Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


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Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders in Denver, 10/27/2016

I saw my first Stevie Nicks concert 30 years ago, when I was 16. Since then, I’ve seen her every time she’s come to Denver, either solo or with Fleetwood Mac, and even gone to a few out-of-state shows. And I’ve had a wonderful time, every time. But if I had any criticisms, they would be these. First, Stevie’s opening acts tend to range from “okay” to “ugh.” On the “okay” end — Chris Isaak, Boz Scaggs, Peter Frampton. On the “ugh” end — Billy Falcon, Venice, Darden Smith.

Second, Stevie’s set list is almost always very safe, and very samey. She’ll open up with “Outside The Rain”, segueing into “Dreams.” She’ll play “Stand Back”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Rhiannon”, and some songs from whatever album she’s promoting. She’ll end the show proper with “Edge Of Seventeen”, and finish her encore with “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?”. She has a repertoire of other songs that regularly show up in sets — “I Need To Know”, “Beauty And The Beast”, “Landslide” — and a catalog full of many, many more wonderful songs that she virtually never plays.

Now don’t get me wrong (heh) — I’ve loved every single one of those shows. And predictability has a comforting quality of its own. But I’ve frequently longed for Stevie to take a page from the book of more adventurous artists, like Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, or the Indigo Girls, who surprise fans nightly with rarities and deep cuts interspersing the hits.

Well, I got my wish this year. Early in the show, Stevie said, “This is not going to be your typical Stevie Nicks show. In fact, this is going to be the Stevie Nicks show you’ve been wanting for 35 years! Now, 35 years is a long time — you may not remember that you’ve been asking for this show all that time. But you have!” This show lived up to that promise, one hundred percent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me return to my first point, about mediocre opening bands. I could not have been more thrilled when this tour was announced, with the freakin’ PRETENDERS as an opening act! This is a band I’ve seen as a headliner multiple times — they’re one of my favorite artists of all time. Easily in the top 20, probably in the top 10. They didn’t disappoint either. Chrissie Hynde’s famous bangs are a little greyer, and her frame isn’t whip-thin anymore (having graduated to just “pretty thin”), but she still sounds fantastic.

Chrissie Hynde rocking out

Photo credit: Evan Semón

She strutted out with the latest version of the band, including original drummer Martin Chambers (who’s always a hoot in concert), and opened with the title track from their new album Alone, a rockin’ anthem which declares “Nobody tells me I can’t / Nobody tells me I shant / No one to say “you’re doing it wrong” / I’m at the best, I’m where I belong, alone / I like it, yeah, I like it alone!” This was the first time I’d heard the song, and I loved it. She also played several other good new songs, including their single “Holy Commotion”, which she introduced as “all over the radio in Europe… and that’s a total fuckin’ lie. But it will be!”

The band also played plenty of hits — “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, “I’ll Stand By You”, “My City Was Gone”, “Brass In Pocket”, and a particularly fierce “Stop Your Sobbing.” There were some lesser-known catalog tracks too, like “Private Life”, “Mystery Achievement”, and “Hymn To Her.” Oh, and “Tattooed Love Boys”, which I’ll never hear the same way again after having read the backstory about it in her autobiography. I won’t recount that here, because it’s… disturbing.

Anyway, they finished with an exhilarating “Middle Of The Road” before ceding the stage with a promise that “the Elizabeth Taylor of rock” awaited us. Their set would have made for an excellent evening on its own, but instead, I still had a whole Stevie Nicks concert to look forward to! Amazing.

So after the appropriate inter-artist interval, Stevie came out with her band, opening the show with… not “Outside The Rain”. In fact, amazingly, not any song from any released album, but rather the Bella Donna outtake “Gold And Braid”! Right then, I knew this was going to be a special show. Stevie had played “Gold And Braid” on one other tour, the 1998 tour promoting her box set, Enchanted. Up until this year, that was my favorite tour of hers, because she gave herself permission to play some more obscure songs that appeared on the box set, songs like “Gold And Braid”, “After The Glitter Fades”, and “Garbo”, which I never thought I’d hear in concert.

Opening with “Gold And Braid,” though, hearkened all the way back to the only other time she’d played it, on her very first tour in 1981, when she only had one album’s worth of solo material to even play. There’s a famous (among fans) recording of her dad introducing the last night of that tour, and the band kicking into “Gold And Braid.” [Note from 2023: Or is it “Gold Dust Woman”? Based on the tracks that appear on her Stand Back collection, I wonder if my home tape of that moment has been leading me astray all these years? Anyway…] It’s a funky, soulful number with tons of energy and drama, and she absolutely sold it, then and now.

From there it was “If Anyone Falls”, a seldom-played song for having been a Top 20 hit, and one I absolutely love. Speaking of hits, the next song was “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, originally a duet with Tom Petty but when she (occasionally) plays it in concert, she duets with her guitarist Waddy Wachtel. Except this time, here came from the back of the stage… Chrissie Hynde! In a bright orange Denver Broncos t-shirt, no less. It was an incredible thrill to hear two of my favorite singers duet on such an iconic song. Chrissie makes a hell of a Tom Petty substitute, and Stevie seemed to feel the same way, saying afterward, “You don’t often get to do something that cool.” She also mentioned that Chrissie scared her, because she was expecting the typical black clothes, and when this orange sight started approaching she thought, “They’re sending the wrong person out here!” Heh.

Stevie and Chrissie dueting

Photo credit: Evan Semón

It was about then that she made the “not your typical Steve Nicks concert” comment, and I was believing it. She said she was going to sing some songs that were meant for earlier albums, like “Gold And Braid”, but which she pulled because she didn’t like the production, or the way the song turned out at the time, or some other factor. That led into another fabulous Bella Donna outtake, a song called “Belle Fleur”, which she finally recorded for her 2014 collection 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault. We’d moved from “seldom heard in concert” songs to “never heard in concert” songs, and I was over the moon.

I was also starting to figure out what was going on. See, Stevie never toured on 24 Karat Gold — in fact, she released it on the very same day that Fleetwood Mac kicked off a yearlong tour. So these shows were the long-delayed tour for that album, meaning that we could expect to hear several more outtakes and demo tunes, since those were the backbone of the album. Not only that, she’d just released reissued deluxe versions of Bella Donna and The Wild Heart, stuffed with their own loads of demos and outtakes. No wonder this would be the show we’d been awaiting for 35 years! (Or 30 years in my case, since I was only 11 when she started touring solo. 🙂 )

It was at this point in the show that Stevie played the “Outside The Rain”/”Dreams” combo — a return to familiarity that was itself a surprise due to its unexpected placement. Then came one of the absolute high points, another never-before-played song: the title track to The Wild Heart. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, but I never expected to hear it in concert, given that she didn’t even play it when she was promoting the album. It’s an epic song, with an epic high note at the end, and perhaps she never played it because she wanted to avoid singing that note night after night. Well, she figured out a way to do it — the band truncated the song before it got to that climactic section, clicking immediately into the title track from Bella Donna, a song she hasn’t done since 1981. I was a little disappointed that the big finish was missing, but hearing these two super-rare title tracks back to back more than made up for that.

