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October 2013

New JJ Abrams, Doug Dorst Book Inspired by Dennis Wheatley

S page

Acclaimed television and film director JJ Abrams' latest project is a distinctly analog book called "S." written by Doug Dorst.  The book is built on a mythic turn of the century novel "The Ship of Theseus" by a mysterious VM Straka.  More importantly, the book, which is made to look like an old library volume, includes margin comments from two college students, old letters, post cards, photographs, newspaper clippings and other assorted items that provide the reader with all the clues necessary to unravel a larger mystery.  Sound familiar?  

In an LA Times story, Abrams acknowledged his childhood fascination with the crime dossiers of bestelling English author Dennis Wheatley:

He hit upon the idea of “S.” after discovering a novel that had been left behind by another traveler, and he drew inspiration from the murder mysteries of British author Dennis Wheatley, who included dossiers of evidence in his books.

“There was one I remember called ‘Who Killed Robert Prentice?’” Abrams said. “It had a torn-up photograph in these little wax paper envelopes. As a child, I remember seeing those. That always stayed with me, that idea of getting a book, a packet, that was not just like any other book.”

"S" Looks like a fascinating old-school approach to meta-level fiction and the production appears to be top notch.  Here's a video from Mullholland Books that shows more details:

There's also an electronic version of "S." available for iPad. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the print version is the way to go. 

Update: I've added a few more links to related reviews and articles. 

Papers, Please!

  Papers Please screenshot

Papers, Please is a brilliant retro-style simulation of working as a border control agent in the mythical cold war soviet republic of Arstotzka.  I say simulation, because it is definitely more that than game.  Some of what "Papers, Please" simulates is the pure drudgery of having a job where all day long you verify passports photos and entry cards, check for expired dates and generally make sure people are who they say they are.  If you do all that you'll earn a few ruples per day and maybe prevent your family from starving, shivvering or dieing.  But you'll have to be pretty sharp about it.  

Clearly, author Lukas Pope has put a lot of thought into creating a balance between tension and tedium in this simulation.  People's lives hang in the balance and there's a growing background story of corruption and underground scheming.  But I think there is perhaps a bit too much drudgery and it would be nice if there was somehow a way to put a bit more gamesmanship into it, or at least a few concessions to enabling the player to feel more of the tension.  A better soundtrack could help convey the need for speed, the tension of incorrect decisions, etc.  As an illustration, I can still recall the sad sack theme in SimCity when I was making bad decisions.  That helped set a mood that was quite important to conveying how you were doing over and above any of the regular stats.

Maybe I'm just not that good as a border control agent, but I could not seem to keep my job long enough to get to the heart of the story underlying the simulation.  There's some kind of shady underground organization and I had a couple of interactions in that area, but if it means starting all over again to replay the same scenarios just to try to make slightly better decisions, that's a lot to ask. 

If Lukas Pope considers an iPad version or an update, I hope he'll also think about other ways to better surface the story elements, have more random replay or otherwise consider the option of an "easy" mode.  "Papers, Please" has the potential to be as engaging as the original versions of SimCity, but for now it falls shy of that mark.  

Nonetheless, for a mere $10, "Papers, Please" is still worthwhile, and I hope this will encourage more experimentation around the fringes of gaming.  The artwork is a beautiful homage to classic '80s VGA style games with their weird washed out palate and chunky graphics, the theme song is fantastic and the game exudes indie charm.  "Papers, Please" is available for Mac and Windows directly from the publisher, on and via Steam.  

Glory to Arstotzka!


Who Killed John F. Kennedy?


Ever thought about a mashup of Chose Your Own Adventures and Despair Inc's Demotivator posters?  Me neither.  But luckily Justin Sewell, head honcho over at Despair has done just that.  In fact, he's gone one better and tackled one of the greatest conspiracies in modern history with "Who Killed John F. Kennedy?"  It's a modern day parody of those childhood CYOA books complete with feather-haired precocious crime-solving teenagers.  But rather than play it for laughs, Sewell is using his keen wit to question the entire JFK conspiracy and it's theorists.  

In some sense Sewell's book is more like a short-hand version of Oliver Stone's "JFK" film, which was itself largely based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs.  If that's tough to follow, then you ain't seen nothing yet.  "Who Killed John F. Kennedy?" will have you jumping between conspiracy theories faster than attendees at an X-Files Lone Gunmen reunion.  Luckily Sewell includes several pages of endnotes which provide details on many of the most glaring aspects of the JFK investigation.  I got the feel the endnotes could have easily been another twenty pages longer had the project gone on much longer.  Sewell has obviously researched the topic thoroughly, perhaps even obsessively.  And given the number of choices that you can make in the book, you'll find yourself captivated for hours as you go down the rabbit hole of grand conspiracy theories.  Sewell doesn't take things too seriously though (Sgt Fanucci anyone?) and some of the theories go beyond over-the-top, if that's possible, involving the CIA, the mob and, of course, Area 51.  

It's a great concept and the retro design style transforms it into a work of art, especially with the larger format "Deluxe-Sized" edition.  For anyone interested in CYOA, conspiracy theories or pushing the boundaries of art and literature "Who Killed John F. Kennedy?" is worth taking a serious look at.  

For those who question whether someone who writes the sarcastic "Demotivator" posters can really step up to a more serious level of work, consider Art Spiegelman's genesis from "Wacky Packages" to "Maus."  It's an apt comparison.  

Note that Despair will also be launching a Kickstarter campaign in September November for the second volume in their "Lose Your Own Adventure" Series called "The Glass Ceiling."