TripleJump page is live!

I’ve mentioned it before — and sometimes even had the presence of mind to post them here! — but I’ve been writing for TripleJump on YouTube since the middle of last year.

That definitely has contributed to my decrease in output here. My scripts are tens of thousands of words long, and they require research and first-hand experience on my end. Those aren’t complaints, but I’d like you to know that I’m still writing! My words are just being used for feature-length videos(!) instead of blog posts.

Because a lot of those videos will take the place of active work here, I’ve set up a TripleJump page — accessible from the left-hand navigation — where I will post links to all of the videos I’ve written.

Check them out. I hope you’ll enjoy them. It’s a new experience for me to write things that other people perform. It’s not the first time, but it’s the first time I’ve done it steadily.

But what about this site? Well, stay tuned. Book news should be coming soon, and I have something very big planned for this year, which I’ll post about after my birthday.

Ever since the ALF reviews finished, I’ve thought about tackling something big again. And I think I’ve found my subject.

We’ll chat soon, I promise.

Journey Through the Past: The 2010s

Eight years ago, friend of the website Dave invited me to name my favorite thing from each year of the 1990s. I did that and it was fun! With the 2010s coming to an end in a matter of days, I thought it might be just as fun to look back on some of the few things from the past 10 years that did not make me weep for the future of humanity.

No real rules aside from the fact that I’m picking only one piece of entertainment for each year of the decade. My selections are below, and I’d be genuinely curious to hear about some of your favorites in the comments. (Oh, and I guess rule #2 is that you should check out Dave’s selections as well.)

Eventually I’ll do the 2000s and the 1980s, but, honestly, you know me. Don’t hold your breath.

2010 – Submarine

SubmarineI’ve wanted to do a Fiction Into Film on this one for ages, and I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Suffice it to say a poorly written novel that worked so hard (and so tediously) to be off-putting became, just a couple of years later, one of the most intelligent, charming, beautiful films of the decade. Director Richard Ayoade – who as an actor was involved in a few of my other favorite things ever – found something poignant and resonant in Oliver Tate, reframing him here as a teenager caught somewhere between two futures that are actively diverging before his eyes, despite — and sometimes because of — his attempts to keep everything on track. It’s silly and sad in equal measure, often at the same time, with Oliver’s every decision both feeling small (as they definitely are) while still echoing loudly into the future (as they definitely do). The film also captures what might be the most accurate depiction of depression in popular media — especially in comedy — with Noah Taylor’s performance as Oliver’s father. It’s heartbreaking and upsetting and angering to watch the man settle into comfortable disappointment, acquiescing to a life in which he no longer plays an active role. And then there’s the film’s grandest achievement, Jordana Bevan. She’s precisely the wrong girl for Oliver to chase and, of course, precisely the girl he must chase as a teenager who only just knows better. Yasmin Paige is revelatory, with her wrathful, selfish posturing hiding a core of pain that Ayoade never dwells on; he only gives us enough that we come to realize that Oliver may be the bad influence on her, rather than the other way around. Also, Alex Turner’s soundtrack could almost as easily stand as my highlight of 2010. I can’t say enough good about Submarine, so look forward to my continued raving when I finally get around to that Fiction Into Film.

2011 – I, Partridge

I, PartridgeI, Partridge is far better than any tie-in book has any right to be, to the point that it’s actually a fantastic read on its own. It’s funny, insightful, and as a writer it’s profoundly instructive. It’s a rich character study that has so much to say on writing, on celebrity, on narcissism, on success (however you’d like to define that). Alan spends several hundred pages painting one image of himself while unintentionally revealing who he really is. As a character, he’s always represented a bit of a balancing act, believing himself to be something other than what we know him to be. But here, in print, it unfolds beautifully, in the grand tradition of unreliable narration, rewarding those who remember Alan’s exploits on television but not leaving behind those who don’t. The structure of the story is recognizable enough, with a central character working so hard to remain oblivious that there’s always this background layer of tragedy. Alan has seen genuine success, but he chooses time and again to dwell on the failures for the sake of redefining them as triumphs. He bullies his own memories, twisting and distorting them until they fit the story he wishes were his. If he actually focused on the things he did right and the lessons he learned along the way, I, Partridge could have been a charming, understated tale of minor celebrity. Instead, it’s a masterpiece of mistruths, and my bookshelf is richer for it.

2012 – “Dead Freight”

"Dead Freight," Breaking BadThis is the one that opens with the young boy finding a spider. Both Breaking Bad and its characters struggled to keep the wheels turning after the departure of Gus Fring. That character was a powerful ally, looming adversary, and logistical necessity in one, and the show was even braver than Walter White was in bumping him off. What Heisenberg’s meth empire would look like — and how it would even continue to exist, in any capacity — after that climactic showdown was anyone’s guess. “Dead Freight” was the closest Walt’s post-Fring team got to proving they could succeed on their own. The episode combined two of the show’s defining characteristics — the science and the modern western — for an episode-long, expertly tense train robbery. It’s a classic setup that served as an excellent illustration of the specific knowledge and skills each member of Walt’s crew would bring to the enterprise moving forward. The heist is more than the next step for him and his team; it’s an audition to see who would and who would not be able to pull their weight in the new regime. And so Breaking Bad did what it always did best, teasing what could have been a small sequence into an urgently watchable spiral of action and consequences. It’s a filler episode; some self-contained but exciting way to burn off an hour in the middle of the season. A few minor setbacks that are overcome as soon as they arise, a big happy finale in which the characters get what they want. This is the one that closes with the young boy being shot and killed for witnessing the heist. And with that single gunshot the entire episode becomes one big, traumatic memory, a filler episode retroactively seared into our minds. The entire dynamic of the team changes, because one of them has killed a child. What seemed like evidence that things would be okay immediately becomes proof that we are now in far darker territory. It’s a harbinger of things to come, and looking back from any subsequent episode, the one in which a single child gets murdered actually qualifies as happier times.

2013 – The Last of Us

The Last of UsIt was a good decade for games, but only one of them rose to be my favorite thing of its release year. The Last of Us joined Fallout 3 and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker as one of very few games that I bought an entire console to play, and I don’t regret it one bit. The Last of Us is a zombie game that doesn’t actually have all that much to do with zombies. They’re an ongoing threat and they pop up when it’s time for a good scare, but the game is really about one central relationship. You play as Joel, a weary middle-aged man who has managed to carve out a space for himself after the collapse of the world around him. He is tasked with escorting Ellie — a young girl who is immune to the zombie plague — to a group of researchers who may be able to use her to synthesize a cure. The fact that a reluctant relationship develops between them, forged in mutual hardship, is not a surprise. The quality with which the development of that relationship is presented, though, is. The writing is excellent, and it’s surpassed by what have to be two of the strongest performances in the medium. Joel and Ellie are characters, but they are characters who feel like people. Their interactions grow and change as their relationship evolves, working through times of distrust, frustration, and anger to earn times of respect, friendship, and love. I’m not sure any other game manages to hit so hard so successfully so many times over. The Last of Us immediately became one of the medium’s most important titles and a cultural touchpoint in general. It’s a complex, horrifying, unforgettable experience. It’s the best thing we got in 2013, and would have been the best thing we got any other year as well.

2014 – The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest HotelWatching the trailers, it was clear that The Grand Budapest Hotel was going to be Wes Anderson’s funniest film to date. What was not clear — what was so wonderfully, expertly unclear — was the fact that it was also going to be his most accomplished. It’s about an experience that becomes a story that becomes a lesson that becomes history, a tale about a young man and his mentor that effortlessly grows into a meditation on humanity and how quickly things fall apart the moment we lose our sense of decency. And all of this happens — with brilliant absurdity, or absurd brilliance — by way of the theft of a single painting. I love Anderson. I love the little universes he creates — these little worlds so familiar and yet so far away — and invites us to explore. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the one that occupies a reality closest to our own. So close, we’ll realize by the end, that we should be distressed by it. There are strong moments of warmth throughout, and perhaps Anderson’s most effective love story, but as the film unfolds and time marches on, those things are trampled beneath unfeeling boots, ground into nothing. The entire experience is a strange exercise in contrasting tones that is far, far more effective than it should be. It’s just Anderson, not only understanding both sides of the human experience but also understanding how exactly they fit together, what they amount to, and why we’ll never be completely free of either.

