Lemony Snicket Proves I Can Love Literary Fiction

This is a review — a word which here means, “an excuse to write about a book that I like” — for the book, Poison for Breakfast. This book was written by Daniel Handler, who sometimes calls himself Lemony Snicket when he’s writing books. He mostly uses straightforward language, and when he doesn’t, he likes to define the words he’s using, as I just did, above.

Poison for Breakfast is a book that takes its time getting where it’s going, but it does get there. So I’m going to take my time getting where I’m going in this review. I’ll start by talking about music and books.

How I’ve Felt About Music

I first recall really paying attention to music, beginning to realize that I might have opinions about music, in middle school. Those opinions were mainly whether I liked a particular song or not. For some music lovers, there is a particular genre they fall in love with, and it becomes a lifelong passion. I had no conception of genre, at first. That came sometime later.

When I did develop opinions about genre, they were mostly vague and negative ones, influenced, if not outright parroting, my parents’ tastes. I recall “hating” techno, rap, and country music, or at least saying that I did.

As I grew into an adult, I made it a point of pride to seek out opinions and ideas that challenge or conflict with my own beliefs, whether that be in politics, religion, or music. I’ve been an adult for many years now (a shocking number, when I stop to think about it), and I’ve sought to listen to a wide variety of music. Luckily, we live in a world where there are still a few independent radio stations and innumerable streaming services, not to mention Bandcamp, YouTube, and all the other places where artists can make their work available to the world without much interference.

I’ve learned that there is no genre of music I truly dislike. The trick is to find a single song that I can appreciate. From there, I always find more. Rather than genres that I “hate,” it turns out I just have genres where I’m pickier.

A Little Cognitive Dissonance

From a very young age, I’ve been attracted to genre fiction. I loved books about aliens when I was a child. Around the time I was discovering opinions about music, my mother’s co-worker introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I was thoroughly hooked on fantasy as well as sci-fi.

As I grew and my tastes in music expanded, so did my tastes in literature. Once again, all it takes is finding one book to serve as a gateway into a new genre. While I once may have eschewed non-fiction or romance, I’ve discovered a love of all sorts of non-fiction in recent years, and a few romances too (even if they do have a sci-fi bent).

I just talked about how I like to keep an open mind and expand my interests. It might seem absurd then, that I would shy away from any genre of literature. But the absurdity of it doesn’t make it any less true.

Literary fiction, which oddly has become as much a closed-off genre as sci-fi or fantasy, has long left a bitter taste in my mouth. Since this is a label more controversial than most genre labels, I’ll provide my own controversial definition: “fiction that is more interested in playing with words than in telling a compelling story.” This is a definition that encompasses quite a lot of “traditional” Lit-Fic, while also allowing something like Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, which many people might exclude, to perhaps straddle the border.

I might trace my early dislikes in music to my parents tastes, but I have a harder time tracing my literary dislikes. I’m sure it didn’t help that school foisted onto me some of these lit-fic “masterpieces,” like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, without adequate context and certainly before I was mature enough to appreciate much about them. I have gone back to a few of these books in recent years, and discovered that they at least have something to offer, even if I didn’t fall in love with all of them.

Literary Fiction

Writing a review of a book that barely mentions the book itself is considered bad form by many people. With this in mind, and having now taken a leisurely drive around the metaphorical block, let’s return to where we started this somewhat strained music/literature metaphor.

This is one of those books that, by my own definition, qualifies as literary fiction. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not only that, but what I enjoyed most was the words, rather than the story. I enjoyed it because it was literary fiction.

One could argue (with good supporting evidence) that this book does have a plot. It begins with Snicket, the narrator, who is told by anonymous note that he has eaten poison for breakfast. He spends the rest of the book trying to solve this mystery, though his methods mostly involve meandering around town and becoming lost in thought. It’s a tiny plot, but also a tiny book. This little bit of story is just enough to let the book focus on what it really wants to do, which is play with words.

Poison for Breakfast is so full of delightful sentences that I started marking the bits I liked with little scraps of paper. By the time I finished, there was a nice, thick ruffle of scraps sticking out. The book is full of anecdotes and asides that seem like non sequiturs until you read a bit further and find that they’re referenced again and again; linguistic winks and nods, like inside jokes with the reader. It wraps back around on itself. It pulls disparate threads together and twists them into delightful and surprising shapes.

