Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 - Games I Struggled With

I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here.

Here are games that I struggled with. They weren't bad, but also the experience of playing them was frustrating in a manner that I did not find useful.

Paradise Killer (2020)


I love vaporwave and I love the world building. I did not love the total lack of a map which had me looking up how to enter several key locations or the fact that the soundtrack - which I started off loving - wore a hole in my brain. I mostly liked the investigations, but upon reading some walkthroughs after I finished, discovered I missed a whole plot thread because I missed a pile of dirt. That about sums up my problem with the genre as a whole; you can have tightly scripted interactions with no deviance ensuring I never miss anything even as I am force-fed a plot with deductions I may not have reached myself, or reached hours ago, or you can have freedom to miss large chunks of the plot. Basically this game was super cool and stylish, marred by minor-to-moderate mechanical mishaps.

After I finished, the essay Lady Love Dies can not save you resonated very deeply with me, especially after my experience as a juror (my experience as a juror came before I played Paradise Killer, for what it's worth)

Umurangi Generation (2021)


i really appreciated the visual aesthetic and the soundtrack, i really appreciated the slow burn of the story that gets told. i really appreciated that this is first and foremost a game about photography, about lining up a great photo.

i did not appreciate the controls, i did not appreciate the opaque and difficult to locate objectives, i did not appreciate the time pressure, and let's be honest even though i'm the biggest doomer of them all, i'm gonna go ahead and say: the game did not speak to me (except for the very last line of the game) nearly as strongly as it did some other people about being a member of "the last generation". i spent more time hunting down "the word boomer" or "a kiwi" than i did soaking in the message. It was good theming. It was a good plot. But my way of interacting with it meant I had a much more visceral reaction to the objective to take a picture of characters wearing masks and the billboards warning people to stay home due to parasitic infections. I don't think that's really a failure of the game - I do think it's legitimately got that stuff in its pocket - but I think the experience of playing the game mostly moves all of the textual stuff to the category of sideshow. 

of course, after writing all of this, i finally got around to reading Kaile's excellent pieces on this game and I discovered that once again, i'm unintentionally falling into the role of "some reviewers" who didn't find the game hitting like they expected. I think part of this is that I am, in fact, engaging with a game in a very specific environment: heavy time pressure (i get about 1 hour of quality time with a game a night, and if I don't like something I end up disengaging rather quickly), heavy peer pressure (it was the knowledge that Kaile had published a 3 part essay that made me want to finally get around to playing this game), and the overall media context that surrounds games which do something different. What I mean by the media context is: the overwhelming context of videogames tends to be "New Halo, new Battlefield, New Call of Duty, New Nintendo release". As a rejection of that suffocating sameness, there's a circle of folks who try to shine a spotlight on stuff like Umurangi Generation, the dev's "first real game". Therefore the lens a lot of people come to this game is through "new game with an original outlook". In contrast, the default lens of videogame culture is "shiny AAA move fast no friction". It's not necessarily that one is right and the other is wrong, they're just different frames to look at when you're playing a game. Sometimes I feel like kind of a simpleton because I do actually like move fast no friction. I think that good design is neat and fun (while acknowledging it can also be a tool used to paper over abuse or waste, or be used to gatekeep people who don't have access to the training or resources to invest in design and polish). I don't want to diminish people who value unique games because I think unique games are incredibly important and I also want to see unique games succeed! I just sometimes personally don't connect to something unique, feel bad about not connecting to it, and then feel defensive about how I personally didn't connect. 

That said, an anecdote:

the dlc is unlocked after you finish the game, but the first level is two weeks before the events of the main game. In this flashback DLC, the first level is a club full of partygoers and TVs with false bravado about how great everything is and nothing can possibly go wrong in two weeks time. One objective requires you to go up to the entrance of the club - under a sign that says "LOCKDOWN ENDS IN 7 HOURS" - where the door jitters open and shut, to indicate it's not in fact the level boundary it appears to be. Once you go through the door, you exit the club. The doors shut behind you. The omnipresent soundtrack drops out and for the first time in the game you have silence. The crusty punks who have been present in the main line of the game are once again here, in contrast to the the well-dressed members of the nightclub. The silence is cut by announcements - "LOCKDOWN IS IN EFFECT. EVERYONE IS REQUIRED TO SEEK SHELTER". A tent sits in the corner of the alley. As I reentered the club, I noticed the bouncer at the foot of the entry stairs. He wasn't there to keep *me* from the comfortable shelter of the nightclub. 

