Reviews by Eloquence

3 stars
A mystery novel that doesn't take the time to find itself

Hard Case Crime books look like they must have traveled to the present day from the 1940s or 1950s. The publishing imprint founded in 2004 hearkens back to the golden age of the cheap hardboiled crime paperback novel, including a scantily clad babe on almost every cover of its catalog of over 100 titles.

The project owes much of its success to Stephen King, a longtime fan of pulp fiction. In 2005, King decided to publish The Colorado Kid under the still fledgling imprint, instantly drawing the attention of multitudes of constant readers.

As is typical for the genre (but not for the author), The Colorado Kid is a short book, coming in at just under 200 pages. It is set on a fictional island off the coast of Maine and takes place mostly in the offices of the island’s local paper.

Eliminating the impossible

Two veteran journalists, 90-year-old founder Vince Teague and 65-year-old managing editor Dave Bowie [sic], regale and put to the test their 22-year-old intern Stephanie McCann with the tale of the “kid”. The kid is in fact a 42-year-old man who was found dead on the beach decades earlier.

What first seems like a simple choking incident turns out to be a much stranger story. Simply put, the “kid” shouldn’t—couldn’t—have been there at all. Or could he? “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The story provides clues but offers no resolution. That’s the point, and The Colorado Kid is as much about trying to capture a slice of island life as it is about the mystery of the “kid”.

The Verdict

King always knows how to keep a story moving, and I found the book an easy read during a short flight. But at the end of the day, The Colorado Kid doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s not really a hardboiled crime story (not enough action), and it’s not bringing us close enough to these characters to care about them.

So far, King has published two more works under Hard Case Crime, Joyland (2013) and Later (2021). Both are much more entertaining than The Colorado Kid. Perhaps we owe much to this humble story for helping to kickstart a new era in pulp fiction—but that doesn’t mean you have to read it.

The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
4 stars
An FMV classic that never quite reaches its lofty aspirations

When CD-ROM drives became widespread in the 1990s, video game developers found themselves confronted with an abundance of storage space. An HD 3.5-inch floppy disk could hold 1.44 MB; a CD-ROM could hold a staggering 650 MB. Thus began the age of multimedia encyclopedias like Grolier and Encarta, gigantic shareware collections like the Walnut Creek CD-ROMs, and full-motion video games (FMVs).

Sierra, then one of the leading names in gaming, was never the kind of company to miss a trend. The first title in the Gabriel Knight series, Sins of the Fathers (reviews), had already demonstrated game designer Jane Jensen’s ambition to tell serious, movie-like stories in video game form. The sequel, The Beast Within, shipped in 1995 on a whopping 6 CD-ROMs, owing to several hours of digitized video material.

Our protagonist has left St. George’s Books in New Orleans under the care of his assistant Grace Nakimura; he now lives in the old German castle that’s part of his family inheritance. The other part—the one he is more reluctant to accept—is his responsibility to hunt and destroy supernatural evil, for Gabriel Knight is a Schattenjäger, a shadow hunter.

Of wolves and men

His latest assignment is to hunt a werewolf. That’s not a spoiler: in the opening of the game, the local townspeople seek Gabriel’s aid to investigate the brutal killing of a girl which they suspect to be, er, werework. And there are other victims. The official story is that wolves who escaped from the zoo in nearby Munich are to blame. Gabriel must follow the paw prints to discover the truth: are the murders the work of man, beast, or man-beast?

Meanwhile, Grace Nakimura, who played an important role in Gabriel’s earlier voodoo adventure, has no intention of simply minding the store back in New Orleans. After hearing that Gabriel is pursuing a new case, she books the next flight to Germany, drives to the castle, only to find—no Gabriel.

Instead, there’s Gerde, the caretaker, who welcomes Grace but doesn’t quite know what to do with her. In what seems rather a change of character from the first game, Grace bullies Gerde until she is given free rein to conduct werewolf-related research on Gabriel’s behalf.

