Are Video Games an Effective Vehicle for Storytelling? Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #35 Featuring Don Marshall

Do you play video games for the plot? Given that most people don't actually finish most games, it would be unexpected if storytelling were the most important element. On this episode of Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast, your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by former video game professional (and current TV development executive) Donald E. Marshall to talk through types of plots (linear, "string-of-pearls," and branching), ways of weaving story into a game, balancing gameplay and narrative, and more.

We touch on Death Stranding, Overwatch, The Last of Us, Skyrim, Fallout, Life Is Strange, Until Dawn, Erica, Bioshock, Telltale Games, Journey, Bandersnatch, Days Gone, Portal, and more. (That casual game Mark jokes about is Simon's Cat Pop Time.)

Some articles and other sources:

You can also read some lists of games that supposedly have the best plots at GamesRadar, Ranker, and The Gamer.

Don is also a podcaster, having previously been a host of GeeksOn and now on The Big Fat Gay Podcast. Here's info about the Wheel of Time TV show. One relevant GeeksOn episode is #102.  Here's info about the Wheel of Time TV show.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.


The Allure of Puzzlement: Pretty Much Pop #34 w/ Adal Rifai on Escape Rooms and Other Puzzling Pastimes

The comic and the tragic are well-established modes within entertainment, but what about the puzzling? Riddles may have been a chief pastime in days of yore (well, they're featured in Oedipus and The Hobbit, anyway), but does this way of being entertained have a place in today's age of mass media?

Improviser and podcaster Adal Rifai joins Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss his love of escape rooms, riddles, and other opportunities for puzzlement. We discuss lateral vs. algorithmic thinking, group dynamics, comparisons to improvisation and trivia, riddle types, video games, and more. Some puzzle-relevant films we touch on include Escape Room, Cube, The Game, and Midnight Madness.

Some resources we used to prepare include:

Adal's two other podcasts are Hello From the Magic Tavern and Siblings Pecular. Follow him @adalrifai. He performs regularly on Whirled News Tonight at Chicago's IO Theater.

Every Pretty Much Pop episode includes bonus, post-episode discussion, and this time Adal stayed around for a little more on escape rooms (can they engage all five senses?) and quite a bit more on podcasting, including the parasocial relationships that listeners may have with podcast hosts. This was sufficiently fun that we'd like to share it with all of you, in hopes that you might then want to hear this for all our our episodes by supporting us at

This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast ( is curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Updating Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to Cover Female Action Heroes–Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #33

This week's guest Vi Burlew has arisen, a shining figure clad in mail, carrying aloft a shimmering broadsword to bring your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt this topic about the hero's journey.

This general plot structure dating back to ancient myth was detailed by Joseph Campbell and famously and deliberately plundered to create the plot of the original Star Wars. So how has this evolved with the increasing introduction of female heroes in recent, largely Disney-owned blockbusters? We talk Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, anticipate Black Widow and the new Mulan, but also bring in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, Jane Eyre, Working Girl, and of course Road House.

What complicates this issue is that a distinct "heroine's journey" had already been plotted in response to Campbell by feminist thinkers at least back to Maureen Murdock in 1990. The key difference is that while the hero achieves the goal and comes home in triumph, the heroine then realizes that there was something self-betraying about the triumph and requires an additional step of reconciliation with her origins. This is like if Luke realized after destroying the Death Star that he was a moisture farmer all along and had to come to terms with that. (Maybe he could actually grieve for his dead aunt and uncle and his best friend Biggs!)

It's been argued that Harry Potter's journey more closely resembles that heroine's journey, whereas, say, Eowyn from Lord of the Rings ("I am no man!") is a more traditional hero. Action films of today may feature female heroes, but when this is done thoughtfully (not just by taking an action hero and swapping the gender without further alteration), then filmmakers may tweak the structure of the myth to include some gender-specific elements and perhaps blend the two types of journey. These new variants that may or may not resonate in the way that caused the original Star Wars/Campbell formula to become so popular.

Two articles we specifically cite in our discussion are:

For some basics about the journeys described by Joseph Campbell, Maureen Murdok, and a different version by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, see the Wikipedia entries on Hero's Journey and Heroine's Journey.

In addition, The Heroine Journeys Project website features numerous articles about female heroes in media. We also looked at this reddit thread, which among other things provides some opposing views to those of our guests about the Star Wars franchise character Rey.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Judith Butler on Nonviolence and Gender: Hear Conversation with The Partially Examined Life

A new Partially Examined Life interview with Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, discusses the ethics and psychology of nonviolence. This follows a three-part treatment on the podcast of her earlier work.

For a first-hand account of her new book, you can watch two 2016 lectures that she gave at UC Berkeley on early versions of the text:

Watch on YouTube. Watch the second lecture.

