A long time ago, I read a story by Grant Morrison in his Lovely Biscuits collection called “I am a Policeman.” The short fiction is prose reading like some postmodern, or hypertext writing where everything is referential and fragmentary, but it’s something of a kaleidoscope as well: a fast-paced merry-go-round in an intensely voyeuristic-participant culture.
In a lot of ways Morrison’s story, despite being the mess that it is, anticipated the creation of the Internet and memetic culture. It’s this cracked rotating lens that reminds me of the relentless piece that is Adi Shankar’s Netflix series The Guardians of Justice.
I will be honest with you: I’d heard about the project coming in passing, though like a few others I felt inundated with many of the superhero revisionist, and reconstructionist, series that have been released these past two years. I mean, between The Boys, Invincible, and Peacemaker alone following, in turns, the realistic and humorous – almost ludicrous – reinventions of caped and otherwise crusaders can get quickly exhausting. And I will also admit that when I watched the first episode of The Guardians, I wasn’t impressed.
It’s true. I love the premise. The Superman analogue in Shankar’s insanely patched together post-WWIII world made after the destruction of a cybernetically reanimated Adolf Hitler – one Marvelous Man – grows tired and depressed in preventing our species’ slide towards self-annihilation, and decides he can’t take it anymore: ending his life. It then becomes the task of the Batman analogue, Knight Hawk, to discover if his public death is really a suicide, or the result of someone else’s convoluted plan to destabilize the world Marvelous Man watched over for forty long years.
The idea of this other alternate 1980s of heroes and villains, gods, and monsters, is great on paper, but if you go by the first episode alone, the characters come out flat. They are barely disguised analogues to DC’s Justice League, and the narrative sequences jump all over the place. There are some great parts as well. Some of the characters act over-the-top, especially Knight Hawk with his best gruff, and gravelly Batman voice impression, and President Nukem, as played by Christopher Judge, is amusing as all get out, and I’ve missed him since StarGate. Even so, I just didn’t know where it could go after the first episode, and I was leery of committing to six more episodes.
Yet I also needed something to get my mind into that place where I could stop being both over-focused on my other writing tasks, and loosen it up again to undertake more creative possibilities. It also helped that many other people were genuinely enjoying the series, and I decided to give it another shot.
So without going into spoilers, let me tell you what The Guardians of Justice is like. Imagine Adi Shankar’s Bootleg Universe, of which this is a part: where he takes concepts and he both makes fun of them, but also sometimes realistically depicts them, and handles them with care. The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, Venom: Truth in Journalism, Power/Rangers, and Castlevania all come to mind, right?
Now imagine the ethos in those creations, the equivalent of creating your own heroic action figures by soldering them together with a magnifying glass and glue-gun under the sun in the daylight that your parents force you to play in after school back in the Eighties and Nineties, and add some Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping segments, some Edgar Wright and Capcom 16-bit battle animation scenes right out of the video game that should be made from this complete with life bars and Mortal Kombat “Finish Thems!,” some Super Sentai Power Rangers and Turbo Kid moments, some 1990s Claymation segues that might as well be American Saturday “After these Messages, We’ll be Right back” cartoons, and sensibilities interjected into DC and Marvel hero and villain analogues and interactions that you can now find in any Steven Kostanski, and Troma film, and what you get is something that could be The Guardians of Justice.
It’s kind of inspiring to see how incredibly mixed media this seven episode series is, and there are just so many references, and events going on at once of which it is incredibly easy to lose track. Seriously, watching these episodes are like being in the playground in the Eighties and Nineties, an informative period in many Millennial lives – a generation of which Adi Shankar is definitely a part – except while he definitely has characters that glorify war, homophobia, the war against drugs, and American machismo, their stereotypical depictions also serve to critique these aspects through the utilization of diversity: many people of colour, different nationalities, languages, and LGBTQ+ characters and relationships.
The mixed media is that cracked kaleidoscope I mentioned earlier, but it just keeps moving around as it makes fun of itself, and yet sometimes stops for moments of painful clarity. This approach to different facets of storytelling or expression a Unified Field Theory barely held together by model glue does skip past many sequences, and it is so easy to get lost, and many tropes do unfold they way you would think.
I’ve followed Adi Shankar over the years, and his Bootleg Universe. And I have read and listened to some of his interviews, even at one point asking him a question and interacting with him for a time, about his creative and personal struggles. Growing up in the 1980s as an Indian immigrant turned American citizen, and having a unique mind and a host of mental health challenges already gives you a unique perspective on the popular culture and franchises of that time that have been making their renaissance during the aughts and onward, such as they are. It’s like watching all of Adi Shankar’s stories from that time, informed by his production and creative work, and growing up unfolding all at once. And there is something incredibly eerie about the series, of which he’s worked on and off on, coming out during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and America’s own struggles with its identity internally, and on the world stage … and the rest of the chaos on Earth right now.
