Aether Reviews: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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That’s right, boys and girls!  Not only does Aether play video games, not only does Aether watch movies, but Aether reads the occasional book as well!  As part of my efforts to absolutely avoid any sort of thematic consistency in my blog, I’m going to review one of them!  Because you can’t be truly popular until you’ve successfully alienated everyone who’s followed you since the beginning, right?

Self-targeted snark aside, Neil Gaiman has long been one of my favorite authors/writers.  Not because I always enjoy his works; I don’t exactly have the best track record of OMG LUVING everything he puts out.  No, it’s because I really admire his writing style.  Gaiman has a way of making his stories so simple and accessible while still maintaining a surprising amount of depth, and I always find it interesting to analyze how he works his way through the plot, even when I don’t like the work itself.  Gaiman is one of the few authors I’ve deliberately stolen elements from to try in my own writing styles, as opposed to… you know… just unconsciously stealing from.  So I imagine it’d be no surprise that I’ve picked up his newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

This is a book that’s really hard to classify.  It’s definitely an adult title, but it reads like a children’s book.  The protagonist is seven years old and the narrative uses simplified language to match that, and the book itself is a really quick read, much like a young adult title.  However, the story deals with very mature concepts, such as child abuse, suicide, and imprisonment, and is definitely too dark for most well-adjusted children.  On it’s surface, the book is a fairly standard contemporary fantasy, yet it adds a lot of supernatural horror elements to the story as it goes on.   Of course, it’s not like the classification really matters, so long as you know what you’re getting yourself into.  This is a story that blends together several genres and sections, and finds a way to make them work so well that you won’t even notice the seams until you try to blog about them later.

The story feels almost folklorish in it’s execution.  Spellcheck says that folklorish isn’t a word, but I don’t care.  It mixes the mythological with the mundane fairly evenly, and its magic would not feel out of place in those night-time stories your grandmother used to tell you.  The viewpoint character is the seven year old nameless protagonist, who lives in the English countryside in the mid-1900s.  When his family’s tenant dies, the protagonist (you know what?  Let’s just call him Steve.) finds himself briefly in the care of the Hempstock family, three generations of women who live down the lane and seem to know just a little too much about what’s going on.  As it turns out, the tenant’s death, suicide over money troubles, has brought an unseen entity closer to the material world who seeks to sale that community’s money problems in the worst ways possible.  We’re talking choking people with money, assaulting children with coins, that sort of thing.  After some misadventures in the Other World with Lettie, the youngest member of the Hempstock family who seems to take a liking to Steve, that supernatural entity focuses its attention on Steve personally and starts ripping his life apart.  Steve flees to the Hempstocks for help, and it’s up to them to remove that entity from this world.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels a lot like Gaiman’s earlier work, American Gods, and has a lot of similar elements.  Both have first-person protagonists who are essentially pawns in supernatural conflicts much greater than them, both have magical elements that are internally consistent without ever being properly explained, and both have plots that expect you to keep up on your own volition without really helping you along the way.  Thing is, I didn’t much like American Gods, where I actually enjoyed this book.  I think it’s an issue of scope.  American Gods was a grand conflict spanning across the nation with a wide variety of characters involved and working against each other, whereas Ocean is a story set in one small community with just a handful of major characters, and it works a lot better.  Both books don’t hold your hand to help you understand the forces being presented to you, but in American Gods every unexplained thing just compounds on one another, whereas in this book there’s not as much to be worried about so it’s much easier to keep up.   It feels natural for Steve in Ocean to be naive and uninformed about the world around him, because a) he’s only seven and b) this was a relatively small event, taking place over a short amount of time and only involving a few people, so he didn’t really have time to get acclimated to it.

This was a fun read.  The book doesn’t overstay its welcome, is deep enough to provoke a bit of thought, and develops a fairly interesting world.  Those going into it expecting a large fantasy epic or big grand conflicts aren’t going to find what they’re looking for, but for the rest of us, this tale of a young child being terrorized by otherworldy forces and finding help from a friendly magic family should definitely entertain.

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Making the Most of Game Overs

The good old game over screen.  It’s been around since God looked upon the world, saw that there was too much human suffering, and balanced things out by giving us video games.  It’s been falling out of use in recent years, although it’s not hard to see why.  After all, for most games, a game over is just as much a failure state for the game itself as it is for the player.  A good game wants to push the player to their limits, to drag them to the border of death, but not go over.  If the player loses and has to start over, that kills all the tension the gameplay’s built up and replaces any emotional heights previously achieved with base frustration.  So of course games are going to want to skip over these, to get the player back into the game as much as possible.

