One of the ways we deal with the complexity of the world is to reduce the uncountable number of things we could do to simple binary choices. This can happen so automatically that we may not even question it, and so miss out on something better.
I like to use the framework “Go big or go home… or go small” as a reminder that there is often a third choice we could make. Depending on context, different pairs of those three options will occur to us as a binary choice. I call each these three possible pairs Burindan’s Ass, Do It Badly, and Squeeze the Lemon. If you squint at those names you could figure out what I mean but let me just lay it out.
Go home by accident: Burindan’s Ass
When I first heard of Burindan’s Ass I thought it was too extreme to be a useful thought experiment. Unable to choose between two equally good food options, the animal ends up choosing neither and dies of hunger. Then I realised that I make that very same mistake – albeit with lower stakes – alarmingly regularly!
In the most direct example, I wanted to support someone on Patreon but wasn’t sure whether to do so at the $1 tier or the $4 tier. There was so little at stake, but nonetheless I couldn’t make the decision and put it off… and then forgot about it entirely. I chose to neither go big or go small, but “went home” by mistake, and – metaphorically – starved to death like Burindan’s Ass.
I’ve noticed that especially in a period of low energy on a weekend, one can consider doing some important thing like paying a bill or fixing something (go big), then feel a bit overwhelmed by it and consider doing something fun instead (go small), then feel guilty about doing the fun thing and do pretty much nothing instead (like checking social media or watching TV – go home).
Sometimes doing a small fun thing can give you the energy to do the bigger thing! And doing a fun thing is for sure better than just wasting time, just set a timer if you feel too guilty about it!
A variant on this is choosing between two “small” options, like the Patreon example above. When I was a teenager, an astrology book told me that I would have trouble deciding between similar things. Not believing in astrology but noticing that this was actually true, I got annoyed and resolved to change it. I made a series of rubrics for myself to get at this specific problem: “If you can’t tell the options apart, it can’t matter that much”; “If the consequences of choosing badly aren’t that bad, don’t sweat it”; “better to make a decision than no decision”. This helped in the end, and I can go back to not believing astrology without feeling like a hypocrite.
Don’t go home by mistake!
Going small is an option: Do It Badly
I’ve seen this phrase a few times on the internet: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”. It sounds wrong, but there’s a truth to it, which is what I like about it. For example, exercise is worth doing – and some exercise is better than none. If you can’t find time to go to the gym / rock wall / tennis club, it’s worth doing exercise “badly”, i.e. just a short bit of yoga / running / stretching at home – rather than nothing.
Generalising, this is where we consider going big vs. going home and forget that we could actually go small, which is especially important to remember if we find ourselves leaning towards “go home”.
A classic example is when you consider replying to an email that will take a lot of headspace and time to write properly. Putting it off is an option, but is rarely ideal. We could instead consider sending at least a short reply acknowledging the email and letting them know we’ll get back to them later. We would probably appreciate that, much more than nothing, if we were on the other end! Or perhaps we at least take a few minutes to start the reply and then save a draft.
This goes for pretty much any task you might procrastinate on. Remembering the ‘go small’ version (such as breaking off a small bit of a big task) can help you make some progress rather than none. That small bit could be just taking the very first step, or work on the thing for x minutes – and if even that seems too hard to figure out, just taking the time to make a plan of approach! A plan that you may follow at a later date! Keep ‘going small’ until you find something you can manage. Some progress is infinitely better than none!
Going big is an option: Squeeze the Lemon
So this is kind of the opposite version of the above, and I think is more rarely applicable, but it’s very cool when you can spot those opportunities. Also having set out on this three-pairs framework I am obligated to complete it.
I heard the expression “Squeeze the lemon” in the brilliant writer’s commentary on the Pirates of the Caribbean (2001) DVD. In filmmaking, this denotes working out what is cool about your concept (in this case, cursed pirates who appear as skeletons in moonlight), and working out how to squeeze the most ‘juice’ out of that idea. In Pirates, this meant coming up with as many excuses as possible for them to walk into/out of moonlight, with a final battle taking place in a cave where they move in and out of moonbeams while swordfighting. ‘Squeezing the lemon’ is a nice way to think of the “go big” option.
In personal life, ‘going big’ can be hard to achieve, but it’s worth checking that you’re not compromising on something without even considering the bigger, better version. Instead of a 1-week holiday, could you perhaps do 10 days, 2 weeks, 3, 4?! What would it take to make that happen? Might it be worth it?
You could go to the cinema to see Avengers: Endgame, but what if you found a cinema showing Infinity War / Endgame as a double-bill, wouldn’t that be more of an adventure?
