A Winding Path of Angels, Glitches, and Binary Parallels: Gaming Pixie’s Raziel

Sometimes a series of lines curve and become a circle. Then that same line curves outward and makes the circle into a spiral. And then the line, that particular line, continues around the spiral and creates the second level of the spiral, emulates three dimensions, and breaks down into its essential numerical binary parts.

So after you imagine Gaming Pixie’s circle of Twine games leading to another string of personal dimensions, think of the second layer of her spiral of game making as a circle of glowing ones and zeroes in the form of Raziel.

Raziel Title Screen

For me the main challenge in writing about Raziel is that much of it is already documented by Gaming Pixie herself on her Games site. In a series of relatively short entries you will find that she began Raziel as a Twine for a Cyberpunk Game Jam: the premise of which expanding over time to include a few more details and various changes in mechanics as it became a short 16-bit game made on RPG Maker.

To be honest, even though I’d played the Twine game some time ago, and I was following the developer posts on Gaming Pixie’s Blog, I actually didn’t know what to expect from Raziel.

I’ll tell you what I did find though. Imagine a combination of The Matrix with its artificial intelligences and hacker themes, Inception with its levels of intersecting reality and memory, Christine Love’s *AI games with their background of gender, sexuality, and treatment of AI as individual entities, and Kan Gao’s To the Moon with its heartfelt use of virtual capsules and subversion of a single instance of combat. Raziel is reminiscent of these films and games, but it is more.

Raziel Intro

On the surface, Raziel is a cyberpunk game about a hacker named Glitch who seeks to kill a fallen angel: someone who must leave the Real World and enter the virtual Otherworld in order to fulfill this task.

The Real World itself in the game is a grey and closed off space: with very few places to go or see. As per some cyberpunk settings, it is almost a closed linear circuit of grim reality: to the point where the extra rooms and levels in the protagonist’s apartment building and the virtual chambers in the material version of Raziel’s Tower are almost superfluous. It’s specifically designed to be a world where you don’t want to spend much time.

Raziel Apartment

Basically you are navigating a cyberpunk world that interfaces from the Real World into Otherworld and, eventually, a series of inaccessible and non-human user junk code in the form of Etherworld. Otherworld and Etherworld, one decked in bright neon colours and the latter in light-screen fragments and binary are circular worlds: the former possessing few barriers and the latter possessing random ones.

Getting into and out of Otherworld, which is essentially an over-world map to other places is easy, but traveling into and interacting with, and getting out of, Etherworld is much more difficult: a series of different levels that — appropriately — intermix an over-world map layout with specific levels depending on what you access.

But this is where our overview ends: because if we journey any further into Otherworld’s circle of eternity, or Etherworld’s realm of code we are inevitably going to find a class of virtual sprite known as Spoilers.

So now that we are here, past the point of safety, I am going to give you the same choice that Gaming Pixie gives all of her players.

If you don’t want to use the Augment, read no further unless you’d like to hack further and remote-view said spoilers. However, if you’ve agreed to take the Augment then prepare yourself for exploration.

The warning above is somewhat misleading, when all things are considered. The option to use Augments, illegal and dangerous cybernetic enhancements that were both more prevalent and allowed you to access Otherworld in the Twine, exist only in the RPG as a plot device: something that gains you, through the character of Glitch, the initial notice of Raziel himself. The rest of what happens after that is entirely up to you. The game has an edgy attitude like that.

Raziel Twine

As such, there are quite a few differences between the Twine and RPG versions of Raziel. While the Twine has only the Real World and Otherworld, Gaming Pixie added Etherworld to the RPG: a place where the users’ intentions from reality intermix with junk data. In addition, only AI can generally access Etherworld. The best way to look at Etherworld is to imagine looking at the real workings of a living body dissected right in front of you, except you’re interacting with its subconscious mind that’s also laid bare. It is disturbing and it is meant to be.

Whereas in the Twine Augments were the only way you could “unofficially” access Otherworld, in the Raziel RPG Augments are used to heighten sensations in Otherworld: bringing you into a state of Null Space that we never see in the game but which we see quite a few references. People can go mad or die from using either “bad” or, again, illegal Augments. Also, if you look carefully enough you’ll realize just how important Augments have been in Glitch’s decision making. I wish you happy hunting on the latter, by the way, as I totally missed it on my first playthrough.

There are also no AI in the Twine version of this game. In order to create an RPG, Gaming Pixie had to expand on the world she first created but it pays off. First of all, you don’t always know who the AI are. It’s true that there are AI that serve one rudimentary purpose — similar to the Virtual Intelligences of Mass Effect — but there are others who are friendly, standoffish, and even creative in their own rights. Second of all, even the former type of AI is important to the game: in the form of Gates. Gates also don’t exist in the Twine predecessor of this game: essentially they are messengers or avatars of the fallen angel Raziel that actually allow you to access Etherworld as a human user.

Raziel Gates

But activating these living Gate AIs is not as easy as merely identifying and approaching them. What you really need to do is get hints from your handler, a woman named Maven — about specific interactions that you need to undertake, find where those are situated, and then find the Gates and access them. You will find that Raziel is subversive in that it uses the mode of the 16-bit RPG to explore: accessing an environment that is literally composed of navigating built-in puzzles specifically in the form of interactions with other characters. Everything is connected in Raziel. That is the point.

Even though Gaming Pixie helpfully provides you with a Database of beautifully pixelated sprite profiles and useful information that you gather as you interact with the world it is only through your interactions with the cybernetic aspects of this virtual reality — the humanoid elements in the electronics — that you even get this information, or feel any investment with it beyond your character’s own enigmatic self-interest.

Raziel Hub

Just like in the Twine version of Raziel, it is your mission as Glitch to destroy Otherworld by killing its living CPU the angel Raziel: and there are implications in doing so. Whereas in the Twine game destroying Otherworld potentially frees human users from the stasis of their own ennui, in ignoring the real world and beginning to get them to face the painful but inevitable task of making their offline lives better, there is a lot more at stake in the RPG. It’s true that many people come to Otherworld for escapism, but there are other programs that exist there as well.

