Counterspy: A lukewarm take on the Cold War


I was late to the Cold War party, but my introduction to it was unforgettable. I was already fascinated by video games and computers when my dad dragged me along to see Wargames, and the film left part of me changed, frightened. With its use of the term DEFCON and its depiction of an American military system so powerful and so paranoid that it almost destroys the world over a computer game, Wargames left me feeling like the world could end at any minute. 

Then I heard news stories about something called “Star Wars” and I knew they weren’t talking about the movie but about satellites and nuclear missiles, and I knew that in fact the world could end at any minute.


Counterspy takes its cues from an earlier Cold War era, with a space race storyline and music and art design reminiscent of 1960s spy movies.


But in its alternate-universe take on the struggle of competing superpowers to assert global superiority, victory is not achieved by getting a man into space or landing a man on the moon.


Although both the Imperialist States and the Socialist Republic are too arrogant and foolhardy to acknowledge it, as an agent for COUNTER, a spy organization with allegiances to neither nation, you know that such a nuclear strike would knock the moon out of orbit and send it plummeting catastrophically toward the Earth.

Underscoring the fact that the actual Cold War was both terrifying and absurd, loading screen facts sometimes inform us of how close we came to destruction:


and at other times refer to actual Cold War plans so irrational that it’s almost hard to believe they were ever real. 


The game tries to generate tension from the concept of trigger-happy nations racing to the brink of global, mutually assured destruction by making you consider the DEFCON level of each superpower.


Each level involves infiltrating a base on either side of the ideological divide to obtain documents needed to foil the moon scheme. The DEFCON level is raised if you are spotted by guards who report your presence, if you remain visible to security cameras, or if you run out of health. You can lower the DEFCON level by pointing your weapon at a high-ranking officer when there are no other enemies present. If the DEFCON is already at 1 and gets raised again, a countdown timer starts, and you must reach the computer console at the end of the level before time is up, or the missiles are launched.


It’s a concept with potential, but Counterspy fails to capitalize on it, primarily because the action just isn’t very good. The game tells you that, since levels are randomly generated, your experience will be different every time, but your experience sure doesn’t feel different. You enter a room, hide behind cover, maybe pop out and eliminate some enemies with easy headshots, scavenge for documents and other supplies, and move on. There’s a short-lived sense of superspy panache that comes with so gracefully and capably neutralizing threats, but it quickly becomes a matter of going through the motions. And when the game notches up the difficulty or the random nature of the levels does become noticeable, it’s always at the expense of the elegance that is the most appealing aspect of the gameplay. On higher difficulties, the action shifts from spy-like subtlety into chaos, with enemies firing so many rockets and chucking so many grenades your way that you feel less like James Bond and more like the Terminator. And level layouts sometimes make it difficult to just figure out where the enemy who is radioing your presence in is located, and how to get to him. 

The other problem is that, in the world of Counterspy, the threat of nuclear launch ends up being toothless. 


That’s it, I thought. The end of the world.

I thought that maybe when this happened, it was all over. Maybe I would have to start my struggle to prevent Armageddon over from the beginning. 


But no. You can just pick up right where you left off. Shrug off the end of the world and give it another try. This is a video game, after all.


In the Global Thermonuclear War of Wargames, the only winning move is not to play. In your attempts to defuse the world-jeopardizing global tensions of Counterspy, however, no real caution is required. Nothing is really at risk.

Some games are better off not having real consequences for failure. Some games only work because they make failure and defeat meaningful. Counterspy fails to make your failures significant, which just undermines the game’s attempt to generate tension around the possibility of the world ending in the first place.

Still, I appreciate Counterspy’s stance that, if either side “wins” the war for global domination, we all lose.



heroic journey

Yesterday a former colleague asked me what I’m playing now that I have a little more free time on my hands. I said that I’d gotten back into Dark Souls 2, and that, given the dreamily communicated nature of its quest, which allows for and even encourages symbolic interpretations, the game seemed especially appropriate amid the recent upheavals and new uncertainties of my life.