You could reply to your friend’s text message, but would a call be better? (Texting first, of course). A letter?? Have you seen them face to face lately?!
Our chances to really try metaphorical lemon-squeezing may be greater at work, depending on what we do. Is a particular business venture too much of a cop-out to really succeed? Would a much bigger version be disproportionately better? Might it be worth taking longer to make the product better? I find in business the default is to scrutinise the other direction (cutting corners, going fast and breaking things, fixing it in post), and often that makes sense – just remember to sometimes look the other way.
Go big, or go home, or go small… just make sure to consider all three.
This edition of things accidentally gained a spooky theme and almost came out in October! Almost.
Learning from the best vs. the worst
You can learn how to do something from a good example, or how not to do something from a bad one. Each method of learning has its advantages, and some things lend themselves much more to one than the other. You might learn good rock-climbing technique by watching an expert; you might learn film-making by seeing a bad film and noting what doesn’t work.
Games of all kinds are arguably about learning, and the same question comes up: how should a player be taught to play?
In board games one should in theory read the instructions; in practice this is wildly more difficult than it seems (a subject I will return to in depth one day). The usual approach is for someone else to demonstrate – i.e. you learn from a good example.
In video games, the default approach is trial-and-error; generally you won’t be told in advance that, say, a certain enemy fires projectiles or the best way to evade them; you’ll be expected to figure it out. While designing with this type of learning in mind can be done thoughtfully and well, it can also be punishingly slow to learn and achieve mastery. This was my experience in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, where a boss might dispatch me in 20 seconds and I then had to spend a few minutes of traversal to get back to them and have another 20 seconds to learn how to do better.
In contrast, a nice design trick in video games is to take the lead from the way people learn board games mentioned above: the player can learn the basics by seeing another character, similar to the one they control, make mistakes and suffer the consequences. The player understands the rules of the game world quickly but doesn’t feel like they’ve suffered from the mistakes themselves. Then when it comes to mastery, watching experts play – usually on streaming services or in an eSport – can be very efficient.
The distinction of learning by example vs. counter-example was brought to my attention by Charlie Stross’ framing of the two types of reality TV: those that centre on competence vs. those that are fundamentally about incompetence. When we consume stories, we again have the chance to learn from good or bad examples; incompetence-based reality TV (e.g. Love Island, Big Brother) is an example of the latter, and is the opposite of competence-based TV (e.g. The Repair Shop, Queer Eye).
When it comes to horror films (we finally arrive at the spooky point!), there’s a very natural lean towards ‘learning from incompetence’: characters in danger take inadvisable risks, split up etc. and we learn how the consequences of these decisions play out. Criticising characters for making these bad decisions misses the point of story type.
More usefully, being annoyed at those bad decisions is perhaps a sign that you have mastered the basics of “not dying”, and now you’re interested in mastery. Just like in games, you now want to find competence-based fiction instead. This is where the SCP Foundation comes in!
SCP Foundation and competence-horror
The SCP Foundation is a really fascinating work of collaborative fiction that Laurence introduced me to a couple of years ago. While the writing varies in style and quality (as you’d expect for something open and collaborative), I find it most notable for the entries that do the rare thing of combining (usually) supernatural horror with competence. Faced with an extremely dangerous threat, what would extremely competent and well-resourced people do?
To back up a bit, I’ll quickly recap the history of the SCP Foundation.
On 9th June 2007 the best Doctor Who episode of all time, ‘Blink’ was broadcast. This featured ‘weeping angels’, beings that have the appearance of statues that can’t move when observed, but if you so much as blink they can move and attack tremendously quickly.
Shortly after this, a post appeared on 4chan (link to lostmediawiki particle) pairing the image of slightly scary humanoid sculpture with a text description of what it can do – essentially the same as the weeping angels. But the really interesting part was the framing: the text was written in the form of a slightly bureaucratic set of instructions for safely ‘containing’ the entity, labeling it ‘Item SCP-173’. This immediately implied that hundreds of other things are somehow being contained by some kind of organisation, and competency is inherently part of the concept since a reasonably precise set of safety procedures are outlined. (You can read the article in its current form here).
The SCP Foundation is the logical follow-up to this intriguing idea: a collaborative wiki about the ‘Foundation’, some sort of organisation with a mission to ‘contain’ supernatural threats. Various individuals contribute different entries, each with their own SCP number.
At this point, I recommend you read a few of the shorter entries: SCP-173, the original, as described above SCP-055, a nice example of how some entries give more questions than answers SCP-____-J, possibly the shortest, essentially a joke
SCP-●●|●●●●●|●●|●, entirely image based, having read the above you should have the context needed to understand most of it (and as you get deeper into the Foundation more of it makes sense).