There are motifs, like sets of rules that turn out to really only be one rule from a certain point of view, or that a good story must be bewildering, or the contents of the narrator’s breakfast, left-justified like poetry with each individual food on its own line:

Tea

with honey,

a piece of toast

with cheese,

one sliced pear,

and one egg perfectly prepared

And there is death. This is a book that mentions brutal prison camps; and death by starvation, and old age, and of course, poison.

Winks and Nods

A book about being poisoned might not sound like a child-friendly book. And perhaps it isn’t. Like Snicket’s other books, this is a book that observes the world with a child-like wonder, and discusses it with mostly simple and straightforward language. It’s a book that seems to understand a child’s perspective. It is more of a child-understanding book. It feels like the sort of conversation you might have been lucky enough to have as a child, with an adult who spoke seriously and honestly, and didn’t sugar-coat the truth or dumb-down the complicated. An adult who understood how to speak with children as equals.

By virtue of being both author and narrator, Snicket places himself where he can freely talk about his love of language and literature, and the books, poems, songs, and ideas he likes, while also illustrating that joy in his own words.

The second-to-last chapter takes all the little callbacks, the little winks and nods, and ties them all together in a neat little bundle. It’s the big reveal at the end of the magic show. And in the final chapter, Snicket sets to work writing the story you are in the midst of reading, making the whole thing feel like the cycle of chicken and egg (which is itself another repeated motif from earlier in the book).

Poison or Antidote?

Poison for Breakfast reminded me that I can love literary fiction, even if it’s not the first section I visit in the book store. As an added bonus, this is a book ostensibly for children, so I will get to enjoy it a second time when I read it to mine. With any luck, they won’t spend years thinking that they dislike whole categories of things when they are, in fact, just a little bit picky.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — The Stanley Parable

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to personify different types of media for a moment.

Literature is the eldest. From flash fiction to the longest novels, it has been thoroughly explored. Comfortable in its tropes and standard structures, but permitting all kinds of experimentalism. Home to derivative commercial fiction and plotless literary meanderings.

Cinema, and its fraternal twin, television, are mature adults, but perhaps not quite as well-explored as their venerable older sibling. With the advent of ubiquitous streaming, we’re seeing new and exciting forms that break the strict boundaries of commercial viability that have constrained them for so much of their history.

Finally, there are video games. Just blooming into their teenage years, they have realized with a thrill that they can become something more than what they currently are, but are still not quite sure what they want to be when they grow up.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is indicative of these teenage growing pains, grappling with the questions of experience and participation that we’ve discussed here before. The game is nearly a decade old, and the narrative ideas that it pioneered have been expanded in other games since then. However, a new expanded edition is coming early next year, so now seems like a great time to talk about it.

The game begins with a black screen and cheerful, perhaps cheeky music plays as we zoom slowly through a very dull office building. We land in a particular drab office, facing the uninteresting back of a man in front of his computer.

The very British narrator sets the scene:

This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee # 427. Employee # 427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee 427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others might have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.

And then one day, something very peculiar happened, something that would forever change Stanley, something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he realized that not one, single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say hi. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time, but as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.

At this moment, when the player first gains control of Stanley, the game has already hinted at its objectives. Stanley has been made exactly for this job. He has been frozen solid, unable to move, as he waits for the player to finish the cut-scene. The player and Stanley have exactly one way to proceed: get up from the desk and step out of the office.

It is this interplay between the player and The Narrator that The Stanley Parable is all about.

The Meta-Narrative

A single play-through of The Stanley Parable is short and strange, and not especially profound. It might elicit a few chuckles. It might be a bit uncomfortable. And then the scene fades and Stanley and the player find themselves back in the office, starting over. The game is not in the play, but in the replay. The peculiarities of The Stanley Parable only become apparent when playing the game over and over again.

As the player, you soon discover that you can make choices that change the story. In fact, your choices have such a radical effect on the story that it is completely different and often contradictory between playthroughs. Strangely, this mish-mash of alternative stories makes any one version of it seem less and less significant. You may like or dislike particular stories, but the game doesn’t tell you how to win or lose. As a player, the most obvious goal is to explore and discover all the different ways to “complete” the game.

