PC Pick-and-Mix 2: The Obra Dinn’s Returned and Star Wars Has Mustered Dark Forces? Play It Again, Bard…

I like videogames and I like writing reviews, but sometimes I don’t have deep enough thoughts on the latter to write particularly deep examples of the former. Time for another roundup of PC games I’ve been digging lately. This time, I’ll look at a spooky insurance mystery rendered in gorgeous 1-bit graphics, a classic Star Wars first-person shooter, and a CRPG classic given a new lick of paint.

Return of the Obra Dinn

It is the early 19th Century; the Obra Dinn, a ship that had gone missing somewhere off the coast of West Africa has finally sailed into port – with all sixty of its crew and passengers dead or missing. The ship had been insured by the East India Company, and you are the insurance investigator sent to figure out what happened. It’s a tough job – but you are helped by two items. The first is a logbook containing all the names and roles of the people who were on the ship, and some sketches of life onboard ship which show most of their faces (the obvious exception being the shipboard artist who made the sketches).

Your second helpful bit of kit is the Memento Mortem, provided by the same party who was able to send through the logbook; this is a strange pocketwatch which, when used in the proximity of a corpse (or a place where a corpse has been – indicated, once you’ve discovered it, by the fuzzy form of the body in question), allows you to enter and explore a static snapshot of the immediate surroundings in the moment the relevant person died. Your task is to put names to all of the faces, and specify how each and every individual onboard ship died – giving the exact cause of death and, where the death was not due to ill health or accident, the party responsible.

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Jodorowsky: From Surrealism To Psychomagic

Alejandro Jodorowsky has enjoyed something of a career renaissance in cinema lately, mostly thanks to the Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary that related how his attempt to film Dune went totally off the rails. After becoming a cult figure in the 1970s, Jodorowsky’s career hit a speed bump after his Dune project collapsed, and he had dropped out of directing entirely from 1990 to 2015, but since then he has made three new films, each with a hefty dose of autobiography.

For a long time his work was difficult to get – especially El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the two 1970s works which really put him on the map and got him attached to the Dune project in the first place. Arrow Video have now stepped in and produced a boxed set of blu-rays providing a useful cross-section of his work: his debut feature Fando y Lis, El TopoThe Holy Mountain, and his latest release – Psychomagic, a documentary about his homebrewed style of art therapy that he has been practicing in recent years.

I’m going to be honest: over the course of watching these movies I have come to seriously dislike Jodorowsky and his work. He clearly takes a lot of inspiration from the Surrealists, but I think he increasingly uses the tools of Surrealism for the sake of shameless self-promotion and creating this Messianic aura around himself. In addition, in relation to El Topo in particular there is furious controversy around his claim that he actually raped one of the participants in the film. I will cover that in more detail when we get to that, so consider this a content warning.

Fando y Lis

The Final War has come and gone and all the cities are in ruins. Well, maybe not all. When he was young, Fando (Sergio Kleiner, or Vincente Moore when appearing as a child) learned of the hidden city of Tar from his father (Rafael Corkidi). If he could just find Tar, he’d have eternal happiness – and his lover, Lis (Diana Mariscal, or Elizabeth Moore when shown as a child), would both have eternal happiness and be cured of her paraplegia.

So off they trek across the blasted wasteland, Lis sat on a trolley as Fando totes her along. As they go, they have various encounters – real or imagined – with various figures of a largely symbolic or metaphorical nature, and bit by bit we as audience members find more and more reason to worry about the duo’s relationship. It doesn’t seem as idyllic and healthy as it seemed to at the start of their quest. Fando keeps wandering off – despite the fact that this almost never ends well for him – and increasingly gaslights and lies to Lis. Eventually he does something barbaric and irreversible. Maybe there really is a city of Tar out there – but will it take in someone who’s been as senselessly cruel as Fando?

