The end of 2019 ironically marks many new beginnings for the two of us. This is our first full year of Into the Aether, and we can’t stress enough how amazed and humbled we are at the growth of both the show and the community around it. This newsletter is a microcosm of our desire to create media as an extension of the podcast, and to collaborate with other writers and artists we admire. While the monthly issues are currently only available to Patrons, we wanted to each quarterly issue to be available for everyone, so hello to everyone!
Once again, a special thanks to our patrons for making both our bonus episodes and this newsletter possible. Equal thanks to all of you out there reading and listening. It’s an honor to wrap up this decade with you. Hope it’s been a blast, and that you maybe found a game or two you enjoy.
Brendon + Stephen
by Alanna Okun
BioShock is pretty much everything I hate when it comes to video games. I don’t like violence, or tension, or really anything particularly unpleasant; I don’t like darkness, I don’t like self-seriousness, and I especially don’t like when boys try to talk at me about Objectivism.
Most of all, though, I don’t like things I’m not good at. In my almost 30 years on this planet, I’ve found enough things I am good at to build a life out of, and have settled tentatively, tenuously, into a rhythm that works for me. That list includes cooking, knitting, editing, and endlessly replaying games that are the entertainment equivalent of Xanax. It does not include manning a DualShock controller or shooting.
All of this is to say that nobody was more shocked than me when I spent a couple of intense, concentrated weeks this past summer absolutely addicted to the first game in the BioShock franchise.
My boyfriend, a noted boy, had loaned me his PS4 because his roommate (also, incidentally, a boy) had one too. It had mostly sat unused under the TV I’d finally bought after nearly four years of living in my apartment. It saw some brief play after we went to see Into the Spider-Verse at one of those movie theaters where they serve you alcohol — immediately afterward, I marched into the nearby Target and bought their last copy of the Spider-Man Marvel game, brimming with Old Fashioneds and the desire to swing through New York City.
That’s basically all I ever did in that game; the controllers frustrated me too much to really get into the gameplay. I could shoot, but not rotate the camera at the same time. I could walk or jump, but not execute any sort of maneuver beyond a button-mash. After two decades of Zelda, of Pokémon, of Stardew Valley and Age of Empires and The Sims, my muscles weren’t built for games that required such fine motor skills, such split-brained attention. I figured the PS4 would function as a very valuable DVD player.
Then one night, my boyfriend was over at my house and noticed there was a deal: $15 for all three of the BioShock games. He’d loved the first one when it came out, he told me, and this was a great deal, and so he bought the lot.
We sat on my couch as he played the first hour or two of the first installment. I was fascinated from the jump: what was this game with its wry neon signs and its Randian statues and its underwater Art Deco vibes? How did we get here, who was good and who was bad, what would all of these fragmented clues add up to?
At some point I took over the controls. I was clumsy, as usual, wasting precious ammo while fighting enemies and dying over and over again. The game, though, doesn’t really punish you for being bad at it. I just respawned at the same spots and gave it another shot, each time advancing further. And while it was certainly creepy, with screeching, addled attackers dropping down on you from the ceiling and lumbering hell-robots running you through periodically with drills, I found I wasn’t nearly as jumpy as I thought I’d be. I was so excited by the motions of the game, the aesthetics, the thrill of finding a new tape recorder that would help me piece together whatever the fuck was going on, that the tension only served to heighten the experience. It was like eating a food containing an ingredient I’d always avoided and realizing how much it added to the dish — so THAT’S why people roast fennel. (Fennel, it should be mentioned, still sucks.)
I played breathlessly. I cancelled plans. I resented a string of summer days where the weather was so nice that it seemed unthinkable to squander them indoors, each night coming home sweaty and a little drunk to finally, blessedly, sit down again on my couch. My boyfriend came over and I played some more, while he closed his eyes in the bed five feet away because I live in a studio and he is a good sport. I think he liked that I was so entranced by this thing he’d loaned to me. I think he liked watching me — a person who can be rigid, who can become helpless in the face of messed up dinner plans and uncooperative train schedules — work through my frustrations, get to the other side, get a little bit better each time.
It’s not a long game even if you’re new to it; I played maybe fifteen or twenty hours tops, exhausting every possible route and tracking down each small piece of lore. Even then, I had only a hazy sense of the narrative, and even that I liked. The game was a place to visit, a new city to explore. I liked who I was when I was there.