In this way, the narrative becomes unimportant. It’s the meta-narrative that matters.

Through playing over and over again, you also discover that you can interact with The Narrator himself. He does his best to describe what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do. He explains that you’ll go left at the fork, and the you can make him a liar by choosing to go right. He explains that there’s nothing of interest in that broom closet, but you can choose to sit there anyway, much to The Narrator’s consternation.

And yet, this is a false rebellion. The Narrator is just another character in the story. Even if you fight the story he has planned for you at every juncture, you’re still choosing from options that have been meticulously planned by the developers of the game. You can foil The Narrator, but you’re still playing into the hands of the developers.

You have choices, and those choices have consequences…for a little bit. Then the game starts over. The world begins anew. The Stanley Parable asks if those choices—choices pre-defined and wiped away after each reset—have any meaning. Can any choices in a video game have any meaning when they only have consequences within the game, and perhaps, within the player?

A Light Touch

These are heady questions, and a lesser game might find itself mired in dull philosophy. However, The Stanley Parable couches everything in absurdism. It alternates constantly between the bizarre and the mundane. Kevan Brighting’s voice acting as The Narrator provides dry wit and hammy over-acting in equal measure.

The game is enjoyable even if you only pay attention to the surface-level silliness. But it gives the player the opportunity to dig deeper, if they so choose. Chances are good that some of the well-hidden story paths will slip by even a dedicated player without a guide, giving the impression that the game just keeps getting more subtle and strange as you invest more time into it. A quick google search for “the meaning of The Stanley Parable” will make it clear that plenty of players have chosen to dig very, very deep into the game. Honestly, maybe a little too deep.

And Even More?

It’ll be interesting to see what The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe edition adds to the original game. This is a game that really affected the landscape of narrative games in the eight years since its release, but that also means that it’s no longer necessarily on the cutting edge.

The marketing copy suggests there will be “new endings and new choices,” which again is merely the surface-level experience that the game offers. More interesting to me will be any new directions the developers take the meta-narrative ideas of the first game. Will it be derivative of the original, or introduce something new?

Getting the Game

The original Stanley Parable is available on PC via Steam.

Despite several delays, the Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is expected in 2022, on Steam and consoles.

This is How You Lose the Time War

In this novella by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, Red is a covert agent in a war raging across time. She is advanced beyond what we can comprehend as mere 21st-century readers, able to transform into whatever shape is needed, blending into any time and place, subtly adjusting the strands of causality to build new futures in a constantly shifting multiverse, the way generals build battlefield positions on the field of war.

One day, Red finds one of her carefully-laid plans foiled, and a playful message waiting for her from Blue, her counterpart on the opposing side. A rivalry takes shape, and from it, a romance. Attack and counter-attach across time, punctuated by ever more elaborate (and personal) coded messages.

Structure

For most of the book, each chapter follows one of these agents on a mission to a new place and time. Never enough to understand the purpose exactly, or the larger framing of the time war. Then, the text of a letter from one agent to the other. The next chapter, the point of view swaps.

I wondered at first how long the structure could sustain the story. However, the times and places are varied and tantalizing without being entirely clear, and the slow shift from rivalry to romance is believable and satisfying.

There is also an additional mystery woven throughout — an unidentified seeker that follows Red and Blue from chapter to chapter, studying and absorbing the correspondence they believe to be carefully hidden or destroyed. If they are found out, by their own superiors or the enemy, they will both be undone. Eventually, the back-and-forth structure does break down, and it’s the mystery of the seeker that comes to the fore and carries the story to its conclusion.

Respecting the Reader

In proper time-travel fashion, the story wraps around and through itself, as we discover that the characters are far more intertwined than even they knew. The authors make the wise decision to not go too deep into the details of time travel or the complexities of rewriting timelines across parallel universes. It mostly avoids, through obscurity, the inevitable inconsistencies that tend to bring out the worst kind of overly-pedantic reviewers.

The book doesn’t dawdle around, explaining the exact nature of the war, the two sides, or even the agents. We are thrown into a strange world head-first (many, in fact), and expected to keep up. We know that Red’s Agency faction uses advanced technology and bold tactics, and Blue’s Garden faction uses advanced biology and subtly turns the enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. And that’s enough.