Either of these could be a good introduction to some stuff Things-readers would enjoy, and I recommend them – but if you’re not sure and/or don’t have much time, I suggest jumping straight into ‘We need to talk about Fifty-Five’ which is a neat little introduction to how clever (and also a bit silly) these things can be.
One warning: a lot of SCP entries tip quite steeply into horror, and in particular there’s a tendency towards ‘supernaturally unending suffering’, so readers with high degrees of empathy may wish to stay away. On the other hand, if that’s exactly what you’re looking for then I suggest SCP-2718 as perhaps the best/worst of that subgenre.
Video Game: Control
Most (all?) of the SCP Foundation wiki is distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0), which means anyone is free to adapt and even exploit the material commercially as long as they give credit, link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
There have been a few spin-offs, but the most successful seems to be Control (available on PSN, Xbox, Switch, Steam).
While technically not a direct reference, Control is clearly very heavily inspired by the SCP Foundation. The game is set in a vast and windowless building run by the ‘Bureau of Control’ which attempts to contain dangerous supernatural things in much the same way.
A particularly neat twist is that the building itself has some strange properties, and makes fantastic use of brutalist design. When you join all these concepts together, I would describe the result as extremely my jam.
I really enjoyed the game and did essentially all the things you can do in it. If any of the above sounds cool to you I would recommend it… but there are some fairly heavy caveats!
Unfortunately this is one of the many video games where the majority of your time is spent killing what are essentially aggressive zombies. I don’t mind a bit of shooting, but this is not the best example of it.
Getting confused and lost seems to be part of the design. You are given a 2D map which is only partially useful in a 3D space.
Weirdly spiky difficulty is also – I think – part of the design. You never know what kind of horror awaits you, and the fact that some of them can kill you very fast helps to create a feeling of ambient dread (and makes the end-game, once you are fully powered up, all the more satisfying). But often this can create a feeling of frustration, which is weirdly much less pleasant than good-old dread.
To go back to selling the idea a bit more, I’ll give an example of how this all comes together. In this moment (below) you catch sight of a plastic flamingo, which you know almost nothing about, and it is genuinely terrifying:
After some discussion in my work’s politics Slack channel, I came up with the following thought experiment:
Aliens arrive on earth and announce a challenge. After some time to prepare, all humans will be asked to vote either red or blue. If more than 62% vote for the same thing (regardless of which one it is), humanity will survive; if it’s any less, humanity will be destroyed. Can we manage it?
You can immediately see what I’m getting at: considering the partisan debates on elections, referenda, or climate change, could humanity come to even moderate agreement if you stripped out the issue being debated entirely?
To answer that question I wrote a short story about it: Consensus or Death (reading time ~15 minutes). You may be able to tell that the style is influenced by the SCP Foundation!
(Also in the dry-article-style sci-fi genre, I highly recommend Lena by qntm, which takes the form of an article about the history of the first mind upload).
Spooky unrecommendations and recommendations
I usually like to stay on the positive, but after some disappointing spooky TV experiences I figured I should at least share these with Things readers as a warning.
So Dark is a German TV series that is very difficult to describe without spoilers. The marketing material shows serious-looking characters looking small in large spooky environments with some sort of kaleidoscope effect. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is an effective graphic shorthand for what the series is: a bit spooky and mysterious, with elements of horror and possibly some sort of sci-fi/genre business going on.
As the series gradually (very gradually) unfolds its mysteries, it becomes clear that it is tackling a fascinating setup that is very rarely attempted in fiction. That is worthy of respect and is the reason I kept watching.
Unfortunately, in trying to carefully work through its central concept, many aspects of good storytelling are sacrificed. Characters don’t ask questions when they should, take advice that they wouldn’t, and generally all behave like weird automata. The tone is resolutely bleak. The complexity ratchets up very rapidly.
A big part of ‘mystery TV’ is how satisfyingly things are tied up by the end. To get a view on that without spoilers I like to check RatingGraph to see the IMDb ratings of each episode. There’s self-selection at work but it can at least tell you if the kind of person who perseveres to the end is happy with it, and the answer appears to be yes:
Well, unfortunately this did not hold true for me. My suspicion is that as a Things-reader you likely value consistency and cleverness; in my opinion Dark doesn’t manage either of those by the end, and as such was disappointing.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
A modern, darker update of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, CAOS had a lot of promise. In particular it has some fun world-building with various magic rules that at least kind-of make sense, and it sets out a general ‘witches vs patriarchy’ theme which is very appealing.
