My Favorite Titles

When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.

Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.

The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”

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No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.

But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.

I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.

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At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:

 

Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou

Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe

Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi

A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams

No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy

Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb

Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins

Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda

Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler

Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park

Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain

Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin

Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt

The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers

Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman

 

Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!

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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 4 – American Venom (Spoilers)

When I set out to blog about Red Dead Redemption 2 I had no idea I was writing a quartet. This game is so vast and layered that more and more features seem to emerge for me to write about every time I sit down at my desk. Each deceptively-simple sentence begets another. Each planned paragraph leads to an unplanned one. And each blog post seems to carry within it the seeds of the next. But for what it’s worth, this definitely is the last post in the series.

If you’re finding me for the first time, I covered the gameplay in part one, the themes and tone of the franchise as a whole in part two, and the plot in part three. Today I’d like to write about the epilogue, as well as take a closer look at our protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston. Needless to say, there will be spoilers from here on out.

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When I started my Red Dead Redemption 2 playthrough, I wasn’t sure what to make of Arthur Morgan as a character. At first glance he seemed bland and generic. During the game’s effective opening chapter, he didn’t stand out very much. By contrast, the likes of Micah, Sadie, and Dutch were a lot more colorful. I wondered if RDR2 was following the gaming trend of having all the peripheral characters more lively and interesting than the protagonist. Perhaps there is a reason so many playable characters get outshined by their supporting cast. Maybe a quiet, brooding hero appeals to the widest audience? Or maybe it’s all about letting the player project their own personality onto the protagonist, making it therefore desirable to developers to create an inoffensive blank slate for us to infuse with whatever qualities we so chose?

I will say that I wasn’t giving Rockstar enough credit.

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Arthur Morgan’s greatness is in his subtlety. He emerges as a nuanced character as the narrative progresses. He becomes more complex as a person and as a character because the events of the plot cause him to look inward and really think about his actions. His arc is so compelling because Arthur becomes more self-aware. Put simply, he is a totally different person at the end of the plot than he was at the beginning. And so often in video games, the only notable difference in the protagonist at the end of the game is the fact their fingernails now smell like coins.

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When the game begins, Arthur is a senior member of the gang, serving as Dutch’s right hand man. As the latter dominates the cutscenes with his stylish outfit and verbose speeches, Arthur at first glance is playing the role of a henchman. He’s a grizzled, no-nonsense gunman. In a movie, he’d be a character whose primary role in the plot is to be pumped with lead at some point. I noted several moments at the beginning of the game where members of the gang would tease Arthur for being inarticulate or simple. This makes his transformation all the more affecting in my opinion; I love that Rockstar have given us this ostensibly dumb henchman as our leading man only to reveal that he is far more nuanced than the stereotype he seemingly inhabits.

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As the game went on, I actually found it a breath of fresh air that the protagonist wasn’t the chosen one or something. He’s not special, famous, or powerful. He’s just the trusty hired muscle to Dutch’s swaggering, infamous, larger-than-life celebrity. Too often games try to make players feel important by making the player-character a legend in the world of that game, or a leader of some kind. But it tends to feel hollow and token when you have to personally do everything. Perhaps the best example of this is in Fallout 4, where the factions in the game make you their leader after only knowing you 20 minutes, and then proceed to send you on the most mundane of fetch quests. Am I a king or a fucking errand boy? I’d ask myself. In Mafia 3, the game teases you with the exciting promise of being the boss of the city’s criminal underworld. But there’s no real gameplay based around the management of a criminal enterprise. Despite being the boss, you have to personally clear out entire warehouses full of thugs by yourself. In real life, mafia bosses don’t leave the goddamn house. These desperate attempts to make the player feel important often fall flat because they don’t gel with the actual gameplay. For instance, in the Mass Effect series, you can’t send Garrus and a few redshirt space marines down to the surface to take out alien strongholds on your behalf, because that wouldn’t make for a very fun game would it? Despite being the commander, you have to personally see to everything, leaving the majority of these highly-trained warriors you’ve been recruiting from all corners of the galaxy to remain on the ship playing Ticket to Ride in the mess hall.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t suffer from this disconnect however. Your role as a gunslinger compliments the gameplay. It makes sense that you’ll do the heavy lifting and ride into town looking for ways to “earn”.

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As the plot progresses, Arthur starts to think about the morality of how he “earns”. I got the feeling that, far from being blind to the sins of his work, Arthur had merely repressed these doubts for many years. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a good person, and more or less embraces his outlaw persona. But as the actions of the gang become more reckless and violent in the wake of Hosea’s death, Arthur finds that he has to confront these doubts. Dutch goes too far, and Arthur discovers that despite his low opinion of himself, he isn’t like his mentor after all. He’s a better person than that, and during Chapter 6 he works to become a better person. It’s a beautiful catharsis, because Arthur is taking his life into his own hands and working to do the right thing. Now he has a real sense of agency. He’s not just accepting his status as a petty outlaw- he’s striving to be better. He acquires a modicum of dignity and self-respect that flies in the face of Dutch’s authority. Now Arthur’s more than just a hired gun. His tuberculosis diagnosis fills him with a desire to determine exactly who he is and what his legacy will be.

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Before the diagnosis, he acts more or less indifferent to the wrongs of the gang and the suffering of innocents. He’s not evil like Micah, but he has no self-esteem and seems content just to submit to an outlaw’s existence. He doesn’t believe at this point that he can be better, or that there is any other path for him. He’s amoral. When Charles seeks to help the German family, Arthur dismisses the idea. It’s not their problem. Charles challenges him, telling Arthur that he’s better than that. And when the German guy they save gives Arthur a gold bar, he’s humbled and speechless. He’s starting to realize that it feels good to help others.

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Once he gets diagnosed with tuberculosis, he begins to reflect on his actions a lot more. For the first time in his life, he has the bravery to look inside at his doubts and resolve to do the right thing. I’ve written in my previous posts how Rockstar uses its characters as vehicles for the larger themes of the narrative. Arthur represents the biggest theme of the franchise- redemption. His sense of shame and regret compels him to do the right thing and make amends for his past. This was incredibly powerful for me. Arthur stands up to Dutch and goes out of his way to secure a future for John and his family. The advice Arthur gives John in many ways drives the entire plot of RDR1.

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Arthur sees that John has a chance at the life he himself could have had with Mary Linton and implores John to take it. Ultimately he sacrifices himself to see John achieve that dream. And John follows that advice so well throughout the epilogue…until he doesn’t. The biggest tragedy of the game is that, after finally setting himself and his family up for a life of peace, he makes the fateful decision to avenge Arthur, which Arthur wouldn’t have wanted. He rides to Mt. Hagen and kills Micah, which is very satisfying. But this decision then sets off a chain of events which lead to RDR1. Edgar Ross finds Micah’s corpse and tracks Marston back to his family farm, which utterly destroys the life Marston had worked so hard to build. It’s admittedly a tough decision; now that everything has come together, John feels an immense debt to Arthur, and a real duty to avenge the friend that made his new life possible. Ultimately however, Abigail is right: Micah isn’t worth sacrificing their newfound happiness. In avenging Arthur’s death, John is tarnishing the very thing Arthur died for, and disregarding his last wish.

