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 Heavy Pod is Heavy, 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.
Tales from the Loop
I was completely blindsided by how good this show was. To be honest, I was expecting nothing much; the show is inspired by a series of art pieces and the sci-fi short stories which accompany them. The works are good enough and so are the few stories I read; they depict that kind of dyschronous, weirdly 60’s, retrofuturism that has become all the rage in the past few years. And that’s why I wasn’t really expecting anything from the show: I worried that it was just following the viral success of the images (they were immensely popular online) and trying to make a quick buck by following up on that success with something more “prestigious”.
But having finished the season a few days ago, I have to say that this is some of the best science fiction I’ve seen in years. To be sure, the faint “when the fuck is this” that accompanies all of media lately is very much present here (hello Mark Fisher) but the writing more than makes up for it. First of all, Tales From the Loop (2020) is sad and in the best kind of way; it tells brave, human stories, about loss, and time, and family, and love and how these things are very rarely, if ever, simple and clear cut. It has guts to take the stories to their conclusion and is not afraid of loss but is also not afraid of love and happiness. The result is a story that just happens to be science fiction which often makes for the best sort of science fiction around. There’s true meat to the literature and the writing, instead of the script being there as a scaffold on to which you can tack on CGI.
Secondly, it is so incredibly Philip. K Dick, one of my all time favorite authors, inspired by his sort of aesthetic and the sort of American town he often wrote about. Maybe that explains the dyschronia, in that it tries to touch that PKD sense of technology out of time. In that sense, and also thirdly, it also puts to shame so much of the input that sci-fi has had about technology in the last few years (boo Black Mirror, boo!) Instead of “what if phones but bad”, Tales From the Loop has things to say about what technology and science do to us and for us, about the allure of the safety that they bring us while introducing danger alongside it. About the role which human emotions play in the “march of progress”, about the lives technology affects, about the possibilities it opens for us and takes away from us.
Fourth, it is really, really well acted. Everyone does a fantastic job playing roles which are not simple; everything and everyone is really understated. There are rarely any epic moments, any cries of emotion, anything easy for an actor to latch on to. Instead, there are bodily gestures, intimations, hints at emotion. The actors need to do a really good job, and they do, in showing us how characters feel and think because the writing is good and leaves a lot for the viewer to understand and relate to.
Which brings me to my last point: holy fuck, finally some small science fiction! This is maybe the number one thing that bothers me about the mainstream place in which science fiction finds itself today. All of the small stories, all of the stories of personal heartbreak, of struggle, of life, are all gone and in their place there are mostly grand gestures about the universe and “meaning”. Don’t get me wrong, science fiction can do that as well but why just that? I miss small science fiction and Tales From the Loop is small. As mentioned above, some of the stories there barely have any sci-fi at all, it’s just in the background. The stories are instead about people, about how hard it is to live, about how hard it is to remember. It still manages to be “cool”, to have interesting or weird sci-fi stuff in it, but it focuses on the stories themselves on the characters.
If you’re a fan of touching, human science fiction and interesting stories revolving around our perception of time and relationships (and, sure, some cool robots and set pieces) then you could do much worse than Tales From the Loop.
If there’s a (slim) silver lining to social distancing and self-isolation, it’s the built-in excuse to catch up on movies I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix. My friends are well aware of my “Lazy List,” being an extensive variety of movies, albums, and other media properties that I’ve been told to check out and have yet to sit down and watch, listen to, etc. It’s been nice to whittle down that list over the last couple months or so, and my favorite from the bunch has definitely been the Safdie brothers’ excellent crime thriller Good Time (2017) (I’ll get around to watching Uncut Gems soon, I promise).
The plot’s framework is actually pretty simple: Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) convinces his mentally-handicapped brother Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) to help him rob a bank. Connie promises Nick that they’ll use the $65,000 to move out of NYC and fulfill Nick’s dream of living on a farm. When their escape plan fails and the police apprehend Nick, the remainder of the film follows Connie’s journey to free his brother by whatever means necessary.
