Mongooses, Cockatrices, Magic Plants and the Evolution of a Story

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Saddle up Sonny Jim, this is a long one.

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Play Eft to Newt FREE

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Eft to Newt, my colossal, acclaimed, axolotl-inspired twine game, is now free. You can play it now right at gamejolt.

While it is now free, if you enjoy it and are moved by the plight facing the axolotl, consider buying a copy. All profits go to salamander conservation.

You can buy a copy on itch.io and gumroad.

There is also a review of Eft to Newt by Clint Emsley.

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The Handsomest Echidna Remastered

echidnathumbLast summer I released one of my first games, a little number made in Twine called ‘The Handsomest Echidna.’ Today I’m proud to announce a fully animated, fully voiced remaster of this game.

The Handsomest Echidna is the story of Eugene, an monotreme famed for his spines and good lucks. But today, Eugene’s commitment to his appearance will be challenged when his various endangered friends need some help…

Every species that appears in this game is evolutionarily distinct as well as critically endangered. You can learn interesting facts about these animals by playing the game, but you can learn even more about these animals and how they can be protected by Edge of Existence, a conservation program dedicated to studying and helping these animals.

This game was funded on Patreon. If you would like to support future games like this, you can pledge your support on my Patreon page. Set the maximum amount you would like to contribute, and each month I complete and release an ecology-focused game I’ll receive your donation.

 Play The Handsomest Echidna

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You Were Made For Loneliness

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I’m a sucker for robot literature. I don’t care how many times I read a story about AIs dealing with love or hate, or how many times I read a story using robots as a metaphor for class issues, or how many times a robot that can pass as human changes everything forever, or how many times a scientist builds a robot child that somehow also becomes a super hero, I never get tired of them. This includes every “proto-robot” story as well, be it Frankenstein’s monster or the original Rossum’s Universal Robots that coined the term but referred to biologically grown organisms. There is something unpretentious about a good literary robot. They are the perfect vehicle for playing with ideas of identity, existence, and awareness. Imagining how a mind becomes aware, or how an aware mind deals with limitations or barriers.

You Were Made For Loneliness handles this well. The dichotomy between how the robotic maid views the world and herself and how others, unable to truly communicate with her, project their own identities onto her is fascinating. While isolated and alone in the physical world of her employment, there is evidence that she is not as alone as she appears within her own mind. The ever-present assault of different memories and narratives, and the questions their existence raises, provides a narrative space for the reader to play with themes and ideas, as well as piece together the story of this world. It reminds me a lot of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, an author who famously played with games and play within his novels. Like Robbe-Grillet, Tsukareta uses their narrative to define a metaphysical space and the rules that exist within that space.

Something I like about Twine games is how it easily lets clever designers play with how we think about choices. The fact that your robot has several options seem viable until you try to choose them, only to find them suddenly striked out, seems simple, but it effectively communicates the mindset of someone that is capable of thinking beyond the boundaries they are trapped within. The fact that the game shows you options you can’t choose lets us know what our robot protagonist is thinking about. Even if we never wanted to choose those options ourselves, we are aware that it was on their mind, and that in turn influences how we play and how we think about the narrative.

As the game progresses, we as players become used to our lack of autonomy, and our ability to change things only within the context of that metaphysical space. Without giving anything away, when we finally do get to exert control outside of that space and within the formerly linear narrative, it is a powerful moment. How we choose to act is then influenced by how we chose to play within that metaphysical space.

You Were Made For Loneliness is a lovely, interesting, sad, disturbing and hopeful game. It is free to play or download, but the creators accept donations.

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On the origin of playing cards in “non-game” play

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It is easy to take things for granted in any medium, and games are no exception. We take for granted that established genres and control schemes are well known to us because we grew up with them, but are alien or confusing to newcomers. We take for granted that certain references and jargon will be known to our audience. We take for granted that even the most ubiquitous and familiar tools were once invented by someone and never existed before that moment.

