Walking In The Sand: Belated Thoughts On Punchdrunk’s “The Drowned Man”

In October, as part of our vacation to London, we took in two viewings of Punchdrunk’s latest production, The Drowned Man. Despite promises to write about it, I never did.

The show ended its run tonight. So what better time to finally try to draw some thoughts together than tonight, after the show can never be seen again?

The general format is, for the most part, as it was for Sleep No More: the masks; the loops; the roughly three hours; a vast space to explore.

The story is not Shakespeare, but instead Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck crossed with Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. The narrative is expressed through two parallel tracks running almost in mirrors through the space. It is not a 1920’s hotel in Scotland (actually a six story building in Chelsea), but a 1960’s American movie studio and surrounding village (actually an abandoned post office opposite Paddington Station). The cast feels exponentially larger: eight per “side” of the story, with fourteen in the middle, for a combined cast of around thirty.

With the mechanics out of the way, here are my scattered memories of the two visits, eight months removed:

After far too many visits to SNM, the struggle of trying to figure out a new space was such a joy. My mental map for the McKittrick is a seared memory, so to be faced with four gigantic floors and no sense of where anything was felt very liberating. It was also terrifying for the first hour, as the fear of missing out comes on strong.

I had always felt a little disappointment that there wasn’t more to be found in Sleep No More that was truly hidden – I’m aware of one passageway, and I was taken through it in my first visit. But the space in Temple Studios was full of these rooms – hidden behind curtains, across darkened hallways, and through tunnels in the sand. This made me ridiculously happy on multiple levels, and all of the rooms had that level of Punchdrunk set dressing love that I remembered so fondly. The reel-to-reel room, the sunflower room, the foley room; the entire desert floor, the church, the wardrobe; the Masonic Temple, the board room, the drugstore…so many of the rooms are unforgettable.

The soundtrack was impeccable, a mix of early 60’s American classics (think Shangri-Las and Avalons) and, strangely enough, the soundtrack from Perfume – The Story of a Murderer. “The Method Works!” is the most parallel to the use of Bernard Herman’s “Prelude and Rooftop” from SNM.

Casting was unsurprisingly strong, and it’s hard to not to want to give Sam Booth (in the above video) credit for his portrayal of Leland Stanford. He looms large over the goings-on, and hit just the right air of confident, disarming, and haunting.

It is rather tragic that TDM has come to a close, and while part of me wants to hope they’ll shut down SNM and convert the space, I also know that there aren’t many places in NYC that could contain that show. The space was truly massive, and as the obsessives on the TDM Spoilers FB group have detailed with the map, used very creatively. The majority of one of the floors was converted to an abandoned car park specifically for two characters to do one-on-ones in. I want to see the show live on, but I know the odds are slim.

If there is a lasting memory to be had of the show, it is this:

On our second visit, I applied the Don’t Stick Around For Scenes You’ve Already Seen rule, zipping out of a room if I got even the sense that I had perceived it before. Within my first half an hour, I came across a distraught woman in the saloon, being strongly compelled onto a stage. I stood close by and watched as Faye Greener – being played that night by Miranda Mac Letten – lip synced her way through Walking In The Sand by The Shangri-Las. It ended with her in tears, being comforted by her husband Harry, and returning to their run down room in the local motel.

That moment itself wasn’t the lasting memory. It was later in that show, when I happened into the same part of the loop and again saw Faye move towards the stage. And despite my better judgement and knowing I should go see someone else? I stayed put. It was that strong – that convincing – that I couldn’t look away.

And ultimately, that’s what I want out of theatre, and why I keep going back to immersive shows. I want the heart to win out over the head.

The Drowned Man is now closed. You can never go home anymore.

June

It’s been over two months since my last post, which is terrible. I hope to write something a little more in depth soon, but here’s some general updates for the sake of not losing track of what’s happened in my life.

JC in Spring

The weather finally turned, ending my terrible hatred of the outside that developed over a brutal winter.

Enjoying a Bottled Negroni

We went to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic Gala for the first time. It will probably be the only time: it’s a fun event, but it’s also intensely packed. I enjoy nice cocktails, but I like not moving around as a herd to get them.

The American Dream (Which Might Be A Turkey Leg)

US Soccer came to town for a friendly against Turkey in their run-up to the World Cup. Many soccer things happened, including me making a joke about Landon Donovan that could’ve gone disastrously. Thankfully, it did not.

