Getting Back

Apologies for the prolonged silence. I’ve been sick as well as traveling a lot recently (still not quite done), and writing has been even slower than usual. That said, I still have a little content for you while I’m wrapping up the main fare. See the final draft of Names above. I posted Rae’s original concept test some time ago here, and I think it’s absolutely wild to see how far it’s come.

Part of the perspective change was to put that extra emphasis on the piece’s namesake (pun unavoidable), but in fleshing it out, we were also able to lay some groundwork in determining what Ka used the camps for, and with that came conceptions of the roaches, of labor systems, of facilities built at harbors atop muddy banks that slowly shipped the dead and rotting offal the Bloodfish’s forces gathered back to his citadel.

Top image: Names, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

Something About Tortoises

“What happened to that Sevenfold Gyre post you said was in progress?”

Totally still in progress, but words are hard, and it’s been really slow going. Not really writers block, since a little has been getting done every day, but it is not a fast process. The character sketch posts were meant to be a delaying tactic, but they are not proving to be quite enough.

Oh well, here’s another: Les Marquains magically bound within a painting inside his house. At a point some time after the death of Ka, he disappeared leaving behind a house bereft of all the magical curiosities it had held since his grandfather’s glory days. None could say what became of him and his treasures until he resurfaced, forty years later, not a day older than when he had last been seen.

Top Image: Concept of Les Marquains in hiding, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

Character Sketches 3 (and the Barabadoon)

I’ve written a sparse little about the Saraa Sa’een on this blog so far. The name was originally used by the peoples of the Endless Dunes to describe dangerous exiles, criminals, or singular enemies of a society, but in the time following the Dereliction, it came to refer to a particular monster, an animate sandstorm that would arrive in a village, murder and torment its inhabitants for days, and then leave as suddenly as it came. Though the creature’s origins were uncertain, the danger it posed was clear, and an order (perhaps a cult) formed among the peoples of the Dunes to hunt the beast and protect against its onslaughts. This cult, named for a beast of myth (perhaps one of the Old Gods, perhaps a baseless legend), was known as the Barabadoon.

The Barabadoon was, at any given time, led by three gifted mages: The Nose, the Whiskers, and the Tooth. Of these, the Tooth was the fighting force behind their cooperation as well as the face of their order, and at the time the Saraa Sa’een was finally defeated, the title was held by this man:

Alikazan, Tooth of the Barabadoon.

Images: Concept sketches of Alikazan, Tooth of the Barabadoon, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale.

Things Worth Trying

A review of Catherine.

I find it’s much easier to write when I have someone to be mad at.  To that end, take a look at this.  If I were in the mood to be kind, I would describe that as an informational review, and including it saves me a certain amount of effort in describing the thing I intend to explore a little more critically.  In case my dichotomy doesn’t read: There will be spoilers. If you are the type of person that cares, go play the game first. All good? Let’s begin.

I.

Catherine is a game about cheating, or, more particularly, it’s a game about how well-established social morals around cheating interact with “modern” ideals of how romantic relationships look.  The scare quotes are because the game’s (c. 2011) interpretation of modernity probably solidified around the late 90s and is at least a little different from what things are like today (accord variance for local culture as you will), but understanding that difference helps resolve at least a little of the cognitive dissonance you get when socially average (read: complete loser) protagonist Vincent wakes up massively hungover next to naked, beautiful, and not at all hungover Catherine after a night at the bar and immediately internalizes it as his fault.  Frankly, there’s a good argument that it is, but there is conspicuously little examination of what, by even more modern standards, is essentially date rape.

I’ll be clear: I’m not saying that I wanted that examination–God knows I get enough of it from modern media–but its absence is a good marker for where this game is coming from.  More broadly, there is a lot we can glean from what Catherine takes for granted.  In context, Vincent is characterized as a fairly together person who is going through a weird time in his life, but anyone looking at this by Western standards is immediately calling bullshit.  Vincent is a raging alcoholic in a clearly dysfunctional relationship, and that his behavior is normalized is telling, but before you get angry at that, slow down, have a drink yourself.

