Tag Archives: Writing

What I’ve Been Reading – February 2019

Three books I’ve read in the last few weeks. Let’s do this.


 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

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Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Country: Colombia

Where I Got It: Quarter Price Books- Houston, Texas

Premise: A ninety year old man decides to celebrate his birthday by giving himself “a night of wild love with a 14 year old virgin”. However, she awakens a tender side in him that he didn’t think he had. For the first time in his long life, he discovers love.

My Favorite Quote: “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.”

Review: Technically, this book can be counted as one of my celebrated banned book readings. In Iran the book was censored for seemingly promoting prostitution, before being released under the title “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” which I think is hilarious, especially as the title had already been sanitized ever so slightly for the English version. The original Spanish title “Memoria de mis putas tristes” more accurately translates to “Memories of My Sad Whores”, which is a lot less sentimental. The publishers for the English editions decided to change “sad” to “melancholy” because they thought it was more poetic and less derogatory. “Sad Whores” sounds like an insult, whereas “Melancholy Whores” evokes sympathy. It should also be noted that in Spanish, “puta” can also translate to “bitch”, so it’s a lot more cutting and mean-spirited than the English word “whore”.

Anyway, when it was released as “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” in Iran, the book sold out within 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Culture shat out and pulled it from bookstores after receiving complaints from Islamic conservatives. The institution of religion is a recurring villain in the history of free speech, and therefore too the history of banned books. It’s one thing when American Christians complain about And Tango Makes Three for having two male penguins fall in love, because we can swat their homophobia back down with a rolled-up newspaper. But in Iran, religion has a stranglehold on the population, and you can’t risk standing up for free speech and rational thought in case you get executed. It makes me sad, because I think about all the people over there that have these wonderful books denied to them.

But what of the book itself? Overall I liked it. It’s my second Marquez novel, and I do get the sense when reading his work that I’m experiencing a rare kind of genius. In fact, I was more in love with the writing than the story itself. The main character is miserable and unlikable, but you do end up feeling sympathetic towards him because he undergoes a fascinating catharsis. This is best seen in the quote I included above, where he begins to look inward and be honest about his decisions and his behavior. He’s this bitter loner that prefers the company of literature and music to fellow human beings. He’s never slept with a woman he hasn’t paid for. He’s referred to throughout the novel for his horrifically ugly looks, a curse that he embraces to the point that his ugliness is reflected in his behavior too. I even wondered if he might have psychopathic traits, since he’s aware that he’s mean and pretentious and yet seems to do his utmost to own these qualities.

He falls in love with a 14 year old prostitute, but it’s not really a sexual or conventional love. He treats her like a work of art and idealizes her to the point that he goes out of his way to avoid knowing the real her. He doesn’t want to know her real name and he doesn’t like hearing her speak, because he fears that such knowledge would shatter this perfect, angelic image he has of her. So yes, in its own way this novel is a beautiful and touching love story- but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

If you’re looking for a better review, check out Brittany Reads’ video here.

 

 

The Beautiful Summer

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Author: Cesare Pavese

Country: Italy

Where I Got It: Waterstones- Bristol, England

Premise: A curious yet prudish girl falls in with a group of painters and models whose Bohemian lifestyle challenges her innocent worldview.

My Favorite Quote: “Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Review: I bought this novel from a section of books being marketed as “Summer Reads”. This fact, in conjunction with the blurb and the beautiful cover, gave me the impression I was in for a passionate romance set against an atmospheric Mediterranean backdrop. However, this novel isn’t quite what it appears. There is a love story at work, but it’s no whirlwind romance. The plot itself is tissue-thin. For the most part, it’s about the protagonist Ginia and her feelings. This isn’t a book with an emphasis on its events- there are no real twists, there’s no suspense, no dramatic scenes. It can’t even be called a slow boil, because that assumes the events are building towards something important. Instead, everything feels hazy and vague; the book is mainly concerned with evoking a certain mindset- summer days drifting into each other- leaving you with an impression of a particular period of time in the characters’ lives. It’s an extremely sensual book, and it reminds me a lot of Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac. It’s all about the vivid sensations of that summer and what it means to our protagonist. A lot of very similar events repeat themselves- the characters go on endless walks, they go to the café, they go to the painter’s studio. And when I said that the book was sensual, I’m referring to the patchwork of emotions Ginia feels that are wrapped up in these places, objects, characters, and trivial events. It’s not a very atmospheric or descriptive book. Most of the scenes take place inside shabby apartments.

