Frank Capra’s Wonders of Life





The “battle” between science and art dates back pretty far in the Western canon. For every great thinker of antiquity who saw no distinction between the different schools of knowledge and discovery, there was another who was convince their field ruled above all. For every Keats angry at “science” for reducing mystery and wonder to seemingly objective fact, there is a Dawkins who feels artists should be subservient to science and that “objective” and “hard” sciences have nothing to learn from anyone else. The debate can get exhausting, especially since its based on a number of faulty premises. “Science” does not undo the mystery of poetry, nor does the existence of subjective experiences and aesthetics pose a threat to objective facts. Understanding how we feel is as important as understanding why we feel, and all knowledge compliments each other. Scientists can and do learn from artists and artists can and do learn from scientists. Frankly most of us know and live that fact every day. But the debate rages on because of the loudest voices and occasionally arbitrary designation of canon sources.


I only bring up the curmudgeonly “angry old white dudes arguing over whose phd is better” debate because it serves as the lens for understanding and analyzing the Wonders of Life series of educational films written and directed by Frank Capra. These programs, aired in the 50s, were produced after Capra’s film career was in decline. Even before his decline, Capra was a bit of a curmudgeon himself. He was an idealistic propagandist who wholeheartedly believed in America exceptionalism and the triumph of the individual. Even when those beliefs invariably ended in hypocrisy, even when his ideals failed in practice, even when the world marched on around him, even when the forces he saw as anti-American ended up saving and helping people, even when his own countrymen turned on his religious and political views as some kind of “secret socialism,” he never lost that idealized, utopian view of the world. He was a man possessed with the kind of cognative dissonance that praised the “individual” while railing against “degenerate homosexuals,” that condemned those in power for not caring about the poor even when he fumed about “hemophiliac bleeding hearts” wanting to actually do something about it. I love It’s A Wonderful Life, but don’t forget that the main horror of alternate-reality Pottersville is that of hedonistic swing music. That unshakable ideal, even in the face of reality and outcome, infuses all his work, creating a tapestry of films that tell us a great deal about the man directing them and how a brilliant, flawed, compassionate, hateful and stubborn person reconciled an equally complicated reality.


For all his faults, Capra understood that science and art were not at odds. A huge part of this series’ message is based around showing how different kinds of knowledge compliment each other. This message, ironically, is why these films are both extremely interesting and also extremely inappropriate for classrooms today. The animation in these films is gorgeous, animated (and uncreditedly so!) by animation veterans William T. Hurtz and Shamus Culhane. Hurtz was a director for Rocky and Bullwinkle and had also worked on a number of Disney and UPA shorts and features. Culhane worked for no less than 18 different studios, and is the only animator to have worked on all four of the first Disney feature films. The character designs and animation appropriately draw from these many different styles, and animation scholars will note the influence from their time at Disney, UPA, Warner Bros and others. This animation still holds up today, but the material being taught is a little more uneven. The scientific explanations tend to waver between too simple for older students and too complicated for younger ones. They tend to work best as a kind of refresher course for adults or, as probably intended, as something to spark a discussion between children and adults watching together.


The other reason these movies are inappropriate for classrooms, but are worth watching anyways, is the overt religious content. Capra insisted that he be allowed to bring religion into these educational science films. Its not subtle, the scientist character will liberally sprinkle scripture into his talks, and even when denouncing pagan superstition will stop to assure the audience that Jesus is totally real (and loves evolution!). Capra’s worldview was a mix of conservative and progressive thinking. To Capra, certain moral imperatives HAD to be objective and unchanging, but at the same time people needed to move forward and improve. Ignoring traditional values and objective scientific study were both anathema to Capra’s understanding of both god and country. As a result, we have a film from the 50s that is surprisingly progressive even as its overt religious politics keep it from being useful for its intended purpose today. How often in today’s climate do you hear an extremely religious person arguing that God wants us to learn as much as we can about evolution? That breaking down and understanding the forces of creation is the best way to celebrate the divine? That skepticism is commanded of us in the scripture? Capra even argues caution against man-made climate change, and that environmentalism is an imperative of both science and religion! As religion in the US grew increasingly fundamentalist in the 20th century, these views became less and less common in the media.


While Capra’s connection of science to religion is as overt as you can get without a tap-dancing apostle, this same focus on integrating fields and mediums is handled more subtly and skillfully in regards to science and the humanities. The plot of nearly all of these films is that of a Scientist and a Writer trying to explain to a collection of quasi-mystical animated figures the importance of science. The Writer dreams up some group of cynics or skeptics, and the Scientist must help him convince them that they are not as far removed from humankind’s understanding of the world as they thought. In Hemo the Magnificent this dialogue is between Hemo, poet god of blood, who feels that humans look down on him, seeing blood as a gross symbol of death and disease rather than the source of life itself. He is accompanied by a collection of woodland creatures, all anti-intellectual by default as their only relationship to science has been in how science can help humans kill them more effectively. In The Unchained Goddess this dialogue features Meteora, goddess of weather, and her retinue of lesser gods, who feel threatened that humanity’s newfangled “meteorology” will rob them of their titles.