My boyfriend eventually got his own apartment, and that meant taking the PS4 back. I had flashes of anxiety to see him leave his place, moving twenty minutes away from me on the subway rather than the seven blocks we’d been able to walk between our houses for the past two years.
But change of this sort, he reassured me, was good. It was something I could handle, and above all, it was time. And so I beat the game the day before he came to pick it up. It now lives in his new, lovely apartment, where I’ve gotten to watch him build a home and whose twenty minute commute is really not so bad.
And I got a PS4, and a $15 BioShock collection, of my own.
The Perfect Airship
by Stephen Hilger
While out shopping for holiday gifts, I found myself buying a used copy of Final Fantasy XV. It was part of a “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” deal — a small gift for myself in the midst of stressful holiday affairs.
“So…it’s not scratched, but it has some jelly on it, is that OK?”
Being that FFXV was to be the free game of the three purchases, I conceded to the cashier that a little jelly was fine. After all, this was FFXV: the most recent entry in a beloved series that seemed to be a hit-or-miss entry for most — jelly or not.
I got a PS4 a few months after FFXV came out, and I remember being split between getting XV or Persona 5. I remember going for Persona 5, a new series for me at the time, because of the ensemble on the cover. I know you shouldn’t judge any piece of media by the cover, but for an RPG, the main ensemble is arguably the crux of the experience.
For a moment, let’s actually judge P5 and FFXV by their covers. Without knowing the characters, looking at P5 in your hands, the cover features a cast of nine who all broadcast a very unique personality. Towering behind the group like a large shadow is a winged demon in Victorian clothing. The background features the skyline of Tokyo, and most notably: the color red. Whether we realize it or not, because we’re seeing young adults in fashionable attire alongside a Victorian demon, we know right away this game will probably be mixing fantasy elements with modern day life. Meanwhile, the red palette underneath it all creates a sense of urgency and excitement. Even if you don’t like the aesthetic, the cover is accurately broadcasting the tone of the adventure and the personalities of the ensemble.
Alternatively, the cover of FFXV shows a car and four men all doing various poses that don’t quite mean anything. For example, one of them is shrugging while simultaneously pointing to a cloud. The background is a natural terrain, and in the sky are shadows of giant creatures with sporadic lightning. It’s not an ugly cover, and like P5, it accurately foreshadows that the game will be mixing fantasy with a more contemporary setting. But otherwise I have no idea what I’m getting into by looking at it. And truth be told, the reason I put off playing FFXV as long as I did was because the characters seemed kind of bland by the series’ standard. It’s not that anything is inherently off about them individually. I actually like their vests a lot. It’s just that they’re all dudes in vests. In all media, the strength of an ensemble is often rooted in the diversity of the cast in all areas.
And while I stand by my opinion on what makes a strong ensemble, now having played FFXV all these years later, I have to say I misjudged our four boys. They are by no means the strongest cast of characters. Objectively speaking, they’re inherently less interesting than most of Final Fantasy’s roster. But the sense of ensemble is present between them, and the strength of it has made me consider what other elements go into making a strong ensemble in RPGs such as these.
FFXV immediately begins with a scene presumably near the end of the game. Prince Noctis, our protagonist, is bearded and bloodied, standing by flames and destruction. He looks nothing like our handsome friend on the cover of the game. He looks hardened by life, and on the verge of collapse.
Quickly, his three friends all rush to his aid in various ways. In a span of about 30 seconds, we see the three supporting characters (Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus) all leap in harm’s way for our hero. It is immediately apparent that they would give their life Noctis without a moment’s hesitation. Sure, it’s their royal duty, but it’s also their love for one another — a connection that is rarely so visible and genuine in a game.
The game quickly resumes its plot prior to this event. Young Noctis, perfectly angsty, meets with his father, the King. FFXV has a refreshingly simple plot setup for a series known to often drown in exposition: Noctis is soon to be wed, he needs to meet with his bride-to-be, and his three buddies need to get him there safely. Even more simply, it’s a game about growing up. With his royal responsibilities pending, Noctis can no longer idly spend his days with his three charming bodyguards — and that idle time is ironically what composes the heart of FFXV.