Butler has been a tremendously influential (and controversial) figure in ongoing intellectual debates about gender and sexuality. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble argues that gender is a "performance," i.e. a habitual group of behaviors that reflect and reinforce social gender norms. Practices such as dressing in drag satirize this performance, showing how even in "normal" situations, "acting feminine" is not a reflection of one's inner essence but is a matter of putting on a display of culturally expected mannerisms. The drag performer (on Butler's analysis) may convey an absurdity that deconstructs the expected accord of biological sex, sexual preference, and gender identity: "I'm dressing like a woman but am really a man; also, in my everyday life, I dress like a man but am really (in the way I actually feel about myself) am a woman." Most controversially, as a post-structuralist, Butler argues that it's not the case that there is an uncontroversial biological fact of sex that then culture connects gender behaviors to. Instead, all of our understanding of the so-called biological fact comes through the cultural lens of gender; we literally can't understand any such raw, biological fact apart from its cultural associations. In other words, it's not just gender that's a social construction, but biological sex itself.

This position has been attacked both from the position of naive, common-sense scientism (of course biological differences resulting in babies isn't just a matter of what concepts a particular society has happened to develop) and as a moral hazard and existential threat: In 2017 while at a conference in Brazil, far-right Christian groups protested her presence and even burned her in effigy.

It should also be noted that Butler's take on gender departs from current, intuitive explanations of the phenomena of transgenderism, i.e. that one might feel their "true gender" to be different from what society has assigned them. For Butler, there is no inner gender essence that may or may not be displayed authentically. Instead, the "inner" is a cultural construction, itself built out of our external performances and the dynamics of our psychic life, which she discusses within the psychoanalytic tradition.

This use of psychoanalysis to explain our cultural life persists in newly released book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. Though the theory of nonviolent political protest may seem a far-flung topic from gender studies, both involve the process of defining an identity. In the case of gender, one defines oneself as a particular gender or as being of a particular sexual orientation (as opposed to leaving these attributes ambiguous and fluid) by grasping onto a strict social division between the available sexual options and declaring that one of them is "not me." In Butler's discussion of nonviolence, she instead focuses on what counts as "self" in the usually excused exception to nonviolence, self-defense. She's criticizing a position where most of us claim to be nonviolent (and claim that our government is nonviolent) because we are not the aggressors: We will fight only when we are attacked or threatened.

It's not that Butler is categorically against using violence to defend oneself, one's loved ones, one's country, or anyone else who is in danger of being seriously harmed. She is, however, arguing for an ethic of nonviolence that clearly understands our interrelatedness with everyone else in the world, even and especially those that we might think outside our circle of concern. It's too easy for us to define "self" as "people like us," which then leaves out the rest of the populace (and the non-human population, and the environment more generally) from inclusion in our "self-defense" calculations of when violence might be justified. Butler analyzes the fear of immigrants, for instance, as a "phantasmatic transmutation" that projects the potential for violence that always exists within our immediate social relations (and even our own rage against ourselves) onto an invading Other. As in the case of gender, she wants us instead to understand the dynamics of these self-and-other attributions, to behave more rationally and humanely, and to channel our unavoidable rage constructively into forceful non-violence, or what Gandhi calls Satyagraha, "polite insistence on the truth." The goal of this type of political action is conversion, not coercion, and it's communication and respecting even a hated other as a grievable equal that provides a real contrast to violence. She wants us to recognize the potential for violence within each relationship, at each moment, and to choose otherwise.

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast began a discussion of the general concept of social construction back with in Ocotober with episode 227, following this up with applications of this concept to race (discussing Kwame Anthony Appiah and Charles Mills with in episode 228 with guest Coleman Hughes), to the development of science (considering Bruno Latour on episode 230 with guest Professor Lynda Olman), and to gender (considering Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex for episode 232 with Professor Jennifer Hansen. Professor Hansen then continued with hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Wes Alwan, Seth Paskin, and Dylan Casey to discuss Butler's Gender Trouble. For further explanation of The Force of Nonviolence, see episode 236 at

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of the Partially Examined Life, Pretty Much Pop, and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. He is a writer and musician working out of Madison, Wisconsin. Read more Open Culture posts about The Partially Examined Life.

Image by Solomon Grundy.

The New York Public Library Creates a List of 125 Books That They Love

The New York Public Library sure knows how to celebrate a quasquicentennial. In honor of its own 125th anniversary, it's rolling out a number of treats for patrons, visitors, and those who must admire it from afar.

In addition to the expected author talks and live events, Patience and Fortitude, the iconic stone lions who flank the main branch's front steps, are displaying some reading material of their own—Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic The Great Gatsby, from 1925.

Donors who kick in $12.50 or more to help the library continue providing such public services as early literacy classes, free legal aid, and job training courses will be rewarded with a cheerful red sticker bearing the easy to love slogan "♥ reading."

The cover image of Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 Caldecott Award-winning picture book The Snowy Day, which at 485,583 checkouts holds the title for most popular book in the circulating collection, graces special edition Library and MetroCards.

And a team of librarians drew up a list of 125 books from the last 125 years that inspire a lifelong love of reading.

The list is deliberately inclusive with regard to authors’ gender, race, and sexual orientation as well as literary genre. In addition to novels and non-fiction, you’ll find memoir, poetry, fantasy, graphic novels, science fiction, mystery, short stories, humor, and one children’s book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which the judges decided “transcends age categories.” (A similar list geared toward younger readers will be released later this year.)

