Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

One of the most difficult tasks of doing criticism is choosing what to write about. Or, rather, which aspects of a work to zoom in on once the writing gets going. The choice is seldom obvious or straightforward; more often than not, there are several interesting things going on in parallel, and the logistics of writing gets in the way of covering them all. Out of the many possible critical points of entry, some must be chosen and others left unexplored. Art is long, life is short – between the two, criticism.

The choice is further constrained by considerations of what would be interesting or relevant to read. Unless the act of criticism is an exercise in writing for its own sake, there is usually some sort of point to be made. While there are many ways to arrive at any one point, some are bound to be more effective and resonant with the current moment than others. The critic thus have to sort through the many possible options and make an estimate of the various pros and cons, such as the ease of conveying the significance of one aspect versus the critical potential of a less obvious aspect. The former would tend to be easier to write, but its obviousness might lead a reader to wonder why it needs to be said at all; the latter would make for a more difficult writing process, but if successful it might end up being a more engaged and insightful critique. Whether to go for the one or the other, as always, depends.

Take, for instance, the new televised incarnation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. There is something to be said about the initial expectation of this new incarnation being anything like its 90s predecessor, and having it dashed by the realization that this new version is about as far from that as it is possible to get without switching media format entirely. This state of things might be indicative of some sort of shift that has taken place between then and now, a shift which can be fruitfully explored through comparative efforts. A critic might also use difference between versions as a basis for expressing their opinion – be it that the 90s version was better, or that the new direction is a bold but successful move. It is an obvious point of entry, affording many quick write-ups which may or may not remain interesting as time goes on.

There are also individual scenes which could serve as focal points. One scene in particular involves three witches ganging up on titular teenage witch and threatening to hang her from a tree, just as women of yore were hung during the time of witch hunts. As the threat looms closer to being realized, the noose quite literally tightening around the protagonist’s throat, she turns the tables by enlisting the aid of a number of local ghosts to counterhang her tormentors in invisible (but seemingly quite effective) ethereal rope. After letting them dangle for a while, the ghosts release the witches from their ghastly hold, alive. The scene ends with Sabrina making it clear that nothing like this will ever happen again, by virtue of the ghosts doing everything in their considerable power to ensure this outcome. It is a powerful scene, which establishes that the new Sabrina is someone who does not fuck around, and who is not afraid to fight fire with fire.

A critic might do any of several things with this scene. The obvious being to use it as contrast between the different incarnations of the series – the 90s version most decidedly did not include these kinds of violent happenings, and definitely not with such frequency. It can also be used as an example of character development, as in the previous paragraph. A third use is to zoom in on the fact that one of the tormenting witches happens to be a person of color, and that Sabrina turning the tables by use of a ghost mob technically qualifies the scene as a depiction of an old style lynching, with all the racist connotations that go along with it.

This third reading has the potential to be interesting. In light of the 90s version being an extremely white series, implicit racism is very much a relevant aspect to bring to the fore, if and where it occurs. As an attention-grabbing moment, however, this reading combines all the elements for a hot take – it is relevant, juicy and has the potential to generate a whole lot of social media heat. With a little effort, it can be ever so gently packaged in a way that suggests the lynching was the explicit point of the scene, rather than an unfortunate side-effect of the setting. Ramp up the phrasing, crank up the confidence and press send, then enjoy the immediate attention that comes from exposing the new hot series as racist.

Unfortunately, such a course of action would not be the most interesting thing a critic could do with this source material. To be sure, the immediate attention might generate a retweet or two, but when the dust settles, it does not add to anyone’s overall understanding of anything, least of all the issues this series has with regards to representation. As a critical intervention, it is severely lacking in every respect.

Thus, we are back where we began, with the question of choosing what to focus on. It is always tempting to go for the low-hanging fruit or the hot topic of the day. When the two combine, it might even seem like an inevitability. Over time, however, making a habit of picking such convenient aspects to write about tends to lead to piles of uninteresting writing, even as it allows for great productivity. Hot takes can only remain hot for so long, after all.

