Bite-Sized Reviews

Digestible-length reviews for books, movies, TV shows, and video games

Enchanted lands and unexplored depths

April 2023 Game Reviews

#games #about

Writing 20 reviews of demos during Steam Next Fest February 2023 made me realize that I greatly enjoyed the 100-words-per review format, and I felt inspired to use it again. So here are a handful of short-and-sweet reviews: the recently-released Hogwarts: Legacy and Hi-Fi RUSH, and the older but noteworthy Subnautica and GRIS.

Hogwarts: Legacy

Hogwarts: Legacy

Action RPG

Hogwarts: Legacy has such a beautifully crafted setting that when something isn’t right, it stands out more than it would in a lesser game. The combat is enjoyable, and the world is full of delightful details — but the writing is often distractingly bad, and the lack of any meaningful schooling structure feels weirdly absent. Passable yet underdeveloped systems constantly leave me wanting just a touch more realism and immersion. It’s so frustratingly close to being a proper wizard student simulator; instead, it’s more Assassin’s Creed: Hogwarts Edition. But after years without a decent Harry Potter game, maybe that’s good enough.



Survival crafting

Subnautica ought to be a model for survival crafting games. Its breadcrumb progression system, which masterfully intertwines story and exploration, successfully enticed me to delve deeper and deeper into dark waters even as thalassaphobia threatened to take hold. The game relentlessly drove me forward by providing meaningful goals unfettered by arbitrary grind, always giving me something to strive toward, capturing my curiosity in the process, and leaving me with a sense of fulfillment before sending me in the next direction. Outside of having to constantly manage thirst, which did become somewhat tedious in the end, Subnautica never wasted my time.



Rhythm-based action platformer

Hi-Fi RUSH is an old-school game with new-school polish: a single-player, linear, combat-platforming affair that doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on exposition or taking itself too seriously, but does take seriously the matter of player enjoyment. It’s full of lighthearted fun, and every level is filled with crystal-clear detail. While the rhythm that infects the game gives it a lot of charm and identity, it also introduces repetitiveness — eventually, I longed for a reprieve from the metronome. And because attacks always land on the next beat regardless of input, the action can feel disjointed, even with perfect timing.



Metroidvania walking simulator

GRIS is the kind of art that relies on viewer interpretation to give it meaning. If you look beyond the unchallenging puzzles and simple platforming, you’ll likely find a metaphor for grief or depression. That’s only if you make an effort to see the game through that lens, as GRIS stubbornly avoids doing any kind of storytelling of its own (unless you can find the secret ending, or pay attention to the achievement names). The watercolor art and sorrowful music are undeniably gorgeous, which makes it a shame that the actual gameplay is so unremarkable and, at times, even tedious.

20 top game demos reviewed

Title Image

#games #about

Steam Next Fest gives players the chance to try hundreds of demos of upcoming games. I tried 20 that seemed interesting. These are my quickfire impressions of each game in the order I played them.

For each entry, you'll find a link to the game's Steam page, its genre, and how long I played it before putting it down or the demo ended.

Table of contents 1. Darkest Dungeon II 2. Voidtrain 3. System Shock 4. Sons of Valhalla 5. Planet of Lana 6. Fabledom 7. Ravenbound 8. Dungeons of Aether 9. I Am Future 10. Spiritfall 11. Highwater 12. Boundary 13. Phantom Brigade 14. EVERSPACE 2 15. Inkbound 16. Shadows of Doubt 17. Plan B: Terraform 18. Astrea: Six-Sided Oracles 19. Tape to Tape 20. Dark and DarkerConclusion

Darkest Dungeon II

Darkest Dungeon II

Turn-based tactics roguelite | 92 mins

The demo got me to try playing the first game, which I happened to already own, and it was better. That’s because when I’m in the mood for a turn-based tactics game, I don’t want to spend half of my time driving a silly wagon between fights, occasionally choosing to go left instead of right. Let me click on a path like in Slay the Spire and get me to the good stuff. The new affinity mechanic felt unsatisfying — it simply went up or down constantly with little control. One improvement over the original, though, is being able to see the turn order.



