Fanfic journal: “Bright Future,” chapter 5

Read chapter 5 (“Ssinssr’ogglirin”) here.

Chapter Summary

Light take him, Jorlan knew now what was troubling him. This feeling was familiar; it had quickened his hand on the prison door at Velkynvelve.

Sssinssr’ogglirin. Or, more crudely, vith’ogglirin. Sex rivalry.

Jealousy, in Undercommon.

In which we meet a druid who wants to devour Mavash in more than one way, Jorlan once again uses murder to solve his problems, Lux is reunited with their own waifu, and oh yeah there’s an important library or something.

Chapter End Notes

Here’s where I tweeted along with this juicy session full of pent-up jealousy.

Gaze upon Mavash in all her glory. I commissioned Kii Weatherton to do this art, and it made me love Mavash even more.

I have SO MANY notes about my inspirations for this chapter:

  • Of fucking course Jorlan is wary of possums. Have you seen them? They really are beneficial little creatures — they eat so many ticks! — but I still wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley.
  • Sladis describes a mushroom similar to genus Cantharellus, i.e. chanterelles. They are easy to identify (due to their bright orange color and false gills) and delicious, which is all I needed for ficcing purposes.
  • The creatures we fought here were core spawn out of the Wildemount book (as is the moorbounder, for that matter), which are technically aberrations, and thus don’t show up on a paladin’s Divine Sense. (Even though they do with Detect Evil and Good? *shrugs*) Creative license!
  • The Drow word for “jealousy” I wove together from two words from my faithful Drow Dictionary: “ssinssrigg,” for “love, lust, greed” (or “vith,” for “sex”), and “ogglirin,” for “rivaling.” The word sssinssrigg comes directly from canon, though the others are fan-created. I suppose I suppose I could have used that word to encompass “jealousy” in its meaning, but it’s already pretty overloaded.
  • I realize this is the first time I’ve switched POVs mid-chapter. I hope it was clear enough. I generally subscribe to the idea that the viewpoint character for a given scene should be the one with the most to lose, and oh hell that is Jorlan for that bit in the middle. Given that half the fics I read on AO3 head-hop mid-scene, confusing me terribly, I don’t think it’s so bad.
  • I totally stole the whole “scrambling the brains of pack animals to make them docile” thing from my other favorite murder elves, the Dunmer of TES, who are known to do as much to their giant sand-flea mounts for much the same purpose. The Dunmer are notably less terrible than the drow, so if they do it, I can only imagine the Ilythiiri do something similar. Seems much less complex than fucking around with House insignia like you see in the Drizzt books.
  • Apropos, I discovered I can borrow the ebook of Homeland from my library, so I am enjoying rereading it and indulging my inner 15-year-old girl. I’m a couple of chapters in, and lawd, I will never apologize for being melodramatic in this fic ever again. Pages of maudlin Jorlan maunderings are still not “Zak going out into the wilderness to deliver a Shakespearean monologue on the hell of Menzoberranzan.”
  • Also interesting to note how the seeds of Out of the Abyss were planted hundreds of years before, with the destruction of House deVir — which happens in the first chapters of Homeland. We’ll find out more about that later on in this fic, when we reach the Tower of Araj, but man that is some good worldbuilding. Unfortunately I felt like a lot of that went to waste in this adventure.
  • Jorlan being Vizeran’s son is definitely not in RAW.
  • WotC, gimme a call, I’d love to write drow for you. I need to ruin some fanboys’ childhood.
  • I guess follow me on Twitter if you want to hear me talk about mushrooms and drow? Or make a comment and I’ll reply with a random fact about this chapter. You do you.

ETA (much later): holy shit I just realized I’ve been spelling “Neheedra” wrong this whole time. I’ve been going by the name on her token in roll20, but let us say, our DM does not excel at spelling.

Fanfic journal: “Bright Future,” chapter 4

Read chapter 4 (“Zha’linth”) here.

Chapter Summary

Her elven colleague had insisted that there were no dreams in the trance state.

Yet despite those assurances, Jorlan dreamt.

Chapter End Notes

I went back and changed a couple of small details in chapter 1 and 3, now that I know a little bit more about our boy’s lineage. (Specifically, the position of House Duskryn in Menzoberranzan, and his relation to the Matron Mother of the house, Prae’anelle).

My campaign is at least three sessions ahead of this now, so even though this wasn’t where I intended to end the chapter, I figured I’d better release it before I forgot everything that happened. No longer relevant! My campaign will be finished as of Saturday, March 18th, 2021.

Zha’linth, by the way, means “memory.” At least according to the fan dictionary!

Fanfic journal: “Bright Future,” chapter 3

Read chapter 3 (“Streea”) here.

Chapter Summary

I don’t want to do this, part of his mind screamed. And yet he found himself turning the poisoned drink in his hand, contemplating it like some fine vintage. It is time, another voice insisted. Do this on your own terms. Do this before you become someone worth missing.

Jorlan Duskryn, branded a traitor, learns that dying and being revivified is hard on the psyche. A certain druid manages to prevent a fatal decision.

Content warnings

This is signposted in the fic itself, but this chapter has warnings for suicidal ideation and implied/referenced sexual assault.

Chapter End Notes

I think I’ve managed to ramble at you enough in previous chapters, so hopefully this note will be short.

Because it’s relevant here, a reminder that it was Shoor, not Jorlan, who saw the business end of a black pudding in this campaign. Jorlan’s got his own scars to worry about, but they’re not nearly as much of a hindrance.

It is REALLY FREAKIN’ HARD to figure out precisely when Out of the Abyss is set in the Forgotten Realms timeline, but from what I can tell from too much time on the FR wiki, it’s somewhere between 1485 and 1491 DR. I tell a lie; after some more poking around on the FR wiki, I was able to determine it’s 1485-6 DR.

Also, yes, drow are awful, and I’m sorrynotsorry for tormenting my boy like this. But as we considered in the last session, Jorlan has likely spent his entire life pleasing powerful women in order to save his own skin, and I can imagine that leads to some not-entirely-consensual situations. And I also imagine he’s learned that seduction is a tool he can use when everything else fails.

Fanfic journal: “Bright Future,” chapter 2

Read chapter 2 (“Og’elend”) here.

Chapter Summary

Kinyel murdered you and I had to watch, petrified, as life left your eyes.

The heroes of Velkynvelve and their semi-willing drow defector Jorlan Duskryn arrive in Mantol-Derith to find assassins on the loose, mad beholders, insanity-causing gems, and creepy-but-well-meaning Zhentarim. A battle goes very badly, bringing into sharp relief certain emotions.

Chapter End Notes

You can read my as-it-happened tweet-along of the events behind this chapter here. Many capitals. Much feels. Wow.

Also I have a problem: I have too much fun with the Drow language. I hate to be one of those authors where every third word is a completely unnecessary fantasy word, but the nouns in Drow are just SO DANG DESCRIPTIVE of the culture as a whole. (The morphology, though? Leaves something to be desired). Also I found this Drow Dictionary, which is one part the glossary from 2E’s The Drow of the Underdark, one part fan-created. Reader, I married it.

Phrases not pulled directly from that dictionary:
– vlos’calin is a compound of “vlos” (blood) and “cal” (to eat). So, “bloodsucking,” basically.
– har’shebali is a compound of “har” or “harl” (under) and “shebali” (rogue or non-noble drow). I use it to mean a lowest-of-the-low commoner, which should give you Jorlan’s opinion of the guy. Basically DM-as-Jorlan called Zilchyn an “underside leech” and I was trying to figure out how to translate that.
– k’lavulin is entirely my own invention; I was just thinking of Clavulinopsis fungus. And hey, what’s a Drow word without a few apostrophes among friends?
waela jalil = “foolish woman”

Many “DEATH BY SNU SNU” jokes were made (mostly by me) about the fact that Mavash is in fact at LEAST a foot taller than Jorlan. Drow are small, folks, and kalashtar are pretty tall. Canonically Mavash is 6’4″, and drow vary from 4’7″ to 5’5″ in height. You do the math.

In case it’s not obvious, the PCs are:
– Mavash no-last-name (she/her), kalashtar druid (Circle of the Moon).
– Gaulir Turac (he/him), dragonborn paladin of Bahamut (Oath of Devotion).
– Umbra (she/her), presents as drow, plays as Mark of Shadow elf, actually shadar-kai sorcerer (Shadow Magic)
– Luxan Grey (they/them), changeling blood hunter (Order of the Lycan).

Our fine DM Nixon who TOTALLY MURDERED MY WAIFU changed a lot A LOT about Mantol-Derith, apparently. But it meant we got to fight Xazax the Eyemonger on the shores of the Darklake instead of in a warehouse, so that was pretty cool.

Ana’Ise is a yuan-ti wizard from the Zhentarim who is meant to take the place of Davra Jassur from the RAW adventure.

“Vash,” btw, is the name of Mavash’s quori. Yes, I think of Trigun every time I write it. Look, I didn’t think I’d get this far with this character.

Finally, while this is trending in a romance-y direction, it is gonna be slowest of slow burn, not just because Jorlan is a Very Broken Dude, but also because a) I’m ace spectrum, and my elf-fancying is mostly of the mind, and b) at the end of the day I have to play D&D with these people, and I’d rather not make it awkward. Romance, yes, steamy smut, no. Sorry not sorry.

Fanfic journal: “Bright Future,” chapter 1

If you follow me anywhere on social media, you’ll know that I am currently obsessed with my D&D 5E campaign of Out of the Abyss, run by my larp pal Nixon. It helps that my kalashtar druid character, Mavash, has developed a romantic relationship with a random drow NPC, Jorlan Duskryn — who we were probably intended to kill, but who we adopted instead.

As we got to the halfway point of the campaign, I wrote this first chapter of “Bright Future” as a one-shot, not expecting I’d write more. But the campaign just kept getting better, and the relationship between Jorlan and Mavash deepened, so I continued.