For example, there is Esme: a snow princess who was created to be the friend of a girl who later committed suicide and who now exists to remember her and help other girls. There is an elderly couple that were programmed to function as foster parents: as the only loving guardians a young girl has ever had. And then you have Persephone: an AI who has exceeded her programming, changing her original name of Penelope, and creating artistic programs in her own right. If you destroy Otherworld, you will not only rob some of the human users of their friends and family, but you will basically murder other self-aware beings in the process.

Raziel Etherworld

But even then, it’s not as easy as merely stopping. There is Raziel himself to consider. The reason you have to kill Raziel doesn’t change from the Twine to the RPG. Raziel was a human being connected to the Otherworld for over fifty years. His physical form has been hanging between life and death, leaving him in constant agony, as his mind has been used to create and maintain the reality of Otherworld. Essentially, he is the one who gives you the mission to kill him: to end his pain. While you have to directly find him yourself in the Twine, his contact and friend Maven is the one who recruits you, after he finds you in another form, to undertake this act of mercy.

That’s right. The final boss of the game wants you to kill him and even helps you to do so after an awe-inspiring cut scene and a particularly vicious battle.  There are no other random battles in Raziel. The other encounters you have are by necessity those that you don’t confront in Etherworld. There is no grinding, or leveling up your character. There is one boss battle: and it is the most difficult challenge you will have in this game, morally and physically.

If you kill Raziel, the Angel of Mysteries in Judeo-Christian theology, you will end his pain but you will destroy Otherworld and every AI in it: robbing its human users of their one joy and connection in contrast to a dull and colourless existence in the Real World. But if you let him live, he will inevitably go insane, crash Otherworld, and take everyone down with him. It’s much like the illusion of alternate paths in Gaming Pixie’s games What’s In a Name? or, fittingly enough, The Choice. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like much of a choice at all, does it?

That is something else both the Twine and RPG versions of this game have in common. In fact, should you choose the “wrong” options, the game will shut itself down much in the way Toby Fox’s Undertale will do when you also choose wrong, or lose.

But here is the interesting part: in contrast to the idea of the illusion of free will, in Raziel it is actually about a lack of choice being the illusionEven if your choices seem limited, they still exist and if you think about the greater good, you will make the right one. Yet while the Raziel Twine leads to the game “crashing” no matter what you do, choosing the option of the lesser evil, the RPG is more nuanced. The battle with Raziel is inevitable, but how you choose to fight Raziel depends on how you much you explore beforehand, and how much you pay attention.

swfm paths

You can see the influence of Gaming Pixie’s She Who Fights Monsters on the ultimate outcome of the RPG. At the end of Monsters you — as the protagonist of Jenny — encounter a screen where you have to choose between three boxes: love, hate, and indifference. Some of those options will be opened or closed to you depending what karmic choices you undertook in that game: and specifically whether or not you accessed the places where the game’s Memory Crystals are found.

temple-final

However, in the Raziel RPG it is different. In the cavern that represents Raziel’s virtual prison, there are four other rooms guarded by the Gates with which you’ve interacted to get this far. In it are four coloured Flames that represent different aspects of Raziel’s power and suffering: pain as defense, anger as attack, sadness as magic, and regret as evasion. Whereas accessing Monsters’ boxes or Crystals determines Jenny’s developing personality and future, encountering and defusing the Flames actually de-buffs Raziel’s stats: keeping you from getting curb-stomped in your battle with him.

Trust me: you know that box that comes up before you go into Raziel’s main prison cell asking you if you want to go further and if there is anything else you want to do? For the love of God, listen to that message for what it is: a warning. According to Gaming Pixie, this box wasn’t originally there — she had to add it so that the encounter wouldn’t be completely impossible — and once you go into that cell you will save and not be able to get out again. You will die: many, many times against the power of Raziel.

Yet why is it that despite Raziel’s aid, his manipulations, and his request for death that he fights you with every fiber of his being? Why doesn’t he just give up and let you kill him? Are there safeguards in place that automate him to protect himself? Or is it more than that?

Raziel Existence

I am going to reveal to you Raziel’s and ultimately the RPG Raziel‘s ultimate secret. The truth is that Raziel doesn’t really want to die. The Otherworld built from Raziel is wondrous, but there has always been something missing from it: some component that the best scientists and technicians could never replicate. Glitch has felt this and other users have no doubt done the same: perhaps even influencing their need to leave the banality of the Real World and use questionable Augments and experience Null Space while they are there. But that’s just it: it is merely existence. And existence does not necessarily equal essence. Existence is not life.

It’s Raziel’s sense of self-preservation that makes him fight you. It’s your sense of wanting to live that makes you, as Glitch, want to fight back and finish the deed. It is that moment on the edge of death, of contemplating oblivion, that the will to live is arguably the strongest impulse any living being can ever possess. And this is where the two Raziel games diverge with extreme prejudice: the Twine game being a grim lesson in the lesser of two evils and the RPG — Raziel itself — becoming a story about connecting with others, learning to feel the needs of others above your own, helping them shed the pain of their old and cumbersome attachments, and allowing things to be renewed: allowing the angel to be reborn.

It is a redemptive ending as Raziel leaves his physical body behind and becomes a powerful AI that flushes the will to live throughout the entire system of Otherworld. It’s as though Raziel played Gaming Pixie’s The Choice himself — a game about suicide — and realized the most positive and powerful choice is to live. But it is not just Raziel who makes this decision.

If you consult Gaming Pixie’s Blog entries on Raziel, you’ll realize that she wanted to incorporate the karmic system that is popular in her Eden, Shadow of a Soul, and She Who Fights Monsters games as well as many other independent ones of late, but she decided against it and took another approach. While Raziel is about the angelic CPU of Otherworld, it is also about Glitch.

Raziel Glitch Menu

Glitch becomes more than an optional name in a Twine game. In another loop between her video game creations, Gaming Pixie takes you out of the second-persona of “you,” and places you behind Glitch’s first-person “I” perspective. Glitch follows your commands: within reason. This game persona mechanic is reminiscent of Christine Love’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. The hacker is caustic, sarcastic, and sometimes outright impatient. You might want to explore, and Glitch will indulge you until you intrude on someone else’s personal space, go against their wishes, or you waste Glitch’s time. In this sense, Glitch is the narrative of the game. Even Etherworld and one ending of the game where it crashes is a reference to Glitch’s actual name and what it means in a system like a video game.