Interestingly, it is the Writer who is the most hostile to the mythical characters. He sneers at them, dismisses them, and gleefully uses every fact the Scientist brings forward to put them down. Meanwhile, the Scientist, while never letting them get away with unscientific statements, is quick to point out where their use as metaphor is important, or when art or poetry inspired humans to think and investigate. It is the Scientist who sprinkles in poetry and scripture along with facts, not the Writer. Hemo is moved by the Scientist seeing beauty in blood and knowing that the facts he uncovers only make the circulatory system seem more remarkable. He declares the Scientist a fellow poet even as he dismisses the Writer. The animals are amazed at the chance to ask their own questions and use tools previously used only to oppress them to understand themselves. Meteora finds that humans’ investigation of her “mysteries” is not meant to destroy her but to understand her, and she and her fellow gods find a new pride and status in being praised through loving research rather than ignorant worship. The Writer’s creations all find kinship in the Scientist over their creator. The Writer is so desperate to please the Scientist that he never connects to his own creations. The Scientist finds humor even in not knowing the answer. These are INCREDIBLY fascinating metaphors and subtext for a film about how wind works or why you have a heart.


These films may not be useful for young science students today, but they are valuable viewing material for scientists, artists, theologians and film historians. These are less educational films and more personal explorations of understanding the world, and as the films themselves insinuate, those personal stories of how we perceive and understand objective facts are as necessary as the facts themselves.

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“You come by it honestly, the ugliness inside you.” BoJack Horseman, Abuse and Depression


I don’t want to speak as though there is a universal experience with regards to abuse or depression, because there isn’t. That caveat in place, there is something in BoJack Horseman’s narrative that does resonate with something both myself and other people I have talked to who suffer from depression recognize. There is a deep, primal fear that comes with that territory, and that never goes away even when you accept that your feelings are valid or that the abuse you suffered was not your fault. That fear is the fear that its not enough. That you deserve to feel bad, or deserve to have suffered. That no matter what causes your bad feelings, it will never be enough of an excuse. That your feelings, even if valid, are keeping you from being happy or from doing what you really want to (or “should”) be doing. That even after taking into account the larger context of your life, you would still be a bad person. These are the fears that abusive people and abusive systems are very good at manipulating, but they are also depressingly valid questions we must occasionally ask ourselves to avoid narcissism. No one who has experienced harm wants to be the cause of harm to someone else, after all. BoJack is a character who, despite his mental illness and his history of suffering abuse, IS a bad person. BoJack does not have an excuse, and he knows this. We can feel sorry for him, we can know he is capable of being better, but that won’t change how, in the end, he chose not to be.

For those unfamiliar with the show, which recently released its 2nd season on Netflix, the premise is that in a world of human and human-animal hybrids, BoJack (Will Arnett) is a washed up sitcom actor from the 90s who has done absolutely nothing with his life since. He is bitter, drunk and depressed, and is also convinced that returning to stardom will fix his problems. Season 1 tells the story of his return to relevance as he writes his memoirs with ghost-writer Diane (Alison Brie) and stumbles through his strained relationships with his housemate Todd (Aaron Paul), agent and ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and former sitcom rival Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). The first few episodes are fairly generic post-Adult Swim/South Park “edgy cartoon” fare, and only hint at how deep and darkly funny the series will become. As the series goes on though, we start to see the roots of BoJack’s depression and narcissism, and how its cause and its potential treatment actually have fuck all to do with BoJack’s stardom itself. The broad characters become focused and surprising, in particular the way the show handles what at first seems to be a by-the-numbers love triangle between BoJack, Diane and Mr Peanutbutter. By the end of Season 1, the show has become a character study on living with depression in a system that cannot acknowledge it, and how different kinds of relationship can both be both supportive and toxic. Moreover, it refuses to give easy answers about what BoJack should be forgiven for in regards to his actions within the context of a toxic Hollywoo system.

BoJack was abused by his parents. His mother in particular (played by Wendie Malick, whose voice lends the character a certain weight that sells otherwise over-the-top evil lines) fills him with constant self-loathing and a desperation for anything resembling affection. Adult BoJack can’t tell the difference between different kinds of attention, simultaneously mistaking genuine affection and kindness for painful pity and feeling a perverse safety with being hated. He wants people to love him, but of course believes that no one who actually knows him could. He creates multiple personas to disguise who he is, because the plausible deniability of “I might be a failure, but the REAL me hasn’t tried yet so I might still be good” helps him survive. Tellingly, the only time since childhood that he cries is after an emotionally exhausting movie take where he learns that his director (played amazingly by Maria Bamford, have I mentioned that the cast of this show is phenomenal?) not only sees his acting as good, but knew that skill was there, along with the bad, behind the “safety” of his personas.

That childhood abuse isn’t everything wrong with BoJack. His depression is pretty severe. Depression isn’t just being “sad,” as most people assume. It is being numb. It is not feeling able to do anything other than tune out the world. BoJack retreats into creative obscurity following the end of his sitcom not because he doesn’t have the talent, but because he feels nothing anymore. He cannot do anything other than sit, eat and drink until some combination of chemicals motivates him into action (which he will inevitably regret). Hollywoo is a system that doesn’t offer him many ways out. He SHOULD be happy! Even with his career currently dead, he’s rich, he lives in beautiful LA, and he is famous, what else does the world owe him? How dare he not be happy? The system would much rather he be a selfish villain than be honest about his depression, and so inadvertently creates situations that reward BoJack for being an asshole…. to a point. BoJack is told and taught that it is better to be “hated” than to be honest, and he internalizes that as meaning his true feelings are what is wrong with him. In a certain sense, BoJack’s assholery is like Anna Karenina’s sexual behavior, their society promotes and rewards it, then abandons them when convenient to use their “failure.” That disconnect between what BoJack wants, how he acts, and how society then treats him is the main source of the show’s humor, aside from the wonderfully horrible animal jokes.