We take for granted certain roles that games play in our lives and the assumption that these will always take certain forms. Imagine a group of recently-admitted college students, stressed and looking to unwind in a night of alcoholic debauchery among their peers. The students are all new to the school, so alcohol provides a useful social lubricant, and one student suggests a drinking game to further lighten the mood and allow the new peers to communicate on less formal terms. Perhaps you imagine one of them taking a deck of cards from their pocket for a round of King’s Cup or Asshole. Well, if this scene were taking place at an academy in Tang China, instead of a deck of cards they would be shuffling a collection of carved, wooden fish and would have to have very big pockets.

Fishing for the Giant Sea Turtle is a combination drinking game poetry-creation system. In this game, a stone bowl holding various carved fish is placed at the end of a long hall. Players “fish” using red silk threads and when two fish are caught, the poems carved onto their sides are combined and read aloud. Some combinations of poetry may require the player to be penalized and drink a certain amount of wine. The game’s name is itself a commentary on the court education system, as getting into the prestigious Hanlin Academy was referred to as “getting onto the head of the giant sea turtle” and the rules specifically call on recent graduates to drink more than other players.  The wooden fish were created specifically for use in this satirical metaphor, but they didn’t lend themselves easily to other games. They were big and clunky and took a long time to carve. The invention of paper cards allowed players to easily construct similar decks for other poetry games, and to satirize other systems that didn’t have a built in marine life reference.

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But this wasn’t all cards could be used for. Just as these cards could be used to replace the more expensive and less-portable fish, they could also be shuffled, given numbers, and drawn to recreate the randomness of dice. The first of such games is known to us by name only. The rules of this “game of leaves” is not known, only that it was very popular with nobles, artists and scholars of the Chinese court. Within a few centuries, this game evolved into the first recognizable playing cards. It was this form that would travel to Europe through the silk road and, timed perfectly with the invention of new printing techniques, would lead to their mass production. The first four Tarot decks appeared almost simultaneously in Florence, Paris, Basle and Siena in .

The cards’ origins as a way to use randomness for the creation of poetry and their use in social functions is reflected in how these games were used as they spread out from China. Carl Jung would famously note of the Tarot deck’s use as a tool for psychoanalysis, but he was far from the first to do so. Spanish and Portuguese colonists and sailors brought the hip new playing cards to South America, where they were adopted into traditional games of the indigenous people living there. Peruvian shamans created a variation of the Tarot called Naipes (“naipes” is just a Spanish word for “card” but in this case also refers to a specific card game of Peru) that utilized images from Peruvian art and mysticism. The role of the shaman in these communities often revolved around mental health. The naipes deck would be drawn from to determine what questions the “patient” would be asked. The deck is stacked in favor of the therapist. While ostensibly a tool for divining the future, naipes readings involve asking “what could cause this result to happen?” rather than saying “this will happen.” Mathematically it is impossible to do a naipes reading and not get at least one card that portrays a “bad fortune” and asks the player to identify possible sources for this. As the players were not aware of the probability involved, the deck would seem to “magically” guide them towards thinking about issues that were troubling them, even if they came into the reading not thinking about anything negative in particular. Since the player is the one providing the context and meaning based on the matched card, it ends up being accurate for that player, furthering the perceived power of the deck as a tool for mystical insight. Just as the randomly matched Tang poetry cards would create poems of deeper meaning, the randomly matched images of the naipes deck would be used to create deeper ideas for the player.

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Any tool can be used by an artist or designer for new purposes. Cards were an elegant method of creating portable randomness and quickly juxtaposing ideas or images, and from there came an unimaginable wealth of new ideas and games. Even today, there is no shortage of ways to use playing cards, even within the confines of established methods of play. We still have social games, therapy games, storytelling games, probability games and countless more all portrayed in card form. Cards Against Humanity owes some of its existence to Fishing for the Giant Sea Turtle,. and if we can get tarot, naipes, the “game of leaves” and the 52 bicycle deck all from the same basic set of cards, imagine what we could get out of another tool too many of us take for granted. The invention of cards allowed anyone the chance to make games cheaply and instantly. People who couldn’t afford game pieces, boards and dice intricately carved from rare materials could easily procure cards. As a result, we ended up with people from every background in almost every culture whipping out new card games and deck designs at an almost exponential rate. This is what attracts me to programs like Twine, zzt, and even RPG Maker. Those programs are the closest thing we have to this sea change in terms of digital games. An elegant way for anyone to design digital play without having to have a lot of computer space or power for “carving fish” as it were.