Raziel Glitch

Yet Glitch is more than this. It’s strange. In Gaming Pixie’s other games, your gender is neutral, default female, or you have a choice between three genders of “him,” “her,” and “they.” In Raziel, however, you only get two genders to choose from. This is a controversial move in a lot of ways: especially when you consider that depending on whether Glitch is male or female, this protagonist will interact with other characters in different ways. Even so, his or her personality is generally the same and is more than just a blank slate silent or unnamed protagonist. And if you look closely, very closely, and double-check all information about Augments in the game you might also find just what might be the motivation behind Glitch wanting to destroy Otherworld.

There is, however, one other element that definitely shines through. Whether you choose to be male or female, Glitch is always going to be a Black bisexual person. Bisexuality is a core theme in many of Gaming Pixie’s games as a legitimate sexual orientation and identity: just as it is for her main characters to generally have a default Black identity. The way this is introduced is just as a given. Everything else in Raziel is utterly fantastic, whereas diversity, bisexuality and indeed the LGBTQIA spectrum is seen as commonplace: especially in a virtual world where you can appear as you want to be.

Raziel Dance

Even so, it is intriguing how when Glitch is female you get a little more clue as to her mental state as she develops a relationship with Maven, who is a lesbian, whereas the information about Glitch’s past is hinted upon differently when he is male and he tells a gay and newly incarnated Raziel — who becomes his lover — that it has been a while since he has been with a man. But either way, Glitch has his or her own exposure to that life affirming moment where they realize they want to live: and actually move on with a real life past their former self-destructive Augments by the game’s end.

Writing about Raziel is hard. It feels like every time I thought I was making progress, I encountered one of the angel’s Gates, or I had to search for a node to access in a confusing realm of junk data and ideas threatening to diverge from the point, or that each time I was missing the prison chambers that could lessen the stats on my sense of intimidation in writing about the game. Certainly, I began to wish that I could take an Augment just to make sense of it all: just to organize these experiences. But Raziel is about binaries. It’s about the differences and similarities between the Real World and Otherworld, male and female, human and AI, hope and despair, Gaming Pixie’s other games and Raziel, and even the Twine and the RPG version of Raziel.

Essentially, I’ve had to make an Etherworld out of Gaming Pixie’s game: exposing some of its bones and shapes, while giving you hints about its codes and interactions. It’s like weaving behind a curtain while simultaneously painting the scene of the stage. But it’s more than that. If I’m going to refer to Gaming Pixie’s Etherworld, I should mention that it is the heart of Raziel. It is its soul and its very being: and it says something powerful about the human condition.

Raziel Heart

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I had no idea what to make of Raziel but I can safely say that through this short game built from her Twine, Gaming Pixie has more than exceeded my expectations. Her particular voice shines through both her pixels and her text with the strength of empathy. In fact, if there is one flaw in what she’s built it’s that she’d built an entire world that deserves more than just one interactive story.

You can find Raziel, for free, at Gaming Pixie’s Games and I couldn’t recommend it more.

This Year In Passing: Hell, Everland, And Fascinating Beginnings

I said I was going to make another post in December, but I have to say that this is kind of cutting it close. A lot of people are making New Year recaps on their social media statuses and Blogs and I’m probably going to be no different to this regard.

It’s just … hard to remember everything I accomplished this year. In some ways, 2014 was a short year for me in which a microcosm of things happened. I suspect that I may have been stuck in a time dilation field that stretched out or contracted at a whim. So what I’m going to do is reach into my mind and pull out the things that stand out at me the most.

I got my first story published in print in Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell shared universe. I have also written for GeekPr0n for over a year and got to interview people such as David Hayter, Larry Wilson, and Will Brooker. I also got to write reviews for Volume One of My So-Called Secret Identity, She Makes Comics, and a whole slew of Toronto After Dark films. Anthony Martignetti has quoted me in the endorsement section of his writer’s Blog. I got to attend the Toronto part of Amanda Palmer’s Book Circus and I got to meet her. I also got to meet Kelly Sue DeConnick and begin reading her comics work: of which I love Pretty Deadly.

In addition, I made the acquaintance of Jovanka Vuckovic — whose advice and encourage has helped me a lot in my endeavours — and I think you may be seeing me dealing in some more horror writing fairly soon.

My friend John Chui dragged me out to Fan Expo and I got to see him and my friend Angela O’Hara again midst all the geekery. I also got to travel a bit.

And I met someone awesome who challenges, levels with, and has become special to me. I just want to say that I love you Gaming Pixie and to everyone else who was here along the way.

I won’t say that I’ve accomplished everything that I set out to do and that there won’t be other frustrations and challenges along the way. But there are and there will be. But tonight, right now, I prefer not to focus on those. They will have their time. Instead, I’d like to do three things.

First, I want you to take a look at the Critters Writers Workshop and vote for Poets in Hell on the Anthology page. And if you have more time, please vote for one of the three stories in the Science Fiction and Fantasy short stories section: Chris Morris’ “Words,” Joe Bonadonna’s “We The Furious,” and Janet and Chris Morris’ “Seven Against Hell.” All three of these stories exist in Poets in Hell — the volume of which my writing is a part — and this could help us considerably. Remember, if you do vote, please confirm your vote in your email. And check out Poets in Hell as well if you haven’t. It’s diabolically good.

Secondly, there is Cody Walker’s Everland Kickstarter. Imagine a darker version of Peter Pan and Neverland: where Peter realizes that he is essentially a god and things get, shall we say, twisted. It looks very promising and I highly suggest that you check it out.

And now, finally, I want to wish you — all of you — an excellent 2015. May it truly be a eucatastrophe.

Looking Outward

After Hell, Other Dragons, Other People: Gaming Pixie’s She Who Fights Monsters

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

When last we left off in my article Life and Identity, Eden and Hell: The Twines of a Gaming Pixie, said Pixie left us in a second-person perspective hell of “You”: having left her penchant for placing us in the autobiographical of her Twine shoes and moving on to other worlds entirely.

But some things always come full-circle before revolving outward into a spiral.

swfm-title-final

Gaming Pixie writes a little bit about the origins behind why she made She Who Fights Monsters, this interactive combination of autobiography and fiction, far better than I ever could. If you want more information about that, read the previous link or look at her other posts on the subject on her developer’s Blog Gaming Pixie Games. This is not what I’m going to be focusing on.