It can be hard to write a comedy victim. The trope of “irredeemable narcissist who had a bad upbringing” is extremely common, and can wear thin quickly. Even shows that do it right can run into a different kind of trouble. Sterling Archer, for example, is a terrible human being who also suffered childhood abuse, but as the series goes on it becomes pretty clear that he’s really no more terrible than anyone else he works with. Everyone in the show is a terrible (but funny!) person so it doesn’t feel fair to dump on Archer more than anyone else. Archer is a great show, but it will never be mistaken for a serious study of abuse and depression. Meanwhile, BoJack surrounds himself with some pretty terrible people too, but none of them are as terrible as he is. No matter how annoying Todd is, how oblivious Mr Peanutbutter is or how surprisingly BoJackesque Diane can be, none of them end up making choices as bad as BoJack does. Diane comes close towards the end of season 2, because like BoJack she has severe undiagnosed and untreated depression and they end up feeding into each other, but even she manages to pull through at the last second. BoJack is a creature living in a comedy world, where everyone can be a little shitty if it will help sell a joke, but even by those standards he does something unforgivable.

The final line BoJack crosses is so devastating because it comes after what first appeared to be a bottoming out. BoJack comes out of his Season 1 malaise to find a resurging career, a good relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Wanda (played hilariously deadpan by Lisa Kudrow), and the titular role in his long-time dream project. As noted above though, depression isn’t as simple as “happy” or not, and so he’s still not feeling like he “should.” Diana, as usual, is the only one willing to actually talk with BoJack about his actual feelings, and brings up something BoJack hadn’t considered. Would doing his dream movie make him happy? For a little while. Would any project or relationship make him happy? For a little while. Depression isn’t something you end, it will always be there. You will never always be “happy” and all of us with depression know the importance of cultivating those creative projects that help us function, as well as the crushing moment of despair that comes once we finish with one and know we have to find another. Its a moment where BoJack might finally confront the fact that he’ll never not be depressed, and that it is ok to be that way, and that as long as he knows that he can work each day to get a little better and learn to live with himself as he is.

Then Diane, in the wonderfully tragic way the show does, transitions from supportive to toxic in a single sentence. If nothing will make him permanently happy, then why bother? Doing movies and projects he likes won’t fix him. Being in a healthy relationship won’t fix him. So why bother? Why not just feel nothing? Why not join her on the couch, watching shitty tv and being numb to the fact that life exists? BoJack does, and it kills his relationship to Wanda, and it feeds into the “I will never be fixed, so I will never be good, so no one could ever actually like the real me, so its ok to drive people away” myth that drags him down.

BoJack ends up running away. He escapes from LA in the hope that it is just this place and this system that is dragging him down. He runs off to New Mexico to find Charlotte (Olivia Wilde), a friend from 20s or 30s who cared for the real him and who he always imagined “what if?” about. Of course, she hasn’t been pining for him, that was 30 years ago. She’s happy to see him, but she has a family, kids, and a life. Of course, this ends up being a moment that might save BoJack too. Away from LA, surrounded by real people who have no expectations of him, and the prospect of friends who really can like the real him, he has the chance to define his life based on what he really wants it to be, rather than the various Hollywoo myths he is told to want. He makes a decent go of it as well, staying in New Mexico for months, but then he finally demonstrates that its not LA that is the tar pit, it is himself. He takes advantage of a teenage girl in order to make himself feel better, and it will never be ok that he did that. The show makes it clear in no uncertain terms, this is not funny, this is not a little mistake, and this is not something BoJack can explain away. BoJack’s past and what he has suffered through excuses a lot, but they will NEVER excuse this, and more to the point they are not the reason he did this. Depression did not make him act badly. He did this shitty thing because he chose to, because he did not care about anything other than his immediate concerns, and he knows it is not something he can blame on his illness. It is the ultimate realization of that fear I mentioned earlier. BoJack has become who everyone with depression fears their illness really is, and it is one of the most devastating moments in recent television.

Following this, Season 2 ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. Every character takes steps towards learning to really love and forgive themselves. BoJack himself finally learns that depression is not something you fix, but rather something you deal with every day. Every day that you deal with it, every day you try, it can get a little easier, but you have to learn to live with it every day. It is a lesson that BoJack had to learn to begin to be happy being himself, but it is not a lesson that required him to take advantage of a teenager to learn it. BoJack may, in fact, be on his way to becoming a better person both in terms of his health and his actions, but that will never undo the shitty things he’s done. Amazingly, this is a show smart enough to make sure its characters and its audience don’t forget that fact. A show that tackles the realities of living with depression and the realities of making bad choices, without confusing the two as synonymous.

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Pokemon Battles in Context Part 3 – That’s Just Not Cricket


In our last two entries into this series, we looked into the history of bloodsports such as cockfighting, dog fighting and animal baiting. We saw how our species’ weird obsession with forcing other species to compete has had significant sociological and ecological outcomes, from the evolution and domestication of certain animals to the economics of various countries. We also saw how these barbaric events are reflected in the narrative and gameplay of the Pokemon series. So is it hypocritical for Pokemon to portray itself as a friendly, rewarding and non-violent competition where monsters and their trainers learn to value love and friendship through combat? Not when we look at the peculiar history of insect fighting. While unheard of in the West, many countries in Asia have storied traditions of insect fighting. In fact, Satoshi Taijiri specifically drew on the culture of Japanese beetle fights and collecting for the premise of Pokemon.

The family Scarabaeidae includes over 30,000 species of beetle worldwide. This family includes scarabs, dung beetles, rhinoceros beetles, stag beetles, Hercules beetles, Goliath beetles and june bugs. Scarabaeidae species have diverse relationships with humans. Some are agricultural pests of a devastating nature, doing millions of dollars in damage. Others are more useful, and some carrion-eating scarabs are among the many insect species used in forensic entomology and taxidermy to clean corpses. The most famous beetle-human relationship is that of Scarabaeus sacer, the sacred beetle of Khepri, an Egyptian solar deity and aspect of Ra.