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From Out of the Shadows, a Spotlight On Women

In reviewing various short story anthologies I’ve made a habit of using the Boy’s-Club-o-meter to measure what proportion of the stories included are written by men; the balance is invariably skewed towards men, often to an alarming extent. It kind of behooves me to make good on that and read some anthologies of specifically womens’ writing, so I’m going to start off with She Walks In Shadows from Innsmouth Free Press (also republished as Cthulhu’s Daughters), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles – the former of whom is the chief editor and main operator of Innsmouth Free Press.

The product of a successful crowdfunding campaign, She Walks In Shadows consists exclusively of stories written by women about women, with illustrations and art by women and edited by women for good measure. In this respect, it’s the sort of thing which the world of Cthulhu Mythos fiction badly needs. Ann K. Schwader leads us in with Ammutseba Rising, a poetic story and a call to the daughters of humanity to rise in the name of annihilatory chaos – just what’s wanted to set the scene. I am not keen on the whole Lovecraftian poetry thing, but this is mercifully short and less embarrassing than many examples.

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Darkness Reborn

After pioneering their distinctive hide-and-seek-oriented style of survival horror with the Penumbra games and Amnesia: the Dark Descent – the latter of which was their breakthrough hit – Frictional Games allowed The Chinese Room to expand their prospective Amnesia mod into a full-blown entry in the series, the divisive A Machine For Pigs (which I quite liked), whilst Frictional themselves delved into philosophical SF which didn’t quite land for me in Soma.

Now Frictional have returned to the Amnesia franchise with Amnesia: Rebirth. The time is 1937; Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon and her Salim have signed onto a mining company expedition to one of their remote sites in French Algeria, with an eye to improving efficiency. The plane carrying this little colonial expedition runs into trouble – weird trouble – and comes down in the middle of the desert.

Recovering consciousness in the wreck of the plane, Tasi finds she is utterly alone – but there’s signs that others also survived and toted the supplies and wounded out of the crash. At first it seems Tasi has been bizarrely forgotten, but as she explores to try and track down the other expedition members she realises this isn’t the case – she’d left the wreck with the party, and whenever she ends up closely retracing her steps she has hazy recollections of what happened the first time around.

So what is she doing back in the original plane crash? What’s happened to her memories? Where are the others? And why is it that whenever she gets extremely scared or angry she seems to find herself overcome with strange symptoms, a discolouration of her arms, brief visions of strange places and of herself doing brutal, animalistic things? How is it that whenever something that should be fatal happens to her, this same blackout overcomes her and she wakes up safe elsewhere? The answers are both inside Tasi and outside of our universe altogether, as she discovers when she stumbles into a hellish, green-tinged otherworld…

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Crowley In Small Doses

Regardless of what you think of his esoteric endeavours; you can’t deny that Aleister Crowley tried his hands at a wide range of endeavours. Between being a mountaineer, an occultist, a chess enthusiast, and a poet, he also turned his hand to prose fiction from time to time. His novels Diary of a Drug Fiend and Moonchild get most of the infamy, but he also produced a good chunk of short fiction in his time.

David Tibet, though he was deep into Crowley when he started the Current 93 industrial music project that he is most famous for and has retained a long-standing appreciation of the man, does not seem to be a dogmatic Thelemite these days; however, he is on at least good enough terms with William Breeze, AKA Hymenaeus Beta – the current head of the “Caliphate” faction of the Ordo Templi Orientis (Crowley’s most famous magical order) – to have featured Breeze on a few Current 93 recordings and to have been appointed to the International OTO Cabinet. In this latter capacity, he’s a “non-initiate” advisor to the OTO – essentially acting as someone that the leadership can turn to for advice on his particular areas of expertise.

Among Tibet’s eclectic range of other contacts is Mark Valentine, who has edited anthologies for Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural line. Wordsworth Editions, for those of you not in the UK, are known primarily as publishers of out-of-copyright work at a modest price; these days of course, there are absolute tons of small press outfits doing precisely this on Amazon, crapping out books on CreateSpace that are by and large horribly presented and feel nasty and cheap. Wordsworth are better than that: by and large the books they put out are nicely laid-out and properly edited, and by putting these out at a decent price they make a good selection of old literature easily available in hard copy for readers who might be on a tight budget, or might understandably object to paying a premium for a book which is nothing more than a reprint of something nabbed from the public domain.