Gervais

I saw Ricky Gervais again at the Paley Center, this time talking about Derek. It was nearly 10 years ago when I last saw Gervais at what was then the Museum and Television and Radio, which had some special significance. It’s weird to see someone like that twice separated by a decade.

I turned 34. Somehow, I don’t have a picture of any of the weekend’s activities, but heartfelt gratitude to all the friends and folks who came out to my overly planned birthday festivities. Love you all.

Woy In The Jungle

The World Cup started. If we’re playing the “Dan denotes everything of his life in stages”, the 2014 World Cup marks the completion a four-year World Cup cycle since I got back into soccer, since it was the start of the 2010 World Cup that brought me back. I have been busy getting up at 6 every morning to write about the Copa Das Copas. It has been a fantastic tournament. I will be sad when it’s over.

First Goal In An Eternity

I played my first game of soccer in 16 years, as part of the first annual Media Game at Red Bull Arena. Being completely out of shape, I spent much of the match sucking wind or getting burned. I also took a bump on a challenge, fell on my arm, and have had lingering pain for the two weeks since. But I did score one goal, and managed to celebrate it like a complete nerd, as illustrated above.

Just After Midnight

After having made something like 20 podcast appearances, I finally made my first ever television appearance, doing a 10 minute spot on NY1’s “Sports on 1: The Last Word” with Budd Mishkin last Thursday. If there’s anything I miss about living in Astoria, it’s not getting NY1 anymore, so I have not yet seen my own appearance. But a friend from work took the above screen cap, I’m getting a copy of the show on Thursday, and the producer sent me some kind words this morning, so, I’ll take it.

Gaming wise: on PS4, enjoyed the hell out of the Destiny Alpha, had a blast with Sportsfriends during my birthday, and I’m really digging Valiant Hearts: The Great War. On Steam, Nuclear Throne, Full Bore, and Shovel Knight have been good distractions over the steady hum of Dota 2. iOS, nothing substantial – mostly just Disco Zoo and Two Dots.

That’s all for now, I suppose.

KYS

A decade ago, I inexplicably got invited to present at Apple Store SoHo. For an hour, I tried my best to regale Apple Store customers with game demos, a few jokes, and my best sales pitches. It was my first real-world post-college “presentation”.

It was pretty bad, from what I can recall.

These days, I can’t seem to stop talking. I’ve given two work-related talks in the last month. I’ve appeared on four podcasts in the last week. I actually like speaking in public.

What’s the difference between now and then? Knowing.

It’s knowing what you’re talking about, and trusting in that knowledge. It’s easy to fill yourself with doubt when speaking publicly, and worry that you might make a fool of yourself. Truth is, so long as you can speak naturally, you won’t.

It’s knowing your audience. Who’s listening, and what are they expecting? What do they want to get out of it? Figure that out, and focus on it.

It’s knowing your tools. Some expertise in PowerPoint or Keynote goes a long way, sure. But know what your laptop does when you plug it into a projector. Know if the venue even has a projector. (Sometimes it doesn’t.)

It’s knowing how to tell a story. Maybe there’s a hook, maybe there’s a twist, maybe there’s a moral or punch line. Your job is to get your audience to that payoff in an interesting way.

It’s knowing when to talk, and when to let things breathe. Silence feels uncomfortable, especially in front of a crowd. Giving your ideas space lets them develop and sink in. Avoid talking just to fill the silence. Avoid stating the obvious.

It’s knowing how to improvise. Network connections go down, so figure out what you’d do without the live demo. Questions come out of left field, so be game for anything. Figure out how to deal with curveballs.

And here’s the curveball in my advice: presenting isn’t any different from the rest of your life. All these skills? You need them just as much when you’re not waving your arms at slide decks.

Don’t treat it as a separate activity. You’re always presenting. You probably just didn’t know it.

March

March.

I am walking down Vesey Street, or what would have been Vesey Street, had there not been the constant construction, Fernet Menta on my tongue, and the glimmering remains of sunlight on the horizon ahead.

I am meeting people I have only known over email, and I am learning so damn much.

I am responding to an email about a friend who ripped me off, to an acquaintance who is concerned about the well-being of said “friend”. I assure the acquaintance that given a pocket-dialed voicemail weeks prior, the “friend” is likely still drawing breath.

I am at The Dead Rabbit, constantly. Always on Fridays.

I am switching my phone between arms, extending it back into a scrum, hoping to catch something resembling a quote from the front office of a team that hasn’t yet hired a player.