The story continues over six chapters in which you play as both Gabriel and Grace. Soon, Gabriel discovers a secretive hunting club that seems to be more than meets the eye, and Grace traces a history of werewolves that dates back to the days of Ludwig II of Bavaria and Richard Wagner.

Yes, this is definitely what wealthy German aristocrats wear around the house. There is some homoerotic tension between Baron von Glower (left) and Gabriel (right), but it largely plays out on a symbolic level. (Credit: Sierra. Fair use.)

Point, click & play

In point-and-click adventure games, you typically walk from scene to scene, pick up items, talk to other characters, and solve puzzles. You do all these things in The Beast Within, but in addition, every click can lead to a video clip. Click on a door? Prepare to watch a video of Gabriel walking through it. Click on a newspaper? You’ll see a video clip of Gabriel picking it up and reading it.

Thankfully, you can skip each of those videos with another click, which you’ll do a lot as you revisit familiar scenes to search for clues. This is a 1990s game, so expect to do a fair bit of pixel hunting to figure out exactly what to click on.

Many of the puzzles are straightforward, but to advance, you have to carefully explore every location, which sometimes feels like you’re playing a hidden object game. Just like in the first Gabriel Knight, time stands still until you’ve done everything the game expects you to do. At least the map view offers hints that there’s stuff left to do in certain locations.

This is a Sierra game, so you can die at several points throughout the story, and some scenes involve carefully timing your actions. The chapter structure gives you some confidence that you’re on the right track and that you haven’t forgotten some key item that you need later.

While Gabriel hunts for werewolves in Munich, Grace Nakimura goes on an edutainment trip to German castles and museums. (Credit: Sierra. Fair use.)

Welcome to fake Germany

In many different ways, the game’s reach exceeds its grasp. The budget wasn’t sufficient to actually film in Germany. Much of the video was shot in front of a blue screen, with digital photographs taken during one trip to Germany inserted in the background.

In one scene, Gabriel walks around in a badly digitized version of Munich’s Marienplatz and has to deliver a letter. Because the developers didn’t recognize what German mailboxes look like, you must walk past a prominent mailbox that you can’t interact with. Instead, you have to find an nondescript building with a digitally inserted “POST” sign to send your letter.

As with many movies and TV shows, when there’s spoken German, it’s often read atrociously by American actors, but it’s at least consistently grammatically correct. There’s no logical consistency as to when Germans are speaking German and when they’re speaking English (to each other).

The quality of the acting is very hit-or-miss. Gabriel (played by Dean Erickson) seems fidgety and uncomfortable in almost every shot; Grace (played by Joanne Takahashi) is exaggeratedly rude and confrontational in much of the early game. Some of the other actors are delightful to watch, especially Peter Lucas, who plays the charismatic Baron Friedrich von Glower.

The Verdict

Does The Beast Within hold up in 2021? Even today, the game’s size and scope impress. It manages to tell a complex story that’s largely internally consistent and satisfying. FMV games are often short—think 2-4 hours. To beat The Beast Within, plan for 10-15. The game culminates in a wonderfully ludicrous final chapter that involves a short opera specifically written for it.

Very few point-and-click FMV games exist, and The Beast Within hints at why: it’s expensive and difficult to get right. The game’s mechanics and technical flaws have aged more poorly than many pixel art games from the same era. Yet, to this day, few companies have done a better job than Sierra at combining film and game.

If you’ve played and enjoyed the first Gabriel Knight, you won’t want to miss The Beast Within, warts and all. The FMV genre is currently experiencing a revival with indie titles such as Dark Nights with Poe and Munro and Her Story. Fans of the genre may also want to check out this 1995 classic to see how it compares to more recent efforts.

Additional reading

5 stars
Twitchy perfection. Game over. Begin!

Some games are pure perfection. Tetris on the original Game Boy comes to mind. Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh (a $3 indie title w/ cult status) is another such game. It’s almost a trainer for achieving flow state.

You pivot a triangle between rapidly approaching walls that will immediately crush you upon collision. To survive, you must learn repeating patterns and keep your reaction speed high.