I’ve been going through the show song-by-song, but if I keep doing that, I’m going to run out of superlatives. Those who want to see the full set list can find it at the awesome I’ll just mention a few more high points:

  • The other major jaw-dropper, and probably the peak of the entire show for me, was when she played “Crying In The Night.” This is the opening track of the still-unreleased-on-CD Buckingham Nicks album, the record she and Lindsey released before joining Fleetwood Mac, the one that Mick Fleetwood heard in the studio when casting about for a new guitar player. Talk about a song from the vault!
  • “Starshine” was another great selection from 24 Karat Gold, an ebullient rocker preceded by a fun story about how she recorded the original demo in Tom Petty’s basement. “You wish you could have been there, I know,” she chuckled.
  • “Enchanted” was another delight, though it doesn’t fall into the same seldom-played bucket as some of the others, at least not recently. The track is from 1983 (The Wild Heart album), but she didn’t play it in concert until 1998. However, since then it’s shown up frequently in set lists.
  • Not everyone knows that Prince wrote the keyboard riff to “Stand Back”, but Stevie drove the point home by projecting a huge photo of him on the screen behind the stage as the song started. Lots more Prince photos followed later during “Edge Of Seventeen”, appropriate for a song about (among other things) grief and death.

The final song, rather than the typical “Has Anyone Ever…”, was a lovely, chiming “Leather And Lace.” There was no Don Henley, and no Chrissie Hynde to substitute for him, but Stevie was magical singing the song by herself. An exquisite end to an enchanted night. All in all, I’d say it was the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.

Stevie losing herself in the music

Album Assignments: A Rush Of Blood To The Head

Coldplay’s first single, “Yellow”, bugged me the first time I heard it. Then I heard it (approximately) 129,000 more times, and it really, REALLY bugged me. Consequently, I pretty much wrote off the band for quite a long while.

Over time I’ve warmed to Coldplay, based on a few different things, including “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”, “Fix You”, and Willie Nelson’s cover of “The Scientist.” So I decided to give one of their albums a chance, and fairly arbitrarily settled on this one. After a number of listens, I have a conclusion, and the conclusion is this: Coldplay is basically a bargain-price U2, if U2 was driven by piano instead of guitar, and concerned more with relationships than with the world.

Note that I mean this as neither praise nor blame, completely. I don’t think the two bands are in the same tier (which is why I say “bargain-price”), but there’s a musical comparison there. They share a penchant for the grand, the sweeping, the magnificent. They both have charismatic frontmen, a spiritual side, layered and effects-laden production. And A Rush Of Blood To The Head is not exactly Coldplay’s War, but it may be its October, which is to say that it contains several very strong tracks, and the rest of it gives the impression of a band on the verge of becoming the best version of itself.

Album art from A Rush Of Blood To The Head

Among the strong tracks: “Clocks”, which deservedly won the Record Of The Year Grammy in 2004 (two years after U2 snagged it twice in a row.) The song has a great melody, a super-hooky piano riff, and poetic lyrics that evoke desperation, confusion, and just a hint of salvation. There’s the aforementioned “The Scientist”, which the comic book geek in me has decided must be Reed Richards’ theme song. There’s the deep regret, the sudden understanding that he’s been neglectful, and most of all the painful contrast of intellect and emotion, of someone so skilled at pulling apart mental puzzles, but so poor at understanding other people. Underneath it all is a deep love and commitment, which we’re never quite sure will be enough.

“God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” pulls off a neat trick lyrically, taking advantage of a grammatical quirk of the word “put”, and contrasting it with the word “give”. “Give” changes form when shifting from the imperative mood to the simple past tense:

  • Imperative: God give me style and give me grace
  • Past tense: God gave you style and gave you grace

Now here’s “put”

  • Imperative: God put a smile upon my face
  • Past tense: God put a smile upon your face

Because “put” stays put grammatically, the lyrics create a tension around whether the narrator is pleading or simply recounting, creating a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety underscored by the repetition of “your guess is as good as mine.”

Finally, and my favorite, is “Amsterdam”. The whole album is emotional, but this song is at another level. The intro piano is reminiscent of the song “October” itself, in fact, as is the plaintive and searching vocal. But where this song truly excels is in its build from a spare and quiet beginning to a truly sublime and magical climax. Right at 3:57, when the drums kick in, the song just grows wings and takes to the skies. The lyrics take on a sense of majesty as it rises above the clouds. “You came along, and you cut me loose.”

Nothing else on the album comes close to those tracks. There’s a nice minor-key feel to “A Whisper”, a sinister sense in “A Rush Of Blood To The Head”, and a catchy tune on “In My Place.” But all of it has a sense of promise of what’s to come.

Thoughts on the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) started in 1995, and for its first ten years, I was a very active participant. I entered the comp 4 different times (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004) and wrote hundreds of reviews. I reviewed pretty much every game submitted to the comp from 1996-2004, with a few scattered exceptions (stuff I’d tested, languages I don’t speak, troll games, etc.)

Then, for the next 10 years, I didn’t vote in the comp at all. Not coincidentally, my son Dante was born in 2005. Once that happened, the time I used to set aside for IF got drastically curtailed, and I pretty much slipped into frozen caveman state. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times, writing reviews of various comp games that were nominated for various XYZZY Awards, but for the most part I’ve remained quite disconnected from the IFComp at large.

As Dante gets older, though, he becomes more independent and my time opens up again. So this year I decided to take a shot at reviewing some IFComp games. However, I discovered rather quickly that the IFComp of today is drastically different from the one I left behind in 2005.

I followed my usual comp reviewing method, which is to let some program dial up a random order and play through the games it selects. My time is still a lot more limited than it used to be, so out of 53 games, I ended up playing 9. Of those 9, the composition was thus:

By way of contrast, of the 33 games I reviewed in 2004, 2 were homebrew and the rest were parser-driven. None were CYOA. The 2015 comp, in my experience, has a completely different quality than the 1995-2004 comps had. The definition of “interactive fiction” has opened wide, wide enough to admit even so-called games whose idea of interactivity is basically “click here to turn the page.”

Logo for the 2015 IF Comp

Now, at this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, I understand that non-parser IF games participated in the first 10 years of the comp. A CYOA game called Desert Heat comes to mind, which at the time seemed like a surprising experiment. Those comps had their share of minimally interactive games too, most of which were roundly panned. There was Ian Finley’s Life On Beal Street, whose interactivity was pretty much “Would you like to read the next paragraph? (Y/N)”. There was Harry Hardjono’s Human Resources Stories, a fake job-interview quiz from somebody who was clearly really angry at employers. There was the infamous (to me) A Moment Of Hope, which pretty much totally ignored whatever you’d type in many scenes, just steamrolling on with whatever story it wanted to tell. Heck, even Photopia, one of the most acclaimed comp games of all time, drew its share of criticism for a perceived lack of interactivity.

So yeah, I get that 1995-2004 wasn’t some kind of perfect golden age where every game was a great IF experience (though I hasten to say that Photopia is a really, really great IF experience). Anyway, trust me when I say that I remember the bad times. The second thing I should make clear is that I enjoy CYOA well enough for what it is. It’s a neat little narrative trick. I had a good time with CYOA books as a kid, and can still have a ball with a well-written CYOA work. But stacked up against full-blown parser games which offer a constant sense of openness and possibility, multiple-choice is just pretty boring by comparison. I find myself so indifferent about the choices presented that I just roll a die to pick one, so that I can get on to the next bit of story.

