One Year After The Witness: A Short Review

It has been nearly a year since I played The Witness and wanted to give it a second, although short, reconsideration. When I really liked (or hate) a game, it is easy for me to feel confident about my experience with a game. However, The Witness left me feeling rather ambivalent and so it had been harder for be to make a final judgement about it quality.

Here are my final thoughts.

The puzzles are cleverly designed, vary in difficulty, and offer some choice in which puzzles you have to solve to finish the game. However, there are a lot of the, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of them (one is reminded of The Talos Principle). As I stated in my previous review, I think it would have been smart to reduce the total number of puzzles in one play-through by separating them into difficulty levels.

The audio and video logs add little of value to the game. Most are interesting in and of themselves but quoting smarter, more interesting people is a poor substitute for original insight. The game would have been better without these, particularly the longer video logs, and would have been far more consistent with Jonathan Blow original intention to make the game about the puzzles.

The environments are beautifully rendered but environmental puzzles would have made them even more engaging.

Overall, I can’t say that I am unhappy with my experience with The Witness but I would have been far more satisfied if there had been fewer puzzles, difficulty settings, and no quotations. The Witness had the potential to be a great puzzle game but feels critically unbalanced and unpolished. It is very hard for me to imagine going back to play it again as I have with other, better puzzle games.

Book Review: Wieland or, The Transformation

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The Library of America edition.

Having read and enjoyed the majority of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, I have been searching for other works of a similar style and quality. For some time I have been curious about the gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown, an early American author contemporary to Radcliffe, and finally came around to reading his most well known novel, Wieland or, The Transformation. It turned out to be a very enjoyable novel, sharing several of the key characteristics that I liked about Radcliffe’s novels but distinct enough to be considered more than mere imitation.

Brown adopts Radcliffe’s explained supernatural, descriptive prose, and carefully structured suspense but adds to this his own distinctive style. His prose style is succinct and very straightforward compared to his English contemporaries, who tended to be quite verbose and poetical. However, his concise prose is not lacking in expression and remains highly effective when necessary.

Radcliffe’s great talent was in her descriptive prose and how she used it to create suspense. Instead of merely telling readers what is happening, she shows it by describing what the characters see and feel in detail. In doing so, she slows down time and delays relief. There are numerous instances in Wieland where Brown uses this technique very effectively and it makes the novel as a whole very exciting to read.

The novel is told from the perspective of Clara Wieland and the narrative is written as her one personal account of the strange events that led to the brutal murder of her family. Like many of the gothic heroines of the period, Clara Wieland prefers a honest, hardworking life in the country to an ostentatious one in the city. She is also fairly independent and lives in her own house, apart from family. However, she stands apart from her fictional contemporaries in one interesting way. She is the only gothic heroine from this period I have come across who actually arms herself with a weapon. It’s a rare quality to see in 18th century English fiction and a very refreshing one at that.

My only disappointment with the novel comes near the end of the story. I was expecting some final, devastating reveal but it never came. It does not ruin the novel but i feel it would have improved it. Brown’s explanation for the seemingly supernatural events in Wieland are far-fetched but while his explanations don’t always work, he successfully uses them to explore the unreliability of human perception and its susceptibility to expectation, emotion (especially fear), and belief.

Anyone interested in early gothic fiction, especially those in the Radcliffian tradition, should enjoy Wieland or, The Transformation. The quality of Brown’s writing is what kept me reading and ultimately elevates Wieland in my estimation despite it faults. There are plenty of poor gothic novels from the 1790’s but this isn’t one of them.

For those interested, Wieland or, The Transformation is currently available in paperback format from Penguin books and is included in a very handsome hardcover collection by Library of America. I own a copy of the latter edition and like t very much, both for its handsome binding and compact size.

Book Review: Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle

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The hardcover edition from the Oxford University Press English Novel series, long out of print.

Several years ago, I began collecting Oxford University’s series of classic English novels. But these aren’t the familiar paperback editions. They are a series of hardcover editions, printed from the mid 1960’s up until the early 1970’s, and comprise a wide array of authors spanning two centuries. In total they published something like seventy volumes, many of which are still available from Oxford University Press, but what makes this series interesting to me, apart from their handsome binding, is that the series focuses extensively on 18th century authors. One of these authors, Charlotte Smith, had not been seen in print for more than a century and has, for good reason, been rediscovered as an important and influential author of the late 18th century.

