The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als

I’ve been reading these collections for several years now and I’m not sure how likely I am to continue. At least a few essays used to really grab me. Last few years? Eh. Not so much. The weird thing is this collection doesn’t even seem bad and the intro essay, Hilton Als piece of the day-to-day exhaustion of racism and the difficulty of slinging ‘fuck you’s back at the world, is fantastic.

Is it me? Is it the collection? Is it the sordid state of world!?? I’m not sure.

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

The Art at the End of the World by Heidi Julavits — I liked this essay when I read it and I like it even more as I reflect on it. Our narrator drags her husband and two kids out to the Great Salt Lake, where sometime in the 70s, a peculiar land artist created a sort of jetty that spirals into the water. He did so intentionally during a drought so it can be seen only rarely. The family’s trip is heavily inspired by Julavits’ childhood on the coast of Maine, during the height of the Cold War and imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. Being at the edge of the world in Maine, she could easily imagine apocalyptic wastelands. Now, under threat of the effects of climate change, she wants her children, who live a city life far from the end of the world, to become equipped to imagine the end of all (most) things. The Great Salt Lake and a sometimes-seen artwork is the avenue for this. How to prepare for likely mass destruction? Learn to cope with the wasteland. Good stuff.   

The Other Steve Harvey by Steve Harvey — No, he’s not that Steve Harvey, man of the wondrous ‘stache, though on the phone he is confused as such. This Harvey’s essay about the face we put to the world and all the assumptions that come with it, and more importantly, the assumptions we make based purely on the faces we see on others is excellent. Musings on Trayvon Martin and Barrack Obama follow. How to make it so the first thing a person notices about another person is not that they are black is the question here, of which Harvey doesn’t have much of an answer as he repeatedly fails at trying to achieve it.

My Father’s Cellar by John Seabrook — In a spectacular effort to imitate the upper crust of England, Seabrook’s father has a highly prized, lovingly crafted wine cellar in the basement of their house. The locked door is hidden behind a bookcase, and when later the cellar is expanded, the second set of rooms is behind a fake brick wall. It’s almost immediately obvious here that Seabrook the child will become Seabrook the alcoholic, but this isn’t an essay whose strength is revelation. Instead, it’s a remarkably well drawn slice of life. I feel like I walked through that cellar, feel like I met Seabrook Sr.

Into the Breach

This game is cool.

I started off and thought ho-hum, this is fine, but it’s just a grid-based tactics game. A simple one at that.

Then I found myself, playing, playing, playing; the possibilities and strategies of such a simple setup blossomed and captivated.

In the future, ocean levels have risen and humans live on small, corporate-owned islands. To make matters worse, giant alien monsters called vek have appeared and are stomping over any buildings or people in their way. Luckily, a trio of time traveling humans piloting mechs appears to save the day (or not).

You, the player, are managing these mechs. You can choose a pre-set squad of three or mix and match. It starts simple with a mech that can punch aliens, a mech that can shoot aliens, and a mech that can push aliens in the cardinal directions. Other unlockable mechs will freeze enemies, spin them around, teleport them, light them on fire, and so on. This is a very repetitive game so the main source of diversity is how different mech loadouts alter the strategies you employ.

Combat plays out on a grid. You must protect civilian buildings — if they take too many hits, the game is over. You have to start over, almost entirely from scratch, save a single surviving pilot you can choose to blast to the “next timeline” (your next run of the game). In addition to shooting vek, you have sub-tasks like protecting a power plant or destroying a dam. These either allow you to take more hits before game-over or award currency you can spend at the end of an island to upgrade your mechs.

The big innovation here is that every single detail of the vek’s attacks are telegraphed. You see where they are going to attack, exactly how much damage that attack would do, in which order each enemy will attack, where new enemies will spawn, and so on. The UI is very good at communicating this. So if you see a vek is taking aim at an important building, and you can’t quite kill it (numbers are tweaked so that killing all enemies every turn can’t be done), then you could use a pushing attack to move it over a square so it harmlessly shoots a mountain instead. Or teleport it into the ocean. Or move another vek that is attacking first behind it so that it is killed by its buddy before it can attack. Thus each turn is basically a puzzle where you maximize your moves to prevent the vek from doing serious damage.