In a post in June, I said of the game:

I like that in Dark Souls 2, there is no real escape from the despair. You are alone in a bleak and desolate landscape. While so many games get so bogged down in lore, rooting their events to a specific time and place that is not our own, Dark Souls 2’s dreamlike narrative simplicity—a curse, a king, a land in despair, ancient evils that must be overcome—lets your quest in it take on all kinds of symbolic meanings.

You see other players as phantoms; they are vaguely defined, can’t be touched, and disappear as quickly as they appear. Like getting bittersweet glimpses into a life you wish you could be playing a more real part in, but that you just can’t reach. Does it make you feel less alone, or more alone? Sometimes I fall asleep or wake up in this body that still often feels all wrong to me, thinking that the effects of a lack of touch can seep into your soul like a sickness, or maybe a curse. But maybe they can also be healed, someday, if you survive the quest.

You can call on other players for help, and then they can have an impact on your world, but it can’t last. As soon as they’re defeated, or you conquer the area’s boss, your companions are sent back to their own games, their own worlds. And I think about how everything is fleeting, how things end before they get started, how there’s no chance for real feeling, for real love, to take hold in our lives without time. But sometimes it can’t be escaped, the reality of facing time alone with our own soul before we can give ourselves to and find ourselves in others, overcoming despair, finding hope or giving up. I’m not giving up.

Today, I finished reading the book Communion: The Female Search For Love by bell hooks. The penultimate chapter begins with these words:

Women who choose to love must be wise, daring, and courageous.

All around us the culture of lovelessness mocks our quest for love. Wisdom is needed if we would restore love to its rightful place as a heroic journey—arduous, difficult—more vital to human survival and development on planet Earth than going off to slay mythical dragons, to ravage and conquer others with war or all other forms of violence that are like war.

Wisdom is needed if we are to demand that our culture acknowledge the journey to love as a grand, magical, life-transforming, thrilling, risky adventure.

The journey continues.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”
— Susan Cain (via quotes-shape-us)

(via barryjenkins)


1200dinosaurs asked:

When you're at your darkest, Where do you find strength?



Forgive me, Julia, if this answer goes off the rails a bit, but your question takes me to different places. I wish I felt better about the answer that I had to give you, but of course the only answer I can feel good about giving you is the truth.

And the truth, in case you haven’t noticed this about me already, is that I don’t have anything figured out, and I don’t pretend to. Sometimes when I’m afflicted by gender dysphoria, or haunted by professional insecurities, or aching for love and companionship, I don’t know what to do other than let myself feel those feelings, as painful as they sometimes are.

But I guess I find strength in anything that I feel reflects my own humanity back at me and reminds me that I’m not alone in feeling the things I feel. I know I quote this a lot but for me it’s just so fitting. James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Books have been extremely important to me. Lately, for instance, I’ve had a lot of feelings about the difficulty, sometimes the seeming impossibility, of finding love, and the books All About Love and Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks have offered comfort and hope and valuable perspectives, even as they have acknowledged that, yes, finding love can be extremely difficult. (Yesterday I tweeted at you, “The search for love continues even in the face of great odds,” which is a statement that hooks discusses early on in All About Love.) Here is a post I wrote a few months ago in which I touch on a section in All About Love that I think was particularly important for me, as a transgender woman who has internalized some shame about being transgender.

For me, cinema is also something that I sometimes take solace in. Music, too. And on rare (but increasingly less rare) occasions, even games sometimes help me see my own humanity by helping me better understand my own journey, my own yearnings, or my own values.

Writing is essential for me. Some part of my brain sometimes needs to fashion the things I’ve been reading and watching and playing and listening to and living into something that I can see on the page, that I can step back from and see take on some kind of structure and shape and meaning. I always feel a little better after I’ve written something like that. 

But of course, my greatest source of strength in times when I feel lost or hopeless is my friends. It’s not always easy for me to reach out to friends. I still struggle with even letting the people who know me best glimpse how insecure I sometimes am, or how lonely, or how dysphoric. There is that part of me that feels like it is a shortcoming, a weakness, to be so honest, even with those who love me. But when I do find myself taking that chance and putting my trust in a friend and telling them what I’m feeling, I usually not only end up feeling like my emotions aren’t the strange or shameful things I thought they were, but also feeling more connected to my friends, who can sometimes offer me a new perspective on my feelings, or can just relate to what I’m feeling in some way, or can feel more comfortable in sharing things with me that they might have been afraid to. 

