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It’s Been A While…

Okay, I guess I forgot to blog for half a year. Again.

It’s amazing how much teaching three courses a term plus taking care of two small children during a never-ending lockdown eats into your time to write very long blog posts about the things you’re into. So, I’ll keep this one short, just as a way to kick off what will hopefully be a much less verbose and much sloppier regular blogging practice.

Since I last posted, I have:

• Become enamored with Netrunner yet again, and then fell out of love with it yet again. It’s still a beautiful game, but one that I’m finding myself uncomfortable playing with the current community, so I think my days with it are finally largely over. I still have a paper or two on it I might get out in the next year or so, but otherwise, I think I’m moving on to other interests…

• Continued participating in a weekly “goth club” with strangers over the Shudder Discord, watching countless old and new gothic horror movies, ranging from — The Long Hair of Death to The Voice from the Stone to The Whip and the Body to Tales of Terror to Viy. If you would have told me a year ago that I’d have watched dozens of 1960s, predominantly Italian, horror movies, I’d be pleasantly surprised and proud of myself.

• Started rethinking my teaching accordingly — I’m offering a new version of my comics course in the fall, this time focusing on “Monsters.” Trying something different with it this time — looking at horror and “monsters” as a through-line that has permeated comics history from its earliest days to, well, just this year. I’ve also decided to break off any superheroic content from that course and put it into its own, industry-focused “Superhero Media” course, which I’m also going to teach in the fall. I’m having a lot of fun thinking about these classes and how they’ll evolve — the Superhero class in particular will be my first time teaching something film-adjacent, as well as something that focuses heavily on media industries. Should be fun, I hope!

• I’ve found myself wholly uninterested in teaching about games in the ways I have in the past, and am ramping down my existing games-centric courses, with a few exceptions. While I’m finding I don’t have as much interest in teaching about commercial digital games as I once did, I’ve been having an absolute blast teaching my Interactive Storytelling course this year, and having students creatively engage with these media and stories they’re interested in telling with them. I’ve upped the RPG and “story game” content in that class, and I think to good effect — I’m now flirting with the idea of teaching a course entirely on the rise of non-digital games as a focus for media studies (using the Analog Game Studies journal and Paul Booth’s new Board Games as Media book as central readings). I’m rethinking my games instruction in the next academic year, and hope to have a few new, more exciting courses on the slate.

So, y’know, the usual. Lots about games and media in my life, much of it crossing over into my teaching. I’m fully vaccinated now and have been venturing out into the wilds of town a little more with the kids, but other than that, I’m content to stay in my little hole full of comics, books, Blu-Rays, and board games for a while longer.

The Lurking Fear of 2020

I’ve been in a mood.

I quit social media in late July, during a period of dissatisfaction with the emptiness of conversation I’d been having on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Several months into this pandemic and its resultant social collapse, I found myself escaping into reading for fun for the first time in a long, long time. I was consoled originally by Sherlock Holmes stories — I reread them all in June and July, one per day — and then quickly found that the lurking fear of 2020 was not so easily ignored.

On this reread, I discovered that my new favorite Holmes stories were the cheapest, gaudiest, most lurid, horror-tinged ones. And there actually are a significant handful of these — the Sherlock Holmes Canon includes a story prominently featuring a severed ear! One with a gentleman storing his sister’s corpse in the family crypt! Another with a woman’s face which had been ripped off by a lion! Soon, I found my interests quickly turned into a brief obsession with Victorian penny dreadful literature (rewatching the Penny Dreadful television series, to boot). This morphed out of books and into games, and I pulled Arkham Horror: The Card Game off the shelf — a game I’d bought into significantly several years ago, but had never really played much of. I’ve played it a few times and really enjoy it, but I suspect that this and other Lovecraftian games beckon a longer, separate post down the road.

