The New Ghost Stories: Dear Esther and Gone Home

While there are arguments over whether these two titles are indeed games, Gone Home and Dear Esther are stunning works that the gaming world should proudly claim.

Unfortunately for the reviewer, the less said about Gone Home, the better. It is best to approach the game with no more knowledge than this: you play as Kaitlin Greenbrier, a young woman coming home from a year abroad in 1995. The gameplay is based around you exploring the house and examining objects. Anything further risks spoilers.

At its core, Gone Home is a ghost story. The eeriness of the empty house, the sounds of its settling, and the storm rumbling outside place the player firmly in horror territory, expecting danger (such as a home invader, Jack Torrance’d father, etc.) Gone Home toys with these genre expectations. In my playthrough, I turned on every light in that house, with a similar feeling of dread to the one that usually accompanies Silent Hill 2. Only twice does the game step fully over into horror territory: once, in the sole jumpscare, which is either evidence of an actual haunting in the house or a reminder that the player needs to worry about a ghost (or simply a coincidence, but not really. The instance is effective, if it shows the authorial rigging.) The second instance is much better executed. It is the one room in the house that cannot be illuminated and the only one I refused to explore, for that reason. See how well the game primes one’s senses? At its best, it uses the physical space to tell the story.

Mystery pulls the player through Gone Home and the Greenbrier house. There are questions from the beginning of where everyone is. Early details help us jump to conclusions, most of them horrible, since the game has primed us for such. As the player moves on, learning more about the Greenbrier family, a few tracks emerge. Primarily, Gone Home is the beautiful coming-of-age story of Sam, Kaitlin’s sister. A voiceover performance by Sarah Grayson lends a tenderness that I’ve seldom felt in a game. In addition, the player’s exploration–investigating rooms, reading notes and letters, listening to mixtapes–further fleshes out Sam’s story.

The Greenbrier mother and father, Jan and Terry, also have their tracks too. I found Terry’s interesting because his takes perhaps the most work to sort out. His track rewards in-depth thinking because more of his clues come not from his own letters, but from the objects that make up his life and from the house itself. In his case, Gone Home succeeds the most at its own conceit.

So that’s it: exploration. It’s all one does in both Gone Home and Dear Esther, and this seeming simplicity is the basis of the argument denying them as games. Yet both of these brilliant games hinge on interpretation as a feature of gameplay. Up until the final moments of Gone Home, nagging questions remain, forcing the player to assemble the fragments of the Greenbrier’s lives into a cohesive interpretation or narrative. This happens against the backdrop of horror tropes that never really shift us into horror, tropes that in fact distract us from the empathy it draws out from us.

Dear Esther functions according to the same mechanic: the player is limited to exploration and interpretation. But what a world in which to be so limited! The Hebrides island on which the game takes place is breathtaking, glorious. Part of the game’s power is that its environment, due to the simple gameplay, does not need platforming architecture, shiny items, or the linearity that limits other games. It looks like the real world.

Whereas Gone Home‘s interpretive playground closes once the game is finished, Dear Esther sets out to haunt a player long afterward. One way it does this is by adding a few magical realism-ish elements to its gorgeous environment: chemical formulas, Fibonacci spirals, circuit diagrams, campsites, standing stones, and flickering candles appear in odd places, painted all over the landscape as though a mad hermit scribbled them in search of a master theory. Thus even the setting tries to interpret. On a practical level, such things raise questions about who actually inhabits the island, and the voiceover segments point to a few possible suspects. On a deeper level, it reveals the island as a spiritual space or headspace more than a realistic place–and what better attitude can a game have about itself?

Dear Esthers narrative has several moving parts that shift on each playthrough. Foremost are the voiceover segments, triggered at various points just like the ones in Gone Home. However, while Sam is telling a linear, cohesive narrative, the narrator of Dear Esther shifts between stories about himself, a tragic car crash, and previous residents on the island. In some cases we aren’t sure which story he’s talking about at the time. It takes a good deal of interpretive work to piece things together. The assembled whole we make, diving as it does into Biblical myth, personal and local history, and grief, can be deep indeed.

The skillful move that Dear Esther makes here is that only some of the total available voiceover segments will play in a given playthrough. Also, the order is partially random. The effect is like putting several novels under a book guillotine and reading whatever pieces you happen to grab off the floor. Different playthroughs vary in tone and meaning.