That scene from the DLC rung a lot more true for me than many of the other scenes from the main game. The eerieness of the music cutting out, the severity of the first fully-voiced announcement in the whole game, the sudden contrast between the poverty outside and the wealth inside the club, it all combined to push me to look hard at what the nightclub really represented. I did not get the same experience from exploring the UN Wall or on a train ride home (especially when I was busy clipping through the tracks, slipping off the walls, and clipping through the map). 

Kid A Mnesia Exhibition (2021) 


i mean you're not gonna get me to sit down to pyramid song and have me say I had a bad time, but... i'm just not really sure what's in it unless you are a mega die-hard fan. there's some new intros and outros in the songs. there's some neat poster art.

there's like some degree of interplay between your movement and the music, but i honestly expected more from radiohead? I imagine them as very cutting edge and while this wasn't like a straightforward a-to-b experience - there is nice vibes in the art, there's some legitimately interesting stuff in the geometry and design - it was pretty much "Stand here, hear a song, or maybe just the drum track of a song". And again: it's a great album! just the drum track isolated is interesting and good! but god it feels like a waste of possibilities to get "stand on this poster to hear a different sound". rhythm games do more with getting you into the music and walking sims do more with getting you into the environment.

i think if you haven't listened to the album you will get the ~vibes~ from this game, but honestly just listen to the album? it stands on its own, and associating it with this weird art game will probably be kind of confusing or make you think the album is more inaccessible than it is. and if you're a huge fan of the album you will get a kick out of hearing it slightly recontextualized. but i've honestly played better album-games than this, and i'm really disappointed i have to say that

Outer Wilds (2019)


Look, it's a good setting, and it's good sci-fi, but I can't shake the feeling that I paid $25 for this game to call me an idiot over and over again. Is the time loop really necessary? Do I really need an excruciating flashback of my slow and oncoming death because the sun kidnapped my ship while I was trying to find the exact place to stand on a travelling meteor? Do I need the creeping time pressure of a collapsing planet as I try to figure out the exact non-Euclidian route I need to take to get inside a tower that maybe has the next breadcrumb that might maybe make me feel like I've made progress?

Again, the setting is good. Each planet is different. It does fun things with gravity and perspective and it's genuinely creative. I just wish I was playing a walking simulator sometimes, because I'm old, and I get frustrated when I know that jellyfish are electrically resistant and this surface is electric but I can't figure out the exact sequence of steps I need to take in order to combine those two facts before the sun explodes and I get to watch a playback of my jerk avatar failing to solve a puzzle for 15 seconds over mournful music.

My primary emotions are embarrassment, anger and exhaustion instead of wonder and awe.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

2021 - Games where I Had a Time

 I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here. 

Games I played in 2021 where I, like, got it, but also, tripped over my own feet a lot:

Night in the Woods (2017)


I loved the characters and the writing. Unfortunately the premise of “struggling at college teendult returns to economically depressed hometown and hangs out with high school friends” did too much psychic damage to me, due to Circumstances, and I will likely be unable to continue

What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)


At the end of the day I was moved, and that's more than I can say most of the time.

But there's some weird tonal stuff here. Some of the deaths are very pulpy, from the buck knocking Sam off a cliff (complete with a camera taking a timed picture of his descent!) to a guy busting out of his bunker only to immediately get run over by a train. But then there was a baby literally drowning in the bathtub????? I actually looked away from the screen for that one. So I experienced a little bit of whiplash there and I'm not sure if that was wholly intentional.

Maybe this is more about my personal feelings on, say, infant children dying unattended in the tub rather than anything strictly in the text of the game. Maybe the authors are playing with shit they don't fully understand for shock value. 

So, look. It's an experience. I would recommend this experience with some qualifiers.

Endless Space 2 (2017)


I really loved Endless Space 1 for sweeping Galactic Civilization's confusing and unnecessary clutter away. ES was a bold, beautiful, clear 4x where almost every element was clearly defined in the interface.

I don't know if, like, I changed or ES2 did. It seems to have added systems which aren't bad on their face, but are more confusing and less explained. I found myself feeling more restricted in my strategic options and listlessly clicking End Turn through the midgame waiting for a strategy to pan out.