References:

Dobkin, Marlene. “Fortune’s Malice: Divination, Psychotherapy, and Folk Medicine in Peru.” The Journal of American Folklore 82, no. 324 (1969): 132-141.

Dummett, Michael A. E., and Sylvia Mann. The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Lo, Andrew. “The game of leaves: an inquiry into the origin of Chinese playing cards.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 63, no. 03 (2000): 389.

Tao, Zongyi. Shuo fu,. Taiwan: Taiwan Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1972. 

 

 

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Comic Characters – Kitty Pryde and Jubilee

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I know this is going to be controversial, but I never much cared for Kitty Pryde. That’s a bit harsh, she’s been in some great comics and is extremely important to the mythos. But… she’s just too perfect for me to get really invested in. Think Annie Edison on Community but without ANY of the character development, motivation, flaws, humor or personality. Kitty Pryde was built to be the perfect mutant girlfriend for every lonely young boy and girl reading the comic. She’s cute, but nerdy. Smart, but approachable. Your mom would approve of her but she still likes to be spontaneously wild. She’s unwaveringly moral and ALWAYS right. She never, ever makes mistakes other than being TOO sweet and TOO enthusiastic. But always being perfect isn’t a personality on its own, and nothing was ever done with it! What bugs her? What stresses her out? What does she need to work on? Who knows! Long before the Manic Pixie Dream Girl became so insufferably unavoidable there was Shadowcat, the Politely Nonthreatening Dream Mutant.

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But Jubilee? Jubilee is the Kitty Pryde template done right. Jubilee is not perfect, because she’s a teen. She’s rude, she’s stubborn, she’s ignorant and she is rarely apologetic for any of it. She’s also kind, funny, brave and all those good heroic qualities too, but its not her sole defining feature. She ACTS like a teenager with problems. She thinks she’s cooler than you, and she often is. If she’s ever not, she still acts like she is. The other X-Men get ticked off at her sometimes.Her screw ups don’t lead to saving the day anyways and getting a pet dragon and kissing the 19 year old Russian boy like Kitty’s do. No, when Jubilee screws up, SHIT IS BAD. That’s the way it should be. She’s with the X-Men to learn and to find a family, she should be a screw up sometimes.

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The comics try too hard to convince us that perfect Kitty is just a wholesome, down-to-earth dork but lets be real here she’s way too cool. I don’t mean in a “fake nerd girl” way, I mean as in “like a cucumber.” She never has any real problems or conflicts. Everyone loves her instantly upon meeting her, she learned to be a ninja overnight, she’s a genius computer expert and she has a pet space dragon. The worst thing that ever happened to her is, what? Colossus deciding to date someone his own age? Everyone took her side instantly and she had another five super boys ready to date her (and a super girl. Poor Karma, you can do better)! Oh wait, I remember now, Kitty’s biggest conflict was the existential crisis she suffered when Storm changed her hair. Mohawk-related angst that went on for about six issues. RELATABLE! Meanwhile, Jubilee is a believable cool dork. She hangs out at the mall loitering and playing arcade games because she’s both too cool to have other plans and also not really popular enough to have any other plans. She’s got steez (how else could she rock that jacket and those shades for so long?) but that goes along well with her dorkiness. Her problems are worrying about alienating the people she wants to think she’s cool, dealing with a developmental disorder (dyscalculia), and finding time to be herself while part of a larger community. How many perfect, Jewish ninjas computer geniuses did you know in high school? Now how many hip but dorky alt kids did you know? Exactly. Jubilee is associated with the 90s (what with the whole mallrat thing and her color-scheme) but she could just as easily work as a modern kid. Jubilee should be making mutant vines, playing ironic ukulele covers in the Xavier School dorms, and embarrassing Wolverine with Game of Thrones references he doesn’t get.