The campaign is drawing to a close, but I continue to slowly make my way through an adventure full of elf fancying, demon incursions, and characters who are good with swords and bad with words.

As I do, I have a pile of notes on each chapter I write.

And yet, I don’t love pasting a wall of text at the end of each chapter. I like the work to stand on its own, but I also think I’m too clever and can’t shut up. This “fanfic journal” was the compromise –an idea I took from pensword, a fic author whose work I enjoy.

Without further ado… all you could never want to know about “Bright Future,” chapter one.

Summary of fic

Jorlan Duskryn, now prisoner of the heroes of Velkynvelve, has left a trail of ash behind him. Lost in the surface world, with no home to return to, the druid Mavash tries to convince him of his bright future.

Based on the latter half of my playthrough of the “Out of the Abyss” adventure. But, like, with more feels, elf fancying, and spreading friendship across the Underdark.

While there are some inevitable spoilers, our campaign is very different from the rules-as-written module, and the focus here is more on characterization and emotion than plot, anyway. Don’t be scared away if you haven’t played the module!

Chapter End Notes

Thank you, first and foremost, to DM Nixon and my fellow players, for supporting my long con of making Jorlan Mavash’s waifu. I apologize if I have misremembered details about your characters or their actions.

This differences from the RAW module:

  • Jorlan isn’t disfigured in this version. I guess my DM swapped that aspect of him with Shoor? Jorlan’s still the one who was out of Ilvara’s favor and let us out of prison, though.
  • Nixon tends to turn NPCs into full DMPCs once they start traveling with us. Which is how Jorlan turned from a warrior into a rogue.
  • Obviously there’s some Eberron stuff in here — kalashtar, the quori, the kalaraq quori, etc. This all came about because my DM foolishly said “you can play any race you like, but if it’s not native to Forgotten Realms, I’ll retcon it in somehow.”
  • Likewise, I’m pretty sure that Ambergris(tle O’Maul) isn’t supposed to be in the module as written? And she’s definitely not supposed to be a priestess of Shar. But hey, she showed up in Gauntlgrym to explain Eberron stuff, including that il-Lashtavar has joined our pals the fiends of the Abyss in opposing us.
  • I was as surprised as you when I read the Gauntlgrym chapter of the mod and found out Morista Malkin of the Emerald Enclave was supposed to be a dwarf lady. In ours, it’s a dude, and he’s some sort of sylvan.
  • Our DM made Eldeth the adopted daughter of Bruenor Battlehammer, hence “princess.” It might just have been his secret plot to have less NPC Theater. He also had her take some cleric levels when our cleric PC quit the game, because while we can all heal a little, we’re usually too busy smiting things. (Literally, in Gaulir’s case)
  • Speaking of Bruenor, see if you can catch the one-off Drizzt references in here. Because we all like to joke about our misspent youths perving on drow.
  • The Eldritch Windstone is a magical item Nixon totally invented for me, because there are astonishingly few magical items that work when you’re in beast form.
  • While I appreciate the effort by WotC recently to make drow less “elves in blackface,” I reject the idea that they look like Warcraft night elves. My drow are ash grey, just like their cousins, the Dunmer of TES, my favorite murder elves.

Other random notes:

  • The amount of research I put into this fic = TOO MUCH. My elf-fancying will be accurate to the source material or it will be bullshit.
  • I’m kind of appalled that best source on drow culture and society is still the 2E book Drow of the Underdark. Which I have on my bookshelf, because let’s be real, my sexual orientation is “murder elf.” Of course I referred to it extensively here.
  • That said, I was unimpressed with what exists of a drow conlang; it was clearly not put together with anyone with any knowledge of morphology.
  • Mavash did in fact escape Velkynvelve by spider-walking down the cliffs to the pool below, with the myconid sprout Stool on her back. He may have said “wheeeeee!”
  • Before I perved on Jorlan I perved on Sarith, but Bad Things ™ happened to him.
  • Fun fact: I live in the next town over from R.A. Salvatore. This fic will not be how I introduce myself to him.

2020 Retrospective

What. A. Year. After the past 12 months, I would like to go back to living in precedented times, thank you very much.

But hey, a long time ago in a galaxy far away — when COVID-19 was just a whisper on the wind — I wrote a 2020 prospective, where I set the theme of “green witch.” As I do every year at this time, I’d like to reflect on how that theme played out over the course of the year.

Staying in touch with the natural world

Despite its awfulness — despite a pandemic and losing my job — something beautiful came out of the year for me. When my time-intensive social hobbies (like larping) disappeared overnight, I had much more time and energy to devote to the natural world.

This year, I made ~700 observations on iNaturalist. I learned to identify many new taxa — mostly plants, but I also started getting into mushroom identification and mycology. I foraged wild foods, and made things out of them. I discovered new conservation areas and hiking trails. I laid on the ground by a vernal pool for nearly an hour, observing fairy shrimp. I did several “socially distant” hikes with friends, teaching them what I knew about the natural world.

For once in my life, I saw the turn of the seasons, day by day and week to week.

To my points from the original post:

Planting a garden. I did this, to varying degrees of success; I tried to grow tomatoes, bell and jalapeno peppers, parsnips, and lettuce from seed. I had my hands in the earth; I tilled the soil; I watered my plants; I repelled woodchucks and blossom end rot.

The final product was meager — a bumper crop of tomatoes, a few peppers, and not much else — but the experience was worthwhile. Caring for plants was something that took me outside nearly every day, even when I didn’t have the time or inclination to dive into the deep woods.

Foraging wild foods. I did this, too! We discovered the brambles growing as volunteers in our backyard were in fact blackberries, and Matt harvested them and made a delicious blackberry ice cream from it. I also made zucchini bread with autumn olive I had harvested from a local tree. (And learned, in the process, that autumn olive really should be pitted before doing so).

Sadly I did not find a great source of elderberries this year — I saw a few plants, but not close to me or in a place I’d feel confident with harvesting.

Taking a nature walk once a month. Sort of? I was out in the woods a LOT this year, and it probably averaged out to once a month. But most of it was in the spring and early summer, my favorite seasons for natural observation. I don’t think I got out in the woods at all in July, and December was also a wash for me.

But I also logged more iNat observations this year than I had in previous years combined, and I participated in a two virtual bioblitzes, so I really don’t feel like I “failed” here.

Also it’s important to remember that one doesn’t need to “get out” in nature. Wildness is everywhere! I found new-to-me plants like bush honeysuckle and broad-leafed helleborine and European beech while out on my runs. I got up close with a garter snake basking on the tarmac of my road. And I just now returned from a walk down my street where I saw a red fox cross the road in front of me.

Honoring the cycle of the year

My first thought is: I would have liked to spend more time on this, on slowing the passage of time through observing it, turning regular time into a festival heterotopia. I especially wanted to honor the solstices and equinoxes, those turning points of the year — but I never quite managed to make it happen.

But I’m thankful for what I did do. I observed my usual traditions around traditional Western holidays — Muppet Christmas Carol at Christmas, Vincent Price movies at Halloween. In celebration of finishing another (final!) round of Lioness edits, I hosted watch parties of several Three Musketeers movies. I bought holiday and birthday presents, and took pleasure in selecting the right gifts.

Plus, one thing observing the natural world regularly did is help me see the passage of time. I watched maple buds turn into leaves turn into forest litter, and that taught me much. I saw the mycelium underlying the whole forest floor, and learned you cannot kill me in a way that matters.

(Description: screenshot of a Tumblr post, reading:
Me holding a gun to a mushroom: tell me the name of god you fungal piece of shit
Mushroom: can you feel your heart burning? can you feel the struggle within? the fear within me is beyond anything your soul can make. you cannot kill me in a way that matters.
Me cocking the gun, tears streaming down my face: I’M NOT SCARED OF YOU)

Given all that, maybe it doesn’t matter that I didn’t do anything to celebrate the solstices.

Living hyperlocally

I got to know my town and neighborhood much better this year. I chatted with neighbors (and sometimes argued with them) on the Facebook community for my town. I learned where to find one of my favorite spring ephemerals from my local nature group. I started having milk delivered to my house weekly from a local dairy. I discovered new trails, new landmarks, new lands, within the boundaries of my own town.

To the individual points:

Attend a town meeting. I did not do this — perhaps because the last town meeting was held in a gymnasium at the height of the pandemic. However, thanks to vote by mail, I did vote in local primaries for the first time, which was enlightening.

In January, before the pandemic hit the U.S., I attended a meeting of the landowners’ association I’m part of, and learned about our efforts to fight fanwort in the lake. (I also walked the two miles to the high school where it was being held, rather than drive).

Do more local shopping. This was hard to do this year — again, because pandemic, and the shortage of many goods at the beginning of it. (I never thought I’d be lining up at the Hannaford at 7am for toilet paper).

But also during the pandemic, my local dairy started delivering door to door! I now enjoy having local eggs and milk and creamer on my doorstep every Thursday morning.

Other than that, I shopped at Aubuchon more than Home Depot (small chain vs. large chain), and I tried to use Target rather than Amazon (chain that generally treats its employees decently vs. putting more money in Jeff Bezos’ pocket).

It ain’t much, but it’s honest work.

Improve my relationship with my neighbors. I can’t say I made much progress on this, even though the pandemic might have given me the opportunity to.

Not being wasteful

Complete Uber Frugal Month challenges in January and June. I did this in January but not in June, ironically, even though in June I was out of a job and strapped for cash flow. I found the exercises interesting to do, teaching me a great deal about my relationship with money, and what my goals were.

Read The Zero Waste Home, and incorporate at least one of the tips into my life. I did not read this specific book due to interminable waitlists (thanks, pandemic), but I did read 100 Ways to Go Zero Waste, so I think that counts. I took notes on the tips I liked, but there was a lot of dumb in there, I gotta admit. It was emblematic of “clueless city dweller has some bullshit ideas about the natural world,” which tends to get my virtual panties in a wad, since ecological consciousness is intrinsically linked to nature appreciation in my head.