I don’t know. It’s all a journey. I’m in a much different, much better place now than I was, say, five years ago, but I’m also aware that I still have a lot of growing to do. I think that’s okay.

looking for the heart of saturday night

It is Saturday night, and I am in my apartment. Generally I’d rather not spend my Saturday nights in my apartment alone, but at the same time, though I’ve been known to journey out into the city on occasion in search of elusive connections and moments of life, such journeys often end in disappointment, and so the search does not always come easily to me. So tonight I am listening to songs about searching for life on a Saturday night rather than being out there actually fucking doing it.

What I love about listening to Tom Waits’ original version of “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night”…

…and Jonathan Richman’s distinctive cover version, “The Heart of Saturday Night”

is that I think the way that Jonathan makes the song his own tells you a lot about him as a songwriter. Contrasting the imagery and mood of Waits’ song with the imagery and mood of Richman’s version gives us a glimpse of the distinct perspective on life, and on moments, that has informed so much of Richman’s work.

At first listen, Jojo’s version may seem a lot less melancholy than Waits’ version, but I actually think that it’s just melancholy in a different way. In covering the song, Richman doesn’t just make it more upbeat; he adds some of his own lyrics. There aren’t many phrases in songs that can give me chills, but this song does it, when Jonathan sings:

Is it the sound of a pool ball gets ya
It sort of excites ya and it sort of upsets ya

I just don’t think you can say it any more clearly than that, how the energy of a beautiful and thrilling moment can be upsetting even as you’re living it because built in to the excitement of the moment is the awareness that it’s over almost before it even happens.

And so you go barreling down the boulevard, looking for the heart of Saturday night, trying to grab it before it’s gone.

light in the darkness

I can see that you’re mid-journey,” she says. “If you require assistance, I will help you.”

from Dark Souls 2

Four Quotes


Adam Phillips, one of my favorite writers, in his new book, Missing Out:

1. “…what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.”

2. And—something that Avital Ronell (my teacher) also says—if someone doesn’t rattle you, it is not a real relation. Hence the shock (frustration, animosity, attachment) that lovers in old screwball comedies experience when they first meet each other (Susan Bordo describes the important role of frustration in the old screwball comedy this way: “The hero and heroine of the [1930s] screwball comedy may decide to attempt a life with a more conventional person (e.g., ‘the rube’). It can’t work, and learning that—learning who one really is and whom one really needs to be with in order to fully realize that—is the arc of the comedy”).

Adam Phillips: “People become real to us by frustrating us. If they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.”

3. And, in BOMB, something I always say, and deeply believe:

“a world in which there is less art and better relationships…The only game in town is improving the quality of people’s relationships.”

4. In the Guardian:

“To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them). You wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived.”

Queering the Future: Progress and Privilege in the Cyberpunk Adventure Read Only Memories

I immediately felt at home with Read Only Memories. And when I say at home, I mean at home. Not because it describes itself as a “cyberpunk” game, though I voraciously consumed the early novels of William Gibson in my teens. Not because it’s a point-and-click adventure, though many of my all-time favorite games belong to that genre. But because the beginning of the game quickly establishes that you are a writer living in a crummy Bay Area apartment that nobody ever visits.

But while I may see a few more parallels between myself and the protagonist of Read Only Memories than the average player is likely to, the game goes out of its way to ensure that any player is comfortable stepping into the shoes of the unseen main character, letting players not just input a name but also select appropriate pronouns, with gender-neutral options included.

In the world of Read Only Memories, set 50 years in the future in San Francisco—sorry, make that Neo-San Francisco—transgender and genderqueer people generally have the same level of privilege in society as anyone else. For me, the prominence of queer characters in the game is just another appealing aspect, alongside the cyberpunk elements, the Bay Area setting, and the point-and-click gameplay. I asked Matt Conn, one of the game’s creators, if he’s concerned that some players may be put off by the presence of queer characters. 