2015 – “Milk Money”

"Milk Money," Schitt's CreekSchitt’s Creek is my show of the decade, period. It started out feeling like a lesser (but still funny) retread of Arrested Development, but within a season found a different and surprisingly adorable voice of its own. Both shows are about formerly wealthy families who have to struggle through less-opulent times in the present. But whereas the Bluths were almost uniformly bad people (varying degrees of bad, admittedly), the Roses are decent human beings who have just been sheltered by wealth too long to have to exercise that decency. So, fine, two equally valid families to explore, but what really makes Schitt’s Creek stand out to me is the fact that it manages to find real comedy in human decency. Arrested Development, in that sense, had it easy; it’s funny when people are assholes. Schitt’s Creek has to work harder to get the same number of laughs out of good people, and for a season or so I wasn’t sure it would really be able to keep up the steady stream of laughs a sitcom should. (Pathos and emotion and warmth yes yes, fine, but laughs?) Season two’s “Milk Money” isn’t my favorite episode, but it’s the one that made me realize the show could absolutely do it, regularly, without needing to resort to meanness or negativity. “Milk Money” is a simple farce based on a simple misunderstanding that is resolved just as simply, and it’s a riot. Johnny Rose — the always amazing Eugene Levy — gets the flicker of an idea to traffic in raw milk, and that flicker expands by degrees until he’s caught attempting to offload 120 gallons of contraband with his daughter and Mayor Schitt — a hilariously panicky Chris Elliott — in reluctant cahoots. I’m a sucker for sap, so had Schitt’s Creek delivered emotional stories with only periodic laughs I probably still would have loved it, but “Milk Money” demonstrated that this wouldn’t be an either/or situation. The sweetest show on television is also the funniest.

2016 – “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

"Parker Gail's Location is Everything," Documentary NowThe Bojack Horseman episode “Free Churro” almost took the 2018 slot. In tandem with I, Partridge and “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything,” that would have made for a trilogy of selections in which some delusional individual opens his mouth and forgets how to close it. Documentary Now is great, even at its weakest, and this is far and away my favorite episode. It’s a one-man showcase (…nearly) for Bill Hader, which would be recommendation enough on its own, but it’s also expertly written and structured. Taking as its inspiration “Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia,” this episode doesn’t skewer Gray as much as it skewers artistic posturing. Hader plays Parker Gail as a meticulous creation of self, building an identity that he then works relentlessly to maintain. Which — necessarily to some degree — every artist does. Hell, every person does, but artists put themselves on display. Even keeping one’s self out of the public eye is a kind of display. That’s ripe enough for comedy, but what this episode puts Gail through is also sad. His calculated wit and creative wallowing is punctured many times over by interjections from others, including his ex-girlfriend (who objects to being misrepresented in Gail’s monologue) and his parents (whose divorce Gail relies on for sympathy despite the fact that they remain happily married). Gail’s monologue — a story about having to move out of his loft — is told compellingly enough that it actually hurts a bit whenever somebody reveals the truth behind it, deflating the artistry. But that’s also the fun of it. Gail doesn’t exist in our reality, but “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” is essential, humbling viewing for artists of any kind. It’s a good way for us to keep ourselves honest. We all have an image to maintain. But if that image were yanked out from beneath us…how far would we fall?

2017 – Get Out

Get OutI remember reading an interview with Jordan Peele in the runup to Get Out. He spoke about horror and comedy having very similar rhythms, which served him well when making this film. That is interesting! But it could also just have been a way of convincing people to pay for a scary movie made by a comedian. It turned out to be more than marketing, however; it was a neat bit of insight from someone who just made one of the best horror films of the decade. (I’m honestly not sure whether it was better than It Follows; that and Get Out are my top two.) It’s also one of the best comedies of the decade, and one of the best social satires of the decade. And it’s all of those things at the same time, each aspect elevating the others rather than holding them back. To say much about the plot would spoil some of its best surprises, but certainly everybody knows by now that it’s a racially charged story, providing inherent tension when protagonist Chris meets his white girlfriend’s family. Finding comedy in that premise is easy; finding horror is, sadly, not much more difficult. The film’s most insightful moments, however, come when Chris is surrounded by a sort of positive bigotry, with white people praising his appearance, gazing upon him in fascination, asserting that they would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could have…granted, all of that hides something very ugly in the world of the film, but it’s the sort of problematic overcompensation that hides something differently ugly in our world. Get Out is harrowing and hilarious by turns, but it’s also instructive. Viewers won’t see themselves in the villains’ worst moments, but they very likely will see themselves at their most seemingly benign. And any overlap is frightening in itself.

2018 – Superorganism

SuperorganismEvery so often I’ll hear a song on the radio that I immediately love, and I’ll look further into the artist before I realize — reluctantly — that I don’t actually like their material overall. In March of 2018 I heard Superorganism’s “Everybody Wants to be Famous” and figured there was no way the band would be as good as I hoped they were. The song was perfect. Sunny, poppy, spacy, weird, infectious…it wasn’t even worth looking further into Superorganism because I knew it couldn’t be sustained longer than a song or two. Then I listened to “Everybody Wants to be Famous” multiple times a day for a couple of weeks, and decided I owed them money. I bought their self-titled debut fully comfortable with the fact that I’d only listen to that one song with any regularity, and instead kept the entire thing on near-constant repeat for the rest of the year. It was good writing music, good driving music, good relaxing music. It was funny and clever and creative, with every song grabbing me in its own way, no track feeling quite the same as the ones on either side of it, but all of them clearly of a cohesive piece. I’ve largely checked out of current music, but that’s because so little of it does what Superorganism seems so effortlessly able to do. The band and this album carve out an identifiable and unique personality, and it’s one worth spending time with. It’s exciting music. It’s music that matters. It’s music you don’t just enjoy, but which transports you to another universe, briefly, where this is what life sounds like. It takes a lot to find a place on my list of favorite albums at this point, but this one managed it easily. I cannot wait for the followup.

2019 – Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from HellPaperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix is a good book. It’s a fascinating look at vintage horror paperbacks and their trends — narratively, artistically, commercially — that is often funny and rarely dismissive. It does its best to treat each of its subjects with respect…though, admittedly, a number of those subjects don’t allow for that. But the Paperbacks from Hell I’m spotlighting here is not that book; it’s a series of horror reprints that followed on from Hendrix’s book, giving a great selection of forgotten horror releases a second life. It gives these always weird and sometimes excellent books the chance to find a new audience, and I love that I no longer have to rely on Hendrix’s summaries and interpretations. This isn’t meant as any kind of slight; Hendrix is a compelling and intelligent curator, but experiencing a work in its original context, on its own terms, will always be preferable to me than somebody’s selected interpretations. Paperbacks from Hell — the reprint series — is in the middle of its second and hopefully-not-final batch of releases, but 2019 saw the release of the first five, and they were great selections. Some of them were exactly the sort of pulp-horror monster-mashing idiotic fun I’d expected (cockroaches in The Nest, Bigfeet in The Spirit), but most of them surprised me with how much genuine merit they had. Jewish horror The Tribe provided a fascinating slice of what monsters look like (and what monsters are) to another culture, and two others were just brilliant works in their own right (The Reaping reached near-greatness, and When Darkness Loves Us ran circles around greatness). I can’t recommend this series enough, if only because it’s a chance to dip back into a part of history most of us were foolishly okay with having forgotten.

My 10 best games of my 2019

Well, that was a year. Unlike 2017 and 2018 – two other years we can all agree were largely piles of massive shit, culturally speaking – 2019 didn’t really impress me with its games. It wasn’t a bad year, but it did feel like an uninspired one, and so my top 10 includes quite a few games that were good without ever being exciting.

As usual, I didn’t play everything, but I got around to almost every release I actually had interest in. The only thing I wanted to try but didn’t have time for was Control. Otherwise, well…here we are.

As with last year, I’ll be breaking a few 2018 releases I didn’t previously get to play into a smaller list of standouts this year. Easy.

Less easy is the fact that release dates are getting hazier and hazier. For a while I figured I’d just go with the initial date of release, but that didn’t feel right. A game could be released in early access one year and properly the next. It could be released one year for one system but get a wider release the following year, which is when most people (myself almost certainly included) would actually get to play it. It could be released digitally one year and physically the next, meaning it only gets actual shelf space in one of those two years…

And, of course, it could be released in the waning weeks of a year, meaning idiots like me already wrote their “best of” lists before they came out, or before they could possibly have had enough time to play them and form an intelligent opinion.

So you’ll look below and see some games that came out in some form in 2018 but also came out in some form in 2019 and that’s just too bad.

Merry Christmas!

My best games of 2019 (2018 edition)

3) The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories

Unsurprising but necessary context: I’ve played many games — far too many to even number — that had terrible stories yet were a lot of fun. I know you have as well. It’s an extremely common thing in gaming. Far less common is a game that has a fantastic, riveting, important story that is literally no fun at all.