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Much like Arthur, John Marston is a different person by the end of the narrative. At first he’s this lucky rascal with nine lives and a wayward spirit. He has trouble committing to something and he doesn’t know what he wants. By his own admission he is a lousy father. He and Abigail don’t sleep in the same bed, and there’s no relationship to speak of. But as the game goes on, he matures, finds a sense of focus, and realizes how important Abigail and Jack are to him. Arthur plays a big role in helping him realize this. By the end of the game, John, Abigail, and Jack are a working family.

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Overall, the epilogue was my favorite part of the game. The pace was much more steady, the events more realistic, and I liked how character-driven the missions were. The epilogue itself would make a great standalone film or novel in my opinion. A stranger shows up at a ranch, desperate for work, trying his best to hide his mysterious past, but is forced to relive it when the shit hits the fan. The relationship between John and Abigail is also really touching. They’re both people with rough, impoverished upbringings, who have lived on the fringes of society. They don’t feel entitled to a dream. But as the plot goes on, they start to dream a little, and you see them enjoying life for the first time. It’s bittersweet; you’re sad because you know it will all end in tragedy, but you’re also glad they got to experience true happiness before it all goes to shit during RDR1.

One of my favorite fan theories involves a little detail during the house-building scene. Throughout the montage, a blue jay appears multiple times in John’s vicinity. Given the various references to reincarnation throughout the game, many have speculated that the bird might be Arthur. If you got the good ending, Arthur dies peacefully while watching the sunrise. He loved nature and blue is sort of his color throughout the game- the color of loyalty. Whether Rockstar intended this in a literal sense I can’t say- but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s just nice to believe that Arthur’s watching over John as he follows his advice.

My Year in Review: 2018

At the stroke of midnight 2018 will be gone forever, and there will be no time left to improve upon it or add to its legacy. Except not really. In Houston, Texas it will still be 2018 for 6 whole hours- which is enough time to read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, persuade the neighborhood kids to whitewash your fence, make muffins with that special someone (and making muffins only takes 10 seconds, right?), annex the Sudetenland, and still have a few minutes to spare to get unceremoniously killed by a tortoise dropped from the talons of an eagle. But no one’s that productive of course. If it weren’t the last six hours of the year it wouldn’t even occur to you to do all those things. Take any six hour period from an average day and you’ll probably see me slouched in my computer chair, tearfully stuffing Jaffa Cakes into my gob and praying for a swift heart attack. And let us not forget- when the clock strikes twelve it will have already been 2019 for six hours in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. At the same time everyone here will be counting down the last 10 seconds of the year against a backdrop of spilled beer, horrible music, and none-too-furtive muffin-making, the sun will be rising quietly over the Tian Shan mountains. I don’t know what the Kyrgyzstani translation for “New Year, New Me!” is, but I imagine that when they look up at the first clear sky of the year the novelty is already wearing off. Maybe they think about how each year seems to go by quicker than the last, or how today feels an awful lot like yesterday. Or maybe they think nothing at all.

After all, what is a year really? I guess I tend to think of a year as being its events. I think of it in terms of the decisions I made, for better or for worse. But once those events are over- and a fresh calendar is stapled to the wall- do they really mean anything? I’m so often given to reflecting on a year as a whole, and assessing the decisions therein. I don’t think events can ever really be lost, because even though they may have concluded, the consequences inform our present circumstances. For instance, my decision to eat that tube of Pringles two weeks ago had the consequence of me suffering an ulcer the size of Fort Worth. Mouth ulcers pass, but the event still exists in the present. If I continue to engorge myself on junk food, I’m not going to be able to see me ol’ gigglestick when I’m in the shower (it’s already disappearing from view). Maybe- just maybe– time is like a flat circle, and the past, present, and future all exist within the same space. Everything that’s going to happen has already happened, and everything that’s happened will happen again ad infinitum. The beginning and the end meet each other like a serpent of myth that bites its own tail. It will always be 2018 while simultaneously not being 2018. Or maybe I’ve lost it.

So what have I done with 2018? What decisions did I make? And what will last? In preparation for this piece I took a look back at My Year in Review: 2017. It definitely reads like a story, as though it is a single journal entry in a diary of my life. I find that idea very appealing- it would be great to look back in 50 years at 50 Year in Review posts, assuming I’m still writing when I’m 76. I love preserving memories in as much detail as possible, so for what it is worth, here’s my story of 2018.

When I think of 2018 I think of temping, dog-sitting, and solo travel. I worked in the recycling department of a warehouse where we dismantled outdated computer hardware. It was my first job working with tools, so I did a lot of new things. My most vivid memory is unloading a truck full of scrap metal. It was June, aggressively hot outside, and at the back of the truck were a load of metal doors that had been stripped from old server bays, each bay bigger than a fridge. There had to be about 300 in total, too tightly stacked for the forklift to get under. So we asked the truck driver to park as close to the skip as possible, and just like a conveyor line, me and two other guys launched these doors one by one into the skip as if we were throwing javelins. I’ve never had to call upon my upper body muscles like that. By the end I felt as if my arms would fall off. Someone came along and said “It’s the Tale of the Never-Ending Doors!” which is how I always think of it.

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Throughout the year I’ve used the money I’ve made from temp jobs like this to go traveling by myself. My first experience of solo travel was a week-long trip to Hungary, where my confidence in myself grew immeasurably. I discovered I love being in my own company, and that I want to spend all my time seeing new places and cultures. I tried to do as much as possible, going to thermal bathhouses every day, touring museums, going to concerts, taking a dinner-cruise, and even visiting a nightclub!

I also took a weekend trip to Ireland to see my friends George and Elizabeth. We barbecued sausages at their lakeside cottage and followed in the steps of faeries. When I left the warehouse, I decided last-minute to take another solo trip- this time to New Orleans in the USA. I stayed there for a week, drinking Hurricanes, making excursions to the bayou, and sitting front-row at a raunchy striptease burlesque.

When the week was over, I took a train south to Houston. The month I spent living in Texas was among the happiest periods of my life. When I look back on it I think of going down to the park in the morning to eat brisket tacos at the food trucks. I think of J. Cole and the podcast Sh*t Town playing as we drive down the freeway. I think of evenings sitting on the floor playing Super Mario Strikers while necking martinis. I think of all the snuggles with our puppy Adelaide, and the time she tried to hide in my lap when her parents told her off for being sassy. I think of Brandless and Netflix. I think of the time we tried on our wedding suits, or the time we were grilling brats on the deck and it started raining. Watching all the thunderstorms outside the window at night.