I am at dinner, talking about authenticity, and marketing, and college over spicy tripe and pici carbonara. I am right about the lemon bars, but that’s less about me and more about the lemon bars.

I am in a locker room, getting pushed in the back by a cameraman who is grumbling loudly about not being able to get a shot. I was here first. I relinquish my spot so that he’ll stop whining. I am not thanked.

I am throwing up just a little in my mouth. I am regaining my composure.

I am perpetually on the phone: solving problems, comforting, joking, advising, and trying my damnedest to get things done without losing my composure.

I am trying to perfect my marinara recipe. It’s not bad, it just could be better.

I am coming up to the surface from below; the last vestiges of the sunlight is gone.

I am explaining a joke that involved someone in Portland (Oregon) casually soliciting me for an illegal drug. The person I am explaining the joke to, who was rather aggrieved that I would make such a joke in the first place, responds “Ha, fair enough. What part of town? I’m more surprised it was meth, not heroin.”

I am asking for feedback but getting very little. It is okay. I am used to this.

I am breaking news and getting name dropped, which is quite a change from a year ago.

I am playing games: Infamous Second Son and Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls and Luftrausers and Goat Simulator and South Park Stick Of Truth and Zoo Keeper Versus. They are all enjoyable in their own ways.

I am tired of the cold, and tired of telling people I’m tired of the cold.

I am standing at a soccer-related party, with Katie and my friend Dave. The team comes out. Katie shouts “THIERRY!” as Thierry Henry walks by us. He looks over, and smiles. She puts her hand up. He high fives her emphatically. All I can think: wait, did that just happen?

I am inserting myself in someone else’s drama. I know this is never a good idea.

I am at a bar I haven’t been to in six years drinking alone. People I see frequently/occasionally/never show up. We share that smile of friends that don’t intersect as much as we promised we would.

I am eating at a restaurant I haven’t been to in eight years. It has lost whatever limited character it had.

I am wondering when I became so numb to the rich variety of my life that I started believing that very little happens during my average month.

Cheers to The Dead Rabbit

Despite it seeming to have been burned into my genes, I have never been much for drinking. Call it something between a character quirk, a lifestyle choice, and an explicit desire to not act like a complete fool. It was only within the last five years or so that I began to appreciate alcohol a bit more.

New York, being a rather thirsty city, has endless opportunities for those who need a drink. Dive bars, frat bars, pubs, trendy cocktail lounges, speakeasies – the city manages to run the gamut from slouchy to upright, from $2 PBR to $15+ for a mid-shelf cocktail.

Over the last decade, I had not yet found that one place to drink, the bar that feels like home. Something not snooty, not a dive, but just kind of nice. Somewhere with character, but not a gimmick. Somewhere preferably with decent food (because drinking on an empty stomach is deadly). A decent location. Those sorts of things.

It was April 27th of last year when I first stepped foot into The Dead Rabbit, and knew pretty quickly that I had finally found that one place. Downstairs was pints and meat pies, an absurd collection of irish whiskey, and high-quality takes on classic cocktails. Upstairs was teacups of punch and dollar oysters, someone at the piano, and bartenders in red shirts and suspenders moving so rapidly between tincture bottles it’s occasionally indistinguishable from magic.

I defy anyone to try the Irish Coffee and not fall in love.

So try to ignore their daunting list of industry honors after only being open one year: “Best New Bar”, “World’s Best Cocktail Menu”, those sorts of things. Try to put the long wait to get upstairs out of mind. It’s worth it. It’s incredibly worth it. And I say that as someone who’s not much of a drinker.

To Jack, to Pam, to Chris, to Anna, to James, to Laura: happy birthday, friends, and thank you for everything.

Games of 2013: The Best, And The Rest

Some Of The Rest Of The Games Of 2013

As eluded to in the last post – which was a month ago – this series was perhaps doomed this year. It is hard to want to write about games when there are still so many to play.

That said, I still want to call out the remainder of the games I was going to write-up (I do try to plan this out), as well as the handful of games I was going to include in the “The Rest” compendium at the end of the series.

I need closure. Bear with me as we whiplash through about 40 games in rapid succession.

The Best

Surgeon Simulator 2013 (PC/Mac) was perhaps the best surprise of the year; not since QWOP have janky controls lead to such perverse hilarity. It’s one of the few games I got 100% completion on – until they added the expansion levels, at least. (I am still waiting for an eSports league specific to the game, even though my skills are a bit rusty.)