I Feel Seen

The book has, at this point, won pretty much all of the best awards a sci-fi novella is eligible to win. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like it was tailored to me.

I was delighted to find references to strategy in the game of Go (atari and lack of liberties). Granted, Go is probably more popular in the West than ever before, but it still feels like an obscure hobby. The characters also discuss Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison, a favorite of mine and the best book that I have ever discovered in a Little Free Library. I don’t expect these things to resonate with the average reader, but they further endeared the story to me.

To Summarize

This is the best book I’ve read in 2021, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi, time travel, romance or people who discover what really matters to them, and do everything in their power to protect it. The writing is ornate without being overwrought. The story takes some unexpected (but not unreasonable) twists and turns. It’s a quick read, but feels exactly long enough.

It is, in short, quite good. Go read it.

Five Things I Learned from The Clan of the Cave Bear

I mentioned in my previous Razor Mountain post that I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. A portion of Razor Mountain follows a pre-historic tribe, and Cave Bear is one of the few titles I’ve come across that is set in a similar time period, albeit in a different part of the world.

The book gave me some things to think about as far as prehistoric settings go. There were aspects of it I really enjoyed. However, the book also had a number of small issues that, taken together, made it a frustrating read for me. Today, I want to dig into those things, and try to discover what I can learn from them to improve my own writing.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is written mostly as straight historical fiction, with a few fantasy elements. The protagonist of the story is Ayla, a Cro Magnon (early modern human) child who loses her family in an earthquake within the first few pages. She is eventually rescued and comes to live with the titular Clan of the Cave Bear, a Neanderthal tribe that was displaced by the same earthquake and forced to search for a new cave. The Clan have only rare interactions with Ayla’s kind, who they call “the Others,” but end up adopting her.

As Ayla grows, she has to deal with the challenges of integrating into the Clan as an outsider. Though her body is noticeably different, the conflicts between her and the Clan are primarily differences in worldview. Auel drives this conflict with the fantasy element of the book. The Neanderthals of the Clan possess ancestral memories that are passed down through generations. They rely on the experiences of previous generations, as well as their own, to navigate the world around them. Auel paints the Clan as a slowly dying race. Their long memory keeps them in a rut of tradition and limits their ability to adapt to change. Ayla, as homo sapiens, lacks their racial memory, but is more adaptable and quick to learn. She chafes under the heavy tradition of Clan life, and constantly seeks out new skills and new experiences.

Lesson #1 — A Little Verisimilitude Goes a Long Way

Auel does a tremendous job constructing a believable world filled with detail. Ayla learns rudimentary medicine from her surrogate mother, the tribe’s medicine woman, who expounds on dozens of plants and their uses. The variety of animals and their habitats are also important to the Clan’s survival, and described in great detail. The tools used by the clan, how they are made, and how the go about their everyday tasks are all carefully thought-out.

I don’t know much about plants, let alone their medicinal properties, but I’m betting Auel did quite a bit of research to get the details right. She didn’t have to name all the plants, or go into detail about which ones are used to treat different ailments. The story could be told without those details. But these are things that the protagonist is learning, and things that her adoptive mother is intimately familiar with. Those details help the reader to feel what she’s feeling by learning about this plants as she does.

There is no limit to the level of detail you can include in a novel, but at some point, it bogs down the story. The trick is finding particular places to add that detail that help the setting feel more like a living world, without getting lost in the weeds.

Lesson #2 — Perspective is Powerful…and Dangerous

The story starts with the child, Ayla, losing her family in an earthquake. Although the story follows her and ostensibly shows her perspective, it becomes clear very early on that the narrator is distant, wiser than this child, and has more modern sensibilities.

Brush close by the upstream banks quivered, animated by unseen movement at the roots, and downstream, boulders bobbed in unaccustomed agitation. Beyond them, stately conifers of the forest into which the stream flowed lurched grotesquely.

As the story goes on, the narration veers into scientific terms to describe some of the animals and their less ferocious descendants in modern times. The narrator is not anchored to any character’s perspective. It’s not anchored in the time period of the story.

Some of this is personal taste and fashion in fiction writing (this kind of third-person omniscient perspective has fallen out of favor in recent years), but there are some clear downsides to this style. As a reader, it’s hard to feel close to Ayla when the narration seems to be separate from her. The occasional digressions into the more scientific and into far-future times pull the reader out of the here-and-now of the story. Jumping from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another in the same paragraph puts the reader at a distance to both of those characters.

