Sunset

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I didn’t expect to fall for Gabriel.

I resented him at first. He had everything. A beautiful home, wealth, connections to the powerful, a job studying and curating his passion, a seemingly never-ending supply of books, music and artwork to fill his home with, and of course someone else to clean up after him. That was my job.

I spent a short time in his penthouse each week, cleaning and working. Gabriel Ortega had this private sanctuary where he could ignore everything happening out there in the streets. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. We couldn’t afford to be apathetic.

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So when I saw the chance to use my employer’s connections to my advantage, and obtain key information the Anchurian resistance could use to their advantage, I didn’t hesitate. I took it.

I thought I was quite clever. I wasn’t the soldier my brother was, but I was striking a blow against tyranny in my own way. Then I noticed the art book.

Gabriel would always leave the book open on his coffee table, and always to a different painting. As each day went by, it almost felt like Gabriel was using that book to communicate with me. If not me specifically, than to the universe at large. The pages he left open were the cry of a lonely man, an intellectual artiste with more art history knowledge than friends. An attempt to project an idea from the book out onto the world, or at least onto his home, like a magic grimoire. The day after I stole copies of his information, I noticed the painting he had left open on display:

Mary Magdalene, about to be stoned, only the savior was standing between her and certain death at the hands of the mob.

I got chills, thinking about this painting he had chosen for me to see when I arrived. This wasn’t like his previous choices. Was he trying to tell me he knew what I had done?  That he was the only thing keeping me alive now? Was it a threat? A promise? An offer? A request?

I was never arrested. I kept doing my job, following Gabriel’s cleaning instructions and answering his little notes. It seemed like as normal a relationship as an employer and employee could have. But the paintings told a different story.

I got to know Gabriel through those paintings. I learned that it was no accident those papers had been available. Maybe it was no accident that I, personally, had been hired. Gabriel hated the current regime as much as we did, perhaps not for the same reasons but enough to want to end the horror. He knew who my brother was and the work he did. Did Senor Ortega hire me specifically because of my brother? Or did he notice the connection later?

We played the game again. Information was left out, a vague invitation or insinuation for something more. I took what was needed to the resistance. Not wanting this source to run dry, I took more care in how I cleaned and interacted with his home. I did my homework too, Gabriel Ortega. I know you better than you think.

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I knew what made him tick and what he wanted before I took a step into his apartment. Every action I take, I know if it will please him or leave him cold. I know how he likes to come home to find the lights on. I know he’s lonely and finds comfort seeing that someone else, even a maid who may be a spy, has been living in this apartment. I know he’s a romantic, despite his loneliness, and that his love for art and culture is primarily driven by how it connects him to people. I know he feels nothing for modernist art, its cold colors and sharp lines feeling alien and isolating. I know he prefers deep, rich tones and forms that remind him of the people that made them. Knowing all this, I make choices that keep him happy, and keep information coming that I can pass along to my brother.

I don’t always then reply to his notes the way I honestly feel. I make a conscious choice to respond in ways I know he will be moved by.

But as this goes on, I learn things about Gabriel I wasn’t aware of. Or perhaps I simply become more sympathetic to the Gabriel I already know. Either way, I find myself making those choices not just in the hopes of getting the information I need, but because I want to make Gabriel happy. I want this sad, lonely man to take comfort in the brave thing he’s doing for Anchuria. I want to continue sharing this world with him, and doing our secret work together. I’m not a femme fatale or a Salome, I’m a partner.

Am I making the right choice? My brother is now in jail, I don’t need to continue playing nice with Gabriel to get information on the regime. If I want, I can now respond honestly to his naive musings on art or his ignorance to the suffering of those less fortunate. The former sanctuary of this apartment from the turmoil outside is being shattered each time I come in to work, with gunfire and the sounds of conflict growing louder. When I approach the window, I can see the violence, and I catch my own reflection watching in horror. I live in that horror almost the entire week. Tyranny has become routine and yet here, in that brief moment before nightfall, I am surprised by it, only because until now the apartment has felt like a world unto itself. Am I just playing this game with Gabriel in a vain attempt to hang on to that feeling?

If I am playing this game for Gabriel, then what will happen when I finally do begin responding honestly. What will happen when he learns that, even as I appreciate art as he does, I care more for the people locked away from his world? When he learns that I would sell his art, no matter how pretty, to feed those in need? Then again, can I trust that Senor Ortega has presented an honest self to me too? Does he know I have a soft spot for naive, clever men? Does he want to keep his partner in espionage feeling superior and eager? Does he have the same questions?

Regardless of what happens to Anchuria, what do I want for me after this is over?

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Once, he had invited me to play a game of chess with him. I’d make my move once a week, and see his corresponding move the next time I come in. It ended about as well as you’d expect, with the rules being thrown out the window in order to communicate something else. Awhile back he invited me to play another round, I had opened by cheekily hiding the black queen. The regime couldn’t take me, and I would bend the rules to keep myself and those I loved safe and free. I hadn’t given our failed game much thought until today, as I try to decide how to proceed in our relationship. While I debate how to respond to his notes, and even whether to leave the lights on the way he likes, I pause and notice the board. Ortega has hidden the black king.

Another message, in some ways just as naive as everything Gabriel believes and says. The pieces remain in place, and will for weeks after, no doubt. Even with the rigid system of the chess board in place, the king and queen disappear to their own world, and by doing so, the warfare normally defining the board never begins. Sure, we cannot actually stop the war that is coming to Anchuria, but here at least the black queen is free and, if she chooses, does not have to be alone.

I leave the lights on.

 

Sunset, the swan song of developer Tale of Tales, is available at itchi.io and Steam.

If you’d like to read another player’s look at the events and choices their Angela experienced, Mattie Brice has written a piece here.

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The Anti-Love Story of Homer and Marge

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I’m an American in their late 20s to early 30s. As a result, you will not be surprised to learn that I have some VERY strong opinions about The Simpsons. I know, fresh ground to cover here. In particular, I have opinions about when the series stopped being good (season nine) and when it became unwatchable (exactly after season nine). Now I know this somewhat outs me as an aging, Gen X/Y crank unable to find joy in anything not made specifically for their own personal tastes or nostalgia, and that is fair, but it also turns out that the Simpsons’ decline is scientifically and objectively accurate. It turns out entitled nerds can be insufferable AND a celebrated TV show can become terrible.

Now in general, I don’t talk much about the show or its variable quality, but a recent development in the series has lit a small fire of the kind of navel-gazey over-analysis I’m so fond of performing. It turns out that the start of the coming season will begin with an episode about Homer and Marge legally separating, and Homer even taking a new partner. Now, this is the kind of lame “EVERYTHING’S CHANGED FOREVER” media event designed to make people freak out enough to generate free buzz and advertising, and then quietly get undone shortly after. I’m sure Homer and Marge’s separation will be JUST as important and permanent as the death of Superman, the death of Peter Parker, or the divorce of Milhouse’s parents. I don’t have a problem with that, there’s nothing wrong with shaking up a status quo for a hot second to see what stories you get or to freak out the obsessive nerds. The only “problem” I have is that, again entirely 100% not-at-all-sarcastically objectively, Homer and Marge SHOULD end their relationship without the eventual status quo reset that will come about later. It is toxic and killing them and it speaks to a much larger fundamental tragedy of the two characters. Theirs was a love story that we all needed in 90s America, but because of larger societal and cultural forces, became the anti-love story we all need/fear today.