Chances are you’ll crash and burn after a few seconds. And again. And again. The game design is optimized to keep you playing: restarts are instantaneous, and the (excellent) chiptune music shifts a little bit on each restart to keep things interesting. A few seconds may turn into hours before you notice.

This screen, which you will see a lot, shows your current and best score for the level you’re playing. (Credit: Terry Cavanagh. Fair use.)

You are almost certainly going to beat the game’s first couple of levels if you keep trying. When you do, it feels incredibly rewarding. At the same time, while staring at triangles and hexagons for an hour, it can be hard to shake the feeling that you’re in some sci-fi story in which your brain has been hijacked to serve a terrible purpose.

Even if you normally don’t like twitchy games, Super Hexagon may surprise you with its elegant simplicity. Unless you have an aversion to flashing lights and colors, I highly recommend giving it a spin. I come back to it at least once a year.

4 stars
Captivating indie game about escape from a disintegrating world

Karawan is a small, free indie game that came out of this year’s Ludum Dare jam. Turn by turn, you guide a growing caravan through a world that is rapidly falling apart, to a portal that will take you to safety.

To make it, you have to carefully plot your path and pay attention to the resources you can gather along the way. If you don’t, you are likely to run out of food, or you may find yourself on a tile that’s about to disintegrate.

As you traverse the map, you can visit various villages, where you can recruit caravan members with different skills: farmers who will harvest berries, woodcutters who will chop down forests, and miners who will collect gemstones.

The first map, Gaia, is fairly straightforward, but you will likely still take a few tries before you make it to safety. (Credit: bippinbits. Fair use.)

You can also choose to raid villages for resources instead. Some of them are protected by a wizard (called a magus), whom you can recruit. The magus is quite powerful, and can even alter the terrain around you.

The game’s stylish pixel art, sparse but evocative descriptions, and the slow, slightly eerie music all draw you in. Don’t let the game’s chill tone fool you: seeing the world disappear behind you will quickly create a sense of urgency for your journey. Karawan may hook you for at least 30-60 minutes, longer if you want to beat all maps. I recommend downloading the slightly improved PostJam version.

The game was made with the open source Godot Engine, and is available for Windows and Linux.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
4 stars
A milestone in video game storytelling, with its share of flaws

Gabriel Knight is a lout. He is also the owner of a bookstore in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, and a struggling novelist researching a spree of apparently voodoo-inspired killings that have gripped the city. Through his friend Frank Mosely, a police detective investigating the killings, he is able to learn more about the case than what’s reported in the papers.

As he travels the city and speaks to people who may be able to shed light on the case, his shop assistant, Grace Nakimura, minds the store, takes messages for Gabriel, and undertakes research on his behalf. Gabriel is a womanizer, and Grace knows him well enough to keep some distance between them.

What could be the setup for a movie or a TV show is in fact the plot of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, a 1993 video game designed by Jane Jensen and published by Sierra. The game is fully voice-acted by a cast that includes Tim Curry (Gabriel Knight), Mark Hamill (Frank Mosely), Leah Remini (Grace Nakimura), and Michael Dorn (Dr. John).

You control Gabriel’s actions in typical point and click fashion: click on hotspots on the screen and interact with them using various actions (look, operate, talk to, etc.). As is typical for the genre, you can carry as much stuff with you as you want, and you’ll want to pick up anything you can.

Cut scenes like this one may reveal important clues to the game’s puzzles. (Credit: Sierra On-Line. Fair use.)

Driven by story and dialogue

There are some important ways in which Gabriel Knight sets itself apart from many other games of its era:

  • The game has a narrator, voiced by Virginia Capers with a thick accent, who often inserts her own commentary about Gabriel’s (attempted) actions, and seems to take some delight in his misfortunes.

    While other Sierra games have featured narrators, Capers gives the game a unique personality when, for example, she bursts into laughter as you examine an item in Gabriel’s inventory that relates to a near-death experience.

  • Dialogue is a central part of the gameplay. There are separate “talk” and “ask” actions. When you talk to a character, Gabriel will usually cycle through a few casual remarks; when you ask them questions, the game switches to a focused dialogue interface in which you can choose subjects to discuss.