Survival crafting | 59 mins

I have mixed feelings about my time with Voidtrain. I enjoyed the animations and narrator at the start of the game. The void is an interesting setting and I looked forward to building my little handcar into a proper locomotive. Then, prompted by quests, I spent almost an hour repeatedly halting the train and swimming off to collect the same three materials, and the game lost me. Maybe I should have let the train go much further to see if anything happens because it does feel like there must be something more than just the grind. It’s possibly worth revisiting.

System Shock

System Shock

Immersive sim | 88 mins

I never played the original System Shock but adored Prey, a game many consider to be its spiritual successor. That makes the remastered System Shock a title I want to like. Unfortunately, I'm largely held back by one element: the presentation. Combining low-fi art with dark environments simply doesn’t work for me. It requires a level of squinty-eyed focus that leads to premature exhaustion, an issue that already looms for me in this horror-ish genre. I have to make an effort just to perceive the game and quickly run out of energy to enjoy it. The combat also lacked punch.

Sons of Valhalla

Sons of Valhalla

Base building RPG | 44 mins

Sons of Valhalla tries to unconventionally combine two gaming genres and fails at both. As a base builder, it doesn’t provide meaningful strategic choices. As a sidescroller, the combat and movement are boringly simplistic. It also makes you spend far too much time traveling from the front line back to your base. Troops would make things more interesting if only orders were more polished. “Follow Me” doesn’t work if they’re in combat and it’s remarkably difficult to get archers into a defense tower. I like the idea of Sons of Valhalla, but it needs more — just like the voice acting.

Planet of Lana

Planet of Lana

Puzzle adventure | 34 mins

I would have kept playing Planet of Lana if I hadn’t reached the end of the demo. The presentation is stunning. The game starts with an adorable alien creature waking up the playable character, so it was hard not to think of Ori and the Blind Forest, though the puzzle-in-a-hostile-world gameplay is much more LIMBO. There are many games like these being made but few as visually delicious. Still, the prettiness alone isn’t enough to keep me playing forever and the puzzles were not particularly challenging — but it did feel like the demo ended just as it was getting good.



City builder | 110 mins

I love city builders but there are so many of them that trying to justify buying one over the other is more overwhelming than handling traffic in Cities: Skyline. Fabledom manages to reel me in with a refreshingly low-stakes setting without the hardcore survival elements or complex supply-chain management so central to similar games. It’s whimsical and full of fairy tale charm, though I hope it will add more convenient means of moving structures and reorganizing storage. As a child, I would have found Fabledom childish. At 31, it’s just what I need to relax after a day of work.



Open-world action roguelite | 68 mins

In Ravenbound, defeating enemies rewards you with random cards. You can pick one and spend mana on it to upgrade your character, but mana itself is typically only offered as a card — one that may not even appear. That left me with a pile of upgrades I couldn’t use. Because opening cards causes the open world’s bosses and mobs to become stronger, I ultimately fell behind the power curve. However, I’m sure I could have employed a different strategy to boost my chances at success. The game runs well, the animations are fluid, and it has a lot of potential.

Dungeons of Aether

Dungeons of Aether

Turn-based tactics roguelite | 24 mins

Dungeons of Aether’s standout mechanic is the random dice rolls you get during each combat round. Pick a die and your opponent picks another until no dice are left, so you need to be careful about what you’re leaving on the table. Unfortunately the demo ended too quickly for me to get a proper sense of the game. I don’t know what kind of variety to expect or how the roguelite mechanics even come into play. And while I enjoyed the gameplay, the presentation isn’t my style, nor is the abundance of text so low-res as to be nearly unreadable.

I Am Future

I Am Future

Survival crafting | 100 mins

I Am Future has an item disassembly mini-game that is genuinely fun but risks becoming tedious. That’s not good for a game that uses the traditional crafting gameplay loop: make tools, harvest materials, make better tools, harvest better materials, etc. It just doesn’t have that Stardew Valley charm or Subnautica-like mystery to keep me happily grinding. I expected a base builder on a skyscraper — yet the game has you spending far more time cleaning up scrap than building anything resembling a base. And with the constant need to stave off hunger and vermin, it hardly feels as cozy as advertised.



