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Game Review: Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth

Many fantasy RPGs use the medieval era as a backdrop or inspiration to build their worlds: think The Witcher, Dragon Age, Divinity, Dark Souls. But even without the dragons, magic, witches and warlocks, there is something inherently fascinating about the era – it was, after all, a dangerous time rife with political intricacies, brutal wars and religious dogma; a time of towering castles, jousting knights and tyrannical kings.

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Enter The Pillars of the Earth, a story-driven point-and-click game set in 12th-century England. Based on the critically acclaimed 1989 novel by Welsh author Ken Follett, the game is divided into three books spanning 21 chapters and revolves around several characters, whose fates and lives are intertwined around the town of Kingsbridge. There’s Tom Builder, the mason whose life’s dream is to build a grand cathedral that will stand the test of time; Philip, a kind abbey prior who inadvertently gets dragged into a war involving two English lords; Jack, a young outlaw who grew up in the forest with his mother; Lady Aliena, a disgraced noblewoman who finds love in a most unexpected place; as well as a whole host of colourful, secondary characters.

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The world of Kingsbridge is one of upheaval and strife from the get-go. The country is in the middle of a war after the death of King Henry I, as two opposing factions vie for the crown – and the characters you play will all be embroiled in it one way or another. You start the game as Tom Builder, leading your family through the woods to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Your wife is pregnant, it’s the middle of a harsh winter, and you’re low on food and supplies. As things go, your wife dies in childbirth, and out of grief, you abandon your baby in the woods. Yep, this game pulls no punches – and this is just a small taster of what to expect in the following chapters.

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The real ‘star’ of the story, however, isn’t in its characters (although they are certainly unique and rich, with multiple layers). It is in the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral and what it represents. Ken Follet himself in interviews has said that his inspiration for the novel came from his fascination of medieval communities and their obsession with church-building. In medieval England, building a large and beautiful cathedral was seen as an everlasting monument to God, a way for them to make meaning of their lives and show their religious devotion. But at the same time, the church itself was a place rife with corruption, where bishops plotted to murder. Playing the game, I felt as if the characters are there to tell the story of the cathedral, rather than the other way around. Characters would live and die – but the Cathedral, despite being destroyed and rebuilt time and time again, would endure; the task of building it taken over by future builders. All this is beautifully brought to life with hand-painted portraits, each bursting with detail that makes each scene seem alive.

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That being said, TPoTE is not for everyone. The pace is extremely slow, and there aren’t a lot of climatic moments – it’s really more like reading a historical novel than playing a game, really. There isn’t much to do apart from interacting with objects. Your choices are not that important when it comes to the overarching narrative, but they do matter in relation to the fates of several characters and whether they live or die. You don’t get to solve puzzles other than a few easy ones which have more to do with using items in your inventory to interact with certain things on the screen than actually cracking your brain. And of course, once you’ve finished the game, there is very little replay value. Still, it offers good value — I completed mine in 12 hours, and I since I bought it on sale on Steam for RM15, I can’t complain.

Rating: 6.5/10

Book Review – Spiral by Koji Suzuki

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Remember that creepy chick who crawled out of the well, through the TV set and straight into our nightmares? The Ring wreaked havoc on an entire generation in the 1990s – kids (or at least, me) were afraid to turn on their TV sets in fear that the long haired woman with extremely clean clothes (I wonder what cleaning agent she uses?)would appear and lead them to die a horrible death. The movie ushered in a whole generation of Japanese horror that was creepy and brilliant, relying more on psychological horror and fear of the unknown over jumpscares, busty blondes being stabbed, and gore.

But before the film, there was… the book. Ring was the first of a series of novels by Koji Suzuki, where Sadako(aforementioned creepy chick) curses anyone who watches her videotape, dooming them to die horribly a week after. 

I read the first book a couple of years back, and it was scary – way scarier than the movie, I must say. It was a great piece of horror, praised as ‘combining Haruki Murakami with Stephen King’. You can read my read my review here

In Ring, journalist Kazuyuki Asakawa investigates a series of mysterious deaths where the victims appeared to have died from no apparent cause at the same time. This leads him to a videotape containing weird footage, which claims that he will die within 7 days if he doesn’t follow instructions at the end of the tape – but it has been erased as a joke by the earlier victims. Racing against time, he enlists help from his friend Ryuji Takayama to unravel the curse. They discover that the footage was imprinted by psychic Sadako Yamamura, whose hatred from being raped and murdered was channeled into the tape. Towards the end of the novel, it seems that the pair have unraveled the mystery, followed Sadako’s wishes and laid her body (which was thrown into a well) to rest.

The last few pages show that this was not the case at all. Ryuji dies, while Asakawa lives. Realising that the key to unravel the curse is to make a copy of the tape, Asakawa races to show two other people the cursed tape in order to save his wife and child, both of whom had watched the tape out of curiousity. The novel ends….

I recently got the second book in the series, Spiral, which picks up where the first left off. Can it live up to the first ? 

Synopsis: 

Coroner Ando Mitsuo is struggling to lead a normal life after the death of his son by drowning and divorce from his wife. It is then that the body of his ex classmate Ryuji is discovered, dead from mysterious circumstances. Ando and his colleague Miyashita discover a tumour as the cause of death, with symptoms similar to smallpox (now extinct). During the autopsy, a piece of newspaper comes out of the suture, with numbers on it. Curious, Ando deciphers them and discover the code ‘Ring’. This leads him to Ryuji’s former assistant and lover, Mai Takano. In search for answers, the two strike up a friendship.