So I reacted with dismay at the suddenly flipped proportions of the comp’s 2015 games, at least as presented to me in random order. Where in 2000 “Desert Heat” was an odd curiosity, here it was the parser game that was the outlier! I felt like I’d come to a film festival, but that in most of the theaters, I’d instead be handed a coffee table book. I mean, coffee table books are cool. Some of them are spectacular! But for me they’re not as much fun as movies, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to get one instead of a movie.

I rated the comp games the way I always do: based on how much I enjoyed the experience. And the fact is, I don’t enjoy CYOA games as much as parser games, so even the ones I liked a lot could only get an 8 or so. Also, unlike parser games, CYOA games are extremely difficult to transcript while they’re happening, which really drains my ability and inclination to review them. So I won’t review them, but I will provide the list of responses I wrote while playing. CYOA and lists, a match made in heaven! (Fair warning that those lists may contain spoilers — I wasn’t trying to be careful about that.)

Here then, for whatever they may be worth, my “reviews” of 9 2015 IFComp games:


I downloaded this Windows executable, and despite my trepidation about running .exe files from unknown people on my machine, I ran it, hoping that the IFComp gods had ruled out any viruses. I got a DOS-looking window, with some DOS-looking text:

I Think The Waves Are Watching Me.
By Bob McCabe.

Build: 106

(G)etting Started.
(P)lay the Game.
(S)ecrets I've unlocked.

Then I typed “g”. Then “G”. Then “P”. Nothing happened, any of these times. I typed “Play the game”. I typed “Help”. I typed “Helloooooooooo?”. Each time, after hitting enter, my words disappeared, with no other effect. Then I closed the window.

I guess this isn’t really a review, but it does explain why I gave the game a 1.

Rating: 1.0

SWITCHEROO by Mark C. Marino & family

  • Engaging, appealing, well-implemented. Smooth and beautiful.
  • Surprisingly a combat card game is an alternative to the story?
  • Some weirdness: “Born a slave on a plantation, Jazmine became a hero when she escaped through the Underground Railroad to a Midwestern whistle-stop town. Later, she was railroaded into selling her story to a motion picture company who fast-tracked the film into theaters. Ironically, she would become an R&B legend best known for her performances on a popular dance show with a train theme.” So she lived how long?
  • Funny: “Shazbot! You use the Electric Slidekick!” Lots of great humor — take-off on Percy Jackson with dentistry substituted. “Lightning teeth”.
  • Interesting — not sure how the math is working, but the card game feels like it’s a bit slanted to prevent the player from losing.
  • Once the story begins, much of the interactivity starts to consist of “show the next part”
  • Whoa – wheelchair boy into able girl.
  • Scale of girly fictional types – Hermione, Dorothy, Little Prince
  • Possibly adopted by “Mr. and Mrs. Sheephead.” Upon clicking mention of California Sheephead: “Ah, I’m glad you were curious. The California Sheephead is a salt water fish, found off the coast of California. It has the unusual property of all the fish being born female and then, given certain circumstances, like when she gets sick of all the long lines at bathrooms, changing into a male.”
  • Mostly writing is smooth. Found first error after about 15 mins: “They were amazed at how much Denise could eat at the burger place after their just a short adventure.”
  • Doll in wheelchair. Moving. “The only word he could think of was: home”.
  • Ending choice, also moving.
  • I wish there was a way to “undo”

Rating: 7.7

NOWHERE NEAR SINGLE by kaleidofish

  • “Because the only way to show you’re serious about someone is to only be with them,” Sarai says sarcastically. [Hmmm.]
  • You’d rather be homeless than have awkwardness in your relationship? You must live somewhere warm. And safe.
  • “Hey, Jerri…” Sarai starts. “Since you don’t have a bed, you can sleep on my side of the bed. I’ll take the couch.” [I thought I had my own room. Wish there was scrollback on this. Oh hey, the back button. That’ll work. So yeah, “Her apartment has two bedrooms. You have yours to yourself.” I have a bedroom but no bed? And Sarai is offering to put me in bed with Nayeli? That is awkward.]
  • It must have taken some stamina to make up 100 fake pop girl star names.
  • From kiss on the forehead to Jerri saying “Yeah. I keep thinking that any day now they’ll finalize what image they want to have, but I think there’s been some setbacks.” Feels like a page is missing.
  • “You heat up leftovers from the fridge and go to your room. Yeah, the one with the wooden floor and no furniture.” [That explanation would have been helpful earlier.]
  • “Tonight’s aout you and me, and no one else.” [Typo]
  • “A large screen television sits on top of dark mohagony drawers.” [Another. Writing is pretty spot-on, but not flawless.]
  • Oh, nice effect on revising the words of advice to gay youth.
  • It never seems to occur to camgirl to just get a regular job.

Rating: 7.4

ONAAR by Robert DeFord

I have to admit, at this point I was pretty excited just to not be picking from a menu for my interactivity. That context probably improved my reaction to Onaar over how I might have rated it in a previous comp. However, it’s also true that Onaar is pretty fun at the beginning. The story starts fast-paced, with the PC needing to escape impending danger. A few commands and a custcene later, and you’re into a whole different environment. From there it’s the usual challenge of exploring the landscape and figuring out the plot. Sadly for me, these fun activities were accompanied by a couple of less fun activities: managing a hunger timer and a decreasing health timer. The latter of these was caused by a poison bite, but it was also less bothersome, as the antidote can be found and the timer stopped. The hunger thing, on the other hand, is a peeve of mine in IF games unless it’s serving some very interesting purpose. No such purpose is to be found in Onaar — it’s just the usual inconvenience which doesn’t engage the mind or enrich the story. Oh well, at least there’s no sleep timer.

I would soon discover that the mechanical aspects of the game are by far its dominant theme, well ahead of anything like story or puzzles. My first clue was in the PC’s self-narration:

As you stand on the sand dripping wet, you remember Father Marrow’s advice to become an apprentice alchemist. “Well Father,” you say under your breath. “It looks like I’m not off to a good start, but I can at least make it a little side quest to report those marauders to the authorities when I get to someplace civilized.”

“I can at least make it a little side quest?” Does the PC know he’s in a game? As it turns out, yes, but not in any kind of interrogative postmodern way — rather just a casual consciousness, as if this is how everyone naturally approaches reality. In Onaar, it really is how everybody approaches reality, as a passing traveler revealed when giving advice:

“Say, you don’t look so good. I’ll bet you have at least one malady. You really ought to be checking your stats more often. Those maladies will kill you if you don’t treat them in time.”

“You really ought to be checking your stats more often?” I found this very jarring, and rather unusual. Generally in IF, the mathy aspects of the simulation are pushed well under the surface, revealed only in the tone and urgency of messages, e.g. “You’re starting to feel faint from hunger.” Onaar is much closer to a CRPG experience in which various numerical stats (health, strength, mana, etc.) are right up front for the player to watch. This is fine too, but even in a typical RPG session (be it mediated by computers or people), there is an observed separation between what the players perceive and what the characters perceive. While all the stats, saving throws, and so forth are available to the player’s knowledge, from the character’s point of view it’s more or less “did I succeed at what I just tried?” Only in the land of parody would another character say something like, “Well, thanks to your Charisma stat of 17, you’ve convinced me of your point of view!” Or for that matter, “You really ought to be checking your stats more often.” Yet Onaar is completely straight-faced.

