Bloodborne

Bloodborne

The nightly hunt has begun. You’re a hunter; and a hunter hunts. That’s all you need to know. Amongst the streets of Yharnam, teeming with inhuman beasts, lying scoundrels, and soon to be much worse, you must remain vigilant and inventive if you’re to survive until morning, if it ever comes.

This game is fantastic. Forget superlatives, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. After I finished the Dark Souls II remaster, I felt like the series, while not stale, did need to start to innovate. From Software swapped the setting from faux-medieval ruin to faux-victorian ruin, sped the game up tremendously, and spun their best narrative-via-atmosphere yet. It’s a host of minor and medium size adjustments that makes the scheme fresh again. It was rewarding, immersive, and I’ve seen many forms of media riff on H.P Lovecraft but extremely rarely as well as Bloodborne. The Shadow over Innsmouth tribute is gets it without being derivative.

The city of Yharnam is famous for its speciality science slash religion of blood ministration. Through something termed ‘blood healing’, humans can imbibe blood (the source of which becomes known during the course of the game) to heal wounds and gain special properties. Or devolve into mindless beasts as it so happens. You, the hunter, journeys to this world, ready to hunt and untangle its mysteries. This is From’s most focused narrative yet. While it’s still highly ambiguous and distant from any kind of straightforward plot, it’s much easier to get a sense of the world, of its history and just what the hell is going on. It’s rarely vague for the sake of being vague and invites exploration and theorizing.  

But of course, this is a less a game of direct narrative and more one of atmosphere. It’s creepy and unsettling often. This can range from giant bosses that are hideous to behold to more low-key scares; there’s a guy behind a locked door who keeps asking for a password. After you finally locate the password and knock on the door, as soon as you open it all you’re greeted with is a long dead corpse perched on a stool. The sound design is excellent — there’s one skeletal boss who is literally screaming at you the entire time and it’s the sort of things where you want to laugh and shudder at the same time.

Mechanically, the hunter controls like a speedier and smoother version of a Dark Souls character. But the major differences come in your available armament. First of all, there’s no shields, just a joke version that proclaims that shields ‘engender passivity’ and should be avoided. So if you never learned how to dodge in the previous games (or never played them), and chose to hide behind your shield, now’s the time to learn. Next, your character has a gun. A gun that does much lower damage than melee and cannot function as a primary source of damage (unless you specialize heavily in a gun-specific stat) but they can be used to parry enemies if you shoot them while they’re attacking you. Lastly, instead of a host of different kinds of medieval weaponry with slightly modified movesets, Bloodborne has a much smaller list of weapons, but they’re almost entirely unique. And each weapon, termed a ‘trick weapon’ in the game’s lore, can be transformed into a different weapon. For instance, the saw-cleaver is a simple cleaver and upon transforming the hunter flips out the blade in the opposite direction and it’s a long-range saw. There’s also a cane with a whip inside of it. Yeah. Or, Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a simple sword until the hunter attaches it to its sheath and swings the entire thing as a massive, ornate greatsword.

The gameplay isn’t perfect. The camera is suspiciously poor at times and enemies seem capable of clipping their weapons through walls and pillars in a way that they couldn’t in the other Souls games. The potion system that does not reset on death is also a step backward. But these are trifling. There’s just something immensely satisfying about learning how to control your hunter, perfect your weapon handling and use your acquired knowledge and skill to learn and take down successively terrifying bosses. 

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

man in the high castleI expected a book about the aftermath of a history where the Allies lost World War 2. While that is the setting of the book, what I actually got was many pages about running an antique business in mid-century San Francisco. And many more pages of characters pondering their daily reading of the I Ching

At first, I was intrigued. People getting by in Japanese occupied SF (many of the streets mentioned surround my workplace!) It felt like a good play-on-expectations for anyone expecting a book about Nazi America. Then I realized that’s all the book is. In other contexts, this could be fine. But I didn’t care one whit about these characters. The book makes a point to paint them all as horrendous racists, Japanese or German or colonized American. Though the first and last didn’t set up murder camps. Or kill everyone in Africa. Yes, in this history the Nazis unleashed some bio-experiment that killed everyone in Africa. Also, slavery was re-instituted in America, a point that is given maybe a paragraph of recognition. While having point of view characters on every side, it’s borderline unconscionable that there is no black character with a voice in the novel. It single handedly robs the novel of the moral authority it attempts to wield.

There’s plenty of high-concept philosophical mumbling, but it’s unconvincing and comes to nothing. You have one character going on about Nazi ideology and wishing they were gods, several enmeshed in the I Ching and Yin & Yang and maybe this is supposed to tie back to the idea of history and how we fit in it. Maybe history doesn’t matter and embracing how feeble and weak we are and potentially governed by the esoteric will of a several thousand year old book is the answer. The fact of the matter is that this is less a plotted novel and more Philip K. Dick’s endorsement of eastern mysticism. You have a man yearning to be part of a harmonious cosmos, one that obviates human agency as a meaningful factor. Embrace the wu.

(so long as you’re not African)

This was one of those books that I didn’t dislike while reading, but found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for it come together; for the narrative and thematic threads to come together and form something. A tangible plot. A philosophy or politic of interest. I was disappointed. There’s hints of something better, but they’re half baked or cast off by novel’s close. 