The minimalist narrative is mostly concerned with Ginia’s feelings toward two characters: Amelia- a carefree model with an overactive libido, and Guido- a young and enigmatic painter. Amelia represents the Bohemian lifestyle that Ginia is curious about. I actually thought that Ginia’s relationship with her was the most interesting part of the book. Amelia is a few years older, is more street-smart, more confident. She’s unlike anyone Ginia has ever met. And Ginia herself has mixed feelings towards her friend. She both admonishes her reckless behavior and seems desperate to win her approval. I like that her feelings are confused and complicated and contradictory. There’s a subtle implication that Ginia might be bisexual, but not know it yet. Amelia on the other hand, is openly bisexual, and in her own free-spirited, polyamorous way, in love with Ginia. As for Guido, he represents Ginia’s experience of first love. I also think that this relationship is very interesting too; they enter a vague and noncommittal affair that, by its inevitable conclusion, has challenged and reshaped the protagonist’s concept of love.

So there’s some interesting stuff going on in this novel, even if it’s not a page-turner. However the excellent character development is hampered by the abysmal quality of the book’s translation. There are some sentences here that just flat-out don’t make sense. The very first paragraph begins in the first person and never returns to it; the paragraph ends in the third person and continues that way for the rest of the book. There are also several British colloquial terms that just don’t seem right given the 1930s Italian setting. This book has been described as “unreadable” by some readers. I do think there is something worthwhile in these pages though. In many ways it’s a fascinating look at first love, jealousy, sexuality, and art, and I’d love to see it get a modern translation. I also think the characters are intriguing enough that their struggles could easily be loosely adapted to some kind of stage or film production. Or perhaps an HBO miniseries? Something that captures the essence of what Pavese intended but fleshed out and expanded upon.

 

 

Seeing Red

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Author: Lina Meruane

Country: Chile

Where I Got ItWorld of Books

Premise: A Chilean novelist in New York has to adjust to a new life after her eyes hemorrhage, leaving her all but completely blind.

My Favorite Quote: “My memory’s visual laws dictated the landscape to me. Screeching seagulls rose up over the esplanade, leaving a sedentary pelican run aground; they flew up along the sunset and then dove down, they drowned in eddies while the tide rose with the moon to cover the black beach. The moon was lost behind the trees; you could tell it was there, barely, from its shine.”

Review: I’ve been trying my darndest to read as many foreign writers as possible. It’s no problem finding the works of giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I’ve found it difficult to find English translations of contemporary authors from non-English-speaking countries. I am especially interested in modern- that is to say, 21st century- writers from foreign countries. I want to know who is writing right now. I want authors whose careers are ongoing, whose portrait photos on the back cover aren’t in black and white. I’m also especially keen to read women writers that write about women’s issues through a youthful, contemporary lens. Kinda like Elena Ferrante I guess. Anyway, if you have any suggestions for female, non-English novelists younger than 40-ish, please let me know in the comments!

One resource that’s been great for discovering foreign authors is the website Culture Trip. They do these awesome power rankings. I found one that was like “Top 10 Chilean Novels You Should Read” or something like that. This book popped up by Lina Meruane. Seeing Red; the title evoked promises of violence and darkness. Rage, even. That was the vibe I got. Pure rage. A woman loses her eyesight and takes it out on the world. And that’s sort of how the book goes, although it’s a subtle kind of rage. Once her eyesight is doomed, a new woman emerges- one that shocks those that know her. She’s cynical, sardonic, jealous, sexual, angry, and above all- raw.

It’s a short book that’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own experience of blindness. In that sense, it can be seen as plotless. It follows the events after the hemorrhage and covers largely the narrator’s senses, how these remaining senses are used to relearn how she navigates the world, and how all of this informs her dark thoughts. It’s not a book full of twists and turns. It’s short at 157 pages, but it took me longer to read than I expected because there are no paragraphs, not even for dialogue. The entire novel is like one long block of text, without indentations, without any blank spaces with which to breathe. It made me think of it as being akin to a monologue. I wouldn’t say I was absolutely engrossed in what I was reading, but the writing itself left me breathless. It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s a visceral and poetic weave of long sentences and sharp, abruptly-short declarative statements that manage to capture a sense of inner monologue with the sense of verisimilar everyday speech. It’s a rapturous blend where everything feels like it’s in the right place, where every sentence is in order, where each word has been given careful consideration for its lyrical and phonetic qualities. I have to say it’s an excellent translation by Megan McDowell, who’s made a career out of using her own talent to spotlight the talent of others.

If you like introspection, monologues, and the beauty of language, this is the book for you! If you’re squeamish about eyes, maybe give it a miss…

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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!