The Tibet-Valentine connection makes sense when you think about it, given that both of them have made something of a career of researching into classic ghost and horror stories. (For an example of Tibet’s contributions in this vein, see my Stenbock article.) Tibet suggested to Valentine that a collection of Crowley’s short stories might be a nice addition to the Wordsworth Mystery & the Supernatural portfolio, and helped put Wordsworth in touch with William Breeze. Since the OTO believes it has a duty to make Crowley’s work available, Breeze was amenable to the idea, and though the copyright on the material had not yet run out (in the UK the copyright to material published by Crowley in his lifetime expired in 2017; posthumously-published material may still be in copyright depending on when it was first released), Breeze agreed to accept only a token royalty on the OTO’s behalf so that Wordsworth’s standard pricing could apply.

In the end two collections were produced. 2012’s The Simon Iff Stories and Other Works brought together two sets of stories that Crowley wrote as a series – Golden Twigs, a clutch of stories inspired by The Golden Bough, and the titular stories of the psychic detective Simon Iff, who would also appear as the protagonist of the novel Moonchild. Preceding it in 2010 is the book I’m going to review here: The Drug & Other Stories, collecting various standalone short stories Crowley wrote in a span of time from 1902 to 1922.

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GOGathon: Curses! Grimly, Market Forces Throttled a Genre – But It Escaped, Dig It?

In the first article in my LucasArts retrospective I’ve covered the early SCUMM engine-powered adventure games of LucasArts, prior to The Secret of Monkey Island; in the second, I covered the incredible run of adventures they put out from the first Monkey Island to Sam and Max Hit the Road. Over the time period covered from those articles, from 1987 to 1993, LucasArts put out at least one adventure game per year, occasionally two. It was a fine time to be an adventure fan.

For the last decade during which adventure game development took place at LucasArts, from 1994 to the cancellation of Sam and Max: Freelance Police in 2004, the release schedule would be much more sporadic – in fact, they’d cancel at least as many adventure game projects as actually came to fruition. In 1994 no adventures made it out.

Part of this was down to the canning of not one but two attempts to make sequels to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis which had been under development in 1994-1995; it had become apparent that the European market, including Germany, was a major driver of sales for LucasArts adventures, to the point where that market was essentially the reason adventures were being greenlit in the first place. This makes it awkward to base adventures around a franchise where the bad guys prominently wear swastikas because they are actual Nazis.

However, the gap was not just down to this. Two projects which released in 1995 were the product of unusually long development cycles. One of these was a technologically ambitious affair whose long development cycle was inevitable in light of what they were trying to achieve; the other was a game that had spent over half a decade in various stages of development hell…

Full Throttle

Ben Throttle is the leader of the Polecats – an outlaw motorcycle gang cruising around a dilapidated American West in the not-too-distant future. The world’s moved on from folk like the Polecats; the regions of America they haunt seem to be rather tumbledown places, a post-apocalyptic world arising not from a flashy apocalypse of warfare or disaster but a slow slide into total neglect. The interests of megacorporations lie elsewhere, and even their motorcycles are relics of a bygone age – most vehicles now are based on antigravity hover technology.

One company, however, keeps the traditional American two-wheeled motorcycle alive – Corley Motors. Its founder, Malcolm Corley, is an old biker himself and is more than able to rub shoulders with his customer base, despite the business suit. His vice president, Adrian Ripburger, is a very different prospect – and has a vision for the company’s future that doesn’t include Corley or traditional bikes.

The Polecats are drawn into this plan when they are cajoled – through a bit of subterfuge that includes getting Ben out of the way – into acting as Corley’s outriders as he heads to the shareholders meeting. Ripburger exploits the opportunity to kill Corley and blame the Polecats for it – but Ben witnesses the crime, and is tasked with finding Corley’s true heir with the old man’s dying breath. It’ll take all of Ben’s brains and brawn – and all the horsepower his bike can give him – to get out of this scrape.

