I'm not a particularly voracious reader of fiction. Most of my reading is in the form of books and magazines about science or history. But I do try to squeeze in a novel here and there -- usually something from the canon of classics. I never write about them on this blog because I doubt I have anything of value to say about them. Besides, being predominantly a video game writer means that I lack the vocabulary for expressing critical opinions of non-interactive media. I struggle to get by with the reviews of movies and TV shows that I write.

However, I read a rather unique novel over the summer that I do feel I can discuss. In large part, my willingness to talk about this particular novel comes from the fact that this particular novel actually has an interactive element to it that makes some of my video game criticism lingua more applicable. The novel in question is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published by Pantheon Books in 2000.

I was introduced to this book by a YouTube video from Noah Caldwell-Gervais about the 2019 Blair Witch game on the XBox. Towards the end of the video, he talks about the conclusion of the Blair Witch game, which involves surreal, looping hallways. He goes on to talk about the recent fad of looping hallways, which has been seen in games ranging from Blair Witch to Layers of Fear to P.T.. He then talks about a novel which may have served as an inspiration for these games, and which attempts to simulate the feeling of being lost in a corridor (and the ensuing madness that it brings on) through the structure and organization of the text itself. This piqued my interest, and I promptly hopped onto Amazon and ordered a copy of the book. I was going to have a lot of downtime during the stay-at-home lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and needed something to help kill the time.

I was inspired to read House of Leaves after watching Noah Caldwell-Gervais' critique of Blair Witch.

Indeed, I ended up enjoying House of Leaves, which has become a sort of paradigm shift for me in terms of how the written word can engage the reader. For me, House of Leaves is a watershed work of literature, in much the same way that Demon's Souls was a watershed video game. House of Leaves is my first encounter with true "ergodic text" (unless you want to count the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I read as a child) and has redefined (for me) how a textual work (such as a book) can go about engaging its audience, and how it can tell a story in a more interactive manner than other peers in the respective media.

It's impossible to discuss this book and its merits without going into spoiler territory. As such, there will be some minor or moderate spoilers in this review. I'll try to keep them as light as possible, but consider yourself warned.

Lost in the pages

House of Leaves employs several framing devices to tell multiple narratives simultaneously. At the center is a documentary movie, called The Navidson Record about a family (named the Navidsons) exploring a supernatural house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and which regularly changes its interior size and geometry in increasingly impossible ways. This movie is being reviewed and researched by a third party named Zampanò, who is writing a book about the documentary in the hopes of determining if the documentary depicts a real supernatural phenomena, or if it is the work of Hollywood trickery. Zampanò dies while working on this book, and his research is recovered by a third party named Johnny Truant, who attempts to piece together Zampanò's research and finish his work. Both Zampanò and Johnny become increasingly obsessed with The Navidson Record, and eventually go mad.

To further obfuscate the work, the introduction establishes that the original version of the work was a series of scattered pages, photographs, video clips, and audio recordings that were passed around on paper, VHS, and cassette tapes before being posted piecemeal to internet message boards in the mid-to-late 90's. The scattered documents were eventually collected by a book publisher and edited together into a single published work, which is implied to be the novel that you are holding in your hand.

Danielewski employs multiple framing devices to tell between 2 and 4 concurrent narratives.

Zampanò transcribed the events of the film into text, along with his own interpretations and commentary. Then Johnny reviewed Zampanò's notes, and added his own interpretations and commentary on top Zampanò's commentaries, while also maintaining a journal of his daily life (and decline in sanity).

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Earlier this week, both the Mountain West and MAC collegiate sports conferences announced that they were going to "indefinitely postpone" fall sports as a reaction to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Both said that they are planning on rescheduling games for the spring if the pandemic has subsided. The Big Ten and PAC-12 followed up a day or two later by announcing that they will also cancel their fall sports season. The remaining power five conferences are currently planning on going through with their fall schedule.

The Big Ten specifically cited concerns over a condition called Myocarditis, which is a complication of the COVID-19 disease that leads to long-term or permanent heart problems. A number of players within the Big Ten have already been diagnosed with the condition following recoveries from COVID-19, and physicians are warning that the normal fall timeline would not give those players enough time to recover from the condition (assuming that they ever recover at all).

The cancellation of Mountain West football means that my alma mater, UNLV, won't be playing this year. 2020 was looking to be an especially exciting transitional year for the team, as they would be breaking in the fancy new Allegiant Stadium which was built for the Raiders' move to Las Vegas, and they would also be introducing a high profile new head coach in Marcus Arroyo. I was definitely looking forward to not having to sit out in the hot Las Vegas sun during those August, September, and October games.

I was looking forward to seeing Marcus Arroyo as the UNLV head coach.