What I am doing differently, trash-wise, from 2019:

  • Cleaning out K-cups to recycle the plastic and aluminum. I also canceled my standing order for them, with the goal of eventually not using them at all. (Once I get through the backlog).
  • Recycling a few more things I didn’t know I could recycle (Recycle Smart MA is great for this, if you also live in the Bay State).
  • Using handkerchiefs and rags instead of paper products more reliably. (Still not gonna clean up cat sick with a rag, though).
  • Driving a lot less — again, thanks to the pandemic and now having a fully-remote job.
  • I asked for a bunch of things for Christmas that would help with less wasteful living — Stasher bags, beeswax wraps for food — but, alas, did not get them. Will have to invest in some myself.

I’d like to do more in the future, of course, but as in everything, home environmentalism is a practice, not a destination.

Pay off my student loan and Matt’s car loan. Done! Actually, we paid off all our consumer debt this year, despite my not having a job — including the balance on our HELOC post-bathroom reno, and credit card debt for Brianna’s health crisis in January/February. The combination of frugality, a severance package with release of claims, increased unemployment due to the pandemic, and finding a new job relatively quickly actually left our bank account in a pretty good state.

Knowing things

As I said in my original post, intellectual curiosity is already a huge part of my life, so I expected this sub-theme to be easy to accomplish.

In some ways I was right — if nothing else, I know far more about identifying fauna, flora, and fungi than I did a year ago! However…

Join the “friends of the town library.” As I mentioned, this goal required me to print out a form, write a check, and go into the library LIKE A BARBARIAN. (A barbarian librarian?)

… and then said library shut down completely for the first six months of the pandemic.

It’s been open for browsing-by-appointment for a couple of months now, so if I was really determined, I could have done this. But let’s be real, I was more determined not to get COVID.

Visit a few new-to-me local parks, attractions, hiking trails, and businesses. The pandemic made this difficult for inside locations, but as far as hiking trails and conservation areas went, I get a gold star here.

I visited Robbs Hill for the first time to photograph hepaticas, on a tip from someone in my local nature group. I visited Cowdrey Nature Center for the second time ever, taking a new trail that made a ring around the river/swamp in the center, and identified all kinds of new-to-me mushrooms and spring ephemerals. I discovered the Lane Conservation Area and the Large Town Forest, both of which border the Hickory Woods I know well. Speaking of, for the first time I walked the ring/main trail of Hickory Woods, from the “official” trailhead back to my house. I also visited the Peabody Conservation Area, another patch of conservation land affiliated with the North County Land Trust.

My Buy Nothing group also played a part in learning more about the roads of this town! My journeys to pick up gifts brought me to parts of the town I’d never explored before, including the weird warren of roads northeast of Hickory Hills Lake, disconnected from the rest of the town when the lake was created as a reservoir.

I also had the opportunity to look at a map of my town from the 1880s, and that’s when I realized the street I live on once cut directly across what is now the bottom of the lake — yet another section of road that once connected the neighborhoods on two sides of the lake. I also saw small roads and farms where the Large Town Forest now is, and that explained for me why the trails looked wide enough to drive a truck through (spoiler: they were), as well as why there were miles and miles of fieldstone walls back there.

(Well, that’s also just… New England. As I tell ANYONE WHO LISTENS, Massachusetts is more forested today than it was in Thoreau’s time. Underneath our feet are the remnants of thousands of Colonial and 19th century farms).

Further reading (literally)

I also did some relevant reading this year. One book I read this year and recommend is Farming, a Handbook, by the poet Wendell Berry. His poetry quietly, beautifully asserts that the people who put their hands in the dirt, day after day — farmers — are the ones who understand the natural world best of all. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with!

Relatedly, I also read Dirt Work: an Education in the Woods, by Christine Byl, who worked trail crew at national parks in Montana and Alaska. This book is a series of essays about that experience, working with one’s hands, and the natural world — including the humans that live in that world. Here’s a favorite quote of mine:

Outdoors is not catalog or movie set, not just work site, not even sanctuary, no matter how nuanced my desires appeared (name the plants, still the soul). Outdoors is a place where salmon swim upstream to die where they were born, where bears eat the salmon so they can survive their winter dens, where humans move through calling loudly, intent on fish and berries and bears. It’s a place to be reminded that, while sport is fun, while the rush of summits, linked ski turns, and belay stances are a joyful thing, they are second. Auxiliary to a world that is not playground but homeschool, where I am taught to settle in, over and over, until being outside isn’t about endurance or leisure, but life.

Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

On a completely different (but also related) note, I read two of the Discworld Witches sub-series, Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters. I didn’t think Equal Rites had much to recommend it — it is the infamous Early Pratchett, and I really didn’t like the gender-essentialist division of “witch” and “wizard” which is the core premise of the book. I did like this quote, which was very much in service to my theme of the year:

“Do you think I used magic?”

Esk looked down at the queen bee. She looked up at the witch.

“No,” she said. “I think you just know a lot about bees.”

Granny grinned.

“Exactly correct. That’s one form of magic, of course.”

“What, just knowing things?”

“Knowing things that other people don’t know.”

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters, on the other hand, edged into what people love Pratchett for: humor not for the sake of humor, but in service to a greater theme. This one is full of Shakespearean tropes, and (like all books I love), touches on what it means to make art. It didn’t quite go as far as I would have liked, however.

This year I also read (85% of) Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It is mostly about space anarchism — as a friend joked, “the through-line is communism.” But this quote, where the main character observes his wife, felt on-theme:

Text of a quote from Ursula K. LeGuin: “Her concern with landscapes and living creatures was passionate. This concern, feebly called “love of nature,” seemed to Shevek to be something much broader than love. There are souls, he thought, whose umbilicus has never been cut. They never got weaned from the universe. They do not understand death as an enemy; they look forward to rotting and turning into humus. It was strange to see Takver take a leaf into her hand, or even a rock. She became an extension of it, it of her.”

What else?

That’s a lot already! But some other things I am proud of this year:

  • Rediscovered Dungeons & Dragons! I’m now in four different games with two different groups, and I love it. Still hope to blog more about that at some point!
  • Finished the last round of major edits on Lioness (working on a query packet now!)
  • Got my first short story acceptance — “The Mirrors of Her Eyes” is forthcoming from Daily Science Fiction!
  • Wrote some poems.
  • Wrote some blog posts.
  • Wrote (and continue to write) a D&D/Forgotten Realms fanfic, “Bright Future,” which is about my druid’s relationship with a certain NPC in the Out of the Abyss adventure.
  • Read 25 books. (Didn’t hit my Goodreads goal, but this was a rough year for reading. FOR SOME REASON).
  • Found a new, 100% remote job that (three months in) I absolutely adore. (I am now a senior frontend engineer at Fishtown Analytics, the makers of the data transformation tool dbt).
  • Spent a beautiful two weeks with my mom in Plattsburgh (all safety precautions were taken).
  • Recorded a bunch of videos about Edna St. Vincent Millay poems for Youtube.
  • Started a weekly virtual coworking event, which brought together friends from various different social circles (writing, larping, etc). I think it’s been super beneficial to everyone involved, and it’s been great keeping up with my friends and their projects on a weekly basis.
  • Built Teamer, a tea-timing web app.

But most importantly:

  • I did not get COVID.
  • My (highly vulnerable) mother did not get COVID.
  • I did not lose anyone close to me due to COVID.
  • I survived possibly the worst year in recent memory.

Next time we’ll have my 2021 prospective! A warning that “next time” may still be a couple of weeks out — the theme will be “making my outsides match my insides,” but I haven’t plotted out the specifics yet.

“The past isn’t dead”

Meditations on the nature of history, inspired by some problematic human beings.

This morning — now afternoon! — I have thoughts about history, inspired by an Atlantic article about the 27th grievance of the Declaration of Independence, and a dumb billboard in Milford, Connecticut.

Reading the Atlantic article, I was reminded of the Faulkner quote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”

What that quote means to me is: the “past,” history, isn’t a discrete set of events, unlike we are often taught. The past doesn’t just affect the modern world — it is that world. It’s the air we breathe, the water of the ocean we’re swimming in, the forest we can’t see for the trees.

And the fact that not everybody realizes that? I blame on how history is taught, at least in American primary and secondary schooling.

Not the teachers, mind you. I know they’re doing the best they can with increasingly limited resources, and in states with standardized testing, they have to teach to the test. I grew up in New York state, where we have the Regents exams — where, for example, all of non-American history is collapsed into Global Studies, which you take your freshman and sophomore years of high school. American History is your junior year, and Government/Civics is your senior year — i.e. more American history. Here in Massachusetts, there are the MCAS, which I imagine are much the same

In this model, you don’t have time for detail or nuance. The questions on the various history Regents exams always boiled down to a series of vocabulary words. What is anarchism? What was the triangle trade? What was impressment?

You get the erroneous idea, from this 20,000′ overview, that history is a period of time from X to Y, i.e. World War I lasted from 1914-1918, and that’s it. It blew my mind when I learned that the roots of it go back to the early 19th century, when Europe was divided up somewhat arbitrarily after Napoleon’s defeat. (I only learned this because I played Viscount Castlereagh, the architect of the Congress of Vienna, in a larp!)

(Come to think of it, I’ve learned more history from larping than any book or class. Making sure Europe gets divided up in a way that won’t cause war is suddenly INCREDIBLY RELEVANT when you spend four hours trying to accomplish that while Benjamin Franklin comes back from the grave, the magical ruler of Europe is appointed, and George III is cured of his madness).

And of course, that goes back to Napoleon, and how he came to power, and that would not have happened without the French Revolution, which had its roots in the American Revolution, and Enlightenment thinking. And that was tied to the Protestant Reformation, which in part came about because Henry VIII was hot for Anne Boleyn (also because Martin Luther was het up about the excesses of the Catholic church).