Another randomized element of Dear Esther is a good example of its approach to narrative. At several points in the game (particularly an easy-to-miss one on a beach), ghosts appear, vanishing upon closer inspection. But according to the Dear Esther wiki, there are several ghosts: a man, a woman (who may be Esther), a cowled figure (who may be a monk who lived on the island), or a figure with a disfigured skull (who may be Death, a personification of the island’s curse, who knows.) Only one ghost will appear on a given playthrough. If the woman appears, we might say it’s Esther, comforting the narrator who may be her widow. If the monk appears, then the island’s former inhabitants are somehow guiding the player, for better or worse. It means, at least, that we’re not alone. The disfigured ghost is a threatening presence, darkening the tone of the story if for no other reason than he doesn’t fit neatly anywhere.

These elements make Dear Esther a game of interpretation without a clear end, a contemplative journey through a space designed to drive us into places deeper than games normally go. Gone Home, although more linear, uses similar mechanics to bring the player into empathy with Sam and the rest of the Greenbrier family.  What I admire about these games is that they take interpretation seriously. They go beyond a game simply “having a good story;” they use gameplay in a way that itself searches out the story. 

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Review of Larry Brown’s Father and Son

Larry Brown, Father and Son. Chapel Hill: Algonquin. 360 pages. There’s a Kindle version but the cover art of the print book is too well-done to do without.

I came to Larry Brown via Susan Ketchin’s wonderful anthology, The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. Brown’s addition was the most visceral in the collection, with an horror-freakshow quality that dared a reader to pursue the author further. In addition to the danger of damnation, the possibility that salvation might be something wholly more dreadful loomed as large as it ever did in O’Connor.

That damnation and salvation hits the main character of Father and Son, Glen Davis, with exceptional force. Glen gets out of prison in the novel’s opening chapters, carrying grudges that scorch his heart. He returns to a town that whispers about him, a sheriff that antagonizes him, a home full of dark memories, a beloved he will not give himself to, and a child he cannot stand to look at. Each of these characters get their turn in the narrative, fleshing out Glen’s past, including the dark history among them. The deft way Brown handles the exposition of small-town secrets is one of the novel’s strengths. When Sheriff Blanchard discusses something with Jewel, Glen’s lover, we do not get details or some reveal but the honest, gut-wrenching weight of those revelations on the characters. It’s bewildering, forcing us to meet these people and not simply anticipate their stories.

Before we get to any of those stories, however, the opening chapters of the novel strike like the lightning that barely misses Sheriff Blanchard later in the novel. The first fifty pages are jaw-droppingly well structured; they plunge us without warning into Glen’s violent, rage-filled world. Brown is one of those writers I don’t quite feel I can trust, like McCarthy; what I mean is that any awful thing can (and probably will) happen at any time. After his initial burst, Glen smolders through the rest of the novel, always on the verge of another explosion. What heightens the tension is a narrative irony that none of the other characters seem to know, or believe, exactly what he is capable of.

Here, then, is the novel’s engagement with the grand theme of evil at humanity’s heart. It is a theme that police procedurals, historical-reimagining films, and bloody, dirty video games have fairly oversaturated, insisting on more grit, more realism, until the viewer might as well be shaking the killer by the shoulders, demanding to know why he did it. Perhaps the question was more stirring in 1996, when Father and Son hit bookstores. Although the narrative gives very credible (if predictable) reasons for Glen’s rage, I found myself not asking why he did the things he did–but how did the people around him live with it? Is Glen’s father simply blind to what his son has become? Why didn’t Jewel start out buying a gun (or at least adopting a big dog?) Currently, the debate around mass shootings echoes this conflict: how do we live knowing that evil lives there in town with us, is intimately connected to us? More guns, perhaps, along with attendant vigilance? Or is it just as evil to let evil change the normal pace and shape of life?

Or the deepest, hardest question, which O’Connor knew well and Brown may have his doubts about: if violent evil comes from pain, can we heal it and how?

As for Glen, the spirit of O’Connor’s Misfit hangs over his damnation and salvation, in more ways than one. The reader is left hoping for authorial mercy both for and from Glen, hanging in masterfully crafted tension until the final chapter.

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Review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

And now my first book review–on one of the most complex, ambitious, and celebrated novels of the last thirty years.