Anyway, my evolving summer reading as well as the devolving state of American democracy dovetailed nicely with the new TV series Lovecraft Country, which premiered on HBO a few weeks back. We watched the first few episodes, and I have since started falling down an ever-deeper series of figurative shoggoth-holes. I’d heard of this book a few years ago — the name of the novel by Matt Ruff was familiar, but I hadn’t read it (I have now read about 90% of it). I saw that Jordan Peele was associated with the series (as a producer), but otherwise didn’t know anything before watching. I anticipated a mixture of clever Lovecraftian criticism in the storyline, a lot of depiction of 1950s-era racism, and perhaps a few tentacles here and there.

First, if you haven’t seen the series, you probably should. Here’s the first episode in its entirety on YouTube:

I thought the premiere was very good! I have a ton of little quibbles with it, but overall its heart is in the right place, and it provides a Black-led cast and Black-centric framing of Lovecraftian horror that gave a novel and important spin to the old racist’s bleak world. It’s both a resounding middle finger to Lovecraft as well as a reclamation of his vision. The second episode was, to me, an enormous step down from the first episode (largely due to the directorial and acting choices more than the screenplay, which was largely faithful to the novel), but let’s focus on the positive for now.

That first episode opens up with the ostensible protagonist, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Turner in the novel), waking up from a dream that is like a 1950s sci-fi nerd’s dream: Jackie Robinson slicing a Cthulhu in half with his baseball bat, Dejah Thoris dropping down from a George Pal War of the Worlds-style flying saucer. All mixed up with memories that seem very much like his experiences in the Korean War. Very little of this was “Lovecraftian,” of course, but damn if it didn’t do a good job of setting up the weird joy of mid-century pulpy science fiction and horror, and bring in Lovecraft with the period in which Arkham House and Lovecraft’s devotees were starting to bring his work into the public consciousness.

The rest of the episode does a great and clever job of connecting the real horror of sundown towns/counties with the old horror trope of getting to safety before the sun falls. The end of the episode takes a number of liberties with the Lovecraftian inspiration for the series (and a few welcome ones with Ruff’s novel, reframing a story-within-the-story as part of the main narrative), but it showed a lot of promise for the core ideas of the series. As I mentioned above, I’m almost done with the novel, and it’s pretty scattershot, but has a few moments of brilliance (the Hippolyta-centric chapter, the Ruby-centric chapter) that I am very excited to see on the screen, even if some of the reviews seem to indicate that the premiere episode was the best of the ones provided for review.

I also enjoyed the Lovecraft Country Radio podcast — at least episode 1, I haven’t listened to episode 2 yet. Hosted by two women of color (Ashley Ford and Shannon Houston, the latter who is one of the writers for the series), they did a nice job of breaking down how the show is reinterpreting horror for this narrative world. Here’s the first episode:

But yeah, I like it even though the show’s not perfect (the opening musical choices of episode 2 made me cringe hard; some of the casting choices in episode 2 didn’t work for me; the end of episode 2 diverged from the book significantly, and in ways I think will be to the detriment of the series). That said, I am happy to see Lovecraft back in the world of pulpy media as well as with a new spin.

But, beyond this series, the resurgence in Lovecraftian horror has been noticed by a few. Meagan Navarro wrote a brief, but interesting little piece on Bloody Disgusting a few months back called “The Elder Gods Are Coming: The Resurgence of Lovecraftian Horror” that’s worth a look. From the films Underwater and the Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space to the third season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Navarro connects these to existential fears drawn from the uncertainty of, well, everything these days. From the never-ending pandemic to the evolving police state to the growing specter of climate change, there’s never been a better time for humans to feel powerless and insignificant in the face of a world out of their control.

And maybe that’s what’s going on, and perhaps that’s what’s motivating my slide from reading the “rational Victorian” at the beginning of the pandemic down to the depths of feeling like an ant in a cosmos built for Old Gods. Obviously, Lovecraft Country went into production well before the world fell into its current state, and has done a pretty good job of connecting this sense of dread and creeping terror with being Black in the 1950s (and beyond). But, I think I’ve found myself increasingly seeking out more stories that try their best to shatter any remaining simplistic views of the pre-2020 world.