    Although the dialogue tree grows to a somewhat ridiculous length (you can literally ask anyone you come across what they know about the voodoo murders, or whether they know the meaning of “cabrit sans cor”), the dialogue system is a nice departure from the usually very limiting conversational options of adventure games.

  • The plot advances over the course of 10 days, and the locations and possible interactions change over time. As you visit the police station on different days, for example, you will learn about how the case has progressed since you last spoke to detective Mosely.

    The game’s sense of time is entirely tied to specific actions of your character. It’s only when you have solved certain puzzles, or asked certain questions, that you can move on to the next day. This can be frustrating, as only the game knows what specific thing you have to do to unblock the flow of time.

Gabriel Knight was one of the first adventure games to utilize higher resolution SVGA graphics, but it did so only in a limited fashion, such as in the dialogue interface. (Credit: Sierra On-Line. Fair use.)

A product of its time

It is a game of its era, something you may be reminded of when you realize that Gabriel can only use landline phones to communicate over long distances. It’s also reflected in the gameplay: To solve many puzzles, it’s advisable to pay careful attention to every line of dialogue.

Adventure games from this time were meant to keep you playing for many, many hours—if you still got stuck, the expensive hint line was waiting to take your call. This being a Sierra game, you can very much die (especially in the second half), so saving the game often is a good idea.

The racial politics of Gabriel Knight are more troubling. While the story incorporates historical facts about Louisiana Voodoo, the increasingly preposterous narrative follows an all too familiar trajectory in which a white hero (Knight) must overcome forces of evil, who happen to be people of color. That it wraps both heroes and villains in a thin veil of moral ambiguity hardly makes this more palatable.

In spite of these flaws, Gabriel Knight deserves recognition as a milestone in video game storytelling techniques, and is still enjoyable to play today. I recommend using the Universal Hint System over a walkthrough, as it will give you more opportunities to discover solutions to puzzles on your own. The soundtrack has held up well, and adds to the game’s atmosphere and character.

A 20th anniversary remake with new graphics—and a wholly different voice cast—was released in 2014. While Gabriel Knight deserves its place in video game history, I’m not sure it needed a remake. There are new stories to tell, and new heroes to play—ones that challenge stereotypes rather than reinforcing them.

4 stars
An evocative sci-fi story generator about the fate of humanity

“And when they knew the Earth was doomed, they built a ship.” In one opening sentence, John Ayliff’s text-based browser game Seedship evokes stories of the journey to another world, of efforts to settle a new planet while avoiding the mistakes of the past.

1,000 colonists are all that is left of the human race, and they are asleep in hibernation chambers. You control a shipboard Artificial Intelligence that is meant to find a new home for humanity—a mission that will take thousands of years to fulfill.

You travel from one planetary system to the next, and you use scanners and surface probes to determine the suitability of candidate planets for human settlement. Does the planet have a breathable atmosphere, Earth-like gravity, tolerable temperatures, sufficient water and other resources?

Planets may hold other surprises for the colonists, from poisonous plants to high-tech ruins of previous civilizations. Based on all available information, you can decide to found a colony, or to keep searching.

Risks and Rewards

Every part of the ship, including the hibernation chambers, may be damaged during interstellar travel. On the other hand, you also have opportunities to upgrade your ship, which may improve your odds of finding a suitable home.

Ultimately, the success of your mission comes down largely to luck. You may find a lush paradise planet early, or encounter one toxic wasteland after another.

Seedship features no graphics, but its text-based interface, such as the scan results shown here, manages to convey a lot with few words. (Credit: John Ayliff. Fair use.)

What makes the game so enjoyable is the quality of the storytelling. Ayliff has stocked Seedship with many random events, from encounters with alien spaceships to the discovery of a brutal dictator among the sleeping colonists. Your choices (eject the dictator or let him sleep?) almost always have consequences, but those are often unpredictable.

When you decide that you’ve found the perfect (or at least adequate) new home for humanity, Seedship tells you about the fate of the colony. Did humanity maintain its previous level of technological achievement, or regress to a medieval level? Is your new society an enlightened utopia, or a tyrannical police state?