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In September Aaron and Anne-Marie got married in Wisconsin. Their wedding was my favorite memory of the year. I got to be a groomsman and I even gave a speech at the rehearsal dinner- though I was somewhat inebriated so I don’t remember much of what I said. Something sappy probably. Aaron was the definition of a debonair gentleman and didn’t seem nervous at all. Anne-Marie was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen, holding herself with such an elegant sense of poise and posture. The two slow-danced to “Clouds” by Letters and Lights, and I was happy.

In 2018 I also managed to write a novel and almost finish a second one. I’m on the last two chapters of the second one at the moment. In December I went back to work at the pub I was at before my time at the warehouse. My year came full circle in that way. It was hectic during the Christmas period, but I made new friendships. I also made garlic bread and stuffing balls, when asked. One time I cut my finger open on a cracked ceramic bowl that fell from a shelf and blood sprayed everywhere. My friend Dan said it looked like a horror movie, with the amount of blood covering the floor. I knew instantly that it was the deepest cut I had ever had.

So that’s the story of my year. On the whole it’s been good, but I’ve yet to exercise control over my emotions. I started the year on 40mg antidepressant tablets, tried going down to 20mg, but by the end decided to go back up to 40mg. I learned that my journey is far from over and that progress isn’t always linear. My overall feeling is that it was good- but only reaching the heights of fucking fantastic in isolated spikes. And really, that ain’t too bad.

My Top 10 Movies of the Year – 2018

It’s Christmas Eve! Which, for TumbleweedWrites, means it’s time for my annual Top 10 Movies of the Year. It’s been an excellent year for cinema, and I’ve spent a great deal of time narrowing down all the films I’ve seen into a definitive Top 10. I’ve been to the cinema more times in 2018 than any other year, so these 10 that I’ve picked really are the crème de la crème. As per usual, this post is best accompanied with a mince pie, tall glass of milk, and some kind of roaring hearthfire.


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As I said, I’ve seen a lot of movies this year. There are a couple of movies that didn’t quite crack the top 10, but are still interesting enough that I want to give them a shout-out. Namely: Outlaw King and Unsane. I was hesitant about watching Outlaw King because I assumed it would be a glossy hack-n-slash flick that was more interested in over-the-top battle scenes than exploring a historical era. I love Gladiator and Troy, but I’m worried that a lot of movies set in Ancient and Medieval time periods are more concerned with spiky balls on the ends of chains than they are character development, sociopolitical insight, and historical accuracy. I’m proud to say I was wrong about Outlaw King. It strikes a healthy balance between artistic license and respect for history. Overall it’s a well-acted and nuanced film that skillfully avoids cliché to focus on telling one of the most interesting stories from Scottish history.

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Unsane, on the other hand, is a movie I had no preconceptions of. I watched it during a plane ride from London to New Orleans and I actually really enjoyed it. It’s a very disturbing picture- in both its themes and its cinematography. There’s something about its tight camera angles and muted color scheme that makes me uncomfortable. Claire Foy does an excellent job in her portrayal of a stalking victim that gets locked up in an asylum for unknown reasons.

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#10 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The western genre is one of my favorites in all of cinema, so naturally I get excited whenever I hear of a new one coming out. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t my ideal type of western, but it’s a refreshing twist on the formula. In general, my favorite westerns are ones with these epic, sweeping narratives- ones where there’s a real sense of struggle. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs– being an anthology of unrelated vignettes- isn’t that. But the format works for the Coen Brothers’ quirky style and offbeat sense of humor. Not all of the stories are equal in my opinion, and which one you take to probably comes down to your personal tastes. I enjoyed “The Gal Who Got Rattled” best of all. Somehow it has the scope and feel of a feature length film. My least favorite was “All Gold Canyon”. As a whole, the film is an interesting and unique take on one of my favorite genres, but the stories within are a mixed bag.

 

#9 Loveless

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Loveless is a film that’s as much about a mood as it is its characters. On the one hand it’s a story of a boy that goes missing during his parents’ vitriolic divorce- and yet its focus doesn’t remain on them exclusively. The movie seems more interested in conveying a wider sense of malaise in contemporary Russian life. The film achieves this with its gorgeous cinematography, lighting, and gray color scheme. There’s just something bleak and existential about it. It’s about modernity, it’s about people that can’t communicate, it’s about the alienation of individuals in Putin’s political climate- it’s about all of this rather than the boy that goes missing. This is intentional I think- the child’s well-being isn’t given the attention it deserves in both the world of the film and in its themes.

 

#8 Hostiles

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Unlike The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Hostiles is very much in the style of the westerns near and dear to my heart. It’s dark, gritty, and bleak, with a heavy emphasis on realism. Christian Bale and Wes Studi are reliably excellent in their respective roles, and I found myself quite invested in their characters. Bale plays a grizzled cavalry officer whose hatred of Indians is born out of the gory history he shares with Studi’s character- a Cheyenne war chief. He reluctantly agrees to return the imprisoned chief to Montana so he can die peacefully in his homeland. Naturally, this creates for some rather effective tension. Their journey across the country forces them to confront their differences and their preconceptions, and there are some truly riveting action scenes in there too. I particularly liked the nuanced ending, which the film builds towards with a careful and well-executed pace.

 

#7 Phantom Thread

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Although not quite as exciting as There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis’ understated and steadily-paced final movie is the perfect send-off for the greatest actor of his generation. The sense of presence he brings to his roles is so powerful that he can take your breath away with just a look. Even when he’s not playing a psychotic oil tycoon, he just has this aura that’s arresting. This movie illustrates the range of his talent so well, in that the character he plays is a complex, narcissistic, compulsive genius whose strict sense of order and obsession with routine is completely turned on its head by a feisty woman that’s determined to love him.

 

#6 I, Tonya

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I really liked this movie! From a stylistic point of view it reminded me of Scorsese somewhat. Its eclectic mixture of humor and tragedy is conveyed in a really interesting way with mockumentary interviews, fourth wall breaks, and this fleeting narrative style. It’s a movie that I think can only really work if it’s a masterpiece. Without a clever director, skilled cinematographer, and stellar performers, I think this idea would fall flat. I, Tonya gets everything right, and is executed so well that the comedy and the tragedy are equally effective without impeding on one another. The fat guy that wants everyone to think he’s a secret agent is side-splittingly funny, and you kinda end up liking him even though what he does is pretty despicable.

 

#5 Bad Times at the El Royale

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I went to see this movie for my birthday with my kid brother and it was a gas. This stylish thriller channels The Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction in a slick, 60s-counterculture atmosphere. The movie is just damn good fun and even though it’s fairly long, it’s engaging and exciting from beginning to end. I’m a big fan of stories with multiple, overlapping story threads, and the setting of a roadside hotel that’s half in California and half in Nevada is really interesting. The line that marks the state boundary is also a clever motif for the film’s themes of morality, and the gray area that runs through that dichotomy.