In fact, until The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that I would have described that way. I’ve played a lot of games with great stories that only had decent, passable, or dull gameplay, but never one that was atrociously, daringly unfun while still carrying a strong narrative.

I’m not including The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories here because I enjoyed it. Most of the time, I hated it. But its story is just that strong that it elevates the experience so far above the many negatives that come with actually playing it.

For that reason, I’m going to spoil nothing beyond the broadest strokes. You play as J.J. Macfield, whose friend / lover Emily disappears in the night. You search for her in a variety of locations, solving puzzles as you go. It’s a basic setup, and it’s given a harrowing twist: The solution to nearly every puzzle involves the physical mutilation of Macfield. It’s a horrific mechanic that is thrillingly introduced and then quickly and repeatedly beaten down into confusing tedium.

A warning at the start of the game makes explicit the fact that player is meant to learn from Macfield’s experience in a similar way to the far (far, far) superior Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This is meant to be a window into mental health issues that will possibly help you to understand them better but at least will help you to sympathize. Yet the game is so buggy, so poorly designed, so unclear in its objectives that you’ll end up mutilating Macfield so frequently — hoping that you’ll stumble upon precisely the correct kind of mutilation that the game will let you progress — that it loses the impact it should have. There’s a great story here, but unlike Hellblade, it becomes less impactful for the fact that it is interactive.

2) Spider-Man

Hello, I am a giant nerd. It’s nice to meet you. Even as a giant nerd, though, I have a huge nerdy blind spot: super heroes.

I don’t dislike them. I’ve enjoyed a number of their comics and games and TV shows and movies. But I also don’t…care about them. I’m not driven to experience them. Sometimes I’ll stumble across something and love it, but I’ve never actively sought them out. Batman is pretty much my only exception — I remember being excited to watch reruns of the 1966 live-action show as a kid, and then later to watch new episodes of Batman: The Animated Series — but even then, I don’t go out of my way to gobble up new Batman things.

So I didn’t bother with Spider-Man. Not least because it looked so much like the Arkham games I already had, which starred my preferred superhero anyway. And, honestly, now that I’ve played it, the Arkham comparison is not an unfair one. They’re very similar, right down to specific details of the stealth and combat mechanics.

But damned if Insomniac didn’t improve on them. I love the Arkham games, and while I think I still prefer them overall, Insomiac made Spider-Man so much smoother, prettier, and more graceful than the Arkham games ever were.

In fairness to both series, each approach fits each character. Batman should be a bit heavier and more cumbersome and should have to think a few steps ahead, whereas Spider-Man can afford a bit more sloppiness because he has more methods for pulling himself out of trouble. But there’s no question that the objective act of pressing buttons and seeing the game respond feels better here than it ever did there. For sheer, tactile fun and excitement, I’ve played few games that made me feel more fulfilled than Spider-Man.

1) God of War

I remember this game’s original E3 reveal, with a brief trailer in which Kratos teaches his son to fire a bow, and I thought, immediately, “I want to play this.” But it was released, it received universal praise, and I didn’t pick it up until much later. Why, I can’t say for sure, but I think I couldn’t quite believe in a reception so positive that it rivaled The Last of Us.

That’s not an irrelevant example. The E3 trailer and subsequent marketing never tried to hide the fact that The Last of Us was a direct influence. An older, experienced man leads a younger, less-reserved child through a hellish world that is ready to eat both of them alive. That’s fine, and that was appealing to me, but once the near-perfect scores flooded in, I believed less in God of War‘s ability to really have its own identity. I think I expected critics were giving it high scores because it reminded them so much of The Last of Us, rather than because it did anything interesting of its own.

And so I didn’t prioritize it until late this very year, and rarely have I been happier to stand corrected. God of War is a front-to-back masterpiece. Layered, intelligent, exciting, bleak, creative, and full of some of the best performances in the medium. Even the writing — which some have criticized — stood out to me in ways I did not believe it could.

At the start of God of War, I expected the game to either deliberately invoke Joel and Ellie (the distant father figure gradually opening up and allowing himself to get closer to the child) or just as deliberately invert it (reinforce Kratos as a bad father who continually, probably intentionally, fails to connect with the child). After all, what other way could it have gone?

It went a very different way. Something that was so far off my radar several times over that I couldn’t help but admire how masterfully the twists and misleads actually made the central relationship feel more honest and natural. It was a brilliant experience that married very human, very common themes to some of the best spectacle and most bombastic setpieces I’ve ever played through. I’ve finished many games having loved them. This is one of the few that I’ve finished having also admired it.

My 10 best games of 2019

10) Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

I’ll speak properly about Mighty No. 9 at some point, I promise, but for now, I’ll say this: Keiji Inafune’s Kickstarter disaster has ten times the creativity and inventiveness of Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter success.

While Mighty No. 9 was meant to fill the Mega Man-shaped void left by that series’ dormancy, it attempted a lot of new and genuinely interesting things. Did it do so successfully? No. Let me say that again: No. And to be totally clear: Jesus lord no. But it tried. By sharp contrast, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is terrified to take more than however many steps were necessary from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to avoid a lawsuit.

As I said, this year hasn’t really impressed me in terms of games, so it’s probably not that surprising that I don’t have much good to say about the game at the bottom of my list, but I think Bloodstained‘s lack of ambition is important to discuss. It isn’t a bad game, but it’s the same game we played 20 years ago with the serial numbers filed off.

Enemies here look very similar to their designs in that game. Items are very similar. Characters are very similar. Controls, powerups, and music cues are all very similar. Even the layout of the game’s map is very similar, with Bloodstained keeping its equivalent areas in almost exactly the same place you’d find them in Symphony of the Night.

Why? Igarashi proved he could capture Symphony of the Night‘s spirit without joylessly repeating its exact beats with the Game Boy Advance and DS Castlevania games that followed it, so why he felt he needed to create a worse looking, less interesting, less fun retread this time is baffling. People bought it, critics mindlessly enjoyed it, and I played it without hating it. But that’s somehow worse, in my eyes, than a bad game that at least tried.

9) Horizon Chase Turbo

As much as many of us loved those “race into the distance” games from our youths – Out Run on the Genesis, Rad Racer on the NES – boy were they not very good.

They were fine, mind you, and impressive for their time, but it’s a genre that has not aged well. Whereas other retro throwback games (including a couple on this very list) aim to recapture what made us fall in love with those classic titles, Horizon Chase Turbo gives us exactly the game we always wished those earlier titles were in the first place.

There’s a real sense of speed and challenge to Horizon Chase Turbo, and its difficulty isn’t determined by its limitations, as the games from which it takes inspiration were. Horizon Chase Turbo is responsive, well designed, and entirely skill based. It also scales its challenge nicely in the form of optional collectibles on each track. Going out of your way to grab them all while still finishing in first place — and often needing to grab gas canisters along the way — makes many of the tracks feel like puzzles to be solved in addition to races to finish.

There’s also, without any question, a positively stellar soundtrack that is easily among the best I’ve heard in years. My main complaint with the game is that there isn’t more music; the songs are all great, but you’ll hear them often enough that you’ll realize the soundtrack could be two or three times as big without feeling crowded. That might just be a selfish thing to wish for, though.

The AI opponents are absolute dicks, which works to the game’s benefit. They know what you’re doing and they’ll stop you from doing it, trying hard to get a bump from your precious nitro boosts and relying on you to nudge them safely around sharp turns. They’re ruthless, which makes it all the more satisfying when you finally catch on to their specific strategies and outwit them.

8) The Outer Worlds

It’s a fun swig of irony that Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds mainly succeeds at reminding us of how well Bethesda makes games. For all it was positioned (mainly by critics and fans, mind you; not by Obsidian) as a 3D Fallout in everything but name that would surely show the world how that series should be handled, it handled it almost exactly the way Bethesda has been handling its worlds for about 15 years. Bethesda’s particular approach to open-world questing has been subject to vast amounts of criticism, and yet The Outer Worlds corrects none of its problems.

Can Obsidian make a better game than Bethesda? Yes. Do Bethesda games get criticized for valid reasons? Oh my, yes. But with The Outer Worlds, with the entire fanbase’s eyes on their product, Obsidian can’t seem to think to do more than imitate Bethesda with a slightly (and I do mean slightly) fresher coat of paint.

