Hi, hello, how are you? This is your (still weekly!?) update from me, Adam Wood, from a corner of Oxford where the Low Traffic Network infrastructure has already been vandalised — entitled motorists remain the very worst. I hope your week has been good, despite anything and everything that would try and make it otherwise. This week, as predicted last issue, I have a game I want to tell you about. But first, a delightfully splenetic book.
This week I read Halle Butler’s debut novel Jillian (2015). This is the story of twenty-something Megan, and thirty-something Jillian, both working as administrative staff at a doctor’s office. In their separate ways they are each coping with a melange of negative emotions: inadequacy, bitterness, jealousy, and doubt… among others. One of Megan’s coping mechanisms is to adopt a posture of apathy. ‘She thought of her current mindset as “allowing the shit to happen”’ (p4) we’re told, almost as an introduction to the character, and we find her deflecting the enquiries of others as to her wellbeing: ‘“I’m just trying to live pure,” said Megan. “Ambition’s for the devil.”’ (p26)
Jillian, by contrast, performs a cheerful contentment that is part ‘good Christian values’ and part keeping up with the Joneses. Inwardly, she resents almost everything and everyone she comes in contact with: the police (who have impounded her car for driving without a license); her son (who is inconvenient in that he requires something from her); the lady from her church group who does her endless favours (because it breeds in Jillian a festering guilt). Jillian is always reaching for the next potential panacea for all of her problems, and doing so whilst maintaining a complicated web of self-delusions, in which the reader becomes increasingly enmeshed.
Butler employs a free indirect style of narration to great effect, moving the reader between the minds of her two protagonists, but also occasionally into those of others who surround them. The effect is to make comparison between Megan and Jillian inevitable, and it’s likely to take the form of asking yourself repeatedly whom you dislike more. Whether Megan’s descent into depression, or Jillian’s escalating detachment from reality, infuriates you more may change from page-to-page. Butler’s talent is for making the reader actively reach for empathy, looking for something that makes these characters redeemable. In each of their struggles we might see a funhouse mirror distortion of the flaws in our own internal story – the one we tell ourselves about ourselves.
I actually came to Butler’s novel earlier this year, when I raced through Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation(2018) and set about looking for anything comparable! Jillian is similarly funny, and shares the sense of witnessing the unfolding of a downward spiral, yet it is perhaps more acidic than Moshfegh’s novel. For one thing, it lacks almost any sympathetic characters apart from an oblivious infant, and a dog, for whom sympathy is the only appropriate response.
This week I finished playing through Citizen Sleeper, the second game from Jump Over the Age aka solo developer Gareth Damian Martin. The tagline — ‘Roleplaying in the ruins of interplanetary capitalism’ — gives you some idea of both the game's structure and its vibe, and I found myself impressed by both. In part, this is a translation of tabletop roleplaying game dynamics to a single-player, video game format. The game takes place in cycles, with the system rolling a set of dice for the player at the beginning of each: these can be seen at the top of the screen, along with your character's ‘Condition' & ‘Energy' levels.
The main gameplay mechanic is to decide which of dozens of actions to spend your dice on each day / cycle. Some cycles you might wake up with a full set of 5s & 6s, others just a few 1-3s. As the game’s plot develops, it quickly becomes clear that there are more possible ways to spend your dice than you have dice to spend, or cycles to spend them. In the early going the player’s most pressing problem is maintaining their Energy level (the white bar below the dice) and their slowly degrading Condition (the segmented bar above the dice). Later in the game, other pressures are introduced, with intimidating counters added to the map, ticking the cycles away until some potentially game-changing event occurs.
There is more to the moment-to-moment gameplay than simply deciding where to assign one’s dice on any given cycle, but it’s genuinely impressive how much tension and analysis-paralysis Martin is able to introduce through this core mechanic. A carefully balanced economy of finite resources compels the player to make difficult choices about things like whom they decide to help, and how much of their time needs to go into self preservation, as versus exploration, or the furtherance of one of the ‘Drives’ (read: potential routes through the story) that their character discovers.