This kind of naked machinery is on display throughout the game. Various numerical stats are listed after objects, tasks list what stats are needed to perform them, and so forth. It’s weird, but I got used to it. Once the dramatic beginning was over, I found myself with a steep learning curve, figuring out all the intricate rules of this very intricate gameworld. That slowed the narrative pace down considerably, but eventually I got on track with what turned out to be a tutorial for the game’s primary mechanic of alchemy. That mechanic itself turns out to be quite involved, with requirements to gather ingredients from far and wide, take them through a number of magical steps, etc. The procedural quality of this ended up generating some drama in my playthrough as I was dealing with a (different, second) poison timer and only barely managed to synthesize the cure before my health ran out. For the most part, though, all these fiddly rules just made me tired. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of detail and care has gone into this game, and in fact it is an ideal game for somebody who really enjoys putting together complicated recipes from a detailed list of ingredients. The scales are weighted away from lateral thinking and emotional engagement, and towards grinding repetitive tasks. I’m not so much that kind of player, but I didn’t mind stepping into that mindset for a couple of hours, if for no other reason than even this CRPG routine still felt like so much richer an interactive experience than CYOA multiple choice. Of course, after those two hours I was nowhere close to finishing the game, and I doubt I’ll go back to it, but I appreciated being there as a reminder of how the comp used to feel.

Rating: 8.1

KANE COUNTY by Michael Sterling and Tina Orisney

  • “You tap on the break and hold the wheel straight.” – not an auspicious beginning
  • “Choose a class” – again, exposed game machinery
  • ARGH, back button restarts the game. Very reviewer unfriendly.
  • “On the other hand, if climb on top of a nearby hill” – then Tonto see you!
  • Some things strangely don’t lead to choices: ” There are three ways to get up it: follow a gravel wash, trace a well-worn track along an old, torn-down barb-wire fence, or go up directly and push through some junipers and shrubs.” but the only link is “Continue”. Oh, I see, the choice comes a bit later.
  • “You open the bottle and drink.” Why is this called interactive, again?
  • “but you might find some other use for it later on. Gain a Boat Part.” Oh, and uh, spoiler alert.
  • “This might be a good time to use one of your food items…” Not that I’m going to give you the option to do so.
  • “Look at the other area or chose a site.” 1, misspelling, and 2, this is one link that is presenting as two options.
  • “Make a fire – requires a digging tool” – why offer me an option you know I can’t pick?
  • CYOAs like this feel so arbitrary — you’re more or less choosing blind each time. And there’s no “undo”.

Rating: 4.9


I was relieved and encouraged when I saw Katherine Morayati’s name. I had played some of Broken Legs and enjoyed it. So I kicked open that Glulx interpreter ready for some true text adventuring at last. Then I read the help info, because that’s how I roll, and saw this “About The Author” blurb:

Katherine Morayati is a music writer by day and by night and an interactive fiction person the rest of the time. She is the editor-in-chief of SPAG and the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. This is nothing like that.

Slightly ominous, but I’m sure she just means it’s a totally different tone or genre or something. After all, she says clearly elsewhere in that help info, “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory is a work of parser interactive fiction.”

Except, after trying to “play” it, I figured out that no, it isn’t, either, and in fact the biggest difference between this and Broken Legs is that Broken Legs is an IF game, whereas this is more akin to a text generating machine that can sometimes be prodded to respond to various keywords, but is also quite happy to do its own thing no matter what you type. In fact, on my first playthrough, the PC ended up by a lake and I tried to type “swim”, except my fat fingers typed “seim” instead. Despite my nonsensical input, the game went ahead telling the story: “I decide he isn’t coming and head back to my car. With every mile marker I resolve to turn back, or turn off and find the nearest bar, or turn off and crash…”, so on and so forth, THE END. Seriously, “*** The End ***”. “Seim” was the final command of the game, causing it to spit out a bunch of final-ish text and stop. Next prompt I got was the old “Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT or UNDO the last command?” Undo, obviously. Except that the game replied: “The use of ‘undo’ is forbidden in this game.” Well then, I riposted, perhaps if you wish to disable “undo” in your game you ought not prompt me to type it in? Except, you know, far less calm and polite.

So, just as I was set up by the overall CYOA-ness of this comp to enjoy Onaar more than I might have, I was set up to be much more frustrated by Laid Off than I might have otherwise been. After that first, disastrous playthrough, I wrapped my head around the fact that this game is much more The Space Under The Window than Spider And Web. I tried again, this time just typing keywords and letting the game take me where it wanted. I enjoyed the experience a lot more that second time. The writing and overall concept of this game is a bit impenetrable, on purpose I think, but it still pulls off some lovely turns of phrase, articulating complex concepts: “What you are: A trim, functional paragon of a woman in lifelong battle with a disheveled unraveled omnidirectional grab of a girl.”; “What Brian is: deflatingly human when you’re with him, horribly beguiling when you’re not.” I’m grateful to have played it — I just wish it had been the spice to a better meal.

Rating: 6.3

TAGHAIRM by Chandler Groover

  • “Turn the page” style interactivity
  • Creepy. Creepy may not be a very tough emotional note to hit.
  • Oh ugh animal abuse.
  • Hm, timing matters. Throws off my randomizer. But then again my participation was pretty detached after the beginning.
  • All in all, pretty horrible. Felt like I was in a Milgram experiment.

Rating: 1.7

THE WAR OF THE WILLOWS by Adam Bredenberg

Running Python 3.4, I get a title card, 4 ominous seeming verses, and then this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "C:\Users\Paul\Dropbox\IF\IFComp2015\willows\", line 26, in
File "./stories\", line 1525, in start
game = intro()
File "./stories\", line 82, in intro
NameError: name 'raw_input' is not defined

Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

THE MAN WHO KILLED TIME by Claudia Doppioslash

  • Oh dear. Another unpromising beginning, this time even before the game starts: “Notes: – English is not my first language. – While I was writing it, I realised its nature is more that of a non-branching story, but I wanted to have an entry at IFComp and I could use the feedback anyway, so here it is.”
  • A bit hard to read. Also “Responsability” – you don’t have to be a native english speaker to use spellcheck.
  • This is a tough slog.
  • This is 100% “turn the page” interactivity so far, 10 minutes in.
  • “on the whole it looked like it might be an appropriately assistantely time to show up.” Hoo boy.
  • OMG, a choice! A yes/no choice, but that’s as good as it gets so far.
  • “In fact he had a, not unfounded, feeling that he already was in this over his ears. Or at least a future self of his was.” I wonder if this actually makes some kind of coherent sense to someone somewhere.
  • Parts of this are compelling. The English plus the intricacy of the theme make it hard for me to hang on, and the interactivity is pretty much the same as a book. But as a story, with a good editor, I might enjoy it.
  • “He didn’t want to realise he was alone, to risk relinquish the mode of being under scrutiny. Because if he did, then he nothing would stop him from doing that. He must not let his eye wanted to the cabinet. Yet as he the thought first entered him, it kept growing in his mind, as it usually did and does.” …Annnnd you lost me again.
  • One of the few choices turns into a non-choice.
  • Whuh? Ends altoghether when it feels like it’s about to step out of the prologue.