Unbeknownst to Ando, Mai watches the copy of the tape left at Ryuji’s home and is infected with the Ring virus. She then disappears. Unable to find her, Ando continues digging deeper into the mystery, and discovers a copy of The Ring, written by Asakawa as a report, which details the entire incidence. He discovers that Asakawa, while not dead, has become catatonic after a car crash, where his wife and daughter are found dead from the curse despite him copying the tapes and showing them to someone else.

Too late, he discovers that the curse has mutated from video tape into Asakawa’s report, and that he has been infected with the curse after reading it. During this mutation, the characteristics of the curse changed, which meant that he did not die within the week. But the virus and Sadako has other plans – not just for Asakawa, but for the entire human race which might lead it to its extinction. Worst still, the report will be published as a novel and made into film and adapted to various media, which makes it virtally unstoppable…

Verdict: 

Spiral starts off differently from Ring. In the first novel, fear radiated off the first few pages instantly as we witness the last moments of one of Sadako’s victims, before we are gradually eased into the story.

Spiral, on the other hand, starts off with Ando, giving us a background of his broken personal life, and his gradual ‘spiral’ into the mystery – first as an observer and later his increasing involvement which endangers his life. However, it builds tension brilliantly, as the reader flips page after page wondering what comes next. Is Mai alive? What is the true nature of Sadako’s mutated curse? The novel plays on psychological fears with simple but effective prose : I felt my hairs standing on end while reading some parts in a quiet room alone at night.

A main characteristic shared by the protagonists in both novels is curiosity. Just like Pandora, Asakawa and Ando can’t help but search for answers until the bitter end. And like the ‘heroes’ in our story, the curious reader has to finish the novel in spite of ourselves.

Rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Thinner by Stephen King

Horror is one of my favourite genres, and when you talk about horror in  fiction, you can’t go by without thinking of Stephen King. In a career spanning decades and dozens of best selling novels that sent chills down our spines such as It and Pet Sematary, King is… well, king of horror novels.

I recently bought one of his older books, written under the pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, called ‘Thinner’, which was published in 1984. It even had a film adaptation, although I have yet to watch it.

Thinner centers around a well-to-do lawyer, William ‘Billy’ Halleck, who has a bank account and a career as generous as his gut. He lives the perfect life – beautiful wife, loving daughter, rich friends and comfortable lifestyle. All that changes when he is charged in court for knocking down an old gypsy woman and killing her, because his wife was giving him a handjob in the car. Thanks to ‘connections’ to a judge friend and the biased attitude of the police in dealing with the victims (the gypsies), Halleck slips off the hook. But not before old Taduz Lemke, father to the dead gypsy woman, lays a powerful curse on Halleck. He touches his cheek and simply whispers one word: ‘Thinner’.

Spooked but initially not thinking much of it, Halleck is merely relieved the whole episode is over. He goes on with his life… only to discover that he has been steadily losing weight. At first, it was a welcome change – he was a fat unhealthy person and shedding a few pounds was great, right? But then the drop doesn’t stop, and Halleck starts to worry that it might be something more sinister after treatments at the local clinic fail to diagnose anything wrong with him. His fears are confirmed when he realises his judge friend and local chief of police (who failed to do a fair and accurate investigation of the case) are suffering from weird ailments as well.

The next part of the story involves Halleck’s desperate race against time to locate the gypsies and get the old man to reverse the curse, before he withers down to nothing.With the help of his friend Richard Ginelli, a former client and mafia figure, they plan to make the gypsy remove the curse, or else…

Verdict

TBH, Halleck is not a very likeable character. He is weak-willed, refuses to take blame for his actions, and vengeful. The saying ‘Misery loves company’ applies to Halleck, because he comes to hate his wife whom he blames for his predicament.

King does write Halleck in such a way that readers are still intrigued to find out what his fate would be – whether he receives punishment or gets away scot-free. I actually found myself sympathising with the supposed ‘antagonist’, Taduz Lemke, and his travelling family of gypsies.

Here King touches on the theme of discrimination, and what we see as ‘good’ and ‘normal’. The ‘good’ folk and upstanding citizens of each suburban town treat the gypsies like dirt, always ready to blame them for any misfortunes. Despite that, they take what they can from the gypsies in the form of fortunes, entertainment, etc.  before unceremoniously kicking them out from town once they got tired of them. Society paints them as thieves, liars, bad men and women, who deserve to be in their place because they were, simply, gypsies.

The entire basis of the novel revolves around revenge and how it will eat us (ha!) from the inside out if we fail to find forgiveness in our hearts. ‘Revenge is sweet’…. but it also comes at a steep price, so to speak. The most terrible thing about it is that it often hurts the ones we love the most. Even unto the end of the novel, Halleck fails to acknowledge the fact that he made a mistake and that it cost the life of a woman. But if you wanna know if he is going to suffer from it, read the novel. 😛

Overall, I’d say ‘Thinner’ is a staple Stephen King novel: full of suspense and thrills. But it is also one of my more favourite novels, because his protagonist is kind of a prick and I found myself rooting for the ‘baddie’ instead. It is also one of his novels which have a deeper message instead of just scaring us shitless – on how society views people they deem of ‘lower standing’, and how, as I mentioned above, revenge brings nothing but hurt on ourselves.

7/10.