As to the series itself, it remains to be seen if this bold new move into the spoopy horror genre will stand a second glance, or if it will become as formulaic as its 90s counterpart tended to be. Bobunk notwithstanding.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

Cities: Skylines

The key to understanding Cities: Skylines is to know its history. The game comes from a very particular tradition, and is in many ways a continuation of it. Things that might seem inexplicable become clear as day once put in context, and indeed take on an appearance of being nigh inevitable. The letter arrived at its destination, and it took a very particular route to get there.

I am, of course, referring to the fact that the game is a continuation of the Cities in Motion series.

This might come as a surprise to some readers. The most common comparison is to other games explicitly labeled as city builders, particularly the various iterations of Sim City. It is a natural comparison to make – apples to apples. The games even share a non-trivial amount of gameplay elements (zoning comes to mind), making the comparison that much more intuitive. At a glance, it requires intimate knowledge to even tell the games apart. Indeed, it is very difficult not to place these games in the same category.

There are different ways to achieving the same results, however. The way to reach an outcome is almost as important as actually getting there. The journey is, as the famous saying goes, the goal. This was very much the core principle of the Cities in Motion games, whose main activity was building public transit networks in order to allow people to get where they needed to go in a fast and expedient manner. The challenge being to build the transportation networks in such a way that bottlenecks are avoided, delays rerouted and, above all, waiting times eliminated. The mere possibility of getting there by public transit is not enough – it has to be a doable and convenient possibility too, in equal measure.

The main way this manifests in Cities: Skylines is that the primary building blocks are roads, and the main mechanical challenge is to place these roads in such a way that the city functions. Or, rather, to avoid gridlocks and overly long transit times; there are no actual game mechanics for a city to fall into a state of dysfunctionality. Every social ill is solved by a vehicle arriving at a location, be it fire, illness, crime or even death itself. The protagonists of this game are not the citizens who ostensibly inhabit the city, but rather the myriad of trucks that forever move back and forth. The city is built and designed for them.

One of the main challenges in the Cities in Motion games is to not have the solution get in the way of itself. Merely building a series of bus routes crisscrossing the city does not solve the problem of getting from here to there. Indeed, given enough buses, it is a very real possibility that the main impediment to a smoothly running public transit is the system of public transit. Buses block the way of other buses, who then block the way for other traffic, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. The main joy of these games is zooming in on particular locations and situations to pinpoint just exactly where the problem arises, and make subtle adjustments which intuitively should not have a great impact, but which nevertheless do. It is all about setting up a system and tinkering with it.

The same challenge is present in Cities: Skylines, albeit with less of a focus on public transit specifically. And the game is forgiving enough to let you zoom in on a problem for a considerable amount of time without anything important breaking while you are distracted. Spending weeks and weeks of in-game time setting up a highway intersection that does not cause a stau longer than the list of city residents – has little to no consequences on the functioning of the city. At no point does a player zoom out only to discover that the city is now a racially segregated, crime-ridden, no-prospects hive of villainy and corruption, long abandoned by the very notions of progress and prosperity. Homelessness literally does not exist (except, interestingly enough, for corpses). At most, the problems might extend to a series of abandoned buildings where city services have been insufficient. There are no consequences for this neglect; new residents and businesses will continue to move in at a regular pace once the old lots have been cleared. Traffic continues to flow, life goes on, as if to say: Robert Moses was right all along.

This would be a major critique of the game if it was seen as a city builder. There is no city residing in these buildings, there is no whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are just a great number of parts that have to move from point a to point b, preferably at decent speeds. As a city builder, Cities: Skylines is an utter and total banishment of humanity from the built environment – everything and everyone are just replaceable numbers. To invoke de Certeau, there are no tactics to be found here, only strategies.

Fortunately, Cities: Skylines is not a city builder. It is a logistics simulator. The main change from the Cities in Motion series was to drop the word “public” from “public transit simulator”, thus increasing the scope of ambition whilst also remaining firmly within the narrow framework of moving things around. With this in mind, the game performs the task it has set out to do admirably. It allows players to endlessly fiddle with knobs and calibrate adjustments just to see what happens, and then repeat the process to see if the system runs smoother this time. In and of itself, this is an enjoyable experience, as far as it goes. But it is important to remember that it does not go very far, and that any social commentary the game makes with regards to actual cities is entirely incidental.

Cities: Skylines