A single run can take only a few minutes, but you may find yourself playing Seedship for well over an hour to discover the different possible futures for humanity. If you enjoy sci-fi stories, I highly recommend giving it a try.

5 stars
A poignant masterpiece of interactive storytelling

Finches are known for their short lifespans, and so are the Finches, the troubled family whose story is at the heart of What Remains of Edith Finch.

You play as the titular Edith Finch, a young woman visiting the family’s haphazardly built home on Orcas Island, which was abandoned years ago. Each sealed room holds the story of a family member’s demise—and you want to know all the stories.

As you experience these individual vignettes, your perspective often changes to that of the family member in question. Perspective should not be confused with control: the game inexorably pulls you towards each character’s final destination.

Barbara’s room, one of the many you explore as part of experiencing the stories of the Finch family. (Credit: Giant Sparrow. Fair use.)

In its wistful, surreal style, Edith Finch is reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie like Big Fish; in its portrayal of a beautifully dysfunctional family, it calls to mind the works of Wes Anderson. But the game never feels derivative; it feels inspired.

Like a movie, it is very much on rails—you may very occasionally wander around for a few minutes wondering how to advance the story, but you’re unlikely to need a walkthrough, and there are no meaningful choices for you to make. That never feels limiting: like Edith, you just want to find out what happened.

There’s so much more to praise here: art direction that reaches soaring heights during some chapters (Lewis’ stands out); excellent voice acting especially by Valerie Lohman (Edith); music that will give you chills; an ending that holds nothing back.

I played the game on Linux using Proton without issues. Steam claims that I played it for 3 hours. The Finches may be short-lived, but Edith Finch will remain with me for much longer than that.

2 stars
Suspend your disbelief before you join this manhunt

Nina Guerrera (whose name means “warrior girl”) escaped a serial killer’s clutches when she was a sixteen-year-old girl; now she’s an FBI agent hunting predators. Due to a name change after her emancipation from her abusive foster parents, Nina’s would-be murderer was unable to locate her again. Nina was “the one that got away”.

A viral video that shows Nina fighting off a rapist comes to the killer’s attention, and he sets out to finish what he started. But hunting Nina is not enough. The viral video gave Nina the attention he feels he deserves. Through a series of murders, he provokes the FBI into a public manhunt. Soon, he is “The Cipher”, a murderer who leaves behind cryptograms, much like the infamous Zodiac Killer.

The Cipher is a an FBI procedural by Isabella Maldonado, a retired police captain turned crime writer. To make it a story of our times, Maldonado has her killer use social media to turn his crimes into a spectacle. The FBI and the social media sites collaborate to keep the killer online, in hopes of tracking him down.

What if Zodiac Killer, but on Facebook?

This leads to wildly implausible plot developments, where “The Cipher” maintains a public leaderboard on his Facebook page, ranking the amateur investigators around the country who try to break his (often very simple) codes. Similarly, he is permitted to repeatedly post videos of horrific crimes to an audience of millions.

If you can believe that, you will probably not have an issue with the book’s more conventional tropes, such as the idea that an FBI agent would be allowed to lead an investigation while being very publicly threatened with rape and murder by its target, who previously raped and almost killed her.

Maldonado moves the plot forward at a steady clip, and The Cipher is certainly an easy read—I read most of the book on a transcontinental flight, and downloaded it for free through Amazon’s “First Reads” program. Maldonado deserves credit for writing in a very accessible manner, e.g., about investigatory procedures; she also sometime subtly repeats important plot points to help the reader along.

These are the kinds of writing techniques that make this book a page-turner. The positive reviews the book has received suggest that many readers found it thrilling. Maldonado has already written one additional novel featuring Guerrera, and there are plans for a Netflix adaptation of The Cipher.

For me, the many plausibility issues make it difficult to recommend the book, in spite of a likable heroine.