While not worshiped as divine, the relationship between beetles and humans in Japan is of the friendly variety. Many large beetle species call Japan home, the most iconic being the Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) or Kabutomushi. “Mushi” is Japanese for bug, and “kabuto” for helmet. Its name refers the traditionally ornate samurai helmet, which resembles the chitin armor of the rhinoceros beetle. Japanese children buy or catch these beetles for pets. A good beetle can go for about 500 to 1000 yen (around five or ten bucks in US currency) in a department store. While collecting and raising the beetles is a popular past time, their primary use is for battling.


Rhinoceros beetles show an extreme sexual dimorphism,meaning that the males and females of the species are physically distinct. The female beetles are small and lack horns. The males grow much larger, and have a large, forked horn they use during mating season. The purpose of this horn is to lift another male off the ground and throw them into the air, at which point they will fall to the ground, far out of the way, and the winning male can proceed to mate with the female. At some point in history, an enterprising ancient entomologist realized that these beetles could be manipulated to fight on command. Two male beetles are placed on a log, and a small noisemaker is used to duplicate the mating call of a female. In response to this sound, the two males will begin fighting in hopes of securing access to the hypothetical female.

Unlike other bloodsports, beetle fights rarely end in injury. The loser is knocked off the log or platform, but this is normal for beetles in the wild. Beetles are built to survive these mating battles and live to try again. Unlike dogs and roosters, the beetles can’t be abused and whipped into a murderous frenzy before the battle, and won’t naturally fight to the death. Pokemon battles are designed to resemble beetle fights in that they always thematically end amicably. A losing Pokemon can be restored with a quick rest and be ready for the next battle. There is no direct cruelty involved, and it is closer to a contest of strength than a violent conflict, despite the flamethrowers, thunderbolts, acid and seismic tosses. While cockfighting and dogfighting are both present in Japanese culture (as they are in virtually every culture), there are cultural signals tying Pokemon battles to beetle fights, and therefore to a lack of implied cruelty, that are often missed by Western audiences.


It may come as a surprise to those in the West that beetle collecting and fighting could be such a celebrated and popular past time for Japanese children of all ages and genders. It is commonly understood in many Western countries that insects are “gross” and not as capable of invoking empathy as pets such as cats, dogs or even rats. There is also, traditionally in the West, a gendered expectation involved. Boys are “supposed” to enjoy and play with gross things while a girl who likes insects would be unfairly ostracized. Some scientists even argue that a fear of bugs and spiders is a product of evolution. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that an innate fear of venomous animals, including insects and spiders, would have helped our ancestors survive in the wild and therefore arachnophobia is a genetic condition. The problem with this view, however, is that fear of these animals is not culturally universal, nor do any particularly deadly spiders or insects live in the regions frequented by our ape ancestors. Rates of arachnophobia and entomophobia vary wildly depending on the geographical location. In countries where a fear of spiders is accepted or expected, up to 6 percent of the population can suffer from severe arachnophobia.

The truth is that specific fears are not genetic, but rather it is the potential to learn and retain fear in general that comes from our DNA. Our primate brain is programmed to quickly learn what our friends and family are afraid of when we are young, and replicate that same fear. If someone you trust is afraid of something, it is generally safe to assume you should be afraid of it to (at least according to our brains). We can see this in studies of our close relatives, as chimps raised in captivity show no fear of spiders or snakes unless they first see another chimp react in fear to these creatures. Evolutionary psychology is, by and large, overly reductive in its view of human behavior and instinct. Rather than a single genetic marker that says “FEAR THIS” or “THIS DISGUSTS YOU” the truth is that genetics and culture work together to create influences on a person. This is how two cultures can, over many generations of individuals, influence their respective populations to either love or despise the same species.



While Pokemon owes its perspective on both bug-types and inter-species conflict in general to beetle fighting, beetle fighting itself owes something to an older form of insect collecting and battling. Chinese cricket-fighting dates back at least 1000 years ago, rising to prominence during the Tang Dynasty. One of the earliest books written on the subject was written in the 13th century by Jia Sidao, chancellor of the Song dynasty. Sidao was infamous for his obsession with crickets and concubines, and it was said that the Mongols were able to take the city of Xiangyang so easily because Sidao was occupied with training his crickets. This story was meant to be an example of the feudal decadence that had corrupted the court, but also humanize the controversial chancellor. He was corrupt and incompetent (and later assassinated by his own court), but he was a man who loved crickets. Dammit, anyone who loved crickets can’t be that bad! His ultimate downfall was that he was too human, that he indulged an otherwise noble pursuit TOO much and let it become debased, and therefore deserved a bit of sympathy.

Just as in cock-fighting, cricket-fighting was a spiritually and politically symbolic act that became “debased” by gambling and entertainment later on, but unlike cockfighting, the combat is not mortal. Male crickets of the Velarifictorus micado species, like beetles, are territorial but do not fight to the death. Their behavior during fights was a symbol for how a decent man of ancient China should behave. Jia Sidao’s book describes, in exhaustive detail, the Five Virtues that are shared by all crickets and all men as follows:

  • The 1st Virtue: When it is time to sing, he will sing. This is trustworthiness (xin).
  • The 2nd Virtue: On meeting an enemy, he will not hesitate to fight. This is courage (yong).
  • The 3rd Virtue: Even when seriously wounded, he will not surrender. This is loyalty (zhong).
  • The 4th Virtue: When defeated, he will not sing. He knows shame.
  • The 5th Virtue: When he becomes cold, he will return to his home. He is wise and recognizes the facts of the situation.