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Mini Review: Oh No, Must Be the Season of the Cage…

There was a Tweet a while back which really summed up the essence of Nicolas Cage as an actor; in case the ephemeral nature of Twitter makes @spellbang’s idea disappear, it goes like this:

The definitive Nicholas Cage opinion theory is this: the man is the greatest living actor but his problem is that he is Actually Too Professional. What I mean is, he does -exactly- what you tell him to do. No matter what. No complaints. Even if what you tell him to do is dogshit

In some respects, Ron Perlman is one of those actors who is sort of the opposite of this – if you cast Ron Perlman, you will get undiluted Ron Perlman, reliably, uniformly, every time you cast him. If that was wrong for your project, then you messed up by casting him. And then there’s legendary figures like Christopher Lee, who somehow manage to combine both virtues; Lee is undeniably himself in everything he appears in, but at the same time adapts to whatever challenge is in front of him, whether it’s providing tips on what it looks like when you garrote someone to singing his heart out.

Perhaps the best thing about 2011 schlock historical horror B-movie Season of the Witch is that it gives us a chance to see this in action. Cage and Perlman are two disillusioned Crusaders returning from Outremer to find their homeland ravaged by the Black Death. Christopher Lee is a Cardinal who, on his deathbed, commissions them to escort Anna (Claire Foy), a suspected witch who is believed to have made the plague happen due to her terrible magic, to a remote monastery whose monks are renowned for their knowledge of exorcism and other blessings against malefactors, so that these experts can judge whether she is truly a witch.

As Cage, Perlman, and a motley group of companions travel, Anna displays potent abilities – some of which help them overcome the challenges they face on the road, some of which seem to put them into peril. But is Anna really a witch, or is an even more potent evil using her as a pawn in a scheme? And if she’s this powerful, why isn’t she just busting out of the cage? Oh, no – must be the Season of the Witch!

This is a project which Cage and Perlman have clearly sussed out from the start, and to the extent it’s worth watching at all, it’s worth watching to enjoy them having fun with their rules. Perlman gets to headbutt a demon. Cage gets to chew the scenery. Christopher Lee is brought on to lend gravitas to the mission briefing and collect a paycheque. A thick blue Underworld-esque lighting scheme is used to make the CGI and other special effects costs cheaper. There’s a fight against zombie monks. Honestly, off the back of that you probably already know whether you want to watch it or not.

There’s some points where the movie seems to be taking the history a bit more seriously than it strictly speaking needs to – it plays with ideas like the Church cajoling people into joining the Crusades with the promise of remission sins and all sorts of other topics which are far to heavy for a lightweight adventure like this to really address. But these moments are fleeting, as are Cage’s fleeting moments of treating things seriously. Other actors are here briefly, but other than the very patient Claire Foy none of them really stand out very much (which is why I’m glad she gets the closing narration).

The Missing Machen

I have previously reviewed Chaosium’s triptych of Arthur Machen collections edited by S.T. Joshi; this set has now been supplanted by a new three-volume set from Hippocampus Press, also edited by Joshi, which offers the complete run of Arthur Machen’s fictional work – including The Hill of Dreams and The Secret Glory, two major novels which were not included in the Chaosium collections.

Between the collected stories and the appendices, this collection offers pretty much everything the Chaosium volumes save for the brief essay The Literature of Occultism; frankly, that’s no great loss. On the whole, I consider it a significant upgrade over the Chaosium trilogy.

For this article, rather than recap stories previously covered, I’ll just review the material found in these collections which didn’t make it into the Chaosium collections. This may lead to some of the volumes sounding worse than they actually are – by and large, Joshi showed good taste in what he chose to cut from those – but there’s some interesting bits and pieces here, and the two novels I have named above would have been unwieldy to include in the Chaosium volumes and yet at the same time are so essential to Machen’s body of work that their lack makes the previous collections inherently incomplete.

