It’s been said that there’s more to life than music and, while we remain sceptical, we’ve decided to test the premise with our new bi-weekly Cool People Column!
Noyan and Eden already bring you great pop culture recommendations and discussions each week on the Heavy Blog podcast, but why should they get to have all the fun? (Just because they essentially maintain and run the blog itself? I think not!) Now it’s the rest of the staff’s turn to share all the cool things from beyond the world of music that have been tickling their fancy over the last fortnight; everything from books to films, TV shows, video games and beyond!
We also want to know what all you cool people out there have been getting up to as well, so make sure to let us know in the comments.
The Gone Away World (2008)
by Nick Harkaway
Writing a story about pirates, ninjas, and the end of the world seems like something that could only be successfully done in the 90’s, when the Internet was fresh and naive and that kind of randomness was considered the height of humor. But Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World was published in 2008 and successfully manages to navigate all those tropes and then some. At its core, The Gone Away World tells a story of friendship, love, memory, and childhood. But, taking a page out of great British authors like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, Harkaway is not afraid to ramble and explore little side-streets in the story which seem unrelated but serve to enrich the setting and the story being told.
Because of this, The Gone Away World is not an easy read; “slim” or “concise” are not adjectives you’d use to describe it. But “wonderful” and “inventive” are. If you want to experience a fresh take on the end of the world, musings on why literature and the imagination matter, and just a well told tale of bravery, friendship, and ideals, then this is the book for you. It belongs on the “light” scale of science fiction (you won’t find any technical exegesis) but it drives deep into why the genre is so effective at recontextualizing and rethinking experiences we take for granted. Oh, and it’s also uproariously funny. I’m talking belly laughs and hurt lungs.
Give this one a chance. It’s safe to say you won’t find anything quite like it.
Remember the SCP Foundation? That neat internet phenomenon featuring descriptions and media surrounding supernatural, otherworldly objects and creatures? Well, it’s not often that cool little tidbits of the internet find themselves treated to a triple A video game rendition, but that’s precisely the bedrock upon which Remedy Entertainment’s Control is built. A third person shooter with a much more tangled story than it initially lets on, Control matches the paranormal aspects of the SCP Foundation with a narrative somewhat akin to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014) (specifically Authority).
Gameplay-wise, Control features an incredibly satisfying combat loop that augments standard shooter fare with wonderfully responsive telekinetic abilities. Seriously, don’t get me started on how satisfying the physics engine looks and feels (though the video below should provide some indication). But the real star of the game is the visual design; Control’s (open) world is very much alive in ways I have literally never seen before in any form of media, and how the environment shifts across the course of the game is utterly breathtaking. Remedy were kind enough to add a photo mode soon after release, and take my word for it when I say you’ll be compelled to use it more than you may have in any other game to this point. But I’ve already said enough; the less you know going in, the better, and Control remains an adventure I already wish I could forget just to truly experience all over.
Darkest Dungeon: The Crimson Court (2017)
We’re only three weeks in and 2020 is already proving to be an outstanding year for heavy music. Yet, if there’s a single piece of media that’s defined my year so far, it’s undeniably Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon (2016). I’d had my eye on it for a while but, after picking it up for the Switch late last year, the game’s weird horror aesthetic and complex combat immediately had me hooked, and I hardly put it down until I’d plumbed the depths of the Darkest Dungeon itself and faced the ancestral horrors waiting within.
For all its aesthetic appeal and engaging gameplay, however, game grew incredibly frustrating as it neared it’s climax thanks to punishing restrictions and what revealed itself to be an ultimate shallowness to what the game actually asks of the player despite the depths of its many mechanics. Darkest dungeon is essentially “grinding: the game”, and, by the time I managed to raise yet another team to level six and trounced the thematically rich yet ultimately unchallenging final boss, I felt like I was doing so out of obligation more than enjoyment. I immediately deleted the game from my console and moved on with my life, happy to put it behind me. …then I found out that you could actually get the game’s DLCs on the Switch, which I immediately purchased and reinstalled the game, which has proceeded to take over my life once again.
While The Color of Madness is essentially a bonus horde mode, The Crimson Court is a campaign expansion, which refines and (ahem) expands upon some of the more interesting gameplay elements, barely glimpsed at in the original game. Chief among its refinement’s is the added exploration, with the quests introducing an ongoing “epic” mode, which sees multiple party’s hunting down blood-worshiping, mosquito-infected aristocrats across the estate’s courtyard. The new enemy designs, along with those of the new Flagellant class and nemesis-like Fanatic boss, which stalks infected party members across different areas are great and add much needed depth to what had become a regrettably stale experience.
Unfortunately, a lot of the game’s same problems not only remain but are accentuated. While the added “infection” status is narratively interesting, managing it still feels like busy work and — like almost all of Darkest Dungeon‘s overwhelming array of status effects — most of its effects and implications can simply be ignored. What is infuriating, and arguably unforgivable, however, is the need to possess an “invitation” in order to be able to continue the crimson court quests. Enemies carrying invitations appear randomly across the game’s other areas, which means that, in order to continue playing the parts of the game I enjoy, I have to keep playing through a bunch of now meaningless missions, with any new resources gained made long ago redundant, as well as raising new combinations of characters to the right level.
The Crimson Court would have been a great accompaniment to play alongside the original game. Coming to it after finishing the campaign, however, is utterly infuriating. Darkest Dungeon remains an outstanding game that’s still fun to play while listening to a podcast or audiobook or whatever. I just wish it wasn’t so bent on preventing me from actually playing it.
Russian Doll (2019)
I’ve always fund it difficult to find TV series that feel worth the journey. When I’m scrolling through Netflix, I’m much more inclined to try out a 1.5-2 hour movie than start a ~10 episode series requiring a much more significant amount of my time. To complicate thing, I can be a bit overly selective with the types of shows I like to watch. Perhaps the best way to summarize it is a desire to watch something truly unique; a series that might draw influences from a variety of different sources but ultimately avoids feeling derivative. Of course, all the classic elements of plot, characters, acting, and os on are crucial as well. But if I’m going to spend hours watching a story develop, I want to feel like I’m experiencing something I can’t get anywhere else.
More so than any series I’ve watched in some time, Russian Doll checks every box on my TV scorecard. I’ve now watched it twice through and feel tempted to start a third binge this week. IT certainly helps that the debut season is comprised of just eight half-hour episodes, but the writing, acting, and overarching themes would have made a longer version of the series just as engrossing. I hesitate to reveal any specific plot points, so I’ll summarize the series this way: Russian Doll is an a contemporary, R-Rated take on the Groundhog Day formula, which retains the central musings on death and the purpose of life while adding a heightened emphasis on black comedy, horror, suspense, and mystery elements. It’s a wild ride that remains continuously suspenseful and engaging throughout, somehow finding a way to remain dark and unsettling while also being consistently funny.
The key to making all this work is an exceptional performance from Natasha Lyonne. I loved her in Orange is the New Black, but she truly takes her role as the fiery New Yorker Nadia in Russian Doll to another level entirely. Again, it’s difficult to fully encapsulate everything and avoid revealing the plot. I appreciated experiencing all the plot twists and developments organically without any spoilers, and I recommend you do the same. Lyonne leads the viewer through a whirlwind story with any equally commanding performance, and I can’t wait to see what direction they take in season two.