There’s still a slow-motion kill-cam. There are still idiotic AI companions who rush into danger and then sit on the ground crying until they’re miraculously healed at the end of battle. There are still settlements that are bigger than they are alive. The choices still rarely boil down to more than who you decide to kill. There is still little incentive to consider your character’s build as you will end up skilled in every category anyway. In a few cases, it’s a big step backward, such as the fact that the game feel more level-based than open world, there is such a small variety of loot that every container starts to feel the same and you’ll stop bothering to seek them out, and the fact that the story is difficult to get truly invested in as it barely seems to be interested in itself.

But the writing is surely better, right? Maybe. Even though writing is My Thing, I honestly don’t see a clear winner. Bethesda’s approach to writing tends to be short, direct, and obvious. Obsidian’s tends to be long, meandering, and packed with characters who will never use six words where a twelve-page monologue would suffice. Everybody will have their own preference, but both approaches are flawed and aggravating in their own ways.

And yet I enjoyed it, because it’s an enjoyable formula. Obsidian has managed to accidentally prove why Bethesda games are still enjoyed by those who can spend hours picking them apart: The framework is compelling, whatever you choose to drape over it.

7) Xenon Valkyrie+

This one didn’t really get any attention at all, and now that I’m looking it up I can see that the few reviews it did get were negative. I’m not sure why; perhaps the critics didn’t stick with it long enough to get a sense of how to handle it. Xenon Valkyrie+ is not the most user-friendly game in the world, but it was one of my favorites of this year.

It’s a roguelike platformer, which means I’m guaranteed to at least try it, but it’s also one of the best I’ve played. It scratches my Spelunky itch without ever really feeling much like that game.

Xenon Valkyrie+ has a story, and despite it being one of my most-played games this year, I couldn’t tell you what it is. That’s okay, because what stuck with me instead was the intense moment-to-moment gameplay…the constant weighing of risk and reward as I pushed through levels, often on the brink of death. If your reflexes are good enough, you can maintain the upper hand whatever the game throws at you. Mine are not, and so I had to outthink the game instead…something I could far from do reliably.

Gradually, though, you get better. Even though the levels are randomly generated, you start to understand how the bits fit together. The first room or two would routinely grind me into paste until I learned how to deal with any combination of hazards they might throw at me, at which point they became breezy warm-up areas. And so on and so on, less of the game feeling impenetrable with every pass.

Multiple characters, randomized goodies, and the chance to permanently unlock upgrades if you play intelligently enough keep the game interesting even after several complete runs, and just writing about it makes me want to pick it up again for another spin. It’s a good game that didn’t seem to find its audience. Here’s hoping it eventually does.

6) Katana Zero

Like a few games on this list, Katana Zero does very well what other games have already done better. That’s not a bad thing (it is actually A Good Thing), but it does contribute to the year feeling overall rather pedestrian.

Here, the point of comparison is Hotline Miami, with its pixel art, its lovingly rendered gore, its gradually revealed storyline, its twitch gameplay, and the spacey pulsing of its soundtrack. You even return home after your missions to reflect on what you’ve done. That’s a lot of overlap, and on paper it can sound like an outright clone, but Katana Zero does have enough of its own ideas and personality to make it feel like a worthy successor instead.

Like Hotline Miami, Katana Zero requires precision while still offering a wealth of options. A number of times I only noticed the intended path through a level after I’d figured out how to execute my own path. The game never punished me for it or tried to steer me back on course; it just let me deal with things the way I chose to. It also, of course, helps to know that if you’re getting frustrated with a certain situation, it’s like one you don’t actually have to be in.

There’s an in-universe reason that you’re able to attempt stages as many times as necessary, and that’s nice, but one thing I’ve seen people criticize Katana Zero for is the fact that enemies won’t necessarily behave the same way during each attempt. I have no way of knowing whether or not that’s a bug, but it’s definitely a feature. Katana Zero — deliberately or not — never lets you hone your approach to the point that you won’t have to think on the fly, with enemy behavior always being just that side of predictable and the need for focus — even through repetition — never going away.

It does end on a cliffhanger, which hopefully means we’ll have a sequel to look forward to soon. There aren’t many rough edges to Katana Zero, which means an improved second installment has every chance of being something truly wonderful.

5) Shovel Knight: King of Cards

Shovel Knight was one of the best games of 2014 and it’s reasserted itself as the best game for several years since. The additional campaigns Yacht Club Games have released are more like full-fledged sequels (and are, in fact, available as separate releases) and are far better than any “play as a boss” mode should ever be. Instead of different sprites with a token new move or two, we get completely different experiences, tailored from tip to tail for each character.

In King of Cards, we play as King Knight, and it’s probably worth pointing out that I was a bit disappointed by the selection of bosses who got their own campaigns. If I remember correctly, the choices were made through a prerelease poll, so I’m certainly not holding anything against Yacht Club, but having the campaigns go to two spooky guys in cloaks and one guy with no personality beyond the fact that he appears to be rich was disappointing. I think there was more fertile ground than this, but Yacht Club definitely did everything they could to make these campaigns worthwhile.

This one follows King Knight’s dishonorable ascent to the throne, as well as his parallel interest in the collectible card game Joustus. Joustus is no Gwent, but it’s a fun enough diversion and it’s nice that Yacht Club is constantly looking for ways to give us more content than what they promised.

Mainly, though, the adventure involves traversing stages, discovering new abilities, and beating down anyone who stands in your way. That’s familiar Shovel Knight territory, but even moreso than with Plague Knight or Specter Knight, King Knight’s movement is its own kind of puzzle. You’ll see an enemy or a platform and know what you have to do, but figuring out how to do it with King Knight’s decidedly graceless moveset isn’t always easy. It makes for some admittedly tiresome trial and error, but overall it works quite well and gives some new spice to stage types we’ve now played through four times.

I’m certain I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed Specter of Torment, but I’m not sure if I liked it more or less than I did Plague of Shadows. (All three of these campaigns are good, but none of them rise to the level of Shovel Knight original recipe.) Even a relatively disappointing reason to return to the world of Shovel Knight, though, is a reason to return to the world of Shovel Knight. And that will never be a bad thing.

4) A Robot Named Fight

I spilled a decent amount of ink last year lamenting that Dead Cells proved that metroidvanias and roguelikes couldn’t truly fit together. That game was, I felt, the closest the two genres could come to coexisting, or at least close enough that I felt comfortable dismissing any kind of natural fit.

Then A Robot Named Fight came along to prove me wrong, and I’m so very happy it did. The design of this game is miraculous in its simplicity. Instead of trying to fit the same set of upgrades and progression into every randomized run, this game randomizes the upgrades and progression and then builds a game world around them.

It’s a remarkably effective solution that takes the best elements of each genre and combines them in a way Dead Cells did not. That game is destined to be the one people play and remember, but A Robot Named Fight deserves the attention.

Each run is an impressive challenge in ways I didn’t expect. Typically roguelikes offer up a range of difficulty based on how much health / defense / power you stumble across, combined with some assortment of enemies that may go easy or tough on you. Here, though, the difficulty goes beyond that. It goes into the types of mobility you might find, into the ways in which you are able to navigate areas, into the specific types of challenges assembled around that particular run’s moveset.

A lot of luck goes into a successful run — at least while you are still discovering and figuring out the items the game bestows upon you — but exploring an entire map never takes too long, and failure is rarely frustrating. The game always makes sure you are technically equipped to face whatever you find, and it’s up to you to build up the skill from there. It’s a simple concept executed brilliantly. It’s what Dead Cells falsely gets credit for being. Give this one a try instead.

3) Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

I’d played a few of the very early Ys games, and I enjoyed them, but I knew the series had changed a lot since then. For instance, there would be actual combat instead of two sprites walking into each other. I picked up Ys VIII more or less on a whim; I was in the mood for an RPG on my Switch, and this was on a shelf. That was pretty much my entire thought process. I would have been satisfied with one that was just okay.

Instead, I got one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had all year. Ys VIII is deeply fun and interesting, and in very unexpected ways. The game opens with our protagonist Adol on a ship that is attacked and destroyed by a sea monster. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is what happens next, and for the next dozen or so hours: Adol washes up on the shores of an island…and that’s it.

In many RPGs, it’s your job to save the kingdom, to defeat or halt the looming danger, to essentially serve as some degree of global savior. In Ys VIII, you’re alone on an island. Survive.

It’s such a remarkably simple premise it feels like something an indie game would do. It takes the mechanics and expectations of a classic RPG experience and applies them to one man’s attempts to survive — and hopefully escape — an island full of beasts. You collect resources. You fortify your little dwelling area. You gradually expand the areas you can explore. It’s a setup that has worked well with games such as Minecraft and its countless imitators, but it’s handled entirely through the mechanics of a roleplaying game rather than a crafting / survival one.