(One thing I notice in all this is how ignored the 17th century was in history books. It’s kind of like it never existed! I seriously thought it was the Boring Times between the Tudors and the American Revolution for so long. I mean, yes, some crazy fundamentalists landed in what is now Massachusetts in 1620, but I don’t think I even knew that was the date until recently. And yet, the Stuart kings, and the English Civil War, the 30 Years’ War, and the courts of Louis XIII and XIV are incredibly fascinating, and full of sex, booze, and airs de cour).

History is a narrative, is I guess what I’m saying, which follows a logical chain of action and reaction. It’s not always the most satisfying narrative, admittedly, which perhaps is why it seems unappealing at first glance. Like a narrative, history is shaped by the authors (history, victors, etc); and like fiction, sometimes people come in generations later and have to revise it, because it turns out there’s no such thing as a neutral point of view, and look, there’s an angle we’ve entirely neglected. (See: books about how great Genghis Khan was for the Western world).

History literally means “story.” They’re the same word in French, in fact: histoire. (Perhaps that’s why the French felt the need to come up with the word roman — romance, or “novel” in modern usage). I suspect the same is true in Latin, too.

And so history is best taught as a story, a narrative. But so rarely it is, unless you are exceptionally lucky or diligent. It especially wasn’t in New York state, because by the time we were old enough to understand the nuance of history, we had the aforementioned awfulness of the Regents. No history book ever presented history to me like this. (Okay, maybe in the introduction, but what high schooler reads those?)

Honestly, looking back on it, my best history teachers were from middle school, before the Regents — Mr. Canon and Mr. Zeglis in 6th? 7th? grade? My classmates used to tease them for their inability to stay on topic. (Because ALL OF FUCKING HISTORY IS AN INTERESTING SIDE QUEST, I now know). I used to wonder how Mr. Canon knew so much about all the American presidents; when I asked, he described it as a card catalog drawer, where once he opened the drawer, a series of facts just spilled out. I didn’t understand his metaphor until I was an adult; I now can do the same thing for a large swath of British royals.

(Why I, a USian, don’t focus on presidents, I don’t know. I did try at one time to memorize them, but all I learned was that a) Washington didn’t become president until long after the revolution — 1789 — and 2) that presidents were inaugurated in April for many years. If I knew more which presidents were queer, maybe I’d be more interested).

(Yes, I know that was probably true of Lincoln — hence the phrase “log cabin Republican” — but I don’t know any of the details).

(See: digressions re: history).

The first person who taught me history in the form of a narrative wasn’t a teacher. It was my mom’s friend Victor (now sadly passed), who took care of me when my father was in the hospital in Albany for a cardiac bypass. Victor loooooved to talk about history, and when he did, it was fascinating to me. In the week or so I was there, I learned about Napoleon and his conquest of Europe, and Elba, and the 100 days; I even learned that his horse was named Marengo. Speaking of horses, he told me the spurious legends about Catherine the Great (very euphemistically; he was deeply Catholic), although he failed to note how INCREDIBLY BADASS she was. I learned, too, about the death of Stalin (theoretically; the whole story about everyone being too scared to check on him when he was locked up in his library may ALSO be spurious).

That his facts were muddled was not super important to me, then or now. What was important was that he was the first person to put history in an appealing, campfire story, “no shit, there I was” way for me.

… also he had a seemingly-endless stock of Snickers bars in his fridge, which probably helped.

When I went to France, I was living in the midst of history, in a way I never felt like I was in Plattsburgh, New York. (Which is wrong, but I was ignorant at the time. American history is shorter, true, but just as deep). It was absolutely uncanny to me to walk by a series of 17th century towers on my way to school. One of my short-term host families lived over the ruins of an 11th century abbey, and had a picture window looking out on it. I was awed by it, but they just shrugged. “You get used to it. You can get used to anything.”

(I often wonder if I have become inured to the sheer “oldness” of the Old World, and thus wish I could see it through Matt’s eyes — he who had never been to Europe before we traveled to England for Consequences the first time. Was he as awed by the Tower of London as I was by the bay towers of La Rochelle, as an impressionable 16 year old girl?)

Even so, I still didn’t appreciate the depth of the historical context I was living in, there in La Rochelle. I knew vaguely that it was the birthplace of French Protestantism, because there was a museum about it in town — which I never went in, even though I walked by it every time I went to the post office. (Because “ho hum, the 17th century, THE BORING TIMES”). There is a famous painting of Cardinal Richelieu, striding across the earthworks around La Rochelle, that is ERRYWHERE in that city and yet I had no idea that a giant chunk of The Three Musketeers, one of my favorite novels — the work that inspired my current novel — is set there. (Admittedly, I hadn’t read it at the time). I skipped class to go to the beaches on Ile de Ré, watched the QEII come into port from there, took pictures of the black lighthouse and the donkeys wearing pants, and didn’t know a single thing about my beloved George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham’s failed attempt to land an army there.

I desperately wanted to see the castles of the Loire — I was obsessed with Saumur, depicted in Les Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry — and I was peeved that my host parents generally considered it “too far” to travel, in European terms. But somehow the giant U-boat base in La Rochelle harbor from the Nazi occupation, or the colorful tuberculosis sanitarium houses of Chatelaillon, or tiny Brouage, birthplace of Samuel de Champlain, were just, I dunno, not enough.

(Pro-tip: there is no period of history too boring, no Atlas Obscura site too obscure, if you just dig a little deeper).

I didn’t understand the impact of history on the French psyche, even while I lived among them; I scoffed at the French obsession with World War II, even as I knew the reason the French landscape was so barren of trees was because it was literally an occupied territory during the war. When I did get to Saumur, I discovered that it was not quite the picture of Loire Valley brilliance that I had hoped, since first Napoleon, then the Nazis, had gutted it.

Heck, I was a jerk to one of my schoolmates about something related to World War I, and he literally never spoke to me again. I had recently learned about the Maginot lines — the defensive lines the French had built on their border with Germany — and how the Kaiser’s forces had just marched around them at the start of World War I to attack France. I teased my classmate about them, and the French national spirit (I can’t recall exactly what I said; I know it wasn’t quite “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” but it still wasn’t very kind). Perhaps I was proud of the fact that I had learned enough French to tease people, or perhaps 16-year-old Lise was just a jackass.

It wasn’t until I listened to Dan Carlin’s series about WWI, “Blueprint for Armageddon,” in the YEAR OF OUR LORD 2013, that I learned that marching around them meant GOING THROUGH BELGIUM. Or how quickly that happened, and how unexpected and traumatic that was for France and Belgium both. So my ignorance of history ruined a friendship with someone who, up until that time, had been one of my closest allies in class. (I’m sorry, Sylvain. You were a cutie and a much better person than me).

Anyway… that’s a lot of words to say: no wonder historians shake their heads and say we’re doomed to repeat history. We are constantly, aggressively taught history in terrible ways. We sanitize the interesting parts for young minds, even though humans have always been led around by the most venal motivations, including sexual desire. (As one of the main characters of my novel would say, “The roots of empire are astonishingly shallow”).

I heard a lot, growing up, that it “wasn’t important” to learn dates of events and the names of great people, and that is a philosophy I’ve come to disagree with deeply. It’s true that it’s only a small part of history, and that precise dates aren’t super important (I could tell you the American Civil War was in the 1860s, and what women were wearing at the time, but exact years, or months? Sorry).

But dates and titles ground us in place. If history is a story, the dates are the setting, and the “great men” (as in the Great Man theory of history; I am well aware they are not all men, nor even all cisgender) are the characters.

Knowing that Henry VIII was a horndog who couldn’t keep it in his pants is, you know, pretty important to our world today. Or, for a non-Western example, knowing about the Mongol conquest of China tells you a lot about the Song dynasty and what replaced it. (And, for that matter, the Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan”).

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” said the First Nations writer Thomas King, and that’s true for history, too. In this way, words — literature — and history are intimately intertwined, too.

For example, knowing that Shakespeare was writing mostly during the late Elizabethan era tells you a lot about his works: like how he was trying to flatter Tudor sensibilities in writing Richard III, because Elizabeth I is, after all, the granddaughter of that guy wot shows up at the end of Richard III and saves the day. (I seem to recall a theater program for Richard III once calling it “an exquisite piece of Lancastrian propaganda”).

Similarly, the “buy war bonds!” stamp on the end of Dragonwyck tells you a lot about that movie and the end of World War II (as well as the 1840s it’s set in, the rent wars of 1844, and the Dutch diaspora in upstate NY). Knowing that the movie Cuban Rebel Girls was made in 1959 doesn’t make it less terrible, but it does make you appreciate the absolutely batshit history of the Cuban Revolution, how that movie got made, and how it ended up as Errol Flynn’s last film.

When I realized the interconnectedness of history and stories — long after my time with Victor, or any formal history classes — I started to see history as a tapestry that we are still weaving, whose warp and weft threads lead back not just hundreds, but thousands of years. (And, on a geological scale, millions!)

I have a certain fatalism about it all, I guess. (“Amor fati,” more like, but I know just enough about the Stoics to be mad that execrable human beings like Ryan Holiday are profiting off work that is available for free to anyone with an internet connection). Whether we learn history or not, we are doomed to repeat it — because we are humans, ruled by the human vices that make history.

Does that mean we’re doomed to a world, a life, that is “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Hobbes? No — I think there’s hope. Human ethical progress is only increasing, even if supposedly we fail to learn history’s lessons. I have many issues with the author Sam Harris these days, but in his book The End of Faith, he made a really smart observation: compare the American reaction to the My Lai atrocities during the Vietnam War to the outrage about the abuses of Abu Ghraib prison. Even in thirty-ish years, the world — words — had come a long way.

Even through my lifetime, I’ve seen the change. There are words, labels for concepts that didn’t exist when I was young. How much more rich would my life have been, how less painful, if I knew I had ADHD from a young age? If I knew that asexuality and demisexuality were real things, and not something I needed to fix? How would I have taken my extremely close friendships with my female friends in high school, if I understood it was possible to be panromantic but not pansexual? Might I have felt less like I was wearing a costume, all the days of my Catholic school life, if I understood that that gender was a construct?

