Recently played: Lacuna

If you go and look at Lacuna’s page on Steam, it will tell you right up front what it is. “A sci-fi noir adventure.”

And what we get is exactly what it says on the tin. Our hero lives on the planet Ghara, the big dog in its solar system, working for this universe’s equivalent of the FBI. One evening, you’re preparing to do protection detail for a diplomat…except that he gets shot before you have the chance to so much as say hello, and then we are off to the proverbial races.

What follows is indeed an extremely noir-ish story, both in presentation and content. We have the protagonist with the estranged family and the brooding voice-overs (the only fully-voiced lines in the game). We have the murder plot that leads, in a roundabout way, to something complicated and infrastructural. We have a little blackmail, even, for that extra frisson.

We navigate all this in a very point-and-click sort of way, roaming from grandiose hotels for VIPs to the rough-but-colorful neighborhoods of the lower layers, always taking the train. (And yes, I do mean literally “lower layers” – the stratification of society in this universe means that your only shot at regular doses of direct sunlight is to be wealthy.) At each locale, we meet a character or two, chat with them, and gather clues from the environment. So far, so normal.

And then we get to the tricky bit for any detective-themed video game: How do you gamify detection? How do you make a process that is so very essentially internal to the player’s brain manifest on the screen? How do you try to guide them through working out the right answers to key questions, rather than brute-forcing it with guesses?

Lacuna’s answer to this is…homework.

No, really; when there’s a problem that needs to be worked out you receive a “sheet” to complete with a series of multiple-choice questions, and when the game determines you’ve advanced far enough that you ought to have the clues, you’re invited to submit it. These are typically not incredibly complicated – two or three questions – but in order to identify the right answers, you must first have asked the right questions of the NPCs you interact with, found all the clues in the environments, and then trawled back through your chat logs, etc., to work out what you ought to submit.

I have mixed feelings about this as the major detecting process. On one hand, assembling the pieces into a confident answer can be quite satisfying. On the other, one thing that Lacuna seems to really enjoy doing is obfuscating information. In one early case, you are told very explicitly by the NPCs at one location exactly what the answers to some crucial questions are – except that those NPCs are wrong, and the only way you can possibly know that is to correctly deduce a different set of answers, open up a different location, and then complete a mostly-unrelated side task that will eventually lead to a single casual mention of the right answer you need.

Here’s the wrinkle that makes this especially important: Lacuna does not allow you to manually save. Ever. All choices you make are permanent, so it’s very easy (presumably by design) to lock yourself into a kind of cascading failure state. We did not do this, for the record; both of us have fairly well-honed detective-game instincts, but it seems remarkably simple to end up on a path to doom from pretty early on without knowing it. (A post-playthrough review of the game’s discussion boards on Steam suggests a number of people had this kind of experience.)

There’s also a feature that will add an additional layer of pressure to this by putting a timer on all of your answers to questions. We somehow managed to disable this without ever knowing it was there – or perhaps it defaults to “off” and is only enabled if you want an extra challenge? Some of the choices were plenty difficult even with time to think them through, so I can only imagine how much easier it would be to miss a key piece of information, or accidentally piss off an important NPC with that timer bar ticking down.

I appreciate the commitment to the “choices matter” approach to storytelling here, but I’m not sure I am completely behind these design decisions myself; at the very least, an option to go back and replay some scenes to make different choices without having to start the entire game over again from the beginning would have been welcome.

Oddly, despite the massive difference your choices can make in terms of story outcomes, your actual progress feels somewhat “on rails”; there are a number of occasions where we were barred from trying out something or following up with an NPC rather arbitrarily (usually by someone attempting to move or carry something very large and heavy. The effect is a bit more Marx Brothers than perhaps the designers intended.)

All of this sounds a bit like I didn’t care for the game, doesn’t it? Not quite; whatever I might think of some of the design choices, the story itself is enjoyable and nicely told, and the art – of the “pixels + dynamic lighting” variety that seems popular lately – is evocative and has a lot of fun little background detail that I wish we could have interacted with a bit more for additional flavor.