Instead, I’m going to write about my impressions the basic plot and structure of the game, examine a bit of its creative evolution, and focus a bit on some of the game’s implications: especially with regards to its premise, its protagonist, and its ending. I will admit, right now, that I had a lot of trouble initially coming up with a way to write about She Who Fights Monsters. But it was Gaming Pixie herself who told me, when we last talked about the matter, to write about my own reactions to the game. There is something ironic about talking about the personal — about my feelings with regards to interacting with this game and its subject matter — in lieu of scrutinizing the autobiographical.

But in any case, do not read on if you don’t want to be exposed to potential triggers or spoilers. Reader’s discretion is advised.

It is no accident that this article begins with the above aphorism from Friedrich Nietzsche though, when the Alpha Demo for the game first came out, I had no idea this would even play a part in it. The Demo itself was called Fighting the Monster: which took place on Day One of the game’s chronology.

The story premise presented in this Demo translated over to the Beta Demo — called She Who Fights Monsters — and the subsequent game of the same name. You, the player, control the sprite of Jenny: an eight year girl who must survive the presence of a monster in her home for no less than seven days.

Of course, it becomes clear that Jenny’s battle is not merely with one monster.

This distinction is all the difference between two ideas embodied by the Alpha and Beta Demos. I will admit, right now, that I thought it would have been easier for Gaming Pixie to remain with, and work from, the spirit and aesthetics of Fighting the Monster. But make no mistake: both of them came from the same idea.

Let me try to articulate this as best I can. The overt antagonist, the monster, in She Who Fights Monsters is Jenny’s alcoholic father. Fighting the Monster, the Alpha Demo, was simpler. It was crude and more elemental for it. For me, it felt a lot more like a generic RPG: especially when you look at Jenny’s room and the imaginary haven inside her closet. But there was an old, faded texture to even these safe childhood places: like that of an old memory. The darker places, however, were dingier. Grittier. It set the tone of a stereotypical, old and dilapidated home where dysfunction and abuse are almost always typically depicted. And even here, it still felt like the aesthetic shell of an old 16-bit role-playing game.

screenshot04

And the monster is clearly Jenny’s father. If you judge the context by the Demo alone, he is the threat that Jenny must avoid. He breaks through all of her childhood illusions of magic, fairness, and innocence through cursing at her. Her Tears and her Innocence do not save her in the simulated turn-based RPG battle. In this one Demo alone, her father’s words feel like a slap in the face but the atmosphere of this world has been building to it. Even so, with Jenny’s mother’s revelation at the end of the Demo, that her father is an alcoholic, it sets a straightforward tone for the game and makes the Demo itself feel self-contained and continuous.

But Gaming Pixie never meant her game to be straightforward. So in the process of changing the game’s name, she also developed its aesthetics in the She Who Fights Monsters Beta Demo that would inform the rest of her game. And I will admit: it felt jarring at first.

screenshot02

Gone are the dinginess and grit and the fading of peeling memory on the walls. You find yourself with Jenny in a much more colourful and vibrant world. Her toys are brighter. The details around her stand out and the temple that is her imaginary place in her closet is grander and more elegant. Even her home looks more comforting: as much as any middle class home made by 16-bit pixels. Everything, even the nightmares, is vital and alive with colour: as much as any child’s world is at that age.

swfm-room-final

I feel it was designed this way: to make the player feel safe before immediately and brutally introducing them to the world of abuse and its effects on Jenny’s highly impressionable and figurative mind. And, this time around, when the trauma of encountering her verbally abusive father passes she finds herself in her room and her mother entering without even a single explanation. It was most likely made to function as an interactive preview in order create more ambiguity: so that the player could gradually, through the rest of the coming six days, see past the daydreams, imagination, and nightmares of a child to the adult reality of an alcoholic parent.

In some ways, it is even worse this way: to depict a normal childhood and have it impinged upon by the violence of an unknown and terrifying adult world, and the understanding that it will change Jenny’s life. It is a real life horror story of an ordinary world shattered by something aberrant and always lurking under a façade of normalcy.

I felt that both Demos were almost dress rehearsals for the psychodrama that was to come. The title itself says a lot: in that there is more than one kind of monster at work, and as such there are consequences for facing them.

So now we come to the real She Who Fights Monsters. The graphics are further improved — with even greater attention to detail — and you can explore Jenny’s entire house. Day One happens pretty much like it did in the Demos: with one interesting exception. Gaming Pixie ends off Day One from the part depicted in the Alpha Demo where Jenny’s mother flat-out tells her about her father’s alcoholism: the part that did not exist in the Beta Demo. And the scene where Jenny goes out to get some cookies becomes a background reminiscent of strange organic Giger-aesthetics of the horror game Yume Nikki or the Earthbound Giygas battle.

swfm-darkworld02

You, as the player, now know what you are facing and you must play through the remaining days. Yet there is one more thing that you need to consider.

The Memory Bloom is a giant flower that you find past the Temple in the closet. It didn’t exist in the Alpha Demo and I almost missed it in the Beta until Gaming Pixie pointed it out in one of her developer’s blog posts. In the Demo the Bloom itself tells you that it will only become important in the main game and, make no mistake, it is crucial. You will get Locked Memories throughout the game and it is critical to interact — or not interact — with this flower. If you do, you will also realize that not all of Jenny’s memories and experiences with her father are bad. In a lot of ways, it makes it even worse: in that these positive moments and traits in an abuser often make a victim feel bad in attributing negative emotions to that person. It makes the situation all the more complicated than simply Fighting the Monster. What you decide to do will determine Jenny’s future.

swfwm Memory

After all, it took Seven Days, in the Christian New Testament, for God to create the world and its inhabitants and She Who Fights Monsters demonstrates that seven days can create an entire human being depending on the choices that you make, and how Jenny responds to the monster in front of her and the ones forming inside of her head.

There is a quote often attributed to the writer G.K. Chesterton which states that “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” However, there is another quote, from the fantasy and horror writer Stephen King that is also equally true, that “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

These are both words to bear in mind as you progress: when on the Seventh Day even the illusion of childhood safety will be ripped away and Jenny will have to start on the path to self-actualization — to adulthood — far sooner than she should. For me, that and my scary and heartbreaking decision to unlock her Final Memory were the hardest parts of this game: to deal with them and to determine what Jenny should do beyond it.