The more you explore the more you find other survivors of the wreck, other castaways who help make the island hospitable. Your dwelling becomes a little town. Your chances of escape increase. You learn more about each other and create a new order with its own rules and dynamics. It’s Gilligan’s Island as told by Gary Gygax. Eventually the game does hit upon more comfortable RPG territory, narratively speaking, and that’s okay. But Ys VIII is at its most interesting and most memorable when it’s at its smallest and most basic. It’s worth playing for that alone.

2) Hitman 2

I was late to the Hitman party, I admit. But now that I’m at the Hitman party, all I want to do is run around shouting, “Why are more people not at this Hitman party?!”

The sequel to 2016’s Hitman came out in late 2018, and I grabbed it quickly, knowing full well it couldn’t possibly live up to that game. It lived up to that game. What’s more, if you owned that game, it gave you free access to every single level and mission from it here, letting you replay the previous masterpiece with this masterpiece’s tweaks to the mechanics. That’s one of the most profoundly generous things I’ve seen any game do.

You take control, as ever, of Agent 47. You locate and then stalk and then dispose of your targets in large, complex areas packed full of obstacles, complications, and opportunities. The game is willing to give you a leg up — allowing you to save and reload however often you like, tracking relevant bits of overheard information — but you’ll benefit from not using those features, because the game is actually at its best when things go wrong.

Deciding how you’d like to dispose of a target isn’t (and should not be) the entire experience. Rolling with the cascade of unforeseen consequences of your plan is where the fun is. Restricting yourself from saving and reloading means you’ll have to be extra careful as you plan, and then extraordinarily creative as you adjust on the fly. Failure is the best part of the game, which is good, because failure comes frequently. When it does, you’re in the middle of a brilliantly escalating farce. When it doesn’t — when you’ve planned your hit so perfectly there is no room for complication — it’s a white-knuckle dance of graceful violence, bookended by elegant ingress and egress.

Hitman 2 never has one perfect solution. It has many perfect solutions and innumerable imperfect solutions. It’s a game you can play every night for a week, choosing the same mission every time, and never have the same experience twice. Each level is a fascinating, extraordinary clockwork toy that impresses you more the closer you look at it. I don’t know how such remarkably elastic experiences are designed while still retaining the mark of their creator. Play Hitman 2. Because I’m already worried we might not get a Hitman 3.

1) Resident Evil 2

As I mentioned, it’s been a year without many true standouts. So, hey, let’s open our discussion of my favorite game of the year with a complaint! In 2006, Capcom remade Resident Evil. You’ll have difficulty finding many people who don’t consider that to be one of the greatest remakes in the history of gaming. It was true in spirit to the original, improving it in every aspect without stepping on its identity. Its greatest achievement, though, was the new material, of which there was a lot.

Specifically, there was Lisa Trevor, perhaps one of Umbrella’s most unfortunate victims. Her story is woven through Resident Evil‘s original narrative, and rather than jostling for space with it, it coexists, as though poor Lisa were always shuffling around the Spencer Mansion; we were just fortunate enough not to cross paths with her the first time. Lisa’s story wasn’t just some extra content; it remains for me the best material in the series and in games period.

When Capcom announced this remake of Resident Evil 2, I was excited, mainly because I couldn’t wait to see what their equivalent of Lisa Trevor would be. It turned out to be…nothing. Don’t get me wrong; Capcom did a remarkable job of improving the Resident Evil 2 experience, and I’d be lying if I said there was nothing new, surprising, or unique about the game, but there wasn’t any new material that elevated the game in any notable way from where it already was.

And yet…man, aside from my “I wish I had something I can’t articulate” gripe, I could not ask for anything more from this remake. It’s gorgeous, it’s tough, it’s satisfying, and it became one of the very few games I’ve finished in recent years and immediately started playing again. In fact, I’ve played it several times this year. I won’t say it gets better each time, but I do appreciate a little more of it with every pass.

Some have complained that the remake has actually reduced the number of differences between its two campaigns and the order in which one plays them. That’s correct, full stop, and I don’t intend to argue against that. I wasn’t really bothered by it, however. I admit that that’s disappointing, but like my nebulous complaint above, the game does so much exactly right that I can’t truly fault it for what it chose not to do.

Failure is now an option

There’s no reason to dance around it: The Xmas Bash is cancelled this year.

I’m sorry. That’s something else I don’t want to dance around; I am very sorry.

If you’re still reading, we can dance a little now.

I live in a state of being constantly overwhelmed. Those of you who know me in real life — and probably at least a few of you who only know me from my various creative endeavors — will already know that I do that to myself. Certainly many things happen unexpectedly, but I keep myself in a state of extreme busyness at almost all times.

I sign up for things I probably won’t have time for, and then I force myself to make time for them. I feel one project winding down — and the relief that comes with that — but immediately launch into something else. I’m rarely working on only one thing. That’s a coping mechanism, I’ve learned; the more I overwhelm myself, the less attention I can spare for what’s happening around me.

That was very helpful in my childhood, and I never unlearned it. It’s become helpful again lately in a political climate I think it’s safe to describe as a fucking waking nightmare.

I need to detach and projects drive the wedge. I take on extra work as a freelancer. I proofread and edit and write things for others without charging them because it keeps me busy. I work hard on things nobody else will ever see, and on things others might see but which don’t carry my name. I work because that’s always been my release.

Professionally, that’s great. Personally, that’s definitely not, and it was only ever a matter of time before the plates came crashing down.

And in the past few months, that’s what happened. It’s not a sob story; I’m doing very well! But psychologically, emotionally, I started to unyoke myself from things I didn’t actually need to be a part of. This is a good thing. This is a healthy thing. And it was a necessary thing.

When I was 17 years old I got my first real job. It was at a Taco Bell in the Hamilton Mall. Cheap food and a mall discount; it was great.

Early on, they trained me on a number of jobs so that I could fill in wherever they needed me. One of the roles was something called an “expediter.” It involved gathering up all the meal items that came down the line, putting them on the right trays, and then bringing the trays out to the counter where the customers were waiting.

It wasn’t difficult, but like anything else I’ve done, I wanted to do it well. At one point, probably during a lunch rush, I figured I’d work more efficiently by carrying two trays out at a time…balancing one on each hand.

Clearly predicting misfortune (and I’m sure he was correct), my coworker Jeff stopped me from what I was about to do. He was an insightful guy, and before I even did it he put a stop to it.

He was friendly. He spoke softly. He got my attention, looked me in the eye, and said, “You don’t have to be Superman.” It was good advice. And that day I ruined zero lunches because I carried the trays one at a time…something I could handle.

That was more than 20 years ago. I still think about it a lot. Whenever I know I’m about to grab too much to carry — literally or figuratively — I hear Jeff telling me, trying to help me, “You don’t have to be Superman.”

And then I still grab too much to carry. And I force myself through it and I do it again. I was able to do it once…why not assume I can do it every day for the rest of my life?

This year, I bought a home. I made improvements and repairs to it and moved into it. I worked regularly on my book project. I started another book project. I started writing scripts for TripleJump. My most recent script for them was 50 pages. I got a promotion at work. It came with new responsibilities, on top of the fact that I was already responsible for a monthly publication. I then started working on our annual publication, which usually requires around six months of work but this year — due to uncontrollable circumstances — it had to be done in under two months. I started an exercise routine. I do all of this and more feeling stiff and uncomfortable every day because of an accident I was involved in almost two years ago…which is still tied up in litigation so I have no idea if any treatment will be covered.

And that’s just the surface-level stuff. The smaller jobs and favors that don’t merit mention here but which ensure — because I have ensured it — that I will not stop.

The plates came down. I dropped the trays.

And that’s okay.

But it means that a lot of things I was carrying…didn’t quite survive. I wanted to believe I could still get things together in time for the Xmas Bash, but I couldn’t. I wanted to believe I could keep writing here, but I couldn’t. I wanted to believe I could keep everything running nicely while I overwhelmed myself off camera, but I couldn’t.

And it’s been good for me. I’ve had downtime. Actual, extended downtime for what feels like the first time in ages. And while downtime doesn’t solve most of what I’m up against, it really has helped.

And so I’m cancelling the Xmas Bash. I didn’t want to do it. For five years it’s been my annual highlight, but it’s also been a lot of hard work. It’s an event which grew every year — also my doing, hello there — and which hit the point that I couldn’t carry it anymore.

I don’t think it’s cancelled forever. Maybe it is. I don’t know, but that’s not my intention at least.

It won’t happen this year, though. The time to pull it together doesn’t exist, and that might be a good thing for me. But I am sorry to everybody who was looking forward to it.