It’s easy to get pissy at the message this sends to society (“relationships are oppressive, excessive alcohol and poor communication skills are acceptable”) or at the people who get pissy thereof, but the story is still (depending on your ending) one of a fuckboi slowly learning to be less of a fuckboi, so the vector is still in the right direction in my mind.  Instead, let’s talk about fairy tales and how the general public has a hot-garbage understanding of the underpinnings of writing.

II.

Has anyone else run into that asshole who, you know, actually says the words “show, don’t tell”?  Honestly, it’s good advice in high school, but thereafter it’s generally not a kind conclusion.  As with all advice, “show, don’t tell” has an implied context, and a fair amount of fiction falls outside that context.  Case in point: folklore. In myth, legend, fairy tales, it’s extremely important to the format that you don’t show what actually happened.  The story you’re telling is actually the story of someone else being told what happened, and putting aside that you literally can’t show things in that framework, even so much as trying would disrupt the tension between the storyteller and the audience, which is important regardless of how hypothetical each of those entities is.  Same thing with the historicity in Dark Souls, and more generally, same thing with any story where you’re calling attention to a source.

Catherine, of course, doesn’t have a problem with showing or telling, but instead of reading its hyper-media-coded characters and “fumbled gender stereotypes” as hokey, politically incorrect attempts at description, consider reading them as deliberate oversimplifications, the types of things a storyteller would include in a tall tale to drive home a central point or exploration.  Actually, that suggestion may be a little soft–that’s exactly what they are, or did you just ignore the introduction where the game told you that everything you were about to see was a TV show?

This is, of course, one of the reasons why the outrage over the game’s treatment of transsexuality is ridiculous.  You’re looking at a well-intentioned and inclusive piece (provided you don’t view Vincent, et al’s transphobia as aspirational–you shouldn’t), wrapped in 90s/00s language that simply doesn’t have the same words and concepts as the modern []-Studies crowd.  The criticism then translates as a critique on fashionability, which seems kinda petty.

Aside, though uncomfortably political: The game’s nightmare–the one that only affects men, including the game’s trans-woman–is ultimately revealed to be generated by a demon whose stated aim is to torment men who are not contributing to human reproduction.  Given that it is a targeted weapon controlled by a specific entity rather than an axiomatic validation of gender, I would ask the folk who are upset to contemplate exactly how woke they think Satan is (1). “Sounds stupid?” Yes.

III.

“I get that you disagree with these people, but what about the game?”

I’m glad that it exists.  I’m reading it as a serious attempt at literary exploration of a complicated but atypically well-defined social perception.  The very first review I read for the game back in 2011 described it as “mature”, and I think that’s on point. There are a lot of cheesy places that a game about horror and sex can go, but I think that a puzzle loop harnessing the metaphor of elevating oneself amidst horrific emotional storms and antagonism feels very true.  

It’s not perfect, of course.  It’s really not perfect.  I’ll defend the game’s extremely blunt characterizations as deliberate choices, designed for a purpose, but that doesn’t mean they all worked.  Vincent, in particular, was rough. His shortcomings were fine as a baseline, but then they became a one-trick pony for advancing the plot, and I started feeling like I was going through the worst parts of Romeo and Juliet all over again–the problems stopped looking insurmountable because they were, in fact, very easy to solve, and Vincent’s sheer incompetence was the only thing standing in the way, which is even worse because this is a game, and games are supposed to harness your agency rather than strip you of it.

Still, when the game did invite player choice, it made good use of it, albeit in the really opaque, Persona-style sense, and the use of survey questions about romance as a means to guide the events and endings of the game was pretty interesting.

Ultimately, did Catherine push the boundaries of games as art?  Eh, not really, but my view is that the medium is still young enough that we can afford to give out cigars, because the game really visibly tried.  It picked an interesting topic and explored it in a fairly novel way with decent attention to detail and literary device.  If it were written a little more carefully, if it made just a little better use of its medium (specifically not fumbling it at the moments where giving the player control is most important), it might have been an artistic achievement.  Instead it was just a solid game, but the effort did not go unnoticed.

Footnotes:

(1): Perhaps, cynically or otherwise, you feel closer to Satan than whatever’s on your particular Light Side.  In that case, replace “Satan” with “Hitler”, which is only less interesting of a thought experiment because you know a priori he was a bigot.