Robbie Baden, and MFA colleague/ fellow typewriter enthusiast, brilliantly described a few of our comps novels–Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow, for example–as “shaggy beasts;” massive, imperfect, and glorious. Infinite Jest sets out to be a shaggy beast indeed. Characters flash in one short section only to return a few hundred pages later. Overarching political intrigue, developed to an encyclopedic degree, threaten the whole host of characters. Not to mention ubiquitous technology which, while its presence is not as deftly handled as the political situation, forms an almost-familiar environment around the characters.

Yet in the vastness of the narrative, most characters wind up in one of two camps: the addicts of the Ennett House, and the tennis prodigies of Enfield Tennis Academy. ETA has a half-metaphorical layout, its own quite capable trickster in Michael Pemulis, games of microcosmic apocalypse, and several hundred “Notes & Errata” worth of very specific narcotics. Ennett House is closer to a realist portrayal, but fogged by a intensely compassionate ethos.

That ethos colors all of the Jest’s plotlines. It’s one of the many places where Wallace plays his hand–not that I would begrudge him for it. The narration itself hints at the author. Our narrator is first person from Hal Incandenza at times, but mostly tells the story from a very strong third-person omniscient voice, ala Pynchon. It also has a dogged empathy. Perhaps the whole thing is from Hal–an interesting reading to play with. Or are we joining the author on a 1,200 page journey toward compassion, attempting to see these characters in all their humanity no matter how horribly they act?

Before I go further on that journey, there’s the matter of addiction. Drugs and alcohol saturate the novel. Half of the plot revolves around a set of characters hitting rock bottom and (only) some of them recovering. But chemical addictions are only the plainest symptoms of a deeper disease. Escape from the self, here, is concurrently the most desperate goal of an individual and his or her greatest danger. The samizdat, a film lethal in its captivating entertainment, is only one of many such threats. In a hilarious footnote, we learn the extent of things which might become a dependent’s crutch:

” . . . yoga, reading, politics, gum-chewing, crossword puzzles, solitaire, romantic intrigue, charity work, political activism, N.R.A. membership, music, art, cleaning, plastic surgery, cartridge-viewing even at normal distances, the loyalty of a fine dog, religious zeal, relentless helpfulness, relentless others-folks’-moral-inventory-taking, the development of hard-line schools of 12-Step thought, ad darn near infinitum, including 12-Step fellowships themselves . . . ”

Perhaps we could solve this problem by doing nothing at all so we become addicted to nothing–but independence is a drug itself. Here is the paradox that Don Gately contemplates, which drives Herr Schtitt to appeal to the greater good, and which nearly crushes Hal. 

Back to the journey; how does the novel set out to navigate these paradoxes? My friend Robbie says this about compassion in the Jest:

“In the end, I distrust the compassion in this book. There is a fascination with banality and deformity, whether moral, physical, or spiritual, and there is a constant move toward finding compassion for these despicable people . . . again and again the book becomes an obsessed exercise with despicabilizing a character or her action (or her appearance) then exhibiting compassion *only at that moment.* Compassion otherwise is hard to come by.”

Some parts of the novel do more explicit empathizing. The arc of Don Gately carries us from addiction and violence to a sort of virtue. ETA does not get much compassion–its denizens lack it and the narrator seems to take up their hard-heartedness even as he shows us the many reasons those young tennis stars have for armoring themselves. But is the project flawed? “Despicabilizing” does happen, and does begin to show its authorial rigging after a while. In places, Gately’s awful backstory begins to sound like the hustler listing off the problems in his life; that is, past ready compassion territory and into suspicion.

Of course it’s flawed; Infinite Jest a shaggy beast, slouching toward a grand, encyclopedic testament of the human drive for escape, novelty, and finally hard-won deliverance.

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Large Novel of the Year (LNY) for 2013: Infinite Jest

As part of my good friend Zach Mueller’s #EspressYaShelf group, I am reading David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. I tend to be a slow reader, so it is like some sort of literary pilgrimage for me to get through something with 600+ pages (previous LNY’s have been Don Quixote, Gravity’s Rainbow, Moby Dick, Ulysses, and, my original back in high school, The Stand.

I have heard it said by at least one person that he does not respect anyone’s brain who has not read the Jest. That man respects about 38% of my brain right now.