Do you remember when I said that in some ways She Who Fights Monsters is a subversion of a 16-bit RPG? This still holds true even past the Alpha Demo: but in an even more subtle way. I mean, you already understand from Day One that any attempt to fight the game like it is a turn-based battle will end in failure. You already know that not fighting will end in failure. The fact that the game narrative text boxes are in third person-limited perspective, always referring to “Jenny,” “her,” and not “you”: the distance only provides you some illusion of safety.

The perspective is perhaps designed to make you feel that disassociation that a child facing ongoing emotional trauma and abuse would experience: only made more jarring during Jenny’s first-person interludes. These narrative perspectives are very notable departures from Gaming Pixie’s previous Twine-based games: not unlike Christine Love’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story where you are not the character, or even acknowledged as a player. This simply isn’t your story, even if you do influence it.

And when the game does get to the point where it feels like a turn-based RPG battle? Be careful — be very careful — because the thing you need to remember is the end of the first “battle” with Jenny’s father, particularly the words, “Nobody wins.”

The subversion goes deeper when you also consider that there will come a Day where Jenny is hiding in her room and there are clues around. They are extremely clever elements of potential foreshadowing and they are a nice contrast to the beginning of the first Day. For me, the freedom of exploration in Day One — of finding the bathroom, the kitchen, living room, basement, and crawl space —  seemed to set up the beginning of a horror survival game, of knowing all the hiding spots and thinking you have discovered potential secrets only to make it purely about the psychological and the inner world of demons. Aside from the clear mindscape influence of the Silent Hill series, this game is reminiscent of the game Eversion in that sense: only instead of the aesthetics and gameplay changing over time from something brighter into something grimmer, it is a dynamic that goes back and forth between states of atmosphere — always in Jenny’s head, because we are all seeing this from Jenny’s head — until a final decision is made.

When I first heard about the concept behind what would become She Who Fights Monsters, I was reminded of another game based on a child creating an imaginary world to deal with an alcoholic parent called Papo & Yo. Yet aside from the fact that both games have autobiographical elements, child protagonists, and monsters for fathers that hurt them even as they love them there are obvious differences. Papo & Yo takes place in a fantastic equivalent of a favela –a Brazilian slum — and in all realities it is three-dimensional, while despite the aesthetics of its Alpha Demo She Who Fights Monsters takes place in a normal looking middle-class home. Monster, the Papo & Yo protagonist’s enemy is sometimes his companion when he isn’t in a rage, while it is clear that despite some good memories Jenny’s father is never really her friend nor does he help her in her game. While Papo & Yo is more distinctly a puzzle and deadly hide-and-seek game, She Who Fights Monsters is indeed a story that you mostly observe: sometimes very helplessly. And, of course Quico is a young boy and Jenny is a young girl.

You might think that the latter distinctions mean very little and indeed, they are both children placed into situations that no child should ever have to deal with: confronting their parents as enemies. But then there is the elephant in the room to consider. In a segment of her article regarding Gaming Pixie’s epic Twine game Eden, Soha Kareem observes that the former is “an accidentally political game.”

swfm paths

The fact is, Jenny is not only female but she is also “a person of colour.” It can’t be stated enough that, at least to my knowledge, just how rare and unique it is to be playing a game with a young Black girl as its protagonist: in her own story. In a medium that is still struggling to represent different identities in its games, it is definitely something to take note of. However, I am not qualified to talk about “race” or its implications: and how the race and class of Jenny’s family affects her story, if at all, is a matter I will leave to more capable writers than myself. Indeed, this matter seems more “incidental” than “accidental” and Gaming Pixie herself is more focused on the situation and survival of Jenny as opposed to her background.

But there is something else I’d like to note that Soha Kareem also states. In her writing on Gaming Pixie’s Eden, she points out that “The game’s endings and achievements are determined by your karmic choices.” She goes on to explain how, in Eden, how Gaming Pixie subverts the video game trope of the protagonist needing to manipulate their love interest as an object into a relationship by making it so that the player must genuinely act like “a good person” in order to gain that level of trust. The point is, Gaming Pixie is both sneaky and honest in the sense that your choices have clear moral consequences. Even in She Who Fights Monsters, depending on what you do with the Memory Bloom and what you choose to remember, some paths will be open to you, some closed, and some will exist only for one tenuous moment of conscience.

temple-final

I won’t spoil the endings for you, but I will say this. When I play a game, particularly one with this kind of detail, I like to get all of its information so that I can actually make an informed decision. Even so, remember what I mentioned about being careful when you find yourself in a combat situation in this game? Well, if you make a certain choice and you like to be violent and go all Sith you should know that, if you do, there are consequences. You may become the monsters that you are fighting, the demons in your mind, and it might well lead … to a whole other game entirely.

So please, download Gaming Pixie’s She Who Fights Monsters — which is supported by donationware — and determine how this horror story ends, and where others might well begin.

I Got Quoted, She Makes Comics, La-Mulana Cries, and A Pixie Is Making Games

This will be my first post written directly on schedule and I hope to make this a habit again. So what I’m going to do is the following. I missed you guys so much that in my haste to actually let you know what’s been going on with me lately, I’ve actually forgotten t mention a few things.

The first is that Anthony Martignetti, the author of Lunatic Heroes and now Beloved Demons, has created his own writer’s site and in its “Reviews and Endorsements” section is a blurb, at the very bottom of the page, taken from someone that all of you might find very familiar. Basically, Anthony quoted me. 🙂 I found this when I was at the Toronto Global Game Jam (which probably explains how I forgot to write about it with all the writing I had to do there and after) and in addition to all the positive energy that was already around me, it made my day. The fact of the matter is that I am honoured and feel kind of unworthy to be mentioned in such really august company.

That said, it still makes my day and reminds me that I am actually doing some good work here on Mythic Bios. I will tell you right now that it has been difficult to return back to my regularly scheduled posting. I still plan to do some writing outside of Mythic Bios and the Net and, regardless of even that, it took a while for the old, weird ideas to come back into my head and flow properly as they did. But I do have something to work with now.

And Anthony, I have not forgotten about you. You will all see something new about Anthony’s work relatively soon.