It was a good year for unique storytelling. Blackbar (iOS) brought us into dystopia through redacted text; Papers, Please (PC) showed us a different utopia through the bureaucracy of immigration. Gone Home (PC/Mac) had us exploring an strange empty house with a sense of dread. And, in an experience that isn’t over yet, Kentucky Route Zero (PC/Mac) helped re-invent the point and click adventure. (The way to best enjoy KRZ: pour a glass of iced tea, add a shot of whiskey, turn out the lights, and let the game take it from there.)

In the first game to ever make this list twice, a remade and revamped version of The Stanley Parable (PC/Mac) came out. Absolutely can’t miss for people who love narrative structure and the tweaking of video game conventions.

Trading card games made a pretty huge leap this year, as everyone seemed to be making one. Scrolls (Mac/PC) seems promising from the bit I’ve played of it, and Hearthstone from Blizzard will undoubtedly be huge. Other upstarts like Ironclad Tactics (PC/Mac) and HEX (PC) are filling the niche as well. Yet weirdly, it was a little simple card game called Lil Alchemist (iOS) that stole my heart and a solid month of gaming during my daily commute to work.

Spurred on somewhat by The Binding Of Isaac, the roguelike formula crept into more action games this year. Super House Of Dead Ninjas (PC) is frantic, tense, and addictive as hell. Rogue Legacy isn’t quite as frantic but controls great and has some fantastic metagame elements. Risk Of Rain did so much right, including bringing multiplayer into the equation. And Spelunky (PC/PS3/Vita) freed itself from the clutches of Xbox exclusivity to be an instant Steam classic.

The beta finally hit at the end of the year, but no matter: Starbound is exactly what I wanted it to be when I pre-ordered it. Once the last character wipe happens, there goes my free time.

I gave top honors to Sleep No More in 2011, and while it’s not the top spot in 2013, Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is, like its predecessor, a must-experience. I was lucky enough to make two trips during the week we spent in London; it is in many ways what I wanted SNM to be. The set dressing is immense, the soundtrack perfectly picked, and the cast is devastatingly talented. The run’s been extended, so if you find yourself in London, don’t hesitate – just go.

Valve finally pushed DotA 2 to 1.0 status in 2013. As someone who has dabbled in MOBA games before, and who was overwhelmed with DotA when I tried the earlier beta, I wasn’t sure the hook would ever come. The point it did turned out to be during The International, the massively hyped tournament that becomes oddly compelling television. I remain pretty poor at the game as a whole, but I’m having fun, and I suppose that’s what counts.

And thus, with the rest of the major candidates out of the way, my Game Of 2013 is Bioshock Infinite. It is by no means perfect, or flawless, or without its detractors. But the ambition connected more times than I could have ever expected, the storytelling hit all the right notes, and I left Columbia feeling wholly satisfied. More than any other game I played in 2013, it had a lasting sense of place and atmosphere, one that I can still feel 9 months removed from playing through the first time.

The Rest

And now, the speed round for everything I didn’t play enough of (or didn’t love or hate enough) to warrant inclusion in the larger list.

868-HACK – a quirky roguelike on iOS. Fun, challenging, but not quite the same infectious hook of other roguelikes.

The Last Of Us – in what I’m sure is a criminal act, I only got a few hours in, and lost interest given other titles that came calling. I hope to get back to it sometime this year.

Dragon’s Crown – a glorious side scrolling beat’em’up that I pray gets a PS4 port so I can play on the big screen.

Intake – a hidden gem on Steam that kind of mixes Ikaruga and skillful clicking. Really addictive but not so deep.

Tearaway – the reason to own a Vita. Delightful 3D platformer from the Media Molecule team. If you can play it, do so.

GTA V – another casualty of too many games coming out this year. Certainly loved it, but GTA games require an absurd time commitment to truly wrap your hands around them.

Super Motherlode – a surprisingly fun driller/exploration title available on PSN at the PS4 launch. Really needs network play, though.

Need For Speed: Rivals – a really well executed racer, ruined by an over the top plot about authoritarian cops and the racers they chase. Criterion, please go back to making Burnout games.

Antichamber – a first-person puzzle that’s just going to make your head hurt. Worth a look if you loved Portal.

Super Amazing Wagon Adventure – Oregon Trail meets a side scrolling shooter on acid. An acquired taste, I suppose.

Gunpoint – a very well done action puzzler, full of intrigue and jumping great distances to kill people.

PAYDAY 2 – I liked the concept of the first PAYDAY, but didn’t like the execution. Problem solved in the sequel – if only I wasn’t so many levels behind everyone else.