Conn said that he hopes those people who might otherwise be reluctant to embrace such portrayals will be drawn to ROM by the genre trappings and gameplay elements they are already familiar with, and that if they enjoy those aspects of the game, they might be willing to stick around and have their initial perceptions of the game’s queer characters challenged. And players don’t have to like these characters. “Just like in real life,” he said, “you’re forced to figure out how to interact with these people. You don’t have to be friendly to them.” But just like in real life, being nasty to people can have repercussions. Conn used a character you encounter early in the game as an example. “If you’re a jerk to Jess early on, you can’t go through that dialogue path again.”

I had indeed been a bit of a jerk to Jess.

“Damn,” I said. “I felt like she was a little short with me, so then I was short with her!”

“So with characters like Jess,” Conn said, “what we’re trying to do, without trivializing it, is draw parallels to stuff that’s going on now. In the world of Read Only Memories, trans and queer and all that stuff, no one cares.” But characters like Jess—hybrids—and other characters, called brain-controlled androids, are a different story. “There are people who are like, ‘I don’t want my kid dating an android,’ stuff like that. Theoretically, there’s some parallels there, especially in terms of prejudice and ignorance, they just transfer to the next thing that’s new.” The fact that she’s so often treated with ignorance is why Jess has a chip on her shoulder, Conn said. No stranger to being treated with some ignorance myself, I said that I completely understood.

Conn wants Read Only Memories to explore the idea of queer characters having positions of power in society that it might be unrealistic for them to have today—a transgender chief of police might (sadly) seem like a stretch to us right now, for instance, but wouldn’t be unlikely in the world of ROM—and how their newfound social privilege might affect their perceptions of others. A trans character in that world might refuse to see the parallels between what trans people of the past had gone through and what the hybrids of the world are facing as the game takes place. It’s a society that has made believable progress from the one we currently inhabit, but one in which some people still like to draw sharp lines dividing “us” from “them.”  

It’s not just the prominent presence of queer characters, though, that sets Read Only Memories apart from what I think of as quintessential cyberpunk. Neo-San Francisco is not a gloomy, dystopian megacity, and as a journalist, you still type your stories on what we would recognize today as a computer. This is probably for the best, since the once exhilarating notion of people “jacking in to the matrix” seems dated and cliché today.

Conn said that there are a few reasons why he didn’t want ROM to look and feel like another story in the vein of Blade Runner or Neuromancer. For one, he said, the foundations of what we tend to think of as cyberpunk were largely established before the internet changed the world. “We want to look at cyberpunk again from [a post-internet] perspective,” he said. “And also, it doesn’t have to be dystopian. The world is still gonna get weird. I don’t think we’re going to see megacities where it’s always gross, but we’re never going to get our privacy back. We’re always going to be interconnected. And we still want to explore a lot of the tropes that are prevalent in cyberpunk—ramen and neon and all these different things that make cyberpunk cyberpunk.”

One thing ROM does have in common with stories like Blade Runner and Neuromancer is a deep concern with our relationship to technology. “Even now,” Conn said, “you see people developing borderline-relationship-type emotions for their electronics, and they’re really stupid things.” Conn suggested that as computers become more sophisticated in the coming years, people may start developing more complex connections with them, and the potential value of these connections is something Conn hopes players consider. “I think that’s what I want to leave the player with: How do you feel about Turing by the end of it? Do you care about Turing as a human character? Do you just consider them a robot or a possession? And I don’t know if there’s a correct answer for that.” Referring not to the game but to our real world, Conn said, “I think these are things people are going to have to ask themselves eventually, down the line.”

“The future’s gonna be weird,” Conn said. “The future’s gonna be super weird.”


Read Only Memories should be available by the end of the year. It can be pre-ordered on the game’s official site. The beta I played, which includes the prologue and the first part of the game’s first act, is available for free on OUYA; OSX and Windows versions of the beta are available to beta backers of the project via the game’s forums

We’re All Assholes


I don’t even know who the asshole is anymore. The heartbreaker. Is it me? Is it them? Did I fuck it up? Did they? I can’t sleep thinking about what goes wrong. Thinking about what gets lost. How everyone gets used to things being this way.