 

#4 Disobedience

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I went to see Disobedience at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol, which is my local go-to for arthouse movies. This beautiful motion picture tells the story of an illicit affair between two women in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London. It’s a really nuanced and complex character-driven drama with some truly outstanding performances from its three main actors. The claustrophobic cinematography highlights the struggle of Rachel McAdam’s character as a gay woman and a devout Jew. This film is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming and deals with its challenging subject matter with a mature and sophisticated sensitivity. There are no heroes and villains here- the primary characters all come across as exceedingly authentic.

 

#3 1945

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When I heard that the Watershed was showing a Hungarian picture I leapt at the chance. I watched the film with my parents in the cinema’s smallest room with about 20 other people. 1945 is set in- you guessed it- 1945, in the months after Hungary was liberated by the Soviets in WW2. The plot is simple but so effective. There are no main characters at such, but the action begins with the arrival of two Jews in a rural town. The townsfolk become suspicious of their intent, and as they slowly walk from the train station to the center of the village, the entire town unravels.

 

#2 You Were Never Really Here

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I was certain- both before it came out and after I watched it- that this would end up as my Film of the Year. It promised to be a masterpiece and it is. Lynne Ramsey is turning into one of my favorite modern filmmakers. In terms of how it puts its pieces together, this is probably the most interesting entry on this list. Ramsey leaves a lot unsaid, utilizing fleeting images and a surreal, dreamlike use of cinematography to tell a minimalist narrative. There are echoes of Taxi Driver, as Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled military vet who works as a kind of vigilante-hitman, taking the law into his own hands and earning a living clubbing in douchebags with a ball-peen hammer. As I said, this is a title worthy of top spot, and would certainly be taking home that honor if it weren’t for…

 

#1 Roma

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I can’t not give the TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award to Alfonso Cuaron’s colossal, larger-than-life, career-defining magnum opus, Roma. Based on his experiences growing up in the bourgeois neighborhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico City, this film tells the story of a live-in maid to a dysfunctional, middle-class family in the early 1970s. It’s hard to think of a component of storytelling that Cuaron doesn’t absolutely nail in this epic drama. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s quirky, it’s atmospheric, and above all it’s just real. It’s not just the story of the au pair, but of the director’s own childhood, as Cleo’s story intersects with various historical events and random encounters too weird not to have come from Cuaron’s personal memories. If there’s any film that’s come out this year that you need to see before you die- it’s this one. Absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish!

The Top 5 Books I Have Read This Year – 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s time for my annual review posts, the first of which being a power ranking of the Top Five Books I’ve Read This Year. This post is always a special one for me, because reading is more important to me than anything else. This blog began as a reading blog, and I’m committed to never straying too far from these literary roots.

I need to clarify a couple things before we begin! Despite my claim that reading is the pastime I treasure the most, this isn’t reflected in the rate I consume various forms of media. I am a keen reader, but also a slow and anxious one. It’s a skill I’m always working on. I consume video games and movies much easier than I do books. Therefore, the Top 5 Books I’ve Read This Year is just that. It’s not a ranking of five books that came out in 2018, and is therefore unlike my annual Top 10 Films of the Year (which I’ll be releasing tomorrow!). I’d love to be able to keep up with current releases and be able to rank contemporary novels and authors the way I do the latest film releases. But my reading game is just not there yet. It’s still too difficult for me- but maybe one day, these posts will evolve into a “Top 5 Books of [insert year]”.

Looking back on the year’s reading I can see I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming the reader I want to be. I’ve read less books than 2017 and I’ve given up on two books this year, which is always depressing. It’s a combination of my less than stellar time management skills, my reading choices, and my crippling addiction to digital media alternatives (looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2). I want to challenge myself to read different kinds of books but also pick books that suit me so as to maintain momentum. So there’s a little hypocrisy at work. A moment of silence is needed for the two novels I couldn’t finish- Love by Péter Nádas (a drug-addled haze too ontological for my tastes) and The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer (a more or less decent novel that failed to compete with RDR2 for my attention).

 


#5 Niki: The Story of a Dog

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Author: Tibor Déry

Published: 1956

Opening Line: “The Dog- we will not yet give it a name- adopted the Ancsas in the spring of 1948.”

Premise: After her husband disappears without a trace during a political crackdown in Communist-ruled Budapest, a middle-aged woman finds her only solace in her friendship with the stray dog she recently adopted.

Why I Loved This Book: If I had to pick one reason above all others as to why I loved this book, it would be the way in which the dog is written about. Even though this novel does pull at your heart-strings, the writing style is profoundly unsentimental. Niki is somehow treated as both a character and just as a dog. The prose is beautiful and lyrical in its descriptions of her, and yet it never loses its scientific grounding.

 

#4 No Country for Old Men

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Author: Cormac McCarthy

Published: 2005

Opening Line: “I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville.”

Premise: When a hunter discovers a briefcase full of millions of dollars of drug money, he sets in motion a terrifying chain of events that forever alter his life- and the lives of those around him.

Why I Loved This Book: The dialogue in this novel is as good as anything I’ve ever read. It strikes a perfect balance between evoking the dialect of South Texas while not being so realistic that it lacks a sense of rhythm. It’s a cross between the authentic approach of William Faulkner and the crisp, snappy lines of hardboiled noir writers such as James M. Cain.

 

#3 Pages for You

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Author: Sylvia Brownrigg

Published: 2001

Opening Line: “What would happen if I wrote some pages for you?”

Premise: A curious freshman from the West Coast falls in love with her professor, who opens up for her a world of Ivy League culture and sophistication- as well as some truths about herself.

Why I Loved This Book: I loved the scrutiny of small details in this book, and how those small things contributed to the overall narrative of sexual relationships. I’m someone that takes a great interest in concrete details and trivial things, so I enjoyed seeing them examined through the neurotic lens of the protagonist. For example, she treats us to her ruminations on her first experience of holding hands, or being given a loving nickname etc.

 

#2 The Lost Daughter

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Author: Elena Ferrante

Published: 2006

Opening Line: “I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.”

Premise: After her daughters leave home to pursue a new life in Canada, a single mother decides to take a holiday to a coastal town, where she meets a boisterous family that brings back painful memories of her past.

Why I Loved This Book: More than anything else, I adored this novel for its deep interior monologues. I loved how introspective and reflective the main character is, and we are given a fascinating window into her psyche as a somewhat ambivalent mother in these lengthy passages. This is easily the most interesting (and in some ways, unsettling) portrait of motherhood that I have ever come across. Ferrante is one of the great writers of our time, and it was hard not to give this novel top spot on this list.

 

#1 The Center of Everything

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Author: Laura Moriarty

Published: 2003

Opening Line: “Ronald Reagan is on television, giving a speech because he wants to be president.”