Maybe it's the game. Maybe it's the space4x genre. Maybe it's me. I think this game is beautiful, still, even if you have to turn off a lot of the zoomy cutscenes to make it playable. But I'm more interested in what the devs are doing next than I am interested in thoroughly mining the corners of this game, for whatever reason.

Sunless Sea (2015)


Definitely nails the Fallen London vibe, sometimes to its own detriment. Creeping horror is a great vibe, but I'm tired of creeping out of port and creeping towards the far edges of a map and creeping back home. Am I tense? Yeah, totally, mission accomplished. Is that the vibe I want right now? No.

Divinity: Original Sin - Enhanced Edition (2015) 


How much jank can you tolerate in service of a genuinely goofy and self-aware RPG campaign where, let's face it, a little bit of jank is part of the appeal?

Yeah, accidentally fireballing the entire room because pigs bleed poison which combusts when hit with your flare is funny. Is it still funny when you are inching your characters through the room post-battle and they still insist on collecting every possible status ailment, and they die because the character with a poison treatment won't move into casting range automatically and there's no pause time button?

How about quests that kinda, sorta tell you where to go, but whoops, there was a translation error, and whoops, the wiki hasn't been updated in six years, and oh yeah, there was a bug for about two years where the intended way to do this quest doesn't quite work, so maybe cheese it?

How about the ever-present lack of easy healing post-battle, juggling a thousand inventory items with no functional interface to do so, slider-only entry for gold values, absolutely glacial battle animations you will see a thousand times, and a hundred other straws on the camel's back?

I'm not a stranger to jank. I like Larian's games, and I've even played some of the previous Divinity games. But the speed at which I went from "Hm, this is kinda weird but I think I can take it" to "are you FUCKING kidding me" suggests maybe I'm a little less patient these days. Or maybe the multiplayer - which seems genuinely cool and genre-defining - was too big of a bite and they didn't ever go back and polish off the smaller things. Either way, I'm sad I won't finish this but I just can't take it.

Control (2019)


There’s some cool stuff here - the architecture, the SCP lore, the story, the hilarious live-action science skits. Unfortunately it’s got to contend with a lot of cheap combat deaths, rare checkpoints, poor signposting, puzzles that drove me to guides frequently, and graphics bugs which left it looking like a PS2 game at times. Fortunately a patch added in some difficulty modifiers including a blessed Invulnerability option. Unfortunately I think the plot - which I loved! - ended very weakly, cutting away from the actual conflict resolution in favor of a voiceover summarizing what happened.

I would watch a let’s play of this game. I would play it for the maxed out Launch and Levitate abilities. The lore is fun. It’s just kind of ….suboptimal. Designed for someone who isn’t me.

I would recommend The Secret World for “urban fantasy conspiracy puzzle games which are a mechanical trash fire” and Prey for “paranormal ability immersive sim” as great partners to this game.

OMNO (2021)


You know, I think there's actually a lot of space for a really chill platformer that isn't super in your face with an overwhelming number of unlockables and enemies. I was even kind of enjoying myself. Then I got to the memory puzzles, and I said "huh", but it wasn't overwhelming. Then I got to the timed jumping puzzles and I said "You know what, this is no longer chill for me". I think the lesson here is to know your vibe and stick with it.

Loop Hero (2021)


Much like the premise of this game, I too am occasionally wiped of my memory and thrust into a formless void of endless recurrence.

However, in my unstoppable cycle, I keep buying roguelikes. Surely, this time I will accumulate the knowledge I need. Instead, my true self is revealed - actually, i'm impatient, lazy, and bad with memorizing details - and I am instantly killed, losing all progress and sent back to the beginning of my cycle. Hey, this roguelike has citybuilding elements! This time this will work for me!

Zach, my dear self, let me contribute to your metagame progress. You hate roguelikes, dude. You hate the glacial sense of progression roguelites offer, you hate the frustration of starting over with a clean state after spending hours painstakingly eking out progress, and you definitely hate the wiki-first approach needed to make any serious attempt at victory. It doesn't matter how good the roguelike is. You bounced off of Hades, my guy. It's not the play mechanics, it's not the art style, it's the difficulty and repetition!!! Break free of the samsara!!! Take the materials with you from this run and make 1/19th of the progress needed towards this permanent building awarding +1 to your next decision making roll!