“Your neurodiversity/sexual orientation/gender identity have nothing to do with history, Lise,” I hear you say, but I reply:

Yes, they do.

History is stories.

Stories are everything.

History is everything.


I was going to end there, but one last shameful story about me, my relationship to history, and a hurtful, racist thing I once said to someone in my book club — as an adult, just out of college, before I knew what I wrote above. Stop now if this is the kind of thing that’s going to ruin your day. I’m not out to hurt anyone, and I’m not looking to absolve my white girl guilt here; if I were still in touch with the person I hurt, I would apologize directly. (Sorry, Mary).

I’m putting it here because it seems dishonest and reckless not to include it — to omit the fact that this is the kind of shitty thing I once did, while I write a long meditation about my supposed enlightenment re: history.

(History is racism, too).

Context: I had just read the book The Shadow University — which is an interesting book about the erosion of academic freedom in American universities, but also (I now know) conservative and not always accurate. One of the things the book rails against is how modern history textbooks include more perspectives of traditionally marginalized people, “disproportionate” to their “actual” role in history. In a refrain familiar to anyone who spends time on the Steam forums for Crusader Kings II, the authors insisted they weren’t sexist/racist/whatever; they just cared about “historical accuracy.”

At the time I didn’t question what they thought was “disproportionate” representation. I didn’t think about how the contributions of women and POC have been stolen and diminished throughout history. I didn’t truly appreciate how history takes on the perspective of the person who writes it; how “historical accuracy” is an illusion, created by how we turn the camera to look at our fellow humans. I took it as law: it was in a book, they were talking about history; therefore it was just as verifiable as something out of science.

So when I saw the daughter of another book club member studying her history textbook at another table at one meeting, I made some offhanded comment to her mother like, “I hope the textbook doesn’t overrepresent women and minorities.”

(Because I was a complete bonehead, I was saying this to a woman I knew was married to a Chinese-American man, and whose daughter was mixed race).

I don’t even remember what she said in the moment, but I do know that later on she “accidentally” CCed me on an email telling another club member how much she disliked me and how she didn’t want to spend a weekend on an island with me, so, you know… that’s a thing.

I hope that — knowing what I know now, having written what I wrote above — that’s the last stupid historical hill upon which I destroy a friendship.

Now, whether or not the HMS Bounty mutiny came out of a torrid affair between Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh? That is the sort of hill I will die on.

(Featured image photo credit: The New York Public Library on Unsplash)

Playing Video Games for Racial Justice, part 2 of ??

In which I review three more games out of the Itch bundle: A Mortician’s Tale, Mon-Cuties for All, and Verdant Skies

I enjoyed doing this so much, I did it again! You can find part one here.

A Mortician’s Tale

Love this banner art! Credit: A Mortician’s Tale on Itch.io.

A Mortician’s Tale is a short, story-driven “empathy game” by Laundry Bear Games, exploring the Western death industry through the eyes of Charlie, a fresh-out-of-school goth mortician.

Most of the story happens via in-game emails. There’s a long-running email conversation with a friend (sister?) who works in a museum, and daily newsletters that keep you up to date on innovations in the death industry. Emails from your coworkers and bosses present the contrast between small, “mom and pop” funeral homes and the big corporations that are replacing them.

In between reading email you do your job — preparing the dead for burial or cremation, embalming them with tiny adorable tools, and attending funerals.

In fact, the mechanics of the tiny adorable embalming tools might lull you into thinking this is Yet Another Simulation Game — an odd one, sure, but I have played Graveyard Keeper. The mechanics are well-designed, and on the whole they feel good to use. Which is great! Except it’s easy to get distracted by the mechanics and forget that Story is Happening.

Witness: tiny adorable embalming tools. Credit: A Mortician’s Tale on Itch.io.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me — I arrived at the end to find I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the story. I knew something impactful had just happened, but it was diminished by the fact that I couldn’t remember who it concerned! This probably wasn’t helped by going into the game not knowing how incredibly short it was.

Basically I need to go back and replay this game so that I can get the full impact of the story. I’d urge you to not make the same mistake I did — keeping in mind that the gameplay is only about an hour long.

Also worth noting: there’s not really much branching going on here, so replayability is limited. I noted only one point where you had to make a choice, and it’s unclear to me if anything different happens on the other path. I guess I’ll see in my inevitable replay!

Overall, I rate this one 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Mon-cuties for All

Credit: Mon-cuties for All on Itch.io.

Mon-cuties for All by Reine Works is a game about raising monsters on your country farm. It was tagged “clicker game” in the Itch bundle database, which was precisely what I was in the mood to play (see: Plant Daddy, from my last post).

it takes the clicker part of “clicker game” very seriously, and I came out of this game with a sore finger.

This game starts with a long and not particularly relevant intro involving the farmer who’s selling you his farm in the country. He seems uncertain about your gender, which leads you clunkily into character creation. (Funnily enough, after all that, the best you can get towards a non-binary gender presentation is “androgynous.” I mean, I guess it’s something?)

Then the farmer… disappears? “Is that supposed to be important?” I wondered, but it never comes up again.

You start with one monster who’s already living in your barn — a tanuki, in my case, although the other possible option is something called a “carbuncle.” While I understood this word to mean “a cluster of boils on your body,” apparently it has another meaning in the world of monster ranching, which is “a fox-like creature with a gemstone in its forehead.”

(After some research on the always-reliable TV Tropes, I figured out this usage of carbuncle dates back to Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, but it has been used greatly in anime and Japanese RPGs. The game also features the nekomata, a creature from Japanese folklore, so yeah, there is a very anime/Japanese folklore aesthetic to this game).

I’m sorry, if this banner art doesn’t say “mid-1990s anime,” to you, I don’t know what to say. Credit: Mon-cuties for All on Itch.io.

At any given time, there are only three things you can be doing: feeding/taking care of your monster, attending a prize fair, or shopping. When I discovered that, I very much had a moment of “… seriously, that’s it?” I dunno, maybe I expected to shovel monster poop on my idyllic country estate?

First, let’s talk about the “taking care of your monster” part of the game. Holy hell, is it a lot of clicking. That is basically all it is — do X number of clicks in a very generous amount of time, and your monster will smile instead of looking surly. (Personally I prefer a surly-looking tanuki, but YMMV). After three such feedings, your monster will level up.

And require more clicks to level up again.

To give you an idea of how absurd the amount of clicking is, you start by having to click… 10? 20? 50? times? It varies by monster, but it felt reasonable at first. But by the time you’ve maxed out your monster, it’s a total of something like 5,000 to 20,000 clicks each time you care for them, and just… NOPE.

Now, lest you think this is worse than it actually is, let me talk about another of the game’s three activities: shopping. In the shop you can buy “treats” and “toys” that will make your clicks more effective, in standard clicker game way. However, they are priced such that, at the beginning, acquiring them is veeeeeeery slow. So while you might not have to make 100, 500, or 2,000 clicks directly, you still have to click a lot, especially at first.

What else can you do in the shop? Well, you can buy new monsters, and… that’s about it. (I did note with some amusement that the feline shop owner, Nyahjit, is clearly an homage to the Khajiit of the Elder Scrolls).

Where do you get the money for shopping? Prize fairs. These are basically trivia games. Trivia about what? It’s a little bit of everything! Some of it is about cats (sadly, all those farming parties in my ESO guild Feline Good Meowporium did not prepare me for this), some of it about Reine Works and the game itself, and some of it is just random. (“Who was the first queen of England?” or “What is the highest recorded distance a goldfish has jumped?”)

Either way it’s unlikely you’ll already know the answers to most of these questions, so you won’t be making much money at the prize fairs until you figure them out. This doesn’t take too long, as the set of questions is pretty small, and they are introduced in tiers based on the “level” of the prize fair. (It’s unclear to me how the game decides what level of prize fair you attend?) If you answer all three trivia questions correctly, you win a prize; otherwise you get a meager consolation prize of (IIRC) between $25-$100, depending on level of the fair.

It is… not a lot of money. And since money is how you buy treats and toys that allow you to do less clicking… again, in the beginning, there will be lots of clicking.

I also felt like the game just sorta… ends, rather than wraps up neatly. It finishes after you’ve acquired your final monster — an incubus, in my case, as it was the most expensive — without you leveling that monster up. I felt was being rushed out the door just as I got to the party!

(The leveled-up incubus was quite the handsome fellow, by the way. I would like to have tea with him and share my thoughts on post-Reformation epistemology. For a brief moment I was sad this wasn’t a monster dating sim…)

Tho seriously, that bodice… jacket…. thing is doing him no favors. It’s clearly meant for someone with boobs. Although, being a demon, I’m sure he could have boobs, if he wanted to…

On the whole, I wasn’t very happy with this game. There was too much clicking, and a lack of different activities to do. I guess I expected more simulation-y aspects to the game — that “taking care of your monsters” would be more than just clicking repeatedly. Once you’ve done all the clicking, too, there’s probably not more than an hour of gameplay here. Plus I’m just not a super fan of the cutesy anime style to the storytelling.

That said, I have only good things to say about the art, music, and the sound effects. Someone clearly put great care into crafting the different sounds for each monster, and the different levels and color palettes for the monsters. These felt polished, even if the story and gameplay didn’t always.

On the whole I give this a 2 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t for me, but I can see how it might appeal to others!

Verdant Skies

Verdant Skies by HowlingMoonSoftware is a life stimulation game in the vein of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. Here, you play a colonist on an alien planet, doing things like growing plants, fishing, cooking, and scavenging for scrap to improve your homestead and your colony, all while managing your energy, which slowly depletes over the day.

First things first: I love this thumbnail art, used to promote the game on index pages on Itch.io. It made me want to jump in right away, before I even read the description. If the job of the thumbnail is to sell the game, then it succeeded admirably.