If any of this has piqued your interest, perhaps it might also be helpful to know that the game is quite short, even for thorough players like ourselves – perhaps 5-6 hours if you’re taking it slowly, and easily complete-able in a session or two. (The ending we got was pretty satisfying, but if you ended up with one you didn’t care for I expect a second playthrough would go even faster.)

If you find yourself with a few hours and the inclination, give it a shot; perhaps you’ll have different feelings about the detective system than I do, and then we can discuss it.

I start a short vacation today. Just a week, and I have no particularly exotic plans – some days’ worth of taking care of miscellaneous household activities but otherwise not doing very much, followed by a short trip to a cottage with some friends.

No grand aspirations there, either; I shall take my just-started embroidery project (my first ever), the needful devices to try and keep up with my writing initiative, some books downloaded from the library, perhaps along with a proper print book or two. I will attempt not to make too great a botch job of the former, and socialize a bit, and probably let myself get roped into playing a board game or two.

In the meantime, some cooking plans, and some quiet, and that is about all.

The sensation of simultaneously not particularly feeling like doing anything (distressingly common the last few months) and of being completely overwhelmed with choice paralysis when the moment comes to try doing something anyway (which of the, oh, twenty-five or so different games out now, all tempting-looking, do we want to play? I have a backlog of books approximately a mile high; what shall I read first?) is an extremely first world problem, I know, but it’s very acute right now. And very annoying; now, finally, for a little while, I will have time to do things!

…and so what shall I do?

While catching up on my podcast backlog (because of course I am behind on that too) I listened to an episode of Cautionary Tales which ponders the possibility that it is not only raw talent that leads to brilliance, but also…well, having time to muck about doing whatever, basically. The idea that these unstructured periods of doing nothing may in fact be essential to the creative process; that busy-ness and focus may be quietly undermining us.

I wonder about that.

Building a habit is hard.

Yes, I know, tell us something less obvious; but it’s on my mind today. I’ve been trying to build several habits at the same time.

Most days, write a little. A minimum of 200 words.

Most days, take a walk for at least 20 minutes. 30 is ideal but 20 will do, especially if it’s brisk walking.

Something about the way these things are timed makes it weirdly hard to get both in. Or perhaps it’s not timing, perhaps it’s exhaustion from work, where I am currently trying to manage Rather A Lot.

There is a lot of grindy samey-ness going on, and it seems to be squelching those more lively energies and curiosities that I can tell are just kind of lurking back there, restless and bored, glowering broodily out a window. My mind keeps reverting to old, uncomfortable places that it hasn’t spent much time in for years, despite my efforts to work toward well-being.

Outside, some of the plants continue to just…give up the ghost, it seems. Some are tenacious and tough but some just seem to have decided this particular level of sticky summer swelter is Enough, Thank You, and they droop over their containers. As I drag myself in from walking, sweat dripping through my shirt, I kind of feel where they’re coming from.

I think I really, really need that vacation.

Recently played: Death’s Door

The bus pulls up in front of the office on a gray, rather bleak day. We hop out, making our way up to the quietly grim edifice, making our way slowly through the halls, claws ticking against the tiles.

Did I mention we’re a crow?

More importantly, we’re a crow with a job to do. This is Reaper headquarters, and we’re running late to pick up our assigned soul for the day.

It does not go as planned.

What follows is a dungeon-crawling adventure that is simultaneously charming and melancholy. You trek through three major “worlds,” a la Zelda, each with its own whimsical cel-shaded theming. Each is home to a boss monster and a power-up that you’ll be using to revisit earlier areas and scoop up all the little hidden goodies. I wasn’t driving this one, so I can’t speak to the combat elements, but it’s certainly fun to watch.