I was particularly interested in the ambiguity of the protagonist: is Sabrina good or evil? Chaotic neutral perhaps? Are we supposed to start out rooting for her and then realise we were wrong to do so? Will she gradually become the antagonist instead of the protagonist? Unfortunately it seems the series isn’t interested in those questions at all. That’s about all I can say without spoilers.
Once again Rating Graph was a useful guide here, and unfortunately I checked it when only 3 seasons of data were available; you can now see that the final ending was (in contrast to Dark) widely seen as a disappointment.
Oxenfree (video game)
Oxenfree is a short spooky point-and-click adventure where the primary innovation is the conversation system. The gambit is that at various points you are given a few choices of what to say – as in the above screenshot – but (unlike other games) conversations continue to proceed naturally, so you have to choose when to interrupt to get your remark in, or miss the moment so you don’t say anything!
This is the primary way you make choices in the game and is quite effective.
It does have the classic problem in dialogue selection: to make the choice manageable, the options are terse summaries of what the character will say – particularly important here because you need to read and comprehend your choices while simultaneously listening to the ongoing conversation. Unfortunately, sometimes the full version of your remark will add a slant or tone that is really not what you intended, which can make the choice feel a bit unfair.
A tiny example: Jonas suggests splitting up, and you have the option to say ‘Let’s keep together’. But if you choose that, your character actually says ‘C’mon, Jonas, this is… let’s just all go up. I don’t wanna send Ren away like a… deer hound.’ Which is a bit snippier than I expected.
(Side note, I found Horizon Zero Dawn really excellent in this regard, where each terse choice unfolded to a really great full-length expression preserving the tone).
Here’s ProZD illustrating the point in 6 seconds (with NSFW language):
So anyway, the down-side of Oxenfree is that it’s mostly about some teenagers who are a bit silly and grumpy with each other, but the up-side is that it has some really well-realised spooks and some excellent ‘genre business’ (I’m avoiding spoilers) going on. As I tweeted after first finishing it, one moment of the game was so creepy that I felt physically nauseous – which I found really awesome!
So if you’re interested in narrative video games and/or spooks and/or ‘genre business’ then I highly recommend it, especially as it’s relatively short at around ~5 hours. (A sequel is due in 2023).
Okay, this isn’t really spooky, but it’s worth noting. I work in mobile games, so I think I can authoritatively say that Marvel Snap (iOS, Android) the first game in a long time to do something really new, interesting, and widely appealing. (I guess the last one was Pokemon Go).
It takes the genre of a tactical card game (like Magic or Hearthstone), but radically distills it down so a match only takes 2-3 minutes. It’s like a simplified version of the card game Smash Up, and is similar in the way it can be a bit strategic but also chaotic and delightful. Notably it adds a very light ‘raise the stakes’ mechanic (the ‘Snap’ of the title) that gives you some strategic control over the randomness.
Now the game is free, and makes money from in-app-purchases, but if you’re not a fan of how those games tend to go I should point out that this is one of the least aggressively monetised high-quality games out there, with money primarily being used purely for aesthetics. So if any of the above sounds appealing, give it a go! (iOS, Android)
[Edit: a subsequent update added the ability to buy specific cards you don’t own from a rotating shop, with a currency that you earn very slowly, while offering an expensive bundle that gives you that currency. While I do think the game deserves more money than it was asking for before, and this tactic will almost certainly better ensure it’s longevity, I can no longer describe it as being one of the ‘least aggressively monetised’ games. You can absolutely have a huge amount of fun without spending though. – T.M. 16/12/22]
Music Video Video Mysteries
My current music discovery/collection method is as follows:
If I still like the song, I add it to a playlist for that year
(If you’re interested you can check out my playlists from 2019, 2020, 2021)
During the Youtube review stage I’m usually not paying much attention to the video, but occasionally it will suck me in, and my very favourite videos produce a profound sense of mystery that feels like there is something going on here and I don’t know what it is.
So, here are my top 3 of those. I highly recommend watching the video before reading the explanation so you get the authentic “what is going on?” experience. To that end, I’ll post all three videos first and the explanations after, and also note that this is the last Thing so you can drop out here if you need to make time for video watching.
(Side note, I recommend using the Youtube ‘watch it later’ button that looks like a little clock as a shortcut to making a playlist for exactly that purpose).
ALA.NI – Le Diplomate, video by Ira Rokka
Noga Erez – You So Done, video by Indy Hait
Jamie xx – Gosh, video by Romain Gavras
Music Video Explanations
Watching Le Diplomate I experienced surprise in three parts: there’s something weird going on with this diplomat character, we have Iggy Pop speaking French, and finally there’s some satire/political commentary and I’m curious about where it’s coming from. Conveniently, all of these questions are answered in this interview with ALA.NI.
