Mini-Review: Hotline Miami

Steeped in the 80s-retro aesthetic of its soundtrack (including synthwave leading light Perturbator), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and other manifestations of 80s nostalgia (there’s even cathode ray interference lines over all the graphics), Hotline Miami is a viscerally enjoyable and infuriating slaughter simulator that takes fairly simple principles of play and comes up with a delightful range of challenges based around them. You play an anonymous schlub in a Drive-esque Letterman jacket who gets mysterious phone calls euphemistically instructing them to go to a designated location and murder everyone there – but you’re just as fragile as the various gangsters you fight, so one hit will kill you. Stealth, speed and strategy are therefore your friends; guns are handy but are loud and will bring enemies running and have limited ammunition, whilst melee weapons tend to require you to take the risk of getting up close and personal (though nicely you can throw them too, leaving yourself unarmed) but are nice and quiet.

With a simple top-down presentation and controls (mouse does attacks and facing, arrow keys move), the game is nice and easy to get into but quickly reveals hidden depths. On your crime sprees you wear various animal masks which each have their distinct powers, and selecting the right mask for a job can be a significant tactical choice. The masks also seem to have a bit of a life of their own, confronting the anonymous protagonist in dream sequences between parts of the game, and then there’s the question of who’s setting all of this up in the first place, which is explored down two different timelines…

That said, the game isn’t without issues. The depiction of women is glibly fetishistic, with the protagonist getting an implied lover as a prize on one level and then her getting fridged later on for a cheap extra twist of the knife. There’s also a rather simplistic and cartoonish take on race, where for much of the game the only significant people of colour represented are “big black bruiser” archetypes. It is, in short, about as problematic and glib as much of its source material, which at best amounts to putting fidelity to that above the obligation to improve on one’s inspirations.

In addition, the comparative lack of a conventional mid-level saving process can make the game frustrating at points – though on the other hand this does tend to encourage you to experiment a bit with your tactics rather than constantly trying to get one fiddly bit just right, so I’m hesitant about declaring that an outright flaw. Overall, Hotline Miami is a charming, brief little piece which doesn’t outstay its welcome and offers ample replay value in terms of trying different ways of gruesomely murdering dozens of people.

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One Last Bite of the Cherry Pie

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost’s tie-in novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, had the conceit that it was an in-character mass of documents that FBI Agent Tamara Preston was looking over and annotating after their discovery at a crime scene, thus providing a wealth of new information about the history of the town from before its founding right up to the end of the original series, recontextualising material, rehabilitating some of the dross from the limp end of series two, and acting as a delicious appetiser for the weird banquet that was Season 3. Like I said in my review of the Secret History, it was basically a Twin Peaks take on House of Leaves.

If the Secret History was an appetiser, The Final Dossier is a last cup of coffee and an after-dinner mint. Substantially shorter than The Secret History, it takes a similar premise but has a much more straightforward presentation, being a coda to season 3 assembled once again by Tamara Preston, detailing her various discoveries about what’s been going on with the town and its residents since the end of series 2. However, rather than being a lovingly compiled set of deliciously fabricated documents with Tamara’s commentary, it simply provides Agent Preston’s direct summary of her findings. (The sole exception is an autopsy report on a major character from the original series who was conspicuous by his absence from season 3.)

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Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

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Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.

It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.

A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.

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Agent Cooper, You Are Far Away

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The news of a third season of Twin Peaks, coming 25 years or so after we last visited it via the weird hybrid prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, felt both like a glorious opportunity and an enormous creative risk. Not only had plot elements from the original’s ending suggested that a comeback in 25 years might be possible, but also the spectre of network interference that was widely held to have scuppered the original was banished. Written solely by creative leads Mark Frost and David Lynch, and directed from start to end by David Lynch, the whole prospect gave the series creators far more control than they ever had (or could have dreamed of receiving) during the show’s original run. Early on in the production process there was a risk that Lynch would walk away due to not being given the budget to tell the story he wanted; Showtime buckled, gave him a free hand, and later took pride in promising viewers the “pure heroin David Lynch”. That in itself is testimony of how the original Twin Peaks changed the television landscape. The major question was whether the magic of the original could be recaptured.

I’m not going to get into a spoilerful analysis in this review (and will thank commenters for using spoiler tags liberally in the comments), but in short: no, to a large extent they didn’t recapture the old formula. They did not try to, and in retrospect they would have been fools to attempt it; in the past quarter of a century what was fresh and different about so much of Twin Peaks has become part of the standard toolkit of serial television. That “pure heroin David Lynch” line is apt, because more or less the only aspect of Twin Peaks that hasn’t been successfully imitated is the distinctive aesthetic vision and apt for utter weirdness that Lynch brings to the table. (Wild Palms largely sabotaged itself trying to go faux-Lynchian, and it generally hasn’t been a recipe for success since then either.)

It becomes apparent very early on in this third season (sometimes dubbed Twin Peaks: the Return) that Frost and Lynch know full well that their unique selling point lies in letting David be David; the big question was whether you could do that over 18 episodes of a TV series and not allow it to become frustrating and stale. Incredibly, they more or less manage it, and they do it by once again refusing to be bound by the accepted wisdom of how television works.

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Kickstopper: USE CREDIT CARD with CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Point-and-click adventures of the Monkey Island variety were largely responsible for the boom of videogame-related Kickstarters, ever since Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure campaign opened the floodgates. It wasn’t long before other big names from that era like Jane Jensen used Kickstarter to finance new adventures, and inevitably sooner or later it was the turn of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, creators of the original Maniac Mansion. The game they chose to Kickstart was Thimbleweed Park.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

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“There Are Things Happening In This House…”

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Jacques Rivette was a director and film critic in the French New Wave movement whose style I would compare to a sort of cinematic equivalent of the magical realism strand in literature. You have the same combination of a real world, usually contemporary setting with hints of more unusual things going on and occasional overt lapses into supernaturalism, and a sort of enigmatic, reticent style of direction which, much like the narrative style of the magical realism authors, means that the story tends to keep its secrets close to its chest.

One factor which has made Rivette’s material hard for newcomers to appreciate is the extreme length of some of it. Whilst Rivette would make films of a more usual running time, his most famous work, Out 1, is a truly daunting prospect. There’s an abridged version entitled Out 1: Spectre, which goes at over 4 hours, but the full experience – Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is an epic of almost 13 hours long. That’s naturally a barrier both to home media release and for cinematic revivals.

However, Arrow Academy have blessed us with an expansive boxed set, encompassing both versions of Out 1 and several subsequent projects in a similar magical realist vein, allowing for perhaps the easiest entry point to this difficult body of work ever offered to the public. Though they were filmed after, I will tackle the subsequent movies first, before moving on to a detailed analysis of Out 1.

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