As things wrap up now, I am letting them wrap up. Again, not forever, but for the first time in 20+ years, I’m taking Jeff’s advice. I don’t have to be Superman.

The book, which I can hopefully discuss soon, is finished and with the publisher’s proofreaders for final catches. I will be working on another after that, but it won’t require nearly as much effort. I intend to keep working with TripleJump, because that’s a project that excites me and challenges my writing abilities. (They’re also truly great to work with, but…so are most people I’ve ever worked with.) And I’m going to keep this site, updating it when I have something (theoretically) interesting to say. And I hope it goes without saying that I will keep my job.

But that’s it.

I’m going to let things expire, let opportunities pass, and let myself breathe. I have to do that. Whatever somebody’s pace, they can’t keep it up forever. Things slow down. And that’s okay.

I didn’t slow down, and I’ve failed to meet commitments. The Xmas Bash was the biggest and most important one, to me. I did that to myself, because I kept picking things up and never letting them go.

I apologize for that. There is nobody I blame but myself.

And so this will be the first year in a long time without an Xmas Bash. For that, I am sorry.

But at least know that in the background, I’m not panicking, I’m not soliciting submissions desperately, I’m not struggling with technical issues I have no idea how to resolve.

I don’t have to be Superman.

And I’m going to let myself be alright with that.

Trilogy of Terror: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

It’s easy to review horror without giving any indication that you were or are under its spell. You can talk about the inventiveness of the central concept, the performances, the casting. You can talk about the dialogue. You can talk about how predictable or unpredictable it was.

But talk about horror — actually talk, with actual people — and it becomes much more difficult. With very few exceptions, your friends won’t want to hear or talk about the gears in the machine. They’ll want to hear and talk about the film’s effect.

“It wasn’t scary,” and “It scared the hell out of me,” are two of the things you’ll hear most frequently. That’s not necessarily because your friends don’t have the vocabulary to assess the film on deeper levels; it’s because how much it spooked you is the common language of horror, just as how much something made you laugh is the common language of comedy and how much something made you cry is the common language of drama.

Horror, though, is a bit different than those other genres. We know comedy is comedy and drama is drama. We may chuckle or cry a bit when thinking back on a film, but they are still isolated experiences. Our reality is distinct from them, and we know it. By contrast, horror rewires our brains.

Growing up I had a friend who watched the film Arachnophobia, and for years afterward — into adulthood — she would never hang her feet off the edge of her bed, both knowing that there were no spiders waiting underneath and knowing for sure that there were. Another friend once told me about how he played the original Resident Evil and could no longer sleep in the same room as the game’s box; every night he checked to make sure it was somewhere else.

And, of course, there’s me, the biggest baby who still likes horror. When I was little, somebody gave me a gift for Christmas or for my birthday. It was a little plastic bank shaped like the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors. I liked it. Its closed mouth pointed upward and there were little metal contacts on its front teeth. You’d stick a coin there and it would open up and swallow the money. Then I actually watched the movie and it scared the fuck out of me and I didn’t want anything to do with the bank anymore.

Horror makes us see shapes in the shadows. It assigns intent to sounds in the night. It follows us into our dreams and refuses to let us go.

At least, effective horror does. And that’s the great irony of horror; the better it is at fucking with us, the more often we come back. The more we come back, the more it…gets inside of us. For me, John Carpenter is the guy who most often keeps me coming back. I collect his special editions. I try to see any of his films that I can when they pop up in my local boutique theater. I have an autographed poster of his…from In the Mouth of Madness.

Others, of course, turn to other writers and directors. The characters in this film turn to novelist Sutter Cane. “I just like being scared,” one of them explains. So do his other readers, and we see what happens when his writings get into them.

Sutter Cane is a writer whose books are driving readers insane. It’s rewiring their brains not only to make them afraid of bumps in the night, but to see visions, to lash out, to murder.

It’s clear enough that H.P. Lovecraft is the real-world template for Cane’s works. The little we see and hear of his writing shares Lovecraft’s penchant for description over action, for scene setting over narrative. The effect Cane’s works has on readers is also a nod to the man, as Lovecraft’s writings feature beings so far beyond human comprehension that to even see them is to be driven permanently insane. And, of course, there’s the fact that Lovecraft’s Old Ones are similar to the creatures Cane is bringing to life, but we’ll get to that later.

Another — and arguably stronger — inspiration for Cane is Stephen King.

Allow me to vent for just a moment.

Look up Siskel and Ebert discussing In the Mouth of Madness and find strings of comments calling them out for saying Cane is a King analogue. Look at any review or retrospective that cites King in addition to or instead of Lovecraft and it will be punctuated by angry comments “correcting” the writer. Look at Wikipedia and see that the closest acknowledgement of King its editors will allow is “The film can also be seen as a reference to Stephen King.”

Let me say this clearly: Get off your damned high horse. The Cane / King connection is crucial, important, and obvious. I’ll explain why in my own words, but if you’re already preparing to ignore them, know that Carpenter himself refers to Cane as a King analogue in his own commentary for the film, so nyeh.

Cane is both Lovecraft and King. He’s Lovecraft’s mind with King’s celebrity. He’s Lovecraft’s influence with King’s merchandising. He’s Lovecraft’s visions with King’s endless releases, translations, and film adaptations.

Sutter Cane — even the sound of his name suggests Stephen King, come on now — is a product of his publisher’s marketing. We see his name plastered across marquees, book displays, posters, hats, shirts, coffee mugs, buses.

Do let me know, of course, if that sounds more like Lovecraft to you than King.

Certainly Lovecraft lived and wrote a century ago, before there was such a thing as mass merchandising, but it’s important to remember that he never experienced his own time’s equivalent of fame. Lovecraft was broke. His stories were sometimes published for a pittance, and usually they were rejected. His influence and significance have both grown over the years, but he was long dead by the time that happened. He ended his career believing himself to be a failure without an audience.

Compare that to Cane and the long lines at bookstores — and riots when they run out of copies — and you’ll see that Lovecraft alone isn’t the key to what’s happening here.

In addition, there’s Cane’s fictional town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire, the setting for a large number (possibly all) of his stories. That’s not far removed from King’s fictional Castle Rock, Maine, which serves the same purpose. (The states even share a border.)

It’s also, of course, important to remember that “Stephen King” isn’t just a famous novelist Carpenter is likely to have heard of; Carpenter adapted Christine for the big screen. He’s personally familiar with King, with his stories, what they’re like…and how strongly his work resonates with his audience.

That’s what In the Mouth of Madness is about. Resonance. Impact. Effect.

More specifically — though definitely not exclusively — it’s about the effect it has on John Trent (Sam Neill, Memoirs of an Invisible Man), a freelance insurance investigator we meet as he’s being admitted to a mental hospital. He’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, Body Bags) who is skeptical of Trent’s madness.

Wrenn and Trent have similar jobs, actually. Trent makes his living poking holes in people’s fraudulent insurance claims, and Wrenn here believes there’s a hole in Trent’s claim of insanity. After all, when Trent arrived he fought the orderlies, cried out for help, swore that he was sane…but as soon as he was locked up he settled down, and used a black crayon to cover himself and the padded walls with crosses.

“They’d almost have to keep you in here, once they’d seen these,” Wrenn says. “Wouldn’t they, John?”

Sure enough, Trent faked at least the severity of his madness so that he’d be locked up. Why? “It’s safer in here now,” he explains.

Trent is our protagonist, which is worth pointing out only because the other two films in this trilogy don’t have them. MacReady is our de facto protagonist in The Thing, but in the same way that he’s that team’s leader: he isn’t, but nobody else will do it. In Prince of Darkness, another version of the film could easily position Brian or the priest (or Catherine) as the protagonist, but the version we got is either an ensemble piece or a film with Satan as its star, depending on your perspective.

Here, it’s Trent and only Trent. And he’s not just the film’s protagonist; he’s also Cane’s.

Trent tells his story to Wrenn, and we follow along. It begins with him hard at work, interviewing Peter Jason (we went over his filmography with Carpenter last week) about his insurance claim, ultimately proving it fraudulent.

Trent’s occupation, demeanor, skill, and fashion sense are straight out of Double Indemnity. He’s like a character plucked from a different story. Believably human, but out of place. He keeps lighting up cigarettes like a character in a movie made 50 years ago, often then being told smoking isn’t allowed, which seems like unexpected and unwelcome information to him.

When he meets Linda Styles — Cane’s editor — his noir sensibilities are brought even more to the fore. She’s prudish and straightlaced, exactly the dame he knows from another story entirely, fully aware that she’ll take off her glasses and let down her hair and reveal the smokey sexuality he hides within. Which is exactly what happens. He even flirts with her with fast, quippy banter that feels more like it belongs in a Raymond Chandler novel than a horror film.