Alongside fighting monsters, most time spent in the game is relaxing by campfires, cooking, and fishing. Sometimes one of the three friends will ask Noctis if he wants to join them making breakfast or go for a quick run on the beach. These moments result in the party gaining additional experience, but they’re also the moments that stand out to me the most. Free of stakes and exposition, they are just scenes of friends genuinely wanting to spend a bit more time together before the adventure continues.
The game doesn’t bother telling us Noctis’ friendships are important, nor does it start with them as antagonists slowly warming up to each other. The game quite literally begins with the four of them pushing their car, which is out of gas, to the tune of Stand By Me. They were friends. They are friends. And even in the forecasted fires of the future — they will be friends.
I still think there’s more power in an ensemble like Persona 5, where each character has a wildly different voice and they’re all united by a shared spirit of rebellion. And I think of Final Fantasy VI as the pinnacle of the series’ casts, where we travel in an airship full of every type of character imaginable. Regarding XV directly, I can see the main plot eventually getting in the way of smaller moments that have pulled me into the game. Despite all this, what I’ve learned from FFXV is that you don’t need excessive numbers in the roster to have the cast feel like an ensemble. Sometimes the connection between the characters can stand out more strongly than the characters themselves.
If that’s the case, you don’t always need an airship. The car will do just fine.
Domino Drop Review
by Brendon Bigley
I place a domino down — it has a vertical orientation and is yellow on the top and bottom — and it causes a chain reaction that explodes downwards into a visual cacophony of numbers, leaving only a little stack left. I am lying on top of my bed and wearing my winter jacket, scarf, hat, and headphones when I turn around to look at the clock, and it is exactly time for me to leave. In one swift motion I grab my backpack and slip my shoes on as I close the door behind me. The world outside is cold.
If I’m being honest, my train platform is more like a parking lot. There’s literally nowhere to sit, and no overhang to use as shelter should the rain or snow decide to bless my commute. In the seven minutes between now and when the train will hopefully arrive, I take the opportunity to drop some more dominos.
As the minutes pass I silently acknowledge each passing commuter joining me on the platform, and they all stand in line exactly where they had twenty-four hours prior. I consider how weird it is that we’ve all picked “spots” to inhabit, and that I could tell you each person’s without knowing who they are in real life. I’ve seen their faces every day for four years, but we’ve never interacted in any meaningful way. Never even a “hello,” never even a nod.
But I still recognize almost every single person. I know when they get haircuts and I know when they get new shoes. I wonder if they recognize me too as the train arrives on time. I can’t believe it as I slip my phone back into my jacket pocket.
My trip, in total, takes just over two hours door to door. That number tends to shock people, and when they ask me how I do it my answer is always the same: I’m barely awake on the way there, and all I wanna do on the way home is decompress. Would I rather live closer to my office? Absolutely. But there are small joys in a long commute. Imagine sitting on your living room couch for one straight hour and just looking out the window. Imagine how weird that would feel. Guess where that’s not even the slightest bit weird, dear reader: That’s right. On a train.
Every day for about two hours I get to sit and space out and watch the world go by. Nobody questions it. In fact, it’s the expectation! Doing anything more than nothing is impressive. Getting any work done, listening to a podcast, reading a book — that’s all extracurricular to the table stakes of just sitting down and spacing out.
This morning, I am dropping dominos and listening to an album I’ve been meaning to check out. As I pause between moves, I watch as the trees and buildings and marshlands whip by. I consider taking a picture of the factory this morning, but I’ve already taken so many over the years. I look at my lock screen to check the name of the song as it wraps up. This is a really solid “train album.”
Nestled in a corner between four to five other passengers, I am dropping dominos on my second train of the morning. After years and years, I’ve mastered riding this particular train: During the morning rush I know which specific car to board and exactly where to stand. I know at which stops I should move out of the way of other passengers leaving and at which stops I can stay perfectly still and continue to drop dominos without worry. Three stops in I can find a seat without feeling guilty, although I’ll only be sitting until the fourth and final stop arrives all too soon.
I place a mobile order for a latte while I wait for the train doors to open because I hate money as much as I love caffeine. I switch apps to place one more domino before heading to the subway, or as I like to call it: The Subterranean Way. I am a big time idiot.