It’s ultimately very simple. You complete 2-4 islands and play the same final mission every time. Yet the loop is engaging. Even when mastering the game to the point where my runs were successful nearly every time, new mech types or achievement challenges would change it up just enough to be worth another shot. On the cusp of unlocking the final squad of mechs, I can’t see myself playing all that much longer, but for $15, the experience was absolutely worth it.

Minit — A review in 60 words

Minit is fantastic. It conjures this elusive feeling of joyful exploration that so many games seek, typically with far larger budgets, but very few achieve.

You, a little duck-like(?) creature, find a cursed sword that will kill you and send you back home every sixty seconds. Only the knowledge you gained or the items you’ve found will allow you to 

[dies]  

OK. Minit.

Turns out that by combining a retro game (NES Legend of Zelda), adding a 60 second limitation, and utilizing a minimalist yet charming aesthetic creates something surprising and wonderful. The time limit is not a thoughtless restraint — it’s used to set up puzzles that leave you scratching your head how you’ll finish in time. It’s also used to

[dies]

Where was I?

Minit’s world is peopled with cute talking animals, throwing down clever one-liners. Or playing off the time limit — one of the first buddies you encounter is an old turtle slowly recounting how to find treasure, yet initially you’ll die before he completes his tale.

The sparse black&white style can also evoke a more sinister mood like

[dies]

The game knows when to quit. Rather than bloat the length, the first run will take maybe a couple hours. Afterwards, you unlock a far more difficult 40 second mode that really pushes your sword-man efficiency. Without much planning, I reached the point where I could beat the game in about 15 minutes especially with the final unlockable mode which

[dies]

Minit is fantastic. More importantly: it is surprising.

The original Legend of Zelda is the perfect entry point. We played it as kids and there’s something child-like in the joy Minit evokes. Something from a world where you didn’t already know what was going to happen next, in gaming, or film, or novels. Something wide-eyed and fresh, full of adventure.

Metal Gear Survive

This is the most intense game I’ve ever played.

If you were a fly on the wall, or a Russian spy eluding detection, intent on studying just how animated I am playing video games, typically you’d be disappointed. I don’t move or emote much. But for Metal Gear Survive? You’d find me hunched forward, alert and engaged, occasionally muttering or cursing. Then moments later, with a sharp cry,  throwing a fist up in victory or lurching backward in defeat. 

I was in it.

During the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V, Mother Base is attacked and Big Boss is knocked into a coma for ten years, leading to the plot of that game. In this game, it turns out that during that very same prologue, after Boss left, a wormhole opened. Yes, that’s right. A wormhole opened. A bunch of Boss’ former soldier-followers were sucked into the wormhole, where they arrived in another world, a barren wasteland called Dite (dee-TAY). Dite is home to hordes of zombies (wanderers) and much of it is covered with a miasmic cloud called Dust.

I knew of this premise before starting the game and it sounded spectacularly dumb. My first surprise: the story is presented well. The intro is intriguing, creepy. The ‘spooky other world reached through a veil’ premise reminded me of the novel and movie Annihilation and the living dust itself evoked Stephen King’s The Mist, especially at a point partway through when you realize there is something very, very big in there. The overall plot is surprising throughout, though the individual characters are weak.

Metal Gear Survive is built on the Fox Engine from Metal Gear Solid V, which I wrote about here. Similarly, it’s a game of narrative moments generated by the engine itself. During my first foray into the Dust, my character put an oxygen mask over her face and the game informed me that I would die if I ran out of oxygen. It also warned me not to lose my bearings and get lost because the map does not function in the Dust — you need to use landmarks visible in the murk to find your way.

So I set off on my mission to retrieve a lost data cache. Carefully, I took out wanderers with my primitive arsenal, in small groups of ones and twos. I found the building, retrieved the data. On my way out, I noticed another shack. Inside was a container full of loot. Locked. I tried to pick the lock, but since it was my first encounter with the mechanism, I failed, leading to the loud screech of metal on metal. Naturally, every creature nearby was alerted and now I had zombies shambling through the door, tumbling through the windows, moaning, reaching for me, crouched still next to to the container.

I sprinted out of the there, creeped around the building, wandered off into the dust, underestimated a few wanderers, almost died, panicked for a moment before I could reorient to my surroundings, returned to the shack.