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Despite their enduring popularity and cross-generational appeal, the Simpsons aren’t REALLY timeless. Oh, sure, certain themes and jokes are, but the characters themselves are kind of locked into certain times. Homer and Marge will forever be children of the 70s just as Bart will forever be a 90s kid even as he now enters his sixth year of being too young to have been born in the 90s. No matter how much you shuffle ages or timelines, Homer and Marge are always going to be late 70s highschool sweethearts. This also ties them to specific cultural pressures. Marge, despite her intelligence and ability, was raised by a family that explicitly told her that she would be a failure if she worked and didn’t find a man to marry and support. She wanted to be a scientist and they told her “you’d distract the men.” She wanted to be an artist and was told “you only have value painting what we want to see.” She wanted to express her own damn feelings and was told “force yourself to smile so you can fit in.” Every time in the series she has been forced to temporarily enter the workforce, she has excelled. She’s also been shown to be an extremely talented artist. Its not hard to picture Marge becoming a successful designer, if not for the fact that she was raised a Bouvier in the 70s and got knocked up just after graduation.

Now it’s too easy to lay the blame for Marge’s condition on Homer. In fact, the writers go to that well pretty often. But if it wasn’t Homer, it would have been someone else. Marge actually got pretty lucky with Homer, because for all his faults he did actually love her and understood how intelligent and talented she is. The problem was that Homer was poorly served by society as well. Homer grew up at a time where he would never receive proper diagnosis, medication or therapy for his severe ADHD.

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Before you accuse me of projecting a neurological disorder onto a fictional character, never intended to embody it, let’s look at the facts. Homer has no attention span (he tragically loses a full college scholarship because he gets distracted by the sight of a dog carrying a comical ham). He has difficulty controlling his behavior and is prone to outbursts of extreme aggression and hyperactivity as well as periods of extreme apathy. He was a good student until he reached Bart’s age, where his performance sharply declined. He can hyperfocus on certain activities (such as music) and then become fidgety and irritable during others. He blurts out comments without filter, has difficulty with social interaction, lashes out in anger without cause, has difficulty staying awake, has poor handwriting and difficulty maintaining normal conversation. Homer is, most likely by accident rather than design, a textbook case for adult ADHD, and it requires very little projection to see the symptoms in his behavior.

What Homer is NOT is an idiot, at least not in the way most people assume. He’s ignorant and has killed a lot of brain cells via head trauma and alcoholism, no question, but put him in an environment he can focus in and he thrives. Look at when Hank Scorpio put him in the position of manager, where his job was about helping other people find ways to work and focus to the best of their abilities, rather than trying to force his own mind to fit what someone else told him was the “way to work.” Look at how ingenious he is battling prohibition, improvising a political song to sway a crowd, or even managing a country singer. He has written and composed a number of chart-topping songs for which he won a Grammy (I mean, it’s only a Grammy, but still!). He did poorly in school because he was unable to focus and study, and everyone simply assumed the worst about him and never bothered to see if there was a way he COULD actually study. Things aren’t all roses for ADHD kids now (they sure weren’t back when I was a kid), but there is significantly more information and are more options available for kids who would be like Homer. At the very least, if he were a kid today he would have a label for his condition. Instead, he was forced to try and self-medicate by overindulging in food and alcohol in an attempt to dull his senses. I think it’s valid to ask if Homer’s alcoholism would be as severe (or present at all) if he had ever received a proper medical evaluation, or even lived in a state that prescribed legal medical marijuana for ADHD.

I could also point out that Homer’s pretty overt bisexuality would never have gotten acknowledgment or support during his upbringing either, but nerds are probably angry enough at me already.

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Homer, like Marge, was told that there were very strict cultural and gender roles he had to follow. He had to be the breadwinner, and he had to have a specific kind of “valid” job. His dad was negligent, abusive and flat out told him “you will always be ugly and stupid.” His mother, the only person who might have been able to help him, was forced to flee under suspicion of domestic terrorism and was assumed dead for most of his life. He works at a job he is terrible at and has no hope of advancing in, and is told that this is because he is a failure more than because it is the wrong job for him. The Simpsons live paycheck to paycheck and there is no room for Homer to find other work. How much better would they all be if Marge would have been allowed to be the primary breadwinner? Marge would have easily earned more money and had an outlet for her talents beyond smiley-face breakfasts, and Homer could work on his music and be the stay-at-home dad. That’s another thing, when Homer isn’t trying to tune out the pain of reality with TV or substance abuse, he does love his kids and cares about them. Homer is physically abusive to Bart, and that isn’t ever going to be ok even if we know its roots are in the abuse Homer himself suffered as a kid, but its not hard to see that Homer likely wouldn’t have become abusive if not for the lack of medication and the years of alcoholism. In his lucid moments, Homer IS a good parent (which, as his kids note, is what makes those moments surprising to them), and in a different occupation and environment, Homer would have a lot more lucid moments.

But fate was not kind enough to give Homer and Marge a Springfield that would support such choices. Springfeld is a conservative, working-class town. Sure they have a democrat mayor, but Quimby is less a Bernie Sanders liberal and more a corrupt Frank Skeffington without the pathos. Anyways, when I say “conservative” I mean it more literally than politically. Springfield was a farming town founded by the most puritan of (secretly evil pirate) pioneers, made its money during the boom years of American manufacturing, lost it all as the factories closed, and became increasingly gentrified by the end of the 20th century. Today Springfield is strongly divided into two economic castes. There are the extremely wealthy neighborhoods filled with millionaire clowns, Texan oil tycoons, nuclear-irradiated plutocrats, and various celebrity guests. On the other end are the destitute neighborhoods where the working class schmoes eat Krusty Burgers, shop at the Kwik E Mart and drink their ever-shrinking paychecks away at dives like Moe’s. Upscale suburbs and dilapidated buildings are separated by only a block. Culturally, Springfield is a town that set a torch-wielding mob against a pretty tame burlesque house, tried to forcibly expel all immigrants, and is scandalized when someone misses church on Sunday. The only point of pride they have over their neighbors is that at least THEY don’t marry their cousins. Springfield is not a place that is kind to women like Marge who want to have a career, or men like Homer who need neurological understanding.

Springfield’s warped cultural norms are probably why Homer and Marge weren’t ever using birth control either. Mr Burns probably did Homer a favor by slowly sterilizing him.

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This ultimate sadness overlaying the Simpsons’ lives made the tiny victories resonate so much. In “Moaning Lisa” Marge tells Lisa she can feel however she wants to feel and she will always be loved, and that simple moment feels like a huge triumph. Homer learns to actually connect to Marge through her theatrical work in “A Streetcar Named Marge” and in our fickle minds it instantly makes up for him spending the previous 20 minutes being as unsympathetic as possible. We see Homer give up drinking completely in “Duffless” and we quietly choose to ignore that he’ll be back to complete alcoholism next week. Every minor victory feels huge, even when we know it will be undone or forgotten as needed, because behind the comedy we realize how trapped they are.

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But then the series keeps on going.

The series never had character development in a meaningful sense, and as a show goes on the characters will inevitably become exaggerated. That’s almost necessary for a comedy show without a specific, ongoing plot and ending. For the joke machine to run smoothly, everything needs to return to the status quo at the end of the episode, and lessons learned can’t change the fundamental humor-producing facets of the characters. This is before you take into account changes in writers and show-runners, each bringing and taking different themes and styles to the show. It’s actually amazing how consistent the characters manage to be at all. But just because everything in the Simpsons’ world resets after each adventure doesn’t mean it does for the viewers. Our brains don’t work that way. We remember every success and failure, and our continuity-obsessed brains force stories into the margins between episodes. As much as some of the writers wish fans would just turn off that part of their brains and let the Simpsons be a silly cartoon, it goes against the fundamental way humans interact (and obsess) with stories. As long as there are literal gaps between episodes, viewers will fill those in on their own. All story telling is collaborative, even the most corporate forms.