You So Done similarly has some layers to it: I was first impressed by the strange musical aesthetic (which Ellie informed me is very similar to Billie Eilish, particularly Bad Guy, which I had somehow never heard before); then the strange not-quite-violence of the video, and the only-slightly-indirect lyrics speak to some core emotional truth behind the whole thing. Once again, the artist herself directly answers these implied questions.
Jamie xx’s Gosh is a little different, in that there isn’t a mysterious lyric component, but the visuals are a whole other thing: what are we seeing? Is it real? Where is it? How did it come about? It seems like it means something… but what? Happily, once again, almost all of these questions are answered in an article here.
You may have noticed that Things posts/emails slowed in frequency over the years (from weekly to monthly to sporadic) and more recently had effectively stopped!
There’s a whole aspect of this that I plan to unpack later involving my levels of personal creativity and motivation. I posted in August 2021 that I would try to work around this by trying to focus on a post about a single Thing each time. Well, this has started to work, and I’m jumping off from that to a more traditional round up of things!
Beginnings and Endings in public performances (link)
In this post I examined the ways that different cultural forms (movies, gigs, puppet shows etc) signal to an audience the start and end of a performance, and why this is important.
While writing it, I realised that online talks/presentations, which have become much more prevalent during the pandemic, had not reached a good consensus on these difficult problems, and I set out my own list of suggestions of how to start and end them. Honestly, I’m not that satisfied with these and if anyone has any better suggestions I’d love to hear them. Read the whole thing here.
Effectively a dramatically expanded paragraph from a normal issue of things (this one), I explained in some detail what I think is so good about this music video:
This fascinating short film seems weirdly underdiscussed on the internet, so again I’d be very happy to hear anyone else’s thoughts on it! Mine are here.
Repetition for emphasis in lyrics
When a particular word or phrase is sung repeatedly in a song, the meaning changes slightly: it starts to feel like something the singer really really desires.
This was my favourite feature of Frozen 2 (2019)‘s song “Into The Unknown”
Elsa hears a siren-like voice, and in the first verse sings about how she plans to ignore it, culminating in this:
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you… Into the unknown Into the unknown Into the unknown
‘Into the Unknown’, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
You can read it between the lines, but the repetition of ‘Into the unknown’ and the tone in which it is sung tell us that, deep down, Elsa really does want to follow the voice. This is then validated in the second verse which instead concludes
Don’t you know there’s a part of me that longs to go Into the unknown? Into the unknown Into the unknown!
This device is really nicely exploited in The LEGO Movie 2 (2019) (another animated sequel from 2019, but which came out before Frozen 2). The protagonists encounter Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi who then goes into a musical number to explain that she is not evil, which brilliantly plays out exactly as you would hope from that premise:
Here the repetition is partly from the backing singers (denoted in brackets):
And if you make eye contact with me I totally won’t have you executed immediately ‘Cause that’d be evil (evil) Evil (evil) Evil… and that’s so not me.
‘Not Evil’ by Jon Lajoie
The repetition of ‘evil’ reinforces the unconvincing negatives, giving the impression that she is, in fact, actually evil.
So anyway, all of this is an elaborate build-up to explain a problem I have with ‘Roxanne’ by The Police.
Sting sings earnestly about how much he loves Roxanne, a sex worker, and how he wants her to stop doing that and just be with him. It’s a little odd as there’s nothing in the song indicating that he would support her or that she could do really anything other than just belong to him, but perhaps that’s supposed to be implied.
Specifically he asks her to change by saying “You don’t have to put on the red light”, which is fine and a reasonably delicate turn of phrase. Where it gets weird is in the conclusion of the chorus, and especially the outro. Again denoting backing singers in brackets, this reads as follows:
(Roxanne) You don’t have to put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) You don’t have to put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light (Roxanne) Put on the red light
‘Roxanne’ by Sting
So Sting sings two times that she doesn’t have to put on the red light, but then seemingly that she should put it on thirteen times, which for me always undermined what I assume was the intended sentiment.
Puzzle: Rice Cookers
Returning to the old tradition of puzzles in things: how do rice cookers work?
Now you can ask the internet for the answer to this, but I suggest this is worth figuring out on your own! If you’re not familiar with this excellent device, the key mystery is that you can add any amount of rice (up to some limit), then add 1.5x as much water, and switch the rice cooker on. You don’t have to tell it how much rice you are cooking, but it will cook it perfectly and then let you know when it’s ready. So how exactly does it know when the rice is done?
I know many things readers are not only interested in solving puzzles, but also setting them. I found Elyot Grant’s series of videos on the subject pretty fascinating, albeit a bit longer than they could have been (although this is the ‘extended’ version of his GDC talk).
