Culture Consumption: May 2024

My month in books, movies, television, games, and podcasts.

Books

Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations is a fantastic debut short story collection by Carina Bissett. The collection includes a wide range of stories that blend horror and the fantastical in order to explore the ways in which women can reclaim their power.

In the titular “Dead Girl, Driving,” a girl is murdered by a local boy—only to resurrected by Godmother Death, who wishes to give her a second chance a life. But as she grows older, the girl becomes increasingly frustrated with her own seeming immortality and so continues to place herself in danger, with unexpected consequences.

In “Twice in the Telling,” a young ogress is accused of killing her human sister. So, she leans into her monstrousness for the sake of revenge.

In “Water Like Broken Glass,” a drowned women transformed into a watermeid, a birch bride bound to the river and capable of drowning passersby. She is drawn out of her solitude by a red-haired woman, who carries her own burdens and seeks a bloody retribution.

And these are just a few of the beautiful tales that can be found in this book. So many of these stories are powerful and moving and so wonderful.

The Night Eaters, Vol. 2: Her Little Reapers by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda continues the story of the Ting family. After discovering their parents are really part of the Pantheon of supernatural entities (a demon and a dragon), Milly and Billy begin to quest for answers about their own nature and the supernatural world around them in the wake of their parents silence. This action draws them into the wider world of the Pantheon with warlocks, demons, and other entities — leading them into danger that awakens their own power. In the process, their parents, Ipo and Keon, find themselves reluctantly drawn back into this world and its politics of power.

Another gorgeous and gory entry from Liu and Takeda, which widens their beautifully bloody universe. I love this world and the Ting family, and I can’t wait to discover what comes next. I’m so hooked.

Books Finished This Month:

  1. Dead Girl, Driving and Other Devastations by Carina Bissett

  2. The Night Eaters, Vol. 2: Her Little Reapers by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda

Total Books for the Year: 18

Still in Progress at the End of the Month:

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier, Even Greater Mistakes: Stories by Charlie Jane Anders, Procedural Storytelling in Game Design edited by Tanya X. Short and Tarn Adams,  The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison, Wandering Games by Melissa Kagen Fullerton, and The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel

Short Stories & Poetry

A selection of works I recently read in journals and online publications, with a few lines from the text shared here.

Poem: “dictionary poem xlii” by Keaton St. James:

in the beginning the lord said, let there be cosmos, so when you arrive it is as a mass of burning stardust, suns for bones and constellations for eyes. your body, a winged fragment of space. the people will never be able to know the true form of you, but subconsciously they still fear what live inside you. your wildernesses. your uncondensability. your many blue-tinted hungers.

Speculative Diary: "Pumpkin" by Bethany Bruno:

She grips the black handle of the jagged butcher knife with her right hand while grasping the smooth skin of the chosen pumpkin. Her intended victim, the round bulbous vegetable, remains perfectly still as she slowly pierces its skin with the tip of the blade. Inch by agonizing inch. She begins sawing away at an incline. With each up and down motion of her hand, the blade glides through somewhat, but not without some resistance. The pumpkin’s screams with each push of the knife, resembling a soft thumping.

Movies

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024)

I absolutely loved Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, which tells the story of my favorite character from Mad Max: Fury Road. The movie has quite a different tone that the previous film, taking its time to spin out Furiosa’s tale. There are moments of quiet beauty amid the chaotic post-apocalyptic violence that unfurls — in a way that feels evocative of ‘70s genre films in terms of pacing.

Another thing I love about it is how Furiosa rarely speaks throughout the film. We so rarely get to see stoic female characters, and Furiosa uses her silence as a weapon, choosing when, where, and with whome she will speak with great care. Her voice is hers and she doesn’t allow anyone to take it from her idly.

My one small gripe with this film is the way it leans on connecting the story back to Fury Road, even to the point of cutting in scenes from that movie. I kind of wish, Furiosa had been able to stand on its own, with an ending that allowed it to feel complete with whispers of future events. But I suppose that’s one of the challenges of making a prequel. How to decide where one story ends and the other story begins.