The wanderers were still there, milling around the last place they saw me. The game preserved its continuity. Low on oxygen, as well as supplies of food and water, I gave up. I turned around and left the Dust.

OK, this may not seem remarkable. I went and fought some zombies and left.

Yet the organic nature of this situation exceeds what generally occurs in games. I am a completionist. I get all the treasure chests, kill all the dudes. This game forced me to accept my defeat, scavenge what I could, and survive. It makes the entire world / setting / gameplay more immersive, more believable. I’ve killed untold numbers of zombies in games, but it has never felt this authentic. Later on, I’d be frantically shooting wanderers with my makeshift bow while at my back, several more clamored at my makeshift fence, started to climb it, their combined weight bowing the fence until it buckled, tumbling the zombies face-first to the ground, where they proceeded to drag themselves across the ground by their fingernails.

This game was panned by the critics. Gaming journalism has a serious problem with a follow-the-leader type mentality where first impressions (or pre-impressions) are of utmost importance. Opinions tend to skew one way or another and not represent a spectrum. They complained the early game was too harsh, since food and water are quite scarce and you’re forced to listen to your character gag after drinking dirty water, while crossing your fingers she doesn’t get sick. The fact that this greatly heightens the danger and urgency of your first steps in a dangerous world goes unsaid and unappreciated. They complained about microtransactions that have no bearing on the game at all. They complained this game is “not Metal Gear”, whatever the hell that means.

Don’t get me wrong here — the game isn’t flawless. It’s using purely recycled environments and assets from its parent game and despite it’s stellar start, it never lives up to its full promise. But it is far more inventive and immersive than the over-hyped, big-budget crap that so often reviews well.

Celeste

You are climbing a mountain. You will fall many times. Hundreds of times. But the only way to reach the summit is to keep trying, to keep falling. The mountain is depression. Sometimes a simple & easy metaphor is the best kind. 

Celeste places you in control of Madelaine, a traveler, like many others, come to climb Mount Celeste without knowing exactly why. There’s narrative sprinkled throughout 8 chapters, but it’s minimal and best left unspoiled. The real key to the story is how well-entwined its themes are with the gameplay itself. It is both a story and a game about a mountain.

This is a difficult platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy. As I mentioned, you will die a lot. A whole lot. While punishing, the game is encouraging. You can save at any time and progress is kept after you clear each “screen”, so the difficulty is broken down into bite-sized morsels where once you make the goal, you’re set. Though it is also the type of muscle-memory learning exercise where you can spend twenty minutes dying over and over to an obstacle and then suddenly can run it flawlessly in your sleep.

Consider a clip I took after bashing my head against this level for many deaths. Looking at it now it seems so passe, so quaint. A simpler time when manipulating moving platforms posed such a challenge.

While Madelaine only has a few abilities — jump, airdash, wall-cling and wall-jump — and doesn’t learn any new ones during the course of the climb, the levels themselves change and offer new opportunities to use those abilities. From jumping into bubbles to redirect Madelaine’s momentum and refresh her airdash to dashing into blocks to control their direction like the clip above.  Even after the main game ends and you begin the brutally difficult ‘B-side’ remixes of each level, you’re being taught new techniques you could have used all along.  It’s further synthesis of narrative and gameplay: spend more time on the mountain and you’ll continue to learn new things about yourself.

My thumbs hurt. I hurled myself into spikes and pits and toxic red goo until I got it.  My hands slowly calcified into misshapen claws as I wrestled with the Switch’s miserable D-pad. I grinded my teeth. There’s a few mechanics I didn’t like, but whatever, that’s part of the climb. I don’t scores games, but this is a 10. I didn’t just enjoy it, I became it. Between the death explosions of another fall, I felt the flow of perfect alignment between fingers and pixels, of satisfaction in surmounting yet another previously insurmountable obstacle.

I eventually reached a stopping point — chapter 7’s B-side — which introduces a mechanic I absolutely hate. I fear I won’t reach the true summit, somewhere beyond the rumored ultra-hard ‘C-sides’. Screw that! I let a couple days pass and my thumbs healed and I crushed the end of chapter 7’s B side. Here’s me dying and succeeding on the next chapter! Onward!