When I bought Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle I was under the misapprehension that it was a gothic novel but this could not be farther from the truth. In style and content, it is a courtship novel and has much more in common with Jane Austin than Ann Radcliffe. Initially, I was rather disappointed. I’m generally not interested in novels about courtship and marriage, unless it involves two guys or a ghost or social criticism, but Emmeline drew me in with its critique of gender inequality and realistic portrayal of depression. In the end, it was a worthwhile read and I would highly recommend it to those interested in early feminist authors, romanticism, and 18th century fiction.

Smith was known to use her own experiences as a source of inspiration for her writing. Portraits of both herself and her husband pop up throughout the novel. Her marriage was far from happy. Her husband was both reckless with money and physically abusive. After twenty years together and twelve children, she left him and took up writing, one of the few respectable profession a woman could have at the time. It comes then as no surprise why she chose to dramatize the struggles of women to determine their own lives and critique the social institutions that forced women into bad marriages in her novels.

Many of the women in Smith’s novel are used to illustrate the ways women are disadvantaged by marriage but the most striking of them is Adelina. Adelina’s husband gambles excessively, forcing both into poverty and debt, and eventually succumbs to alcoholism. Meanwhile, Adelina leaves her husband and bears a child with another man. Ashamed of her circumstances and fearful of her bothers, as well as society’s, condemnation, her mental and physical health begin to deteriorate.

Depressed spirits are a common feature of the novels of the time and often go hand-in-hand with physical health but Adelina character is described with an unusual amount of detail for the time. She ruminates on sad thoughts, writes self-pitying poetry, isolates herself, loses interest in activities she once enjoyed, and even contemplates committing suicide. Smith is clearly describing the condition we now acknowledge as clinical depression and I don’t doubt that she sourced these details from her own experience, as she did with others aspects of her novels. (In fact, some of Adelina’s poetry appear in Smith’s very popular Elegiac Sonnets.) Adelina’s depression is treated as real and attributes it to society’s unjust scrutiny over women’s virtue, rather than to any deficit in her character.

Curiously, Mary Wollstonecraft criticized Smith for the way she portrayed Adelina and her “excessive grief,” as Wollstonecraft called, but Smith’s portrayal of Adelina’s depression adds realism to her novel and enriches it as whole. For contemporary readers, Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle may still be too didactic for their tastes but it’s well worth reading for its realism and critique of gender inequality. I can only hope that more of her works will become available and that our appreciation for it may deservedly grow.

P.S.: If you are interested in finding a copy, I recommend the edition from Broadview Press. The Oxford University Press edition is long out-of-print but you can find some used copies online in a variety of places, such as Amazon and Abebooks.

R.I.P., Pete Burns

The sudden death of singer and Dead or Alive front-man Pete Burns struck me hard when I first read about it this morning. Not only has his music brought great joy to my life, his brave defiance of gender norms was a crucial source of inspiration for me when I was a teenager.

tumblr_nh7u1qg9cx1rl00x0o1_500I first discovered Pete Burns and Dead or Alive in 2006, not long after I came out as a gay man and was beginning to struggle with my gender identity. I grew up in the 1990’s with few examples of queer people in the media. Gay men and women were only beginning to creep into our collective comfort zones but representation was still strictly limited. Consequently, gender variant people were practically non-existent in popular media of any kind. Unlike many of my peers, I saw no one like myself in the media, and felt acutely lost when I struggled to make sense of my gender. What I felt I was and wanted to be did not seem to exist outside of myself. Seeing Pete Burns’s androgynous appearance was like a light in the darkness. He set me on a path of self-discovery and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

Over the years I have gotten used to hearing Dead or Alive dismissed as a “one hit wonder” and Pete Burns’s personal appearance ridiculed but I am deeply grateful to see how many people fondly remember him and his music. His music will always have a special place in my heart, not only for the simple aesthetic joy it has brought me, but for the strength he gave me during a period of great personal change.

The Funny Thing About Productivity

The summer break has passed and so too has most of my free time. Normally, this would upset me but this summer was a bit different than the last three or four.

