Reading list update, October 2021 – Aviation memoirs

As promised, I have added an aviation section to the recommended reading list. It includes four memoirs about civil aviation: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Ernst Gann’s Fate is the Hunter, and Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage. It also includes one memoir of the US space program, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire.

I read most of these books over the last 12-18 months (the exception being Skyfaring, which I read several years ago). Together, they tell a wide range of stories, from Markham’s childhood in colonial Kenya to Collins’ experience with the Apollo program, and cover a period from the early 20th century to the last decade. Enjoy!

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Meeting the Queen Chum in Sable

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Sable

In most games, a giant alien queen living in an abandoned building would spell trouble. Not in Sable, where there is nothing menacing about the Chum queen: a large, luminous pink creature with two large eyes, two winglike antennae, no visible mouth, and the manner of a gracious fairy godmother.

Nice to see you too!

Bring the queen Chum eggs, so her brood can grow up at home, and she will improve Sable’s stamina. The eggs themselves are Sable’s equivalent to Breath of the Wild’s korok seeds — collectible items scattered around the world to reward exploration, often on rooftops and ledges. When I see one, I pick it up; by now I’ve upgraded stamina twice.

For me, the queen’s real importance is thematic. She’s another example of the game’s worldview — this is a world where exploring a curious-looking building can reveal a giant, friendly, telepathic alien; where that alien wants nothing more sinister than to look after her species’ young; and where kindness is met with gratitude. As with last year’s A Short Hike, it’s nice to play a positive game!

Aw, that’s great to hear!

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Clippings: Old World coming to Steam, and more

I thought I’d give a “where are they now?” update on two games I wrote about earlier this year, Highfleet and Humankind. Both are on hold, for slightly different reasons:

  • I made good progress in Highfleet and defeated all five of the enemy’s mobile strike groups, only to bog down afterwards — the game’s map is big, and clearing out the remaining garrisons, juggling logistics, and fighting my way towards the capital turned into a slog. I still think it’s a great example of what indie games can do in terms of originality, atmosphere, and challenge, and I would like to finish it one day. Here is a good interview with the developer, who highlights how important the interface is to the game’s atmosphere.
  • After winning Humankind on my third try, I put it down, well pleased — by then, the developers had already patched the bugs I encountered at launch. The next patch is due on 28 October — that may be a good time to jump back in.

In other game news, Hooded Horse Games recently announced it will publish Soren Johnson’s Old World. The game, currently an Epic exclusive, will come to Steam and GoG in mid-2022, together with an expansion.

In the meantime, Soren’s blog hosts some fascinating designer notes about the game. Here is the latest entry, about how the design team approached victory conditions, which doubles as an interesting discussion of the broader genre.

In site news, I have drafted most of the next update for the Recommended Reading list, which will cover aviation memoirs. Stay tuned.

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A theory of fantasy

Great fantasy gets its power from one of two sources: myth, history, or both. By this, I mean drawing on themes such as the rise and fall of empires, the struggles of individuals against fate and the gods, and the way in which cultures are shaped and formed by the interactions of different peoples — not copying the originals 1:1. The author’s imagination is either a third ingredient in its own right, or the next step in the process that transforms mythical and historical inspirations into a finished product.

My favourite works of fantasy, across different media, exemplify this. To pick a few examples:

  • Lord of the Rings combines myth, history, and in some ways, a very modern take on its subject. Its themes include temptation, sacrifice, the triumph of the meek — it’s notable that the heroes are the hobbits, Frodo and Sam, not Aragorn or Gandalf — and the fading of an enchanted world. The world itself changes, as peoples migrate and kingdoms rise and fall. At the same time, it’s also about the pity of war, the inevitability of change, and in Frodo’s case, the difficulty of returning home afterwards.
  • His Dark Materials is about a revolt against the heavens, while also drawing on the author’s imagination to create a wondrous world where a person’s soul takes animal form; talking, armoured bears rule the north; and balloonists ply the skies.
  • Princess Mononoke is about a conflict between peoples with very different worldviews and agendas, each protecting their own home. It’s also a story about human ingenuity pitted against the awesome powers of nature and the gods.
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a stand-out for how well it blends myth and history. Its premise is out of myth: protecting a boy who houses a spirit that can save the land from drought. Its details are grounded in history: the land has a dynamic past and is populated by multiple ethnic groups, with distinct material cultures, belief systems (from village shamans to court astrologers), and traditions. The characters live in a waterwheel-powered mill and pay at the market with strings of cash. Everything feels well-thought out.