Looking at the specific words used, we can learn what Sidao and other cricket writers wanted to convey not only to cricket trainers, but to the common man. “Zhong” is not just any loyalty, but the specific loyalty that comes from one being willing to lay down their own life for duty and their emperor. “Yong” is specifically the courage and readiness to sacrifice one’s own life and comfort, and to do so eagerly. The 5th virtue is interesting, as it clarifies the whole “lay down your life” part. Crickets are not supposed to stop fighting when wounded, but only if they still have a chance. If its cold, you go inside, and if you’ve lost, you know you’ve lost. Feel shame at your loss, but recognize that it has happened. Better to know when you’re defeated and live to learn better than to die a failure and never be anything else, but at the same time that pragmatism will never be an excuse for failure. Crickets are expected to do their best of their masters, both in terms of raw fighting ability but also in terms of knowing their place, recognizing failure, and trusting their master. If a humble insect can be so worthy of praise, how can any citizen of the empire do less? No matter how strong and fierce a cricket is, if it can not judge a situation or understand shame it will never be a champion. The most important aspects of cricket fighting are the intangible concepts of loyalty, understanding, courage and obedience that only come about from partnership with its human trainer.



In addition to the five virtues, there are three races, four body colors, 72 different personalities, and countless variations on jaws, necks, antennae and other body parts to consider. These attributes can be judged and quantified by examining a cricket, and improved by training them. While unintentional, this ends up resembling the common statistics found in all role playing games, including Pokemon. Perhaps a similar list of Pokemon virtues would look like this:

  • The 1st Virtue: When striking an enemy, she will use all of her force. This is respect (attack).
  • The 2nd Virtue: When the enemy attacks, no matter how fearsome it may appear, she will stand and face it. This is responsibility (defense).
  • The 3rd Virtue: When calling on the elements, she will find strength in those according to her type. This is mindfulness (sp. attack).
  • The 4th Virtue: When confronted by what is special and unknown, she will remain steadfast and true to herself. This is conviction (sp. defense).
  • The 5th Virtue: When she has made a choice, she will trust herself and follow through immediately. This is honesty (speed).

While not the sport it once was, vast cricket markets still exist today. Crickets born in the wild are generally considered better fighters than those born in captivity, and so every autumn thousands of people go out into the wilds collecting them. The best cricket trainers must travel around the Chinese countryside to properly obtain and judge different crickets. As demand for crickets increases, the species may even go extinct in some communities, causing the markets and festivals to move until the species has recovered. There are two major cricket tournaments, the National Cricket Fighting Championship in Beijing and the Yu Sheng Cup in Luhua, but throughout the year there are constant smaller bouts, often in shady dives and gambling dens.

With cricket fighting’s ties both to the aristocracy and the criminal communities, it was an obvious target during the Cultural Revolution. Decried as bourgeois, decadent and culturally backward, it was banned by the Communist government for much of the 20th century. Cricket fighting became the focus of a mild moral panic. It was encouraging children to gamble, to identify with out-dated and taboo ideals, and encouraged even worse illegal activities later in life. Many of the charges leveled against cricket fighting by communist moral crusaders would mirror those levied against Pokemon by their Western, Christian equivalents decades later. Many of us will remember being told of how Pokemon trading cards were encouraging gambling in public schools, or even the absurd charges of Pokemon promoting Satanism and a fascination with the occult.

ROFLMAO Rise Our Fallen Lord Mega Alakazam... Opportunity

Rise Our Fallen Lord Mega Alakazam… Opportunity

Crickets found an interesting combination of champions in the 21st century. Gamblers, of course, wanted to continue their lucrative sport in a semi-legal fashion. Gambling is still outlawed in China, but cricket matches are available and if bets happen to take place, the owners can’t be blamed. Academics wanted to bring cricket-fighting back to its original roots, as a celebration of traditional Chinese culture and a way to encourage the younger generation to take pride in their history. Reading translations among contemporary Chinese cricket enthusiasts and sociologists shows a vigorous debate, challenging the previous condemnations of the practice. Is cricket fighting vile or holy? Bourgeois or proletarian? A celebration of vital tradition or a retreat into the past? It all depends on who you ask, and what they wish to use the crickets to symbolize.

In the fictional Pokemon universe, Pokemon battles are intrinsically tied to these dichotomies as well. The player receives money only from battling other trainers and winning their purse. Kanto’s economy is driven by Pokemon battles. Despite the fact that the people of Kanto are constantly gambling on matches, they are constantly discussing the cultural importance of battles. Training and understanding Pokemon replaces school as the primary way for children to learn to socialize. Children are expected to take lessons from their Pokemon in terms of how to be productive citizens of the region. It’s right there in the theme song, the Pokemon teach the trainer even as the trainer teaches them. Yet Pokemon are also the tools of the greatest forces of societal evil in the games. Through Pokemon, evil organizations like Team Rocket weaponize elements, emotions, traditions, and abstract concepts in order to unite their nation in denouncing the very concepts of “truth” and “love” that children are expected to learn through Pokemon training.


Ash may not have ever gone to a real school and may not know long division, but he knows the importance of honesty, how to be a good friend and partner, and that Fighting types are weak to Psychic types. Isn’t that what we truly want every child to learn?


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Pokemon Battles in Context Part 2 – Those Of Us About To Faint Salute You


Last time we looked at the origin of bloodsports, particularly cockfighting. Our species’ fascination with forcing other species to fight for our own amusement lead to the domestication of the chicken, and only after that to the development of the chicken into the egg and meat producing force it is today. In other words, if not for our obsession with watching other species fight, we wouldn’t have scrambled eggs today. It is easy to see how this dynamic could have played out in the fictional history of the Pokemon universe, and in how the people of that world saw their relationship to these creatures develop. However, cockfighting is just one of the bloodsports our species has historically been obsessed with.