This style of writing allows the reader to know what everyone is doing, what everyone is thinking, and any of the past history or future ramifications. It gives the author the power to show anything they want, at any time. The cost of that power is the distance it puts between the reader and the characters and current action.

Lesson #3 — Don’t Break Your Own Rules

Auel makes it very clear that the Clan are people with traditions. In fact, they are trapped in those traditions. Their ancestral memory is such a guiding force that they cannot adapt to change. This is stated repeatedly. When Ayla joins the Clan, she is constantly going against their norms and traditions. It is the cause of almost all the conflict in the book.

Ayla talks, laughs, and cries, all strange things to the Clan, who feel emotion, but experience no physical tears or laughter, and rely on their very limited vocal capabilities to augment a much richer sign language. Ayla hates being subservient to the men of the Clan, a social structure supposedly easily accepted by the women of the Clan. She secretly teaches herself to use a weapon, something that is strictly forbidden to women by Clan tradition. She observes rituals that she should not see. These are things that the clan believes could bring down a sort of spiritual cataclysm on them. In short, by the end of the book, Ayla has completely upended the social and religious order of the Clan.

And yet, time and again, the repercussions are limited. The laws are modified. The punishments are made less severe. The supposedly unadaptable Clan adapts constantly to her presence.

That’s a perfectly fine story structure. It’s a classic “stranger comes to town” style of plot. But it doesn’t make sense to draw so much attention to the Clan’s built-in unchageability when the rest of the story is going to go on and show them adapting every step of the way.

Lesson #4 — Characters Need Goals

Ayla certainly does a lot throughout the book. She is constantly in the midst of conflicts. This action and conflict drives the story. However, there were several points were I got the sense that the story just wasn’t going anywhere. What I eventually realized was that I didn’t know what Ayla wanted.

Most of the conflicts that come up are due to Ayla acting impulsively — doing something without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes she’s completely unaware that there will be a problem. Almost none of it involves her choosing a goal and acting in pursuit of that goal. In fact, the only instance I can think of is when she flees the Clan in order to protect her baby, which she believes they will force her to kill (it looks like her, rather than a Neanderthal baby, and is thus considered “deformed”). I don’t think it’s coincidence that these chapters were the most compelling portion of the book for me.

The other characters are also mostly lacking in goals and desires. They could mostly be boiled down to “support the status quo,” or “help Ayla with all this trouble she’s in.” There are two exceptions.

First is the leader of the Clan, Brun, who wants to be a good leader and take care of his tribe. He is often the one who has to make hard decisions about the conflicts around Ayla, and always tries to do what is best for the tribe.

Second is Broud, the son of Brun. He is the most goal-oriented character in the book. His goal is to make Ayla’s life a living hell.

Lesson #5 — Give Villains Some Good Qualities

The clear villain of the book is Broud. As a child, Ayla ends up stealing some of his thunder at an important Clan ceremony. From that point onward, he takes everything she does as a slight. Interestingly, because he hates her so much, he is the one member of the Clan who is completely intolerant of her transgressions, while the others come to accept her.

Broud is essentially the cave-man version of the 1980s “asshole jock” movie archetype. He’s selfish. Everything he does is to honor himself and gain status. The only thing he fears is his status being diminished, and only because it might prevent him from eventually becoming the leader of the Clan. He is not only cruel, but derives sadistic pleasure from that cruelty. He shows no particular love for his family or those who ally themselves with him.

The climactic end of the book comes when Broud is made leader of the clan, at which point he becomes a literal maniac, screaming and ranting. Without the looming threat of his father blocking his ascension to the throne, he immediately does everything he can think of to hurt Ayla. When Ayla and the others complain, he forces the Clan shaman to essentially excommunicate her, a spiritual punishment that the Clan views as literal death.

It’s certainly easy to manufacture conflict with a character like this, but it feels like such a caricature. Sure, he’s easy to hate. That’s his only purpose. But couldn’t he have loved his family as more than just status symbols? Couldn’t he have actually wanted to make his father proud? Couldn’t he have had some redeeming features to make him feel human?