The novel’s world is massive and detailed, yet the focus is mainly on small players unconnected (except by mysterious means) to the larger political and cultural conflicts. Wallace’s InterLace is enough like the current Internet to be evocative, yet it is alien too in a weird sort of ’90’s nostalgic way. The credibility of all the varied topics in the novel, from tennis to recovery programs to film, is staggering. 

But what I respect most so far is the genuine compassion for these characters. Someone has said that the novel is a primarily empathetic art form. Another said that, despite the hell she put them through, Flannery O’Connor really loved all her characters. Having read Wallace, and McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, I don’t think I can believe that about O’Connor anymore. It’s one thing to wreak judgment on defenseless characters, forcing them into one’s ideas of right and wrong. Another thing entirely is to lock a reader into empathy with characters who, if we met them in real life, we might well hate them.

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“The Horses out Back” up in Real South

I am very proud to have my story up in the very fine, very cool Real South. You may never look at Coleridge, Old Crow, or cows the same way again.

I hope you will subscribe, but in the meantime the editors have kindly provided my story by itself. Suitable for readers, tablets, and framing:

The Horses out Back

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What I’ve Been Reading: A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole

At a lovely AWP session on blogging as a writer, the panelists’s advice was to pick two or three topics one cared about and write posts on them. This task has been difficult for me because I care about things like climate change, LGBTQ rights, church politics relating to LGBTQ folks, not treating the poor like garbage, Tolkien, archery, and the South not making itself more stupid than it already has been. So, either nerd things or things that make my eye twitch. Splitting the difference, here’s the first of an ongoing set of novel reviews.

I’ve been to New Orleans, but I was like twelve, and twelve is a really weird age to go to New Orleans.

I’m sure when I return, I will see Nola differently having explored it at the side of Ignatius J. Riley, the anti-hero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. If we divide up Southern Lit, we might wind up with Appalachian work (Lee Smith, Fred Chappell), deep South work (Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor; the majority), and New Orleans work, in which Toole has a well-deserved place. Dunces glitters with rich dialogue. Its humor never lets up in the short game or over the longer episodes, as poor slob Riley repeatedly fails at mostly everything.

And slob he is. I was thankful that literature can only go so far to conjure an accurate image of a person in my mind. Physical disgustingness aside, Riley is a Miniver Cheevy sort, wishing that he lived in the Middle Ages rather than debauched, uncentered modernity (Like me in high school). One of the things I love about the novel as a genre is its capacity for empathy; the only way one can avoid relating to a protagonist is to throw the book down. In a picaresque novel, where just about everyone is disgusting somehow, and with an anti-hero who fulfills none of those nice humanity-restoring roles we look for, empathy becomes difficult. Or at least, different. I wound up rooting for the trickster, Burma Jones, and feeling terribly sorry for poor Mrs. Riley.

The oaf Ignatius does get his redemption, in a way. After a climax in which he saves the day by simply being himself, there’s a nice chapter not unlike the final episode of Seinfeld as Riley’s bumbling into things somehow makes everything turn out okay. In the denoument, significantly, Riley’s final transformation is connected to gratitude, which he feels in the novel’s closing pages.

Perhaps I’m judging the novel harshly. It really is hilarious, and pokes plenty of fun at 1960’s culture. I have no doubt that it presents New Orleans of that era as well as Twain represented the Mississippi river’s towns in Huckleberry Finn, carrying on that proud tradition of showing the world back exactly, only through a funhouse mirror.

The presentation of gay characters like Dorian Greene threw me off, however. They are presented with promiscuity and foppishness, and they all cross-dress–I’m not sure how close those two things were in the Venn diagram of the ’60’s. Maybe more than I think.  Probably that was how the LGBTQ population were portrayed in culture back then, but in today’s light, it looks terribly stereotypical. But so is everyone in the book. Can you do that?

I hoped Myrna Minkoff, our zealous protester of everything, might be more progressive, but she had that awful “cure the gay away” bug too.

Better book title, for readers with two or more degrees: “Don’t Be this Guy.”

 

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“The Last Thing to Go” appearing in The Drum Lit Mag

Another of the stories from my collection appeared last week in The Drum Literary Magazine!  I love getting to read my work, and The Drum has an excellent setup to get it out there to readers (listeners?)  

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