So far, so normal. And I suppose there isn’t much that is new here exactly…this isn’t trying to deconstruct or revolutionize the genre so much as put forth a well-presented iteration on it that is polished to a sheen and mostly free of unnecessary fiddly bits. (For us – and, I suspect, for most who tend to be thorough explorers, there really wasn’t all that much backtracking even at the end of the game, when one would ordinarily be scooping up all the leftover collectibles.)

The twist here is more philosophical than aesthetic or mechanical: Everything that happens in this story comes about because someone feared their own death and sought to stop it. The little Reaper-crow you play very quickly finds themselves facing it; a Reaper is mortal while on the job, and unless and until the soul they seek is returned to the great vault, they will age and die. (Or very possibly worse…but to say more than that would be a spoiler.)

I think my favorite bit of this one is the little blend of humor and melancholy. The silliness of Barb the Bard and her quest for a banger (or the barkeep at the Stranded Sailor). The mononoke-like forest spirits. The little eulogies the gravedigger provides for each fallen boss.

It’s a worthy play. If any of that sounds interesting to you, hypothetical reader, give it a try.

Reservations at the Overlook

Pile of Shame time: I have never watched The Shining all the way through.

(I’ll wait a moment so those of you who know me can gasp dramatically. Perhaps faint a little for good measure.)

Oh, I’ve seen clips. I’ve seen parodies of it. I’m well aware of the basic outlines of its plot and of its most famous scenes. I’ve more or less watched it without really watching it…

But I’ve never sat down to actually watch it from beginning to end.

Eventually I expect I will remedy that, just so I can cross it off the list. But for some reason, the other day I was browsing my library app and it recommended the original novel to me.

Why not? I thought. What the hell.

And so last night I started reading.

I’ve always had sort of mixed results with Stephen King; I respect his position in the horror canon, but he’s never really clicked for me in long-form writing. I’m not sure what it is that puts me off, exactly. Perhaps it’s passages like the one in the first few chapters where the caretaker, showing Jack around the Basement Of Ominous Pipes And Conspicuously Mouldering Paperwork (with possibly Chekhov’s Furnace; we’ll see), delivers a spectacularly misogynistic little anecdote about an older woman who came to the Overlook Hotel. She brought a boy-toy, you see. And drank a lot. And it didn’t end well for anyone, from the sound of it.

I am not certain whether King wants me to feel visceral disgust toward the woman, the caretaker delivering the speech, or both; for now, I grimace and continue reading.

It is remarkable how very 70s the book is, immediately. Just a few pages in there’s a reference to English Leather, which I only have the dimmest memory of vaguely seeing an ad for somewhere once upon a time. (That specific ad pre-dates me, as does the book. But I am gratified not to be the only person who looked up that commercial because they saw it flit through Jack’s mind and wanted to make sure they weren’t imagining this was a cologne brand or something.) There’s a reference to Uncle Wiggily, which I think my grandparents had an extremely antique copy of, and which seriously makes me wonder why Jack’s mind went to that game rather than, I don’t know, Battleship.

And then of course there’s the obvious things: A radio with a list of frequencies to tune to instead of cell phones (but oh the glorious lack of need to justify why someone’s phone isn’t working, am I right, writers?) The…paper-ness of everything; filing cabinets and inboxes and outboxes that were actual boxes and little personalized notepads you kept in your pocket, with an actual pen.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I guess we’ll see.

The cookbook as teacher

Today’s episode of 99% Invisible is a worthy listen; it features a cookbook, and its role in Soviet cuisine: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.

And it’s fascinating.

I’ve always thought of changes in cuisine as more of evolutions, something that happens slowly – spices going in and out of vogue, the gradual adoption of foods that were once new and freaky into something essential. At some point, there were no tomatoes in Italy; now it’s impossible to imagine Italian food without them.

This is the story of a different kind of food change; an engineered one, in which Josef Stalin sought to bring the Soviet Union together under a new and different cuisine…and sent an aggressive micromanager over to America to learn the ways of mass production. He came back with lots of ideas – and an accompanying problem: How do you teach people to eat all this new food?