Rating: 2.9

Now, in fairness, it turns out that the random selector may have done me wrong. Looking at the results, it appears that none of the games I played landed in the top 25% of the final standings. And in fact, only Nowhere Near Single and Onaar were in the top 20 games. Moreover, the top 3 games (and 7 of the top 10) were parser-driven, so it’s not as though IFComp has fully turned into CYOAComp. For that matter, perhaps some of those highly placing CYOA games could have given me a much different impression of how immersive and enjoyable that medium can be.

Until next year, though, I’m probably going to seek out the parser games, and leave the rest be. It’s possible that being an IFComp judge is better left to people with enough time for IF that they don’t mind spending much of it frustrated. That used to be me, but it isn’t anymore.

Album Assignments: Cass County

I grew up in the golden age of solo Don Henley work. I was 14 when he released “The Boys Of Summer”, one of the best songs of the 1980s. Just 2 years earlier, “Dirty Laundry” had been all over the radio, just at the time I was starting to pay serious attention to both the top 40 and to political messages in songs. That song and all of Building The Perfect Beast wound through my high school days, and then in the summer after my freshman year of college, he released The End Of The Innocence, another excellent collection of thoughtful and incisive rock songs. Robby and I were both such devoted fans that for his 21st birthday I made him a set of “Don Henley A-Z” cassettes, every solo Henley song in alphabetical order, mixed in with all the Eagles songs he sings lead on, and various collaborations with other artists, many of them in that Eagles California cohort — Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, etc. (In fact, Robby had made me a Stevie Nicks A-Z for my 18th birthday, so this was fair payback.)

More recently, though, something has felt a little off with Don. I guess it started with his 1994 Eagles song “Get Over It,” which I found absolutely, insufferably arrogant. The idea of this rich, privileged, white rock star sneering at other people’s pain, and spitting vitriol like “I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass”, was repellent to me, especially when it was paired with the tour in which the band broke new ground in exploiting its fans, charging unprecedented amounts of money for even the “cheap” seats. His 2000 album Inside Job was better, but it still had a number of massive-ego moments, not to mention the hypocrisy of bemoaning “” and “nobody else in the world but you” self-centeredness after year upon year of Eagles cash grabs. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to hear the 2007 Eagles album Long Road Out Of Eden.

It’s been 15 years since the last solo Henley album, and now he’s got a new record out, called Cass County, which Robby assigned to me last week. What quickly becomes clear is that Cass County is kind of a departure from Henley’s previous solo work, in that it’s a straight-up country album. Certainly the Eagles were always country-inflected rock, and Henley has always had a considerable country influence, showing up strongly in songs like “You’re Not Drinking Enough” and “A Month Of Sundays.” But this album pretty much throws rock and roll out the window, opening the door instead for tons of steel guitar, smalltown imagery, and songs whose entire meaning hangs on a pun. Exhibit A, a song about aging: “It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.”

Cass County album cover

For that matter, I’d say a majority of the album’s songs tackle the topic of aging in one way or another. It’s apropos — Henley is now 68 years old. Thus, he reminisces in the deeply moving “Train In The Distance,” in which the train serves as a metaphor of the future to the kid, of escape to the adult, and of death to the old man. There’s “Take A Picture Of This,” which again travels through time from early triumphs to midlife domesticity to a late-life disintegration and a determination think about tomorrow rather than yesterday, a sentiment echoed in “No, Thank You” as “I respectfully decline / to spend my future living in the past.”

But, really? The album is named after Henley’s childhood home county, and the entire tone of the album seems to be a very intentional return to pre-Eagles roots. The time-travel songs and the “seen it all before” attitude don’t really suggest somebody who’s leaving the past behind. Not that he should, but his claims to the contrary are questionable. In “A Younger Man,” he disavows his former beliefs in “better days ahead” and “faith and hope and charity,” a cynicism that is disappointing but not terribly surprising from somebody who’s displayed the kind of bitterness Henley has shown from time to time over the years. On the other hand, “Where I Am Now” has a much brighter outlook, and really does look forward rather than back.

I think I’m coming off harsh on this album, but really, I enjoyed it. I grew up with kind of an allergy to country music, but I’m mostly over it, and I can enjoy a Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton duet on its own terms. In fact, probably my favorite song on the album (after “Train In The Distance”) is a Martina McBride duet called “That Old Flame” — then again, it’s probably the rockiest song on the album too. There’s great songwriting on display in several places here, and if moving from rock to country takes Henley from the arrogance of “Get Over It” to the compassion of a song like “Waiting Tables,” then I say yee-haw!

Maybe it’s just that, as Stevie says, “I’m getting older too,” but I find I can’t look up to Henley the way I did in my teens and twenties. He lost me with his greed and his sanctimony, and something I found out about this record pissed me off all over again. See, when Robby gave me the assignment, I went out and bought the CD from Amazon that evening, since they offer the awesome capability of immediately getting the MP3s even before the disc is in the mail. After listening a couple of times, I went out to Wikipedia to get a little background, only to find that the 12 tracks I bought are significantly different from the canonical version of the CD. Three songs are removed, and three others (from something called “Deluxe edition bonus tracks”) are added. Not only that, there’s apparently another version available exclusively at Target, with two more songs, one of which is a duet with Stevie goddamned Nicks! So while there are 18 Cass County songs, I only got 12 of them when I bought the record. I find these sorts of shenanigans absolutely infuriating. Nothing makes me want to pirate music more than buying an album and finding out later that I only really bought two thirds of it, and even over on his website he’s only selling 16 tracks worth. No, thank you — I don’t think so.

Album Assignments: The Art Of McCartney [Disc 2]

Disc 2 of The Art Of McCartney, like Disc 1, is kind of a mixed bag. Last time the buckets were a little more thematic, but this time I am straight-up grading them. What I noticed this time around is that McCartney’s output has a wide range of quality, and some songs give the artist a lot more to live up to than others. I’m not assigning scores or anything, but “degree of difficulty” definitely played into my evaluations — if you start with a bad song and end up pretty good, it’s extra impressive, and if you start with a great song and sound bad, it is terrible. Let’s go in descending order of quality:

Covers That Transcend The Original

  • Smokey Robinson – So Bad — How does it happen that people like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel sound kind of wrecked, but Smokey Robinson still sounds perfect? Whatever it is, I’m not complaining, because he turns this somewhat obscure track from the Pipes Of Peace album into the sweetest song. It’s the kind of song he was born to sing, and while Paul’s falsetto on the original is impressive, it’s not a patch on this.
  • The Airborne Toxic Event – No More Lonely Nights — I know nothing at all about The Airborne Toxic Event, besides that they have a memorable name, but I was quite impressed with their treatment of this song. The original isn’t great — a typical mid-80s McCartney schmaltz-fest — but TATE turns in a delicate acoustic treatment, stripping out the showmanship and replacing it with yearning.
  • Toots Hibbert with Sly & Robbie – Come And Get It — Nothing against Badfinger, but when I heard this reggae version of “Come And Get It”, I felt like I understood the song for the first time. Of course it’s a reggae song.
  • B.B. King – On The Way — B.B. King pulls off a rare and remarkable trick here, which is that he makes his version sound like it’s supposed to be the original. When I listen to this track, it makes McCartney’s weird, experimental approach on McCartney II sound like the avant-garde cover of a straight-ahead B.B. King song.