I mean, it may help that I have a dress like that.
Also: note the subtle rainbows!
Credit: Verdant Skies on Itch.io

This thumbnail is pretty representative of the game art, too, with the hand-drawn style of the cut scenes contrasting with the more pixelated style of the actual gameplay. I like both — whoever the artist(s) are, they use color in ways I really love.

Like many games in this genre, Verdant Skies gives you the ability to romance, marry, and have children with the NPCs you encounter in the game — from the stern-but-ultimately-kind colony director to the ditzy blond photographer who begs you not to eat fish. But unlike most of these games, Verdant Skies rejects outdated notions of gender or sexual orientation.

For one thing, in designing your character, gender is irrelevant –you select the hair, face, and clothing you want from options that are more-or-less gendered, but gender is never explicitly stated, so you are free to define your character how you like. (In the narrative, your character is always referred to as “they” in the third person. Ideally I’d prefer the ability to choose pronouns, but this is pretty good, too).

As I’ve been doing lately when it’s an option — like in Mon-Cuties, in fact — I picked a fairly-androgynous-but-slightly-femme gender presentation. Is this telling me something about my gender presentation IRL? Maaaybe, I dunno. I’m pretty gender apathetic, all things considered. But that’s neither here nor there!

(I read some complaints that “none of the faces are masculine enough!” but that was on the Steam forums, so I tend to write that off as the gripings of toxic masculinity — the real villain of Verdant Skies!)

Given that gender is irrelevant, sexual orientation only has as much meaning as you, the player, ascribe to your character and who they romance. And there are many fine choices for romance, including at least one non-binary character using they/them pronouns — Zaheen, the colony’s doctor.

(I don’t think I’ve met all the NPCs yet, so there could be others, too).

There’s a lot of racial diversity in the cast, too — admittedly, ethnicity doesn’t matter much in space, but it’s implied you all come from Earth, where such things definitely do matter. At least three characters are Black (Jade, Anthony, and Wyatt), Zaheen is coded Middle Eastern, and the mechanic Rosie is Latina. Again, there could be more diversity among the characters I haven’t met yet!

And then there’s the Scottish character, Nessa. I have a… thing about bad Scottish dialect in fiction, and this character has a bad case of Robbie Burns. Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, some of that with honest-to-god Scottish people, and I am pretty sure that ACTUAL MODERN-DAY SCOTTISH PEOPLE DON’T SAY “AMN’T” for “am not.”* That said, she is a redheaded farm girl who loves animals, which is exactly my jam. I may romance her. (After Wyatt; see below).

*(Actual Scottish People have informed me that “amn’t” is rare but does occasionally come up, mostly among older folks. Still I maintain that if Nessa were any more aggressively Scottish, she’d be a talking plate of haggis).

Luckily for my highly romantic heart, some characters in Verdant Skies are open to polyamorous relationships, which is really the first game I’ve played that allows that! I haven’t explored it yet, but it’s something I’m looking forward to checking out. According to posts I’ve seen on the forums, some of the mechanics break down in actual play, in that ultimately you can only choose to live with one spouse. The developers have expressed a desire to make that work better, but it requires a lot more dialogue trees, i.e. more work, i.e. probably more money and/or time.

Personally, I developed an attachment to the Black botanist Wyatt. He had me at “lovely specimens of Poaceae around here, eh?” Like the totally well-adjusted human with the totally misspent youth that I am, I knew immediately he was talking about grasses, and was able to respond with “WHY YES, I especially like the purple ones!” Clearly it’s love at first turf, although our relationship is still growing, as we take turns at the gene splicer or bump heads while harvesting mushrooms.

Like you do.

Did I mention he’s a punster? (Pundit?) BE STILL MY HEART.

Speaking of gene splicing, I want to say a word about the gene splicing mini-game, which allows you to combine a traits on plants (and later, animals, too) to select for the traits you want. At least for plants (I haven’t explored animals yet), you have traits like “juicy” or “tasty,” that increase the nutritional value, as well as ones like “regrowth” or “double yield,” that change how you harvest them.

I was worried I was “doin’ it wrong” at first, especially since I hadn’t watched the “Verdant Skies Gameplay – Genetic Splicer Tutorial” video. But it’s actually pretty intuitive — put two seeds in, and drag a slider back and forth until you get the traits you want. One end is all the traits from the first seed, and the other end is all the traits from the second seed, and the order you put them in the splicer does matter.

On the whole, it’s a fun system which feels satisfying to use! But then, if you don’t have good mechanical representations of mundane(ish) tasks in a life simulation game, then what do you have?

Besides cute botanists, I mean.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite games out of the Itch bundle so far, and I went whole-hog and rated it 5 out of 5 stars. It’s nearly my perfect game!


So that is three more games down! Only… 1735 more to go?

The next games from the bundle I’ve been playing are Changeling and A Short Hike, and I hope to write about those next — maybe along with one other game? We shall see!

TIL in JavaScript: Timers

Time is an illusion, and time in JavaScript doubly so.

This is the start of — hopefully! — a new series for me, “TIL in front-end web development.” In case you have never been exposed to it before, “TIL” stands for “today I learned.” I believe the term has its origins on Reddit, that wretched hive of scum and and occasional hilarity.

My purpose with this series is to chronicle what I’m learning in my personal front-end development enrichment projects — which I suddenly have a lot more time for, thanks to unemployment. I’ve been doing this work for 10+ years professionally, but I still learn something new every day; every day I’m Googling something I don’t know, or some topic I need a refresher on.

Some of the things I searched for while writing this blog post. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader which are related to this blog post, and which aren’t. “Lenticel,” for example: hot new JS framework, or part of a plant?

Without further ado, let’s talk about timers.

“Don’t lie, you’re crying because you have been coding (timers) in JavaScript.” Surprisingly few tears were shed in the making of this blog post! (The meme is CodeHub’s, but the red text is all me).

Brew tea as long as you want, as long as it’s five minutes

My most recent web development enrichment project has been Teamer, a tea timer webapp built using only HTML, CSS, and vanilla JS. Between that, and a code challenge I did for a job interview recently, I felt like I was thrown into the deep end of the “I write algorithms not event handlers” pool.

(“I write algorithms not event handlers” is clearly the next hit single from Panic! At the Disco).

Teamer started very simply, with just a series of buttons corresponding to each tea. When you clicked one, it would start a timer using the brewing time ceiling for that tea.

Like so. In the original iteration, if you clicked on the pale blue circle corresponding to white tea, you immediately started a five minute timer.

In this version, there was no possibility for adjustment. You wanted white tea, you got a five minute timer. That’s it. It wasn’t the most friendly user experience, but it was fine for a first pass.

(There are plenty of tutorials, Codepens, and JSFiddles out there about building a basic timer, but did I look at any of them? I did not. I knew I would learn it better if I had to figure it out myself).

The basic tea timing algorithm

Fundamentally, the timer algorithm is:

  1. Set the timer: set the visual display of the timer as minutes and seconds, and save it in milliseconds somewhere. (Where this value is saved varied between versions. Currently it’s stored as the value of the play/pause button). Logically enough, this is a function called setTimer();
  2. Calculate the starting time in milliseconds. This uses the Date.now() method, which returns the current time in UTC/Unix epoch format, i.e. the number of milliseconds since 12:00am, January 1st, 1970. (Why 1970, I don’t know; I don’t make the rules. Maybe one day they’ll give me Tim Berners-Lee’s private number and I can call him up in the middle of the night and ask him questions like this).
  3. Calculate the deadline — the point at which the timer will stop — by adding the milliseconds from step 1 onto the Unix start time from step 2.
  4. Start ticking: Using the setInterval() method, “tick” every second (1000ms) until the deadline.
  5. On every tick: update the visual display as well as the current milliseconds, and compare the current milliseconds to the deadline .

Once I had that working predictably, I decided it was time to break everything add some user controls.

User controls = extra complication

(Matt saw me writing that title and said, “You’ll soon learn that users are the enemy”).

For the next iteration, I wanted to add a few new buttons: play/pause (that would allow you to pause and restart the timer), stop (that would stop the timer and set it to zero), and buttons to increment or decrement the timer by one minute or ten seconds.

That’s when things got complicated.

For one thing, I had to separate some of the logic from setTimer() out into a new playTimer() function. Previously, the timer started as soon as you selected a tea; now, I wanted the timer to start only when the user hit the play/pause button. So this necessitated some refactoring.

This is also where I created tick(), breaking out an anonymous function inside setTimer()/playTimer() into a named function that I could run with setInterval(). This function was designed to hold all the things that had to happen each time the timer ticked down — everything in step #5 above.

Using a combined play/pause button also meant that I had to keep track of the toggle state of the button, which I did with a playing Boolean variable.

Incrementing/decrementing necessitated a probably-too-clever switch() block based on the value attribute on each increment/decrement button:

       switch (parseInt(btn.value)) {
            case 60:
                deError();
                setTimer(mins+1, secs);
                break;
            case -60:
                if (mins === 0) {
                    setTimer(0, 0);
                }
                else setTimer(mins-1, secs);
                break;
            case 10:
                deError();
                if (secs > 49) {
                    setTimer(mins+1, (secs+10)-60);
                }
                else setTimer(mins, secs+10);
                break;
            case -10:
                if (secs < 10 && mins === 0) {
                    setTimer(0, 0);
                }
                else if (secs < 10) {
                    setTimer(mins-1, (secs-10)+60);
                }
                else setTimer(mins, secs-10);
                break;
        }

You can see that as well as resetting the timer, it handles some corner cases around converting from base 60 to base 10, i.e. when you reach 59, you need to roll over to zero, not 60. Also in there is logic to prevent you from setting the timer to negative numbers.

(I’m embarrassed to admit how long I swore at this switch() statement, which seemed to be doing zilch on my first pass — no timers were being set. Then I realized that the btn.value was coming in as a string, and thus it wouldn’t enter any of the cases — cases inside a switch() block always have to be integers. JavaScript’s wibbly-wobbly typing strikes again!)