Platform fighter roguelite | 60 mins

Spiritfall blends the tight platform fighting of Super Smash Bros with the excellent roguelite progression of Hades. You can choose different weapons for your run, upgrade abilities as you go, and unlock permanent modifiers in a main hub. Sadly, I’ve never been good at Smash combat. I just can’t seem to get the hang of aerial attacks and staying on my opponents, making flying enemies frustratingly difficult to handle. And unlike Hades, Spiritfall has little narrative appeal, thus relying solely on gameplay to keep you going. Regardless, this is a game well worth checking out for fans of either genre.



Turn-based tactics adventure | 44 mins

Highwater has lovely music, good directorial vision, and ambitions it doesn’t quite reach. It rushes to generate emotion with beautiful cinematic presentation — then undermines itself with goofy character designs, obtrusive speech bubbles, and juvenile writing. The tactics gameplay has solid bones with environmental effects, yet the main combat encounter pigeonholes you into using these effects while relying on boneheaded AI to make it work. At the end of the demo, Highwater nearly succeeds at being heartfelt — until it shows background scenery that reads “FEEEELINGS.” The demo did seem to skip around so the finished product could be more tonally consistent.



Multiplayer first-person shooter | 17 mins

I like the concept of a zero-gravity FPS enough that I added Boundary to my wishlist in 2021. I was excited to finally try the game but unfortunately, there aren’t enough players yet to consistently fill a lobby. Nonetheless, even in a half-full team deathmatch, I had fun and got to appreciate the importance of sound design. It’s tough making guns feel satisfying in the noise-swallowing void of space, yet Boundary succeeds. The 6DOF movement system also felt very intuitive to use. The biggest learning curve will be outmaneuvering opponents when there is no limit to where they can go.

Phantom Brigade

Phantom Brigade

Mecha turn-based tactics | 295 mins

There’s a debate about which strategy game mechanic is the best. Turn based? Real time? Real time with pause? Phantom Brigade looked at this debate and said: here, have them all. Its combat technically takes place in real time, but pauses every five seconds, effectively becoming turn based. You queue all actions for each five-second chunk using a prediction device that shows you exactly what opponents will do — enabling you to make precise adjustments and craft awesome moments. It’s totally unclear who your mechs are even fighting down there, but it doesn’t matter. Every round culminates in carefully orchestrated satisfaction.



Spaceship looter shooter | 129 mins

For the past two years, I’ve been unsuccessfully chasing the high of my first experience flying a spaceship, in VR, with a joystick in hand and a throttle in the other. EVERSPACE isn’t the game to do it. For one, it doesn’t have VR support — and it’s an arcade game better experienced with a controller. But it’s still a blast. It looks and runs very well, combat is fast and fun, there’s a solid progression system, and I felt motivated to go exploring. I only stopped the demo because 1.0 will wipe saves and I plan to play this game.



Turn-based tactics roguelite | 121 mins

Turn-based games that rely on precise strategies need to be very good at communicating to the player exactly what is happening. That’s doubly true of roguelikes that send you back to square one when you die. Inkbound puzzled me at first but once I got my head around the interface, everything made sense, and I had a really good time maneuvering around enemies and blowing them up. Inkbound is like Hades for people who have no mechanical skill — with optional multiplayer on top, which I’m excited about. I’m not so excited about it already having seasons and cosmetics before release.

Shadows of Doubt

Shadows of Doubt

Detective immersive sim | 126 mins

Shadows of Doubt is a sandbox detective game set in a 1980s cyberpunk city where everything is randomly generated, including fully simulated citizens and the crimes they get up to. You can interact with everything and make your best Charlie Kelly impression as you build a massive evidence board of clues. Some leads are dead ends and some uncover completely different mysteries. Procedural games need strong variation in how they generate content and I saw evidence of repetition. Still, I was bummed that my demo time ran out because despite getting barely anywhere, I was having a lot of fun.

Plan B: Terraform

Plan B: Terraform

Factory automation sim | 75 mins

Trying Plan B was an attempt at taking another crack at the automation genre, which I’ve never been able to enjoy. Once again, I came away feeling I’d be better off plugging numbers in a spreadsheet long before creating an automation chain in the game. Yes, it can be satisfying to see it come together — if my perfectionism didn’t compel me to spend far more time optimizing than necessary, then realize too late that I haven’t had any fun. While Plan B’s promise of terraforming a dynamically simulated world is compelling, the demo stopped long before giving me a taste.