I particularly appreciated some useful terminology he introduced me to for speaking about puzzles:
Fiero vs Eureka
Elyot likes the term ‘Eureka’ for the moment a core understanding of a puzzle kicks in, arguing this does better justice to it than the more prosaic term “aha moment”. In particular he calls it out as distinct from ‘Fiero’, which describes the warm feeling of accomplishment after you have achieved something difficult. Video games often end up falling back on creating Fiero; creating Eureka moments is harder to do but often more rewarding to experience in the end.
This refers to anything incorporated into a puzzle that isn’t essential to the design, but somehow makes it more attractive or pleasing than if it was the purest distillation of what is needed to provoke a Eureka moment. For example, a sliding block puzzle could be shaped like an animal that it already nearly resembles; or the words in a word puzzle could be thematically linked somehow. This all adds to the pleasing sense in which engaging with and solving a puzzle can feel like understanding a message from its creator.
Finally, ‘aporia’ is the term for when a puzzle seems to be impossible. Ideally, the setting and trust in the puzzle’s creator should be sufficient to convince you that there really is a solution, that this isn’t a mistake or a trick. This can make the sensation particularly fascinating: you know a solution exists, you’ve perhaps even proved it doesn’t, so you know there must be some gap in your logic – you just don’t know what it is. For me this happened repeatedly as I played Snakebird (Steam/iOS/Android; referenced in Things April 2017) and is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.
Part 1 of the video series is here, and the YouTube description links you to parts 2 and 3:
Media I Recommend
A long time has passed since the last general Things round-up, which means there have been more chances for me to encounter some really excellent things that I recommend to Things readers.
More than most other media, video games often have the problem that they are not at all accessible or engaging for someone not familiar with the form. So even though this is the strongest I’ve wanted to recommend something for a very long time, you do need to be comfortable navigating 3D environments to enjoy this game.
The Outer Wilds is a sci-fi time-loop mystery puzzle-game set in a kind of toy solar-system. That sounds cute, but I need to expand on that: it’s a really solid sci-fi, with the best-realised time-loop I’ve ever seen, a fantastically crafted mystery with brilliant diegetic puzzles set in an excellently designed toy solar-system that is obsessed with piquing and rewarding your curiosity and may make you think differently about death.
Referencing the puzzle terminology above, while it has its moments of Fiero, The Outer Wilds is particularly notable for being built around Eureka moments, with pleasingly diegetic hints to help you figure them out.
This may provide further context: – Best Game of 2000-2009 according to me: Portal – Best Game of 2010-2019 according to me: The Outer Wilds
So to be very clear, I recommend playing this game in the strongest possible terms if any of that sounds even remotely appealing to you.
Here’s a few notes that may help with your decision to play/finish it:
It takes ~15-25 hours to play
Note this wild game is called ‘The Outer Wilds’, and should not be confused with ‘The Outer Worlds’, a game that unfortunately came out around the same time
I recommend setting aside an hour for your first session
To get a bit cryptic, there are a few things that you may find annoying about it, but almost all of those things have ways to make them less annoying!
I personally recommend buying the base edition and then buying the DLC if you want more, rather than diving straight in to the complete ‘archaeologist edition’
There are moments late on that may test your patience, especially if you don’t work out some of the ways to make things less annoying – I was personally so invested I didn’t mind these at all, but I can appreciate that your mileage may vary. Still, if you enjoy it half as much as I did it will be well worth your time.
TV Series: Russian Doll
As it happens, Russian Doll also involves a time loop, but much more of a magical-realism one than the sci-fi of The Outer Wilds. Its most notable feature is Natasha Lyonne as the protagonist Nadia, who has an approach to life not often seen on screen: a woman who says ‘yes’ to most decisions, especially the inadvisable ones, and is remarkably driven and selfish – but still humane. This makes her a particularly excellent protagonist for the time loop situation she finds herself in and I was gripped by this series all the way to the end.
If this sounds appealing I recommend diving straight into it (it’s on Netflix), but if you need more convincing at the expense of slight spoiling, the trailer is here.
(There is now a second series in which she encounters a different magical-realist sci-fi situation, but I found her character a worse fit for it and I was not surprised and delighted in the same way. The first series can certainly stand alone.)
Film: Everything Everywhere All At Once
IMDb: 8.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%.
The above trailer looked very promising to me, and I sought out the very first screening I could; the amazing part is that I found the film entirely lives up to the trailer, even to the extent that each minute is almost exactly as intense. A mind-boggling experience that truly delivers on the idea of a multiverse (unlike other films I could mention), I found it so fascinating I saw it a second time at the cinema; I enjoyed it even more, and it has joined the ranks of my all-time favourite films.