The converse of my theory is that I can’t stand generic fantasy settings that take themselves seriously. By ignoring the original foundations of myth and history, and aping bestselling modern works instead, they become devoid of awe, wonder, and originality.

A final, rather meta implication is that, just as fantasy settings often posit a world that declined from a golden age, so I tend to prefer older works and, in some cases, authors who wrote before the modern emergence of fantasy as a commercial genre:

  • Out of my favourite fantasy authors, the most modern is Daniel Abraham, whose Long Price Quartet dates to the 2000s.
  • Going back a generation or two are Terry Pratchett (my favourite Discworld novels were published between the 1980s and early 2000s), Lois McMaster Bujold (active from the 1980s; The Curse of Chalion, my pick for her best fantasy, was published in 2001), and CJ Cherryh (who published the books I have in mind in the 1970s-1980s).
  • Before that are Roger Zelazny (1960s onward, with the Chronicles of Amber, my favourite, published in the 1970s), of course Tolkien (1930s-1950s), and perhaps Dunsany (1900s) or Kipling (the 1890s, if you consider the Jungle Book fantasy).

Now, I am not saying that fantasy creators cannot be inspired by, or conduct a dialogue with, others. Discworld started as a parody, His Dark Materials was written as a rancorous response to Narnia, Cherryh’s Morgaine books bear the influence of earlier authors such as Moorcock, and Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series (written after the Long Price Quartet) both plays with and subverts the genre. The point is that these works had something interesting to say.

And that’s the value that myth and history bring to fantasy fiction — they make it interesting. They offer primal, powerful themes; conflict to drive the characters; and verisimilitude — the sense of an immersive and convincing world. I don’t think the genre would exist without these wellsprings, and to this day, they enrich works of fantasy.

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Game Pass impressions, one year on

After nearly 12 months subscribing to Microsoft’s Game Pass PC program, I wanted to share my experiences.

Overall, subscribing was an excellent decision. I’ve benefited in three ways:

Saving money on titles I would have bought otherwise: notably Microsoft Flight Simulator and Humankind.

Discovering titles I wouldn’t have tried otherwise: mostly indies, with the standout being the brilliant and imaginative Subnautica. Others have included Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, Carto and River City Girls.

Removing the risk from the “maybes”: such as Bloodstained (my first Metroidvania) and the remaster of Final Fantasy XII (a game I originally played on the PS2). Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Sable might also belong here.

The service is better for some types of games than others. Besides Microsoft first-party games, there are plenty of indies. Third-party publishers can be hit or miss — the most prominent is EA, but I had already bought Star Wars: Squadrons on Steam by the time it came to Game Pass. The main one for me has been SEGA (Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Humankind).

Similarly, niche genres such as strategy seem less well represented, with the main exceptions being Microsoft (Age of Empires), SEGA (Humankind and the other Amplitude games), and Paradox. Most of my strategy collection is likely to stay on Steam and, for older titles, GoG. Conversely, there are plenty of indie card games — Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and more I haven’t played, such as Monster Train. Prospective subscribers may wish to browse the catalogue first.

With that proviso in mind, I think Game Pass makes sense for most PC gamers. With its breadth of games, it represents both a way to save money and a tasting plate to try new things — I plan to keep subscribing for the foreseeable future.

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Sable early impressions: a journey of discovery

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Sable

I’m already enchanted by Sable, a newly released open-world exploration game whose young protagonist leaves home to embark on her tribe’s rite of passage. Three things have stood out:

How pleasant and relaxing it is — There are no enemies, no combat, no violence, and no ways to die or be hurt. Other characters are kind and encouraging, the music is peaceful and mellow, and the mood is positive: Sable is out to discover her world just as much as the player is. It’s the perfect game with which to relax in the evenings.

Sable’s opening area, a land of mesas and rock formations.

Its debt to Breath of the Wild — which is very clear in how Sable traverses the world. Link’s glider has become a magical bubble that Sable uses to float to the ground, and the horse has become a bike, but they control the same way. There’s even a button to summon the bike, much like whistling for a horse in Breath of the Wild. And I love both games’ shared emphasis on exploration.

It looks good!Sable’s art style is beautiful and — amongst games — unique. The world is bright and colourful in the daytime, with the colours falling away at night.  It looks even better in motion, as clouds drift past, little puffs of smoke come out of the hand-me-down tutorial bike, and light plays off Sable’s bubble.

Admiring the view. I mistook the tower ahead for a quest location – the real one was much bigger.

So far I’m still early on — Sable has set off on her journey, I’ve found the first settlement after the opening area, and received a batch of quests. Where will the journey lead next?

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