I have more thoughts I’d like to share on Furiosa, but that will have to wait until I have the time to write them out.

Television

Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) and Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) in Bridgerton.

I finally jumped into Bridgerton, the Regency-era romance full of love, drama, scandal, and sexy times. The heart of the series if the Bridgerton family, with one of their eight children finding love and marriage each season — under the ever watching eyes of Lady Whistledown (who writes and published a gossip column) and the drama-loving Queen Charlotte. The relationships are interesting and fun — and I particularly love the side characters, Lady Danbury who presides over the season guiding the young hopefuls and Lady Bridgerton (the mother), who supports her children in finding a love match like she once had with her father.

For me, Bridgerton makes for fun and light entertainment. And it’s especially fun to chat with family and friends about the show and all the various relationships. Since the third season split, I’m excitedly waiting for the second half, so I can see how things turn out for Colin and Penelope.

Games

The Outer Worlds. (Source: Media Kit.)

A friend described The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment) as a summer-beach-read kind of experience, and I think that’s a fairly accurate description. The game is a fun, fast-paced action RPG set in a future in which humanity has colonized distant planets and moons. The combat and RPG character building is fairly streamlined and straightforward. For example, the guns utilize one of three bullets (heavy, light, or energy), making it easy to build up ammo and jump into using any cool weapon that comes along. The maps are also rather small, which means there’s less exploration but it’s easy to work through the quests quickly (perfect for my present mood).

Owned and operated by corporations, the people who live in these communities are beholden to the corporations, forced to spout ads as greetings and entirely dependent on their good will. While there are some counter factions, they have less access to resources and struggle to stay alive on these alien worlds populated with hostile flora and fauna. That said, no one is really doing all that well, as resources are slim and the buildings and operations are all running down.

The player is awakened from cryogenic sleep into this distance colony and its multitude of problems, and with the help of a man named Phineas Wells, a known rebel, is attempting to defeat the corporations and “save” the colony. The situation is complicated, however, and the solutions are not simple.

One of the aspects of the gameplay is getting to know the various characters and their factions — and having to choose sides between them. I believe the intention is for the player to be morally convicted (and sometimes I was), but I was pretty much anti-corporation from the get-go considering the way they treat their employees as disposable tools to use and leave to die, if needed.

My favorite part of the narrative experience, however, was getting to know the six companions you can bring on the ship. Each has their own quest(s) that provide more insight into their background and beliefs. Whenever I left the ship, I made sure to bring two companions, so that I could hear them chat or debate with each other while I was wandering around the worlds.

At the moment, I’m working to finish the two DLC, followed by the final mission of the main story. My general feelings are that The Outer Worlds feels a bit light all around. But that did not stop me from having an absolute blast with this game, though I do hope that Obsidian is able to build on what works in this game and add more depth to the sequel.

(Source: Media Kit.)

I finished off the two DLC for Control (Remedy Entertainment). Throughout the main game, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of the gameplay. But for the DLC and the side quests, I found the combat — particularly with the bosses — to jump up significantly, so I switched over to the assisted mode. This allowed me to bump up Jessie’s damage resistance, making the combat less frustrating — and I feel no guilt about this, because at this stage, I just wanted to experience the rest of the story.

AWE (which stands for “altered world event”) provides a more direct connection to Alan Wake, expanding upon the hints already present within Control. Jessie receives a message from Alan Wake through the hotline (a sort of psychic link with the Board and those who are dead) and we see him writing Jessie into the story, opening a passage into a sealed area, known as the Investigation Department. There, the player discovers why the department was sealed off, delves into records and recordings of the events at Cauldron Lake (including interviews with characters from the Alan Wake game), and faces off against against a monstrous entity.

