Mysteries do not need to be solvable

In the past year I’ve gotten into reading mystery novels, and this has reinforced one of my strongly held opinions about the genre. There is a mistaken preconception about mystery novels, that the reader ought to be able to solve the mystery. This simply is not true. There are some mystery stories that are meant be solvable, but it’s a minority of mystery stories that I’ve seen. Solvability is not the primary appeal of the genre, or at least it’s not the appeal to me.

The reason I know this, is because when I was young, we had a “complete works of Sherlock Holmes” book, which had all the short stories. I didn’t read them all, but I read enough to know that Sherlock Holmes stories were not solvable. Usually, Sherlock Holmes would pull some clue out of thin air, that hadn’t been mentioned before; or else there would be an event that led to the mystery being solved. It was unambiguous that most stories were not even trying to be solvable. The mysteries were trying, first and foremost, to be stories. There’s something the reader doesn’t know (rising tension), and then Sherlock Holmes explains it (releasing tension), and that’s a simple but effective narrative arc.

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Games that are just books

Back in 2021, I was persuaded to play a little game called The House in Fata Morgana. It’s a Japanese epic visual novel that follows a series of tragedies across the ages, each with multiple twists and turns, and a mysterious thread connecting them all. Throughout that entire time, the player only makes a handful of choices.  We might say that the game is basically a book–and a fairly long one at that, taking me 35 hours to finish.

I enjoyed it enough that I would play a few other long visual novels over the years. I read a couple furry visual novels—Echo and Adastra—and the Japanese visual novel STEINS;GATE. I’m currently reading Umineko When they Cry, which has about a million words, the length of a whole series of novels.

Something that occupies way too much of my brainspace, are those snide comments about visual novels on gaming websites: “It’s not much of a game if you’re not making any decisions.” On the one hand it denies the legitimacy of the visual novels–and on the other hand, it literally does nothing of the sort. After all, visual novels can be legitimate without being video games. Just as novels and movies don’t need to be games in order to be legitimate, neither do visual novels.

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More on the purpose of readings

In my previous post (which you may have missed, since FTB was down for a few days), I asked “What is the purpose of a reading?” I discussed a reading of Elden Ring that baffled me. I could not understand the purpose of the reading, other than arguing that it was intended by the authors. And the article didn’t really do anything to convince me of authorial intent.

I wanted to keep things simple, but my thoughts were spiraling outwards from there. So, if you permit, some more scattered discussion.

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What is the purpose of a reading?

In media analysis, we speak of “readings”, or interpretations of what’s going on in a work of (usually) fiction. Readings are not factual, they are fictional, and mutually contradictory readings can coexist. Naive readers often think that there’s just one right answer, which is to say whatever the author intended. However, authors can fail to fulfill their intentions, or else create something that goes in directions that they never intended. This is what’s meant by “death of the author”: a reading does not need to align with authorial intent in order to be a good reading.

But like a work of art, a reading can still be good or bad. And authorial intent is at least sometimes relevant to making that judgment. So let’s talk about a little reading that I saw a couple years ago that baffled me so much that I still think about it today.

In Gayming Magazine, there was an article talking about a queer reading of Elden Ring. I’m already on board, of course. The article started by observing that in a couple endings of the game, the player character becomes the “consort” of Queen Marika or Ranni the Witch. And generally, the game doesn’t really care whether the player character is male or female. So if you have a female player character, you can become the same-sex “consort” of a queen or a goth, and the game doesn’t really treat you any different for it. So that’s neat. That’s not the article that baffled me.

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Consent culture and fitness

In gay fiction, the nerd/jock romance is a very common trope. In the standard take, the jock is an attractive closeted high school boy with homophobic friends. The jock archetype works well in these stories, because he’s an object of desire that comes with a source of conflict and character arc for free. The jock archetype is emphatically not the same as jocks in real life.

I recently had occasion to read a gay romance (see review) that was allegedly true and autobiographical. So while it might be described as a nerd/jock romance, he’s a real jock, not the fictional archetype that I’m accustomed to in this context. He is not in high school, he does not have homophobic friends, rather he just spends a lot of time working out and being concerned about his appearance.

I was shocked how disagreeable it was to me, and why. The sticking point was that jocks (in the novel) do not observe consent culture.

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It bugs me about Nimona

cn: Lots of spoilers.  Also a suicide mention.

Nimona is a recent animated film taking place in a futuristic medieval setting. Lord Ballister was a commoner who was plucked by the queen to become a knight. Knights are sworn to defend the city from monsters beyond its walls, but they basically function as cops. However, during the knighting ceremony, Ballister is framed for killing the queen, and becomes a fugitive.

He gets adopted by Nimona, who at first appears as a young girl, but is a powerful shapeshifter. She calls him a villain, and insists on being his sidekick.  Although Ballister is initially reluctant, they work together to prove his innocence. But Ballister learns that he needs to go much further, striking at the heart of the city’s corrupt institutions and entire mythos.

Nimona is celebrated as a queer and trans movie, and for good reason. It has a trans creator, overt representation (Ballister having a male love interest and Nimona being fluid in both species and gender), and subversive themes about overthrowing the social and institutional structures that oppress people.

And so, I am very sorry to play the role of media curmudgeon, yet again. I found the themes of the movie to be in conflict with what was being literally portrayed. This gave the impression of a movie that had a point to make, but was ineffective at actually arguing the point.

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Heartstopper season 2

Last year, I gave a lukewarm review of Heartstopper, including the first season of the TV series, and the webcomic up to that point. Today, I will offer a few comments on season 2. Because despite me being fairly critical, you know that I’m into it.

Coming out

If season 2 has any central focus, it’s on coming out. Nick has committed to coming out to people at school at the beginning of the season, and he only gets around to it near the end of the season.

On the one hand, I appreciate the portrayal of coming out as a long and arduous process. In many stories, coming out is portrayed as a single confrontation, usually with parents. But in real life, there are so many people to come out to, way more than you can reasonably fit in a story. When an LGBTQ person is committed to coming out, it really is a long-term commitment, and you never stop.

On the other hand, a huge benefit of coming out for gay/bi men is that you can actually have a relationship in public. There are just so many things you cannot do in a same-sex relationship while closeted because people would find out. But this does not seem to present much of a benefit to Nick and Charlie, because they’re pretty much already doing the things that you can’t actually do while closeted.  They somehow find an endless supply of private spaces.  Quite a number of these private spaces are actually in public, they’re just treated as private for no real reason.  The low-stakes story seems to remove some of the major issues that motivate people to come out.

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