I have never taken any courses over the summer break, initially because my college had made cuts and consequently did not offer any of the courses I need over the summer semester, and I have kept to this rule even after I transferred to a four-year university. I took the summer breaks, and the free time they afforded me, as an opportunity to focus on personal projects, such as reading books, writing for my blog or other things, and social engagements.

I typically get a lot done over the summer but last summer was a different matter. I wasn’t nearly as productive as I usually am during the summer break and I failed to  complete, or even begin, some of the projects I wanted to work on. I felt very disappointed in myself but, on the other hand, I got plenty of rest and saw friends and family frequently. Sometimes the simple things are enough.

Productivity is a funny thing. I know a lot of it comes down to commitment and perseverance. You can’t just wait for inspiration to motivate you. You have to motivate yourself. I often find this to be a problem for me and a especially difficult problem during the long summer break. The other problem is the illusion of time. Whenever I have lot of time on my hands to do things I tend to put them off, thinking I can always do it later because I have so much time, but in actually, this lends itself to perpetual delay.

Oddly enough, I often feel like I can get more done during the semester, when I have more work to do and much less time for anything else, and I believe this comes done to how I perceive time. Because time is strictly limited and I want to work on personal projects, it is easier to motivated myself because I can’t really procrastinate, and when I need ti put off my personal projects it is typically for very sound reasons. I can be productive even when I’m not working on my personal projects because I have also important work to do for school but during the summer I don’t have this to fall back on.

Next summer may be  a different story. One of the courses required for my major includes a internship, which I suspect (but have as yet not confirmed) may be off-campus, and rather than take it during the Fall or Spring semesters, where the demands on my time and energy are strong, I may take it during the Summer semester. I don’t know whether it will help to improve my productivity but I intend to make it so.

Things As They Are

There can be no doubt about the peculiar nature of my gender
and the appearance it affects;
the curiosity it inspires is something I have patiently endured
and accepted.
Most will merely stare, only to remove their gaze
as soon mine should cross with theirs,
and some will persist beyond a reasonable glance
with dumb obliviousness of their impropriety.
Some are vicious provocateurs
who intrude upon the serenity of their victim’s mind
with a cruel remark or a threat of violence.
Years of experience have accustomed me to their occurrence,
having the dual effect of habituating and sensitizing my mind
to their poisonous purpose,
but the compassionate and comprehending love,
which I have received
in such abundance from my family and friends,
protects and secures my character
from the compelling imposition of petty malevolence.

Despite the strength of my resolve and the low regard
in which I hold my tormentors,
my composure sometimes falters under the weight
of frequent ridicule from strangers
and the fear that someone will one day follow through
on their threat or even take my life.
Though renewing my resolve is easy enough,
I cannot deny the effect these occasions have upon my senses
and the prolonged, and often hidden, impact
they continue to have.

The integrity of my androgynous identity has frequently been
the subject of praise
but it has also been the reason for my rejection.
The very first man who returned my affections did not
seem to mind at first
but over time he admitted to my awareness his discomfort
and his desire for a more masculine boyfriend.

It would be the first of several such disappointments.
Many other men, being heterosexual, can never love me,
so long as I remain male,
yet I have found myself falling for them
despite how bitterly aware I am of their apparent indifference.
The few men who have had any interest in me
will only contact me in secret
and, though they confess to love my body,
their interest stops there;
after all, men such as they merely want a piece of “auxiliary ass,”
a substitute for the girlfriend who refuses to be sodomized.

Though it does not entirely ameliorate my pain,
I feel far more comfortable in the androgynous category
than in any other
and have determined to embrace it bravely.
Strangers call me she but my friends call me he;
I often find my self-perception shifting freely between the two
and take delight in the intricacy of their interplay—
free to feel whole … and wholly myself
without the traditional gender dichotomy.

Strange Encounters of the Absurd Kind (or, Die Entfremdung des Individuums in der Gesellschaft)

If a friend is, as I am led to believe, a person whose company
one longs for,
then it is perhaps fair to say that I have few …
few who ask if I have some time to spend with them,
few whose thoughts I’d like to know,
few whose absence from my life would bring discontent.
Many of the people I have met I have never missed,
those I long to know I rarely see,
and the few I have loved rarely, if ever, loved me.
A tragedy unfolds each time I dare to compare my life
to another whose company is so widely desired.
Often now it seems to me that others are more needed than I;
and this, as far as I can tell,
is evidenced by the number of people they call their “friends.”