But here is what I am going to do for the rest of this post. I am actually going to be doing some very shameless plugging for some really cool things that haven’t been derived from me.

For first thing’s first. The Sequart Research & Literacy Organization is making a Kickstarter Campaign called She Makes Comics. Basically, this is a documentary about women in comics: specifically women as creators, editors, researchers, and publishers in the comics world. It really makes me frustrated that, despite all the comics I’ve read, I actually had to struggle to suggest some prominent female comics creators. In fact, it makes more than frustrated. It makes me sad. I am doing my part to support this Kickstarter. I even wrote a G33kPr0n article on She Makes Comics to give you another look or perspective on just why this is so important. I hope that you will support this campaign, or at least send the links out to those you know and, if you are Facebook or Twitter users, please do not hesitate to use the hashtag #SheMakesComics.

There is also another Kickstarter I would like to draw your attention. The La-Mulana 2 Kickstarter has reached its baseline goal. However, in order to unlock more goodies from chests not rigged with spikes, including the addition of extra character journals and story-modes to an already dangerous quirky puzzle and monster archaeological game of death, it requires more funding: with not much more time to spare. I always hated “timed levels” and I hope that someone here will make sure that this remains in reality and not in the game: which I hope to see funded as far as it will go.

I still hope PLAYISM will have time to post up my Twine fanfic in another Fan Art Update: as it has not happened yet. 🙂

Finally, last by not least there is a game-maker that you should be following. She is Gaming Pixie, whose work and process I reviewed in Life and Identity, Eden and Hell, and not only is she working on a video game that centres around a girl surviving seven days with her alcoholic father, but she has made offline versions of her Twine games Eden and Shadow of a Soul. The latter games are very complex and if you purchase them you will be able to store them on your hard-drive to play at leisure and also experience far less graphics and sound loading time. In addition, with the very modest prices that she offers for both games, you can also help to continue funding her endeavours. I cannot recommend Gaming Pixie’s work highly enough and it will only get better with time and aid. You can find both games here and, if you’re a Windows user, you can download “the first day” of her first major game Fighting the Monster for free.

are-you-sure

And that’s it for now. I had this all in my head for a while and there is still so much more work to do. I will speak with you all soon again I’m sure. Take care now, and have an excellent week.

How You Can Help Me

Remember my post where I Am Asking For Your Help? Well, this follow-up post is both late and a long time coming.

I have been insanely busy. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it feels like I’m in a Time War of my very own. I am trying to find that balance between having a life and using my art to support that life. It’s hard. When people tell you that attempting to become a published writer, especially a published writer that makes money off of your creations, they are not exaggerating. I have attempted to get published “legitimately,” and while I have still not ruled it out by any means, and I have one work in particular that I want to send by those channels, there is this one hard fact to consider.

I am working hard to make content and I am not getting paid for it.

Don’t misunderstand. I enjoy writing for Mythic Bios and being given the opportunity to contribute to the other online magazines in which I publish articles. I write much better when I get to focus on the matters of Geek Culture and other areas of interest.

This not about them or any of that. I just can’t ignore the facts. I am on social assistance, and I am working hard to write articles and stories that are not making me any money.

And this has been bothering me for a very long time. To be perfectly honest with you all, I know I’m talented. I know that I have accomplished a great many things in this past year alone and I continue to make myself believe “in as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” which is a far cry from the one or two I barely had energy to concentrate on back in the day, but despite my efforts and my audience I am quite simply not getting paid for any of it.

So I have thought about a solution to this issue. I’ve realized that this is no one’s responsibility but my own and I am now going to take steps to deal with it. The fact of the matter is that throughout my entire life, I’ve never done anything through orthodox channels, and even when I’ve been in established institutions I have had to find my own methods of dealing with them, and creating my own learning path. And now that I’m outside of academia and those established places I realize that I have to apply that same mentality to life. That said, I didn’t even know how begin to deal with life on those terms.

Until now.

Anna Anthropy, through her own quests to support herself and her work, made me aware of a new crowd-funding platform called Patreon. It is essentially an application that allows an artist’s supporters to become their patrons: to donate money to their art. It is a lot like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but while the former are made to support larger projects, Patreon is created to fund artists on a smaller and yet potentially longer term monthly scale.

So now this is the part where I finally get to the point. While Anna Anthropy was the one who lead me to this platform, Amanda Palmer introduced me to the Art of Asking: to the power of crowd-funding, of trusting in the goodwill of your fans, and to simply asking for help.

And here is how you can help me.

I have created a Patreon Profile. I would like you, my loyal friends and Followers to read over what I have written on this Profile and do one of two things: become my Patrons and donate whatever amount of money you feel comfortable paying to my art, or spread word of my art and my Patreon Profile to the people that you know.

I go into a lot of detail in the Profile, so please read it closely, but allow me to clarify a few other matters first. I am not charging money for anyone to view my work on Mythic Bios or anywhere. Aside from the fact that I lack the authority in those other places, I do have the authority to state that Mythic Bios’ content will always be free to the public. If you’d like, think of it as what the name suggests: you are patronizing me (hopefully in the positive sense of the word) for the work that I already do and if you do become my Patrons in addition my Followers you will get to see some Patron-Only work, or be the lucky ones to get a first view of it before I launch it more publicly. And I am also willing to undertake research and creative commissions.

I am not begging you for charity and most of you already know this. I am asking you for the opportunity to work for pay doing something that I love doing and making that connection with you.

Now, this will be a learning process for the both of us. I myself am still figuring out the details with regards to Patreon and it will undoubtedly change over time. Also, I just want to state that if you ever want to stop funding me for whatever reason, you can easily cancel your donations. I am simply hoping for a modest cumulative monthly donation of some kind which I plan to share the results of with you.

The thing is: this is both really hard and very easy to ask this of you. What Amanda Palmer espouses, asking for help, is something that has been ingrained in me ever since I was diagnosed as being learning disabled. The very term “extra help” is indicative of asking. But as I said, I have challenges but I will not beg and if you can’t or don’t want to donate anything to my work I understand and, like I said I hope you will keep following it and let other people know about it and my Patreon.