Astrea: Six-Sided Oracles

Astrea: Six-Sided Oracles

Dice deck-building roguelite | 59 mins

Astrea is yet another game that attempts emulating Slay the Spire — with dice instead of cards. Each time you draw one, you roll for a side. The developers must recognize this could create too much variance because they grant generous rerolls and many dice simply have 50/50 odds between two abilities. My favorite feature is that class skills are usable whenever you cross HP thresholds, rewarding you for using health as a resource. I wish I’d spent more time in combat, as Astrea often occupies you with other things. Fortunately the game is very pretty no matter what you’re doing.

Tape to Tape

Tape to Tape

Hockey game roguelite | 54 mins

Tape to Tape is a hokey hockey game that makes a hilarious caricature of the sport, giving your players abilities like redirecting the puck off an opponent’s head while knocking them out. Winning is an uphill battle: the final team you face is comprised of players who are faster and more accurate than yours — and also happen to be refs. Fortunately, losing grants you the opportunity to unlock upgrades and real-life-inspired superstars, giving you a better shot next time. The singleplayer gameplay loop isn’t that captivating once the humor wears off, but multiplayer should give this game some staying power.

Dark and Darker

Dark and Darker

PvPvE extraction shooter | 23 mins

Dark and Darker is actually the first demo I played but I’d put it down after just eight bad minutes. Later, I decided to give it another shot. I’m glad I did because now I know my first impression wasn’t a fluke. The game joins the increasingly popular extraction shooter genre, but for once, isn’t a shooter. Sadly, making a good sword-and-sorcery combat system is not easy, and Dark and Darker shows it. It touts a hard difficulty curve, but it wouldn’t be as difficult — or as frustrating to take on the challenge — if every brawl wasn’t a clunky mess.


The genre of the moment seems to be roguelikes. They’re probably overrepresented in indie games, which make up the majority of these demos, but I’m not complaining. There wasn’t a single roguelike game I played that left me feeling like it would have been better off using a different progression system. Trying out demos was also more fun than anticipated. I learned more about my likes and dislikes, and it was nice to experience many different games without spending money — or to play them without hoping they justified the expense. Some games were forgettable, but plenty left me wanting more.

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How metas adversely impact video games

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game


Nearly all competitive multiplayer video games that feature strategic elements develop what gamers call “the meta,” a set of theories about the best way to play. For example, in a team-based game with finite resources like League of Legends, the optimal distribution of those resources becomes part of the meta. In the card game Gwent, the strongest decks and how to play against them define the meta.

Metas add an interesting layer to gaming because they continually evolve alongside player knowledge and game updates. On the internet, millions of gamers discuss and hone meta strategies. Widespread coaching tools and advanced analytics help them improve their skills at an unprecedented rate. But because the ultimate goal of any given meta is to help players win more games, it can also obstruct potential avenues of enjoyment. After all, winning is just one reason people play.

Mark Rosewater, head designer of Magic: The Gathering, once wrote about Timmy, Johnny, and Spike — caricatures of the three most common types of players. Timmy likes flashy plays. Johnny wants to express himself. And Spike enjoys winning above all. Players are rarely so one-dimensional and the original example was in the context of a card game, but the concepts have widespread relevance.

Though Spike takes winning more seriously, Timmy and Johnny also like to win. But as metas develop, suboptimal strategies become less viable. Low-performing players who, without the aid of the internet, may once have provided Johnny’s homebrew strategies the opportunity to succeed, are instead lifted by the meta into relative competence. Metas make it increasingly difficult for players to win if they don’t make winning their top priority.

Teamfight Tactics

Metas also create toxic environments. As optimal strategies spread in the collective consciousness of a game’s playerbase, they become the unofficially accepted way to play. Players often enforce the meta upon their teammates — sometimes without knowing why. To them, it’s just how things are done. Metas are thus hostile to unfamiliar new players and to those who attempt to play in their own way; while to meta-abiding players, non-meta strategies represent a risk to their chance of success at best and intentional sabotage at worst. Either side may find the other toxic.

