I haven't played yet. Today, we'll be reviewing Arcane Intern (Unpaid), by Astrid Dalmady.

Arcane Intern (Unpaid) is about a young intern who gets a job at a magical publishing company. The game is slighter than the other Best Story nominees I've played so far; it's a fairly short work, only taking about 15-30 minutes to play through, and I felt the themes of feeling rejected by this magical world could be more fully developed with a longer playtime, perhaps. But it is incredibly charming, and the middle section, where you explore a labyrinth-like warehouse to get some supplies, gives a great sense of character and setting and really brings the work together. Arcane Intern (Unpaid) is the kind of game you play on a rainy afternoon to cheer yourself up, and though I wish it were weightier, it makes good use of it short playtime.

XYZZY Catch-Up: Cape

For the next week, I'll be going over games nominated for the 2015 XYZZY Awards that I haven't played yet. Today, we'll be reviewing Cape, by Bruno Dias.

Cape is a near-future superhero story about someone who gains mysterious superpowers after stealing a talisman from a townhouse. It's fairly linear, with a few optional sidepaths (I hear talk of a hidden sex scene from the author, but I'm not sure if that's just a joke or not ETA: This has been confirmed to, indeed, be a joke. Thanks, Bruno!). It was nominated for an XYZZY in Best Story.

I gotta say, I really loved Cape. I'm a big superhero fan, and it hit a lot of the story beats that I enjoy about the genre. It's very thoughtful about the role of violence in a way that most superhero stories aren't, and while the story is fairly "gritty", it's not gratuitously so, like in Long Halloween. Parts of it remind me of Astro City: Tarnished Angel, one of my favorite graphic novels. If I have one complaint, it's that the ending is a little anti-climatic, and didn't answer as many questions as I would like it to. (Perhaps they were left unanswered to save room for a sequel?) Despite this, Cape is still one of the best superhero games I've ever played, and could stand beside the best comic in the genre.

XYZZY Catch-Up: Map

For the next week or so, I'll be going over games nominated for the 2015 XYZZY Awards that I haven't played yet. Today, we'll be reviewing Map, by Ade McT.

Map is a game that is very much concerned the choices we make in life, whether it's to let that person stay with us, or to dance with that guy in the bar. It's about a middle-aged woman whose house begins changing very strangely one week before she and her family moves out; rooms start showing up that allow her to change key moments from her past. It's a conceit you might find in a modern "literary" novel, and a little reminiscent of Photograph, a somewhat similar game from the 2002 IF Comp.

The story (which is what Map was nominated for) is doled out in bits and pieces as you explore the rooms each day, trying to figure out which choice to make in each scene. It's actually pretty interesting to see the results of your different choices play out as the game progresses; the details of the protagonist's life can be very different from where she was at the start of the game. And the ending scene, for me, was very emotionally satisfying and well-done. But I had trouble getting into the game at first, partly because of the protagonist's dreary approach to life at the start of the game, and partly because I ran into a few bugs and SPAG errors; Map has one of the sketchiest implementations I've ever seen from a game that did very well in the IF Comp (it came in second last year). Still, Map does a lot of interesting in regards to tying physical space with more metaphorical matters, so if you're looking for a game that does that, you should give Map a try.
For the next week, I'll be going over games nominated for the 2015 XYZZY Awards that I haven't played yet. Today, we'll be reviewing two games: Neon Haze, by Porpentine and Neotenomie; and Beautiful Dreamer, by S. Woodson.

Both Beautiful Dreamer and Neon Haze were nominated for Best Setting (and only Best Setting), so I felt it would be appropriate to review them both at the same time. Both of them have a dreamy atmosphere, but they use them to very different ends.