Well, you make them a cookbook, for a start. And the resulting volume is apparently something of a nostalgic staple…though of course the reality of Soviet life may not have resembled what was in all those fancy food pictures all that closely.

If any of that sounds even vaguely interesting, go and give the episode a listen. If you’re craving more afterward, check out this article from the Guardian for some pictures, as well as a history of the book across various editions.

…Maybe it’s the photos, but I’m thinking about those cookbooks from the 70s with their Jello desserts and their Ambrosia salads and whatnot. Perhaps people have been teaching folks how to eat various foods by using cookbooks everywhere, longer than I think.

The Moosewood Cookbook for vegetarian food? How To Cook Everything, for…well, for people like me who grew up on tinned food and boxed macaroni and cheese and odd concoctions of burger patties and tomato soup and processed cheese food and then had to be re-taught how to eat whole ingredients?

…because that’s what I was learning when I started experimenting with it. How to walk into a grocery store and choose decent produce, what to do with that produce when I got it home. How to use butter instead of margarine.

I often think of cookbooks as inspirational, but they are just as often didactic, as well. They show us ways of eating, and we absorb them because it’s Wednesday and we have to cook something.

I am still learning, of course. Only last year did I finally crack what my problem with stainless-steel skillets was, and now I can cook things in them without welding them to the pan.

I watch a lot of food folks on YouTube. Some of them make fascinating historical goodies I don’t really see myself trying as a rule but that are awesome to watch. Some of them make gorgeous things it’s probably safest for me to admire from afar, lest I gain about 300 pounds and one or more health conditions. Some of them are engineering types, ruthlessly fine-tuning their own food science.

I wonder what ways of eating we in their audiences are absorbing from them.

Adios, July.

It’s August already. How on earth did THAT happen?

I mean, I know the answer. Same way it was just March of 2020 like, three weeks ago: Nothing’s happening.

I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant in a year and a half. I fear my efforts to write here are already monotonous, even though the only point of them is to try to keep expressing myself, somehow. It’s hard not to imagine my hypothetical audience being bored out of their minds with me.

And now I’d better start keeping an ear to the ground for Christmas ideas.

Time is really ripping by out there. It’s a little like being in a ship when the sea is stormy outside. It’s been so long since I last touched the water, the idea becomes alien, a little frightening.

We played a little game called Adios the other night. It’s a tiny indie game about a farmer who’s been helping the mob dispose of bodies while feeding them to his pigs. He’d like to stop now, thanks.

Except, as the lanky man in the sharp suit keeps saying, first patiently and then not so patiently, they are the ones who cut ties. Not you.

You feed the pigs. You look after your horse. You ponder the blight of the chestnut tree. You insist.

So does he.

Irresistible force meets immovable object.

This is not one of those elaborate games with branching paths and multiple endings. It’s not trying to be. This is a sad, quiet little story, earnestly presented and oddly moving, where some of the most impactful moments come from things our POV character can’t bring himself to say.

(I won’t lie, the part with the dog kind of killed me, and it’s been years since I last lived with a dog. You will know exactly which part I mean when you get to it.)

A little janky, sure, and perhaps the art style’s not for everyone. But who cares? Glossy perfection isn’t what we’re here for. If this sounds interesting to you, trade it for a couple of hours of TV.

Just, uh, maybe have a little something cheerful on hand as a chaser. No reason. Just saying.

You meet in a tavern: One

It’s not as though she couldn’t stay away indefinitely. Out There.

Sometimes she fancies she could really do it, really retreat into the green and the wind and the water. The frost of the mountain. The warm damp earth and the scent of moss. No counsel to keep but her own. A satisfying thought.

And yet her boots keep finding their way back to the root-bound trail, keep following it until its tangles relax and smooth into fine packed earth, until the bracken gives way to fences and hedgerows and the trees shake themselves into orderly lines. The breeze tickles through them, catching up a scent so sweet and so golden and so rich one could almost imagine it pooling on the ground along with the afternoon light. Ripe for the picking, surely.