(This game is a work of art and worth the money you pay for it. I just have a difficult relationship with the genre)

Cloud Gardens (2020)


i wanted a relaxing game that wasn't totally thoughtless, and this game mostly filled that need.

but: i gotta say after finishing almost the entire thing, it's a little wacky in practice. i found it hard to read the seed in my hands (especially wheat vs ferns - both are kind of tan, i guess? - or pothos vs monster - both are green???). it's hard to tell when you start a stage the exact moves you need to make to clear it, especially since your upcoming items are hidden. and more than once i got to the end of a stage, ran out of items, sighed and busted out a water cloud for a few minutes to get to 100% because the clear conditions are just not easy to figure out. i'm almost done with the game and i'm still not super confident what it takes. also the music is wholly uninspiring, i was really hoping for chill beats to etc etc etc instead of generic synths.

on the one hand, i basically finished the game, all of this stuff is mostly optional because there's an "unlock everything" button, and there's a creative mode. i didn't suffer any penalties for restarting (besides some kind of drawn out animation times for transitions and seed recharges). i honestly did make some pretty landscapes and chilled out.

on the other hand, this stuff is part of the game, and the majority of what you actually do if you don't engage with it as a pure toybox. it intruded on my chill game vibes. my recommendation is not without its criticisms

PC Building Simulator (2019)


Work simulators are still weird, but it's also weird when you accidentally fall into the rhythm of one. "Ok let me just fix one last client's computer then I'll stop playing" bro?? (I probably would have gotten deeper into this if the interface didn't demand being so tactile - simulate screwing these screws in, simulate plugging these cords in, simulate unplugging these cords - over and over. it was a familiar rhythm, but a time-consuming one that the interface seemed to delight in drawing out rather than making easy for me) 

One Step From Eden (2020)


yes mega man battle network had an extremely dope combat system. it also had a plot, and interplay between the physical world and the cyberworld, and neat little things like packing special abilities into a grid, and cameos from characters we still find reasons to care about somehow.

this is a by-the-numbers roguelike with an admittedly dope battle system that unfortunately invites comparisons to a greater game. choose your route on a map. hyper-optimize your deck. weigh every choice like it's the last one you're going to make. repeat x1000 to learn a boss pattern.

it was neat seeing some of the bosses join me after fighting them, but gosh, once again: nothing like pulling out a GUTSMAN card!

sorry bud! i was rooting for you! i just can't stand the roguelike run structure!

INFRA (2016)


god, i wish i could finish this game. it seems like the dream! an urban exploration game about crumbling infrastructure tinged with conspiracy or maybe just urban politics and threaded with some light puzzling.

well, the puzzles weren't so light. i hit the PIPE ROOM and realized that, like, .... oh. this is one of those serious Logic Puzzle games, not one of those "pull this lever, haha you did it, good job" puzzle games. which is too bad, because as we have well established in Zach Lore by now i am tired and impatient all of the time.

The Wild Eternal (2017)


oh no!!! i genuinely wish i was able to connect with this gorgeous, original, thoughtful game. but i had a moment of dread when i missed a jump and lost my compass and spent 20 minutes totally lost. then another moment when i saw a hollow log and my character said "what a good place to hide from a big animal". finally i found a tiger lurking around a corner and he chased me and it turns out this chill atmospheric exploration game is actually very difficult to navigate, very slow, and has mandatory chase sequences. i can't do it, i'm sorry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2021 - Games where I had a good time

 I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here.

Games I played in 2021 where I had a good time:

Chicory: A Colorful Tale (2021) 


The first half of the game kind of drags. Sure, it's a Zelda-like. Ok, the painting is... something. Yes, there are characters who speak in lowercase and in slang. Alright.

At some point in the last half, I started getting more comfortable with the painting tools. The story started fleshing out the characters. I started vibing. And you know what? Damn, it really works. By the time I finished, I was eagerly exploring the map for the last of the collectibles, and painting for fun, to make things look good. 

Wandersong (2018)


Ok, on the one hand, I enjoyed myself. This comes from an older cloth of "let's throw in an optional skiing game... now a pirate song... alright, time management sim!", and you get a fun variety.