Once it was a habit, all too common to my disposition,
to wait in hopeful anticipation of someone reaching out to me,
but so seldom do such invitations come
that I have become motivated to seek out the company I desire
of my own accord,
yet the messages I send rarely receive the reaction I require.

Some will respond only to confirm their indefinite unavailability
and some do not respond at all,
which leads me to feel like any solicitation is an importunity;
and when those who I like most, counted up, come only to a few,
the loss is even more devastating and sad.
When the life I live is centered only on introverted purpose,
involving little else than the fulfillment of my own needs,
I find myself lacking a great deal more.
When I cannot merge my life, my needs, with those of others
I feel truly alone.

At parties, or other social gatherings, where every other person
is well engaged in conversation with another
and I am left on the peripheries,
silently observing the spectacle,
the fullest extent of my participation is a simple sequence
of response,
of nodding, smiling, and laughing
only at the appropriate moment;
and if I remain thus employed for too long
I begin to feel less involved
and less enthused by what others experience directly.
My “self” demands explanation and quickly resolves
to find the reason for its problems
but the expostulations of fear are suppositious at best.

My mind shifts through various emotions as fluidly
as the dialogues I listen to.
I can enjoy being silent for a while but I want to actively engage
in other people’s lives.
I’m afraid that if I don’t I will quickly lose favor
among my friends,
to be forgotten and surpassed by others.

When their company consistently includes less of mine
I fear they are intentionally excluding me,
the thought of which fills me with dread.
When I cannot cut through the conversation and speak,
I feel disconnected from them
and truly alone.

The savage image of lacerated flesh flashes before my eyes
and I instantly recall the quick rush of warm blood
that once, but briefly, flowed freely from my left arm.
Instantaneously I fear making the same mistakes
I made before and the inevitable setback they entail.
I don’t want to lose my grasp on the world
and all that I hold dear …
to alienate those I love most with peculiar, minor defects
or frighten potential friends with embarrassing improprieties,
but with the faltering of my senses,
by the crippling force of insecurity,
I am thrust into a labyrinthine world of feeling
inhabited only by monstrous thoughts
and where the only sanctuary
from the frightening things outside is a dreadful oubliette.

Sitting alone in my room, leisurely attending to the same
solitary activities that occupy most of my time
I wonder why it is that I, unlike others,
receive so few solicitations while they entertain so often.
In the absence of company, I speak aloud
and pace about my room,
delivering to no one but myself lectures on topics
of any sort or kind and discussing them at length
until I tire my voice and mind.
Dusk brings delight, for at last the day is done,
and whatever thoughts that may be troubling me
are removed from consciousness … one by one.

What I fear most when I’m alone and longing
is not necessarily being wholly worthless
but the possibility that I will be disqualified by necessity,
regardless of any actual personal value,
and declared … superfluous.
When others make new friends easily while I struggle to feel
anything more than a minute interest in my peers,
I worry about my capacity to relate.
What does it take for me to make friends?!

The action of the drama rises yet again and the labyrinth
in which it is staged is growing even darker.
All passages take me in the same direction as before,
towards the wrongful vindication of my worst fears.
I do not trust my senses here;
what they tell me may well be a lie,
but even this (I know) cannot last.
Every journey to this void ends
with the serendipitous discovery of a subterranean river,
from which I drink the liquid of Lethe
and recover with renewed resolve,
feeling as though nothing has ever troubled me;
I am strangely optimistic about what paths
I may take to positively impact my future state
and confidant of the methods at my disposal.

Among the many relational possibilities come a variety of types,
each differing in form, function, and orientation;
but despite their shared effect of fulfilling
the fundamental need for love, each serves an individual role.
The designation of “friend” is a most misleading
vernacular trend
and if I fail to recall what I now know about the unique qualities
that determine the appropriate nature of any given relationship
I will once again be left to the mercy
of fearful misapprehensions.

There are those I like more than most and many
I could easily live without
but all in all I do not need too many people demanding my time
to feel that I am needed, appreciated, and loved.
In times of doubt I remind myself of the potential
my past never had
and how much I have grown;
I think of the moments when friends were glad to see me,
and the one man who, unique among all others,
fills my life with the greatest love I know.