Early scenes reveal that Connie falsely believes he knows how to best care for Nick and convinces his brother to share this opinion. This serves as the basis for Connie’s character, a sociopath whose only act of selflessness is directed toward protecting his brother (which, again, is something he isn’t actually capable of doing). As the film progresses, that early realization manifests in Connie’s reckless decision-making. He reveals himself as cunning, resourceful, and temporarily successful with the various legs of his escape plan, until each idea ultimately fails and he’s forced to move onto the next problematic solution.
The Safdie brothers deserve the highest praise for the movie’s success. Beyond Benny’s excellent performance as Nick, their writing and direction help create a dark, raw view of a chaotic 24 hours in NYC. The duo make some incredibly bold decisions with the script, allowing scenes to unfold in a way that’s unsettling to the audience but perfectly aligned with how each character would be compelled to act. One scene in particular with Connie and a teenage girl he encounters named Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster) was jaw-dropping while I watched it, but felt like the natural progression of events as the narrative developed.
Speaking of Connie, I have to give an extended tip of the cap to Pattinson for his phenomenal performance as Connie. When your breakthrough role is a character in one of the most hated modern film franchises, there’s of course the risk of your career being permanently linked with that failure. For Pattinson to overcome his Twilight years and excel as more complex characters is truly commendable. As much as I hated Connie the character by the end of Good Time, I couldn’t help but admire the way Pattinson perfectly portrayed such an unlikable character.
Finally, while this column is oriented toward anything but music, I’d be remiss if I failed to highlight the excellent score composed by Daniel Lopatin (better known as Oneohtrix Point Never). For me, the perfect film score both immerses you in the narrative and removes you from it, providing the perfect sonic accompaniment for each scene with music that dazzles by its own merits. Lopatin bolsters the synthetic, surreal underbelly of the City that Never Sleeps, and each time the dialogue ceases and his music takes the forefront, I felt myself even more entranced by what might come next.
Good Time has countless scenes that will make viewers cringe or consider switching to something else, myself included. But I’m glad I stayed put and allowed the Safdie brothers to show me everything they envisioned, which manifested in a bold, dark film about a man with seemingly no boundaries testing how far he can push those around him, “loved” ones and strangers alike. If you’re like me and looking for movies to fill endless hours at home, I highly recommend you consider this as an option.
Resident Evil 3
Another fortnight, another follow-up to one of my favourite video games of recent times. Resident Evil 3(make) (2020) comes hot on the heels of last year’s Resident Evil 2 remake and, as many reviewers have noted, feels more like a glorified expansion pack for RE2 than its own, stand-alone experience. The game is a brisk affair (I managed to finish it in about five and a half hours, over about three or four sittings), but more dipping back into the RE2-style gameplay still felt great and I enjoyed every second I spent with it—except for hospital room with the two Beta Hunters in it, which can can go fuck itself. Hard.
Along with it’s shortened runtime, RE3 is a much less-demanding affair than RE2, or even any other mainline Resident Evil game; although the enemies can be tough to kill, the game is constantly throwing health and ammo at you, which, even by the series’s own generous standards felt excessive (I think I ended with about 30–40 containers of gunpowder in my item box that I never had any cause to use). Some of the enemies pack “unfair” one-hit kill-attacks although these often feel like comical surprises the first time and then never cause much of a problem again (outside of those fucking Beta Hunters!). I can see that being a let-down if you’re after a more survival-style game, but if you meet the game on its own terms, it’s a lot of fun. Having made my third attempt at playing through Resident Evil 6 (2012) in the lead up to RE3‘s release, only to abandon it out of boredom once again, really put into stark contrast just how good these remake’s are mechanically. Mowing down zombies with Carlos’s machine gun felt empowering, and actually using the magnum and grenade launcher rather than relegating them to the “too good to use” pile until the last boss was a blast as well. RE3 is a game where you take the fight to the zombie apocalypse—which feels especially empowering in the face of an actual, global pandemic—and, although regrettably slight, felt like the perfect pallet cleanser after the overbearing Doom Eternal.
