4 stars
A beautifully told short story in game form

As usual, I’m late to the party. Gone Home caused quite a stir when it came out in 2013. Many critics and players loved it; some angry gamers hated it, some of that hatred helped fuel the misogyny horror show known as Gamergate. Today, Gone Home is available for Windows, Linux, Mac, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, iOS, and your toaster. It remains a polarizing game, and it’s not hard to see why. You can finish the game in 2-3 hours; it features no conventional “puzzles” or action, and one of its central themes is a lesbian coming-out story.

Gone Home is a first-person exploratory game. It’s the mid-90s, you’re 21-year-old Katie Greenbriar, home from your big European adventure, only to find that your parents and sister are not there. What happened? While a storm rages outside, you walk from room to room of the “psycho house” your family moved into, trying to find clues to their disappearance. The home is littered with paper—handwritten notes, letters, photographs, receipts, books, post-its, and so on. Some notes lead to audio logs that add to the evolving story.


To find out what happened to your sister, you may have to figure out a way into her personal locker. (Credit: Fullbright. Fair use.)

Unlike a point-and-click adventure, where almost every item you encounter has some role to play, here you can interact with countless objects—pens, glasses, knick knacks, etc.—but most of them have no relevance to the plot. You have to sort through the messy home, and the house has a few secrets of its own.

There’s remarkable attention to detail, especially in the riot grrrl aesthetic of your sister’s belongings. In addition to zines and posters, you can even pick up and play cassettes with music featuring bands like Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy.

Gaming is now a bigger tent than it ever was, and just as writing has room for short stories, gaming has room for experiences like this, where your own interpretation of the story takes precedence over puzzles or action.

My biggest criticism is that the sheer abundance of paper clues made the game a bit less atmospheric, more like an artificial world that an author has littered with stuff I’m supposed to find. Someone needs to teach the Greenbriars about recycling.

The game makes up for flaws like this with a layered story that is moving and well-told. If you’re not looking for a 20 hour diversion or a 200 hour addiction, and if exploring a story on your own terms sounds appealing, then I recommend giving Gone Home a spin. I wouldn’t have bought it at the sales price of $15, but at a discounted $6 price on GOG, it was well worth the money.


5 stars
Stories worth holding your breath for

Ted Chiang’s stories are meticulously crafted thought experiments. Many of them are science fiction; “Story of Your Life“, first published in 1998, became the basis of the 2016 blockbuster movie Arrival. Others defy classification. The 2001 story “Hell Is the Absence of God” imagines a world in which God, angels, heaven and hell are real—and angelic visitations are more like natural disasters, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Exhalation is the second collection of Chiang stories. It contains nine stories, two of which have never been published before. My favorite one is “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” (the title references an observation by existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard).

The premise is that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. Through laptop-like consumer devices, anyone can create branch universes and communicate with their duplicates—their “paraselves”—in those universes, for a limited time.

The devices are called Prisms, which stands for “Plaga interworld signaling mechanism”. Why “Plaga”? That’s never explained, but some googling reveals a 1995 pre-print by Rainer Plaga titled “Proposal for an experimental test of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics”; the mechanism described in Chiang’s story matches the description in Plaga’s paper. This gives you an idea of the attention to detail in Chiang’s work.

From this premise, Chiang explores how the knowledge of an infinite number of universes—and the ability to speak with the inhabitants of some of them—would impact crime, grief, love, and loss. Through his characters’ experiences, Chiang makes us imagine that we might live in just such a world one day, while conveying a powerful moral lesson for the one we do live in today.

Other ideas Chiang explores in Exhalation include:

  • What would a world look like in which, instead of discovering ever more irrefutable evidence for the evolution of life on an Earth that’s billions of years old, scientists had discovered irrefutable evidence of a single creation event thousands of years ago? What would the relationship between science and religion be in such a world, and what would shake its faith?

  • What if we could keep life-long recordings of everything we see, hear and say, and search those recordings through the power of thought alone? How would this technologically mediated perfect memory impact our behavior, our relationships, our sense of self?

  • What if raising a healthy, capable artificial intelligence was just as time-consuming and difficult as raising a healthy, capable human child? How would such AI children be treated in a world that regards them as “software objects”?

I found “The Great Silence” (originally written to accompany an art exhibit) and “What’s Expected of Us” (inspired by the neuroscience of free will) to be the least captivating, but both are quite brief, and they are still fine stories. The best stories in Exhalation are so good that the entire volume deserves five stars. It’s been 17 years since Chiang’s first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was published, but it was worth the wait.


4 stars
A liberal's lament for humanity

In Nutshell, Ian McEwan constructed a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn protagonist. The narrator of Machines Like Me, McEwan’s latest novel, is not a fetus, but he still somehow comes across as a less developed human being.

Charlie Friend is an aimless drifter who, after many failed schemes, makes just enough to get by through stock market trades. After stumbling upon an inheritance, Friend decides to purchase one of the first androids with human-like intelligence. Of course, this machine being is called Adam.

The book is set in an alternative version of the 1980s in which the technological visions of tomorrow are the reality of yesterday. There’s no subtlety when Friend explains: “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.“

The compounding differences between this timeline and ours create a path of breadcrumbs through the narrative: America never dropped the nuclear bombs; Alan Turning never committed suicide; JFK was never assassinated, and so on.

The main story revolves around the relationship between Charlie, Adam, and their (mutual) love interest, Charlie’s neighbor Miranda. What could have been a simple love triangle gets a lot more complicated as a secret from Miranda’s past is gradually revealed, and the ethics of both human and AI are put to the test.

Reactions to the book have been mixed. Negative reviews describe McEwan’s alternative history as a gimmick to bring Alan Turing into the narrative. My own impression is that in his later works (inculding Nutshell and The Children Act), McEwan is feeling an increasingly urgent need to voice his political views, and that every part of Machines Like Me serves this larger political purpose

In Nutshell, I found the politics jarring, with the author’s own voice coming through too clearly in the unborn narrator’s observations. In Machines Like Me, the story itself is the instrument of political expression.

In McEwan’s alternative timeline, Britain experiences Brexit-like political polarization and confusion in the 1980s, triggered by an alternative outcome to the Falklands War, and by the unavoidable job losses that come with AI-driven automation. The tribulations of the human protagonists mirror this setting of humanity’s tribalism laid bare. When its political argument turns toward futility, Machines Like Me becomes a lament for humanity.

The Verdict

McEwan is a master storyteller, but while sci-fi is certainly new territory for him, many other talented writers have visited these lands before. In an interview with The Guardian, McEwan gave a save a somewhat disdainful description of sci-fi (“traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots”), and promised a more nuanced take on the “human dilemmas” that sentient AI would bring with it.

In truth, Machines Like Me is not a groundbreaking book by any stretch. It’s an aging liberal’s personal reflection on the future of the world around him, cast into a re-imagined past. I also found it to be an engaging story, not as powerful as the author’s masterpiece (Atonement), but certainly entertaining and thought-provoking.

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