That being said, I was also terrified of the idea of attending a sporting event during the midst of a pandemic. With the pandemic numbers in southern Nevada being as high as they are, my dad and I would probably have been forced to stay home for at least the first few games -- probably the whole season, since it doesn't look like the pandemic situation is going to improve at all. Even though I would certainly have had to chose to stay home in order to protect myself and my family, it was a decision that I really did not want to make. In that sense, I'm kind of relieved that the Mountain West conference let me off the hook by canceling the season.

Or at least, they delayed my decision. The cancellation is actually a "postponement". The league has said that they want to play the conference games in the fall. I assume the non-conference games would likely be cancelled altogether, unless the non-conference schools also decide to reschedule. But I'm not optimistic that the pandemic will be over in the spring. Instead, I suspect that we'll likely be on the tail end of a massive uptick in cases, as the normal fall and winter cold and flu season exacerbates the COVID-19 situation.

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In the last post, I talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected me personally -- which [thankfully] was not much. This time, I want to present some of my thoughts and opinions on the response to the pandemic from a policy and societal perspective, as well as what I perceive to be the lessons that we (as a society) should have learned.

Some of the most essential workers in our economy are the ones who are paid the least. Health care workers, delivery persons, postal workers, grocery clerks, warehouse workers, restaurant workers, and so forth were the people who had to keep going to work because our economy and lifestyles would grind to a complete halt without them. The median wages among employed individuals in the United States is around $49k per year. Yet according to Salary.com, the average salary for a professional truck driver is only around $42k. Contract or gig drivers (such as Amazon couriers) make far, far less.

Restaurant and grocery store workers also make far less than delivery drivers, often earning minimum wage (or less than minimum wage if you also make tips). Those who maybe kept their jobs, but were reliant on tips were especially hurt during the lockdowns, due to a lack of business and in-person contact.

Low-paid delivery persons and fast food workers were essential,
and had to keep working while the rest of us stayed home and safe.

And then there's the healthcare workers, who were literally putting their lives on the line every day, helping to take care of sick people and possibly exposing themselves to infection on a daily basis. Registered nurses (usually employed in hospitals) make decent pay, but the majority of support staff in private clinics are not necessarily registered nurses. This includes receptionists, phlebotomist, clerical staff, and other assistants. As of 2018, medical support staff earned an average of less than $40k per year!

Remember, these are the people who, during a pandemic, were considered "essential" workers who had to keep working (while everyone else stayed home) in order to keep a bare minimum economy running, and to allow the rest of us to continue to go about our daily lives. When shit hit the fan, we didn't look to lawyers, or corporate CEOs, or hedge fund managers, or brokers, or realtors, or movie stars, or athletes. Aside from doctors, we didn't need any of the traditionally highest-paid classes of workers. We needed truck drivers, postal workers, warehouse workers, grocery clerks, and food service workers, and of course medical staff. So I hope you remember this next time you hear someone say that these workers deserve higher pay, or that minimum wage should be increased.

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As we all know, the world has been gripped by a pandemic since the winter / early spring of 2020. The high infection and mortality rates of the novel caronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, lead to a mass panic that resulted in governments all over the world completely shutting down economies and recommending social distancing measures intended to mitigate the spread of the disease long enough to get it under control. This seemed to work up through April, when declining cases and general public boredness and frustration lead to the premature re-opening of businesses, and a few weeks later we started seeing huge increases in cases. As a society, we put money before the life and dignity of people, and tens of thousands of people have unnecessarily died because people couldn't wait three more weeks before going to the hair solon or the beach.

I wanted to write about the pandemic back during the height of the lockdown in April, but I kept putting it off until it seemed like a resolution was in sight. I didn't want to publish my thoughts on the issue until I actually knew how it would all turn out, and whether or not I would be personally affected by it. But now it appears that we are nowhere near the end of this pandemic, and the general public and our political leaders have seemingly lost all will to take any meaningful steps to deal with it. I guess now is as good a time as any to start talking about it.

The Las Vegas Strip was shut down for over a month. Shortly after it re-opened, casino workers started getting sick.

I want to talk about the broader socio-political impacts of the pandemic, but I want to take more time to get my thoughts together and do the proper research to make sure I get the facts right. So I'll be writing later about the lessons that I think society (American society more specifically) should have learned from this pandemic (but apparently didn't). First, I'm going to write about the impacts that the pandemic had on me, personally -- which (admittedly) isn't particularly dramatic.

We had a couple of minor scares, but they all turned out to be false alarms. Early in the pandemic, a friend had cold or flu-like symptoms within a day of us having her husband over. Turned out, she just had tonsillitis. Though a regular cold seems to have gone around their house a couple times over the months of the pandemic. We had another friend who works in a local supermarket and had a co-worker test positive for COVID. Her and her roommates all had tests and all came back negative, thankfully. I also had a couple work colleagues who had direct business contacts who got sick and tested positive, though none of my colleagues ever showed symptoms. As I said, multiple close calls.

