Jay: Greetings from the weekend, friends! Considering the most newsworthy story this week appeared to be about Taylor Swift (I don’t know, I’m not hep to the jive) and not the turgid clown president, I’d say these last seven days have been relatively successful. I’m sure it only takes one idiotic political decision to turn that around, so let’s enjoy this peace (and the last of summer) while it’s here!
[NOTE: I drafted the above on Friday, and sure-fucking-enough, that asshole president pardoned a despicable man for heinous disregard of law just before the weekend started. Damn it! So close.]
What’s been keeping you happy and occupied this week, illustrious colleagues?
Mark: I’ve recently finished (and mostly enjoyed) the newest Nick Cutter novel, Little Heaven. It was slow-going at first, and I’m not sure that Cutter’s talents are best applied in a serving as epic as Little Heaven, but the very fun and effective middle section of this novel made it a worthwhile read. The story is ambitious and sprawling by Cutter’s standards, which have up to this point been confined to an isolated island in The Troop (still his most enjoyable work) and an underwater research lab in The Deep. Little Heaven doesn’t sustain charm and interest throughout its timeline-jumping tale that involves everything from three different heart-of-gold contract killers, Jim Jones-esque religious cults, and … uh… Hellraiser demon worm-babies (?)… but when it clicks, it is fairly creepy and fun.
Cutter seems to acknowledge the fact that he has become known for really pouring it on in his descriptions of gory happenings, and there’s no denying that the man has a talent for disgustingly descriptive prose. It all gets to be a bit much near the end of the book, and it eventually seems like every page turned makes a sound in the readers’ hand somewhere between a squish, a groan and a fart. I would also break with the critical consensus that I’ve read in regard to this book and argue that the included illustrations, while interesting in and of themselves, hurt the book more than they help it.
It’s not perfect, but given that I ripped through the (quite long) book just over the last week, I must have been pretty into it. I’ve consumed little else of note, so I’ll leave you with a soft recommendation that you pick up Little Heaven if you’ve already read Nick Cutter’s other work and enjoyed it. If you haven’t yet read The Troop, read that instead. It is a real gem of a horror novel.
Josh: By now everyone who wants to play Mass Effect: Andromeda probably already has, and anyone on the fence has probably been dissuaded by all the negative buzz around the game. Perhaps it’s because I came to it so late—I got the game for my birthday right upon release but held off playing it until I finished some other games I had been working on at the time—that the early bugs had been worked out, or perhaps it’s because gamers are the most fickle, irrational, and impossible to please group, but I found this game a lot of fun, and a worthy addition to a franchise that is one of my favourite game series of all time.
Andromeda doesn’t have quite the same grand scope of the original trilogy, but it doesn’t try to either. Focused on the crew of a ship exploring a new galaxy with intention to settle it, the game is heavy on discovery, development, and decisions on how to deal with the species already at home on these new worlds. These decisions are ultimately not that important, but like all Bioware games, they give you something to think about during gameplay that adds a philosophical twist to the gaming experience. Do you risk giving a piece of technology to a group of exiles in exchange for their consent to settle the planet, or do you keep that tech out of their hands and cross that world off the list? The gameplay is top notch, with Bioware’s typically-great mixture of RPG and shooter elements. And the main story is supplemented well with tonnes of side-quests for completists. I put a good 80 or more hours into this game over the course of a few months.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over EA’s recent decision to end single-player development for Andromeda, to which I say “thank god.” I’m an old school gamer with a massive distaste for DLC. I want to pay for a game once, and whatever add-on story content that was planned for this game feels ancillary to the main story, which comes to a complete and logical end here with a couple of dangling ends like you’d find in a good movie that leaves room for a sequel. I don’t know where the future of Mass Effect is going. The company has said there could be a sequel, but it’s not currently being planned. If they do develop one, I’ll be thrilled, as Andromeda feels like a solid first entry into another Mass Effect trilogy: not as good as the original Mass Effect game, but one that has room to go really exciting places.
“Our Friend David”
I have deep sadness every time I think about the loss of David Rakoff at age 47. It’s been five years this month since the death of the brilliant writer, humourist, and radio personality, who left behind a legacy of work that was hilarious, gutting, brave, cranky, and pointed. His contributions through the years to This American Life and Wiretap were some of their best segments, from the fictional conversation between Dr. Seuss and a man played by Jonathan Goldstein who believes he is turning into a cockroach that is both absurd and deeply sad to his hilarious account of working in advertising in the 80s and having the worst instinct for knowing what ideas would catch on—he scoffed at the Internet and jokes about how he would he would have passed on Jesus Christ. The segment, recorded shortly before his death from cancer, in which he reads from his final audiobook, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff, is one of the most deeply vulnerable, human, and hard-to-listen to pieces of audio I’ve heard. It gets me every time I hear it. These and more are collected in a tribute episode of This American Life that aired in 2012 and was re-aired this month. It’s well worth a listen as a reminder of what a gift these recordings are, as Rakoff was a writer whose literal voice was as important and endearing as his written work.
Jay: I don’t know what’s changed since the original series (could be me, could be the games, probably is both), but I put about ten hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda and turned it off. Considering I did the same to Fallout 4, I think I’m just done with games that feel like a collection of tasks, even if that to-do list is interstellar. Still, the new Legend of Zelda game really got its hooks in me, and it’s not a dissimilar game design. I’ll have to think about it.
On the opposite, hyper-immediate end of the spectrum, Nidhogg II is as frantic and deranged a game as I was hoping. But what’s really stood out to me is the soundtrack, in particular the cuts from an artist named Mux Mool. The title screen music (above) is almost good enough that I don’t want to press Start, and was certainly good enough to buy the soundtrack bundled with the game. If you’re into instrumental music with a good backbeat, there are some real gems here.
On the literary side of things, I was happy to find a copy of Gil Adamson’s Help Me, Jacques Cousteau and finally finish it, after reading the first half of someone else’s copy months back. The book doesn’t quite function as novel or as short stories, and benefits greatly from its hybrid status. Each section/story/chapter/? is about the same young woman growing up in the same family, but focuses on a different aspect of that childhood: the crazy uncle, the weird neighbours, the brother’s mute phase, and so on. This is a family that’s believably odd, and there’s a through-line of tribulation between the parents that feels so much like being a kid to me. Adamson is a fantastic writer with great instincts for details, abrupt turns, and mashing together seemingly disparate elements in a way that makes it all feel related and relatable. I really enjoyed Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, as well as her Outlander, and it’s a real shame she hasn’t published anything in a decade. Here’s hoping that changes soon.
That’s it for this week, friends! Stay tuned for next week, when Mark returns to the Nails that are three-quarters of a foot long, Josh continues getting quietly drunk, and I think way too philosophically about video games. Until then, enjoy, enjoy.