The result is Marge and Homer’s relationship changing from feeling like one that may one day have hope into one that is doomed to toxicity. We’ve all seen them fail to learn meaningful lessons. While this is most obviously Homer’s failure, its’ Marge’s too. Even the hackiest new-age hack Brad Goodman can correctly tell Marge that she can’t force Homer to think like her, but Marge will never actually accept that. She’ll keep driving herself towards a stressful breakdown trying to force Homer to be someone he can’t be, and keep herself from being the person she really wants to be. Homer will never be given the tools he needs to focus and work, and he’ll keep existing in that weird period between feeling shame he isn’t changing, but also knowing deep down that something out of his control is preventing him from doing so. Even if he does get a proper diagnosis, its hard to imagine Marge will accept the huge change in status quo that would require without resentment. It’s easier for them to stay together in the short term if they don’t acknowledge how they’re destroying each other.

And again, that’s all fine because without conflict there is no show. No one wants to see a Simpsons series about a perfectly normal, happy family (not if they want to laugh anyways). But even knowing that, we can hope they get a little happiness in their fictional lives, and frankly the only way that will happen now is if Homer and Marge split up for good. Marge needs room to grow and take charge of her own life, and a partner who will allow her to do that. Homer needs to relearn how he thinks and find a place he can thrive, and he needs a partner who understands his condition and won’t resent him taking so long to deal with it. As long as they are together, Homer will keep providing Marge someone to care for besides herself and Marge will keep giving Homer an excuse not to improve.

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I can easily think of three franchises that had to deal with the same problem of never being able to end, or in one case never being quiet sure of when it would end: X-Men comic books, Adventure Time and Community. Of those three, X-Men is the only one that has had to deal with that problem on a timeline comparable to the Simpsons’ twenty something seasons. X-Men deals with the problem by largely not giving a shit. Stories are designed to never end and continually feed into new ongoing plots. Adventure Time follows this process, with every season or story “resolution” being open-ended and feeding into new stories, and in recent seasons the writers fully embraced that by tossing the status quo into the garbage whenever they feel like it. Community was forced to juggle massive, sometimes unexpected cast changes and cancellations by coming up with huge tonal shifts and finding creative ways to justify them.

The difference between The Simpsons and those shows/comics is that The Simpsons never had people watching for the soap opera. Reading X-Men, the idea that Cyclops and Jean might split up and Jean will run off with Wolverine seems like a real possibility. When Princess Bubblegum loses her throne, it feels like there’s a genuine possibility that she won’t get it back. There’s none of that fear or unexpectedness in The Simpsons. Even the “massive” changes that DO happen (Maude Flanders’ rather pointless and uninteresting death, for example) are dealt with within the confines of a single episode. At this point, The Simpsons is in no danger of being canceled and will continue to make everyone involved filthy rich beyond their wildest dreams. If they can weather not only Harry Shearer quitting but thematically becoming the kind of cultural force they ruthlessly mocked in the early seasons, they could survive Homer and Marge splitting up for good. But the thematic tragedy of Homer and Marge’s doomed love is too deeply mirrored by the tragedy of their format. There is no escape for them, not from Spingfield, not from each other, not from fan expectations, and especially not from network and marketing requirements.

Homer and Marge are forever doomed. We are all doomed. Nothing matters. We’re all trapped within corporate hellscapes that turn even the most genuine love we have against us. At least we have DVDs of when we used to have hope.

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Earthtongue

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Educational games, especially of the “edutainment” variety, have a mixed reputation and legacy. Aroon Karuna wrote an excellent piece on the failures of a certain brand of edutainment games. Too many games of both the DOS/early Windows era tried to use “fun” as a carrot separate from the educational content that merely reinforced the idea that education was “boring” and had to be suffered through. Too many modern edutainment titles still do this. Its a shame because there really were a number of effective educational games who can provide important lessons to developers today. Not just to developers of other educational games either. Just as educational content developers can (and should!) take lessons from “non-educational” games, developers interested in games for entertainment and other goals can learn quite a bit from the edutainment games that worked. Earthtongue is a game that paid attention to what made a certain kind of edutainment title work.

For my money, the most effective educational titles of their era were the Maxis sim games. At the time, Maxis was one of the most daring publishers, willing to experiment and play with design and concepts in a way other developers weren’t, ESPECIALLY developers working on educational content. Earthtongue can trace its conceptual lineage to these titles, especially Sim Earth and Sim Life.

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Maxis described Sim Life as less of a “game” and more of a “playground.” Like Sim Earth, it was inspired by contemporary ecological theories and work, in particular James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothosis. The idea behind the Gaia hypothosis is that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings to form self-regulating, complex systems and transform Earth into a kind of super-organism. The Earth exists as we know it because life exists and interacts with other life and inorganic matter. While criticized for being reductionist (Stephen Jay Gould called it “a metaphor, not a mechanism”), it can be a useful framework for looking at complex issues of ecology and geology. For example, how biological and ecological processes affect the weather, or how the physical, inorganic landscape is changed by the behavior of various animals and plants. The central principle of the Gaia hypothesis is connections. Everything is connected, and you cannot understand a single piece of the planet without viewing it in the larger context of what it interacts with.

(Some critics hate the Gaia theory simply because  it evokes the name of a mythical goddess and is therefore “unscientific”, but those critics need to chill. You might as well be pissed that we named the planets after Roman gods. Just as organic and inorganic interactions form the landscape of the planet as we know it, “scientific” and “unscientific” interactions form the landscape of our thoughts.)

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Both Sim games give you a world to play with, allowing you to create different ecosystems and watch them evolve, thrive or die. The player is not playing with single creatures, but with entire biomes and ecosystems. Earthtongue is also about connections and systems. Your tiny asteroid terrarium can be home to many species of insect and fungus, and they each have different needs and fulfill different functions when relating to each other. Through experimentation, the player can discover which species work well together, and which have unsustainable relationships. The unlockable journal entries provide hints and clues, but for the most part you will be flying blind.

Earthtongue doesn’t attempt the grand, almost impossible scope of SimLife or SimEarth. The lifeforms here are already defined, and your ability to tweak the world is limited. But this focus works to Earthtongue’s benefit, allowing it to present a playground for different kinds of science than similar games. Your role as an isolated being, watching and occasionally poking at Earthtongue’s world, is different from the usual all-powerful god-figure many simulations place you in. Even when you DO exact influence upon this world, you are left with a very limited pool of resources to spend. Even at the fastest setting, the number of points you can spend to change the world will be very limited. If SimLife places you in the role of playing a geneticist with an infinite laboratory, Earthtongue asks you to play as a naturalist in the field. In Earthtongue, observing is more important than controlling.

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The main flaw in the Gaia hypothesis is that it doesn’t work well as a grand unifying model. Many interactions between different organisms and inorganic systems are NOT sustainable or mutually beneficial. Species DO go extinct because they dramatically changed the world around them and then couldn’t adapt. The Earth itself is not a perfect, self-sustaining system. Nothing lasts forever. To be fair, the same problem emerges with all grand, sweeping biological models and metaphors, which is why not every gene is selfish and not every survival is fittest. Earthtongue demonstrates this flaw in the Gaia theory. As noted earlier, you will see a LOT of local extinctions. Extinctions are just as natural a part of your terrarium’s ecology as thriving lifeforms. An incredibly successful species may suddenly disappear from your space garden, and may also return to thrive again. Earthtongue doesn’t end until you stop, and neither a thriving world nor a dead world are inherently permanent, even when discounting your direct involvement.

In some ways, this can make Earthtongue a difficult game. If your goal is to create a very specific ecosystem you like and maintain it indefinitely, you will have a hard time compared to just experimenting and observing. Your unseen spaceman is a naturalist more than a gardener, and domesticating your little planet is not easy.  Lately I don’t have the patience for micro-management games or goals, so instead I allowed my world to evolve and change and adapt on its own, occasionally dropping in to take care of a massive problem or shake things up. This way of playing is not more or less valid that aiming for a specific kind of garden (though it does mean I’m currently stuck with a horde of locusts I haven’t been able to get rid of yet), and Earthtongue is open ended enough to allow many kinds of play.