3 stars
An alien encounter that only works on the small scale

A spider-like extraterrestrial emerges from a spaceship parked in front of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, enters the museum, and requests to speak with a paleontologist. It’s a great opening for Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, a story mostly told in the first person from the point of view of said paleontologist, a man with the ominously biblical name Thomas Jericho.

The alien, who is named Hollus, reveals quickly that their species, the Forhilnor, believes the existence of God to be a scientific fact. Hollus wants to learn more about extinction events in Earth’s history.

Mild spoilers (click to reveal)

The Forhilnor have found evidence that mass extinction events have occurred at approximately the same time on multiple planets now inhabited by intelligent life—apparently including the extinction events in Earth’s history. In addition, they believe that the evidence for a universe fine-tuned to support life cannot be explained except by an intelligent designer.

Thomas Jericho is a staunch atheist, but Hollus is not religious in the conventional sense. The two scientists become friends as they study the fossil record of Earth and other planets. Will Doubting Thomas come around to see the evidence of the designer? And what are two American anti-abortion terrorists planning to do in Toronto?

Like Saint Thomas (depicted in this painting by Caravaggio), Tom Jericho demands strong evidence before accepting extraordinary claims.

Intelligence by Design

In exploring the evidence for God, Sawyer stacks the deck in favor of a designed universe. In addition to made-up discoveries by the extraterrestrials, he revisits creationist canards like the idea of irreducible complexity, of “missing links” in the fossil record, and of lack of evidence for speciation.

The book was published in 2000, and as Sawyer has stated, he was influenced by neo-creationist literature such as Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box”. This was before Kitzmiller v. Dover, a key lawsuit in 2005 which set back the so-called Wedge Strategy to use the pseudoscience of “intelligent design” as a backdoor to introduce creationism into schools.

But even in 2000, plenty of scientists and skeptics had extensively debunked the arguments Sawyer has his characters regurgitate (see, for example, the FAQs). It’s one thing to invent evidence for an intelligent designer that serves the story; it’s another to rely on pseudoscience. In Calculating God, Sawyer does both.

The Verdict

In spite of this, I found the book more engaging than The Terminal Experiment (review), and less dated. Parts of Calculating God feel like a theater play, a big story told on the small stage of a Canadian museum, with charming characters and a sense of humor and self-awareness.

Hollus, the extraterrestrial visitor, is very memorable: truly alien in appearance but, at the same time, witty and relatable. Their human counterpart, Tom Jericho, comes to life in small details such as his political disagreements with the museum’s administration. The friendship between Jericho and Hollus is believable and carries much of the book forward.

Ultimately, however, Calculating God takes itself too seriously. In the last third of the book, increasingly implausible events lead towards an ending that is only a poor imitation of works that have surely inspired it, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

5 stars
If you subscribe to one fiction podcast, make it this one

In his podcast, LeVar Burton (Reading Rainbow, Star Trek: The Next Generation) reads one short story per episode. Burton’s masterful narration is enhanced by music and sound effects. He features stories by well-known writers (e.g., Neil Gaiman, Octavia Butler), but he and his team also seem to be constantly on the lookout for fresh and diverse new voices.

Burton is incredibly talented, and he manages to bring across a sense of excitement and wonder for every story. He invests himself deeply in making the characters come alive, drawing on his decades of acting experience.

While many of the stories could be described as “speculative fiction”, there’s no single unifying theme other than LeVar Burton’s love of story. There are ads at the beginning and in the middle, read by Burton. I typically skip through those, but they are not especially obnoxious. LeVar Burton Reads is one of the shows under the Stitcher umbrella, and you can listen ad-free with a Stitcher subscription.

At the end of each episode, LeVar Burton reflects on the story and relates it to his own life or to what’s going on in the world. Sometimes he’s clearly just riffing, sometimes he has a larger point he wants to make. Either way, it’s often a nice way to close out the episode.

If you like fiction and podcasts, you’ve probably already subscribed to LeVar Burton Reads. If you haven’t, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Some of my favorite stories include:

You’re likely to discover your own favorites in the large back catalog of episodes. While the show is still going strong as of this writing, LeVar Burton Reads is also a timeless, wonderful library that you’ll keep coming back to.