Players still routinely find ways to succeed outside of metas — but in team games, the longer a meta has been established, the lower the tolerance for originality. Player-defined metas can become so pervasive that developers may incorporate them directly into their games. Metas that appeal to spectators can steer the direction of game updates as developers seek to boost esports viewership. When Blizzard Entertainment failed to balance the first-person shooter Overwatch so that professional teams comprised of two tank, two DPS, and two support players would become the meta, it simply made it a rule.

Metas have been around since even before video games and have always existed to serve players like Spike. But thanks to the internet, metas grow, spread, and become established more quickly than ever — leaving Timmy and especially Johnny far behind.

More human than human

K walking into the desert

This post contains spoilers.

Genre: Science-fiction film #film

In Blade Runner 2049, K is a replicant — an android virtually indistinguishable from humans — who discovers his implanted memories are real, which suggests he may have been born rather than manufactured (an inversion of the original film in which Rick Deckard's own true nature is left ambiguous).

But after a long, emotional search for his literal humanity, K learns he is only a replicant after all. The Chosen One trope is thus turned on its head and for K, it's a crushing letdown — one that can also be difficult for the audience because BR2049 takes such great care to humanize the character.

Indeed, when K begins to believes he might actually be human, it's easy for us to go along despite evidence to the contrary. K can read a million words a minute, perceive microscopic details, and withstand (as well as inflict) tremendous amounts of physical punishment. How could one see him as anything but a machine? Yet K is utterly, convincingly human.

Outside of those physical abilities, there's truly little to differentiate him from anyone else. He eats, sleeps, and works for a wage. He lives among people. He bleeds. He cherishes his memories and shares them in private. He longs for companionship and nurtures the only relationship he has, however artificial. During his journey of self-discovery, his gradual loss of emotional control — culminating into something like a full-blown breakdown — only serves to humanize him further.

Sapper Morton faces K

From the beginning, K's rich human experience seems to support his possibly unique origins. Even before he has any reason to believe he could have been born, K displays a plethora of human traits in BR2049's wonderfully crafted opening scene: He falls asleep in transit, a small yet relatable thing; he shows respect for Sapper Morton's property, even though Morton is a replicant he has been tasked to retire; and he displays genuine curiosity about Morton's cooking before imploring him to cooperate, hoping to avoid the “hard part of the day” that clearly make him queasy.

Joi also hints that K has long engaged in self-contemplation prior to that encounter. And who hasn’t? The movie's initial revelation — that a replicant has given birth — is likely little more than the catalyst for K’s long-brewing existential crisis, one driven by his very human need to be special. Having so dearly desired to be human, he leaps at the chance to confirm that reality. And when it crashes down upon him like a hurricane, his distress and ensuing depressive state once again only make him seem more human.

It's all too easy for the audience to deceive itself, along with K, into believing he is. Indeed, faced with someone whose experiences are so incredibly human, how could one perceive K as anything less? And in the end, does it really matter that he's not? The revelation that he isn't human only crystallizes that he never needed to be. Like Roy Batty before him, he's already “more human than human.”

A wonderful game that rewards curiosity

Planet in space

This review contains spoilers for the first 30 minutes of the game.

Genre: Adventure video game (sandbox, first-person) #games

Outer Wilds begins with your character waking from a nap by a campfire. As you slowly open your eyes, you notice a light, far above in space, streaking across the void. If you want, you can travel there and investigate. It turns out you’re an astronaut and today is your big day.

You get used to seeing that streaking light.

In the first thirty minutes of the game, you learn that only a handful of pioneers have ventured into space before you. Unlike them, you are equipped with the first tool capable of translating texts left behind by the Nomai, an ancient civilization.

Armed with this translator, you get into a rickety spaceship, take off, and set out in any direction you wish. The game’s solar system is tiny compared to the endless emptiness of real space, but nonetheless large enough that finding purpose can initially feel overwhelming.

The Attlerock, a nearby moon with a huge crater, could be a good place to explore. But as you wander, perhaps unsure of what to do, the sun explodes. Everything dies, you included. Then — you wake from a nap by a campfire. You slowly open your eyes and far above, a light streaks across space.