Premise: A young girl tries her best to navigate the throes of teen angst, poverty, and her dysfunctional family in 1980s Kansas.

Why I Loved This Book: The Center of Everything is the best thing I’ve read this year and a worthy follow up to last year’s winner (Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick). I love it because it’s books like this that remind me why I fell in love with literature. In a way, it’s my ideal novel because of the way it’s structured. It follows several characters over the course of a decade or so. Each character is exceptionally well-crafted and we see how their lives change and intertwine with one another’s. I love this format, and I love the way it so well conveys the themes that I’m interested in- which is simply real, ordinary life. Every scene, every word of spoken dialogue, seems to ring true. It’s the type of book I dream of one day writing. If I ever succeed at the creative writing game, it’ll be trying to emulate something like this.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 3 – Cruel, Cruel World (Spoilers)

To continue my series of Red Dead Redemption 2 posts, I’d like to examine the plot and characters in greater detail. You can click here for my review of the gameplay and you can click here for my essay regarding the overall tone of the franchise. Today I’m looking with a more intimate focus at specific scenes in the plot and what they mean. My aim is to give an overview of the narrative and what I thought about it as I was playing it. Needless to say, there are spoilers in this post. If you haven’t played the game yet, you should totally do so- and then come back!

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The narrative of Red Dead Redemption 2 begins in medias res, and does so with great effect. In fact, RDR2 contains one of the most gripping and effective openings of any game I have ever played. Often when I look back at a game, the beginning is rarely if ever my favorite part. It’s such an important component of crafting a story, and yet in the medium of gaming there are so few opening missions that I truly cherish. For the most part they take the form of rigid tutorials, and you just want to get through it and get to the exciting stuff. I remember every time I replayed KOTOR 2 as a teenager I just wanted to rush through Peragus and explore the vibrant galaxy beyond. KOTOR 2 had a subtle, slow boil- which, though well-written- didn’t make for the most memorable introduction to a game. The opposite approach is something like the bukkake of lead that is the opening of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which was so fast-paced my engagement became lost. And then you get the boring and bland openings- as is the case with Skyrim– where the events of the game don’t feel as intense as they really should be. Skyrim is another title like KOTOR 2 where a certain amount of rigmarole is required before the player can enjoy the game proper. The reason I don’t dive back into it more often is because the idea of going through Bleak Falls Barrow one more time makes me want to start cutting myself.

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But Red Dead Redemption 2– in my personal opinion- gets it just right. As I said, it uses the literary technique of beginning in the middle of the action to great effect. Straight away we’re thrust into this situation where we’re part of a desperate caravan of wagons trying to make its way through a mountain range during a blizzard without repeating the tragedy of the Donner Party. We know something big just went down because of references to gang members that had just died- so we’re already curious as to what just happened, but we can’t dwell on it too long because the danger isn’t over. We need to find food and shelter and locate any missing gang members. The immediacy of these problems is brought to life very well, and this is what makes the opening so immersive. To me, the true art of a video game is the art of illusion. If you find yourself invested in these characters and conflicts, and forget that what you’re seeing is just a few lines of code, some digitized images, then the game has succeeded. RDR2 uses authentic dialogue, beautiful graphics, and clever animations to make the struggle of these folks feel real. I was immediately hooked- I had forgotten I was even playing a game in fact. My sole focus was on taking care of the gang. And the art of illusion goes beyond the visual rendering of the world and its inhabitants- it extends to gameplay as well. RDR2’s Chapter One is a tutorial- but it doesn’t feel like one. In hindsight, I can see that it served to get the player used to various aspects of gameplay- you get to grips with horse riding, deer hunting, wolf-killing, area investigation, and inventory management. But I didn’t think that at the time. I was consumed with helping the gang out of its current predicament. It’s funny how, looking back, I know now that if I took my time, veered off-course, or simply met with the game over screen, nothing would have happened. The missions are linear and always follow the same path. But I was under the illusion that if I didn’t catch this deer, the gang would starve. That’s what immersion is- if a game puts its pieces together in the right way, it can make you feel that everything in front of you is real, that you have more agency than you actually do.

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Chapter One exists as a kind of disguised tutorial. When I first looked back on the game and thought about my fondest moments, I actually picked out Chapter One as perhaps my favorite of the six chapters included within the main story. It’s certainly the chapter in which I was the most engaged- but I think that is undoubtedly because it’s the only chapter that is strictly linear. The gripping sense of immediacy that makes Chapter One so effective isn’t really there in the other chapters, because you’re free at any moment to abandon the gang and go hunt an albino moose in the woods. I stated in my gameplay review that the main story is RDR2’s greatest strength. It’s in my top 10 games of all time for its moments of high tension, its twists, its shocking revelations, its nuanced character development, and its scenes of intense drama. But that is not to say that the game is simply a few excellent cutscenes. I wholeheartedly believe that this story is best told through an interactive medium, rather than a movie or TV series. In my opinion, the gameplay informs the story. It exists to enhance our sense of immersion in both its world and its narrative, as opposed to being a set of mechanics that stand on their own. Without the superb writing, the gameplay would probably be considered functional at best.

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I liked Chapter One so much because I was so engaged. Throughout the rest of the chapters, the main story is experienced in these isolated missions that can sometimes result in their events feeling diminished by the open world vacuum. A good example of this is the mission in which Arthur gets captured by the O’Driscolls and tortured. At first I was engaged and excited, wondering what would happen next. But the mission is completely self-contained, and has no real bearing on the rest of the plot. You begin the mission, go through some cutscenes, get captured, escape, go through some more cutscenes, and then you’re dumped back into the open world again. At first there are a few dialogue lines that refer to your capture, but the whole episode felt pointless. I want events to have lasting consequences, and I wasn’t sure what this mission meant in the grand scheme of things. I was hoping it would shake up gameplay or significantly alter the course of the plot. Maybe it will set up a future mission? I wondered. Maybe Arthur’s escape will lead the O’Driscolls back to the camp, and we have a limited time in which to prepare for the assault? Maybe Colm O’Driscoll will have some kind of secret to tell Arthur that brings his loyalty into question? Maybe Arthur overhears something important during his capture? Maybe they cut off Arthur’s hand and we have to play the rest of the game using only one-handed weapons like sawed-off shotguns and tomahawks? But no, none of that happens. Arthur makes his way home and sleeps off his injuries.

