NOTE: There are a few spoilers for the books, shows, and movies discussed, but I've colored over them in black in case you don't want to read them. If you do want to read them, just click on them! (For those of you reading in RSS readers, I have no idea whether the spoilers will be hidden or not! Good luck!)
Over the past few months, I've started a bunch of drafts of long-form posts on various topics, but I haven't actually followed through and completed them. So, rather than allowing them to rot in my drafts folder for all eternity, I'm just going to dump them out here in short(er) form. I cover several unrelated topics, so don't feel pressured to read all (or any) of them if they don't interest you. Enjoy!
A few months ago, I played through Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. I had hardly heard of the game before noticing it on sale for super cheap in the XBOX store; but after seeing that it got a 9/10 rating from IGN, I figured it might be at least worth trying.
I think I can say without reservation that this game has the best opening act of any game I've ever played. I was utterly and absolutely riveted, glued to my screen, for at least the first 30 minutes (or maybe an hour; I was so focused I'm actually not sure how much time passed before I took my first break). I've never been sucked into a world so quickly and held there so firmly. And I've rarely rolled through such a spectrum of emotions in any game, movie, TV show, or book in such a short time. I wasn't prepared for any of it: the beauty and horror of the world, the way the world and Senua's state of mind reflect and affect each other, the perilous climb around the waterfall, the first vision of Druth, the first frantic fight with the Northmen, the dire warning above the gates barring the way to Hellheim. I've never been afraid of death in a video game before, but this game made me afraid of it. And that feeling of fear only intensified as the story progressed. Running frantically through the fiery forests in Surt's domain, getting turned around and lost in Valravn's keep, seeing the enormous and terrifying form of Hela crawling towards me over the bridge to Hellheim, creeping through the blindness and decay and misery of the shard trials, wading through the bloody sea of corpses, dashing between pools of light to avoid the terrors lurking in the shadows of Hellheim, and finally meeting Hela face-to-face — all of it was a blood-pumping, adrenaline-surging, heart-racing, exhausting, terrifying, beautiful fever dream of an experience.
On top of the power of the gameplay and story, the game is a feat of technical mastery. The acting is fantastic. The motion capture and animation are hands-down the best I've ever seen in a game and are still miles ahead of everyone else even though the game is 5 years old. (See my fun facts below!) The cinematography is powerful, and the cutscenes are woven into the gameplay so neatly that they never give the feeling (which, unfortunately, is commonplace in so many other games) that the developers are interrupting their own game for the sake of an exposition dump. The art and architecture are majestic. The lighting, water, fire, and other environmental effects look incredibly realistic. The music feels like it was written by actual Norsemen from 1,200 years ago, not by some Hans-Zimmer-esque composer sprinkling Norse flavor on top of a typical Western blockbuster soundtrack. The combat is intense and responsive.
I could go on and on. It's such an incredible game. Right after I bought it, I played it straight through three times in a row because I just couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks on end. I've probably over-sold it now. But I hope you play it if you ever get the chance.
Fun fact #1: Melina Juergens, the woman who ended up playing the role of Senua — both in motion capture and in voice — was actually originally the videographer for the project! Before they hired an experienced actress, they asked Melina to stand in so they could test the motion capture process. They ended up liking her performances so much that, when the experienced actress they'd hired dropped out, they asked Melina to do the whole thing. Ninja Theory, the developers of the game, have a treasure trove of a YouTube channel that chronicles the game's development in great detail, including Melina's transition into playing the role of Senua. So cool!
Fun fact #2: The motion capture tech was so good that Ninja Theory did a live performance of a scene from the game at GDC 2016, with Melina wearing the mo-cap suit and acting out the part backstage and Senua rendered in realtime, in-engine on the big screen for the audience. 🤯🤯🤯 SO. FREAKING. COOL.
The Weird is an anthology of short fiction compiled by Jeff VanderMeer (the author of the Souther Reach Trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first book). It contains stories from genres that are mostly horror-adjacent; rather than outright horror, they're mostly strange, cryptic, eerie, suspenseful, bizarre — in short, weird — little stories. I say "mostly" because there are a handful of stories in the book that could probably be considered straight-up horror. Anyway, the stories are in chronological order based on publication date, so reading through the anthology in order from front to back really gives a great sense of the progressions of these parallel and overlapping genres.
Maybe I'm just a really slow reader, or maybe I needed to go away and process each story for a while before continuing to the next, or maybe there are just a whole lot of stories to read, but it took me over a year to work my way through the whole anthology. During that time, I switched phones, which — due to my own failure to back up my ebook app's settings and data — caused me to lose all of the bookmarks and notes that I'd made in the book. But after glancing again at the table of contents, I think I can say with relative confidence that these were the stories from the book that really stuck out to me (and I've highlighted my favorites):
So many good stories! Read them sometime if you get a chance!