Top Image: Banner for Catherine Classic (the version I happened to play) on Steam.

Godlike

“We shall pause, the page read.  Savior, what do you know of the gods?  We do not speak of the vermin who slouched across the wastes as our would-be Dragon did, adorned with the trappings of divinity and the trinkets of better men.  We speak of those gifted with the power to transcend their becoming–to be eternally.”

The Dragon’s Thesis

I’ve so far written not nothing about gods, and I’ll confess it is a serious literary interest of mine.  We create images of them, deify them as empowered forms of ourselves with interests, obsessions, psyches, separated from ours by gulfs of poorly-understood “power” but without a doubt like them.  This is almost certainly a cognitive bias: If we can’t imagine gods as like us, then how are we supposed to imagine them?  Lovecraft, et al went ahead and dropped the bomb of “not like us”, but that’s old hat by now, especially since writers seem to have interpreted the meaning of that phrase as “arbitrary to the point of irrelevance”.  And besides the cognitive tarpit, the myopia angle just isn’t that interesting. Let’s change the question: What does a god look like when it is like us?  That is, it was a creature of becoming that became godlike.

I.

War Torn/Rale has gods in four vaguely-defined flavors: the Old Gods, the True Gods, Heroes/Horrors, and the False Gods.  These are not universally accurate/reliable classifications–some straddle the lines–nor are they a hierarchy, they’re really just what (particularly aware) people called specific individuals at specific times.  That said, they all have one thing in common: power. These gods were all capable of exerting an influence on the human society around them on par (at minimum) with a tropical storm, which altered their relationship with that society in a way fairly alien to the standard human experience.  That relationship, then, is the focus for the above categories. I’ll expound:

The Old Gods are the closest thing War Torn/Rale has to a realistic depiction of religion.  In the long-tailed beginning of our timeline, the scale of society was small, and while magic was abundant, mages were not.  Magic was not understood in any meaningful, organized way, and so the way that people interacted with it was through rituals and mysticism.  In some cases, these rituals were merely acts with no supernatural power, but from which humans derived meaning. In others, they drew upon sources of mana in nature, often from animals that had intuitively learned to command magic.  Accordingly animist belief systems were common, and the objects of their worship were, collectively, the Old Gods. They were elusive, sometimes outright mythological, but their rare and poignant interactions with humans underlaid traditions that societies treasured long after those interactions ended.  Still, though, as humans gained more visibility into the channels of power and developed stronger traditions for wielding it themselves, these gods faded into fables and stories, and by the time Spar set fire to the Great Shell of Thago, worship of them had all but disappeared. Aside, though it did not have the social characteristics of an Old God, the Chimera is probably a good representation of what one would have looked like up close (ie, utterly horrifying in a way the myths, stories, and traditions would unrecognizably smooth over).

The True Gods, though they may have incidentally been objects of worship, generally interacted much more willfully with society.  They were not always visible (though the Blood God was), but their interventions were always directed–and directed toward society, where the animal gods of the Old Times probably had a very limited conception of what society even was.  The Blood God massacred cities single-handedly, and his will was sufficient to instill a culture of free magic the world over.  The Man of the Clouds effectively withdrew an entire city from worldly existence, the Gyre overlaid a grand narrative upon the world for thousands of years, and the One-Eyed Crow was responsible for, well, a number of unpleasant things.

Still, in both cases, the gods had conceptual and ideological significance.  They meant something, and society organized around those ideals.  The Heroes, Horrors, and False Gods weren’t really interested in that ballgame.

The Heroes and Horrors were outcasts, generally by choice, and though the societies they bumped into told stories about them, they tended to be the campfire variety.  The Saraa Sa’een was terrifying, but aside from the Barabadoon, a close-knit band formed specifically to hunt it, no one had much insight into why it did anything or what it was supposed to mean.  It was just a monster, it killed people, and then a similarly ideologically vague Hero showed up and drove it off.  In this way, they drove a different sort of folklore than the gods that came before them, and it’s really key to note that this was largely a function of their interests.  They had no desire to interact with the sphere of human consciousness–society was simply an object to them–so they left no legacy there.

II.