Feeling self-satisfied with my work, I pushed my code to my website and added it to Codepen. But then I noticed two other problems…

Take one down, pass it around… three gnarly Javascript bugs on the wall!

The two three problems are found were this:

  1. The timer was occasionally displaying as “:60” instead of “:00.”
  2. Adding time to a timer while it’s running causes the timer to become All Fucked Up (a technical term).
  3. Remember #1?…

The importance of being earnest (to the rounding method you choose at the start)

Debugging problem #1, I quickly realized it had nothing to do with the tortuous switch() block — that was your first thought, too, eh?

However, I was concerned by the logic to calculate the remaining time on a timer — part of the tick() function, called every 1000ms. It looked something like this:

       if (end > now) {//time hasn't elapsed yet
            let diffMs = end - now;
            let diffMin = Math.floor(diffMs / 60000);
            let diffRemSec = Math.round(diffMs % 60000 / 1000 );            
            setTimer(diffMin, diffRemSec);         
        }

(It actually wasn’t nearly as neat, because at this point I hadn’t yet figured out how to use the modulo operator to remove the minutes I had already accounted for. I highly recommend this Stack Overflow answer for the smarter way of doing things).

(Also no idea why I’m using let for those three variables that I’m never reassigning. I guess I’m still not 100% used to the ES6 assignment keywords).

You may notice this disconnect between the Math.floor() method I’m using for diffMin and the Math.round() method I’m using for diffRemSec. Surely that may cause some weirdness, right? Plus there’s nothing stopping from Math.round() from rounding up to 60; I’m not doing any base-conversion math like I am elsewhere. I also couldn’t remember why I had chosen Math.round() instead of Math.floor() — so, ultimately, I changed it to Math.floor().

Good news: I no longer saw “:60” instead of “:00”.

Bad news: the timer was now skipping numbers. (This is bug #3, alluded to above). Most noticeably, when you started the timer, it went straight from “:00” to “:58.” It would also occasionally skip numbers down the line.

I tried a bunch of different solutions for this. Applying one Math method, then another (no dice). Testing for that “:60” case and manually resetting it to “:00.” (That caused a slew of other issues). None of these really did what I needed them to do.

The basic problem was: it’s correct to use Math.floor(), but the visual display of that data is incorrect.

Time is an illusion, and tea time doubly so.

Having ruled out rounding error, the conclusion I came to regarding the cause of the skips was: the code in tick() took some non-zero amount of time to execute. Thus each measurement was being taken at 1000ms + 5? 10? ms, which over time would lead to drift.

Alternately — or in addition — there’s the fact that setInterval() is cooperatively asynchronous. That means all synchronous code on the main thread must clear the call stack before the setInterval() callback executes. (Hence the source of Every Hiring Manager’s Favorite JavaScript Question Ever).

Give that, I asked myself: can I run tick() more frequently?

Before I dive into that, allow me a minor digression to talk about metaphors. (What can I say, I’m a word nerd as well as a nerd nerd).

The concept of a “tick” comes from an analog clock with hands, where each second is a movement of the hand of the clock, making a click or tick noise. If you speed up the ticks of an analog clock, you get a clock that runs fast; it will ultimately become so out of sync with Observed Time ™ that it becomes meaningless.

From my trip up the clock tower of Bath Abbey when I was there in November 2019. We were warned extensively not to touch the 18th century clock mechanism, as there was a very real risk of changing the time for the city of Bath.

But that metaphor doesn’t transfer perfectly to our timer, does it? If you speed up the ticks, all that happens is the display is updated more often.

“Really, Lise?” Really. I know it doesn’t sound right, but bear in mind — what ultimately determines when the timer ends is the deadline in milliseconds. That never changes, no matter what you do on each tick. And both the deadline and the current milliseconds are grounded in Unix time, which is as official as it gets.

So what’s left? The visual display. There’s real math happening behind the face of this clock, so the updates will always be accurate to the current Unix time. But if the user sees skips in the sequence, they’re not going to trust that it’s accurate.

Here’s where I’m practicing my UX design skills. Because the conclusion I came to is:

  • What’s most important to the user experience is the illusion that the timer is counting down at a rate of 1 second per second, with no gaps.
  • The human brain can’t tell the difference between 1000ms and 990ms.

So that’s what I landed on — tick() is run every 990ms instead of every 1000ms. Like so:

ticker = setInterval(tick, 990, deadline);  

Relatedly, I want to take a moment to add: making setInterval() a function expression in the global scope is crucial, so that you can use clearInterval() to stop your timer. The assignment snippet above lives in playTimer(), but it’s first declared near the top the JS file with let ticker. (See, that’s the right usage of let!)

Anyway, I tried a few different intervals, but I still saw skipping with 999ms, and with numbers below 990, I often saw flashes of the same number twice (as the display was updated with an identical number).

(You will see those once in a blue moon even with 990ms, but it’s not super noticeable. If I decide to add a CSS transition to the numbers, I might have to account for that — maybe setting up a control block that only updates the number if it’s different from the immediately previous number?)

Once again, JavaScript allows me to pretend I’m a Time Lord.

Who does number two work for?

I didn’t forget bug #2 (inc/decrementing a timer while it’s running causes weirdness), I promise! Although I did set it aside temporarily while I dealt with JavaScript’s timey-wimeyness.

I found there were a couple of things going on here:

Problem the first: the deadline was not being updated to reflect the new deadline. When you added/removed time without going through the click handler on the play/pause, you were never invoking playTimer(), and thus never setting a new deadline. So if you added a minute to a 3-minute timer, it would look like a 4 minute timer, but in the code it was still waiting for a time three minutes in the future.

So, I should explicitly invoke playTimer() after my big ol’ switch() block, in the click handler for the increment/decrement buttons, right?

But hold on, what if the timer is already paused? Then I’d be doing it twice; once at the end of the block and once when the play/pause button is clicked. I definitely don’t want to set the deadline or change the playing state twice.

So this is was my first iteration:

        if (playing === true) {
            playTimer(); //if timer is running, run playTimer() to update the deadline; otherwise it will update when the play/pause button is clicked again
        }

That fixed the “resetting the deadline” issue, but in classic debugging fashion, raised a new problem: now the timer would flash between the old time and the new time. Wtf?

I eventually figured out I had to stop the ticker (with clearInterval(), in the stopTicker() function) before starting another one. I’m guessing this is because every time you run playTimer(), you create a new instance of ticker; they each have their own closure with the same starting values, but then they diverge based on the differences in the environment at the times they’re run. You get the flashing behavior because the two different tickers are trying to modify the same DOM element, like two children fighting over a toy.

… but my understanding of the inner working of JavaScript and closures is imperfect, so take this analysis with a grain of salt.

Anywho! This worked fine:

        if (playing === true) {
            stopTicker();
            playTimer(); //if timer is running, run playTimer() to update the deadline; otherwise it will update when the play/pause button is clicked again
        }

In Conclusion: What I Learned

I’ve finished all the time juggling for my tea timer app (for now, she says, ominously), and now I’m working on adding more features. An alarm when the timer ends? Using localstorage to allow users to add custom teas? Heck, maybe I’ll even add the ability to have multiple timers running at once, as an excuse to work with classes in JavaScript.

But to summarize what I learned about timers in the process of writing Teamer:

  • Date/time math is easier with modulo.
  • User control makes everything more complicated.
  • Sometimes the answer to “why doesn’t this razzlefrazzle work?” is “you need to parse it as an integer.”
  • Be consistent in your rounding methods, and always use Math.floor() when working with time.
  • If you want to stop your setInterval(), you need to tie it to a function expression in the global scope.
  • Just because your timer is meant to update every second, doesn’t mean it needs to update at precisely that interval — the illusion is more important than the truth.
  • Honestly, timers are a solved problem, and if I were doing this for any purpose other than my own edification, I’d probably go with the time-tested approach of copying and pasting from Stack Overflow.
I never run out of uses for this image.
  • I still maintain that working with JavaScript is like being a Time Lord — you get to work with a lot of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimeystuff.
  • I wanna meet someone who was born at midnight on January 1st, 1970, just so I can give them the nickname “UTC.”

If you want to see the current iteration of the code with highlighting ‘n stuff, it’s up on Codepen.

And that is already way longer than I ever intended this post to be. Hopefully it is useful to someone other than future!Lise.

Playing Video Games for Racial Justice, part 1 of ??

In which I review three games out of the Itch bundle: Overland, Pagan: Autogeny, and Plant Daddy

Like many people, I purchased the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality on itch.io. I may be unemployed, but $5 is not a lot to ask for 1,741 indie games, comics, books, and RPGs! (I even chipped in a little extra).

By the time the sale was over, Itch had raised over $5 million dollars, 100% of which was donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Community Bail Fund.

(As an aside, I’d like to point out that Itch is a small indie games storefront, so they’re not exactly rolling in dough. And yet I don’t think we’ve seen similar initiatives from, say, Steam/Valve, or Blizzard, or any AAA game studio… gee, I wonder why that is? Does it start with “c” and rhyme with “shmapitalism”?)

Of course, now that I’m bought all these games, how do I figure out which ones to play? Out of a list of 1000+ games, how do I find stuff I like?

Some folks have put together tools (spreadsheet, app) that will help you to search through them by ratings, tags, description, developers, etc. The webapp will even suggest a random game for you! These are great, but you still have to know what you’re looking for — or at least be willing to click the “random game” button a lot.

So how do you get turned onto games you might like, but might not know you’ll like? For me, the answer to that is often “friends’ reviews.”

Therefore, I think it’s only fair for me to write up my impressions of the games from this bundle that I play. Hopefully this will only be the first post in a series!

Overland

Overland, published and developed by Finji (the spousal team of Adam and Bex Saltsman), is a “turn-based survival game” where you and a band of unlikely heroes — including some dogs! — take a road trip across the U.S. in the wake of a bugpocalypse.