Was it a dream? Did you somehow survive a supernova? Are you in a time loop? Will the sun collapse again? Needless to say, your death leaves you with a lot of questions. Fortunately, the outer wilds have answers — and from the very start, the game equips you with all the tools you need to get them.

Map of Outer Wilds system

Unlike many video games, there are no gated areas in Outer Wilds unlocked only after meeting a prerequisite. There are no quests. No items to upgrade nor skills to enhance. No combat. At your disposal are a ship, spacesuit, translator, signal scanner, camera, and flashlight. With these tools, you can get anywhere and answer any question. You just need to explore the solar system and do a little digging.

Curiosity thus drives everything you do in Outer Wilds. As long as you have a question, you have a purpose; and the hunt for answers slowly reveals an intricate story full of wonderful eureka moments. Space exploration is brutally dangerous and there are many ways to die in the game, but because player knowledge — not character knowledge — is the only thing to gain, no virtual demise can erase your progress. A puzzle hides beneath the hostile sandbox of space, and little by little, you begin to see the shapes. Death is just part of the process.

Indeed, you may die countless times in Outer Wilds — yet, incredibly, you never actually need to. With the right knowledge, you can wake from that first nap and experience the intended ending in under half an hour. But to acquire that knowledge, you must first go through a masterclass in player exploration and discovery, one that ultimately drives you toward an emotionally touching conclusion. Even without that final reward, the journey is worth every moment.

What does it cost to get rich?

Blood staircases

This review contains spoilers.

Genre: Survival drama TV show #television #capitalism

Capitalist rhetoric claims competition, free markets, and hard work are all it take to make a fortune fair and square, and that those left behind have only themselves to blame. In gory detail, Squid Game explores the cost of that competition and shows how, no matter one’s personal character, acquiring wealth in a capitalist system is necessarily unethical.

The organizers of the game make its participants a promise: Unlike in the real world, where they have little chance of getting out from under capitalism’s crushing boot, they each have an equal opportunity to win. At first, the promise seems genuine. When a player is caught cheating, the game overseer executes him and his abettors without a second thought. And the first game they play — “Red Light, Green Light” — has a pretty fair set of rules.

But the pretense of fairness breaks down quickly. Players had not been told they would be brutally murdered should they lose. And it’s only when the survivors express the desire to leave that the prize is literally dangled above their heads, its message clear and vicious: the more people die, the more money you stand to win.

The game’s creator absolves himself of responsibility, noting the participants agreed to the terms. He conveniently ignores that as a money-lender, he is guilty of contributing to the pressures that led players to accept the terms in the first place — and that his recruiters leveraged the hopeless circumstances he created to convince them to join.

Jung Ho-yeon

By the time players get to the bridge game, it’s overly clear the entire endeavor is not, as advertised, a respite from the capitalist system, but rather a microcosm of it. The only way to win is by making the right connections, ruthlessly eliminating and backstabbing the competition, and getting extremely lucky.

In the end, the last man standing is neither the savviest nor the most able individual. He could have been any one of the others who died. And his reward, a glowing pot of money, has come at the cost of hundreds of lives and his own humanity. What were the alternatives? To die or not participate at all — the latter an arguably worse fate as shown in the only episode, entitled “Hell,” that takes place entirely outside the games. In real life, though, not participating in capitalism is rarely an option.

In Squid Game, like in Parasite, the lower class fight each other for the scraps of the rich, who got rich by profiting off of them. The system is purported to be fair, but has perverse incentives and primarily rewards luck and exploitative behaviors. To merely fight for one’s survival is to actively participate in the demise of others.

Even though the winner was arguably the nicest person involved, he understands despairing at the blood spilled in the name of survival does not wash his hands clean of it. Consequently, he can’t bring himself to use the money. Spending it would be tantamount to spending those lives once more.

Institutional failure remains as poignant as ever

Bunk and McNulty

This review contains spoilers about the show’s themes, but no plot spoilers.

Genre: Crime drama TV show (five seasons, 60 episodes) #television #capitalism

When The Wire first aired, it didn’t really rate. It won no awards, the viewership was nothing to write home about, and the critical response was good but not phenomenal. Yet today, almost every list of the greatest TV shows of all time feature The Wire somewhere in the top five. Why?