At the time of writing you may even still be able to catch it in the cinema, which I strongly encourage you to do!
(If you’re interested, others on my ‘all-time favourites’ list include Speed Racer, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York, and Lilo and Stitch)
Song: Dan Deacon – Change Your Life
It seems music is more personal than other art forms, and I feel as if the more a particular piece speaks to someone, the less likely it is to work for most other people. With that in mind, I don’t expect many to find Dan Deacon (referenced a few times in past Things) particularly appealing, but if you only try one of his songs, I recommend ‘Change Your Life’ which really captures the frenetic optimism he achieves, and which is what I find most appealing:
Enormous ever-evolving IP: Star Wars
Since I last wrote about it (in September 2018!), a lot has happened in Star Wars, and as you might expect I have a lot of opinions about it. But that will have to be an entire Things in its own right. So, you can look forward to that. Or not.
I previously wrote in passing about how the internet can encourage toxic discussion, partly because people are more likely to post about something when it makes them angry. A good way to respond to this observation is to march in the opposite direction: write about things you love!
To that end, let me tell you about one of my all-time favourite music videos. The song is Beck’s ‘Up All Night’, the video is by CANADA (the creative production company, not the country), and you should just watch the whole thing first:
Wow, so what was that! Let’s break it down. Note, I’ll be using the actor’s names, as character names are not given.
We begin in a hexagonal frame – a visual motif for Beck’s album, Colors – bringing us in to a party. Right away, we see this party is long past its peak: there’s an unsettling discordant strumming, and while our attention is on Pedro Attemborough falling into a drunken faint, we subconsciously pick up on someone stepping over debris, and on the right a woman forcefully pushes back a man after he draws uncomfortably close. We read the environment as inebriated and ambiently hostile, particularly for women.
The very first edit demands our attention. First, Pedro hits the ground with a strange metallic sound. Then, as soon as we register that as strange, we cut to Solene Rigot, and immediately understand that the sound was actually her kicking a street sign. Further kicks are synchronised with the credits, and then in a dreamlike transition that skips what must surely be a difficult process, Solene is now walking off with the sign as an ersatz shield.
Having drawn our attention to the synchronisation of image and sound, we enter an eerie silence as she marches into the night, right into the path of a tall man(?) dressed as Snow White, smoking, staggering, clearly leaving the party we just saw. Perhaps expecting a woman to defer to his path, he is surprised as she off-handedly clips past him – and that exact moment of conflict is punctuated with the opening guitar stabs of the song, finally kicking in, 30 seconds into the video.
So tacitly we identify with Solene, familiar as we all are with the rudeness of those that won’t even slightly move to let us by, the music telling us to feel triumphant that she came out the better from the borderline violent exchange.
Now perhaps it seems like I’m digging into too much detail here, but I think it’s important to appreciate that this quiet introduction has been packed with synaesthetic interest and detail, setting the stage for a conflict, and getting us to root for our protagonist – all with no dialogue. There’s a party, a man in trouble (we assume she’s headed for him), a vaguely misogynistic atmosphere, and a woman fully prepared to plunge into it to get what she wants.
A brief cut back to Pedro confirms him as her destination, then we return to Solene approaching the next level of the patriarchal gauntlet: a group of young men chatting and laughing. Superficially benevolent, it doesn’t take much life experience to recognise this as a potential threat to a young woman alone at night. This fear is immediately subverted as Solene again takes the role of aggressor: without breaking stride she grabs a bag off a shoulder, sharply unzips it, does – something? – then throws the bag off the walkway. The strange tension of wondering what she did with the bag is then resolved with a cut to her holding a doughnut in her mouth, before her hand reaches up to yank it out as she takes a bite, still marching.
To be clear, this is kind of a dick move, and the fact it inverts the patterns of a society that routinely disempowers women does not make it okay – but as Drew McWeeny noted in the 3rd episode of Voir, a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable for us to care about them or be invested in their journey. This simply tells us she will do whatever it takes to see this ambiguous mission through.
She pauses a moment as Beck’s lyrics tell her to “pull yourself together” and “it’s time to go”. She pulls out an inhaler and takes an assisted breath (a sudden moment of vulnerability) and we cut to Pedro apparently leaking urine, kind of disgusting, but raising the stakes of the quest: he needs her help.
In the video’s first moment of magical realism, Solene pivots on the spot, and with nothing but a simple cut is now armoured; we understand she has quite literally steeled herself.
She discards the inhaler, another dick move, but hey – armour doesn’t have pockets. She starts running, and eight cuts at different angles (timed to hand-claps) build the tension to the next key moment: the song bursts into the chorus and she bursts into the party itself.