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride

A Girl IsRather than try and explain the style of this novel, let’s read an excerpt:

I do not want. I do not want to hear this. But suddenly it’s clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world’s about to. The world’s about to. Tip. No it isn’t. Ha. Don’t be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What. Something not so good.

And that’s one of the more comprehensible paragraphs. A staccato rush of the unnamed protagonist’s thoughts and experiences, trapped inside her head which is likewise trapped inside a cruel, cruel world.

Did I like it? Yes and no and. Yes. Sometimes, it’s too difficult to follow and too much is lost. Especially in the opening chapters where our half-formed girl is literally so, being a foetus in her mother’s womb while her older brother is operated on for a brain tumor. Elsewhere, it’s beautiful. It drives the prose into a breakneck pace even when not much is physically happening. When the protagonist’s mind is racing, the language itself delivers the same sense.

That’s the first most striking thing about the novel. The second is its uncompromisingly brutal and harrowing plot.

At first I thought this was going to be another iteration of the timeworn tale of stoic Irish working class misery. Overbearing catholic mother. Absent father. Financial issues. Social issues. Small town woes. But no, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Early in the novel, at age thirteen, the protagonist is raped by her uncle and the novel sidesteps into sexual abuse and its fallout. Make no mistake: this isn’t a side plot or a stepping stone or a little dash of thematic oomph, this is a book about relentless trauma and never once is there a bright side or an upside or a silver lining, but just a constant plunging fall, from chasm to cliff to chasm to cliff, cut and bloodied and tripping further and further while you wonder how it can even get any worse. But, of course, before the novel ends and it does get worse, by that point you already knew exactly how it would.

I desperately hoped it would be otherwise.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

crimson petalVictorian England. Plucky orphans getting by on the strength of their wits. Wealthy old men who just need to be taught a good lesson. Top hats and crinoline. Grinning chimney sweeps and slapdash policemen.

Right??

No. More like a brutal clash between the have and have-nots, wealthy hypocrites celebrating poverty and paying lip service to charity on holidays. Brutal oppression of women. Poor children forced into backbreaking labor. Cheap life, rich industry.

We follow Sugar, a nineteen year old woman and professional whore, forced into the sex industry at thirteen by her nihilistic mother. Sugar is determined to increase her lot in life and not spend it all on the streets, where she’s as like to succumb to disease as be strangled by a customer.

On comes William Rackham to the scene, heir to a booming perfume business. He’s Sugar’s salvation, and also one of those most hateable characters in all literature. William isn’t terrible because he drowns puppies or murders innocents. He’s not Jack the Ripper. Instead, he’s a spineless, self pitying coward, who abuses his wealth and privilege to the great detriment of everyone around him, while constantly self-justifying and also whining about everything. Watch him make excuses for himself while his whims deliver terrible consequences to those that depend on him. After traipsing around town trying to find the exact prostitute to sate his depravity, William comes upon Sugar. So entranced is he that he decides he must have her entirely for himself. That’s the plot of this enormous, dense novel.

It’s a good old fashioned epic. London is wonderfully realized, enchanting in its own grimy, bustling way. The witty, omniscient narrator is entertaining and delivers fashion lessons on the changing dress of the era, progressively more revealing and sexy to counter the more conservative societal outlook on language and politesse, and keeps it interesting. The cast is engaging and their philosophical quandaries compel. William’s brother Henry is another main character and a religious man tormented by the contrast between his faith and the London clergy versus the poverty in the streets. Faber is clearly interested in preachers in conflict, as it’s a major theme in his excellent The Book of Strange New Things too. I sometimes characterize books as “I can read them forever” or “I have to stop after a few chapters, because it’s too dense/harrowing/difficult/meandering.” Crimson Petal is clearly the former and I had long, multi-hour sittings where I did nothing but read.

Did it have to be 900 pages? Eh, not really. It’s quite good, but also extremely slow and repetitive at times. The story will seem to muck around for 50-80 pages and then suddenly accelerate and major turning points are covered in a few pages. I don’t begrudge it much, though. My bigger gripe is that the novel begins with an omniscient narrator speaking to the reader, establishing a metaphor that the book is a whore for you to use, and desirous to make you feel dirty for purchasing it and expecting a thrilling romp through Victorian London and not the filth the novel opens to. It’s great. The narrator pops in and out at times and the conceit is that the reader is following around the main characters at a safe distance. He makes jokes. But, bafflingly, the voice of the narrator almost entirely disappears in the final 35% of the book. And, partially due to that, the first three acts are superior to the last two. I was tapping my foot towards the end, ready for it to be over, but was still sad when I finally did finish and knew I was leaving these characters behind.

The majority of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones are women. This book buries the axe in male privilege and the subtext implies that much of what William Rachman is capable of is not constrained to one hundred and fifty years ago, but persists today. He’s infuriating. Sugar is writing a novel about a literary facsimile of herself that lurks around London, torturing the hapless men who casually purchase women’s bodies for pocket change. The first line is “All men are the same.” The tone of the novel is often humorous but it delves seriously into the lives of its prostitute characters and examines what their life may have been, instead of using them as a set piece or for titulation, like media generally does.