The lack-luster science games of the past taught us that games without play make very poor educational tools. It bears repeating that Earthtongue is NOT an edutainment game, but rather an entertainment game that has learned from successful educational content. Nothing you learn or discover in Earthtongue is directly applicable to real world ecology. The mantids, fungi and spiders you play with are not real world creatures nor are they meant to simulate them. However, the basic process of experimentation, note taking and testing out ideas DOES simulate the real-world scientific process. The potential knowledge you take from a game like this, just as with the Maxis series, is the knowledge of how to think and discover facts for yourself. In this way, Earthtongue is a much better science game than a rote, fact-memorizing game.

Earthtongue, by Eric Hornby, is available on itch.io and Steam.

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Minkomora

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It feels like a bit of a cop-out to open a discussion about a modern game with “when I was a child, I played videogames and it made me feel x.” Its been done to death, and usually comes up as a way for the writer to secretly make it All About Them. But Minkomora, and by extension Soft Chambers, feels like such a specific reaction to some of the ideas we carry about “universal shared experiences” in “videogame culture” that it doesn’t seem possible to talk about it without exploring one’s own version of those experiences and culture.

So when I was a child, I played videogames and sometimes it made me feel scared.

The world is a chaotic, confusing place with no inherent meaning or value. Despite that, its not hard for us to make sense of it and find hidden, but consistent logic behind the chaos. This is particularly true when you’re a little kid who is perhaps a little too clever for their own good and with enough fears and unknowns in your life already. With, among other issues, a childhood defined by tourettes at a time when tourettes was almost never even properly identified, much less treated, I had a vested interest in removing possible unknown terrors. Classmates and family looked out at a deep forest, a seemingly bottomless ocean, or an unknown form in the dark and feared the unknown. As for me, I memorized and cataloged everything I could about the natural world so that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t see the bottom of the lake, I knew every possible thing that could be down there. When stomping through the woods and bumping into a snake, a skunk, a snapping turtle, a coyote, or a rabid cat, I knew exactly what to do, how to behave and what behavior to watch for. I could swim with stingrays, alien-looking crabs and sharks that lived off shore because I knew they were harmless unless provoked and I knew how not to provoke them.  Even when civilization was confusing and its inability to understand my brain led to misdiagnosis, incompatible medication and sleepless nights, I could go out into nature, gaze into the unknown and know there would be no surprises.

At least that’s how it seemed to the mind of a child a little too clever and a little too eager to not face any more unknowns unless necessary.

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Some videogames mirror the world in this way. They feature logical systems that can be understood. Even when they’re hard and stressful and punishing, they make sense. They teach you their rules while you play, or they communicate the rules effectively (or at least exhaustively) through tutorials. Then there are games, especially old games before the days of professional localizations, that don’t. I don’t mean bad games that make no sense, but games with their own logic that isn’t overt. The games without giant full-color spreads in old game magazines, leaving you with only the blurry photographs from the off-brand magazines decorated with unrelated art and the poorly-written manuals that came with the game, both raising more questions than they answered. You’d pour over charts and descriptions of bizarre creatures like Deathpigor, Romsarb, Torororo and DemoLoad. Some of those names were cultural touchstones presented without context, and others were just as alien as they sounded. The games would switch genres and styles seemingly at random, because we hadn’t yet decided that every commercial game should follow a specific template of whatever the previous year’s most popular games had been. I’m not simply talking about bad games, as most bad games follow logical systems of bland badness. I’m talking about games that, intentionally or not, hid their logic and gave you a glimpse into the unknown. These games rejected attempts at forcing logic out of them, instead asking you to wander and explore them with no promise of reward.

As a kid, sometimes I’d stumble upon magical, hidden worlds that did reward my willingness to abandon feelings of stability and safety. Sometimes I’d run away and hide in the closet because the monsters in the first part of Out Of This World were just too terrifying and the rental copy I played didn’t include any instructions. In both situations, there was a strange sense of fear that I didn’t have when exploring the significantly more dangerous real forests, cliffs and oceans of my childhood. It was certainly not the same fear that came from civilization either, like not knowing why my body was moving without command, or the fear when a classmate would disappear and every adult said they were fine but refused to answer questions and avoided eye contact, or finding out that random chance had kept you from a predator, or the fear that your parents were talking to you differently because the Freudian hack they took you to didn’t “believe” in things like ADHD or tourettes and told them you were broken in fascinatingly out-of-date and misdiagnosed ways. Those were fears that were compounded by the fear of what acknowledging those fears would mean. The fear that came from being lost in a fascinatingly confusing game was a safe kind of fear. A space you could willingly choose to enter or disengage with. A place it was ok to admit and experience, even experiment, with fear.

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merritt kopas’ Soft Chambers offers a way of looking at, and creating, games and play spaces that is sometimes challenging, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes nostalgic. Soft Chambers are about emotion, but tempered with awareness. It is about acknowledging the use of spaces intended for videogame violence and action for other kinds of feelings and experiences, without forgetting that this is a subversion of the game’s intended purpose. It is about experiencing the personal, the warm, and the safe without escaping from reality. Minkomora is a game informed by this philosophy. There is no danger, no purpose beyond experiencing and feeling, and plenty of room to define how you feel about its various spaces. Minkomora borrows a lot of the aesthetics of those classic mysterious games, especially in its brilliantly designed and written manual. This manual evokes those bizarrely mistranslated and unlocalized worlds, right down to the Soft Chambers Seal of Quality echoing the famous Nintendo Seal of Same. However, Minkomora doesn’t simply evoke the past out of shallow nostalgia, but actively seeks to use the unknown in a different way. From the start, it informs you that you are safe here. No matter how enthusiastically you throw yourself into the unknown here, you can’t even get lost, as pressing the ENTER key will always show you the route home. While those previous games unintentionally provided a safe space to play with fear, Minkomora intentionally uses those same tools for playing with other emotions. In this way Minkomora, despite its abstract forms and designs, is closer to the real world nature I explored and felt comfortable in than the digital nature that tantalized and frightened me.

You can play Minkomora as a you would a classic Zelda game. You can explore the world, taking in its sights, trying to learn its secrets. The nameless thing you control has no pockets for items, has no quest beyond deciding for themselves how they fit into the world, and can only interact with the world by walking and sitting, but there are still things you can learn and uncover. Different experiences change your temperature, making you warmer or cooler. These temperatures change how you perceive other experiences, and can even unlock new spaces to explore. This is a very “traditional” but in no way incorrect or invalid way to play. However, by combining the game with the manual, another way to play is offered which connects that mysterious-classic-game aesthetic with another game about the unknown and defining our emotions: the tarot.

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As you maneuver your nameless character through the world of Minkomora, you may be drawn to different objects, spaces and creatures. Certain things may resonate with you more than others, and that may also change depending on how warm or cool you wish to feel. When you then turn to the manual and look up the creature or place that resonated with you, you will find not only a description placing that creature or place in the context of Minkomora’s world, but also inviting questions and self reflection. “You were drawn to this, this is the meaning I placed within it, this is what other people might see, what do you think?” Playing with Minkomora in this way turns it into a tool of divination, giving us archetypes and symbols we then decide how to connect to our own thoughts and future.

Of course, the irony there is that despite being an unapologetically safe space, asking yourself the questions Minkomora suggests can be quite frightening. In one sense, our ideas of “safe” can be illusionary and shifting. Just as we might transform a confusing, violent game into a safe place to chill and relax, or think we know everything about a forest and feel secure never realizing we were being stalked by coyotes until we get back home, we can use a guaranteed safe space to probe terrifying ideas and ask difficult questions with no clear answer. To me, that is what Soft Chambers really evokes. Not the idea that we have these platonic, defined spaces, but that we must constantly define our spaces, and be aware of how we do so. The nameless being of Minkomora begins each adventure with nothing other than a desire to fit into their world, and no matter who is playing, it is not something to discover. It is something to decide.