Through a few quick shots in slow motion we see the party as we feared: debauched, uncomfortably packed, hazardous to human health. Solene’s progress seems almost miraculously smooth, but at this point we’re not surprised.
As she makes it from the red-lit room to the orange, the stakes rise: a fight between men dressed as nuns (a scene I have, bizarrely, personally witnessed at a stag do on the streets of Portsmouth), and an unfortunate collision between Solene and a woman triggers the moment of male aggression we feared would come.
Instantly enraged, the man flings a bottle at our protagonist; her first response is to grab a hookah (why?), before turning to deflect the shattering bottle with Chekhov’s shield, and smoothly using that turn as a wind-up to lob the hookah back. We are taken aback – she has been a bit rude so far, sure, but this violent response doesn’t seem right – only to find that it’s simply to knock the cans off a comatose man’s forehead. Weird but delightful!
She knocks the door down to the kitchen: drug central. Wilfully destroying the drug paraphernalia as she progresses, it seems the hookah throw wasn’t an afterthought; she appears to actively despise drugs and all they stand for.
If we were in any doubt as to how bad this party has become, the surprise sheep lets us know.
Things now take a turn for the weird as trophies in a red-lit room tremble in Solene’s presence; she notes it but appears to move on, as a roller-blading blonde in hot-pants twirls to punctuate the moment. This is notable as the only part of the video that veers towards the male gaze, which otherwise has been surprisingly avoided, particularly in our protagonist’s outfits – although perhaps the shot is there to make that contrast clear?
She steps more carefully through the heavy petting room, affection and love more worthy of her respect, but the weirdness returns as a necklace rises towards her inexplicably. Matching the rhythm of the syncopated vocals, metal objects attach themselves to her armour. Something is wrong.
Perhaps there’s a clever metaphor I’m missing here, but it seems that our protagonist has become too emotionally ‘charged’ by the events so far to pass through unscathed. If she’s to make it to the heart of the party, she must shed the part of herself that is holding her back.
In what reads like a time-twist, it seems as if she did in fact enter that red room with the trophies, and we now flash back to it, to discover her smoking and preparing some kind of cocktail. Having previously seen her antipathy towards intoxicants, this seems strange. Perhaps the party life was once hers, and her attitude is not that of a pious outsider, but rather one who has been through her own struggles, but emerged on the other side. Perhaps she wants to save Pedro as she once was saved (or as seems more likely, saved herself), and accepts as the price that she must, with care, use an aspect of herself that she had previously closed off.
Two quick scenes that follow endorse this idea. In blue light (read: earlier) she struggles to evade the most potent patriarchal symbol yet: a drunken football team. Then in red – presumably after imbibing – she is crowd-surfing an otherwise impassably packed corridor, the party accepting her as one of their own.
Fighting through plants (a cannabis farm?), bleary, she is perhaps paying the price for this power. But now flashing back again to the red room, we learn something more powerful took place there: magical realism escalating, the chrome drink coats her insides and appears to transform her armoured form into a chrome ’73 Corvette C3 Stingray: impeccably cool and worthy of respect from the revellers. Also it makes no sense! But that’s fine!
She finally reaches her goal: Pedro, even now having toothpaste applied to his comatose form by a man in an ill-fitting tiger onesie, representing the pure Freudian id of Tigger.
In a perfectly acted moment, Solene sighs – a combination of relief, disappointment, and simultaneously anger, crystallising into action.
The Corvette burns intimidating doughnuts, and she is left alone by Tigger and the revellers to save Pedro.
In an image that sums up the whole story, the still-armoured Solene emerges from smoke, carrying Pedro, gazing upon him with a combination of relief and love. The song is over.
But there’s one final, surreal twist. In the early morning light we see Pedro surfing atop the chrome Corvette (driverless of course, because it is in fact Solene). We quietly hear what sounds like an outtake from the string section used on the track, and the hexagon closes us out as they drive, presumably, towards a better future.
The dynamic at play here, though, is uncomfortable. Pedro affects an unearned coolness, literally riding atop Solene’s efforts as if he were the hero. How does she feel about this? Where is their relationship really headed? It feels to me like the default patriarchal order is being reasserted, and from what we’ve seen, she will not tolerate this for long. What she has gained from this ordeal is not a partner, but confidence and strength. That will last.
I don’t think Pedro will.
For me, the video evokes my time back at university: the parties, the intensity of every experience, and the romantic idea of being “Up all night with you” – but also of realising that you don’t have to conform, that these relationships may not last, and most importantly your own character is coming into focus.
And that’s why it’s one of my favourite music videos.