The list was drawn from a pool containing anything published after May 23rd, 1895, the day attorney John Bigelow’s plan to combine the resources of the Astor and Lenox libraries and the Tilden Trustin into The New York Public Library was officially incorporated.

The selection criteria can be viewed here.

Obviously, the list—and any perceived omissions—will generate passionate debate amongst book lovers, a prospect the library relishes, though it's enlisted one of its most ardent supporters, author Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods made the final cut, to remind any disgruntled readers of the spirit in which the picks were made:

The New York Public Library has put together a list of 125 books that they love—the librarians and the people in the library. That's the criteria. You may not love them, but they do. And that's exciting. The thing that gets people reading is love. The thing that makes people pick up books they might not otherwise try, is love. It's personal recommendations, the kind that are truly meant. So here are 125 books that they love. And somewhere on this list you will find books you've never read, but have always meant to, or have never even heard of. There are 125 chances here to change your own life, or to change someone else's, curated by the people from one of the finest libraries in the world. Read with joy. Read with love. Read!

To really get the most out of the list, tune in to the NYPL’s The Librarian Is In podcast, which will be devoting an episode to one of the featured titles each month.

The current episode kicks things off with co-hosts Frank Collerius and Rhonda Evans’ favorites from the list:

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Readers, have a look at the complete list of the New York Public Library’s 125 Books for Adult Readers, and leave us a comment to let us know what titles you wish had been included. Or better yet, tell us which as-yet unread title you're planning to read in honor of the New York Public Library's 125th year:

George Orwell, 1984

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

James Patterson, Along Came a Spider

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Mary Oliver, American Primitive

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Sylvia Plath, Ariel

Ian McEwan, Atonement

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

Frank Herbert, Dune

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Alyssa Cole, An Extraordinary Union

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

J.R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Beverly Jenkins, Indigo

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Gore Vidal, Julian

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Art Spiegelman, Maus

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Martin Amis: Money

Michael Lewis: Moneyball

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

J.D. Robb, Naked in Death

Richard Wright, Native Son

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Louise Erdrich, The Round House

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility

Alice Munro, Runaway

John Ashbery, Self-Portrarit in a Convex Mirror

Stephen King, The Shining

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Nalini Singh, Slave to Sensation

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues

John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever

Albert Camus, The Stranger

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

George Saunders, Tenth of December

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Don DeLillo, White Noise

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

Via Lit Hub

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Robin Williams’ Celebrity Struggles: A Discussion with Dave Itzkoff by Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast (ep. 31)

New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to consider issues raised by Dave's 2018 biography Robin: How do we make sense of our strange relation to celebrities, and what are strategies that celebrities use to deal with their asymmetric relationship to the world? While Robin Williams tried, in gratitude, to share himself with his fans, and was very anxious about letting us all down when some of his later work didn't garner the widespread praise he was used to, someone like Joaquin Phoenix takes a much more seemingly detached attitude, keenly aware of the absurdity of the celebrity-audience relation.

We also talk to Dave about interview technique and the different attitudes that his subjects take toward him. Can an interview be something that has intrinsic value and not just parasitic on popular media?

For more about Robin, Dave participated in a recent podcast called Knowing: Robin Williams, which was created in part to support Dave's book (which some of us read for this episode; it's really good). HBO also recently released the documentary Come Inside My Mind that relates much of the same story.

For more on Joaquin Phoenix, read Dave's interview, this 2017 Times article by Bret Easton Ellis, or this Guardian article on I'm Still Here.

Read Dave's interviews at or follow him @ditzkoff.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Why Every Nominated Film Will Win the 2020 Oscar: A Pretty Much Pop Podcast Debate (ep. 30)

The 2020 Academy Awards are nearly upon us! Realistically, most of you will find this episode well after the winners have already been announced, but seriously, that should not affect your enjoyment of this discussion. Your intrepid non-film-critic Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast hosts have each been randomly assigned three of the best picture nominees to argue for either for why it should with the Oscar, or if we really don't like it, why we think it will win anyway. The assignments were as follows:

  • Mark Linsenmayer: 1917, Little Women, Joker
  • Erica Spyres: Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, Once Upon a Hollywood*
  • Brian Hirt: Ford v Ferrari,  Marriage Story, The Irishman**

*Covered in our ep. 12.
**Covered in our
ep. 29.

As we hash out the relative merits of these films, we reflect on what it is to be an Oscar-winning type-of-film as opposed to one people might actually enjoy watching, patterns of what kinds of films win in which categories, and the effect of viewing conditions, prior knowledge, and preconceptions on our enjoyment.

In preparation, we all watched all nine films and looked at some of the positive and negative reviews about them. Here are a few more articles covering the Oscars more generally that we also used to make ourselves more susceptible to OSCAR FEVER.

The particular negative 1917 review Mark talks about was by Richard Brody. Here's an article about Joaquin Phoenix improvising his stunt work as Erica mentions. Speaking of Joker, have you heard the (sub)Text podcast presentation by Mark's Partially Examined Life co-host Wes Alwan on the psychoanalytic dimensions of that film?

This episode includes bonus discussion musing about past winners and 2020 acting categories that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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