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So what I’m arguing here is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong though- a lot of those parts are fantastic, and in keeping with the quality of the overall storyline. Other parts feel like filler, or they just pale in comparison to the main narrative. My least favorite chapter is Chapter Five, where the gang is stranded on the island of Guarma. It’s like Chapter One in the sense that it’s linear, but unlike Chapter One it doesn’t feel very important to the plot at large. What’s great about Chapter One is that it’s this taut, tight narrative with no extraneous details. There’s nothing there for its own sake. You’re in the mountains and you’re trying to survive. Guarma, by contrast, feels like a contrived homage to John’s expedition to Mexico in the first game. I think it would have worked better as one mission rather than a whole chapter. That way it might have worked as this crazy, exotic interlude. But as a whole Chapter Five just isn’t that engaging. The main plot is put on hold while this new slave revolution storyline takes its place. The story of the islanders and their struggles is too far removed from the events of the main story for us to suddenly become invested in. If it was somehow more closely connected to the main story, and had featured an open world that we can revisit any time we want, that would have been much better. All they’d have to do would be to put a boat in the harbor of Saint Denis that takes us there for a fee (kind of like the way you can travel from Novigrad to Ard Skellig in The Witcher 3, or Windhelm to Solstheim in The Elder Scrolls V). Then we could have a port town (think Havana, or perhaps San Juan) that acts as a hub area and trading post, with unique laws, commercial goods, and amenities as compared to the municipalities of the mainland. Add to that a jungle for exploration, with rare flora and fauna- again, distinct from the mainland- and then Guarma would be a worthy follow-up to RDR1’s Mexico. It would also justify Guarma having its own entire chapter.

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I will say though, that I liked the scene in the cave where the old crone pulls a shiv on Dutch and he smashes her face in. I know that sounds creepy, but the reason I like it is because it was a little character moment that highlighted Dutch’s growing appetite for violence. It’s an important scene because it seems to confirm Arthur’s fears that his best friend is not who he thought he was. If Arthur were in his shoes, he would have just disarmed the murderous grandma and told her to fuck off. He’s only as violent as he needs to be, and he doesn’t take pleasure in it. When he sees Dutch drown Angelo Bronte and feed him to an alligator, Arthur is a little disturbed by the savagery of it, but probably assumes this is due to the heat of the moment. Bronte was a revenge killing, and as a fellow criminal, more or less fair game. But the little grandma is different. Even though she’s channeling the foul witch Sycorax- who with age and envy was grown into a hoop- she’s not really much of a threat. Grabbing grannies by the hair and repeatedly smashing them nose-first into a wall until their faces resemble those of 90s polygon graphics seems wholly gratuitous. The way the scene is shot is superb- the claustrophobia of the tight cave and the way the characters’ sweaty faces and raggedy clothes are illuminated by the torchlight contributed to this feeling that our protagonists had crossed into a new realm, both literally and figuratively. They’re somewhere they don’t belong (Guarma) and this shift into unknown territory reflects the moral shift of the gang. As a general rule, the humidity of a tropical jungle is a great literary device to highlight a character’s deteriorating sanity. Jungles are wild and dangerous places, and have a way of pulling us back to our primitive roots. Oftentimes, a story’s protagonist has to become bestial and sacrifice their humanity in order to navigate such an environment. That’s kind of what happens to Dutch. Guarma is an unforgiving jungle, but in a metaphorical sense, so too is the mess the gang is in. And by the end of the game, it changes them.

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There are several narratives at work in Red Dead Redemption 2, and one of the most important ones is that of violence. In a sense, this is the original concept of the game. The entire game is born out of a line from John Marston in RDR1 that he left the Dutch Van der Linde Gang when it became too violent. RDR2 is the story of that moral decay. In Chapter One we are given hints that Dutch killed an innocent woman during a botched robbery. Arthur doesn’t witness it, but the news disturbs him. Chapter Two sees the gang seemingly land back on their feet. At this point there’s a sense of hope and optimism. Everyone assumes life will go on as normal, and they get back to the business of making money from various schemes, be it rustling cattle or robbing banks. Classic outlaw stuff. I enjoyed this chapter because it’s the most classically western in tone. I’d say it’s my second favorite, after Chapter One. Chapter Three sees the gang flee to the swamps of Lemonye in order to lie low. The pressure is on, the mood is more tense, but we haven’t reached a boiling point yet. The Deep South seems like a good place for the gang to hide, so long as it earns its money quietly. Things get a little more desperate in Chapter Four- which for me is one of upheaval. It is perhaps the episode with the most significant changes. It begins with young Jack getting kidnapped by the Mafia, before a devastating assault by the O’Driscolls reveals that Kieran Duffy has been decapitated shortly after having his eyes gouged out, and ends with a disastrous bank heist that leaves Hosea and Lenny dead. A lot of fans consider the end of Chapter Four as a turning point in the gang’s history. It’s the most tumultuous period for the gang and establishes the dividing lines that will tear it apart later on. The death of Hosea is particularly significant, in that he represents the gang’s conscience. His presence had hitherto upheld this code that the gang only kills if it has to, and preys upon the rich. This strange sense of outlaw chivalry is actually rooted in real history, as the James-Younger Gang were known for checking the hands of those they robbed on train heists. If the person’s hands were worn and dirty, they left them alone as they were probably manual workers. If you had immaculate, dainty white hands with smooth, soft skin and slim, delicate fingers, you were buggered. Even though Dutch is the leader and face of the gang, Hosea is the co-founder and the decisions are often jointly-made between them. Hosea is the perfect counter to Dutch’s charisma and willpower, in that he is rational and even-tempered. Without Hosea in the way, the recklessly-violent Micah is free to influence Dutch’s decision-making. Chapter Five shows the effect of this a little bit with the aforementioned granny-bashing scene, but in my opinion drags on too long with pointless action sequences and tower-defense modes. Chapter Six is much better (in my humble estimation). Dutch becomes increasingly reckless as Micah gains his ear, and quickly starts hatching schemes that he never would have with Hosea around. The way Micah slowly emerges as the villain of the game is actually really interesting. Up until Chapter Six he’s a pretty minor character, one that seemingly serves as the token psycho of the group. But I like that his violent nature isn’t just to make him colorful or whacky. It’s a part of the moral dialogue of the narrative. His character is something that’s discussed throughout the game, and it affects the course of events. At first I wondered if he was just included in the game the way Trevor was in GTA V, whose immorality exists for entertainment purposes. But this isn’t the case- he’s a career criminal whose immorality is the product of a troubled upbringing. And what I find really fascinating about Micah is that he doesn’t want to be the leader of the gang- he wants to exploit Dutch’s creativity and charisma to make a big score. It shows how powerful Dutch’s name is- that even years later, when Micah has his own gang, he still wants a lone Dutch to come back and orchestrate things. His attitude toward Dutch is tantamount to a possessive child that wants to be best friends with the popular kid and remain the trusted number two.

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In my previous post I talked about the characters existing as vessels for the themes Rockstar wants to explore. Dutch, as I said, seems to represent the theme of the changing times, as he hopelessly tries to fight a battle that he can’t possibly win. Micah, on the other hand, represents this theme of violence I’ve been referring to. He’s a testament to the brutality of the Old West, in that the source of his violence comes from the life of crime and struggle he was born into. He brings out the worst in Dutch, and his violent nature spreads like a poison, which dismantles the gang from within. All sense of family and loyalty is lost as several members flee for their lives.