Covers That Live Up To The Original

  • Heart – Letting Go — Again, there’s very little difference musically between this version and the original. (I think producer Ralph Sall actually had McCartney’s touring band play a lot of the backing tracks.) But Ann and Nancy bring a vocal power that really suits this song, enlivening it enough to stand toe-to-toe with the Venus And Mars original.
  • Allen Touissant – Lady Madonna — Two things elevate this version: Touissant’s piano, and the way he sings a countermelody instead of the familiar Beatles’ tune.
  • Sammy Hagar – Birthday — C’mon, what’s not fun about Sammy Hagar singing “Birthday”? I love all his little rock-n-roll yelps. “Yeah! Come on! Woo! Uh-huh! Dig it!” It’s a party tune, and the Red Rocker party treatment is perfect for it.
  • Robert Smith – C Moon — I really, really dislike “C Moon.” Just by not saying, “Was that the intro? I should’ve been in! Uh-buh-buh-buhhhh…!”, Smith already scored big points with me. I still don’t like the song, but pull out the dopey approach, children’s chorus, and otherwise lethal levels of twee, and you end up with a much more tolerable song. I guess what I’m saying is it was a pretty damn low bar, and Smith jumped over it.
  • Peter, Bjorn, and John – Put It There — I think Flowers In The Dirt was one of Sir Paul’s best post-Beatles efforts, and I was glad to see it represented in this collection. This cover shows that PB&J get what was special about the original, and are able to update it without losing its spirit.

Inside cover of The Art Of McCartney -- fake signatures (i.e. a handwriting font) from the participating artists

Covers That Don’t Improve Or Detract From The Original

  • Billy Joel – Live And Let Die — He’s still doing the Billy Joel Armstrong thing here, but there are two saving graces. First, he does it less. Second, this song is a lot better suited to that full-throated gravelly thing, because it’s already kind of a kooky, over-the-top song to begin with, rather than “Maybe I’m Amazed”, which is meant to be tender. Thus, we end up with a perfectly serviceable cover of “Live And Let Die.”
  • Chrissie Hynde – Let It Be — I agonized over this one. On the one hand, I love “Let It Be” and I love Chrissie Hynde’s voice, so on paper this should be a slam dunk. But because I love the original “Let It Be” so much, it’s tough for any cover to measure up. Plus, Chrissie does this weird thing in her vocal, where she Buddy Holly hiccups over a number of words, putting a distinct break into words like “in”, “right”, and “be”. “Be” just sounds weird as a two-syllable word, and it’s distracting. Still, other than that, she sounds great, and she delivers the right level of emotion. So I ended up kind of in the middle – parts of it I love, and parts of it I wish she’d made a different choice.
  • Robin Zander And Rick Nielsen – Jet — A very literal cover. Fun, like the original. In fact, pretty much overall just like the original.
  • Perry Farrell – Got to Get You Into My Life — I am a stone-cold, confirmed, Jane’s Addiction HATER. So I approached this one with dread. Imagine my surprise to find that very little of anything I associate musically with Perry Farrell appears here at all. For other combinations of artist and song, that would be a disappointment, but here it is a huge relief. I enjoy this version a lot, probably because it sounds so much like the original.

Covers That Aren’t Quite Good

  • Joe Elliott – Hi Hi Hi — “Hi Hi Hi” is better than “C Moon” (they were a double-A-sided single in 1972), but that doesn’t make it good. Joe Elliott gives it a completely bland treatment which doesn’t help it out.
  • Owl City – Listen To What The Man Said — Did “Listen To What The Man Said” really need more wide-eyed enthusiasm?
  • Dion – Drive My Car — It’s neat that Dion is still singing and releasing new music. A 50’s-style treatment of “Drive My Car” could have been fun. This is not that. It’s a pretty straightforward cover, done in an idiosyncratic voice. Not bad, but not quite good either.
  • Alice Cooper – Eleanor Rigby — There’s nothing particularly Alice Cooper-ish about this cover of “Eleanor Rigby”, which I guess is good? But on the other hand, it feels like any reasonably competent singer could have made this version, which is to say, it’s not very interesting or exciting. Check out Joe Jackson’s version for a much cooler cover of this song.

Covers That Are Just Bad

  • Dr. John – Let ‘Em In — I have never understood the appeal of Dr. John. I mean, obviously the guy has had a long career. I just watched him in The Last Waltz, from 1979, and here he is on an album from 2014. But to me, he’s like a comedian who only knows one joke, and the joke is only mildly funny. He does everything the exact same way. So, it turns out it’s possible to make a somewhat irritating song like “Let ‘Em In” actually SUPER ANNOYING if you bring a mannered enough approach to it.
  • Steve Miller – Hey Jude — Oh, god. This is, by a pretty wide margin, the worst cover to appear on either CD. Remember how I said Steve Miller was perfectly cast to sing “Junior’s Farm”? Well, the same cannot be said for frickin’ “Hey Jude”. Steve Miller is great to have a goofy good time with, but he’s not your guy for an uplifting spiritual experience. They sound like a tired frat party band, as the evening is winding down and just a few stragglers are chatting on couches and hoping to get lucky. If you’ve ever hoped to hear a version of “Hey Jude” that feels both lazy and desperate, have I got a cover for you, and believe me, you can have it.

2013 XYZZY Best Individual PC review

I’ve belatedly realized that I never posted about this here, but like last year, I was recruited to write reviews for the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews.” Unlike last year, the category I chose had only one game in it: Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura was the sole nominee, because it was so good that no other game garnered more than a single nominating vote.

What made it so good? That’s the topic of my review.

2012 XYZZY Best Writing reviews

I participated in the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews” project this year, reviewing the writing of the games that were nominated for the Best Writing category. I was rather out of step with the XYZZY voters, it turns out.

The reviews are posted at the XYZZY awards site.

The Watchmen Bestiary 3: The Old New Comics

[Note: As usual, here be Watchmen spoilers.]

Today’s task is another investigation of the references embedded in The Annotated Watchmen. In a note about panel 5 on page 4 of issue 1, we find this:

Moore, in the New Comics interview, says that in the Watchmen universe, there was some conflict in Asia that resulted in famine in India and a lot of Indian refugees coming to the US. Hence, Indian food has caught on in the US, including the popular Gunga Diners.

The “New Comics interview” referenced rather casually here is from Gary Groth and Robert Fiore’s book The New Comics, an anthology of interviews from Groth’s magazine The Comics Journal. Even when the book was published in 1988, calling some of the comics discussed “new” was quite a stretch — large swaths are devoted to underground comics of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as well as to architects of the form like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. Still, many of the subjects were at least newish at the time, like a pre-Hate Peter Bagge and a pre-Simpsons Matt Groening, as well as Bill Watterson and Harvey Pekar towards the beginnings of their arcs. Not to mention Watchmen itself, which was just a couple years old when the book came out.