There has always been a stigma to asking for extra help, or even just asking someone for help in society. But here is where I began to realize the difference. I am not asking a bunch of strangers for change. I am asking you–my friends, peers, colleagues, and loved ones–for help. I am letting go of the negative part of my stubbornness: the pride and the fear of change that does not want to admit weakness or, in this lexicon, vulnerability.

I am trusting, all of you, to help me in some way. Even if it is only in the form of suggestions, questions, concerns, or advice about the contents of my Patreon please let me know and I will treasure what you tell me.

So I am going to re-post a picture I’ve been using for two posts now, and with good reason. This was me looking at the horizon a few years ago: wondering what was going to happen next. And this time, not only am I doing exactly the same thing but I hope to see you all there with me. I will keep putting myself out there. I promise you that. I owe you that. I owe that to myself.

Thank you for supporting me: in any way that you can. You already are.

*Hugs*

sincerely,

Matthew Kirshenblatt

Looking Outward

P.S. I am going to pay this attempt at good will forward. Gaming Pixie is an excellent reviewer, graphic artist, site designer, and video game creator. She is one of those that already believes in six impossible things before breakfast. But due to life circumstances, she needs more help than I do at this moment. Please consider donating some money to her art on her website and seeing what she can truly do. Because just as I believe in her, I also believe in all of you. Please encourage her to believe in a seventh impossible thing.

And check out Anna Anthropy’s Patreon as well. She cannot have enough support for the work that she is doing: not only being one of those creating games with her own voice, but advocating the creation of means for other people to do the same.

My First Twine Game: Level-Up

I know that in my last post, I asked for all of your help. And very soon, I am going to show you how you can help me. There is just a little more work to do, but once that is taken care of I will explain everything in my next post this coming Thursday.

But right now, I want to talk about something else in this belated post of mine. This Saturday, at Christine Love’s Twine Workshop during the first-ever WordPlay event, set up by the Hand-Eye Society, I made my first ever Twine story. The reason I call this my first story is because, technically, it is not a game.

So here is what I am going to do. I am going to paste the link of my creation onto Mythic Bios and then, afterwards, I am going to talk about the Creative Process of it a bit. This is my experiment–my first Twine by action if not in planning–and for what it is, I am extremely proud of it. So without further ado, and without images or sounds or other fanfare allow me introduce to all of you, my loyal readers to …

Level-Up

All right, now that you played through it I want to talk about what went on behind it. Basically, a little while ago I had a story sketch in my head that almost–almost–became an entry for Mythic Bios. Really, like a lot of my creative works, it grew from a single sentence. This single sentence formed in my head and I needed to create a home for it. Then I found out, and signed up for Christine Love’s Workshop. If you have been following this Blog for a while, you will know that I have the utmost respect and enthusiasm for Christine’s storytelling and her game-making. So you will understand that I could not allow the opportunity of attending one of her Workshops to pass.

And when I was accepted onto the reservation list, I realized that I wasn’t just going to learn how to make a Twine game. I was going to make one right there, at the Toronto Reference Library, in about little over than an hour.

You have to understand that I generally plan out my stories in advance, or I take a lot of time actually making them. But Christine took the time to talk about the basics of Twine in fifteen minutes and, the next thing I knew, we had five minutes to think of an idea and then the rest of the time to implement it.

And I did.

What you are about to see here is what happens when a world is being processed in your brain for a lot longer than you thought it did. It seems I am almost always world-building in the back of my head: even when I should be doing something else … or especially then.

But this isn’t a game. This is a story fragment that somehow functions well. I made up for my lack of knowledge and technique with Twine by attempting to create the right transitions or hyperlinks. Basically, I was aiming for making a rhythm for clicking through the story from one screen to the next.

Yet, as a friend of mine who is now working on his own Twine as part of my Challenge to him observed, what I didn’t really do with the medium of Twine at this stage I attempted to do with descriptive storytelling and dialogue. Also, my second-person perspective–you–might have gotten into the mind of the character in question. Or maybe you won’t. You’ve also see that it is extremely short and lacks sound and images: hence the storytelling that is my strength.

So allow me to thank Anna Anthropy for introducing me to Twine through Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Christine Love for her Workshop and giving me the excuse to finally go beyond the theoretical and do something hands-on with the software I plan to work with, Gaming Pixie for her support and to all you for all experiencing my very first, and not my last, Twine story. It is not part of the two that I have been planning for ages, but I have to remember my priorities at this point. Also, anyone who can guess which line helped to form the entirety of the story will get bonus points from me.

Take care, my reader-player audience. I will be back here this Thursday … with news.

Looking Outward

Life and Identity, Eden and Hell: The Twines of a Gaming Pixie

The following will talk about–and accordingly link to–games of a graphic nature: if you will pardon the unintentional pun. Reader’s–and player’s discretion–is advised. Do not say that you have not been warned.

It was around February when I discovered Gaming Pixie. Less than a month before, in January, I finished Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and participated in my first–and so far only–Game Jam. After really hearing more about Twine, I began searching for more information on Anna Anthropy’s works and other Twine games.

I’m not sure how I found Gaming Pixie exactly. Perhaps it was through one of her creative YouTube video game reviews, or I found her Pixie’s Sketch Book before or after. I do remember, however, playing one of her only two Twine games at the time: specifically What’s In a Name? Seeing this really personal Choose Your Own Adventure text game really hit home for me the fact that I wanted to make something similar: something that to this very day along with everything else. Then I played her first Twine game–The Choice–and at the time I stopped playing once I got the good ending. It’s strange that I remember the second game more than the first, but even though I could relate to both of them in some way, I really felt more akin to What’s In a Name? and what I felt that Gaming Pixie was attempting to portray.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Originally, after getting to know Gaming Pixie more, I was only going to write about her game Eden. However, I know feel compelled–in some way–to trace the development of her game-making, and its content even as both continue to evolve.

As I stated before, Gaming Pixie was best known for her own video game reviews. If you click on the above link, you will see an analytical mind that engages with the mechanics of the games she’s plays: accompanied by a sense of wry bemusement, her personal reactions to the game, how she related to it, and her liking to break the Fourth Wall a lot and interpose herself into the games. She rarely, if ever, indulges in profanity (though there are times it seems as though she is coming close, but instead settles for the tongue-in-cheek), and she has a wide assortment of costumes.