AWE maintains the gameplay style of Control, while bringing in a few elements from Alan Wake, such as the heavy contrast between dark and light and the need to use flashlights and other light sources to dispel and fight the darkness. The level lighting is much darker and reminiscent of Wake, making it a more unsetting experience. Thought the hotline, we learn a bit about Wake’s current state, trapped within the Darkness, providing hints and insights into what may come in Alan Wake II. I really enjoyed this DLC and it makes me quite excited to jump into the next game.

The Foundation expands and builds on the main storyline of Control. It begins with the Board reaching out for help, drawing Jessie down into the foundation of the Oldest House to repair the stone spike that holds the entire structure of the building together. As Jessie explores the caverns, she discovers that the Astral Plane is leaking into this world, and she must stop the bleeding before the Oldest House and the world is destroyed.

While journeying through the caverns, Jessie is able to learn about the original expeditions when the Oldest House was first discovered by the Federal Bureau of Control, brings up suspicions about the true nature of the Board, and hints at a group that is using Altered Objects and AWEs to enact terrorist attacks in the world. This sets the storylines up for some interesting possibilities for the sequel. Too bad I’ll have to wait several years for that to happen.

Last Stop. (Source: Media Kit.)

Last Stop (developed by Variable State) is a small narrative game, in which the player experiences three interconnected stories with a supernatural bent. In "Paper Dolls," John Smith, the middle-aged father of Molly Smith, mysteriously swaps bodies with the much younger Jack Smith, a superficial game developer. "Domestic Affairs" is about Meena Hughes, a high-level agent trying to gain her place in a top-secret project at an intelligence firm, who is having an affair and neglecting her family. And finally, in "Stranger Danger," Donna Adeleke and her fellow teenage friends follow a creepy man, who turns out to have supernatural abilities. When they try to run away, the end up attacking and kidnapping him, which forces them to keep the secret.

My favorite storyline is “Paper Dolls,” because John and his daughter Molly are just delightful, and Jack (though somewhat selfish at first) is a good dude at heart. I love seeing the way in which they see each other shifts once they have to walk in each other’s shoes. I would have been happy if this was essentially the whole story, because it was the most interesting to me.

The other two stories didn’t work nearly as well for me. Donna in “Stranger Danger” makes unfortunate decisions over and over again that lead to her becoming even more in danger, while Meena in “Domestic Affairs” is particular frustrating because I don’t agree with her choices at all, but I’m locked into them as a player since that’s what the story needs. As a result, I found myself not as interested in those stories, but because I had to play them to finish the game, Last Stop sometimes felt like it was moving rather slow.

Much of the gameplay involves selecting dialog choices, which affect the tone in which the character responds but don’t feel particularly meaningful. Not until the end, when the final decisions are made that affect the ending. Whether or not earlier dialog choices change how these final decisions play out is not clear. Maybe they have more impact than I realize.

Another frustration is the introduction of occasional “quick time” events, in which the player has to push and hold specific buttons. These moments are interesting in that they seem designed for the player to fail, even if you manage to contort your hands to hold the order of buttons correctly. A pet peeve of mine is when a game implements gameplay at which the player cannot succeed, because the narrative requires the player to fail for the story to move forward. In these cases, I would much prefer that the game find some other way to demonstrate the failure, even if it’s just a cut scene.

Podcasts

While on a flight recently, I ended up listening to Conviction: American Panic, a true crime podcast about the Satanic Panic — an aspect of history I had known about only as a kind of joke. What I didn’t realize was how deeply this affected the lives of hundreds of people. Highlighting the experiences of the Quinney family in particular, the podcast provides context and a sense of scope for the panic-induced accusations of Satanic witchcraft and sex rings, leading to prosecutions and convictions of hundreds of innocent people. In most cases, children were aggressively interviewed using questionable tactics, resulting in false accusations. It’s a fascinating and disturbing listen. (CW for discussions of child abuse, sexual assault, and violence.)

That's it for me! What are you reading? Watching? Loving right now?

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