On the other hand, and maybe this is my fault for playing it back to back with Chicory, there's a pretty straightforward vibe of "I want to be the hero and I'm not". And it's warm and fuzzy and not meanspirited, which through one lens is refreshing, and through another lens (having just played Chicory), is a second teaspoon of pure sugar.

the musical nature of it is very forgiving, the platforming came right up against the edge of my very low skill bar but didn't push me too hard, and that's a neat trick to achieve. the unlockable dances were hilarious. and the composed songs were great. However, the actual act of singing was.... not always the most pleasant thing to hear.

i finished this game a few days ago and I'm just reflecting on what it left me with. The answer isn't a lot, but it also isn't negative. So, you know. A number rating isn't the whole and total picture. 

Dicey Dungeons (2019)


I at least i felt like someone was having fun, even if it wasn't always me. i loved the way the very simple idea of rolling a dice gets reinterpreted by all the different abilities, from the "split this into smaller parts" to "roll this exact number" and etc. killer music, too.

i'd grind this during my commute if i still had a commute.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (2018)


It's neat having a kingdom sim running while you are out doing quests because it gives a little extra incentive. It's nice the kingdom building gives rewards to combat. But, the kingdom sim thrives on hiding information behind expensive and unbalanced upgrades. The higglies seem useless. It's hard to keep the item tiers in your head. And the plot is pretty standard (thank god for that skip button!)

I played it purely because I like the blend of kingdom sim + jRPG, and I enjoyed doing quests to recruit new people to my town. If that's not your genre jam-re, you probably won't get far.

In Other Waters (2020)


30min in I was a little bored. 45min in I was hooked. I loved the ecology aspect, which reminded me of Waking Mars. There was a decent scifi story in there as well, but mostly this is a game about exploring a cool ecosystem in a tight 3 hour package with some unique and interesting interfaces.

I will say this game did not have a text speed control option that I found and that drove me up a wall. Please always allow for instant text display.

Heaven's Vault (2019) 


An incredible setting, fun sailing, amazingly compelling translation mechanic, and mystifyingly bug-filled experience. Potentially my favorite story game I played this year. 

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (2019)


The range!!! This studio always makes games that tell wonderful, nuanced stories about existing slightly outside of systems, but also: the games are funny as hell. They are weird and delightful and silly and cutting and satirical. Also, mechanically, they are super diverse and do a great job of setting up interesting elements, making you stretch your brain a bit, and then moving on before totally exhausting you. 

And yet every time, I spend years agonizing over "am I in the right space to play this yet?" Yeah, man, they're excellent. I should be running towards their latest release, not letting them languish on a backlog.

Psychonauts 2 (2021)


Gosh, yes, this holds up. Absolutely delightful. I'm not quite sure it matches the first game in terms of sheer originality in level design, but I'm not inclined to hold that against this game. 

Blackhaven (2021)


It starts off slow but it's in service of a very cathartic ending. It beautifully illustrates a point about hidden history without being too heavy handed or even judgemental. Ok fine it's a 'walking sim' almost literally but honestly being able to read the historical documents at your own pace and doing incredibly authentic goofy guided museum tours is a good use of the medium so THERE. 

Here is the article that made me immediately download and play Blackhaven: Blackhaven Confronts the Truth Behind Historical Whitewashing

Demon's Tilt (2019)


it's pinball.

pinball with a ripping soundtrack, and a legible scoring system, and some fun ideas. it's good pinball! i liked it!

i also don't know how much time i want to invest in getting good at pinball. like, definitely some! i got a little better at nudging the table this time around!

but in general, yeah, i set my goals (finish all the rituals on each level) and didn't quite get there (That top level is hard to stay on!) but my score went up impressively. ok! see ya!

Dorfromantik (2021) 


tile laying machine goes brrrrrrrrclickclickclick PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 (This was my favorite game of the year - relaxing, engrossing, elegant.)

Donut Country (2018)


I would recommend this game to anyone. Sucking stuff into holes is just plain fun. Bumpin music and funny writing complete the package.

Crying Suns (2019)


I actually finished a roguelike because the “easy” difficulty was truly easy. And good thing, too, because even though the story starts off steeped in technobabble it quickly won me over and I was eager to see it to completion.

The combat was interesting, the factions were distinct, and the art was that chunky pixel style I love so much.