While cockfighting often wrapped its cruelty in a veneer of spirituality or symbolism, other bloodsports did not. The Roman Empire was infamous for its circuses pitting various animals against each other. The Roman circus of 13 BC saw the slaughter of 600 African beasts, including everything from lions to ostriches. At other circuses, spectators would cheer as hundreds of bears were slain at once. At some point, probably as large exotic predators got harder and more expensive to find, dogs were conscripted. Dogs were a long-time partner of humanity, used for hunting and warfare, and that relationship may have protected them for a time. As the British fell to the Roman Empire, the Romans fought alongside a now extinct breed of dog called Molossus while the British used English Mastiffs. The Romans were impressed with the ferocity of their opponents’ hounds, and so began importing the conquered dogs for use in the Colosseum.


The use of Pokemon in warfare is only mentioned in passing during the events of 2013’s Pokemon X and Y, where a nine foot tall homeless man is revealed to be the immortal king of the Kalos region. The former king’s story tells of a war between two countries fought with Pokemon, and the despair over losing his own Pokemon partner is what drives his quest for immortality. In the original Red and Blue series, none of this history is present, but we know that wars with Pokemon have taken place. Lt Surge, the gym leader of Vermillion City, is a former soldier. Specifically (and bafflingly in the larger context of the Pokemon world’s geography) Surge fought for the American Air Force in an unknown war, where he used Electric-type Pokemon to power his planes in emergencies. The idea of Pokemon battles not just being entertainment, but part of larger inter-societal conflicts could explain the appearance of Pokemon resembling man-made items. Not just bombs and machines like Voltorb or Magnemite, but even creatures like Blastoise with its cannons may be the result of specific breeding by humans. As the wars ended (every single Pokemon game takes place at a time of peace, prosperity and decadence), Pokemon warfare transitioned into civilian battles and entertainment.

While the Romans began breeding dogs for bloodsports, the trend continued even after the Empire fell. Roman dogs exported across Europe were bred for various “baiting” events. The most popular during the Middle Ages were bear and bull baiting, where trained dogs would be set loose against chained animals. The popularity of this practice became so widespread that the population of bears in Europe plummeted. Dogs were bred more and more specialized to better bait and torment certain animals, giving rise to many of the severely inbred and genetically malnourished breeds we have today. As sad as it is to think, the diversity of dog breeds, in particular the most degenerate ones, is directly related to our species’ fascination for gambling and bloodsports. This is the origin of everything from dachshunds bred to battle badgers to terriers bred to battle an arena full of starving rats.


Rat-baiting in particular shows how thin the line can be between our love and hatred for a species. While the goal of rat-baiting was to watch the destruction of hated vermin, it also led to the popularity of rats as pets. Jack Black, famous rat-catcher of 19th century England, made a name for himself as a professional exterminator (he billed himself as “the Queen’s official rat-catcher” [ McCullough, Marie (May 10, 2015). “Sniffing out the dirty history of the common rat”. Philadelphia Inquirer. p B2]) but was also an accomplished rat-breeder. When he caught an unusually colored rat, Black would breed them to establish new color varieties that he would then sell as pets to “well-bred ladies” that kept the creatures in gilded cages. Black’s clientele included Beatrix Potter (who dedicated her book Samuel Whiskers to her pet rat) and Queen Victoria. This was the birth of the fancy rat, which today is a beloved pet of many.

Could the popularity of certain Pokemon as pets over fighters have influenced their evolution? Some Pokemon evolve into more fearsome-looking monsters, perfect for intimidating potential opponents, while others acquire physical traits more for show and decoration than for combat. Compare two otherwise very similar Pokemon such as the two Fire-types Vulpix and Growlithe. Both are Fire-type canines (and both can interbreed with each other), but while Growlithe is stocky and fierce Vulpix is slender and delicately coiffed. Growlithe has sharp eyes, a gruff bark, and is primarily seen working alongside police officers, sailors and other working class occupations. Vulpix has soft eyes, is quiet and less energetic, and is more often found alongside upper class owners and young women. These differences continue into their evolutions as well, with Growlithe becoming the fast galloping and fierce looking Arcanine and Vulpix the elegant and contemplative Ninetales. If the two canines share a common ancestor, could human influence and need have contributed to the creation of these distinct breeds?


It is also worth noting that all of the “non-Legendary Pokemon” are genetically related. While not every Pokemon can breed with each other, all of them can breed with at least one other species. Genetically speaking, all Pokemon not only have a common ancestor, but are closely related and belong to the same genus (if not the same species). Regardless of whether or not a particular Pokemon looks like a bug, a bird, a dragon, a robot, or even a plant, they are all actually the same kind of organism. This is because Pokemon are a group of “ring species” or connected series of genetic populations. As the ancestral Pokemon migrated across the world, they evolved and mutated, leading to different kinds of Pokemon, but they were still closely enough related to interbreed. But as the populations continued to move and mutate, there became species that could interbreed with some species along this ring, but not the ones furthest away from them. For example, both a Cubone and a Poliwhirl can breed with a Squirtle, implying a genetic link, but neither Pokemon species can breed with each other. Even “fossil” Pokemon can breed with modern day relatives, showing how little genetic change their has been for the genus. The Pokemon clade is essentially made up of many different ring species, and a nerd with more time on their hands than I could theoretically use the different “egg groups” to determine a rough idea of which Pokemon species appeared first in the fossil record.