This all brings us to the sordid history of the False Gods.  All of the “gods” I’ve described to this point have been humans (or animals) that learned to commune with the world fundamentally in such a way as to give them power over it.  The False Gods had no such talent, no such strength of will or character, and of all the beings on this list, they were the most reviled.

At the end of the War of the Roaches, it became clear to Ka’s war-ravaged overthrowers that his sudden ascent from petty ruler of a fishing village to despotic necromancer was fueled by a single object in his possession: a stone–called the Hellstone by its discoverers–that radiated pure mana, allowing him to create the roaches (likely the only piece of magic he ever learned) on an unheard of scale.  The infusion of magic into objects was at this point a practice accomplished mages knew about, but it was rare, and disciplined practice was limited to a few recluses in the Bloodwood. For that reason, the non-magical layman had never discovered that he could become extremely powerful just by acquiring a lot of these miscellaneous objects.

Not all of them were so blunt as the Hellstone.  Some had very specific purposes, like a necklace that would bring its wearer back from death seven times, or a statue that would unmake any living thing held in its arms in order to radiate invigorating force to the people and plants around.  But no matter how niche their use, acquiring one allowed an ambitious individual to expand their power and influence far more quickly than they ever could otherwise.

And the effect snowballed: A would-be “god” would betray a friend for his panoply, then, fearing the censure of their community, strike first at anyone else in their vicinity who might hold similar keys to power.  Then, when they became powerful enough that they did not have to fear for their safety, the priority shifted to suppressing potential rivals. They used their powers to gather wealth and then placed standing offers to buy any magical items that people could bring them, raising an economy of thieves and scavengers that prompted any owners of magical items that they must sell or die.  And then, when a False God died for one reason or another, they would leave behind a vast trove of powerful artifacts for scavengers and successors to kill each other over.

The False Gods often roamed.  They enjoyed the generally cruel exercise of their power, but the people that surrounded them tended to flee.  They enjoyed–demanded–the worship of their people, but they rarely received it in earnest. They were “false” because though they commanded world-shaking power, they were divine in no other way.  They were tyrants and strongmen, and when communities gradually discovered that fighting back could sometimes slay those tyrants, the most brazen False Gods died, and the rest simply faded from notoriety.

This description is a very precise fit for Judiah, from the linked story, but other False Gods had different qualifications and priorities.  The Ban Gan Shui was not terribly cruel, though her interest in humans as objects for experimentation was not a kind one, and though Le Markhan was not nearly so arrogant as Judiah, it was his excess of hatred that brought his downfall.  Again, their role as tyrants rather than deities unites them.

III.

Every single one of these started out as a person (except the ones that started as animals, but that may be its own discussion).  The path of growth was generally very similar, in magnitude it was almost identical, but what they then became varied wildly. Some of this, of course, lay in their choices–what they did with their power affected how they were perceived, but also note that each of these groups tended to exist at different times (the Blood God and the Man of the Clouds were contemporaries, the other groups had periods of history named for them), which means that what they became to society was as much a function of society as it was of their temperament.  If you live in a society that has no gods, God himself walking into town one day, heralded by choirs of angels, is still no guarantee that he will be perceived as such.  Judiah was able to conquer armies, he caused crop fields to bloom with plenty, and yet no one revered him–they just saw a lecherous, bloodthirsty marauder with unbreakable skin.  There’s probably a profound observation about our society in there somewhere, but I’m not a doctor.

That’s the society side, but it’s also worth noting that the gods’ perceptions of the world end up just as varied.  The False Gods viewed humanity as a necessary part of their ecosystem, the Heroes and Horrors saw it as a fixture–replaceable but significant–but it’s likely that the Blood God looked upon his kingdom and saw its denizens as truly insignificant specks.  This was not a forgone conclusion, given his history, but it was his conclusion nevertheless.

Consider, then, that it may have been power that elevated these individuals to significance, but it was people, “just like you or I–indeed you and I” that decided what they would be, to the world and to themselves.  That’s a different sort of power, sure, but it’s power that the mortal have over the divine.  It may be worth remembering in our world of dead gods that still writhe.

Top image: Pieces of Control, by Quinn Milton; and The Blood God, Hiding, and an as-yet-unrevealed piece, by Hector Rasgado