That said, the amount of content seemed low. In one run from beginning to end with no deaths (again, thanks easy mode!) I started to see repeat events. And the interface was clearly built for mobile first, to the point of excluding useful information.

Mutazione (2019)


I put off playing this game for a while because I kind of dreaded a slow and joyless ArtGame experience. Instead I got a really tight story told through the lens of a community with awesome characters who I loved, with a bonus moral of "we live alongside nature, not separate from it". It made me laugh, it made me ache (Poor Tunk, my large sad boy), it unsettled me, and it inspired me. Wow! That's a lot of stuff for a videogame to do in 5 hours!

Tacoma (2017)


A strangely straightforward story about corporate greed, which was kind of a letdown after the multilayered journey Gone Home took me on. I mean, I liked it. I found sticky notes with numbers on them and then I used those numbers to unlock doors.

Exo One (2021)


something between tiny wings and flower with a wholly extraneous and poorly bolted-on scifi story. I saw the outlines of the story from the first scratchy cutscene and every scene from there merely confirmed my first impressions without adding anything new. Fortunately, tiny wings + flower is basically a perfect combination and the levels themselves were nicely varied without being too frustrating. 

The Gunk (2021)


I had fun vacuuming up sludge and restoring the world to a vibrant state. I thought the story was fairly well told and the voice acting was excellent. I think it earned its cliches, including an elevator level fraught with emotional tension and a monochrome walking level at half speed. I loved the music and thought it looked gorgeous.

That said, it didn't really go above and beyond. I wish there was more stuff to scan or more upgrades to get. Yet it knew not to overstay its welcome, so.... Good! Fine! I'd recommend playing it as a comfort game and not expecting to have your mind blown!

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

2021 - Albums of my Year

 Here are the albums I listened to in 2021

CHVRCHES - Screen Violence (2021)

(Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

This carries a loose theme from song to song - violence, loss, grief. It's my favorite thing for an album to do. But also, each song is full. Asking for a Friend (YouTube) opens the album with a single vocal track and slowly layers up to an outright explosion halfway through the song, but continues layering in new sounds and choruses until it fades out again. He Said She Said (YouTube) picks up the next track with rich arpeggios and synths - "He said you bore me to death" - and the vocals get the layered chorus reverb as well, but those vocals are:

he said you need to be fed / but keep an eye on your waistline 

and look good / but don't be obsessed 

because even though it's a album full of gorgeous layered sounds and incredible energy, it's also a fucking angry album. Not screaming angry, but fed up and exhausted angry. I find it energetic and restorative. It's nice to hear in the Second Year Of Plague

i feel like i'm losing my mind  / over and over again


killing your idols is such a fucking chore / but we don't need them anymore 

Architects - For Those That Wish to Exist (2021)

(Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube)

Ok this one is screaming angry. Black Lung very directly asks, "What would you do to stay alive if the planet was burning"? 

Concept-album climate doomer rock. That's the pitch! 

Metal is always a hard line to walk for me. I love listening to angry music. I do not love listening to guttural screaming (and some people do!) . I like some melody and harmony present with some occasional yelling or yell-singing. I love sick guitar solos. I also love horns and shit. Dead Butterflies (YouTube)  has horns and shit! And violins! Listen, hearing CHVRCHS do reverb synths about sexism is validating in one way, and listening to guys with silly hair scream melodically about how we're all going to die to get better profits for the oil industry is validating in another way. This album has tracks called "Discourse is Dead" and "An Ordinary Extinction" and in many ways I have not changed that much since I was 16. I have big emotions and I like to experience those big emotions in music. 

Spirit Adrift - Enlightened in Eternity (2020)

(Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

This is a concept rock album about warriors who enlighten themselves through astral projection but through enlightenment are trapped in another dimension and are forever separated from those they love. It's goofy and fun and the guitar solos absolutely melt my face off. The album notes say basically "I heard Keith Richards talking about astral projection and I thought that was sick as hell so I wrote an album about it".

Halsey- If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power (2021)

(Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube)

yeh it was good. there's a moment between Bells in Santa Fe (YouTube) where Halsey is repeating  "all of this is temporary" as the synth track is repeating with increasing distortion. Until it suddenly drops out and the next song immediately starts. Truly, it was temporary. The production (Trent Reznor!) is not above a sense of humor, or at least self-awareness. 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Jury Duty: Deliberations

The evidence is prolific and becomes overwhelming when the defendant choose to take the stand and testify that he wanted to steal the car. The only question left is what we do as a jury.  