Commuting from the Bedroom to the Living Room

Unlike many people who were furloughed or laid off, I was fortunate enough to keep my job and be able to work from home during the lockdowns. We were scheduled to re-open the office in mid-July, but the resurgence in local cases prompted our boss to keep everyone working from home indefinitely until new cases drop again. It was a good call.

Many of my friends and family weren't as lucky. I had several friends get furloughed, and most of them ended up being permanently laid off. My mom was also furloughed, and she does not expect to go back to work. Well, I guess she gets an early retirement. My sister also works in a health clinic, so was an essential worker who was potentially at high risk. Her clinic shortened its hours and only takes patients by appointment, so it wasn't nearly as stressful or dangerous as it could have been if she had been working at a hospital, but she still had a very rough few months.

Thankfully, I had my partner and proxy-daughter to keep me company while locked down in work-from-home mode. As for my partner, she's a teacher and was doing the whole tele-education thing over Google classroom, phone calls, and emails for the few weeks that were left in the school year. Then she got the summer off anyway, so she was even less impacted than I was. She was going to have paid vacation for the whole summer anyway. As for what's going to happen when the 2020 school year starts ... that's still up in the air as of the time of this publication. Our local school district has a plan for re-opening, but it's not ideal. I don't think any plan would be ideal in this situation. It's just all different degrees of bad.

Public schools are the last thing we should be re-opening during a pandemic.
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Civilization: Beyond Earth

I started writing this post months ago (back in 2015, I think) - long before I had any inkling of the impending release of Civilization VI. This post may be entirely moot now that Civ VI has been announced, and it seems unlikely to me that Beyond Earth will see further expansions. However, I still want to present these ideas, so I've re-written this post to be less speculative and more retrospective. Even if these ideas aren't fated to be implemented for Beyond Earth, it's still an opportunity to look at a way in which the game could have differentiated itself from Civ V, and they could serve as a template for future Civ titles (maybe even Beyond Earth 2) or for modders. Maybe I'll even mod it in myself if I get time and motivation.

Civilization: Beyond Earth really struggled to separate itself from Civ V. The expansion, Rising Tide takes steps to address this with some of its new gameplay mechanics and revised diplomatic engine. Sadly, these efforts don't really address one of the underlying, fundamental, disconnects that the game has with me:

"One of the things that bothered me about Beyond Earth was the way that the victory conditions create an unnecessary competition between the different civs. Aren't we all just colonists from the same earth who are supposed to be trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past? Aren't we trying to preserve the human race? Without the various civs starting the game with any sort of pre-established ideology or agendas, there's no reason for them to be competing with one another. Without a genuine shared victory, there's also no systems in place to share your colonial success with your fellow colonies. The net effect is that once you've defeated the challenge of taming the planet and [one way or another] eliminating the aliens as a threat to your expansion, then the rest of the game is a competition between civs to be the first to reach any of the [mechanically satisfying and varied, yet intellectually vapid] victory conditions."
   - from my Rising Tide review
Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - attacking cities
Heck, why are we competing to begin with?

Despite being mechanically different from Civ V's victory conditions, Beyond Earth still fell into the trap of being fundamentally, unnecessarily tribalistic and competitive. I don't know if this is supposed to be some kind of sad, fatalist message that Firaxis is writing into Beyond Earth: that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't Fallout. I hope that Firaxis' designers aren't that cynical, and that it was an unintentional emergent consequence of design.

This may seem like a small, trivial, superficial issue, but it's not. Regular Civilization is easy to buy into because it's based [loosely] on established history and uses real-world characters and states that most people are already familiar with. Buying into the theme of Beyond Earth is just so much harder because there's so much of the game that just doesn't make sense, or which doesn't really follow from the opening cinematic or the game's flavor text. This is why Alpha Centauri went to such great pains to personlize the leaders, and to turn them into charicatures of established real-world ideologies and standard sci-fi tropes. These are factions with established goals and agendas that we can understand, and we can buy into their conflicts. Beyond Earth doesn't have that, and so not only do its leaders fall flat as characters unto their own, but the entire basis upon which the game's core conflicts and victory conditions are based start to fall apart as well.

In any case, I think that one of the best ways that Beyond Earth could have truly separated itself from Civ V (mechanically and thematically) would have been to change the competitive nature of the victories and introduce truly cooperative victories, or maybe even a "players versus map" victory type. And I want to emphasize from the start that I haven't put nearly as much time into Beyond Earth as I have into Civ V. I'm by no means an "expert" in the game. So feel free to take the following suggestions with a grain of salt. I admit that these ideas simply might not work, but I still think that it's worthwhile to explore the possibility space that this game could have offered...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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