Ursula K. LeGuin passed away on January 22, 2018. It was a tremendous loss. During a writing career that began in 1959, LeGuin published over 20 novels, over a dozen collections of short stories, and several books of poetry. She was an icon of both science fiction and fantasy, producing a hugely acclaimed cycle of novels in each genre. The Earthsea cycle is LeGuin’s primary contribution to fantasy, a set of five novels and a collection of short stories published between 1968 and 2001. She made an enormous impact on SF with the books in what others have called her “Hainish cycle”. LeGuin’s most acclaimed books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) form a part of this loose cycle.
All too often, discussion of LeGuin’s work begins and ends with these well-known and influential books. However, the three novels which preceded them, and which begin the Hainish cycle, are absolutely worthy of reading and examination in their own right. They are undoubtedly minor works compared to the books which made LeGuin’s name, but they introduce many of the concepts and themes which underpin the books written later.
In Seminyak, on the Indonesian island of Bali, there are numerous luxury hotels that cater to wealthy tourists from abroad. Westerners go there to enjoy “wellness” activities, or to drink cocktails on the beach. Very few of them realise that in 1965, people were brought to this same beach at night to be killed on the basis of their real or perceived political views. In all, around 5% of the population of Bali were killed by the military during the Indonesian massacres of 1965 to 1966. This was an appalling episode in the Cold War, but one which few people in the West are aware of. This silence is carefully maintained. At a museum in Santiago, Chile, an exhibit states that the Indonesian government “abolished the law that would establish their truth commission.”
This information comes from The Jakarta Method, a superb and unsettling book by Vincent Bevins. An American journalist who has spent time living in Indonesia and Brazil, Bevins has written an urgent, exhaustively researched, and thoroughly humane book. While the text makes clear the scale and horror of the atrocities that took place in Indonesia and other countries during the Cold War, Bevins does not dwell on the specifics of the killings. He focuses instead on setting the Indonesian massacre into a broader context. The book explains how the atrocities flowed from the rising tide of fanatical anticommunism that was spreading around the world; an international form of McCarthyism which suppressed almost any attempt at breaking away from the orthodox capitalist model.
For many boardgamers, King of Tokyo needs no introduction. Richard Garfield’s monster-themed dice rolling game first appeared in 2011, hopped up on gamma radiation and spoiling for a fight. Since then, everything done to try to stop its rampage has only made it stronger. Now, King of Tokyo towers over lesser gateway games, roaring in triumph as it continues to secure new fans. Like the special effects in a Godzilla movie, it’s not particularly sophisticated but it never fails to get the job done.
As the boardgame boom continues, many thousands of new games have been released even since the second edition of King of Tokyo hit the shelves in 2016. However, the game continues to hold a special appeal. Refreshed by a number of expansions and the continual influx of new converts to the gaming hobby - for whom the game serves as an ideal introduction - its reign goes on. But what are the special ingredients that help this humble dice game mutate into such a resilient beast?
In 1966, American film director Richard Brooks needed a hit. He had recently made Lord Jim, an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel which had opened to poor reviews and a worse box-office return. His plan to get back on top surprised Hollywood insiders: he would adapt A Mule for the Marquesa, a recent Western novel by Frank O’Rourke. Released under the title The Professionals, Brooks’ new film would go on to become one of the most profitable Westerns of the 1960s, taking $9 million in the US alone.
Today, The Professionals is often overshadowed by other classic American Westerns of the 1960s, not to mention the best of the Italian Westerns that came to prominence at that time. It is sometimes described as a merely “crowd-pleasing”, or “undemanding” film - one that delivers excitement but asks little of its audience. In fact, The Professionals is more than just box-office dynamite - it’s a gripping but also thoughtful movie, with a terrific script that reflects Brooks’ ideas about life, death, loyalty, and revolution. It’s this combination of action, humour, solid craft, and big ideas that make the movie an unmissable Western.
There’s another world, parallel to our own - one made up of hidden or decayed places, built by people but used only by a few or abandoned altogether. We are separated from it by a few metres of concrete when we walk the streets or use a subway; it’s just above or below us in the mechanical floors of hospitals and universities; we can see it in the empty industrial buildings visible from canals or from moving trains. These kinds of spaces are all around us, and yet rarely seen. Some, like steam tunnels, are the blood vessels that keep towns and cities alive. Others, like the ruined factories of Detroit, are the parts of the urban landscape abandoned by people and capital and left to fall apart.
These eerie locales have a grip on the imagination of many people, not least the urban explorers who venture into and photograph them. They also have a powerful hold on fiction, which often imagines a life driven out of the light by some catastrophe and into the dark places, often underground. This trend has been particularly strong in videogames, where the hidden and decaying areas of cities provide a venue for post-apocalyptic struggles. Numerous games have mined this territory, but few have done so as effectively as the 2010 survival first-person shooter Metro 2033.