Here is what we know for sure: Defendant stole a car. There were two kids inside the car. The father dives after the car and grabs on to the door. He is dragged for a block. The driver continues driving for maybe 10 minutes and parks two miles away. He is charged with kidnapping, assault, and robbery. There is video of the defendant walking past the car, getting in the car, driving away, and the father starting to run after the car. There are photos of the father's injuries and testimony from the father of the struggle to get into the car. The teen daughter took video from inside the car. 


The jury instructions are wickedly clear. We are to consider only the law presented to us, the evidence provided to us, and almost nothing else. Not the consequences of our actions, or law outside the packet provided to us.  We are to act as purely rational beings in these considerations. And so, we dive in.  


Intent is a word I never want to hear again(“To act intentionally is to act with a purpose or goal in service of an objective”). If you steal a car, and someone grabs onto it, and you keep driving, do you intend to cause harm that person? Is your intent to get away or is your intent to cause harm? What proof do you have of that intent?  We argued about this for three hours. If a person is in the car you stole, and you didn’t notice them when you stole the car, but you noticed them later, and kept driving, is that intent to abduct the person in the car? Does it matter how fast you notice them? We argued about this for four hours.  


These are the kind of philosophical arguments I have always tried to avoid. Unfortunately, I was now surrounded by them. And the truly perverse thing is that even though I think the criminal punishment system is ineffective, I found myself making arguments anyway. I just can’t keep my mouth shut when someone says “you can drive a car with someone hanging onto it without the intent of causing them harm”. It’s an environment  of, quite literally, rules lawyering, and it turned almost all of us into rules lawyers. The packet says only consider the rules and not the consequences, and people argue the rules, and despite the consequences you can easily get caught up when someone interprets the rules wildly differently from how you did.  


 Because no one is a perfect logical machine, everyone thinks and approaches argument differently. I think there were people in that room who made emotional arguments rooted in emotion instead of based on fact, and I think that prevented us from coming to unanimous consensus. I don’t want to cast them as villains or bad or a frustrating "other" because I also think some of us were making emotional arguments that only *appeared* to be rooted in fact. And I think at the end of the day, from my experiences and what I’ve read, peoples minds don’t really change. People can be convinced of an additional detail or two that completes an argument, but if all the evidence is on the table and someone says “this is credible” and someone else says “this is not credible”, you are not going to get either one to flip sides for the most part. 


So the process and experience of being a juror sucks! You are cast into a highly specialized niche role, staffed with unspecialized people, to produce a highly volatile result, armed with a minimum of training, and a thin packet of relevant law.  


We do not return a verdict on kidnapping because the charge says kidnapping of “[baby] and [teen]”. We all agree defendant knows the teen is in the car but some have reasonable doubt he knows the baby, a 15 month old who is napping quietly, is in the car. We can not overcome the gulf between those of us who think the teen's testimony “I said there was a baby. I think I said it loud enough” overcomes reasonable doubt the defendant heard her and those who think that it does not overcome reasonable doubt.  


We return verdicts of guilty on assault and robbery after painstaking discussion on what “intent” means and how it applies. We submit our verdict and are released. We have the option to speak to the lawyers afterward but I am ready to go. I leave a note for the prosecutor with a juror who seems equally fed up with the criminal punishment system : “do you think putting a homeless schizophrenic refugee in jail prevents future car thefts? Has that worked previously?”. I don’t know how else to express my anger. This isn’t justice. It’s merely retribution.  

So, are juries good? There were 14 jurors listening to the trial, and before deliberations began, 2 were randomly eliminated to form a jury of 12. If two different people were eliminated, we would have come to a totally different conclusion. If a loudmouth criminal punishment hater like me can make it onto a jury, then jury selection is similarly random. If the 14 jurors had been selected slightly differently, there also could have been a totally different outcome. 

We were yanked from our jobs, sometimes at personal expense to us, to perform a perfunctory and ceremonial role. I don't feel good about it. I feel frustrated and angry about my experience. The next time I am selected, I probably won't make such a big performance of Accepting My Civic Duty.