Not all games have held that mentality, however.  Just like everything else, in the right hands, game over screens can be a tool to further what a developers trying to accomplish with their games.  Here’s a couple instances in which I think they’ve been done particularly well.

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Stuck in the Gamer Closet

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The Penny Arcade Report had an article that caught my eye recently.  Well, it’s less of a real article and more of just them reporting on what their readers tell them, but hey, they’re trying.  Anyways, the feature, covering the stigma behind being known as a gamer in the workplace, drew my attention because it’s something I can specifically relate to.  As you may be able to guess from reading this blog, I really enjoy my video games.  If you’ve made your way to this post, I’m guessing you do too.  So I’m sure both you and I know well the dirty looks and awkward conversations one can get once it’s known that they know their way around the control.  Well, I know from experience that stigma only gets worse in the white color workplace, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to make my own history with the subject known.

My workplace gives me free reign on a lot of things.  I’m a male, yet I have the longest hair in the office.  I usually show up with earrings in and my shirts unbuttoned enough to show off a fair bit of chest.  I generally work with metal music playing on my office computer.  I am constantly distracting my coworkers with my incredible good looks.  What I’m trying to say here is that my workplace is far from strict about almost any aspect of my behavior.  In fact, they’ve occasionally encouraged my dress and actions, in situations where it’s helpful to emphasize my youth and “hipness”, as they put it.  One thing they won’t tolerate, however, is me being open about playing video games.

It wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time, I was 17 years old, and just starting with the organization.  Back then, I was really only interested in two things, girls and video games, and in spite of what television would have you believe, talking about women gets boring really quickly.  So I mostly chatted with my fellows about video games.  Eventually though, I graduated college, most people wrongly assumed I had matured, and I was promoted to a managerial role withing the organization.  I quickly learned then to just shut up about video games.  Nobody’s ever gone the lengths discussed in the Penny Arcade Report Feature; I was never bullied or given extra work because of my hobby.  But it was made very clear to me that I have to keep it to myself.  Don’t talk about it at the office, don’t have my name connected with anything online about video games, basically keep my hobby out of sight of any of our clients or anyone involved in our organization.

The need for that is pretty apparent to me.  Many times, I’ve had some of our more talkative clients assume that because I’m a professional, that means I don’t have any fun, and regale me with tales of how video games are corrupting our youth and are turning Obama into the antichrist or something like that.  I don’t know how many people believe that, but the perception is there, including among the people I need to be catering to.  Even among those that don’t think that video games are literally spawned from Hell, gaming is still seen as very unprofessional.  At best, it’s seen as just a waste of time, and at worst, video games are still little toys for stupid babies who still need their diapers.  And yes, even with those who are not actively against video games, that perception is still rampant.

The only other medium that seems to get this treatment is comics.  I can talk about whatever movies I want freely.  I’m a very well known fan in the office of fantasy and sci-fi literature, and nobody’s had a problem with that.  Yet video games and comics are supposed to be beneath me.

Part of it is that perceptions of video games have not caught up with reality.  Video games can handle some very advanced subject matter, can spawn some serious thought, and have been studied more and more over the years.  Yet they’re still viewed as immature diversions by the general public.  Another part is that our community, well, the most visible of us are not always doing the best things.  There are those who think that the people who respond to any criticism of games with rape/death threats truly represent all of us.  And I’m sure there are a lot more factors going into this perception, some of which are in our control, many of which aren’t.  But the fact remains that’s it’s hard to be an open gamer in general society, and even harder to do so in a supposedly professional workplace.

LIS-TEN-TO-ME! Aether Plays Recettear, Part 2

After a first day of business in which we were wildly successful at realizing just how unprepared we were and the only thing we sold was the one thing I had in this world to make me happy, Recette attempted to salve my pain by telling me a story. Normally, I like my stories to involve at least four or five explosions, some well-writtne drama, or to mention how good I look several times. This isn’t that type of story, but it’s important nonetheless. This is the tale of how Recette started her business. Now, people start businesses for a lot of reasons. Some do it seeking great fortunes. Others do it out of a drive to gain more control over their lives and lifestyles. Still others start businesses in order to attempt to create something of greater impact and permanence within their communities. Recette doesn’t have any of those reasons. Instead, hers is a cause of desperation.

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