Hostile Waters has both an unusual premise and unusual gameplay. It is a war game set in an utopian world that has abolished war altogether; and it is a strategy game in which the player is not limited to giving orders, but can actually directly control units on the battlefield. In both its story and its gameplay, Hostile Waters requires players to re-learn war.
Like Populous: The Beginning, Hostile Waters was the product of a veteran British games developer entering its final years. The similarities don’t end there - Hostile Waters also failed to receive the recognition it deserved upon release in March 2001 - at least from consumers - and sold poorly. One likely reason is the lack of multiplayer, which was to be added in a patch which never saw release. While not much discussed even today, Hostile Waters has been called “one of the best games you’ve never played”. This minor cult reputation is built on the satisfying combination of those two key elements - the game’s unusual story, and novel gameplay.
By 1998, Bullfrog Productions were one of the most successful, innovative and respected games development studios in the world. With games like Syndicate (1993), Theme Park (1994) and Dungeon Keeper (1997), the British studio had built a reputation for creative and original releases, known for their humour and novel game mechanics. However, dark times lay ahead. The company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts and the departure of co-founder Peter Molyneux to found his own studio would endanger the company. Within a few years numerous projects would be cancelled, and Bullfrog would be gone, absorbed to become just another cog in the EA machine.
Despite these ominous signs, 1998 saw the release of one of Bullfrog’s most important, and sadly underrated games: Populous: The Beginning. The game is a unique hybrid of two distinct gameplay styles: the god game, which Bullfrog had pioneered with the original Populous in 1989; and the real-time strategy, which was then enjoying its first major boom of popularity in the mid- to late-1990s. While The Beginning is primarily an RTS, it draws significantly from the Populous series, to which it serves as a loose prequel. While the earlier games put players in the role of a mighty god overseeing the advancement of a human civilisation, The Beginning has them guide a powerful shaman struggling to achieve godhood. While at the time critics were muted in their response to the game - frankly confused by its radical new gameplay style - Populous: The Beginning is an extraordinary strategy game, easily one of the most unique and engaging ever made.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a golden era for strategy and management games of all kinds. Whether you wanted to build ancient Rome, fight your own version of World War II, or establish colonies in another star system there was at least one game to suit your purposes appearing on the shelves. One way for developers to compete in this crowded market was to combine and hybridise strategy genres - as British developer Firefly Studios did with their first game, the enduring success Stronghold.
Firefly were well-placed to advance the fusion of city-building and real-time strategy gameplay. Their founders, Simon Bradbury and Eric Ouellette, had both worked for the successful developer Impressions Games, which had been acquired by Sierra in 1995. There, they had worked on the successful Caesar series of city-builders and the medieval strategy series Lords of the Realm. These would each be a strong influence on Stronghold, which was developed in a single rented room in South London and eventually released by Take 2 Interactive in October 2001.
In 2011, Jookabox announced their fourth album and at the same time announced that the project had been wound up. As the band's PR put it at the time, they had "written their own epitaph", their "last cryptic transmission". To release an album from beyond the grave was a perfect fit, given the group's sense of humour and affinity for all things morbid and supernatural. These same aspects make their music worth returning to in the otherworldly and anxious circumstances of a global pandemic.
Formed in Indianapolis by David "Moose" Adamson, the group was originally known as Grampall Jookabox and released a first album, Scientific Cricket, in 2007. A kind of warped, lo-fi folk record, it bears little resemblance to Adamson's later work but did help secure a signing to Asthmatic Kitty Records, which maintains an office in Indianapolis.
It was on the second album released under the Grampall Jookabox name that a lasting sound would begin to take shape. Ropechain was released by Asthmatic Kitty in 2008, and showcased a more electronic, varied style taking in alt hip-hop, rock, and psychedelia. Adamson's surreal lyrics and extensive use of pitch-shifted vocals combined with a home-made, basement feel creates a distinct personality. Even an amusingly sneering Pitchfork review captured this its description of the album as "the desperate product of being alone for too long"; something easy to understand in an era of lockdown.
The sudden and unexpected announcement of a new XCOM game provoked a wave of speculation. Fans of the series, which was rebooted to tremendous success by Firaxis in 2012, pored over the trailers. Chimera Squad was variously described as a sequel, a spinoff, a testbed of ideas for a forthcoming XCOM 3, and even as a "glorified DLC".
The wait to find out was not long, however, as the game was released just days later on April 24, 2020. Chimera Squad turned out to be a very interesting prospect indeed. Just as the heroes of this new entry in the series are a mix of human, alien and hybrid members - hence the title - the game itself is a strange mix of familiar and new elements. This remixed formula is mostly successful, and should appeal to a hybrid audience of XCOM veterans and newcomers to the series.