I know I'm absurdly late to the game, but I finally saw The Blair Witch Project for the first time a couple weeks ago. Normally, I can't handle horror movies or shows. The short stories in The Weird were disturbing at times, but visual horror is on a whole other level of awfulness. So, I guess I even surprised myself that I had any interest in watching it. Two factors eventually convinced me to try it, though:
So, I watched it! And it was really fun! Very creepy and suspenseful, but fun. I'm really glad I finally saw it.
I'm a little surprised, though, that it wasn't nearly as scary as I thought it'd be. And that's not a bad thing! After all, I don't just love watching horror movies. But I had thought that it was known culturally to be one of the scariest movies of all time. Perhaps the elements of hype around the movie — the things the directors and cast did outside the movie, for example, to make it seem like an actually true story — were necessary to cement its infamous legacy, a feat which perhaps couldn't have been achieved by the content of the movie alone. But I'm not a horror connoisseur, so what do I know?
Here's another show I wasn't expecting to watch: Midnight Mass. But my wife watched it first and loved it and asked me to watch it with her. And just — wow. It's stunning. It's hard for me to guess how people without a Christian background will receive the story; but as someone who grew up deeply steeped in that faith, it's a tragic, powerful story with so many layers of meaning.
It's been a few months since I watched it, and I'd like to watch it again before making much more commentary about it. So I guess I'll just say on a surface level that, even though it was created by Mike Flanagan of The Haunting of Hill House fame, MM is not straight-up horror in the way that HHH is. It's definitely very suspenseful, there more than a handful of disturbing moments, and there are even a couple of small jump scares. But it was never so frightening that I couldn't keep watching (except maybe the scenes in the tomb in Israel, during which I may have covered my eyes a little). It was just so mysterious and engrossing! What the heck was happening to the folks on Crockett Island? And why?
And as I'm sure you know, I have very conflicted feelings about religion. On the one hand, I now consider myself to be agnostic with atheist leanings. But I haven't forgotten what religion feels like from the inside. It feels like you belong, like you matter, like the universe has meaning, like someone will someday set right all the injustices of the world, like there's more to life and death than merely being buried in the cold dirt of this cruel world at the end of a life of suffering in which no one's in control and chaos and cruelty are the only forces at work. And as far as I can tell, Mike Flanagan knows those feelings as well. The show most definitely doesn't lionize Christianity, and it especially lambastes religious zealots; but it also shows respect for the hard-working laity who feel all the feelings I mentioned above, who love and care for one another, and who cling to their faith not because it makes them feel holier than other people but because it's the only familiar life raft admidst the storms of suffering in their lives.
Jesus was a poor man who mostly spent his time among the poor and sick and down-trodden, helping them in any way he could and preaching to them messages of hope and love. According to Jesus, the poor in spirit, those who are meek or in mourning, will one day be raised up, comforted, and healed; and the rich, the elites, the pious hypocrites, the power-hungry — all of them will be brought low. In fact, according to Luke's gospel, one of the first things Jesus did as he began his ministry was to go to the temple and read a passage of scripture that he seemingly took to represent his entire mission:
When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
You can feel this message shining through certain characters in the show, especially through the actions of Father Paul. His reading of the Bible is much more accurate and wholistic — and vastly more acceptable from a moral standpoint, frankly — than the narrow, warped, logically tortured readings of most strains of American Christianity. He so keenly feels the hurts of his parishioners and so badly wishes for them to recover from their economic losses, their sicknesses, their grief, even their elderliness, that he brings something miraculous to the island — cursed, too, but nevertheless miraculous.
So perhaps this is Mike Flanagan's treatise on religion: that in our efforts to ease our own hurts and the hurts of others, we find it preferable to lie, to close our eyes to obvious dangers and moral abominations, and to embrace a cursed existence in hopes that we might one day have a blessed one. Or maybe I've totally misunderstood the story he was trying to tell! 😊
From the slow, reverent hymns to the bone-chilling cello solos, the music could hardly have been better selected and arranged. All of the acting is fabulous, but I especially fell in love with the main trio: Father Paul Hill, Riley Flynn, and Erin Greene. And the glowing eyes of the bloodthirsty inhabitants near the end was one of the simplest but most haunting special effects I've seen recently; and its subtlety, I think, is what made it so effective.
Anyway, it's another one that I could ramble on about for a while, but I'll stop now. 😊 But it's definitely worth a watch if you have a chance!