A little girl

But in addition to this past, she is also a talented artist–creating many lush and vital comics and storybook-like illustrations–as well designing a really immaculate website or two. By the time I found her, she had more or less transitioned away from reviews, planning to create some comics, then Flash animations, but ultimately choosing the medium of video games to work in: with Twine as her first tool. She had so far created two games: two very personal games.

The Choice: by Gaming Pixie

Her first Twine game, The Choice, is about suicide. You play from the second-person perspective and, after choosing which way you want to die, a part of you attempts to stop you. And that part of you is tenacious. Let me tell you. When I replayed it recently and made a determined choice to kill myself off, that embodied part of me was relentless in asking me whether or not I was sure I wanted to do this.

And playing The Choice made me also re-examine the perspective I want my games to be from and why. Because, you see, I automatically stated that the game was from my own perspective because of the second-person “you” that the narrative addresses the player from, yet it can also be an attempt to make a player see into the mind or the situation of another person. There is this fine line there. And despite the bleakness in this text-based game, there is hope in it too, and the ornate, story-book illustrative graphics complement it well.

Also, when I was searching through Gaming Pixie’s Sketch Book to get more insight into the game, I also came across a review and link to this really interesting Indie game by Daniel Benmergui called Today I Die: which according to her Sketch Book greatly inspired her to look at the issue of a game being a medium for art and emotional expression. It is a truly brilliant and beautiful game about seizing your life back from depression, and so much more. I wonder if it inspired some of The Choice, but either way I, for one, am really glad that Gaming Pixie’s entry led me there, that I played it and that it gave me a little more insight than I had before.

What's in a Name: by Gaming Pixie

By What’s In a Name? … I think this is where it all begins. While The Choice dealt with a feeling of suicide and either overcoming or giving into it–with an emphasis of the strength of life–this game is about futility. It is that second-person perspective again: except whereas you could argue that the previous game gives you more lee-way in projecting your own identity into the game, this one is very concrete and autobiographical. The character or the perspective is that of a woman who is struggling to understand her bisexual feelings and in a situation where no matter how she reacts to an issue of identity, she always loses: finding herself and her burgeoning sense of self becoming de-legitimized and trapped in a place of pervasive biphobia.

This game must have come at the height or the beginnings of what is called The Twine Revolution, or perhaps there was just a niche that formed there because both Kotaku and The Border House as well as Anna Anthropy made mention of and even reviewed this game. Please look at The Border House’s IF Game of the Day: What’s in a Name? by Gaming Pixie, Patricia Hernandez’s A Game About The Confusion And Difficulties That Come With Being Bisexual and Lana Polansky’s Nameless with regards to how she related to the game’s content for a little more information: but please consider playing the actual game first.

I will admit: when I played that last game I really, really wanted there to be a third option and a “screw you to everyone else because I will live my life the way I want to” ending. The fact is, even though the game was not about me, it touched that place in me, and I’m sure in many of us, where I remember trying to figure things out and having other people and forces tell me what was right: with changes in their treatment towards me if I didn’t comply with their spoken or unspoken views. It is a similar feeling and perhaps, one day, I will go more into it: and you can thank Gaming Pixie–at least in part–for at least reinforcing that possibility.

And then things began to really change. I’d lost track of Gaming Pixie for a while, but by the time I came back I saw that she was working on a much longer and more ambitious Twine. The Twine plot outline chart for Eden is a spider’s web of complex activity for me and I’m amazed that Gaming Pixie could keep track of all of that.

Some Twine source code for Eden. SOME.

[It makes me really think I have my own work cut out for me with my own Twine novel.]

What’s more is that this is the point when her game-making changes. Whereas What’s in a Name? is minimal in terms of graphics and both games are silent, she starts to utilize the royalty-free music of Kevin MacLeod as her soundtrack. In addition, she creates a great many more graphics: lush, colourful, finely lined and utterly beautiful pastel images. One thing I should definitely note here is that she has moved past the short and personal into something larger and far more fictional.

And yet, sexuality and gender play a great role in–and with–Eden. At the beginning of this game, you are asked to choose a name and a gender. You are also asked what your sexual preference is. Unlike The Choice, where you have one or two endings, or What’s in a Name? that is ultimately one ending no matter what you do, Eden has multiple–multiple–endings. It looks at beauty and it examines your morality and just how far you are willing to go to maintain what–and who–you believe in: an element that Soha Kareem, in her Haywire Magazine article Soha Kareem shares four more games made in Twine also points out.

What is even more interesting is that Gaming Pixie has managed to place a lot of randomizing elements into the narrative: so that upon future playthroughs the game and its text do not always react in the same exact way. There is even one ending that happens almost simply by chance.

In a lot of ways, if The Choice is choosing life and What’s in a Name? is a grim coming to terms with one’s identity I feel as though Eden was an answer to What’s in a Name?: that third option that branches out from one persona into so many other choices … so much so that if I had to answer What’s In a Name? as a question, I would reply with Eden. In fact, in one Blog post before she reveals her game, Gaming Pixie goes into further detail on the matter.

Shadow of a Soul

And now, we shift gears from a potential and fragile utopia, into–quite literally–Hell. For Halloween, Gaming Pixie decided to do something different yet again. Shadow of a Soul is a horror game in which you have to make some pretty macabre, and yet strangely erotic, and BDSM-themed choices. It starts off the same way as Eden does: asking what your name is, your gender, and your sexual preference. You can see something of a pattern here: in which your sexuality–particularly bisexuality–has an impact on how you experience both of these text games. However, it is more than that. In addition to an open-ended possibility of a third gender or something beyond binary gender, both games present bisexuality as a valid orientation: and that is a great assertive against the spirits of The Choice and What’s In a Name?

Shadow of a Soul has fewer endings and some of the randomization and knowing how many resources you have can mean all the difference between … being in different states. I will not spoil it further than that except to add that it is very hard to win this game: even when the answer stares you right in the face … or if you choose it: just for the, if you will pardon this pun too, hell of it.

It is fascinating to see someone with clear creativity undergoing the transition point between reviewer and artist, then text game-creator, and now going into the realms of programming beyond Twine. So please keep your eye on Gaming Pixie Games: which you can either click on here to view or find on my Blogroll: because Gaming Pixie can obviously explain her process far better than I can and, trust me fellow Clappers, she is one fairy that you should definitely believe in.

Pixie-art