But Trent isn’t a character; he’s a human being. Right? At least, that what he keeps telling people, and trying to tell himself. Twice he says, “Nobody pulls my strings.” At other points he says, “I’m my own man.” “I know what I am.” “I’m not a piece of fiction.” He makes repeated claims that “this is reality.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

As we learn, it isn’t reality. He isn’t a person. And when he meets Cane, the mad author tells him, “I think, therefore you are.”

Again, though, we get ahead of ourselves.

Trent is hired by Cane’s publisher to find the novelist, who’s gone missing. Nobody knows where he is, if he’s coming back, or whether or not he’s still alive. All the publisher knows for sure is that his newest book, In the Mouth of Madness, is at least partially complete, because they received several chapters through his agent.

Cane’s agent would be a great person for Trent to interview, but it turns out they already met.

His agent was driven insane by those sample chapters alone. He smashed through a diner window and attempted to kill Trent before being gunned down by police.

“You’d think a guy that outsells Stephen King could find better representation,” Trent quips. His quip falls flat. He doesn’t realize he’s in a different story now.

Trent picks up a few Sutter Cane novels and gets reading. They immediately give him nightmares, literally reconfiguring in his mind things he’s seen, such a policeman beating up a vandal in reality who becomes a hideous monster in his dream. His brain is being rewired by Cane, whose writing is (clearly) effective, even if it isn’t very good.

“Pulp horror novels,” Trent describes them to a friend. “They all seem to have the same plot: slimy things in the dark, people go mad, they turn into monsters.” He does concede that they’re better written than he expected, but qualifies that by saying what he really means: “They sort of get to you, in a way.”

Horror doesn’t need to be good in order to be effective, and not all effective horror is good. You don’t need to believe A Nightmare on Elm Street is a good film to see Freddy pop up in your dreams. You don’t need to think The Blair Witch Project is a good film to have your thoughts haunted by it as you walk through the woods at night.

I’ve read a lot of both authors and I’d say that neither Lovecraft nor King are particularly great ones. They both, however, unquestionably have an astonishing wealth of ideas. Ideas that stick. Ideas that are so strong that they succeed in spite of whatever flaws you find in the writing. Trent calls Cane a “hack horror writer,” which might be true but doesn’t matter either way. His writing is effective, and that’s genuinely what is important…both in reality and in this film.

After a long night of studying Cane, Trent notices red lines worked into the cover art of each of his books. He cuts along those lines with scissors and ends up with pieces that fit together to form the shape of New Hampshire, with a single red dot showing, he believes, the “location” of the fictional Hobb’s End. In short, he figures this entire thing is a publicity stunt.

“Makes a great contest, doesn’t it?” Trent asks Cane’s publisher. “Put the pieces together, find the town, win a Sutter Cane lunchbox.”

His publisher swears that’s not the case, and sends Trent and Styles out to find the town, which they do. The invented town of Hobb’s End isn’t on any map, but it does exist, apparently.

The two explore the town, finding everything exactly as Cane described it, right down to a loose floorboard. They encounter characters from the novels, which worries Styles but only further convinces Trent that the entire thing is a setup…an elaborate hoax to freak him out so he will “blab to the media about Cane’s haunted little town, help you sell a few more million copies. Well, fuck that.”

He understandably refuses to believe that a novelist has willed a town into existence and is hiding there, but Styles is genuinely worried. She confesses that they had indeed planned on pulling some kind of publicity stunt — even sent Cane away to get the gossip flowing — but he never showed up at his destination. While manufacturing his disappearance, he really disappeared.

What worries her most is the fact that she’s seeing characters and events in the town that nobody else could know about, because they only appeared in the few chapters of Cane’s upcoming book that he sent to his agent. With his agent dead, only two people know what was in those pages: her and Cane himself.

Without Trent, Styles investigates the church where they think they caught a glimpse of Cane through the doors. She does indeed find him there, working at his typewriter. He expected her, of course. In fact, he wrote her.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he tells her. “For years, I thought I was making all this up, but they were telling me what to write. Giving me the power to make it all real. And now it is.”

And that’s what Carpenter posits with In the Mouth of Madness, that Lovecraft and King and Cane and Carpenter aren’t actually founts of incredible ideas…they’re conduits. Somebody — or something — is speaking through them. They don’t close their eyes and generate their own spooky ideas that they can then pass on to an audience; they’re being fed them by something that needs their audience to be frightened into belief. To not just think there might be a monster in the dark, but to believe there is.

Cane ends up being that perfect conduit, and what author wouldn’t pounce on an opportunity like that? Once he learns that ancient creatures are using him and his popularity to bring about their rebirth, well…he keeps writing. Because people are buying it. Because people love him. Because people fight each other and claw each other’s eyes out over the last copy of his latest book at any given store.

He’s a literary celebrity, two words that even in the film don’t often go together.

Cane doesn’t kill himself or warn anybody or fight against the evil forces that use him. He willingly extends his hand so that the devil may shake it. “Someone is going to get fame and fortune in exchange for bringing about the end of the world, right?” we can assume he thinks. “It might as well be me.”

The forces of evil here operate by the opposite rules of those in Prince of Darkness. There, our belief in them made them weak. They were sealed away in a prison, and we were each its wardens. The more we turned our backs, stopped paying attention, stopped caring what it got up to its cell, the greater the chance it had to escape.

Here, our belief makes them strong. The more people who believe in Cane’s slimy, otherworldly monsters, the more people who see them in the shadows, the more people who can be convinced that they lurk under the bed, the stronger they become, and the easier it becomes for them to cross into our reality.

And, it must be said, Cane loves this. I think it’s pretty easy to agree that someone who is offered fame in exchange for destroying the world and replies, “Yes, please,” is a pretty bad guy, but that’s not all Cane is. Cane relishes his status not only as the most famous or profitable author on the planet, but as the most powerful one.

Authors create worlds that both don’t exist and do. They take the form of ink on a page. A series of letters making a series of words making a series of sentences making a series of paragraphs that bring life in the minds and hearts of readers to Captain Ahab, Ebenezer Scrooge, Harry Potter, or Count Dracula. Something that blipped into an author’s mind is encoded as text and circulated, and if it resonates with a large enough audience, the real world adopts it. It takes on a life and an endurance beyond the page. It started in a fictional world, but now it’s part of ours.

Quite literally, the author changes the world.

That’s a seductive concept. And while very, very few writers will create any characters as enduring as the ones I mentioned above, any author who is read at all does transport his fictional concepts into real human beings…where they then live, grow, evolve, haunt. They take on a life beyond the words that created them.

One of the highest compliments I’ve ever received was from somebody who had read one of my stories. She was talking to a friend and something in the conversation sparked a memory for her. Midway through relaying that memory she realized it wasn’t something that actually happened…it was a scene in my story that had stuck with her so effectively that her brain didn’t remember that it was fiction. In her mind, at least for a moment, it wasn’t something she’d read; it was something she’d experienced.

I gave her words, and she gave them life. What an incredible honor that is for any author, any writer, any director, any artist.

Carpenter certainly knows a thing or two how it feels to see his fanciful ideas shaping reality. Halloween gave generations to come a new costume. Escape from New York inspired one of the most iconic video game characters in history. When somebody jokes about a car having a mind of its own by calling it Christine, it’s Carpenter’s film that turned that name into a cultural touchpoint. King reached readers; Carpenter reached everyone else.

Cane reached readers, too, at first, but gradually gained more power. He wasn’t just filling people’s heads with visions of Hobb’s End; he was chiseling it into the New Hampshire countryside. He’d put a monster in this greenhouse, a murderous old woman in that hotel, a pack of violent children near the church.

And he’d do it because he could.

We don’t know if Cane created Trent, but it almost doesn’t matter. Trent has memories of a long life before he ever even heard of Sutter Cane, but those could be artifical. (Or, as Cane would call it, backstory.) Is he a gifted freelance insurance investigator, or is he just a character written as one? A character who only exists out of narrative necessity?

Whether he’s a real person or a fictional character, though, Cane is a powerful enough author that he holds dominion over him.

He toys with him. When Trent tries to escape the town, Cane keeps rewriting things so that every road leading out turns him right back inward. When Trent tries to lose or destroy the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness, Cane keeps writing it right back into his hands. And in my favorite moment, while a distressed Trent dozes on the bus, Cane appears to him in a dream.

“Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?” Cane asks him, and Trent awakens to find everything is now blue.