Many of its qualities are timeless. Its portrayal of police work, poverty and drug culture, education, and local government is not only totally honest and unpretentious, but also deeply human. It has a talented ensemble cast of actors who accurately represent Baltimore demographics. And then there’s The Bunk and all of his memorable zingers.

But The Wire is more than just a cops-and-criminals show. Over five seasons, it explores how institutions betray the people they’re meant to serve and the impossible challenges faced by those wishing to do something meaningfully good within those institutions. It’s an unusually realistic look at hopeless circumstances many Americans will find all too familiar.

Though the Baltimore Police Department takes center stage, it’s not the only star of the show. The department’s stories are part of an impressively consistent and well-written narrative thread that runs through all five seasons, weaving itself through those of other important institutions: the port union, the school system, the media, the courts, and of course, the criminal organizations.

Their parallels are ever transparent. Gangs share eerily similar hierarchies as the legal administrations tasked with taking them down — and are often, through backdoor handshakes and laundered money, more connected than it would seem.

Poot, Bodie, D'Angelo, and Wallace

And just as street-level thugs “stand tall,” silently eating charges to protect so-called friends whose loyalties end as soon as it is convenient, so too must corrupt politicians stand tall to avoid exposing their fellow white-collar criminals. There’s no such thing as a corrupt person in power working alone. Everyone’s got a hand in somebody’s pocket.

For all the small victories and feel-good moments peppered throughout its 60 episodes, The Wire ends on a bleak note. Its final message is unambiguous: nothing really changes. There are simply too many cogs in the machine, too many perverse incentives, and too many conflicting interests pulling in all directions.

If you have good intentions, institutions will grind you down until you choose to leave, are made to leave, or have nothing left of your former, optimistic self. The only way to get in a position to enact real change is to make so many deals and compromises that, by the time you’ve finally gotten into that position, you’ve essentially traded all its power away.

Almost two decades after The Wire first aired, Americans have long lost any trust that institutions have got their backs. Society is reaching all-time high levels of apathy and cynicism. More than check all the boxes that make good television, The Wire resonates powerfully. Let us hope it eventually falls down the ranks in those greatest TV show lists, not because newer and better ones are released, but because it stops being so goddamn real.

Faith's vulnerability to self-deception

Father Paul walks in church

This review contains spoilers.

Genre: Supernatural horror miniseries #television #religion

Midnight Mass is a series about guilt, grief, and a blood-sucking vampire. It's about the struggle to reclaim one's life after addiction has taken it over — whether that addiction is to alcohol, blood, or even self-pity; and about the strange, barely disguised cannibalistic undertones of Communion.

It's also a meditation on the ways religion can pit people against each other just as easily as it can unite them. How scripture can be wielded against the faithful, by both good and bad actors, to justify almost anything.

When Monsignor Pruitt first encounters the vampire, it attacks him and drinks his blood. After initially leaving him for dead, it changes its mind and feeds Pruitt its own blood. Because this has the side-effect of bringing the old man back to the prime of his life, he concludes the vampire is actually an angel. Already, Pruitt's need to fit experiences within the framework of his faith causes him to ignore several glaring problems.

Hoping to spread this gift of rejuvenation, Pruitt brings the “angel” to his hometown on Crockett Island. He then inadvertently dies and comes back to life as a vampire himself, cursed by skin that burns in sunlight and a vicious thirst for blood. Despite these alarming symptoms, he doubles down on his plan to spread the condition to everyone on the island.

Bev, Wade, and Sturge decide what to do with Joe

A central theme of Midnight Mass is how faith can be hijacked to enable otherwise well-meaning people to engage in this type of questionable behavior. With the backing of scripture, Pruitt convinces himself and the faithful of Crockett Island to go along with an increasingly gruesome plot. Religion is shown to be vulnerable to becoming a vessel for horror, whether unintentionally (as demonstrated by Pruitt) or intentionally (by Beverly Keane).