Minkomora is by Joni Kittaka and merritt kopas.

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The US Government’s War on Buffalo

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Awhile ago, I wrote about the New Zealand colonists’ attempt to wipe out local species as a reflection of their conflict with the indigenous Maori. While not done as a direct attempt to hurt the Maori people, both the stated intent of making New Zealand “more European” and the result of Maori language, culture and health being threatened mark the use of invasive species as an imperialist tool.

Well, there is another example of humans attacking the environment as a means of attacking another culture, and unlike the plausible deniability the New Zealand government has, this example was done EXPLICITLY to wipe out the religion and culture of a group of people. It was one of the single most dramatic uses of environmental terrorism performed in the pursuit of genocide, and it was only about 140 years or so ago.

An easy mistake for us descendants of settlers to make is the assumption that indigenous history was stable or static until our ancestors showed up. North America was home to hundreds of different cultures and languages (today 566 tribes are recognized today in the United States alone). There was centuries upon centuries of trade, migration, war, immigration, communication and cooperation. Even after European diseases killed off almost 90% of the continent, there was centuries of indigenous history that had nothing to do with settlers. The history of the Kiowa is a great example. The Kiowa people first emerged as a distinct culture coming out of the Missouri River Basin. The Kiowa creation myth tells that the first Kiowa emerged from a hollow log, small in number because most of them became trapped inside, and immediately headed south in search of a new home, arriving in the Black Hills around 1690. Traditionally nomadic hunters who traveled with cart-pulling dogs, the Kiowa would form two relationships with animals of the Dakotas that would come to define their culture: horses and buffalo.

While horses were a recent (but very successful) arrival to the Americas, buffalo had been part of North America for millions of years. While closely related to the European bison, the American bison had undergone a number of significant physical and behavioral changes from their common ancestor, and most of these changes can be explained by the evolutionary success of their greatest predator: homo sapien. Humans came to North America in several migrations, and they were so successful in their ecological niche that every ecosystem on the continent was changed. A number of large mammals couldn’t survive the arrival of a fast, intelligent, social predator like humanity, while others had problems dealing with the changes to the plants and environment that humans brought. The buffalo survived and later thrived by adapting.

Say you’re a solitary, primarily forest-dwelling large mammal that browses on leaves and up until recently was only hunted by solitary big cats and packs of wolves that wouldn’t come near as long as you were healthy and your long, front-facing horns could protect you. Now say a new predator comes that hunts in packs but is also equipped with tools that rival the big cats’ saber teeth and also allow the predator to attack from a distance. Suppose this new predator also has no problem hunting healthy members of your species and is incredibly stealthy. Let’s ALSO say that since this new predator arrived, the forests have been shrinking and the plains have been growing. Not a recipe for success. With the change in landscape and food, bison had to adapt to grazing over browsing, but this put them at a distinct disadvantage when it came to their new predator. Browsing leaves allows animals like the European bison to keep an eye open while they eat. Grazing on grass means your head is down and you’re easier to catch unaware. Grazing also meant that the buffalo’s long, front-facing horns would get in the way of eating, and so over time American bison were selected that had smaller, side-facing horns and lower necks. This took away the buffalo’s traditionally most effective method of protecting itself. These problems were overcome by becoming significantly more social. Grazing in a herd means that you can rely on others of your species to keep an eye on things, and when a predator appears you can join forces. Long, sharp horns or not, a herd of buffalo is an intimidating thing considering how soft and squishy the average predator is in comparison. Of course, having your food source be in a big herd suits some predators just fine, including ancient humans. In the end, the changes suited both species, and while it was a partnership based around one side being eaten, it was a partnership none-the-less. Humans are a species that change our environment just by existing, so being an animal that we like is a REALLY effective evolutionary strategy. Both intentionally and unintentionally, humans would help create a continent that was perfectly suited to the buffalo. That is how the arrival of the most deadly predator in history resulted in a bison population boom into the millions.

When the Kiowa arrived in the Dakotas, the buffalo had long been established, and their herds could stretch for miles. That plus the ability to train and breed horses meant that the wandering hunters now had a steady source of food, which meant that they did not need to wander anymore. The Kiowa settled and became famous for their horsemanship. When over on the east coast, the American Revolution was taking place, further west there was another war going on. The combined strength of the Cheyenne and the Dakota Sioux fought against the Kiowa, resulting in them abandoning the Dakotas and moving further south. This put them into conflict with the Comanche, which later blossomed into an alliance that would give them complete control of the southern Great Plains. The Kiowa were comparatively a small tribe, but their fame and ability as warriors made them feared. Among other exploits, they were famous for their warriors’ ability to fling themselves over the side of their galloping horses and shoot arrows at their opponent while hanging from their horses’ necks. The Kiowa elite warrior society, the Ka-itsenko, only had ten members in the entire tribe. Naturally, when the US government began invading Indian lands in the 1800s, the Kiowa were among the tribes that fought back the strongest and the longest.

The fact that first contact with American soldiers in 1833 resulted in multiple mass epidemics of smallpox didn’t help. A treaty of friendship was signed in 1837, but the following decades of smallpox and cholera (which would kill thousands and nearly wipe out tribes such as the Mandan) put incredible stress on the people of the Great Plains. To add to that stress, the US settlements in the east would drive multiple displaced tribes into western territory. Conflict broke out between the displaced eastern tribes, often armed with long-range rifles by the same white soldiers who kicked them off their land, and the Plains tribes. By 1863, the Plains tribes were fed up with the clearly one-sided “friendship” and the Kiowa, Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Apache called for a general uprising. The response of the US military was a swift and simple order, “kill every Indian in the country.”

This proved harder for the US government than they anticipated. Even with their opponents’ numbers devastated by disease and with superior fire-power on their side, the US military was facing a force that was highly mobile, intimate with the terrain, and quickly catching up in regards to rifles. So the US military turned their attention away from direct conflict and towards their food source.

While over-hunting by settlers had already begun, the buffalo still outnumbered the people of North America, even as late as 1870. The US government stepped things up and promoted mass hunting of the buffalo. Nine years later, it was all-but gone. General Phillip Sheridan described the effects of the policy, “The buffalo hunters have done in the past two years more to settle the vexed Indian Question than the regular army has accomplished in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. Send them powder and lead, and let them kill until they have exterminated the buffalo.” Lieutenant Colonel Dodge was just as explicit “there’s no two ways about it, either the buffalo or the Indian must go.” 75 million hides were taken and sold between 1850 and 1880, and it is unknown how many more animals were simply shot and left to rot on the Plains. Many of these animals were shot by hunters the US military had illegally sent into Indian lands, one of many direct violations of the treaties the US government would make.

The loss of the buffalo became part of the US’ diplomatic policy with the indigenous tribes. When General Winfield Scott met with the Arapaho chiefs at Fort Dodge he made it a point to tell them “You know well that the game is getting very scarce and that you must soon have some other means of living; you should therefore cultivate the friendship of the white man, so that when the game is all gone, they may take care of you if necessary.” Even when white settlers and politicians began calling to protect the buffalo, the US government took pains to continue. President Ulysses Grant pocket-vetoed a bill to protect the animal in 1874, and General Sheridan would personally testify before congress and plead that the buffalo slaughter be allowed to continue. Sheridan also argued that buffalo hunters should be given a medal to commemorate their service, a medal featuring a dead buffalo on one side and a dead Indian on the other.