But back to reality. What was it about dog fighting that made it so popular? Unlike cockfighting, there was no long cultural tradition or symbolism. A number of sociologists suggested that dog fighting was attractive to men as a way of asserting masculinity and achievement in a world of class immobility. Despite the pretensions of capitalism and the industrial revolution, people born into the working class tend to remain there. Dog breeding was a past time that all classes took part in, and while a working class man couldn’t expect to raise his status through labor, he could experience that feeling vicariously through a dog that competed. Dog fighting represented the “ideal” meritocracy, because the amount of money you threw at breeding and training didn’t matter. It wasn’t always vicarious either, the owner of a winning dog could easily earn more money than a successful armed robber or drug dealer [Gibson, Hannah. “Overview of Dog Fighting”. Animal Legal and Historical Center. Michigan State University College of Law. Retrieved 19 November 2013]. The dogs, of course, were neglected and abused their whole lives, but to the humans of either class seeking the thrill and status that wasn’t a concern. While dog fighting has become increasingly illegal throughout the 20th century, it is still a common underground activity, largely for the same symbolic reasons.

It is possible that in the Kanto region, class has a hand in the culture of Pokemon battles. Both Red and Blue (or Ash and Gary depending on your naming convention of choice) are two kids from a rural, podunk town. Blue, being the grandson of the famous local scholar, has some social status but neither are particularly wealthy. As the game goes on, they visit larger cities and fight the socially powerful. In fact, the Gym Leaders and Elite Four are both an interesting combination of classes. You have working class trainers like Brock, whose comparatively tanned skin suggests he spent a lot of time working outside, alongside the culturally elite Erika, who wears traditional kimonos, partakes in activities such as flower-arranging and has a weak constitution from a life devoid of physical labor. You have gym leaders who are miners, teachers, entomologists and underground artists just as socially powerful as gym leaders who are wealthy business men, fashion designers, politicians, movie stars and start-up entrepreneurs. In the world of Pokemon, anyone can use battles as a way of improving their social and economic class. It doesn’t matter how much money Erika, Giovanni or the snobby rich trainers of Pokemon X and Y have, because the poorest kid can wander into the woods, catch the first Rattata they see, and train it into a champion. In fact, within the canon of Pokemon, every single champion that emerges victoriously starts out in the smallest, poorest town. Pokemon is the meritocratic dream of every Victorian-era dog-fighter without the intense cruelty.


That lack of implied cruelty is a key component to understanding Pokemon. In their digital form, Pokemon battles are largely bloodless conflicts, closer to Tom and Jerry than traditional cock-fighting or rat-baiting. A Pokemon may be blasted by fiery explosions, frozen by beams of ice, suplexed, karate chopped, strangled, bitten, whipped, poisoned or electrocuted, but they will always bounce back with a Wil E. Coyote-esque constitution. The worst fate that can befall a Pokemon is that they will “faint,” a condition that is easily remedied by a trip to a Pokemon Center. This abstraction from real violence was a deliberate choice by designer Satoshi Tajiri. Despite the nature of the game being based around training beasts for combat, Tajiri did not want to contribute more “pointless violence” to the gaming community.

From our perspective in the West, Tajiri’s goal may seem naive or even hypocritical. We’ve seen how the history of violent bloodsports is marked by cruelty and exploitation, and cock-fighting and dog-baiting traditions exist in Japan as well. But there is another spectator sport in the East that involves animals. One that does not have the same violence and focuses on bloodless competition. These sports originated in China, and spread throughout many other Asian countries, but are completely absent from Western cultures. It is this missing cultural touchstone that explains how Pokemon can balance its thematic connection to some of our species’ most egregious with its explicit themes of friendship and cooperation.

Join us next time for Part 3 – Its Just Not Cricket!

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Pokemon Battles in Context – Part 1: Poffins and Circus


There are many things that separate humans from other animals, though few of them are things we may expect. Tool use is not one of those things, as apes and crows invent new tools when needed. Self-awareness is not one of those things, as parrots give themselves unique names and cuttlefish are aware that their reflection is their own. Culture isn’t one of those things, as macaques, beavers and mongooses directly pass on knowledge that varies depending on the animal’s region and family. It isn’t language, as ground squirrels use surprisingly complex grammar when they communicate. Even art is arguably not unique to humanity, as degus build statues and structures when bored. Instead, the things that separate us from other animals tend to be more specific. We’re the only animal that wears pants. We’re the only animal that can travel to space. We’re also the only animal that forces other animals into competition for our own amusement, though perhaps that isn’t one of more praise-worthy unique attributes.

We’re certainly not the only animal capable of cruelty for amusement. Dolphins will torture young porpoises and manatees for no discernible reason other than the excitement of bloodshed. Our own closest relatives, the chimpanzee, have been recorded torturing small animals and almost everyone who grew up with a pet cat can recall watching them hunt and play with prey they have no intention of eating. What makes our cruelty unique is how we will remove ourselves from the direct conflict, and instead feel excitement vicariously through one or more animals we pit against each other.

The Pokemon games are often described as digital cockfighting, and certainly bare some resemblance to that and similar blood sports. Two creatures are places in an arena and forced to fight for the amusement of their trainers. It is this relationship to bloodsports that has been behind a lot of the controversies regarding Pokemon in the West (PETA still protests each new Pokemon game for promoting cruelty to animals, though as in everything PETA does it is largely for easy attention rather than a legitimate grievance with Nintendo). Even when the game’s creators explicitly wanted to avoid these connotations and create a game that did not contribute more “pointless violence” to the gaming community [Larimer, Time (1999-11-22). “The Ultimate Game Freak”], players from many different cultures see cockfighting reflected in the abstract monster combat.