Recommended reading: We Do This 'Til We Free Us

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Jury Duty: The Courtroom

 The judge wants us to say good morning cheerfully and presumably in unison. All rise for the jury. All rise for the judge. Swear (or affirm!) to tell the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There is a lot of civic religion because this is the heart of American civic religion. The belief that a jury trial is the heart of justice in America is unquestioned in many places. It is certainly unquestioned in this trial.  

When I did mock trial, every fact was a battleground, every sentence from a witness was painstakingly extracted. That was as much a fiction as Law and Order, where this is mostly…. Routine.  A common phrase is, “Would it refresh your memory to look at a report”. These events happened two years ago. I am struck by the role of police as, mostly, report filers. How will you know these events happen unless you file a report? How will you remember what happened two years ago until you consult the report? The report exists to refresh your memory in court. This works great for the police. It works less great for the victims or the defendant.  

There are struggles  in getting pictures to display and video to play on the courtroom TVs.  

A number of people are trying to get work done in the ambiguous "15 minute" breaks (sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes an hour) we are required to have. We talk a little bit about whose work is giving us paid leave and whose isn't. Those of us with nice, cushy professional tech jobs are paid. The rest of us...

The amount of work and rigor we are expected to display as jurors seems immense. And the pay is terrible: a $10 per diem. We have an option to donate to onsite child care which I take – but I'm not sure if the child care is actually open to me as a juror. Regardless, it would have been more difficult than keeping my kids in their existing, expensive, private day care. The bailiff says at least we get free sandwiches and free parking.  

The only person to look at the jury while testifying like I’ve read about in cheesy novels got called on it by the defense. “You were trained to do that, weren’t you?”  

In the elevator at the end of the day, me and 2 white women are wearing juror badges. A black woman looks at us. “Do they ever have black jurors? Because I’ve never been called”. I am so glad to be wearing a mask so she can’t see how happy I am that she has let me in on her suspicion. There is, in fact, a black juror in our case, but her suspicion also reminds me of the ridiculous "White people in Seattle can't be racist, we work for Nordstrom's and receive corporate sensitivity training!" argument I heard in voir dire. 

What’s funny is no one ever explains objections and sustained /overruled. No one explains “marked for demonstrative. Everything I know about this still comes from Law and Order!! We are told very clearly and repeatedly not to discuss the case among ourselves - that’s clear - and there are posters everywhere. Less clear is the single poster saying we should be proud to execute our civic duty.  The law is not explained to us until the absolute last minute. We are meant to be perfect blank slates. Yet we can't be, because we've all seen Law and Order. We all have some, likely mistaken, impression of what is going on around us. No one will correct our misimpressions. No one will even explain the reasoning behind the rules, the reasoning for why we can't discuss the case with other people, the reasoning why all evidence has to come from the courtroom. I personally understand the reason, but that's not a guarantee everyone else does. 

The question I come back to is, who does this serve? When the defendants grandmother is called to testify she is dismissed. She then gives a brief statement thanking us for helping her grandson. The judge dismisses her again. The prosecutor objects to her statement of thanks. She asks why. The judge dismisses her again. She doesn’t understand the rules and frankly neither do we. They aren’t explained to us or to her. We will make a ruling of guilty or not guilty but the victims are not asked. They showed up once to testify, mostly failed to identify the defendant, and disappeared. They have not said “this will help me heal”. “This will make me whole”. That's not the objective of this court. The objective of this court is to determine if a crime occurred, and then to dole out punishment. To what end? That's the unasked and unanswered question.   

The defendant testifies. He recounts his childhood trauma of seeing his father killed in front of him, in their house, by machetes, when he was five. He recounts growing up in a brutal refugee camp. A mental health expert testifies he is schizophrenic and his auditory hallucinations specifically directed him to not speak about his trauma. Yet here he is directly recounting his trauma, in a court, for strangers, to lessen a potential prison sentence.  He is homeless. He went to prison previously where his cellmate assaulted him for having nightmares and screaming in his sleep. His previous conviction was for car theft. He is currently charged with car theft. He admits to stealing the car. Clearly, sending him to prison didn't work last time. He's clearly guilty of a crime, and also, he's in front of us to be sent back to prison, with untreated PTSD and untreated schizophrenia, again.