Let's start with Neon Haze. If you're familiar with Porpentine's work, you probably can guess the milieu she's working with here. How would I describe the setting of Neon Haze myself, though? Um, if William Gibson's Neuromancer and a Kavinsky album had a baby, and you hooked up a fancy brain-imaging machine to watch that baby's dreams, what you saw there would look a lot like the world of Neon Haze. It's a spiraling rainbow cyberpunk dystopia, complete with memory hackers and fully-automated fast food joints. Porpentine's writing focuses more on allusions than straight-forward connections, breaking out razor-blade metaphors and tossed-aside details to set a scene; condensation on the city is said to "rain black and chemical", and air conditioners are described as muzzled sawblades. You can watch something called a "meme-wave opera" on a screen at one point, and there's a weather report that says "Opacity 80%, heavy kinetic water". It all adds up to a dark, hallucinatory nightmare. While I'm here, special props to Neotenomie, who did music and graphics for this game; their drony soundscapes and abstract art really help to set the mood of this game. Wear headphones!

Beautiful Dreamer, by way of contrast, has a more fairy tale-like setting, though no less dreamy in its own way. It is obsessed with the unreal: lunar moths eat the writing out of books and secrete their own nonsense literature; strange and wondrous monuments from precursor worlds litter the landscape; broadcasts from other dimensions can leech in and be heard on the radio; your bathroom is sometimes replaced by the Other Bathroom, where the showers are great, everything is always clean, and the giant creature that lives beneath the tiles is easy to ignore. There's a comforting mix of the fantastic and the mundane here. For example, thanks to corrupt zoning regulations, your apartment building was built above a submerged shrine that is rapidly emerging; thanks to this you're going to have to move out in fifty years, but hey! At least it makes the rent cheap.

Probably the easiest way to demonstrate the contrast between the two's approaches is to look at an NPC encounter from each. In Neon Haze, you meet a stalker with a mask of static, who tracks you down and assaults you to try to get some intel. The scene is creepy and violent; the stalker chases you across an empty parking garage before beating you up and taking you prisoner, they delete your memories in an effort to get you to talk, and you can end the encounter by crushing their windpipe (though I personally did not choose to do so). Meanwhile, in Beautiful Dreamer, there's a short conversation with the god whose shrine your apartment building is built on, and it's a much more pleasant experience. Topics can range from alternate worlds to other god-like beings to that shelf that keeps banging around, and the guy seems rather friendly, if a bit distant. Dreamer comes off as a light and fluffy eclair to Haze's cotton candy-flavored vodka. This is not to dismiss either game, of course! They're both very good, just for very different reasons.
So some of you might be wondering where that make-up review I promised by Sunday at the latest went. Well, the truth is, I lost track of time this weekend and spent most of today writing Gravity Falls fanfiction. (Technically I also wrote a fairy tale fanfic, but, well.) So! For this Monday, I think what I'll try to do is get two reviews in today. If I can't swing that, I'll try to get in an extra on on Tuesday or Thursday. My goal is to get at least 4 reviews done this week, maybe 5. We'll see if I can swing that.

Hey, I wanna read the Gravity Falls fanfic you did! Somehow I doubt that anyone's thinking this, but just in case, these two fics are the ones I feel can be best enjoyed with minimal knowledge of the show. All you need to know is that Dipper and Mabel are staying at their Great Uncle (or Grunkle) Stan's Mystery Shack for the summer, there's a lot of weird crap in their town, and Dipper has a mysterious journal that is sometimes helpful. Here goes:

Glam Cookies, starring Mabel and StanCollapse )

******


Werwolf Date, starring Dipper and MabelCollapse )

******


And there you have it! Of course, while you don't have to watch the show to enjoy them, I think there's a certain richness and-- dare I say it-- character that's added if you've watched the whole series through. Anyway, I'll see you guys later, hopefully with a review or two.

XYZZY Catch-Up Delay Announcement

Due to difficulties in getting my get-up and go into gear, the XYZZY Catch-Up review for Friday has been delayed to Saturday, or possibly Sunday. In the meantime, why not take a look at this video to help you calm down?

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