Again, the themes are intertwined with the gameplay. Not only do the missions become more violent from Chapter Four onward, but they also become more senselessly violent. Perhaps chief among them is the armed conflict between the Wapiti Indians and the US military. It’s exciting stuff, but it’s also infused with this sense of tragedy. The whole situation feels regrettable and unnecessary, which adds some emotional weight to all the death.

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But of course, the story doesn’t end with the breakdown of the gang and the death of the protagonist. There’s an 8-10 hour epilogue that bridges the gap between RDR2 and RDR1. This epilogue is so well-executed that it deserves its own post. It’s hard to separate the various parts of the story because they’re all so good in their own way. As I said, Chapter One was perhaps my favorite when taking into account each chapter as a working whole- but undoubtedly a lot of my favorite moments take place in Chapters 4 and 6. What about you? I’d love to get a discussion going in the comments! Let me know what your favorite moments were in the game and why you liked them. Thanks for reading!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 2- The Last Days of the Old West (Spoilers)

In my spoiler-free gameplay review of Red Dead Redemption 2 I made the claim that it contained the best story I had ever experienced in a game, surpassing even the likes of The Witcher 3 and Bioshock Infinite. Naturally, dishing out superlatives like that is going to raise a few disbelieving eyebrows. You might think I’m still basking in the afterglow or being hyperbolic. I know I also run the risk of tainting the first playthroughs of people who haven’t played it yet by promising them the unequivocal greatest narrative in gaming history. I want to stress that I thought very carefully about making that claim. I wasn’t just caught up in the moment. I had to sit for a while and think about what made The Witcher 3 so good and recall the emotions it elicited from me at the time of playing. I thought about where that game left me upon completion- considering not just the journeys of its characters but the journey it took me on as a player. I then stacked this against RDR2. And that was when I knew- the way I felt about the characters and my investment in their struggles was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. The main story- with its colorful, flawed characters and nuanced themes of redemption and morality- is in my personal opinion, the finest I have ever experienced as a gamer. In today’s post, I’d like to write about why I think that. Needless to say, what follows contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.

I’ve never been a big fan of prequels. Whenever I hear that something is getting a prequel I usually groan. As a fan of a given franchise, I want to know what happens next. I want to know that events have consequences. The other problem I have with prequels is that they can suffer from a lack of tension when you already know the outcome. However, RDR2 meets both these concerns head-on. The first game ended perfectly- satisfying in that Jack Marston avenges his father, but also leaving us with the dark implication that he might repeat his father’s mistakes. All the other characters are dead, and it would have ruined the effect of that dark implication about Jack’s future to spell it out for us. Also, when the epilogue concludes, the year is 1914- which is already pushing it for a western. Even if the Marston storyline hadn’t been wrapped up perfectly, a direct sequel would have been contemporaneous with World War 1. As far as my other concern regarding prequels, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of tension because we are given control of a new protagonist- Arthur Morgan- as well as being introduced to a slew of new characters to care about.

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Before I played RDR2, I figured it would probably only be loosely connected to the first game, and that the reappearance of established characters was just to show that we’re in the same universe. But this isn’t the case at all. RDR2 feels like it had always existed, as though Rockstar had left out the first half of a singular, cohesive story when they released the first game in 2010. It doesn’t tell a different story with the same characters. It’s the same story, which makes it a little confusing when you consider that Red Dead Redemption 2 comes before Red Dead Redemption 1 in the chronology. The character arcs of Dutch and especially John have their beginnings in RDR2 and now the first game seems incomplete when considered on its own. When given the context of its prequel, the original game seems so much more powerful as a story. That’s one of the things I love about RDR2– it actually enhances the depth and quality of its predecessor. I appreciate the original game so much more now that I see it as belonging to this epic story that spans many years. It also makes the original Red Dead seem a lot more bleak. What few characters survived the events of RDR2 are hardened, cynical, and ruthless. They reflect the changing times and the smallness of the individual in the face of rapid industrial expansion. I’d even go so far as to describe the bleakness of the franchise as Kafkaesque- in that these strong and resourceful outlaws are powerless in the face of the immensity of modern bureaucracy. This is exemplified by the gameplay too; it doesn’t matter how many Pinkertons you kill- the government will just send more. It all adds to this sense that individuals are dictated and controlled by larger forces far beyond their understanding, and to resist those forces is futile. This is especially evident in RDR2– and is why it is so effective as a prequel- because you know that all you can do is buy yourself more time. All roads lead to death. The changing times engulf all of the characters in the end. Whether you get a game-over or complete a given mission successfully, it doesn’t matter in the long run- you know what happens. John Marston gets gunned down in his own home by a posse of government agents. It’s such an effective climax to the series, because it’s the shocking culmination of everything that has been hinted at thus far- the forces of modernity extinguishing the Old West for good. It’s a brilliant conclusion to the John Marston storyline, and it’s one that’s made all the more effective by RDR2.

For instance, when RDR2 starts, the gang are in a tough spot but they’re hopeful. The characters expect to pull through the way they always have. And then, as the game progresses, there are more and more hints that the gang’s way of life is coming to an end. You can see the hope slowly fading- and it’s a very well-written, gradual collapse. The gang can only shoot their way out of a situation so many times. The sophisticated apparatus of modern law enforcement is too much. And in the face of this unstoppable and relentless pursuit, the gang ultimately crumbles from within as their worst instincts are revealed. Arthur Morgan wonders if recent events have corrupted his best friend, or if they have only illuminated what was always there. Dutch was a great leader and companion when things were going well, but as soon as the gang got desperate, he had to call upon the darkness that lived dormant within his soul in his attempt to save the gang. And once he indulged that orgy of violence, the lines blurred and it became more about saving himself than his friends. The little details illustrate Dutch’s unraveling best- at the beginning of the game he stresses that there is a clear distinction between his gang and the O’Driscolls. The latter, he says, stand for nothing; they hire only remorseless cutthroats and are excessively violent. And of course, when we reach Chapters 5 and 6 of RDR2, we see the abandonment of any pretense of honor. In his desperation to save the gang, Dutch’s morality is lost along the way. Each act of reckless savagery begets the next, as Dutch becomes less and less able to convince us that the ends justify the means.