Of course, you might be saying “hey, lay off Shadowcat! What’s wrong with young girl comic fans having a protagonist who is like them only perfect and rules super hard at everything?” and you know what? That’s a fair point. I mean, have you SEEN how we normally treat young girls? If anyone deserves an escapist fantasy where they get to be the smartest, bestest fighter who also has a space dragon and all the cute boys, its every girl in the world (just replace cute boys with cute girls where necessary). On the other hand, there is an undeniable cynicism to how Kitty Pryde is used to pander to male fans. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, as long as she means something to young girls, but it does feel like it limits her.

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Kitty Pryde was built to be a surrogate girlfriend for boy readers while Jubilee is a character that anyone can see themselves or their friends in. Good Jubilee stories can therefore emerge naturally while good Kitty Pryde stories have to struggle against her perfection. The fact that there have been more good Shadowcat stories than Jubilee stories is mostly due to the eras they were each created in, rather than any innate storytelling potential. Jubilee got to be cool while fighting the endlessly forgettable 90s villains, which didn’t do her any favors. Kitty got to be lame while fighting actually good villains like the Dark Phoenix, Magneto and Reverend Stryker. But Kitty doesn’t have to be so lame. Just pair her with Jubilee! They’re both the same template of the wide-eyed young newcomer who hangs out with Wolverine, so having them be an odd-couple could actually provoke Kitty into displaying a personality. How does she react when her new partner doesn’t immediately love her and do everything for her? How does she react to someone who gives her shit and even mocks her? How does she deal with the fact that sometimes this uncouth upstart mallrat is RIGHT about her? The flipside works just as well. How does Jubilee react to the fact that Kitty is just as much of a wet-behind-the-ears screw up but everyone gives her the benefit of the doubt they don’t give her? How does Jubilee deal with the fact that Kitty really IS super sweet and brilliant and deserves much of the adoration the other X-Men give her? C’mon, this thing writes itself. The two become bosom chums and rub off on each other. Jubilee learns to believe in herself and study despite her dyscalculia and Kitty learns to unwind and chillax. We get a musical montage of Jubilee taking Kitty shopping for funky new clothes. They fight racist robots and make boys cry. No, seriously, how hasn’t this happened yet? Was there some kind of rule in the 90s that no super hero team could have two teen girls at the same time?

Of course, now both characters are adults and no longer wide-eyed teens. Kitty is a teacher and Jubilee is (groan) a vampire. But they could STILL work well together. Kitty still could stand to be taken down a peg and given an actual personality. Both had similar journeys, so how do the reconcile their very different attitudes and current positions in the X-hierarchy when they are forced to work together? You’re never too old to try on funky clothes, fight racist robots and make boys cry.

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Pretty much the only art of these two characters hanging out together.

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Comic Characters – Karma

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Karma is one of the best X-Men you’ve never heard of or read any comics that featured.

I find it interesting which super powers tend to be “hero powers” and which tend to be “villain powers.” Most powers are pretty neutral, but you won’t see many villains with healing powers or embodying the patriotic strength of this great nation (unless its one of those 80s British deconstructionists taking the piss). On the flip side, powers like mind control or emotion manipulation tend not to be associated with heroes. The most famous hero with that kind of power is Starfox/Eros of the Avengers, who has “super seduction” and basically used that power to make women lust after him. Not exactly the kind of guy you’d root for.* Even “good” mind controllers like Professor X tend to end up doing something skeevy eventually. There’s just something about having that kind of control over someone, and violating their free will, that feels “unheroic.” What kind of hero robs people of free will? What kind of hero ignores consent? How do you make taking over someone’s body and mind and forcing them to do your job for you into something heroic?