Disappointingly, the game’s real weakness is the lack of implementation of the Nemesis. The technological restriction on the original Resident Evil 3: Nemesis meant that its titular stalking antagonist was relegated to a series of set-encounters, rather than actually stalking the player throughout the game as its narrative implied. The expansion of “Mr X“, who actually stalked the player throughout the entire police station in the RE2 remake, suggested the Nemesis would play a more active role in its successor. Unfortunately, the Nemesis functions much the same as in the original, with encounters all being more-or-less glorified quick-time events that often border on mere cut-scenes. What would have been really great—and what would have actually played well into the game’s action-based tone—would have been for you to clear an area out only to have to the Nemesis show up and fight you using the level as the boss-arena itself, forcing you to use your knowledge of its layout to defeat it and hoping you don’t run into any enemies you might have overlooked or been forced to run past.
As it is, the staged Nemesis boss fights are actually pretty good, and a lot more strategically engaging than Resident Evil‘s usual ethos of just “shoot it with whatever you have until it dies.” A particularly memorable moment from my playthrough was winding up against a very Host-like Nemesis evolution without my grenade launcher and having to face it Dark Souls-style by dodging underneath it and attacking it with my knife. Unfortunately, you can’t actually kill the nemesis this way (or seemingly without the grenade launcher at all). RE3 is an incredibly linear game, which doesn’t allow for much/any deviation. Having an alternate playthorugh as Carlos, rather just switching to him for specific section might have also helped pad it out a bit, rather than the tacked-on multiplayer mode. Nevertheless, it’s a fun ride, and one that I’m considering jumping back into on a higher difficulty to see if it feels better balance. It might be a good idea to wait until it comes down in price or to pick up a second-hand copy, if the shorter length puts you off. I, however, found the shorter run-time to be refreshing and wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the series. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Those that love their board games have likely heard of Scythe, a 1-5 player (up to 7 players with the “Invaders from Afar” expansion) engine builder that is set in an alternate reality early 20th century. The game caused quite a stir when it raised almost $2 million on Kickstarter in 2016 and it has gone on to spawn three expansions, a spin-off and a host of extensions. Currently ranked as the 11th best board game on boardgamegeek, if you’re a fan of strategy, engine-building, battles of wits and/or puzzles then this is the game for you. And yes, I know many of us are stuck in isolation right now and it seems like odd timing to be discussing a board game. However, there is a digital edition available on steam that’s as good a substitute for a physical game that you’re likely to find and a way to keep in touch with your gaming group(s). The bulk of this will be aimed at those who have not played Scythe before, but for those who have there will be a few words at the end devoted to how the digital edition stacks up.
Set-up: each player controls a different faction with variable player powers. While these unique abilities can aid certain game styles, they are flexible enough that you can win with any playing style/faction combination. The board is comprised of a series of hexes (“territories”), most of which represent a different resource. Each player starts along a separate edge of the board, with their starting workers and hero trapped inside a small peninsula by rivers that block passage to the large centre of the board. The early stages of the game are where these peninsulas are explored and engines are slowly built up until each player unlocks the ability to travel beyond the rivers and engage with other players throughout the map.
A four-player game in full-flight
Objective: the aim of the game is to finish with the most gold. Gold is predominantly earned by tallying the number of achievements (star), territories and resources controlled at the game’s end. The game ends as soon as a player earns their 6th star, and it’s these stars that players are striving for. There are 10 possible stars to aim for, split into roughly two halves of engine building and combat/exploration.
Mechanisms: Scythe’s heart is a euro-style action selection mechanism. Each player has an action mat divided into four parts, each with a top and a bottom action. These actions can range from moving pieces around the board, to building your engine by producing resources and building structures, or to bolstering your ‘power’ in preparation for combat. The total actions available across the entire action mat are the same for all players, but the top/bottom combinations are scrambled so that different action mats have different strengths, weaknesses and combinations. Each turn a player chooses one of the mat’s four sections and performs the top action (usually at no or low cost) and/or the bottom action (usually at medium or high cost). Without forethought a player will find themselves unable to afford the bottom action most turns. Thus, this engine-building mechanic doubles as a puzzle given it is crucial to plan your moves in advance and find the right sequence of moves that allows you to perform both the top and bottom action available to you on most turns. However, while the execution of this action-selection puzzle is great, the game’s most interesting mechanism is definitely its combat.
