ahoy

I’d been following Sea of Thieves with interest since its initial trailer, but now that it’s out I find myself in a situation similar to that of a bookworm in a literature program. It behooves you to be guarded about things you get excited about, because the first and most immediate reaction of those around you is to to find fault with it. Not because they’re terrible people, but because it’s what they do. And that kind of mindset, while no doubt necessary for the advancement of mankind, really isn’t any fun. Not to be around, and not to carry between your ears, either.

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So I’m sailing around on my little sloop pretty much alone. It’s clear — you don’t need me to tell you; the press around the game made clear long ago — that it would be best to play with others. So your poor frantic fingers aren’t busy fumbling down the sail AND the anchor as you pull into port, for example. Or so you don’t — as I do — abandon mooring dockside altogether and simply commit to sloshing your way back and forth to your ship a safe distance from shore — where you won’t bang it into the dock and sink it when you sail away again. Or so there’s someone else to help carry all the chickens.

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Sharks? Skeletons? Storms? No. The real horror in this game comes from realizing that you can accidentally drown your chickens if you hold their cages too low in the water. That frantic flapping and the bubbles rising from that beak will have you slamming the up key like nothing else.

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Even so, though, sailing is a beautiful experience in this game. I know I’ve sung the praises of that old Pirates of the Caribbean PC game — the one that came out before there was more than one movie; the one that had far too small a map but which I clung to slow travel within, preferring entirely the endless swell of the horizon to the fast travel of the zoomed-out map — and I’ve probably gone on about having read the Patrick O’Brian books, Horatio Hornblower, etc. etc. I played Sid Meier’s Pirates! and a couple shitty knock-offs or remakes. I’ve read every damn novel about female pirates in the English language. My bar is low. I just want to sail. And the sailing is gorgeous.

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Would I like a comrade or two? Sure. The ability, like in Pirates!, to careen off into the sunset with a tavern mistress or a governor’s daughter (or son, I suppose), and embroider a story to go along with those escapades? Definitely. But even without all that, the sailing is enough for me. The characters’ art style would have pushed me away, had the sailing not been there. Everyone looks like they just walked out of James and the Giant Peach, if with a far brighter color palette — and I loathed the art direction for James and the Giant Peach. But that doesn’t end up mattering much, because most of your time isn’t spent looking at other humans, let alone at yourself: it’s spent gazing at the waves as you try to keep your prow pointed into them.

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And they really are waves. They will crash onto your deck if you don’t do the obvious thing and steer into them. They will foam and froth when whipped up by the wind. If you abandon your boat to bob in them, you will indeed bob, and while I’ve never been one given to nausea or motion-sickness, that very distinct up-and-down heave sends a thrill of terror through me every time. I like looking at the actual ocean. Not being in it. It’s endless and dark and it doesn’t give a fuck. The ocean is terrifying.

But I bring it up just to point out how good the waves are in this game.

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There are settlements. Quests. People. Outfits and improvements one can make to oneself and one’s equipment and one’s ship. Hell, you can even choose from an array of snazzy figureheads to affix to your prow — if you’re rolling in gold, anyway. But I’m not here for any of that. I came to fill my sails and steer into the sunset, and the game does that really well.

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Maybe one day I’ll even get to use my cannons.

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ticking

When I was six, I came sobbing into the computer room where my mother was gaming late at night. I couldn’t sleep, I said, and when she asked why I said it was because of the ticking of the Peter Rabbit clock on the wall — a recent gift from British friends who had since returned home.

clock

One of the unending, little losses that pile up after a parent is gone is that fact that you can’t ask them, as an adult, what thoughts they had that never reached your ears, as a child. How they dealt with things; made sense of them. I have no idea how my mother interpreted this particular outburst internally, but outwardly she was extremely practical about it. First she ordered me back to bed, assuming (not without reason for suspicion) that I was likely grandstanding and making an unnecessary fuss about bedtime. Then when she still heard me sniffling down the hall, she came in, removed the clock, and delivered me into blessed silence.

It wasn’t as though I was sitting there contemplating my own mortality as a six year-old, of course — nor am I particularly given to melodrama when I hear clocks now. But I can hear the ticking of a watch on someone’s hand from all the way across a room. Whether it’s in the middle of a conversation or tolling dolorously from the wrist of someone who has fallen asleep in a chair, that infernal ticking drives me up the wall, similarly to the way people who can’t sit still and have to jog their foot constantly drive me up the wall. Just sit still, for fucksake.

It’s surprising to me, then, how staggered I am by the theme for The Crown, which in its best episodes sweeps in at the end over a series of cuts, imperious and inexorable. Rupert Gregson-Williams* does the score, and like Hans Zimmer’s theme for Interstellar (and for that matter Inception too), there is very much the ticking of the clock about its plunge onward, despite the travails, international and deeply personal, it oversees as it marches towards the end credits.

In the episode Dear Mrs. Kennedy, however, the same theme gives, for once, a constancy and a comfort more terrible, maybe, than when it streams forth unfeeling for those over whom it plays. Because what runs beneath the theme are, yes, vignettes, as before, but here they are all strung together by radio and television coverage of the Kennedy assassination. What runs under the theme, then, are words and images we already know very well, so rather than being tasked with the taking-in of new information we can take a step back — the same step back allowed to Elizabeth, who was not, this time, the primary recipient of the blows the fall during the episode — and let it, well, sweep over us. Sweep us, to some extent, away.

And the fact that this is a comfort, in this episode, is ghastly. But there it is. There should be something inexorable about that onward march of time, to be sure, but typically — both in the final minutes of each episode of The Crown, and in life — the inexorability is a thing to be feared. But here, that push onward serves the same purpose, musically, that religious people saying “this too shall pass” does. How horrific that something so damaging brings such comfort. But then, compared to the damage playing out on radios and televisions round the world at that time…compared to the damage Jackie Kennedy carried as stains, insistently and against the wishes of those who tried to clean her up…it is, perhaps, a lesser blow. A lesser evil.

“That’s the thing about unhappiness,” Elizabeth says to the screen, in answer though to her mother, who has just asked about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage. “All it takes is for something worse to come along for you to realize it was happiness after all.”

sleet

 

*Who was nominated, incidentally, specifically for the score for the Hyde Park Corner episode, the first one which had me crying as I watched it, splicing as it does between the ailing king singing with one daughter (and being urged by her to turn and see the people who love him as he sings past his stammer), and trying to look after the other through speaking with her husband with this, the last of his strength and quite literally his breath, and then fading into the mist…