Several months ago, I started researching transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) because I'd heard it was a moderately effective treatment for depression that resists the standard treatment of antidepressants. My therapist recommended a psychiatric clinic in the area that offered TMS, so I gave them a call. They told me that they actually offer two treatments: TMS and ketamine. I hadn't heard much about ketamine and so was less interested in it, but the person I spoke to on the phone gave the impression that she preferred it to TMS and had seen so many patients make incredible recoveries with it. That evidence is anecdotal, of course; but from everything I read later, it seemed that ketamine was probably at least as effective as TMS. So I signed up for the ketamine treatments. They offered two delivery methods: an injection (traditional ketamine) or a nasal spray (esketamine / Spravato). I opted for the nasal spray. We scheduled 12 sessions over the course of 8 weeks, and I got started with my first treatment at the end of August.
For the first few sessions, I was pretty anxious. I tried listening to Sleep With Me, the podcast that I've mentioned on this blog a few times. But as much as I love that show, and as much as it has helped to alleviate anxiety in other contexts, it didn't really seem to work here. So, after a few sessions, I switched to listening to music during the trips. In particular, I mostly listened to Geotic's Various / Singles album, which I can't recommend highly enough for these sorts of experiences.
I don't think I ever actually fell asleep during the sessions, but I was usually dancing right on the edge of dreamland for the first 30-45 minutes after taking the ketamine. The very first session just made me a little sleepy because it was a smaller dose. But the rest of the sessions were at higher doses, and then I had some trippy times! At first, they were incredibly weird. The way I described it to my wife was: it's not like "Josh" went to outer space or was shrunk to the size of an atom, but rather that I merely was the universe for a bit, or was an atom for a bit — but without anything that could be called "Josh" attached to me. I had this feeling, over and over, of seeing the "truth" of reality as though from impossibly large or small scales, or like Dorothy peeking behind the Wizard's curtain. I didn't feel like a conspiracist finding a truth that was hidden from me because I didn't believe that the truth was hidden from anyone. Rather, I felt like I got a rare opportunity to see reality from perspectives that virtually no one else had ever inhabited. Of course, I always afterwards recognized it as nothing more than a feeling. I never thought I had actually discovered any deep truth about reality. And even if I had thought that, I'm not sure I could've articulated to you what exactly it was I thought I had discovered. But as I got used to the trips, they became increasingly mellow and pleasant, less like dizzying rollercoasters and more like floating gently downstream in a canoe. By the end of the 12 sessions, I was really looking forward to each trip.
I'm very grateful that I didn't have any bad reactions or side effects from the ketamine. Apparently, those are rare and generally mild anyway. But some people experience nausea from it, and my wife and I definitely heard one lady having an extremely bad trip. (She was screaming and crying and moaning in the next room, sobbing constantly for people to come and help her — even though several of the staff members were already in there with her and trying their best to calm her down. I felt so bad for her, and I hope she's doing okay now.)
You're probably wondering whether these treatments had any effect on my depression. And the answer is most emphatically, yes, they helped so much. I didn't feel it right away. But after probably the third or fourth week, I began to notice significant shifts in my mood. I was still having ups and downs like everyone else, of course, but my baseline mood was steadily rising. I remember one day feeling that my sense of humor was coming back — something I hadn't really felt since high school. I knew I had lost a lot of my sense of humor or playfulness over the years, but I had always assumed it was just something related to growing up and taking on the responsibilities and cares of adulthood. Saying that out loud sounds ridiculous, of course, since there are plenty of adults with robust senses of humor; but I never really plainly articulated it to myself. But to feel that sense of humor and playfulness coming back was...I don't know. It was incredible. As an objective measure of mood, I was given the Montgomery–Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) every two weeks. Over the course of the 12 sessions, my score went down from 39 to 9. (Lower scores are better.)
As with all psychological treatments, your mileage may vary. But for me, these 12 sessions started to unravel literal decades of depression, anxiety, and negative habits of thought. With that said, though, I don't know how long the effects are supposed to last. I've heard that they last anywhere from a few months to several years (or maybe more). The clinic offered me the opportunity to continue treatments on a maintenance schedule with 1 treatment every 2 weeks. I would love to continue, but there are a few significant factors to consider. First, the treatments aren't cheap (for Americans, at least). Second, the clinic was pretty far from home (like 1.5 hours one-way); and since my wife always came with me, and since I always had to stay at the clinic for at least 2 hours after taking the ketamine, each treatment was essentially an all-day affair. That was hard on her and not always easy to coordinate with her work. So, if I can find a way to lower the cost and the time commitment, I might consider continuing it on the maintenance schedule.
I have a few more things to write about in the second part of this massive update dump, but they aren't quite ready yet, and I wanted to go ahead and put something up on the site. So, I'll be back with more updates soon! Thanks for reading!