My last train of the morning is a quick one, but just long enough to drop a few more dominos. I’ve been playing the same round since I first woke up this morning, but I’m still nowhere near my own high score. At a certain point, the game becomes more about avoiding fuck ups than anything else, and I’ve hit that point. I am fully immersed.
For the first time ever, I miss my stop and have to walk eight blocks downtown to my office.
When fall turns to winter I get nosebleeds once or twice a day, usually without warning. In this particular instance I was in the middle of a meeting, and there are now about ten people sitting in a conference room wondering if I’ll come back.
I find that when I play Domino Drop all the way to work, everything else around me fades away entirely. I’ll begin to act purely on impulse instead of scrutinizing every potential move. When I achieve this zen-adjacent flow-state, I play better than ever.
But this is not the case when blood is flowing from my nose. In a game about avoiding fuck-ups, I am fucking up every possible move. After about two solid hours of playing the game on the way to work, it’s in this weird carpeted alcove in the bathroom that it all comes undone. With one hand clenching my nostrils together and the other swiping left and right, I am trying to force myself into that same zen-adjacent state I’d entered gracefully so many hours earlier. This never works. Almost as quickly as my nosebleed began, the game is over. I’ve lost.
The game comes to a screeching halt, and prominently displays my disappointing score. On the top left of the screen, a small number denotes the amount of games I’ve played in total: 1773.
On my commute home, I will start 1774.
Domino Drop for iOS: 10/10
Video Games Do Not Exist
by Kyle Starr
The year is 20XX. Video games do not exist. They never have.
But tomorrow they will.
And when they come, all of today’s modern technology and tools will be available to their creators. There will have been no precedent other than their analog counterparts, which — come to think of it — consist of cardboard, cards, metal or plastic tokens, dice, tiles, paper, pencils, backpacks, guns, talking… walking… geese…
The first ones will be clunky; nigh unplayable. But without limitations in technology, we’ll quickly learn what’s acceptable, butt up against new limitations, and impose our own.
The first will feature a camera moving around a space. The next will include music. Then voice over. Then a third-person perspective and objects to interact with. Some will simply be digital recreations of analog forms. Maybe you’ll simply speak to them. Maybe you’ll move a character from left to right, or maybe right to left. Maybe you’ll console a character. Maybe that character is actually a real person. Maybe you’ll discover the nuance of an intimate relationship, or the complexity of geopolitics. Maybe all you’ll do is observe and sustain an ant farm, a household, or a city. Maybe it’ll strictly be text, or nothing at all — just a voice.
You’ll play them on a smartphone, a first-party handheld device, a TV, a computer, a watch. Perhaps you’ll play these through goggles or virtual assistants. Maybe your phone will ring or you’ll receive a text message that informs you to open an email that tells you to navigate to a particular GPS coordinate in your neighborhood, then open an app to reveal a new clue.
Each is an experience. Each requires an interaction. But they are not simply interactive experiences. The act of reading these words, right now, is an interactive experience. The mode of input varies. The goals vary. The display, playback, or broadcast will vary.
Perhaps the constant is a digital device. It may not be the only artifact necessary to partake in the experience, but it’s a requirement.
Perhaps the other requirement is agency or the illusion thereof. You’ve been spewing thousands of opinions on social media, but you know damn well that you have no control or influence to change the world in a single tweet. But in this limited, digital experience, you play god. An analog god over a digital domain.
So, what are these things? What are these experiences? Some are games. Some are simulations. Some are stories. Some are lessons. The same as any form of book.
But they don’t come on paper. They come to us through video — “an electronic medium for the display of visual media”; a screen — but maybe also a speaker, or require a pen and paper.
With unlimited creativity and technologies that can produce images that rival reality, these things reshape what we know of interaction and storytelling. They unlock our ideas of what worlds and systems should or shouldn’t be — human-made full-sensory utopias and dystopias. They are as simple as connecting dots and as complex as connecting people.
So, what do we call them?
Kyle Starr is a Publishing and Platform Manager for a big tech company. He’s a practicing musician and web developer. He writes about video games at zerocounts.net. Find him on Twitter at @_kylestarr.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally published in the Patron-only October issue. We wanted everyone to read it!)
Until next time,
Stephen + Brendon + Friends