In fact, the interview (conducted by a pre-Sandman Neil Gaiman at a comics convention, with lots of questions from the audience) took place right after the release of issue #5, so rather than discussing the book’s whole story, it focuses mostly on how the book came to be, as well as its overall intent and various details with in it. Nevertheless, it’s full of great tidbits, like the worldbuilding insight above. Gibbons describes the serendipity he’s encountered in making the comic, and talks about how he imagined the technological state of a world “deformed by super-heroes”, but most important to me is the revelation that Moore didn’t necessarily have all the resonant themes of the book worked out in advance:

There’s the plot there, but it’s what happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned.

That’s significant, because it suggests that Moore didn’t have all the details worked out in advance, but rather filled many things in as he went along, which goes quite a ways towards explaining the logical discrepancies in various aspects of the story, such as Dr. Manhattan’s vacillation between timeless awareness and his occasional surprise and changes of mind.

Still, as valuable as it is, the interview is rather short. The book as a whole, on the other hand, does a wonderful job of painting a portrait, depicting a crucial era in comics, when possibilities were expanding, and concepts were being pursued that fed Moore and Gibbons’ vision in Watchmen. For instance:


Over and over again in this book, creators (and the editors) exalt realism as a powerful and underused technique in comics. Harvey Kurtzman’s war stories in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat are hailed for being “tough-minded, deglamorized, and painstakingly researched.” A loving description of Harvey Pekar’s work says that it portrays “the minute details of life that even serious fiction ignores.” The interview with Los Bros. Hernandez celebrates the way that Jaime’s realistic subplot in “Mechanics” grew to take over the comic itself, pushing the science fiction element to the fringes.

Watchmen, too, is concerned with realism, picking up where Marvel left off in trying to answer the question, “What would happen if there really were super heroes in our world?” The reason that the Fantastic Four bicker and argue, and struggle with self-loathing, and don’t have secret identities, and didn’t even have costumes at first, is because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them as a reaction to the bland, beaming, formulaic DC heroes who dominated the market at that time. Lee injected more humanness into his characters, and the audience loved it. Or, as Moore once put it:

The DC comics were always a lot more true blue. Very enjoyable, but they were big, brave uncles and aunties who probably insisted on a high standard of you know mental and physical hygiene. Whereas the Stan Lee stuff, the Marvel comics, he went from one dimensional characters whose only characteristic was they dressed up in costumes and did good. Whereas Stan Lee had this huge breakthrough of two-dimensional characters.

Moore goes one better in Watchmen, delivering a slate of characters who, despite their costumes, are neither heroes nor villains, but rather complex and broken people, each trying to enact (or retreat from) the concept of heroism in their own ways. Just like real people.

Nuclear Anxiety

I was a teenager in the 80s, when these comics were coming out, and the overriding existential angst of the time was about nuclear war. Knowing that your country had the technological capability to destroy the world many times over was bad enough, but when there was another country that could do it too, and those two countries happened to hate each other… well, it could make you pretty nervous if you thought about it too much. Artists were thinking about it, and the topic pops up throughout these interviews. Justin Green describes the grim potential of atomic holocaust on his way to expressing a faith that human consciousness will squelch the possibility. Gary Panter talks about “releasing a nightmare on paper” in his comic about the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

Moore and Gibbons were working out nuclear anxiety in Watchmen, but in the beautiful mode of the superhero genre, they did it mostly on a metaphorical level. Instead of just America vs. Russia in a game of Bombs And Bunkers, they personify the bomb itself in the form of Dr. Manhattan, a being almost (but not quite) completely indifferent to the human race, but who profoundly changes the human condition simply by existing. Of all the costumed heroes in the story, he is the only one who is truly superhuman, and his elevation beyond the human scale makes him ultimately alien and terrifying. He embodies our new planet-shattering capabilities, and when Laurie Juspeczyk tugs on the thread of his humanity in Chapter 9, she embodies that consciousness that Green hoped would be our salvation.

Then there’s Ozymandias’s plan, which he explains as his own Alexandrian solution to the Gordian knot of mutually assured destruction. It’s shortsighted lunacy, of course, but in the context of the story, we have to take it seriously for a moment. As Dreiberg says, who’s qualified to judge whether the smartest man in the world has gone crazy? Peter Bagge writes about being the editor of the underground comic anthology Weirdo with Robert Crumb, saying that he was never comfortable running sincere “issue” pieces like antinuke comics, because he always found them obvious: “I don’t want to just keep all these antinuke people happy by telling them things they already know.” I don’t think Watchmen is seriously arguing that the destruction of a major city and the slaughter of millions of people is a viable plan in the face of looming nuclear destruction, but it makes us think about it for at least a few minutes, and that’s far from obvious.

Subverting Superheroes

If Gary Groth had a superpower, it would be the Power Of Disdain. In his introduction and the interstitial material of the book, Groth is overflowing with contempt for all aspects of the mainstream comics industry, including newspaper comics, but he saves his deepest derision for superheroes and their creators. You can practically see both Groth and Fiore holding their noses anytime they must refer to Marvel or DC, or to costumed crusaders. Interestingly, Groth seems unaware that he places himself and his magazine firmly within an utterly stock heroic narrative, as the plucky underdog outsider taking on a corrupt establishment. Check out this sentence from this introduction:

The comics profession, represented at the time predominantly by Marvel and DC Comics, and therefore composed overwhelmingly of hacks, was outraged and appalled by the Journal‘s nervy challenge to the artistic and ethical status quo of an industry with which they had grown comfortable.

Ow, my eyes, how they hurt from all the rolling. It goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph of self-congratulation, mixed in with the suggestion that perhaps he deserves the credit for the 1980s blossoming of alternative comics. (No doubt if he’d been publishing in the 60s, he’d have taken credit for underground comics too.) As I read it, I kept feeling the nagging hint of familiarity, and then realized where I’d heard it all before: trolls. Groth’s position is essentially that of the internet troll, poking his head up in a community in order to heap abuse upon its members, all the while attempting to claim a moral and intellectual high ground by dismissing the vast majority of their work as “puerile junk, shoddily produced.”

This isn’t to say that he’s completely wrong. Like all areas of human endeavor, superhero comics contain plenty of crap. There’s nothing wrong with a reasoned critique of any artistic production. I’m actually a huge fan of criticism, as I suppose I ought to be, given the number of reviews I’ve written. I think a critic can be an invaluable teacher for audiences and creators, and that criticism can be quite salutary both for artists and art forms. However, I’m much more skeptical about the value of smugness and condescension, with which criticism is sometimes confused. When these traits infect criticism, or substitute for it, nobody wins.

There’s a section of The New Comics devoted to writers and artists of superhero comics (sneeringly titled “Men In Tights.”) Besides Moore and Gibbons, it features Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Howard Chaykin. These men are mainly celebrated for how they’ve subverted the superhero premise or undercut its artistic tropes. With mild astonishment, Groth reports that Moore’s approach is instead to “examine a genre and try to bring the best out of it, while staying, for the most part, within its conventions.” Still, Watchmen wouldn’t be included in this book if it didn’t shake up the superhero genre, and Groth grudgingly allows that it “is likely to be as close as costumed character comics will ever get to literature, and it comes closer than anyone might have expected.”