First point: this is a game where you can definitely pet the dog. Your whole team can be dogs, if you like! Dogs wearing beanie hats and little backpacks!

… this is not a very good strategy, alas, as dogs can’t drive or fill up the car with gas.

Contrary to this awesome t-shirt, the dog cannot drive. (Credit: the Finji shop, where this item is sadly out of stock).

I’ve sunk dozens of hours into this one already, so clearly this is a compelling game. Challenging, too, as I haven’t managed to beat it yet — the farthest I’ve gotten is “The Mountains”, which is the second-to-last zone, where the bugs are crowding in faster than I can deal with them. I still feel there is a lot of room to perfect my strategies for the basic “get gas, drive to the next stop” mechanic.

Ultimately, though, I can’t play this game for very long stretches. It’s the sort of game that requires making hard choices — do I leave someone behind so that the rest of the team can escape? Do I murder this other survivor at the gas station because they might steal my car? — and the consequences of those choices. That is part of what makes it so emotionally compelling, but also stressful to play for long periods.

I also don’t love the controls. It took me a while to get the hang of the “right-click to switch which party member you’re acting as.” Even with… twenty hours? or so in this game, there’s still a lot of me muttering “undo, undo” when I accidentally move where I don’t want to. (Thank goodness for that functionality!) Maybe it plays better with a controller?

But even if it’s not an “always” game for me, I still seriously admire the artistry that went into creating a game at once attractive and wrenching. When you consider there’s some degree of procedural generation that goes into this (in the dialogues between your party members, or in what stops appears on your map), that’s even more impressive.

Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars (out of five). I think it would most appeal to fans of games like FTL or some of the XCom games, with its tactical, turn-based combat and difficult decision points.

Plant Daddy

Plant Daddy, by Brady Soglin is “a laid-back browser game about raising houseplants in your sunny apartment.” You can play it in the browser without having the bundle, or by purchasing it you can download and play it on Mac, Windows, or Linux.

The living room of my “sunny apartment,” late in the game. Matt’s comment was, “So this is apparently a plant hoarding simulator?”

This was the first bundle game I played, and I enjoyed it so much I pretty much binged it. Of course I appreciate anything involving plants 😉 But I also like the options you have for displaying your plants, I like the goals outlined on the to-do list, and as a long-time fan of alchemy-type systems in games, I was intrigued by the rare traits mechanic.

To me, Plant Daddy feels a lot like an idle game — click some buttons, gain some currency, come back later to click some more buttons and watch numbers go up. That’s not a bad thing! To the right kind of person — and I am that kind of person! — those sorts of games can be very relaxing. At the time I bought the bundle, that was precisely what I was looking for, and I sure found it!

I just wish there was more to it? It’s easy to play through most of the items on the “to-do list” in a day or so of regularly checking in — I think the only one I have left to complete is “find a plant with four rare traits,” and I don’t have a great path to achieving that.

That brings me to another point. I found the search for rare traits enjoyable at first, but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Each plant has a 7 digit “seed” number, and there seems to be some pattern to which seed numbers correspond to what rare traits — for example, the first three digits encode the plant species; all Ancient Ferns have numbers between 090 and 097, but only some of those will have rare traits. The last four digits encode traits in some additional way; they seem to work in concert with the first series, but it’s not 100% clear how. You can enter (almost) any seven digit number into your plant workbench and grow that seed, but there’s no guarantee it will have any interesting traits. And basic combinatorial mathematics will tell you that 7 digit numbers = a LOT of possible permutations.

Plus there’s at least some randomness to what digits correspond to what traits in what plants, because I still haven’t figured out a way to get predictable results. I’ve had the best luck combining the two sets of digits as groups, rather than just incrementing or decrementing the whole series. But even working with series I know encode 1-3 traits, I only get plants with 0-3 traits.

I have a feeling the four trait-plants are encoded with a completely different series than the 1-3 trait series, but short of brute-force guessing, or lucking into a plant with four traits from the shop, I have no systematic way to find those magic numbers.

(I guess a lot of people just go on the game forum to get seeds for four-trait plants, but that doesn’t seem like much fun to me. I may do it eventually, though, to satisfy my completism).

Another quibble: as a browser game, this runs in a Unity window within the browser. This is not exactly optimal, performance-wise. Now that my apartment is filled with plants, it lags starting up, and the longer I run it, the more it sounds like my computer (a brand new Macbook Pro) is about to achieve liftoff.

Given this, I considered downloading it and running it as a desktop application — an option, especially if browser games aren’t your thing. But that was when I discovered that your save doesn’t sync between the versions, so I would have to start from scratch for each platform.

(Plus fundamentally this feels like a browser game — see the comparison to idle games, above).

Despite these concerns, I got a lot out of this one! I think it will appeal to folks who like idle games, or who just want something relaxing and low-key in a stressful time. Three out of five stars.

Pagan: Autogeny

Pagan: Autogeny by Oleander_Garden is “an experimental first person open world role playing game set in the digital ruins of a largely abandoned MMORPG.” I saw that and was like YES PLEASE INSTANT DOWNLOAD, because if there’s anything I like, it’s games that comment on the experience of playing a game. (Hence my love for the Jvk.esp creepypasta, and my general love for the lore of the Elder Scrolls).

Speaking of creepy, the major thing I want to say about this game is it’s CREEPY AF. I think that feeling is forged by a combination of nostalgia and incompleteness — or, to crib from the phenomenal Itch copy: “It is heavily inspired by long-forgotten bargain-bin 1990s adventure games, and by a general ethos of user-hostile design.”

The nostalgia, first. From the first screen, which asks you to pick your resolution (defaulting to 1024×768!), you are treated to a Windows 95-era loading screen for an MMO ostensibly named “Plaza 76.” Once you load in, you find yourself a pixelated lobby — the graphics are about on par with, say, the original DOOM, or TES II: Daggerfall. A giant card offers you some instructions about how to move around in the world, but you’ll soon find they’re woefully incomplete.

Here in the lobby you can acquire a few starting items — a tarot card (an equippable item that increases your stats), a mystic blade, “labor vouchers,” and a few skill-up items. From that lobby, you can launch into various different biomes, which offer different adventures and things to find.

A view of the lobby of Plaza 76, including a neon “Food Court” sign.. I would not eat the sesame chicken from that food court, let me just say. (Credit: the Pagan: Autogeny page on Itch.io)

Just like any MMO, right? Except you’re alone and this world does NOT hold your hand.

(FWIW, I never played around much in early MMOs myself — my first one was City of Heroes in 2003 — but visually this reminds me a lot of watching my husband play Phantasy Star Online on the Sega Dreamcast).

The incompleteness, next. I think this arises out of the setting — a deserted MMO — as well as that aforementioned “user hostile design.” Overall, this gives the game the sense of an abandoned project, just as the creators doubtless intended. That you can’t extrapolate what lies ahead from what you’ve already passed through is the source of some of the creeping horror you come across in the game.

A few words about that user-unfriendliness — don’t expect any features you would have in a modern MMO, like a map, or a way to look your current buffs and debuffs, or, heck, even your hit points. I took to drawing maps on paper, because otherwise it’s easy to wander in circles in some of these zones.

Plus, like many old-school MMOs, too, when you die, you lose some of your items (thankfully most stuff is easy to reacquire), and respawn back in the lobby.

Like any good MMO, your experience is tied into your skills and equipment, and how those tie into the setting. Your skills include “murder”, “poetry,” “caffeine”, “body morphing”, and “estrogen.” You’ll pick up your first points in these in the lobby, which you may notice has only one bathroom, marked as a ladies’ room. That bathroom is also where you’ll find your starting tarot card, the High Priestess — traditionally associated with feminine power, this tarot nerd notes. Finally, one of the “quests” — as much there are “quests” — involves putting together a mannequin from body parts you find lying around the world; this increases your body-morphing skill.

Starting to notice a theme?

So yeah, there there is a continual, low-grade trans energy to this game, which is perhaps the “cursed gender_magick()” mentioned in the game description on Itch. (I was only a little disappointed that it wasn’t as transparent — pun not intended but certainly welcomed — as that description let me to believe).

This game apparently has multiple endings, but I have only discovered one so far — which is as surreal and vaguely terrifying as you might expect. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that the game also plays around with breaking the fourth wall in a way that some of my favorite horror games do (i.e. Eternal Darkness, and yes, even that creepypasta I mentioned above).

If I have one complaint about this game, it’s that I have a lot of crashes to desktop (that are clearly not scripted — the game will make you question that, though!) The game description suggests using the 64-bit version if that keeps happening, so I think I will try that on my next trip to Plaza 76.

Another small quibble is that, having found the most obvious game ending, I’m at a bit of a loss of what to do next. I’ve explored all the obvious areas; there are apparently some hidden areas, but I don’t have a great idea of how to find them. And there’s at least one boss monster I’m not sure how to defeat! I’m sure if I poke I’ll uncover them, but the lack of a path forward makes me somewhat disinclined to do so. I wonder if this is where having a formal quest system might help?

One piece of advice I’d like to give to anyone who picks up this game is — make sure you read the manual in the install folder! You can go into this blind if you want the fully “user hostile” experience, but after your second or third trip it will definitely increase your enjoyment to understand what some of the equipment and tarot cards do.

Overall, I rate this one 4 out of 5 stars. As this is the third Pagan game by Oleander_Garden, I’m definitely inclined to check out the the other two that aren’t included in the bundle (Pagan: Technopolis and Pagan: Emporium).


All right, this got long, and I covered fewer games than I expected — but I hope you find it useful all the same. I think if there’s one thing I take away from this first round of games, it’s the world of indie games is broad and fascinating, and that I’m just sad I didn’t discover Itch before this!

(I’d also like to remind you to rate and review any Itch games you like! It will be helpful for those games’ visibility).

Join me next time, when I’ll discuss A Mortician’s Tale, Mon-Cuties for All, and Verdant Skies.