Like nearly all of the Plains tribes, the Kiowa did not just depend on buffalo for food. It was a cultural keystone species, providing countless material uses and was inextricably linked to their religion and culture. Every summer, the Kiowa would come together for the Sun Dance, the single most significant event in their religion. It was a multifaceted ceremony, celebrating warfare, spiritual renewal, connection to the land and the divinity of the sun which could be shared among mortals. The Kiowa version of the Sun Dance was centered around the Tai-me, a sacred fetish representing (or perhaps literally being) the source of life itself. It was kept safe all year by a Keeper, a hereditary position in the tribe, and never exposed to light outside of the Sun Dance. A traditional buffalo hunt supplied the sacrifice required to the Tai-me. When the Kiowa were finally forced onto reservations they were, like the other Plains tribes, intentionally moved to reservations that were miles from any surviving buffalo herds. As a result, pilgrimages had to be undertaken to find an animal for the Tai-me. By the last Sun Dance, there were no buffalo left to send delegations to, and the Kiowa had to make do with old, weathered buffalo hides. Without the buffalo, the Sun Dance could not be complete and the Tai-me could not be honored. The people could not connect to the divine and life itself would wither. In non-spiritual terms, this was also true. Bison were a vital part of the Plains ecosystem, and their loss and replacement with western cattle ranches meant that the Plains would become inhospitable for traditional agriculture. Today’s poor topsoil and freshwater throughout the region is partially due to the loss of buffalo.

On July 20, 1890, the Sun Dance was officially outlawed. Indigenous religion was punished with imprisonment and even death. It remained banned until 1978 and the passing of The American Indian Religious Freedom Act. It should be noted that the Kiowa, like many of the other displaced Plains people, would come to redefine their religious and spiritual connection through a different species. Peyote had long been part of the spiritual practices of Pre-Colombian Mexico, and had slowly been moving north through trade and war. However, it is a relatively recent arrival to North America. In the mid-1800s, it reached the Great Plains, and following the apocalyptic destruction of the buffalo and the loss of their land, its use rapidly grew among the Plains tribes in the 1880s. This movement would become the Native American Church, which would have to (and continues to) fight hard for the legal right to perform its ceremonies.

And so we see an example of a government intentionally wiping out a keystone species in order to make a culture more “pliable” and, as a result, completely screw the ecology of an entire continent. Sadly, this is not even the only case of this taking place on this continent alone. The ensuing narrative of an unchanging people and an unchanging environment then works to protect the perpetrators. Extinction and environmental collapse become “inevitable” and “unavoidable.” People simply “vanished” from history a “long time ago” and the struggles people went through, and continue to go through today, are ignored. Continuity between “ancient times”, “US history” and “today” is lost. The fact that we, the descendants of settlers, are trained and continue to train our children that this history did not take place then gets in the way of addressing very real problems we face today. Want to address the drought devastating California? The ever increasing wildfires across the continent? Why the tiny part of the country I’m in is unseasonably freezing its ass off while the rest of the world is unseasonably boiling? We’ll never be able to do that unless we finally and truly address all the times and ways we launched a one-sided war on nature in order to better destroy other people.

Sources:
Davis, Wade. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Smits, David (Autumn 1994). “The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865–1883″. The Western Historical Quarterly (Utah State University) 25 (3): 312–338

Jawort, Adrian (May 9,2011). “Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars”. Indian Country Today.

N. Scott Momaday. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 1969

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Legend of Mana

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In 70 AD, the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem. This was at the end of a several year long siege, which had left the inhabitants dying in the street from hunger and thirst. Josephus, mediator for the Romans, wrote that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege and a further 97,000 were enslaved. The city was sacked, the Second Temple was razed, and after a flood of violence and death almost all that was left was of Jerusalem was rubble. The people of Jerusalem had earnestly believed that their God would never allow them to fail, and yet no one had saved them meaning that either God didn’t care about them or someone hadn’t been righteous enough. Neither were comforting thoughts. For the surviving citizens, the destruction of Jerusalem, the mass death and horror that accompanied it, the fact that no god had intervened, and the seemingly hopeless future that awaited them was a spiritual and philosophical crisis like none had seen before. The effects on the Jewish and Proto-Christian diaspora reached far beyond the remains of the city. Based on these events, poets wrote the Book of Revelations, a highly allegorical story that was not meant to depict the future, but rather to help people of their present understand what had been lost and redefine what their world should become. It is one of the most famous works of post-apocalyptic fiction, though its far from the only one. Today the end of the world is still a common theme in all media, including videogames. Either you’re trying to prevent it or you’re dealing with the repercussions of someone trying to cause it. Very few games capture that idea of the end of the world as a philosophical revelation, instead focusing on the destruction and death. One game which does deal with this side of apocalypse, Legend of Mana, deals with the concept by having the apocalypse happen long before you begin the game.

Nine centuries ago, the Mana Tree burned to ash. The Mana Tree is the spiritual source of all desire, both in its positive and negative aspects. The Mana Tree represents love and hate, empathy and oppression, imagination and greed, creation and destruction. The war that destroyed the Mana Tree was not the last war to touch Fa’Diel. Several centuries of war passed as sages, kings and villains fought for the scraps of Mana. Armies of thousands strong died, wyrms devoured whole cities, people turned against their own families, lands were scorched bare, and holes to other dimensions dragged people away forever only to replace them with horrors. After centuries of war and death, the survivors gave up all dreams and desire rather than continue risking the dark aspects of Mana. Fa’Diel no longer had dreams, desires, stories or thoughts. Nothing could change, nothing could live or die, no stories could be told, and Fa’Diel was in stasis. For all intents and purposes, Fa’Diel might as well not even exist.

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The game begins with your character selecting a tiny part of Fa’Diel to “rebuild.” You receive magical artifacts that, when placed on the map, transform into new lands. At first it feels like you are creating the world, but the more you experience, the more it becomes clear that Fa’Diel already exists, and that you are not so much creating it as revealing it. However, that line is often blurred. It exists because you experience it, and is created through the experiences you create. Every player’s map of Fa’Diel will look different, but at the same time, every player’s Fa’Diel has always existed in whatever form each player was going to create.

The Fa’Diel your experiences reveal is sometimes a sadly empty world, despite its beauty. Villages and cities are significantly underpopulated, a remnant of just how many lost their lives in the previous wars. The world alternates between feeling like a blank slate with no history, and like the sins of the past are hanging over everyone like a knife. Fa’Diel begins as a world crippled by ennui, where everyone struggles to make sense of what has value and how to examine the past and future.

While the creator of the Seiken Densetsu (or Mana) series, Koichi Ishii, was still on hand to direct, Legend of Mana is a radical shift in tone and content. This is almost entirely due to the game’s producer, Akitoshi Kawazu, taking a large and active role in the game’s creation. Kawazu is most famous for creating the SaGa series, and for his games often being intentionally obtuse or confusing in regards to both the gameplay mechanics and narrative. This has made him something of a polarizing game designer, but I find his work incredibly interesting and compelling. Even his failures are interesting because he takes such pain to create new systems and experiences, often informed by ideas from art and stories outside of games. A big theme of Kawazu’s oeuvre is discovery. Specifically, letting the player discover how the game works through experimentation and chance rather than explaining them. This can make the games difficult, but ironically they can be more difficult or frustrating for long-time gamers than for new ones. Almost every SaGa game requires you to learn specific rules and ignore expectations of what a “jrpg” should be. Players who try to force a SaGa game to be a Final Fantasy may give up in frustration.

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Some of the less successful SaGa games punish players for not figuring out their arcane rules, or at least expect the player to be willing to restart and play again from the beginning regularly. Legend of Mana learns from their mistakes, and as obtuse as its systems are, players who don’t or can’t figure them out can still play without worry. A perfect example of this is the item-creation system. Creating and modifying weapons and armor requires learning an extremely complicated system of honest-to-god system simulated fantasy chemistry that is NEVER explained in the game. Learning which chemical compounds react to which and how requires a combination of experimentation and copious note-taking. The reactions are never simply linear either, as certain variables late in an item’s construction may have a different result depending on seemingly unrelated items used early one. You can create insanely powerful weapons with a wide range of magical powers, but only by knowing enough about fantasy magic chemistry to concoct complicated and lengthy recipes and formulas. However, none of it is necessary. You can easily complete the game without making a single weapon. The system is there for players eager to dive into the laws of Fa’Diel’s magical molecular physics, but never punishes players who couldn’t care less. Equally complicated are systems for raising monsters, programming AI for golems and growing odd crops with names that were probably hilarious before being translated into English.