I doubt that Moore wrote Watchmen in order to impress Gary Groth. However, the book is definitely interested in interrogating the basic superhero concept. From the genre’s beginnings, one of its unquestioned foundations was that if somebody set out to “fight crime” or “save the world”, they were doing the right thing. Even when they encountered failures or setbacks, their moral authority was never in question. An even more deeply held assumption of the genre is that superheroes really do make a difference, that the world really can be saved by a handful of extraordinary beings.

In Watchmen, that notion goes up in flames as the Comedian’s lighter incinerates Captain Metropolis’ fussy display of “social evils” (like “black unrest” and “anti-war demos”.) His point in doing so is about the futility of action in the face of an inevitable atomic holocaust, but what he says a few panels earlier cuts even deeper:

Watchmen, Chapter 2, page 10, panels 6 and 7. The Comedian confronts Ozymandias. Comedian: Got any ideas, Ozzy? I mean, you are the smartest guy in the world, right? Ozymandias: It doesn't require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling... Comedian: Damn straight. An' it takes a moron to think that they're small enough for clowns like you guys to handle. What's going down in this world, you got no idea. Believe me.

Since the Marvel Age began, heroes had been struggling with “ordinary problems”, like paying rent or having to do stuff when you have the flu. Spider-Man had even wondered whether his desire to dress up and punch bad guys was a form of psychosis. But I don’t know of a pre-Watchmen comic in which a superhero consciously encounters the most fundamental flaw in the entire superhero premise: the fact that the world’s problems are deep and complex, and that no amount of punching is ever going to solve them. In Watchmen, the Comedian’s eloquence changes Ozymandias, setting into motion the plot of the book. In the comics world, Watchmen‘s eloquence changed the superhero genre, setting into motion a wave of books that questioned whether superheroes were even the good guys at all, or whether there was even such a thing as good guys and bad guys. We’re still watching the fallout today.

Next Entry: You’re A Better Man Than I Am, Walter K
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Searching For Sugar Man

One of my favorite books as a teen, and a huge influence on me during that time, was a novel called The Armageddon Rag, by the then-little-known George R.R. Martin. The book is about… well, it’s about many things, including loss of innocence, the metaphorical end of the Sixties, the rewards and regrets inherent in revisiting the past, and the enormous power of music. The way it is about those things is that it follows a journalist investigating a murder, one that seems inextricably bound to the music of a fictional Zeppelin-esque defunct band called The Nazgûl, whose lead singer died on the same date as the murder. As the journalist investigates the story, he is startled to discover that the band is getting back together, and somebody who looks and sounds a whole lot like the singer is fronting them…

The documentary Searching For Sugar Man is about many things too, and the way it is about them is that it follows a journalist investigating how a beloved artist died. The artist’s name is Rodriguez. A Detroit singer-songwriter in the Dylan mold, he released a couple of albums in the early 70s — good albums, beloved by producers and critics, but completely ignored by the American audience. He quickly faded into total obscurity. Well, almost total. By some quirk, the albums became wildly popular in South Africa, their protest lyrics credited with awakening an anti-apartheid generation to the possibility and power of questioning authority. One South African describes Rodriguez’s popularity there like so: “If you went into any white, middle-class, liberal home in South Africa and started flipping through the record collection, there are three albums you’d always find: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez.”

But while there are reams of information available about The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, South Africans could learn almost nothing about Rodriguez. They couldn’t even find out how he died, though many seemed to agree it was grisly in some way. Did he immolate himself on stage? Blow his brains out right after the encore? Nobody seems to know, so in the 1990s, South African music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Styrdom starts researching an article whose premise is: “How did Rodriguez die?” He followed the money, made a lot of phone calls, and also made use of this nifty new tool called the Internet. With fan Stephen Segerman, he created a website called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt”, casting far and wide for leads on the mystery.

I don’t want to reveal what he found. It’s best learned watching the film. Quoth Roger Ebert: “Let me just say it is miraculous and inspiring.” For me, it was like a mirror image of The Armageddon Rag: where the story of The Nazgûl is dark and apocalyptic, the story of Rodriguez is redemptive and luminous. Even better, the story of Rodriguez is true. I spent pretty much the entire movie thinking it was a hoax, along the lines of Dave Stewart’s Platinum Weird stunt a few years ago. Nope. It’s not a hoax. It is one hundred percent true, and it shone a light on a couple of things that really moved me.

The first of these is about mystery and music. Not to sound like a village elder, but I am old enough to remember a time when you could hear a song, or an album, and love it, but have almost nothing more than the song or the album. If you heard it on the radio, you might not even know the title or the artist! I once taped a lovely Robert Plant song off the radio, and it took me years to find out the title of the song, and that it was solo Plant rather than Zeppelin.

Even if you owned the music rather than hearing it on the radio, you might have an album cover or some liner notes to peruse, but those could be sparse or willfully obtuse, and in any case they were merely snapshots in time. You could subscribe to Creem or Rolling Stone and get up-to-date news, but only for the artists they chose to showcase. You might be able to find some historical info at the library, for well-established artists, but again, that would be up to the caprice of your library’s collection. Even the albums themselves could be elusive — I remember driving all around Aurora, searching fruitlessly for a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut.

This atmosphere gave rise to wild rumors and legends. I suppose the poster child for this would be the Paul is dead phenomenon, but these legends lasted well past the Sixties. I remember someone confidently asserting to me that Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant had a daughter together. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when there is a vacuum of information, human beings will fill that vacuum with speculation, and doubly so for the things we’re passionate about. Thus were many hours spent trading ridiculous stories of our pop idols.

That’s all different now. Don’t get me wrong — the age of rumors wasn’t golden, and I wouldn’t want to go back to it. I absolutely love that we have Google, and Wikipedia, and Shazam, and even horrible ad-splattered lyrics sites. The trade wasn’t something for nothing, though. What we lost was a little bit of that mystique, that sense of the unknowable. Having information at our fingertips about the musical pantheon brings them a lot closer to earth with the rest of us. It’s a mixed blessing.

The other aspect of this film that really spoke to me was about recognition and arrival. The filmmaker speaks to Rodriguez’s daughters, who knew their father as someone who had put his music out into the world, only to see it immediately sink beneath the surface. When they learn that it finally found its home in South Africa, that those songs were deeply loved by an entire nation of people, the revelation is immensely powerful. They see that their father’s spirit, his true self, has been kept alive for all those years. Did the news come too late? Maybe, but I don’t think so. See the movie and judge for yourself.

This part of the movie felt allegorical to me. We each have our core, our essence, and as bravely as we can, we express it to the world. Sometimes the world embraces it, sometimes not so much. But it never goes away. It is there, still waiting to be seen and heard. Sometimes, it gets seen and heard in the most unexpected ways, and when that happens, the resulting illumination is a wonder to behold.

IF-Review: Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

Final entry in the 2012 XYZZY best games review project — Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis. With tremendous innovation, technical polish, and abundant humor, Adam Thornton upends the medium of interactive fiction with a work that’s simultaneously traditionalist and transgressive, a layered and richly allusive delivery system for some highly demented and depraved content. It’s a hugely impressive achievement, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. I can’t imagine anyone else even trying.

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