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Xi’an Coy Manh (codename: Karma) is a hero with this kind of power. Her ability is to project her consciousness into another person’s body and take over. However, unlike nearly every other mind/body controlling hero she doesn’t have a history of skeeviness. Why? Well, for one thing, she knows quite a bit about how her power could hurt others. She suffered a great deal of abuse in her life both before and after becoming a member of the New Mutants. She suffered abuse and lost her parents while fleeing war-torn Vietnam. Her body was taken over by the Shadow King (a mutant who is all mind after a battle with Professor X killed his body) who used it to indulge in everything he could no longer sense without a body. Her leg was destroyed by anti-mutant terrorists. Her best friend, Dani Moonstar, accidentally exposed all of her trauma to her teammates while using her own powers. In her first appearance, she was forced to use her powers to kill in order to save her siblings (and Spiderman). On top of all of that, she’s also possibly Marvel’s first openly lesbian hero. Xi’an is someone who knows how much it hurts to be used as well as what it feels like to have a person or a society force you to do act in a way you don’t want to. She is willing to use her mutant gifts to help others, but she is not willing to do so irresponsibly. Anytime she does veer into irresponsibility, it is a reflection of some inner struggle. Xi’an brings a pathos to mind control that very few other characters in comics have.

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Xi’an has connections to all the major X-Men, as well as other corners of the Marvel universe like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, so she could conceivably turn up anywhere. She’s Asian, an immigrant, a refugee, gay and missing a limb, which means that in addition to the metaphorical oppression she faces as a mutant, she’s also dealt with a lot of real world oppression that a lot of potential readers can relate to. As a former New Mutant (the team of teenage mutants created in the 80s which FINALLY made Xavier’s school feel like an actual school) she tends to show up in a lot of supporting roles for her more well-known teammates or the larger X-Men community. She ran the library and taught French class at the original school, and was a mentor to newer new mutants. The X-Men are about 90% supporting cast though, so that isn’t a mark against her.

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A few years back, her former New Mutants team was reformed and faced off against a group of mutants who ended up stranded in hell after the government did… well the kind of general crap that governments in the Marvel universe do. These poor kids were warped by hell into mad sadists, except for one named Face. Face’s mutant power turned his head into a plasma cannon, but this completely destroyed his ability to see, hear, speak or smell. He has no way to perceive the world around him, and his teammates basically just shoved him into position and smacked him until he let lose a blast. Because of his inability to communicate, no one thought of him as human at all. When X’ian used her powers to stop Face from attacking her friends, she found that there was still a human mind inside. An extremely frightened, lonely mind. A mind who couldn’t perceive the world around him other than physical pain. She befriended poor Face, and used her powers to help him once again see and hear the world, as well as finally communicate with others. Also, she can help him properly aim his face laser at whatever giant robots or evil mutants would excite the reader to see blown up. This is an interesting dynamic to explore. Xi’an has been given the chance to use her powers in a way that helps someone regain consent and control, rather than take or borrow it. It also implies that by using her powers she is able to communicate and connect with whoever she is possessing in interesting ways. Also, how often do we get a chance to see a friendship in the X-Men based around one character healing another that DOESN’T turn sexual? Pretty much never. Karma and Face’s relationship could be a welcome chance to see a man an a woman mutant being friends and connecting in a non-romantic, but just as powerful, way.

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Recently she was promoted to the ranks of the Astonishing X-Men, a comic I haven’t had a chance to read yet (new comics be mad expensive) but based on the out-of-context preview pages appear to showcase another interesting use of her power. She apparently has a bird she uses to scout and spy for the team, and when she possesses it, her own body houses the mind of her bird friend. Another example of her power being something where she works WITH another mind, not forcing control over it. If future writers continue expanding on the co-operative uses of her powers and highlight how her use of them reflects on her character, Karma could easily be one of the more engaging mutants.

Also Marvel STILL hasn’t let her have a girlfriend yet and that is just rude. Being the only X-Men who doesn’t get laid is the meanest thing you can do to a fictional super hero. I mean, even Lockheed and DOOP get laid.

*true fact: the only good thing that ever happened in a comic with Starfox/Eros is that he tried to use his powers on the Hulk to calm him down, and Hulk just got super horny/angry and punched Starfox through a building in frustration.

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