Kawazu’s fondness for handling game mechanics in this manner, and in leaving much of it up to the player to figure out on their own through repeated experimentation, is reflected in the game’s narrative as well. There is no central plot to Legend of Mana, rather a series of smaller quests. Three major story arcs exist, only one of which needs to be completed to reach the end of the game, and there are dozens of smaller stories to learn. Almost none of these stories or quests are about you, the protagonist. Rather, your protagonist often acts as an observer. Your character changes the world by observing it, and while you’re always somewhat removed from the other characters and their stories, your presence is what allows others to trust themselves to desire again. The world reconnects to Mana because the children who inherited a post-apocalyptic fantasy world are allowing themselves to dream and desire. The conflicts in this game are less to do with battles between good and evil and more to do with conflicting desires and experiences.

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Very little of your adventures relate to the destruction of the world. Only a few characters you meet are old enough to remember the conflict, and their own thoughts are focused more on the question of what comes next than on rehashing old battles. Your only real clue into the wars of the past are books of history, which slowly fill up with details as you play through the game. The backstory is complicated and convoluted considering how none of it directly impacts the story. You can read the entire creation myth of Fa’Diel, the history of what destroyed the world, and pick up random facts about the nature of the world which are never brought up in the game. For example, the reason why everyone you meet is some kind of anthropomorphic animal, plant, object, mythical creature, or combination of the four is because humans of Fa’Diel change forms based on their experiences. Everyone you meet is a human, from the penguin pirates to the bartender made of puzzle pieces. They just look different because the post-apocalyptic Fa’Diel is still deciding what it wants to be and look like, and so people’s shape is in flux physically as well as philosophically.

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One of the many optional things you can do in Legend of Mana is return home after each quest is completed and tell the story to your housemate Li’l Cactus. While the cactus at first seems unresponsive and immobile, after you tell it a story and leave, you’ll see a quick scene where it gets up, walks over to its secret diary, and writes its own version of the story it has been told. Like the other mechanics, this will mostly likely be a surprise discovery and require multiple playthroughs to get all of Li’l Cactus’ diary entries. When you read over Li’l Cactus’ version of your adventure, sometimes he’ll get things right, sometimes he’ll have misunderstood, sometimes he won’t believe you, sometimes he’ll get caught up in some small and unimportant detail, and sometimes he’ll just do his own thing. You’re creating the next mythology for this world, and Li’l Cactus is the next generation, interpreting it and deciding what it means to them. Li’l Cactus is providing clues for how the player can interpret the seemingly unconnected events and quests. Your response to each individual quest combine to form your overall reaction to the piece as well as reflect your philosophy.

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The game doesn’t judge what that reaction is, far from it. Throughout the game we see a repeating theme, that it is better to trust in the possibility of love, empathy and creation than to avoid risking the possibility of hate or destruction, and that it is better to be honest than to deny yourself. Love and friendship will not conquer all, this is clear from several of the quests, but giving people the freedom to choose love and friendship is the only way to actually get that result. The closest thing the game has to outright villains are anyone who tries to force others into a task or belief, or anyone who hides their own feelings and beliefs with convenient lies. Escad hides his jealousy behind religion and socially-acceptable racism, Irwin gives Matilda the freedom to choose her fate and she chooses something other than his exact wishes and he becomes wrathful, Sandra takes away the freedom and lives of others to keep someone she loves alive but caged, Larc gives up his freedom for power and is unable to remain himself in the process, Roger hides his poetry and creative side and forces the Dudbears to work for work’s sake rather than for their own expression, and of course Nunuzac hides the secret to reviving the Mana Tree and almost dooms the world to ennui and entropy rather than risk someone’s desires creating another war. In the end, there is no grand battle between good and evil (the final boss almost feels like a narrative afterthought, a meta “oh I guess we need to have a final boss here” event that only serves to reiterate the duality of imagination), and the only thing that is changed is that the world is now free to continue. In the end, this means our protagonist must leave the world (or perhaps it is just that we leave the protagonist) as Fa’Diel cannot become anything other than what it already was as long as we are observing it. We create a space for new stories we will never be told, and our own story with Fa’Diel ends.

The end of the world is not the end of all things, just the end of a point of view. In our world of nonstop zombie explosions and doomsday fantasies, its easy to forget that apocalypse is defined first as revelation rather than simply destruction. Legend of Mana leaves room alongside its confusing “Streets of Rage meets SaGa Frontier and covered in Jim Henson’s version of the D&D Monstrous Manual” design for players to have their own revelations.

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Screenshots and animated gifs are from the Let’s Play Archive

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Invasive species, invasive culture

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What we consider “natural” is never a static form, but a constantly changing and mutating thing. Even human-based changes to an environment are “natural” and part of an important process. What changes when we add humans to this process is two-fold. One is the magnitude of change, we can easily push a natural process far beyond what the environment was capable of dealing with. The second is our “unnatural” cultural systems’ ability to adapt environmental changes into weapons to preserve the status quo.

Invasive species are such a colonialist weapon. This has been true throughout history, whether overtly with British colonists releasing foxes and hares into “savage” wilds in order to make them more “British” or whether unintentional products of travelers carrying rats and bugs with them as they saunter across the map. Of course, species have moved and traveled since species existed, and there is no innate malice in, say, a new land bridge bringing competitors from North America that wipe out South American marsupials. But one of the most insidious things our cultural systems have learned how to do is subvert natural processes into weapons. Just because an invading species was unintentionally unleashed by a colonial power doesn’t mean that it isn’t an intentional tool of a larger system. After all, one of the most successful ways to subjugate a people is to destroy their environment.

The longfin eel of New Zealand is one of the most fascinating and wildly studied fish in the world. They can grow over 6 feet long and live over 100 years. They have mysterious habits and secret spawning places. They’re also an important commercial product today. But they were not always as well regarded by certain New Zealanders (and those outside New Zealand) as they are today.

The Maori have always valued the eel, as it serves as a cultural keystone species. It is an incredibly important food source, traditionally the main source of protein. The Maori learned early on that the eels could be encouraged to congregate in specific places, and that whenever a single eel mother left to spawn, thousands more would return in her place. As a result, the Maori developed a form of semi-domestication of the eels. Many families would tend to an eel pond, and because of how long lived the eels could be, a single eel could end up being cared for by multiple generations of one family. In the wilderness, the “wild” eel population was carefully monitored, and so the supply never ran out.

As pure speculation, perhaps the eel management techniques were pursued as a direct result of the ancient Maori driving another early food source, the large flightless moa bird, to extinction through over-hunting. Then again, careful management and attention to the eels is reflected in the earliest Maori folklore. The eel is an important mythical figure, and its role in Maori legend is not just as a food source but as the progenitor of other food sources. The giant eel Tuna is killed for his evil actions toward Sina, and as penance promises to reward Sina if she buries his head and visits the grave. From his skull the first coconut grows. In another variant, the eel god Tuna’s body becomes the origin of countless edible species of fish as well as eels. Tuna is a god from Polynesian folklore that predates the Maori, but the shared legend is only found among Polynesian islands where the eel is an important food source. So while the legend came with the first ancient sailors who would become the Maori, it took root only because the longfin eel would become such a culturally important animal.

A stamp showcasing Maui fighting Tuna

A stamp showcasing Maui fighting Tuna

The eel is so important that it is the primary form of the Maori concept of “taniwha.” A taniwha is an intensely personal and spiritual experience to the Maori people. The concept is often translated into English simply as “monster” or “sea serpent” but this is a disservice. Taniwha can occupy a combination of roles including that of guardian spirit or a physical catalyst for divine inspiration. The fact that so many taniwha take the form of the longfin eel is again indicative of how important the eel is to the Maori people.