The game’s world is built through charming, detailed character art by Guillaume Singelin, and moody, atmospheric synth music by Amos Roddy. (I’ve actually had the OST on as background music even when away from the game.) But the game's real strength is Gareth Damian Martin's writing. They hold a PhD in experimental literature, which perhaps helps navigate the form, but they also have a talent for evocative detail and an impressive command of tone. Primarily through the voices of several well-realised characters, Martin constructs an impressively intricate picture of life on the shattered space station, Erlin's Eye. There are numerous factions vying for their share of shrinking resources, and — peopling them — individuals with their own competing wants and needs. The game systems Martin has constructed are effective in reflecting the struggles for survival within a decayed capitalist society: eking out a die for yourself once you've spent the others on making connections and earning currency to afford necessities.
I modeled the structures around things in our society now like constant pressure, exposure to risk, the feeling that luck is the only thing that is keeping you with a roof over your head, or waking up in the morning and not knowing exactly how much you’re gonna have to give. — Gareth Damian Martin
There is also a reading in which the mechanics serve as a metaphor for disability or chronic illness. A central component of the narrative stems from your character's identity as a ‘Sleeper’: an inorganic body inhabited by an emulated mind. Martin explores many of the questions this raises within the text of the game, including a pervasive sense of being routinely othered by those with whom you interact. This narrative texture combines with a gameplay mechanic requiring you to periodically seek out an expensive ‘stabilizer’ compound, to reverse the gradual degradation of your physical form. The result is a persistent tension around your character's baseline wellbeing, which sits alongside any greater ambitions they have, and will necessarily inform many of the player's decisions.
Throughout my time with Citizen Sleeper I became increasingly compelled by its world, its characters, and the narrative tapestry it weaves. I was deeply impressed by how convincingly Martin has built a world in which my character had open to them several, equally valid paths. As such, it genuinely felt as though the choices I made comported with the manner in which I had conceived of my particular Sleeper. Ultimately, the resolution the narrative reached for me felt deeply satisfying.
Since these notes have already run quite long, let me take a moment to also extol the virtues of Jump Over the Age’s first game: In Other Waters, which I played last year and also found to be very impressive. Similarly to Citizen Sleeper, here Martin makes impressive use of an abstracted user interface (see above) to tell a story about isolation and environmental evolution — themes also present in the newer title.
The narrative through-line of In Other Waters is comparatively straightforward, and its simpler gameplay mechanics become a little repetitive towards the end. However, Martin's writing is strong here too, and the world they construct with it is similarly vibrant and detailed.
It’s possible — actually, I’m going to say it’s likely — that the cadence of these emails will slow (or even pause) for the duration of the annual Sipped Ink summer read-along. (What's that? All of your questions will be answered here, and there's still time to join.) Much as I've got a kick out of writing these, two newsletters a week may be a stretch if I want them to be anything more than sketched notes. We’ll see; maybe it’ll be a good opportunity to play with the format a little. Until then, let's not fix what's not immediately, obviously broken. And so, the bullets:
- A child actor from Jaws (1975) is now the police chief of the island where it was filmed.
- My new life’s pursuit is to live in accordance with the vibe of this photo of a barefoot Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses on a merry-go-round.
- I enjoyed playing with this tool for finding colours & shades that work well together (if you’re not familiar with hex codes, Wikipedia to the rescue)
- At a remove of almost a decade, Olivia Rutigliano returns to her analysis of one of my very favourite films of all time: Frances Ha (2012):
Frances is clearly an adult all along. For a time, though, she simply doesn’t allow this to be empowering the way she allows it to be belittling.
- Music pick of the week goes to ‘Get on Your Feet’ by Gloria Estefan, for helping me through a tough spin class (and for being a certified bop)
That’ll do — thanks as always for spending some of your time & attention on reading this, it’s appreciated. Until next time.