That is to say, I’m a white reader of Lovecraft who has typically only viewed Lovecraft’s racism as a significant but not fatal speedbump in my appreciation of his nihilistic world. I say that without a lot of remorse, really, just as a way of acknowledging that my whiteness has, of course, given Howard Phillips Lovecraft a pass, when many could not do that. And so Lovecraft Country — both the novel and the series — have been flawed but intriguing things, pushing me to think more seriously about the impact of a nihilistic worldview created by an inveterate racist. Perhaps I should have before now, but I’m glad I am, finally.

So, up next for me to read is Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which is apparently a reimagining (at least in part) of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” focusing on Black protagonists.

I haven’t read any of his other books, but LaValle wrote the introduction to the second of Leslie Klinger’s (mostly excellent) second volume of The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, and, in it, made a compelling argument for how we should dig back into these stories and come to terms with their racist underpinnings. His love of cosmic horror comes through clearly in this introduction, as well as in interviews he’s given about this novel.

I’m looking forward to diving into it further, while also looking forward to seeing how much more these works get reinterpreted, as they are largely in the public domain. I’ll complain talk more about this in my subsequent gaming post, but I look forward to seeing more folks take a look at Lovecraft and try to make sense of it for our current era, while eschewing the nauseating world that has, to date, made Lovecraft a corny joke: One of plushie Cthulhus and cartoons.

There’s nothing charming about Lovecraft (the man or his work), and there’s very little to laugh about in 2020 in general. I’m diving deeper into the bleakness, and maybe if you read this, you might too?

Wait For Me

In self-quarantine, I’ve been finding myself trying to catch up on the world of story games/freeform/larps/ttrpgs whatever-people-call-these-games-nowadays. I’ve felt a real need to experience games with created stories that push players toward emotional resonance again — partially because I’ve been teaching an Interactive Storytelling course the last few years and some of the games I use in that are getting long in the tooth, but also because there’s something therapeutic about fiction, writing, and reflection during these kinds of global collapse moments.

So, I Kickstarted Jeeyon Shim and Kevin Kulp’s game Wait For Me, which looked right up my alley. It’s single-player! There’s journaling/writing! Ooh, time travel! It sounded fun and interesting, and I’m now through 5 of the 21 (or 22) days of this experience, and want to reflect a little bit on what it does well, how it’s disappointed in a few ways, and maybe muse a bit on what I think I’m searching for.

Here’s the gist — you’re playing as yourself, unstuck in time for reasons that haven’t been made clear yet and might never be made apparent. You journal your way through this experience, taking a writing prompt for each one of 21 successive days (with a 22nd as an epilogue), and have to address the prompt in a few (as short as 10 as many as 80 so far) words as the prompt gives you. I took an old, empty, faux-Moleskine notebook I picked up for free at a GDC booth about a decade ago and rededicated it to the game.

In the game, you’re writing every day in successive journal entries. You’re emailed a prompt every night around midnight, and then that day you should sit down, consider the prompt and… write. The prompts are ostensibly task-driven: About being unstuck in time, leaving yourself messages. But they’re really about you (the player) revisiting significant moments in your life, focusing on feelings and experiences presumably common to most people playing it (a happy childhood memory, the sad feeling of seeing a grandparent one last time, the fear of living in your first real apartment as an adult). And, you are regularly asked to tell your past self something. Usually this takes the form of advice, but sometimes it’s about taping in ephemera — a grocery receipt, a picture, doodling something significant about the place you’re in. Here’s me and my (disturbingly blurred) daughter, which I taped in for the grandparent prompt.