An example faction card and action mat
Combat: a player can take certain actions to both acquire combat cards (with a value of 2-5) and increase their ‘power’ along a scale ranging from 0-16. When players trigger combat by moving their pieces into an opposing player’s territory it triggers a wonderful mini-game that will have economists jumping for joy. In this game theory setting each player must secretly choose between 0-7 power to “spend” on combat. Additionally, for each warrior engaged in combat players can choose to play a combat card and add its value to whatever power they have chosen to spend. In the event of a tie, the attacker wins. This leads to an intriguing game of cat and mouse. If your opponent has a lot more power to spend than you do you spend nothing and let them win, conserving your power for future combat? Or do you hope that they are expecting you to do just that, and instead throw your full might at them in the hope they have only spent sparingly in the hope of a cheap victory? Thought also has to be given to future turns, because the two players engaged in fighting each other will both weaken themselves relative to the non-combatants, potentially making them vulnerable to further attacks.
Components: the component quality is really strong. Workers are solid wooden meeples, each faction bearing a unique design. The faction-specific plastic miniature mechs and heroes look fantastic and add a tremendous visual component to the game. Cards are thick and durable and all-in-all nothing looks flimsy or poorly made. The real standout though is the artwork. The artwork is incredible, so much so that I might just devote one column of A Gift to Artwork to it because Jakub Rozalski has truly outdone himself. It’s one of the game’s defining features and what helps elevate it beyond its contemporaries to stand as one of the best board games around.
Just one example of the fantastic artwork on display
Thoughts: overall Scythe is a fantastic game. While the rules are numerous and can be tricky to learn, after a couple plays the clever iconography, component design and self-reinforcing variable player powers (as they often permit a faction to do something you usually cannot do) ensure that they are easy to remember. Faction and action mat variation adds tremendous replay value, and with a playing time of 90-120 minutes it’s not overly onerous for such a cerebral offering. Having played the base game more than 20 times I am still finding myself enthralled with each play and I haven’t felt the need for an expansion to spice things up (though I got one anyway because it’s a campaign and I got over-excited). While it may seem a little laborious throughout the first half of play, around 50-65% through the game player engines reach a tipping point where a lot more becomes possible on each turn and the action escalates very quickly.
What’s also nice is that multiple viable winning strategies exist, with an isolationist engine-builder arguably just as likely to win as a conquering warlord, although for the most part there is benefit to some balance between these extremes. For example, even a devoted engine-builder must devote some time to increasing their power and acquiring combat cards, if only to discourage acts of aggression. However, having multiple paths to victory means Scythe works for all kinds of personalities – both those that love to be aggressive in their gaming and those who like to build something up in . Fittingly, the game’s title comes from the historical use of the scythe. It is predominantly a farming tool, and so so engine-building and economics constitutes a majority of the game’s play. However, it is also an weapon of war when the time comes, and engaging in (or avoiding) combat at the right time can ultimately be the difference between victory and defeat.
More amazing artwork, because why not
Digital edition: the digital edition is a very smooth digital equivalent. More than just a sandbox environment that requires a host of manual inputs, it handles much of the game’s upkeep automatically. For example, production of resources or recoupment of gold is automatically tallied and distributed as appropriate, ensuring that you can focus your energies on the game at hand rather than tallying who gets what. Everything remains just as visible as the physical version, so you can still observe the action mats available to other players and a log keeps track of who has done what on each turn. Despite this it is admittedly more difficult to keep track of other player’s actions, but having only played a couple of games thus far this may just require a bit of getting used to. Another key difference is there is an option available to instantly calculate the running score at any time, which may or may not be advantageous depending on your viewpoint (I, for one, would prefer this option disabled). Finally, it doesn’t seem as if you can ‘undo’ an action when playing online, which means you need to take more care when deciding on your top action than you usually would need to in person. Overall though the digital edition plays very well. It looks great. The soundtrack is a nice addition. It runs really smoothly and it’s a great way to keep that tabletop feeling alive in a time when physical gathering are not possible.