I know plenty of people who love villains like this, so it still comes down to personal taste. I’d rather see a villain who is understandable and relatable. A villain that, were the story shown from a slightly different perspective, might look more like a hero.

Every Book Has Lessons

Even though The Clan of the Cave Bear wasn’t for me, I don’t consider it a bad book or regret reading it. I think the language of pop media criticism has become really, unfortunately black-and-white, where people talk about books, movies or music as being good or bad. We all have our own tastes, and a book that might be great for someone else just won’t hit right for me. Criticism is about justifying your opinion about art, and even a justified opinion is still just an opinion. From an author’s perspective, that’s nice, because it means readers may dislike some or all of your book, without making it a “bad book.”

In any case, I learned a lot from The Clan of the Cave Bear. By thinking about the things I didn’t like, I can work on excising those from my own work. It was useful to see a perspective on writing a story set in pre-history, and I have no doubt that it will influence me as I continue to work on Razor Mountain.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — Fallen London

Albert, the Prince Consort, lies on the threshold of death. Facing the loss of her true love, Queen Victoria cuts a deal with the Masters of the Bazaar. They will save Albert, but in exchange they will take the Traitor Empress, her consort, and all of London to their domain deep beneath the Earth. The Neath.

Years later, when you come to the vast underground cavern that contains Fallen London, the Empress and the parliament remain, but it is unquestionably the Masters of the Bazaar who rule the city. The city is changed but recognizable, twisted and reconfigured around its new heart: the mysterious Echo Bazaar. Londoners are resilient, and have come to grips with the strange situation, including the fact that death is now a mere inconvenience — as long as you don’t venture back up into the sun.

Fallen London is a web browser game more than a decade old — an incredibly long run by the standards of such games. Thanks to its art style, its reliance on text, and a steady stream of improvements, it doesn’t feel outdated. It is by turns comedic and dark, and overflowing with Victorian sensibilities and literary references.

Gameplay

The gameplay elements are simple. You create a character, and this character has attributes. They may represent skills you’ve picked up, items you’ve acquired, or connections you’ve made with people and organizations. In general, they represent who you are, and what you can do.

Your character, at any given moment, is in a location. You draw from a deck of cards called the opportunity deck. Your opportunities depend on your attributes and where you are. Each opportunity gives you an illustration, a few paragraphs of text, and usually a choice. The outcome will often depend on your attributes and plain luck, and you may gain or lose something as a result.

Unfortunately, Fallen London came of age in the heyday of FarmVille-style mobile games, with energy mechanics that limit the number of actions you can take before you must wait (or pay) to recharge. You cannot binge Fallen London without paying. That said, it’s designed around brief play sessions, and I don’t think the energy mechanic detracts too much from the experience.

Story

The gameplay is not really the draw of Fallen London. It’s merely the engine for dispensing story. Players have stayed with the game for a decade because of the masterful environmental storytelling, interesting characters, and deeply interwoven plot elements.

There are hundreds of unique characters in dozens of locations within the city. There are centuries of history buried (literally) beneath London, including the ruins of other cities previously stolen from the surface world by the Masters.

You can venture out into the cavern, across the Unterzee. There are strange islands and distant shores. Hell is a real place, populated by bureaucratic and seductive devils. In Polythreme, inanimate objects spring to life.

Above all, Fallen London is a game of mysteries. The rewards most valued by the playerbase are not currency or items. They’re new stories that reveal why things are the way they are in this slightly steampunk, cosmic-horror alternate history.

How did the Gracious Widow come to run a vast smuggling empire? What exactly are the bumbling, Cthulhu-esque rubbery men, and where did they come from? Why do the Masters of the Bazaar steal cities and bring them to the Neath?

Content and Costs

The bulk of the content in the game is free, and there is enough to keep new players busy for months. Additionally, there are seasonal stories that appear for a limited time each year, sometimes with little additions. The developers also release a new story each month, with new locations and opportunities.

The game makes money primarily by selling these monthly stories. Players can purchase a $7 monthly subscription to automatically get all the new stories as they come out, but old stories must be purchased individually for around $5 – $25 each, depending on size. The subscription option also doubles your energy pool.

See You in the Neath

Whether Fallen London pulls you into its story or not, I think it’s a great game for writers to check out, to see just how literary and story-centric a video game can be. It’s a master class in the looping and branching techniques of interactive fiction.