And one of the most interesting elements of it is that every day has an “optional” prompt wherein you are often asked to explore the fiction of your past self reading the notes and advice you’ve left for yourself through the game. I haven’t really warmed to this yet, perhaps due to the often-painful spots this game has inadvertently prodded me toward writing about, but also because after five days it’s just… confusing. Which version of myself remembers what? Why am I trying to intervene in my own past? Why am I unstuck in time at all? What’s the point of doing this beyond having an excuse to “do journaling,” an activity that I normally wouldn’t do? I’ve spent five days going along with it, but I feel like I’ve missed something important along the way, or the designers assumed a lot of their players.

I’ve never played a solo journaling game like this before, and I do love the concept. The idea that one uses these prompts to skip around in their own life and reflect on the choices they’ve made is a nice approach to making a therapeutic game, and one that for people who journal, might give them additional impetus to turn their journal into something meaningful for them. I’ve also never been a journaler or a diarist — something the game also seems set up to ignore, repeatedly suggesting that my past self had a diary, which I very rarely ever had.

I’m also interested in the ways that the game wants me to mark the journal with clippings and pictures, another thing that is great in theory but perhaps less useful in practice. I’ve been at home for six months, only ever leaving the house to get groceries! I have very little ephemera that I can paste in here — I had to dig out part of a medical bill from last month to satisfy the first prompt’s need for me to paste something in, and then I had to find that recent picture on my phone, print it out, cut it to size, and then paste that into the journal for the next one. These don’t feel like natural parts of journaling to me — but what do I know about journaling?

So far, the game’s dissonances make feel like it is:

  • Built for the “before times” when we might have had lives outside of our homes, picked up ephemera, took pictures outside, did anything other than be inside the house 24/7.
  • Aimed at someone much younger than me, without the same life commitments I currently have. It feels like a game designed for a young woman, perhaps, both in how it presupposes the diary/journal format as an activity someone has already experienced as well as the kinds of points in one’s life that you’re asked to reflect on (not to mention the inspirational messages you’re asked to communicate to your past self, which I find awkward).
  • Designed more for what it’s intended to make you feel rather than how it’s intended to make you feel it. The prompts seem blunt and directly about getting you to write about your emotions; there’s nothing subtle (yet) pushing you to consider yourself in a new light, no mechanics whatsoever other than just answering the prompt (and, if you wish, the optional prompt). I want to feel like the game is alive and doing something; instead, it feels like it’s just a cold, daily prompt.

This may sound odd, but the game is making me feel like an old man — which is, of course, what I am. But I expect there hasn’t been much thought put toward how the game might play with different audiences. Or perhaps the game is telling me it’s “not for people like you” (older folks, people who didn’t have diaries as children, people who aren’t used to writing reflective, inspirational stuff to themselves, etc). I dunno? I hope it’s not that, but I’m not certain that’s the case.

But, hold up, I do like Wait For Me, at least in theory if not practice, and I am going to keep playing for the time being. I want to reflect on one more reason why just a little bit more.

First, when I signed up for this, I was under the impression that it was, well, a game. And it’s clearly not a game in any sense other than the loosest definitions of “game” — at least not yet. Of course, “iS iT rEaLlY a GaMe?!” is the most beaten dead horse of dead horses out there, but it does seems relevant here. Even in freeform or the loosest of larps, I expect to have some kind of choice to make to propel the fiction or potentially propel the fiction. There’s nothing like that here yet, giving me no stakes for continuing to write in this little journal.

My expectations for a story game/freeform thing/whatever this is necessitate that there be (even small, meager!) decisions made by the player. And while I guess I get to decide which memory to journal about, that feels much less like I’m choosing something that interacts with game’s systems and more like I’m just writing atop the game. The game doesn’t care what I’m writing about — I could be making up anything I wanted to, crafting whatever fiction I find entertaining, lying about my past, whatever, and it has no consequence on what the next decisions I make are. That’s a little annoying; perhaps reflective of me and my positionality with games, but I expect there to be some kind of effect for what I am doing here on the fictive world of the game besides just “reflection.” (Otherwise, why not just call this a “journal” rather than a “journaling game”?)