Everything changed when the British arrived. The British brought many species they released around their colonies to make them feel more like “home.” This is how you get European rabbits in Australia, starlings and house sparrows in North America*, and trout in New Zealand.

*The starling story deserves a quick mention just for how ludicrously goofy it is. A group of wealthy gits known as the American Acclimatization Society wanted to introduce every bird ever written about by Shakespeare into the US to celebrate the bard’s work. They released multiple batches of starlings into Central Park until a wild population finally took hold.

In many cases, the damage done to the local environment by these introduced species is “accidental.” Rabbits compete against local grazers for food, mongooses and rats eat the eggs of ground birds not used to predators, blackberries choke out a native plant species that is a local animal’s main food source, a foreign disease wipes out 90% of the indigenous people on the continent causing a temporary explosion of passenger pigeons, etc, etc, etc. However, sometimes humans continue to take a more active hand in the damage done. In New Zealand, colonists enjoyed fishing for trout as a past time, and so put out bounties on longfin eels which they claimed were eating their precious trout. Eels were also blamed for killing adorable baby mallard ducks, another animal colonists introduced to make New Zealand more European. Eel hunters were hired to go out into the waterways and kill as many eels as possible. Politicians gave speeches about how it was every right-thinking and god-fearing person’s duty to kill eels. These eel hunts and continued up into the 1960s, with the Southland Acclimatisation Society (noticing a pattern in naming conventions?) offering bounties for dead eels. It isn’t hard to see how many Maori saw the attacks on their familiar environment as a thinly-veiled attack on them.

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Watercolor by Thomas William Downes of Maori hunters catching a giant eel

 

As colonists worked to change the New Zealand landscape itself, more damage was done to eel populations. Waterways and wetlands were drained to make room for settlements and farms. Roundup was sprayed on the “unruly” water plants to create “cleaner” rivers, which in turn destroyed the habitat of the frogs and small fishes the eels fed on. Dams built miles from wild wetlands or Maori eel ponds would end up blocking mature eels’ path to the sea, preventing entire generations from spawning.

What changed the New Zealand attitude toward the eel? The discovery that it was a commercially valuable product! Suddenly everyone wanted to protect the eel. Of course, the Maori themselves were prevented from taking part in the eel industry until the 90s, and then were forced to abide by new quotas to protect the eel from “exploitation.” Meanwhile, there was still the issue of habitat loss and dams blocking spawning routes that fishing quotas wouldn’t solve. But as noted above, the eel was traditionally a key element in the diet of the Maori. In the decades they were prevented from fishing for eel, or when the eel numbers were so drastically reduced that they could no longer be a staple, a number of health issues rose in the Maori community.

It may come as a surprise to those used to nutritional “experts” of today telling us about universal diets or needs, but the truth is there is never been a universal human diet. The best diet varies wildly from location to location, and person to person. Cultures adapt diets over years of experimentation and necessity. Eels contain a great deal of oils, fats and chemicals which, among other things, help prevent type 2 diabetes. Today, diabetes is an epidemic among Maori who are unable to eat eel regularly. This same pattern can be seen in many indigenous cultures today, such as Inuit communities suffering from rickets after being prohibited from hunting seals for Vitamin D (both seal species at risk because of non-native over-hunting and seal species that are plentiful but protected by western governments because they are cute). As traditional food supplies get replaced by colonial foods that may or may not provide the sustenance that is lost, new diseases emerge that traditional medicine has never had to deal with. The colonial system then tells people that their knowledge has failed them, even when the source of the diseases is the colonial system itself. In cases where traditional medicine can treat a disease that is new to the colonists (such as quinine to treat malaria) it is quickly adopted into the colonial system and its origins as traditional medicine obscured*.

*This is not to say that ‘traditional” or “scientific” medicine is superior, because the truth is that is a false conflict. In truth, there is no “traditional” or “scientific” knowledge, there is simply knowledge. Knowledge can be useful or useless depending on the context. However, the colonial system has become incredibly good at declaring any knowledge currently useful (or even only perceived as useful) as its own. A western pharmaceutical company getting rich off alkaloids indigenous people knew about first and a white hippie homeopath company getting rich off bogus claims of “traditional healing” are both part of the same system and taking part in the same shell game.

Taniwha, Magic the Gathering

Taniwha, Magic the Gathering (1997)

The reason a Maori community might not eat eel regularly anymore is not just because of the lack of eels. As colonial environmental policies and acclimatization takes place, the native language itself ends up in the crossfire. Colonists introduce their own poetry and stories based on the introduced species, and slowly the idea of what is “the environment” changes. Look here in the US, how many of us consider earthworms, knotweed, starlings and mute swans part of the “natural” landscape? How many natural parks intentionally manufacture “pristine” looking vistas because tourists expect nature to look a certain way*? Meanwhile, people growing up without interacting with traditional species daily simply can’t connect the traditional language and stories to their own lives. With the traditional landscape replaced by a colonial landscape, people are forced to use a colonial language to describe it. The system supports this by the deriding traditional language, stories, culture and religion as old-fashioned, irrelevant and lost. That is how a spirit that brings divine epiphanies gets reduced to another rpg monster even among the descendants of the people who first named it. Cultures neither emerge not exist in a vacuum. They continue to exist because they connect to peoples’ lived experiences. Invasive species become a form of invasive culture, damaging and replacing the human ecology just as much as it does the environment.

*One of my favorite personal examples comes from Acadia National Park in Maine. Tourists who spend big money come to see the leaves change every year. As a small concession, park officials planted some non-native (to the park at least) species of maple along the road. These maple turn a bright red in the fall, and also blocked the roadside view of less attractive, but far more natural, bits of the park. However, native porcupines discovered these new trees and found them incredibly tasty. While native trees had evolved means of dealing with gluttonous porcupines, the foreign maples couldn’t regrow their bark fast enough and died out. Now the roadside was full of ugly, dying trees and standard, non-breathtaking views beyond. This led to complaints to the park from tourists about how porcupines were ruining the “natural beauty” of the landscape.

watercolor of Maori eel weirs

Watercolor by Thomas William Downes of Maori eel weirs

Across the world, the most exciting environmental activism is taking place where intersectional activists meet. A big part of what is saving the eel is a combination of Maori environmentalists and Maori social justice activists. Maori who want to protect the eel draw from traditional knowledge of eel behavior*, ecology and husbandry. They also rely on the next generation of Maori to care about the eel. Social activists in turn rely on the survival of the eel to help support the health and economy of their community. Protecting the environment also provides other benefits to the human community, as it provides touchstones for cultural stories, beliefs and traditions. The connection between a culture and its environment becomes an important tool in helping the next generation value itself and its history in the face of a colonial culture telling them they are obsolete.

*That traditional knowledge of eel behavior deserves a mention. The biggest scientific mystery surrounding eels is how and where they spawn. Eels are unlike, say, salmon that are born in the river, voyage to the sea to grow, and then return to the same river to spawn and then die. Eels are born in the sea, voyage to the same rivers and wetlands their parents lived in, then return to the same spot in the ocean they were born to spawn and die. How eels find this single spot in the open sea was unknown to western science for a long time (hell, we still can’t even find that spot). Maori tradition hypothesized that eels found this mysterious spawning ground by scent, based on observing how eels hunted and seemed to recognize locations and people. Scientists scoffed at this idea, seeing it only as a whimsical story, but it turned out they were right. Eels have one of the single best senses of smell in the sea, and they leave a chemical trail for their babies to follow.

Whether we intend to or not, we each carry with us preconceptions about the environment and the status quo will do its best to use whatever those preconceptions are to undermine both cultural and ecological systems it perceives as a menace or exploitable. One of the best allies the environmental and social justice communities have is each other, and that partnership can only emerge when we carefully examine how we relate to the environment around us and who we allow to define it.

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