In truth, this is not unique to Trent. Cane invents characters, uses them, and then writes them out. He reconfigures the world to suit his needs and his vision. Like any author, Cane is constantly editing.

Trent’s tragedy is that he is the only character who remembers the previous edits. His world is constantly being updated around him. People he grew close to are proven to never have existed. He’s been to places that nobody can find. He remembers things that can’t — and could not have — happened, all because he retains memories of those earlier drafts…those earlier versions of reality.

“Reality is not what it used to be,” a man tells Trent. The man came to Hobb’s End just like Trent did. His family was rewritten, and now he’s alone. “The thing I can’t remember is what came first,” he says. “Us, or the book.”

The man readies a gun for suicide and Trent objects. But the man doesn’t hesitate.

“I have to,” he explains. “He wrote me this way.”

As I discussed in the two previous entries, Carpenter’s films are about their characters figuring out the rules the govern the world around them. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Trent is in the horrifying position of trying to figure out rules that are always changing, and it’s a miracle he retains his sanity as long as he does.

What finally breaks Trent is a conversation with Cane’s publisher. He learns two things. The first is that Styles never existed. Of course she did; he has memories of her and she was an integral part of the story. In fact, rewatching the movie with this in mind, we see that Styles and her boss interact a number of times, meaning Cane really did rewrite things to remove her from the story — and the world — entirely.

That’s frustrating to Trent, but not unexpected. He’s used to these tricks by now.

Then he learns something else. While explaining to the publisher why he will not turn over Cane’s final manuscript, the publisher tells him that he already has. Trent brought it to him months ago. It’s been in stores for weeks. The movie will be released shortly.

Throughout the film Trent fights against what Cane keeps telling him is his character’s purpose. Trent is the character who travels to Hobb’s End to retrieve the manuscript, get it published, and unleash unthinkable horror upon the world. Trent refuses at every turn to play his role, no matter what the emotional or psychological cost of noncompliance.

And then he learns that he did it anyway. If Trent wouldn’t cooperate, Cane would just write that he’d done it already. We don’t need to have a chapter in which he does…we just need a chapter in which he did.

Which leads to Trent either fulfilling Cane’s circular narrative or breaking out of it; he picks up an axe and murders somebody, just as Cane’s agent tried to murder him at the film’s start.

It’s an act of calculated madness. Cruel, but he feels he has no other choice. “Every species can smell its own extinction,” he tells Wrenn.

If he’s going to survive the otherworldly invasion brought about by Cane’s latest masterpiece, he’s going to need to be somewhere very secure. He gets locked away in the institution. It’s a cruel and dehumanizing place, but it’s preferable to the literal apocalypse unfolding outside its walls.

We don’t see much of the apocalypse, but we see (and hear over the radio) enough to know the situation is hopeless. Mankind is in the active process of being exterminated. Cane’s tales were so believable that people knew his monsters existed…and they certainly didn’t stop believing when the monsters actually showed up to kill them.

But even then, as the world burns, Cane isn’t done running his favorite character through the wringer.

The door to Trent’s room swings open. There’s no explanation for it. There’s no need for one. Cane is long past hiding his narrative contrivance.

Trent stumbles out. He encounters no other human being. The movie theater is within easy walking distance of the mental institution. Why not? That’s where we need it to be. It’s playing the film adaptation of Cane’s brand-new novel, In the Mouth of Madness.

Whatever was going to happen already happened. However much Trent managed to postpone tragedy — if at all — he can’t postpone it anymore. He might as well pour himself a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show.

He sees himself on the big screen ranting about reality, insisting that reality is what he says it is, promising that it is solid and unchangeable…and the Trent watching the film laughs.

And laughs, and laughs.

What else can you do?

Early in the film, Trent and Styles debate the nature of reality. She tells him that reality is just an agreement everyone has with each other, and that what really scares her about Cane’s work is how scary reality would be if it shared his point of view.

Which is what happens. It’s what Cane wants to happen. It’s what Cane rubs Trent’s nose in at the end of the film. The Trent on the screen — actual clips from the movie we’ve just seen — was the real Trent. Now the real Trent is eating popcorn and watching it. Reality and fiction have switched places.

It’s a pretty good joke, even if Trent is the only one left who can appreciate it.

Of course, there’s another possibility: Trent really did go insane, and he did so very early in the film.

His visions and nightmares start not after but during an all-night binge of Sutter Cane. Anything we see after that could be representative of his descent into madness. Seeking out the author, exploring the town he just read about, meeting characters from the story…it’s possible that none of that happened.

And if that’s the case, well…what did happen?

We do know that Cane’s writings caused insanity, that his horror rewired minds, that his fans became fanatics. (“Do you read Sutter Cane?”) There are riots. Violence. A crazy man attempts to murder Trent with an axe. Readers bleed from the eye, move through life in a daze, ignore their personal hygiene, mutter seeming nonsense. They detach from reality. Whether that’s due to Lovecraftian Elder Gods speaking through Cane or just due to his particular, creative approach as an artist, the result is the same.

Trent’s mind wouldn’t even have to stretch very far to imagine what at first seems like a very complex hallucination. As Cane explains late in the movie, “All those horrible, slimy things trying to get back in? They’re all true.” The horror we see unfold in Hobb’s End, the specific motivations of the hideous creatures forcing their way back into our world…well, Cane already wrote that, and Trent just read it. All his mind needs to do is let fact and fiction change places.

Cane’s agent, as well, never traveled to Hobb’s End to see the monsters; he only read the sample chapters Cane sent along. Ditto everyone else participating in the violence in the streets. They didn’t go on the same pilgrimage Trent thinks he did; they just read the books. We don’t know what’s happening in their minds. Trent doesn’t know what’s happening in his.

And so when Trent appears outside of a bookstore, disheveled, carrying an axe, and starts hacking away at a Sutter Cane fan…is that an act of calculated madness to keep him safe from ancient beasts? Or, y’know, is that actual madness because he thinks the ancient beasts in Cane’s writings are real?

Remember that Dr. Wrenn, after listening to Trent’s entire tale, dismisses it. He is a professional who works with the mentally ill on a daily basis, and after listening to Trent’s elaborate, paranoid ramblings, he doesn’t see it as anything of particular worry. The guy is crazy, and now he’s in a cell. Wrenn is satisfied, professionally, with that alone.

Of course, then, what of the apocalypse? Without the monsters clawing their way back to an Earth that once was theirs, what ends the world?

Well, as we’ve been told, it ends with a whimper. We never see the monsters outside of either Trent’s tale or his point of view. The murders and deaths and killings are real, whatever Trent does or does not see as the impetus.

It’s his mind assigning that form to something very simple: The most widely read author on the planet is driving his readers nuts.

Enough people read Sutter Cane that the number of insane quickly outnumber the sane.

“Sane and insane could easily switch places,” Styles tells him early on. “If the insane were to become the majority, you would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”

She’s making conversation. Nothing to worry about, really.

In the Mouth of Madness is often considered Carpenter’s last great film. I don’t buy that, but I also know I’m a bit more willing to search for merit than most people. (Seriously, though, the existence of Vampires is evidence that this can’t be his last great film.) If this movie does end up standing as his final major cultural achievement, though, that’s not such a bad thing. It deserves attention, however it gets it.

It’s not a movie that I hear people talk about often. In fact, I only ended up watching it because a friend told me I needed to. It had been on my radar as a love letter to Lovecraft, but beyond that I didn’t know anything.

And while I do think it’s the weakest of the Apocalypse Trilogy, that’s less to do with any failing on this film’s part than it is to do with the incredibly high bar set by the other two films. Taken on its own merits, In the Mouth of Madness is a weird, memorable, and often very funny film.

It’s the least scary, but that’s almost certainly because its central danger is the most complex. It’s relatively easy to put yourself in the place of someone who can no longer trust anybody he knows, or someone tasked with stopping an evil presence she doesn’t even understand. I think it’s far more difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who is a character doomed to remember all the rewrites of the story he occupies.

Which, to be totally honest, is probably why Carpenter leans pretty heavily into comedy here. It doesn’t come at the expense of horror, but it keeps us tagging along, and keeps us interested in a situation it’s safe to say none of us will ever experience.

I like that, actually. I like that the Apocalypse Trilogy closes off with a film that both finally brings us the apocalypse and keeps it at a distance. We already can’t relate to Trent’s plight, so having his film be the one that actually faces the apocalypse makes it something easier to enjoy as we sit in the dark, watching, stuffing our faces with popcorn.

It’s just fiction. It’s just something some writer came up with somewhere. We just like being scared. Nobody pulls our strings.

And we’ll laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Thank you for reading.

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