Take, for example, one of the prompts, this one from Day 4. You’ve hopped for the third time, this time into a “place you love more than any other.” No specifics provided, very open-ended — they suggest that it can be “an arena, a lake, a room, a forest,” describing it in emotive terms as something that’s for you, a “happy place” per se. They go on and say that:

[Y]ou go to a secret place that only you might think of. This is a hidey-hole where you could leave paper or items without anyone else finding them. There’s a short note already here in your own adult hand, written by a slightly later version of yourself and still untethered in time. Clearly, you’ll be back to leave yourself this.

The note is simple, and kind, and welcomes you back to this place. Copy this note into your journal so you’ll remember what you’re going to say in a future prompt. You have exactly 20 words to welcome yourself here. If you wish, leave yourself a doodle or sketch that you think will make you happy.

When you have copied down the 20th word of the welcome note, close your eyes and breathe out, knowing that you can return. When you open your eyes you are pulled away to —

And that’s the prompt, ending abruptly as you jump to another time period. It’s cleverly written, putting you in a space that’s uniquely yours. Everyone will have something different to write about, and everyone will, presumably, have a nice moment of reflection on a period in their lives in which they were happy. That’s nice! Mine was, by the way, the living room of my apartment during a snowstorm in winter 2006/2007, when I had to curl up under a blanket by the room’s only source of heat — an old radiator.

(Please forgive my bad radiator drawing skills).

But, there’s no connection between this and anything else I’d done before — leaving a note for myself as a child, visiting a grandparent. It’s just skipping around through moments in one’s life, and there’s no fictive oomph to doing this. I’m just, well, being asked to reflect on my life. And, given that I’m writing about something as vague as my “happy place,” I have zero confidence that it will be referenced or connected back in any way in the future. There’s just too much range for this writing prompt — you can write whatever you want, and I doubt that a future prompt can meaningfully reference “happy places” that range from “sitting next to a radiator in a snowstorm” to “watching Judas Priest at a crowded sports arena” to “a bungee jumping spot on a bridge” to “drinking tea on the veranda with my grandmother” and ever have it make sense. Again, I wonder why I’m writing what I’m writing.

Anyway, I like reflection just fine, I just expected a little bit of fictional distance between what I’d be writing about here and me. It’s useful to get a sense of what journaling is like, I suppose, but during a self-quarantine with the world burning around us, I’m not sure I really needed a game that makes me look at me without at least the thin veil of a character or some kind of mechanics to explore. I’m introspecting just fine, and thinking about the past enough. I have never have much interest in just journaling, I backed this project because I was interested in building some kind of story, and I really do hope it gets there eventually. Fiction has its therapeutic uses, and I wish this game had built off of that rather than pushing you to write inspirational quotes.

The big issue, however, is that Wait For Me feels, at this moment, like it’s a therapeutic exercise couched in the terminology of games without much consideration of my desires or experiences. As such, it feels oddly cold for something that is supposed to be a transformative, reflective experience. Sure, I’m writing about periods in my life that I might not necessarily be interested in writing about (that’s fine and appreciated, that comes with the journaling territory), but when I have no choices about what I do with them, I’m left feeling like all this writing is for naught. I’m not building anything, crafting anything story-wise; my writing doesn’t impact anything I do later (at least not yet). I’m navel-gazing, and not constructing anything other than a set of (so far) disconnected memories. The prompts are mechanisms to get the designers to make me do something, but I have yet to find much here that makes it feel like they cared about what I would want to do with it.

I’m hopeful that it will turn around, and if it does, I’ll be sure to post again, discussing how it changed. Regardless, I’ll keep going for a while at least. And while others may be satisfied with Wait For Me as it stands (and good for them if that’s the case!), maybe I’m just yearning for something that’s more about building a character. This past week, I started my first Blades in the Dark campaign — a game that’s mechanically about as far away from Wait For Me as one can be — and maybe that will scratch my story-building itch, while I just keep writing for Wait For Me as a reflective journaling exercise. As I suspect that is what it’s intended to be.

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