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.

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.

Fall 2018 Creativity Roundup – 3 TV Dramas You Need To Watch!

These are some of my favorite posts to do, and at this point in my blog’s history they’re at least semi-regular. I’m always consuming media, and doing a roundup of the latest things I find inspiring has proven to be a great way for me to engage with my readers. It’s my contention that over the past decade or so, TV drama has entered a golden age. I think the overall production value, quality of acting talent, and the complexity of the writing are as good now as they have ever been. The last point is the most important one, in my opinion, as our dramas now are afforded the creative freedom to explore darker, more nuanced themes.

Here are three of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently:


3. The Affair

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It’s hard to pick one TV series that I can definitively call my favorite of all time. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are both good candidates, but when asked the question, the answer I most often give is The Affair.

In short, the show details a passionate, illicit affair between a struggling New York novelist and a small town waitress with a traumatic past. The setting is Montauk- a cozy resort town situated on the far tip of Long Island. For me, the show is as close to a superlative rating as anything else out there, especially the peerless first three seasons.

It brushes up on my personal criterion for perfection because it’s intriguing in layers; dysfunctional families, dark secrets, sexual awakenings, and even a murder mystery to name a few. But perhaps the thing that makes this story so unique is the way it’s told. The narrative shifts between alternating points of view that not only overlap with, but sometimes contradict, one another. This style captures the way two people remember the same events differently, so that we’re given an incomplete truth. The actual truth, as is often the case in life, remains out of reach.

 

2. The Man in the High Castle

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For me, this is a show that’s criminally underrated. I’m putting it above The Affair on this list because I was left disappointed by the latter’s most recent season. The Man in the High Castle, conversely, is a show that’s very much in the ascendency. I just finished watching season 3 and I can’t stop thinking about it. This show gets better and better with every episode, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name (from which it deviates significantly, I understand), The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War Two. It’s the 1960s and the North American continent is divided between the German Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west. This new world is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, and the subtle societal changes that each half of America undergoes are explored in multiple story threads. There are the rebels in conflict with their respective oppressive regimes, there are the two oppressive regimes in conflict with each other, and there are also conflicts within each regime. What I’m trying to say is, we experience this new world through various points of view, with heroes and villains in each faction. Just because the system is evil, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in it becomes evil too. It’s fascinating because it’s a reality in which systemic evil becomes the norm, and being twenty years after WW2, many have simply accepted it. This is something that’s addressed in the show itself, with many resistance characters stressing how weird and shocking this reality is. One of the things that make this show so compelling is the fact that it takes a morally-complex approach to the conflict while still being a nightmarish dystopia. The resistance fighters aren’t flawless or morally-pure, and the fascists aren’t “monsterized”. Instead, there are just people and their choices. There are idealists trying to fight for a better world, and there are those that accept the new world order so as to remain safe, which is what happens in real life.

This is a show unlike any other on TV at the moment. It’s also very much a science fiction drama, with the German-Japanese Cold War serving as a backdrop to a mystery that every faction is trying to solve- the repeated appearances of film reels depicting a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war.

 

1. Sharp Objects

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Now I enjoyed Gone Girl as much as the next guy- but this is on another level. Sharp Objects is based on Gillian Flynn’s somewhat lesser-known debut novel of the same name. It takes the top spot in my list of TV dramas I’ve found creatively inspiring in the latter half of 2018 because it’s simply the most interestingly and effectually put together.

This dark miniseries features an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in rural Missouri to try and solve the disappearance of two missing girls. I won’t say any more than that because you should just watch it. It’s fucking brutal but also understated- which might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you’ve seen it you understand. And this brings me back to what I said above about it being the series that for me puts its pieces together in the most compelling way.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction reminds me a lot of Lynne Ramsey’s subtle approach to storytelling (particularly in her recent movie You Were Never Really Here). It’s a show that punishes the lazy viewer. You can’t give it anything less than your full attention, because one look down at the peach and eggplant emojis your Tinder match is sending you will leave you wondering what the hell is going on when you try and reengage with the narrative later. Vallée gives you the pieces in fleeting images and unspoken inferences. Nothing is spelled out or summarized for you- it’s a lot like reading the fiction of Raymond Carver. The characters aren’t mouthpieces for exposition; the story is told in a very visual way that requires an enthusiastic, active viewer. The cinematography is beautiful, and so important to how this story is told. I want to read the novel, but I also want to give myself a few years to try and forget the plot details as best I can, because there are some shocking revelations to enjoy here.