Beside her, the crunch of claws against earth, a familiar earthy tang cutting through the scent of the orchards. She does not need to look to reach down, raking slim fingers roughened by wire and bow-string through the silky fur between her friend’s ears. The dense red brush of his tail flicks against her trousers before he trots ahead of her, proud flag-bearer in their little procession of two.

Somewhere ahead, a horse whickers and stamps; a startled chicken scuttles out of the way. Someone whistles, tuneless and distracted but pleasant; the little path broadens in anticipation.

Maybe it’s just that I get tired of my own cooking.

She chuckles to herself, briefly startled by the sound. Or perhaps it’s that you’ve got to exercise your voice once in a while.

The hedgerow yields to a low stone wall at last, the tidy stacking of blue-gray-green slate that lines the yard of the Huntsman’s Table. Here the little earthen path crosses the broad, pale-gray ribbon of one of the Old Roads, neat interlocking slabs laid by armies of slaves or elemental magics or perhaps just wakened from a long dream in the earth, depending on who you talk to. Here the inn nestles easy and confident into a copse of trees old enough to have sheltered six generations before her, the deer-headed man on its brightly-painted sign inviting all to a spectacular feast at a great stone table surrounded by a circle of monoliths.

The circle is real. The villagers know it, and those with sense show it proper respect. She has walked it many times, breathing in its energy on those crystalline winter nights when the moon crafts the new year, setting it free into the world.

The deer-headed man is real, as well.

Though not so many know that.

Below the sign sits another, this one a larger slab of that gray-green slate. Someone has chalked on it, with more eagerness than elegance, “SPECIAL TONIGHT: Roast pig with gemfruit and greens!”

Her stomach growls a little at the thought. That golden smell. And sure enough, here it is again, drifting through the yard, a gilded flash darting through a spicy darkness that sets the hunter in her to prowling. Yes. All of it.

“You’re back!”

She knows that voice. Anne, the keeper’s daughter, lithe and lively and flaxen-haired, a neat white apron smoothed over her blue dress against the vagaries of the coming evening.

Her companion is quicker to respond than she is, leaping onto the wall with a gleeful bark as the new arrival laughs her own greeting. “And you too, Ren,” she adds, extending a hand as if to scratch behind his ears but not quite touching, not yet. “May I?”

The eagerness of the answering headbutt is all the permission she needs.

“So. Dinner, then?”

She nods, her voice still too rusted from disuse to chance – and Anne’s expression turns a little wry.

“And how will you be paying tonight?”

She smiles broadly in response, detaching a little leather bag from her belt, tugging at the cord until it falls open enough to fill the air between them with a desert-bright spiciness, watching Anne’s eyes widen in delight. Gold of another kind, coaxed from between the roots of the oldest pines on the mountain.

“Really?” She hefts the bag with a practiced hand, feeling the weight – then peers eagerly inside. “That’ll feed you for a week, if you want it! Come inside!”

As she passes under the sign she nods up at the deer-headed man. Freely offered, freely taken.

I pass the night in the realm of men.

Lose 1d8 sanity: The Empty Man

Everybody, at some point in their lives, considers the idea that everything is meaningless.

I might be wrong about that, I suppose – perhaps there are a handful of souls out there blessed and/or innocent enough that they drift off to sleep at night untroubled by even the faint shadow of the fear that maybe it’s even worse than having made a fool of yourself at that party, or having been rejected by that beautiful person you loved so, or having no one to call on the blackest night of your life when there is only you and your thoughts and some questionable life choices in substance form, maybe none of this actually matters at all.

But if those folks exist, I don’t think I’ve ever met one.

I can only assume that David Prior’s had such thoughts quite regularly, based on his The Empty Man – a horror movie that I’m led to understand sells a rather different experience in the trailer than the one we actually get.