That’s what it’s like when you’ve had your heart broken
The world just shrugs its shoulders and keeps goin’
It just moves on in all its sadness and glory
Over dinner with a friend, I tell her my story
And as I finally put the book back on the shelf
She says, “Maybe it’s time you take a look at yourself.”

No one’s born an asshole, it takes a lot of hard work
God knows I worked my ass off to be a jerk

Loving without loving is always the worst crime 
I know all the signs and signals ‘cause now I’ve been on both sides
The way you choose your words, the limpness of your hand
I almost died when you introduced me as a friend.
"How can you call me a friend? 
If you don’t love me, then please have the dignity to tell me.”

But I never said any of that.

I just shook that hand and looked down at the doormat.

The sun rose over the city, the wind swept through the valley
You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully

I was playing the game Road Not Taken recently, and at one point, a villager said to me something like, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but I can’t help my feelings. I’m jealous of all the time you’re spending with X.”

Then she said:

The game then informed me that this character and I had gone back from being friends to acquaintances.

Chatting with a friend about the game, we had this exchange:

Who fucked it up? 

I don’t know. 

We’re all assholes.

But the getting used to it part, the carrying it gracefully part. That’s the part I can’t figure out.

bell hooks on work and love

I’ve written on occasion about how I can’t compartmentalize, I can’t wholly separate my personal and professional selves, I can’t divorce what’s important to me politically from what I’m looking for in my connections with other people, and I can’t think of my yearning for love and my desire to do work that I find meaningful as entirely separate things.

Now that I am, for the moment, unemployed, I’m taking time to think about balance, and how the pieces can fit together. So it was extraordinary to me to read these words today in bell hooks’ book Communion: The Female Search for Love, in the chapter called “our right to love.” (The bolded emphases are mine.)

Many single successful women in midlife feel there are few places where we can talk openly about our desire to have loving partnerships without being seen as desperate or, worse, as needing pity. I found again and again that if I talked openly about the importance of love in my life, especially about my desire to have a partner, these feelings were ridiculed or mocked. Surprisingly, colleagues and friends would often suggest I was only joking about love and partnership’s being important to me. Underlying their response was the assumption that women who have chosen to devote a lot of energy to work see this choice as more important than love. They could not accept that a woman could be loving and passionately committed to work. Unable to see the way these two passions enhance and reinforce each other, they wanted to negate my right to love. 

Passionate devotion to work has always heightened my awareness of the importance of love… Significantly, when successful women claim our right to wholeness by privileging love and work in our lives, we challenge sexist thinking that would deny us love as punishment for choosing to value work. I place love before work because I know that without a sound foundation of self-love, I risk undermining my value and the value of all I accomplish through work… 

Women in midlife know from experience that just as choosing the wrong partner undermines self-esteem, choosing a partner who loves us helps us maintain self-esteem when we are continually under attack…

Vicious attacks and betrayal can assault the self-esteem of even the most powerful self-loving woman. And powerful women of all races and classes are always attacked. Self-loving, high-achieving women rely on the care of our loved ones to survive brutal attacks. We need feel no shame to speak the importance of this love…

Powerful, self-actualized women should feel no shame when we speak of our longing for a loving partner, our need to be supported by a circle of loved ones. 

Love is more present to women who know who they are, women who are fully self-actualized. This is the good news that self-loving, powerful women often keep to ourselves as though it were a treasure that will be lost if shared or for fear that we may seem to be bragging about “having it all.” But the truth is, we can have it all but rarely do we have it all at the same time or in the order in which we want it. This absence of order is part of the magic and mystery of life. Rather than closing ourselves off from love, all women, especially those of us in midlife or approaching old age should sing love’s praises. Love frees us to be ourselves and to be open to others’ knowing us without shame or pretense…The female search for love is what life should be all about.

Unless we tell the world our love stories, the myths that we do not want love and cannot get love will continue to act as warnings, keeping other females in check, keeping them away from the truth that genuine love will always lead us to be more fully who we are. Men and women who want to know love will find us, and we will find them.