As much as modern-day society may wish to distance our species from this act, forcing animals to violently fight is one of the oldest spectator sports in history. In particular, cockfighting, the practice of pitting two roosters (Gallus gallus domesticus) into bloody combat, dates back at least 6,000 years [Garrigus, W.P. (2007), “Poultry Farming”. Encyclopedia Britannica]. This fascination with fighting roosters actually defined our first relationship with the species. Archeologists believe that the chicken was domesticated first for cockfighting, with their meat and eggs being a useful by-product. This explains why cockfighting chickens most closely resemble their wild counterparts. The domestic chicken and its countless variations are human-made mutants, genetically engineered over thousands of years for traits that would make our entertainment also serve as dinner.

Any creature with a strong territorial instinct can be exploited into fighting for our species’ amusement. Other birds have been bred or had these instincts exploited in s similar manner. The Romans raised fighting quails and in 2009 a particularly rare underground ring of fighting song-birds was broken up in Connecticut. However, the explosive rise of the domestic chicken worldwide speaks to just how important this particular bird is to the sport, as well as how obsessed our species can get about games and gambling. It cannot be understated just how widespread cockfighting is, even in countries where it is currently illegal. In Europe, its origins lie in a religious institution from ancient Greece. In Athens it was a spiritual practice and a political symbol for improving “the seeds of valor in the minds of their youth” that would only later be “perverted” into a gambling pastime. [The London Encyclopedia, Volume 6 (1829) – page 113] In the Middle East, cockfighting also began as a religious institution, and the earliest artistic depictions of fighting roosters yet uncovered tend to be of Jewish and Christian origin.

Roman mosaic from Pompeii, made around 1 AD.

Roman mosaic from Pompeii, made around 1 AD.

Did the culture surrounding Pokemon battles begin the same way in that fictional universe? Kanto is one of many regions within the Pokemon world, and all of them share the same underlying culture of battling. While cockfighting “became” debased when it became used for gambling and spectacle rather than religious or political symbolism, the residents of the Kanto region still praise the social virtues of Pokemon battles and cling to the symbolism that justifies any violence. Children are expected to go on pilgrimages with their pet monsters, travelling from gym to gym and learning valuable life lessons through watching their creatures battle. The moral backbone of their society is so built around Pokemon symbolism that terrorist groups like Team Rocket, Team Flare and others find subverting or exploiting that symbolism to be the most effective means of attacking society. The original 151 Pokemon have value to humanity beyond battles, from food sources (Farfetch’d), to transportation (Lapras), to even space exploration and research (Porygon), but the primary purpose for domesticating each kind of Pokemon appears to have been battling. Every other use for Pokemon appears to be a by-product of that original desire humankind had to watch Pokemon compete.

Despite its storied history and appearance in cultures across the world, cockfighting is unquestionably a cruel sport. Fighting cocks inflict severe physical trauma on each other during a battle, and this is sometimes exacerbated by equipping them with metal spurs. Today, cockfighting is heavily regulated and illegal in many countries. The wild chicken, or red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) is a shy animal, but can be territorial during mating season. This instinct was intentionally bred to be stronger in gamecocks, bordering on murderous. As noted above, the chickens we are most familiar with today were bred to be delicious mutants producing more meat and eggs, but the gamecock was bred for vitality and aggressiveness rather than physical changes. Gamecocks are bred to not only be more territorial, but to remain aggressive even when injured. This has led to the creation of roosters that will fight to the death, while most wild territorial battles simply end with the loser fleeing. Even female gamecocks (which in the wild do not battle for mates or territory at all) are more aggressive and willing to fight

Male red junglefowl, ancestor of the domestic chicken

Male red junglefowl, wild ancestor of the domestic chicken

To prepare them for combat, the bird’s wattle and comb are sliced off in order to remove potentially inviting targets for opponents to peck. Feathers are trimmed and removed to prevent the bird from overheating during strenuous battle. But these are artificial changes, not the result of breeding or evolution. No new species of chicken was created through centuries of cockfighting. However, as we will see in part 2, there ARE examples of animals whose form has changed because of their relationship to us. Our species’ strange combination of cruelty and empathy towards other species would create a culture in the West that gave rise to distinct breeds of certain species, one shaped by violence and exploitation, the other by affection and luxury. These relationships not only provide context for our own history, but may also indicate some interesting truths about the Pokemon universe.

Join us tomorrow for Pokemon Battles in Context Part 2: Those Of Us About To Faint Salute You!

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Dream of an Acacia Tree HD

acaciacover Devotees of this blog may recall my first Twine game, and second game I ever published, Dream of an Acacia Tree being a fun, creative, absolutely bug-infested hot mess. Well, for those of you who missed out the first time, you’re in luck! Today I am extremely proud to announce the release of Dream of an Acacia Tree HD for Windows, Mac and Linux. iOS and Android ports are coming soon as well!

Experience the majesty, the intrigue, the adventure of being a stationary tree on the African savannah!

Learn to make split-second tactical decisions on how to handle different herbivores, just like a real acacia tree!

Witness the marvels of symbiosis first hand, and then utilize political cunning and technological marvels to BEND THOSE SYMBIOTES TO YOUR WILL! Have tree sex via bee!

This game is full of nonsense and fun surprises, but don’t forget the real, ripped-from-the-savannah science behind all that goofiness. Acacia trees are a fascinating plant that make choices based on their environment. It is hard for us to think of plants using what we would call “intelligence” but the truth is plant behavior is very complex. This isn’t to say plants are “intelligent” or “self aware” as we are, but they are complicated, wonderful things that eat sun and poop oxygen, and that should be enough for anyone.

Dream of an Acacia Tree HD is available at Untitled-3

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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.


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.



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?


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 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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