We open with a surprisingly-lengthy prologue in Bhutan, in which one of a small group of hikers has an encounter in a disturbing cavern that leaves him…injured? Semi-catatonic? Possessed? His friends can’t be sure, but let’s just say that when they all become stranded on the mountain overnight things Do Not Go Well for them. (I do not consider this a spoiler; this is a horror movie prologue, after all, and these are infamous for presenting us with characters who may not be with us all that long.)

From there, though, we transition abruptly to…Missouri (I cannot pretend I was not a little disappointed; how often do I get to see media products of any sort set in Bhutan?) Here the film introduces our true protagonist – James, a Broken Ex-Cop with one of those backstories one seems to require to become a Broken Ex-Cop. (You know the ones; they usually involve one or more dead family members and/or moments of personal weakness that leave our hero with lingering guilt.) We see him hang out briefly with a neighbor’s kid, a relatively ordinary-seeming teen except for the part where she seems very into the idea that perhaps none of our thoughts and ideas are really ours, that they are fed, or perhaps channeled, to us from some other place or being.

And then she disappears, her mother makes a plea for help, and we’re off to the races for a sort of smoky cocktail of urban legendry, oddly pleasant cults and their nihilistic leanings, and of course an exploration of our hero’s personal history and the truth(s) thereof.

It’s one of those movies about which I have some mixed feelings, I think. James Badge Dale as James is great – relatable, surprisingly funny at times. The visuals are well-executed and many scenes feature little easter-egg clues for those who are watching closely. There are several well-executed moments of surreal creepiness. The central conceits about meaninglessness and/or free will are uncommon and it’s interesting to see the way they’re handled here.

On the other hand: This film needs an editor. Or perhaps, as one of the reviews we looked at afterward suggested, it needs to be a TV miniseries instead of a movie. I love a slow burn, but this burn is very slow, more of a smolder much of the time. And yet, somehow, there is also so much going on: now it feels a bit like I Know What You Did Last Summer, now we have a bit that feels almost Midsommar-adjacent except for, well, the darkness of everything…And then there is the ending, which I could easily see inciting some rage in some viewers but does make sense with the other things the story’s trying to do, even if the reveals therein could maybe have done with a little more spacing between them.

The vibe I came away from this with most strongly, though? “Watching a game of Call of Cthulhu at the tabletop, only there’s just one player for some reason.” The way threads are picked up and then put down, the way there’s somehow simultaneously a couple of strong central ideas and kind of a jumble of things all round them, the way our protagonist is so very central to things (even, at one point, apparently encountering an urban legend in a way that would seem to “break the rules”). You can hear in your head the Keeper calling for a Sanity roll every so often.

Or, well, I can, because I am a giant nerd.

Should you watch it, hypothetical reader? Perhaps. Do you like the idea of sitting at the tabletop with a bowl of popcorn and a beverage, watching a player get themselves into all sorts of shit? Does the idea of an attractively-if-slightly-messily-presented meditation on meaninglessness appeal to you? Then go for it.

Some random things to enjoy

Because today has been bloody exhausting, let’s fall back on the old standby of listing some things I am into today.

Thing 1: The Faculty of Horror podcast. Long, thoughtful episodes, nicely researched and with citations in the show notes (for those of you who are big enough nerds like me that if someone mentions an excellent article about “stranger danger” in the 80s you think “ooh, where can I go read that…”) Today’s episode was about The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, but there’s a wealth of good stuff in the backlog as well.

Thing 2: Doodle Bug the cat. Because LOOK AT HIM.

Thing 3: Someone has made an array of scented candles inspired by game worlds. I dig this, though I feel there are many ideas as yet un-mined. What would Morrowind smell like? Mushrooms and ozone and honey cake of some kind? What about the undersea city of Rapture (key question there of course would be: before or after everything goes to shit?)

Ooh, or Stardew Valley. Some sort of base note of freshly-tuned earth and the greenness of things, layered with cozy and comforting scents on top. If only there were a way to make it always smell a little like your favorite thing