Mercenary Kings – still in Early Access mode, this Kickstarter-funded title feels like the second coming of Contra. Will be incredible when the final version releaes.

Saints Row IV – after loving Saints Row 2 and 3, I actually felt let down by 4. The Saints finally overextended, and it felt repetitive and played out.

The Secret World – probably the only MMO I’ve enjoyed in a good long while. Weird, but good.

La Mulana – the indie darling finally hit Steam and made me acknowledge once more how terrible I am at video games.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – a Western FPS that, besides being well executed, does some fun things with the storytelling. Surprisingly worthwhile.

Shadowrun Returns – needs more of my time and love, but as someone who clocked way too many hours on the SNES Shadowrun game, I can’t not love this.

Tomb Raider – the least offensive Lara Croft game in years. Have not gotten far and may be compelled to dip for the PS4 remake coming out next week.

The Wolf Among Us – Telltale’s latest is much more appealing to me than The Walking Dead, especially the gorgeous art style.

Games of 2013: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Those who tend to hone in on this series over December may have noticed that an entire week went by without a post. There’s an understandable reason.

Besides work, life, and the standard holiday crazies, this is the first time since I started doing this end of year series that we’ve actively hit a new console generation – one that started just a month before I was due to start writing. This has lead to an unfortunate crash of priorities: do I write about games, or do I play them?

While both the PS4 and the Xbox One are not exactly killing it with exclusive launch titles, there are some excellent multiplats that joined the generation, and the one that’s struck me the most is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, or as some have opted to refer to it, Pirate’s Creed.

AC has been one of those series for years that I’ve wanted to like much more than I actually ever ended up did. The first one was an exercise in janky framerates. The second was stronger, but followed by two not-entirely-necessary followups. The third game was a step backwards.

But Black Flag finally shatters the cement wall of apathy for three key reasons, which are occasionally helped by being on next gen platforms:

First, the framerate is finally stable and playable.

Second, they’ve created a plot that is stripped down in the right places (the endless modern day drama with Desmond Miles is replaced with you being a nameless Abstergo employee) and scaled up in others (the West Indies is your playground for a pirate adventure).

Lastly, building on the pirate setting, the game is just damn fun. Whether you’re exploring random islands, taking down naval forts, harpooning sharks, or just terrorizing any boat that comes anywhere near you, you’ve got a wide array of activities at your disposal.

It’s still flawed, with the main plot line including a number of painful stealth missions and the combat still being a clumsy ballet. But when you’re drifting over the waves in the Jackdaw, it’s easy to forget the jinxed pedigree of the series, and feel like you’re playing something entirely new. That’s quite the accomplishment for Ubisoft.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is available on most every modern platform. My experiences were with the PS4 version.

Games of 2013: Divekick

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Divekick

In the twenty years that fighting games have been a integral part of the gaming landscape, I’ve learned one very important thing: I’m terrible at them.

It’s not for the lack of trying. the Street Fighters, the Mortal Kombats, the Samurai Showdowns, the Tekkens, the Soul Caliburs, the Brand X vs. Brand Y, Guilty Gear, Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters, Dead Or Alive…I’ve tried them all. I love the pure competition of fighting games, but I just don’t have the precision muscle memory (or countless hours to burn) to really excel.

Enter Divekick. Strip everything you know about fighting games and reduce it to two buttons: Dive, and Kick. (There’s no joystick.) First hit wins the round. First to five rounds wins the match.

In that simplicity, the genre boils down to something very pure, endless psych outs and feints. There’s still special moves and meters, sure, but without solid diving/kicking technique, you’re going to set off the fraud detection.

Some intentionally goofy characters and story lines round out what many ruled as a “joke game”. And while there wasn’t a ton of competition in 2013, it’s easily the best fighting game of the year.

Divekick is available for PS3, PS Vita, and PC. I spent time with all three versions.

Games of 2013: The Swapper

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Typically, when I do one of these posts, I include an image, something representative of the memories I have of the game.

The Swapper deserves a trailer because the screenshots were what stood between me and a purchase initially. There’s something just a little off about the screenshots, probably because the models and the world were apparently built out of clay. Some games just look better in motion, and this is one of them.

I don’t want to give too much away about The Swapper because it was such a surprise delight, but let’s just say it ticks all my boxes for a puzzle platformer: atmosphere, sound design, plot, difficulty, controls. Strongly recommended for those looking for something to puzzle over.

The Swapper is available for PC.

Struggling with the dark and responding to the light.