The rejuvenating vampire blood is used to create apparent miracles. Biblical passages describing the fear angels inspired in those they visited seem to conveniently explain the vampire's terrifying appearance. And when Pruitt experiences mindless bloodlust for the first time, he decides God must have taken control of his body. It's easier to deceive oneself than to look upon the face of hard truth.

Among the few who do not fall prey to this Catholic self-deception are, unsurprisingly, a skeptic, a scientist, and a Muslim. The temptation to find comfortable explanations that avoid challenging an easily-held belief is something we all know. Exercised well, skepticism and scientific inquiry can be tools for fighting that temptation.

But when the risk is not just to a single belief but to one's entire understanding of reality, the mind can grasp at anything it finds to protect itself. Faith cannot allow doubt to creep in and take hold, because that doubt risks becoming the hammer that shatters the whole thing. Instead, it can only double down on itself — more faith, rewarding itself for furious belief in the unbelievable. The alternative, for those who have only ever had faith to lean upon, is like a void, too dreadfully absent of answers to even contemplate.


Dialog-rich RPG with compelling inner-thought system

Detectives at the docks

This review includes very light spoilers for the start of the game.

Genre: Detective role-playing video game (open world, isometric) #games

In Disco Elysium, you spend just as much time talking to yourself as with other characters. That's because the skills you can level — such as Conceptualization, Volition, and Reaction Speed — are constantly pitching in with ideas about what you're seeing and what you should do.

For example, investing in Encyclopedia turns your character into a trivia machine, able to conjure up random knowledge about obscure subjects brought up in conversation. This typically starts as an inner thought, which you can then choose to share out loud — it might be helpful, but it's just as likely to come across as aggressive ADHD to other characters.

Most of the skills in Disco Elysium work this way. A wide cast of mental and physical impulses add unique flavor to everything you do — with both positive and negative consequences. Putting points in Drama can help you detect if somebody is lying, but investing a lot of points in Drama can turn you into a compulsive liar convinced that every word you hear is dripping with deceit.

Your inner thoughts also contradict each other. Logic may suggest an action that Empathy immediately shoots down. Physical Instrument, the skill concerned with musculature and organ health, isn't always pleased that Electro-Chemistry routinely urges you to take psychedelics.

There are countless ways for your skills to interact, which all depend on how you invest your skill points and the choices you make in the world. This makes the game deliciously replayable even if you've already absorbed the enormous quantity of narrative content it has to offer.

Skills sheet

Wonderfully, the game doesn't punish you for taking the inner dialog system all the way to truly outlandish extremes. As a loading screen helpfully suggests, you shouldn't be afraid to make strange choices, because people are less likely to question authority figures such as yourself. You can get away with genuinely absurd shit.

This can seem at odds with the game's generally serious tone and excellent writing, but the latter is exactly why it works, and that juxtaposition — the insane detective taking on a serious murder mystery — makes for a very entertaining experience, including when it causes you to succeed, or fail, in spectacular fashion.

For example, at the start of the game, your low-level skills — combined with an apocalyptic hangover that has left you very vulnerable — can comically let you down. In the very first room where Disco Elysium begins, it's possible to toggle the light too many times and give yourself a heart attack, thus ending the game on the spot. Moments later, you can fall on your face and die while attempting to punch a kid.

Eventually, though your actions continue to have consequences, they're fortunately less likely to outright kill you. The game does a beautiful job of letting you be whoever you want — whether that's a snobby Art Cop, a proselytizing Communist Cop, a Disco Cop on the hunt for the sickest beat in town, or something more sinister.

In short: a masterpiece.

Fiction is a wonderful tool for artistically critiquing real-life concepts. Essay writing forces me to formulate complete thoughts about the subject; thus writing about fiction helps me better understand the ideas explored in a work as well as the fictional medium itself.

Why 500 words?

I've given myself a strict word constraint for every post. Most are 500 but some may be less, such as 100, depending on the goal. For 500, my reasoning is as follows:

  • It's long enough that I can elaborate on at least one thought
  • It's short enough that I must take care how I communicate that thought
  • It's (hopefully) short enough not to be boring
  • I've started blogs in the past and never kept them up, and I hope a gimmick/challenge will keep me focused

And regardless of the length, adhering to a strict word count forces me to choose my words carefully.


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