If you like cosmic horror, steampunk, Victorian mystery, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Fallen London. It’s a weird and living city, deep as Vandermeer’s Ambergris or Miéville’s New Crobuzon. I find myself getting pulled back into it every couple years.

In fact, I created a new account as I was writing this. So if you need an acquaintance in the Neath, let me know in the comments. We can exchange letters, insult each other for our own gain, or take turns attempting assassination.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — “What Remains of Edith Finch”

Video games can be many things. They may be about building empires, stacking oddly shaped bricks, or finding misplaced princesses. Most often, they’re about rather a lot of shooting and blowing things up. Games can be simple or juvenile, and they can certainly have bad writing. For these reasons and many others, games tend to get a bad reputation among the literary-minded.

In this series, I want to highlight a few games that care about story. I want to try to prove to the skeptics that some games have something to say, in much the same way that a good book does. These are games where you can’t die. You don’t need twitch reflexes or a deep knowledge of 900 pokémon. Instead, these games work hard to build deep characters and a compelling narrative, and pull you into their world.

So, if you’re someone who loves books and hates games, consider giving one of these a try. You might just be surprised.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Edith Finch is a young woman returning to her childhood home. She is the youngest of the family, and the last one still alive. As she explains, the Finches believe they are the victims of a curse. Few of them die of natural causes. Instead, they seem destined for strange ends, whether their lives are long or cut tragically short.

As the player, you guide Edith through the Finch house, a seaside mansion that has been built-upon and expanded over several generations, a bit like the Winchester House. You quickly discover that the rooms of the deceased Finches have been sealed off, untouched, like little museum pieces. As you open those rooms up, you get glimpses of each person — visions from their perspective, enhanced by Edith’s narration and her journal entries, filling out her family tree with whimsical sketches. You begin to piece together the history of the Finch family in all of its joys and tragedies.

Each room in the house, each person, is revealed through a unique experience. Each is delightful in a different way. They range from eldritch horror to peaceful meditation. From the simplicity of flying a kite or swinging on a swing to navigating a living comic book to vignettes of a camping trip seen through the viewfinder of an old camera.

The uppermost rooms of the house are stacked in a teetering tower. They are a promise made in the opening moments of the game, as you first approach the house. They are the most recently-built rooms, the ones once occupied by the people most important to Edith. She will have to climb to the apex and come to grips with the legacy of the Finch family.

This poignant anthology of stories about death ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. The purpose of the journal, the narration, and the title all come together to deliver a clear message: it’s your life that defines you, not your death.

Getting the Game

What Remains of Edith Finch is a game by Giant Sparrow. It’s available for PC (from several providers), as well as Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Playstation.

Review: Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman

Art Matters is a quick read, with few words and many pictures. The pages are small. But it is not a little book.

It contains four short essays, the words all hand-scrawled in capital letters alongside Chris Riddell’s lovely little sketches. The format is raw and straightforward. Neil’s tone here is conversational, even a little conspiratorial, as he lays out things he firmly believes about words, the creative process, the importance of fiction, libraries, and reading – not just as an escape, but as a force for fundamental good in the world. He makes his case compellingly.

“You’re finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

The illustrations enhance the text in subtle ways, sometimes drawing attention to particular words and phrases, sometimes adding a little more meaning than the words would have alone. There are many little Easter eggs for those who have followed Neil and Chris’s other work, and there is just the right mixture of deadly seriousness and whimsy, putting me in mind of Shel Silverstein’s best work.

The book is good, in part, because it is so small. You can comfortably read the entire thing in a sitting, or a single section in a few minutes. It’s not a great epic, to be traversed over many too-late nights of “one more page.” It’s a plate of tasty morsels, to be savored for a few minutes at a time, again and again over the years, until it weaves itself into your mental fabric.

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

The best section, “Make Good Art,” is the largest and final portion of the book. It was originally a commencement speech Neil gave in 2012. You can watch him give it here (although without illustrations).

“Make Good Art” is a bit biography and a bit advice from an excellent and successful writer. It contains enough wisdom that every time I read it I take away something useful. It’s a good refresher, a palate cleanser, and a reminder of what’s important.

In short, it’s a great little book.

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do…make good art.”