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Once you get to the events of the original Red Dead, the sense of hope is truly gone. RDR1 is- in every facet of its design- from the haunting music to the desolate landscape- a nihilistic and elegiac deconstruction of the western genre. All that’s left is a cynical and weary man- John Marston- trying simply to keep his family. He doesn’t believe in anything, he’s more or less ambivalent towards the few outlaws that remain- he just wants to reunite with his wife and son, and he doesn’t care how he reaches that end. John’s only agency is the six-shooter at his hip. Being a crack shot and ruthless killer doesn’t make him seem that powerful or impressive in the last, dying days of the West- and that to me is key to the franchise’s overarching themes. A gun only buys you another day- if you’re lucky. In this western, the gunslinger doesn’t have the most power or agency; his skills with a revolver don’t count for much. John is the best gunslinger in the series, and if you take all of the events into account, you’d think he ought to be the Legend of the West. But he doesn’t seem legendary or indeed that great. When he dies, he’ll be forgotten.

The point I’m making is, the theme of the franchise is that the true power lies in bureaucratic institutions. John doesn’t want to be running around the country hunting down his former gang members- he does it because he’s got no choice. He keeps pressing forward because playing the government’s game is the only option left to him. Again, the gameplay informs the narrative, as trying to veer off-path during a story mission will result in an instant game-over. The open world isn’t available to you during a mission- and this linear constraint placed on the player is reflective of the constraint placed on John, who has no path to take except the one laid out for him. And when we meet Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella, they are nothing like the companions we knew in RDR2. In the prequel they are colorful and not without a little human warmth. Williamson is carefree and simple, he loves to drink, and his tough exterior is peeled back in endearing character-moments, such as when he asks Arthur to get him some pomade for his hair. He’s also extremely loyal to Dutch, and in one scene he reveals how Dutch helped him through a particularly low and difficult point in his life. Escuella is even more likable- he’s passionate and artistic, he’s not recklessly violent, and he often entertains the group with songs and guitar-playing. But by the time of RDR1, they’ve lost all semblance of human warmth. Williamson is terrorizing New Austin with his own gang, and seems less of a big oaf and more of a cold-blooded, remorseless killer. And without Dutch he’s lost that sense of purpose and principle, often throwing his own men at Marston instead of fighting alongside them. He cowardly avoids him throughout the game. Escuella is also without any redeeming qualities, coming across as a self-interested trickster. He tries to charm Marston by appealing to their old sense of brotherhood, but when Marston refuses, we see just how hateful Escuella really is.

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Then, of course, we have Dutch Van der Linde- easily one of the most compelling characters in gaming history. I’m not sure I’d even describe him as a villain. The true villain of the franchise as a whole is Edgar Ross, in my opinion. As for RDR2 on its own, the villain is of course Micah Bell. Dutch simply plays the role of an antagonist at various points in the story. I don’t think he can really be called a villain (even though he does some awful things throughout the series) at least in a narrative sense. The biggest reason for this is that- in my personal opinion, that is- Dutch seems to genuinely believe everything he says, even when those around him can see his hypocrisy. At the end of Chapter 6, Dutch seems distraught at the sight of Micah and Arthur locked in this Cain-and-Abel style wrestling match, covered in mud, clawing at each other, gauging and throttling and head-bashing with pure, unadulterated, animalistic hatred. He won’t kill Arthur, even though he feels betrayed by him. He just seems saddened by what the gang has come to. And during the final showdown atop Mt. Hagen at the end of the Epilogue, Dutch saves Sadie and John by killing Micah. Despite everything, in his own warped mind, Dutch still thinks of John as his son.

The Dutch we see in RDR1– while still charismatic and verbose- is a shell of the cigar-smoking, bowler-hat wearing outlaw-gentleman we see in New Hanover waltzing with Molly in the moonlight, singing arm-in-arm beside the campfire, or espousing his idealistic, anti-capitalist philosophy of life. Hard times have reduced him to this petty murderer- something that Arthur speculated was in him all along. Struggle reveals our true nature. And when we encounter Dutch in RDR1, we see that he’s indulged violence for so long that he’s numb to it. He doesn’t even try to justify it. He has no regard for human life whatsoever. The most powerful scene for me is when Dutch finally meets his end in Tall Trees. It’s not some badass showdown you might expect from a western. You realize in that moment that Dutch isn’t the true villain. He’s just this desperate man fighting a war he cannot win. The design choices are particularly interesting- the Dutch of 1899 always appeared very slick and well-dressed, a man of fine tastes. But in 1911, he’s gray, worn-out, and raggedy-looking. He has no quarrel with John, and spares his former surrogate-son the tough decision of how to handle the situation. Dutch blows his own brains out and tumbles off the precipice into the forest below. It’s such a nuanced conclusion that is so fitting for the bleak tone of the series- that this legendary, elusive outlaw dies unceremoniously and pitifully in a deserted wilderness with no one around. Like with John, the game portrays the outlaws not as heroes, but simply as men- with all the fragility and weakness so often denied them in mainstream cinematic portrayals. Dutch, despite his long career as an unstoppable shootist, is afforded no respect. His corpse is shot several times by Edgar Ross for a laugh. He looks like a bum and he dies like a bum.

To me, Dutch Van der Linde is the embodiment of the dying west. That’s what I love about Rockstar’s approach to creating characters. Instead of going with the easy option of making Dutch a clichéd outlaw villain, they make him a microcosm of the changing times of the turn of the century. The conflict that beats within his heart is the wider conflict that sees the eroding of a way of life in the Old West. It’s masterful- and Dutch isn’t the only character that is a microcosm of the game’s themes and ideas. But we’ll explore more of that in part 3.

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In this post I just wanted to discuss the bleakness of the franchise and how it ties the two games together. As I said earlier, a lot of the themes in the two games are illustrated with little details- in particular the design choices. It’s fitting that the setting for RDR1 is a scorched desert. John’s smallness- and the diminishing existence of outlaws- is reflected by the howling desert all around him. With the exception of the New Elizabeth area, the landscape of the original game is dusty and barren, with a lot of flat, open terrain that accentuates the smallness of the protagonist. The harsh landscape of desert basins, rocky mesas, and jagged canyons in which the last embers of the Old West slowly fade away are reminiscent of the unforgiving country in southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. The prequel, by contrast, is exceptionally green- and this isn’t a coincidence. The colorful, vibrant lands teeming with life evoke the fact that the Old West is still breathing- for now. The epic valleys and mountain ranges of Ambarino are reminiscent of Montana/Idaho, the northern half of West Elizabeth around Strawberry is a gorgeous reimagining of Wyoming, the prairie and bluffs of New Hanover are obviously Nebraska, the swamps of Lemonye owe their sticky atmosphere to Louisiana, and I’m pretty sure the forested hills dotted with coal mines that compose Roanoke Ridge are meant to be an homage to Kentucky and West Virginia. The transition from these green and fertile lands to the dry desert of New Austin is the ideal transition for the story of the Red Dead franchise.

I hope you’ve been able to keep up- it can be quite confusing to constantly refer to the events of the second game as preceding the first. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the bleakness of the Red Dead series and why it’s so effective. In my next piece, I’m going to focus more closely on the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 and its protagonist Arthur Morgan. Hopefully you are beginning to see why I like the franchise so much.

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