Collected Fiction Volume 1: 1888-1895

Our first piece is A Chapter from the Book Called The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote de la Mancha Which by Some Mischance Has Not Till Now Been Printed, which is barely a story but, as you can guess from the title, doesn’t really pretend to be: it’s a riff on Don Quixote in which the barber and priest characters from there look over someone’s collection of books, and froth about all the cool occult tomes they find there. It feels more like a writing exercise than anything else, with a side order of Machen showing off his occult erudition.

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GOGathon: LucasArts Hits the Road

After spending the 1980s honing their craft, LucasArts entered the 1990s as a credible force in adventure games which had released what I regard as their first true classic in the form of 1990’s Loom. Though that was more of a cult hit, their subsequent games – at least one each in each year from 1990 to 1993 – would stand as classics of the point and click adventure subgenre, and would be the games on which LucasArts’ future reputation would largely rest.

The Secret of Monkey Island

Really, it’s difficult for me to give an objective review to the original Secret of Monkey Island; I’ve replayed it enough and its best scenes have been burned deep enough into me that I can largely solve it in my sleep, with the result that I honestly can’t judge how well it follows the Why Adventure Games Suck manifesto. But generally speaking, the consensus is that it does for the most part – more than earning the little poke it makes at Sierra’s customary game over screens in one part.

What does stand out about the game, comparing it to the preceding LucasArts releases, is how it represented a great leap forward in terms of the writing and depth of story on offer. Sure, you could chat to people a bit in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the dialogue system is really used to its fullest extent here, offering extensive (and hilarious) conversations with a range of nicely depicted NPCs.

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GOGathon: The Early Adventures of Dynamix

Though I have finished my runthrough of Sierra’s adventure games as developed in-house and begun a look at LucasArts, I haven’t quite covered the full story of Sierra’s adventure game output – for Sierra were a publisher as well as a developer and did release a number of games made by other development houses, both independent firms and full Sierra subsidiaries.

These are frankly a mixed bag. Coktel Vision’s main adventure output, for instance, was the Gobliiins series, which I just can’t stand: it’s an interesting concept (you control a party of little goblins who must solve puzzles with their different skills, and the art style is rather unique and it makes an interesting attempt to convey narrative without language) marred by absurdly nonsensical puzzles and poor story logic. There’s a bit where you need to have a chat with a wizard, but he won’t talk to you until you physically put a diamond into his hand – which is subject of a puzzle – when in his own self-interest he should just stoop down and pick up the diamond when you lay it at his feet. It’s the sort of ridiculously obtuse crap that exists only to sell hint books.

Perhaps the most important of these development houses in adventure game terms was Dynamix, who became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sierra’s in 1990. Adventure games weren’t Dynamix’s most significant output, mind – perhaps their biggest success was their line of flight simulators like the World War I-themed Red Baron – but they still made their mark on Sierra’s adventure game history. The 3D engine used in the ill-fated King’s Quest VIII was a repurposed version of one of their flight simulation engines; more directly, Mark Crowe took up a post at Dynamix after he exited the Sierra mothership, and it was his team at Dynamix, not Sierra, who developed Space Quest V, which I increasingly feel is the best entry in the series.

Dynamix would also develop another four graphic adventures, three in an intense burst from 1990 to 1991 and one in 1996. That latter one, Rama, was a Myst-alike based on the novel series by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, complete with a FMV’d Clarke appearing after you beat the game to give you a little lecture about Rama’s ecosystem or giving you tips if you get killed. It was the second game to adapt the material, but sold poorly and sequels were cancelled; it is not available through any legitimate channel presently, which makes me suspect that the rights situation has become tangled. Since I cannot easily get it legitimately and don’t care about it enough to steal it, I’ll ignore its existence and cover the three adventure games which used the DGDS (Dynamix Game Development System) engine.

Spoilers: they’re trash.

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