That’s the question at the heart of the classic 1999 video game Planescape: Torment. The game follows The Nameless One who wakes up in the mortuary with no memory of his past. He soon discovers two disturbing facts: he recently died, and this is not the first time this has happened.
In many ways, Planescape was ahead of its time, offering rich characters, strange locations, and a thought-provoking story to rival the cream of today’s titles. The Nameless One is joined by a intriguing assortment of companions as the game progresses, from a cynical floating skull to a pyromaniacal mage who The Nameless One once took as an apprentice. The setting is similarly fascinating: the game takes place primarily in the city of Sigil, overseen by the ominous Lady of Pain and home to such unlikely establishments as the Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts.
But it’s the story where this game truly shines. The game focuses far more on dialogue than combat, offering a remarkable range of options when conversing with other characters. And as The Nameless One slowly uncovers the truth about his past lives, the central question weaves through the narrative, forcing the character — and the player — to explore its depths. Can the loss of memory change the nature of a man? Can pain? Can love? Or can nothing at all?
Refreshingly, Planescape poses the question without trying to give you the answer. Rather, it allows you, the player, to answer it each time you play. And it does so in a way that is guaranteed to stay with you long after the game is over.
Even if you’re not familiar with Shaun Tan’s beautifully strange artwork, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of The Lost Thing, the film adaptation of his book of the same name which won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. It’s a wistful, offbeat story about a boy who discovers a odd creature at the beach and sets about trying to find its home.
The Lost Thing is one of those works of art which feels like it sprung into existence as a complete, perfectly formed whole. Everything about it is just right, from the slowly unfolding story to the lovely animation of Shaun Tan’s art. Tim Minchin’s narration is wonderful for both its pathos and its timing, and the characterisation of the out-of-place creature itself is a joy to behold.
And there’s plenty to reward repeat viewing — signs, billboards and other background details add layers to the story, highlighting the particular obsessions of the world that the boy and the creature must navigate in their search for the creature’s home.
At only fifteen minutes long, The Lost Thing doesn’t ask for much of your time. No doubt there are many more important things we could all be paying attention to. But that’s precisely what The Lost Thing is about: the value of setting those important things aside and opening ourselves to the strange, half-hidden things all around us which are so easy to ignore.
It’s hard to know what to say about Steven Erikson’s superb ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen that hasn’t already been said. Phenomenal? Epic? Absolutely. Complex, funny, tragic, deep? Without a doubt. The greatest work of fantasy yet written? In my opinion, yes.
Perhaps I can put it best by saying that the Malazan series is the most complete work of fiction I have ever encountered. Somehow, Erikson has managed to combine an astonishing breadth of scope with a no less astonishing depth of insight and theme. His plotting is brilliant. His exploration of character is second to none, for both variety and depth. His setting is as epic as you’re ever likely to see. His prose is masterful. Erikson never pulls his punches, but neither are the books unremittingly grim. Over the course of the series, just about every facet of human existence is explored, questioned, and put into new perspective. Yet the emotional payoff at the end of each volume is always compelling and frequently devastating.
This is a series which changes its readers. Is there any higher compliment for a work of fiction than that?
And for people like me who are scratching out their own stories, the Malazan series shows just how much you can do with words. Erikson himself has deconstructed this aspect of his work in a series of essays which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in the craft of writing.
No work of fiction stands alone, of course. Without Tolkien, without others along the way, the Malazan series would never have come into being. All the same, if I was asked to name the single greatest achievement in the field of fantasy, I wouldn’t have to think about it for even a moment. The Malazan Book of the Fallen stands head and shoulders above every other work of fantasy I’ve ever read.
Braid is a two-dimensional platform game. On the surface, it looks much the same as any other platform game: you jump from here to there, avoiding creatures and collecting items, in this case puzzle pieces. But there’s one key difference between this and other games: the flow of time works differently on each level. Right at the start you find that you have the ability to rewind time, and as the game progresses you discover objects and creatures that interact with time differently, items which slow the passage of time around them, even worlds where your direction of movement determines the direction of time.
And the notion of time’s malleability is not confined to game mechanics. The game’s protagonist, Tim, is trying to atone for some unfortunate mistake involving a princess and a monster. His reflections accompany the player’s progress throughout the game, forming an intriguing, multi-layered narrative exploring the experience of life within time.
Braid is only a short game — you’ll probably finish it in less then 10 hours — but it has more depth than a lot of games many times its length. Its creator, Jonathan Blow, has some fascinating ideas about games and what they can be. His next game will be The Witness, which is due for release some time in 2016. If Braid is anything to go by, it will be well worth checking out.
In an effort to liven up the blog a little, I’m starting what I hope will become a semi-regular series about things which I think deserve a wider audience. “Things” is a deliberately vague term — many of my recommendations will no doubt come from the world of literature and entertainment, but there’s no telling what else might crop up here on occasion. Posts will probably err on the side of brevity, as this won’t be sustainable if it takes too much time away from my novel writing, but we’ll see how we go.
And so, without further ado, here’s the first Thing I Like: the Dialogue of Pessimism.
Image in public domain
The Dialogue of Pessimism is an ancient text from Babylon and Assyria consisting of a series of short exchanges between a master and a slave. In each exchange, the master proposes some course of action, to which the slave enthusiastically agrees; then the master changes his mind, and the slave finds reasons to agree just as enthusiastically with the new proposal.
There are so many levels on which to enjoy the Dialogue. Is it a critique of the capriciousness of those who possess power? A satire of the obsequiousness of human reason, ever ready to rationalise whatever decision one has already made? A commentary on the absurdity of life, a mere 3,000 years before the advent of Kierkegaard and existentialism? More than likely, it’s all of the above — and with the kind of references to then-contemporary culture (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh) that would make an Akkadian Joss Whedon proud.
Wikipedia’s page for the Dialogue suggests that it may have been intended for public performance as much as private reading. Performing the Dialogue would have created an opportunity to add yet more layers, contextualising it for a particular city or ruler or circumstance. It’s fascinating to think of an ancient audience taking in the Dialogue on a dusty Babylonian street corner, or to picture some cuneiform-scribe tapping out the words on clay tablets, perhaps at the request of his own master.
Sadly, some fragments of the Dialogue have been lost to time. But there’s still plenty to enjoy. Come for the satire, stay for the Mesopotamian wisdom — and don’t miss the slave’s cheeky closing remark to his master.