Here's some things that are good that I haven't talked about here before.
I have a penchant for the sort of game which can be summed up as "organising things neatly". That came to its apex during a high-stress period in February when I decided to alphabetise my stored Pokemon in Pokemon Sword, an entirely pointless endeavour that nonetheless threw me into a sort of meditative state for a couple of hours when I needed it most.
Stardew Valley, an idyllically-styled retro farming game available on all major platforms, scratches the same itch for me, without requiring you to share my personality disorder to find it enjoyable. Its very setting is wish-fulfilment: you, an office worker in a big city, inherit a family farm in a small town where, very quickly, everyone knows your name.
You wake up, till some fields, plant some seeds, milk some cows, fight some skeletons in a cave, bring a flower to a pretty person and then do it all again. The heart comes from everything around the farming: the art design, the characterisation, the friendship and romance mechanics, the seasons changing in the world.
But the beautiful crunchy soul is just the work of laying out and building your farm. People will sit down with graph paper to chart the perfect farm for them, will build excel spreadsheets to track the best days to plant and sell certain harvests. And while I don't do any of that, I love the fact that the game has that level of depth.
I just arrange my fields neatly.
The Absolute Book
It's unfair to mention this fantasy novel here, really, because it's not actually available in the UK. Which is, at least, what caught my attention: the book was reviewed in Slate with the headline "This New Zealand Fantasy Masterpiece Needs to Be Published in America, Like, Now". The good news is a US publisher is lined up, and I assume a UK one will follow in short order, but for the time being, your only option is to be in New Zealand, spend hundreds of pounds on Amazon, or (whisper it) use the internet.
I did the latter – so sue me – no, please do not actually sue me – and read it over this February. The book is a genre-spinning masterpiece, with one of my favourite marriages of theme, structure and style I've ever seen. Please excuse a very baby's-first-literary-criticism explanation here but give me a shot.
The titular Book is known as the Firestarter, for its long, possibly apocryphal history of being involved in, and escaping from, library fires. People who have encountered it seem to just… forget it. Or, more accurately still, just don't think to ask the right questions. Can't think to ask the right questions.
And throughout the book, Knox plays with the reader in the same way. Scenes change without the intervening moments playing out, the blanks filled in down the line; situations are presented which are unexplained and inexplicable, in such a way that they flip through your brain and come out the other side without disturbing the matter in between. A murder mystery will often taunt you, with the pieces to the puzzle laid out in front of you but the question frustratingly hard to answer; this is different: the trick is that you never even know there is a question to answer, until suddenly, twenty pages later, one of the characters mentions the solution you didn't even know was missing, and the chapter locks into place.
For The Queen
A role-playing game unlike any I've played before. Diceless, GM-less, and playable start to finish in under two hours, the game is a deck of cards, 15 of which lay out how to play, and the other 46 of which contain simple questions.
The land you live in has been at war for as long as any of you have been alive.
The Queen has decided to undertake a long and perilous journey to broker an alliance with a distant power.
The Queen has chosen you, and only you, to be her retinue, and accompany her on this journey.
She chose you because she knows that you love her.
Things are accused of being "like poetry" an awful lot – Dylan lyrics, basketball dunks, that video of the Australian MP pivoting from gay marriage to crocodile deaths – but For The Queen really is, for the simple fact that every single word is painstakingly selected. The paragraph above is the sum total of the set-up the game provides, and it is both clear and concise in what it tells you, and wildly, wonderfully ambiguous about what it doesn't.
After reading that introduction, the game goes round the table, each player reading and answering one question for themselves – "Why are the others in the group jealous of your relationship with the Queen?", or "The Queen hurt you once. What did she do and why did you deserve it?" – before ending when a final card is drawn, asking what you do when the queen is attacked.
I've played it twice, once in person and once remotely on Roll20. In one game, the Queen ended up being a reformer, who raised up the lower classes in her country to sit on par with the elites – but with a dark power fuelled by sacrifices of those same lower classes. In the other game, the Queen was a fungal parasite who ruled her space-operatic empire with a fleet of sentient ships.
If you have any interest at all in collaborative storytelling, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
If you want to hear my voice rather than read my words, I was on Ryan Broderick and Luke Bailey’s lockdown passion project/cry for help Trailblazers: The First Two Men To Ever Do A Podcast, where we talked about Twitter blocking Dominic Cummings from trending because his name has “cumming” in it.
Til next week, when maybe things will be better.