I feel like there are so many people, scholars and critics alike that could do more justice to The Guardians, so to speak, than I can. I just keep thinking about what it is like: and I imagine, again, something akin to an irreverent Watchmen, maybe even a Pat Mills’ Marshal Law reality on drugs, along with some Kostanski Man-Borg that is a spectacle entertaining to the discerning nerd and geek from those times, and everyone else informed by them. It is definitely not like the contemporary other superhero series I mentioned earlier: two of them live-action versions of comics or heroes, and one of them an animated adaptation. These are a series of mediums Frankensteined together, and I feel … The best way for me to phrase this is that just as one person both wins, and loses, at the end of this series, we as the viewers do the same. Perhaps with more re-watching on our part, and more reflection on this particular character’s, we might glean more over what we missed. And honestly? After that genuinely gut-wrenching twist and ending, I really want to see if there is going to be another season, and where this glorious nostalgic gestalt media chaos goes from there.
I feel like everything I’ve read, and watched – from the superhero genre to even the weird and horror genre – and played has prepared me for this, and it is a natural product of a global culture where all of these tropes and memes have been brought together. Perhaps, as Logan Lockwood – the Lex Luthor analogue as portrayed by Adi Shankar himself – puts it, it is all the result of branding and ideology. Maybe it is a mess for its own sake, and it is supposed to be just more ironic interpretations of the same. Yet like Grant Morrison’s “I am a Policeman” and other writing akin to it, I deeply respect it for the experiment in storytelling that it is. Also, I was entertained, and I feel like if my childhood self had the knowledge that I do now and the Internet and media access that exists in this day, I might have made something like this too, and it definitely bears mentions mentioning in this Mythic Bios: because the creation of The Guardians of Justice, and the love behind it, is utterly inspiring.
Whenever I attempt to relax, one of the things that I do is watch a YouTube channel called Men of the West, created by a user with the handle of Yoystan. In it, he generally talks about aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s World of Arda, but specifically events, characters, artifacts, races, locations, and media pertaining to Middle-Earth. Fans like Yoystan are far more well-versed in Arda, and Tolkien’s works and backgrounds than myself, but they have inspired me to do some of my own crude and shallow research through the Legendarium of Tolkien. But there is one topic that has always intrigued me about Middle-Earth, especially with interest in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and my own Dungeons and Dragons role-playing.
Of course, magic in this case is a misnomer. Perhaps the better word for what I am particularly interested in with regards to Tolkien’s Arda is its metaphysics, or how the rules of that world allow for certain events, and actions that we might deem as paranormal or supernatural to take place. Metaphysics in the world of Arda are predicated on its creation.
Arda was created by the Song of Eru Illuvatar and his Valar and Maiar spirits. It allows for song and oaths to shape the fate of those that utilize them. Prophecy and prophetic dreams also exist in this world. However, there are some crafts that exist in Arda thanks to the Valar, and their Maiar servants that were taught to the early ancestors of the peoples of Arda: Elves, Dwarves, and Men: specifically herb-lore, Dwarven Moon-letters, artificing such as ring-crafting, and even something akin to telepathy “thought-opening” and “Unwill”: though the latter is a rare skill. Arda also exists in two worlds, the mortal plane, and the “Unseen World” where Elves — or at least High Elves — exist simultaneously: perhaps allowing them, and other dark beings, to utilize spells of illusion or shape-changing. Certainly, there seems to be a category of metaphysics called sorcery: which is dark power that can be taught to Men — humans — by Maia such as the Dark Lord Sauron. Curses also exist that can keep human spirits from passing on, and certain areas of land can have traumatic events such as wars and battle imprinted upon them, or be sensitive to certain kinds of powers, or be protected by them.
The only ones that can really wield anything close to obvious magical power are the Istari — or the Five Wizards — who are, in turn, Maia spirits given human form by their Valar patrons from Aman or Valinor to advise and guide the peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron’s tyranny and manipulations. And the Wizards are extremely limited in what they can actually do, to make sure their powers do not dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth or actually cause irreparable damage to Arda itself.
Essentially, what I call the metaphysical situation of Arda is a subtle magic of sorts: forces of that universe — which is, arguably, supposed to be a mythological past of our own world, before the metaphysical rules of our reality changed many times — and something that can only be utilized in particular situations, contexts, or at certain times. George R.R. Martin does something similar with magic in Westeros and Essos, though there is a lot more emphasis on blood magic, and aspects of deities that may or may not exist in the forms that their worshipers believe them to be. It would make sense that Tolkien’s understated, limited use of magic — or metaphysics — influenced Martin and so many others, including the creators of Dungeons and Dragons that made spells far more overt.
So, one thing that the Men of the West YouTube channel also focused on at one point were attempts at an Expanded Arda Universe: through gameplay. And one thing that it has always found lacking is the “magic-system” in Lord of the Rings Online — a game that Yoystan otherwise praises in every other way — or even its selection of player races, and antagonists.
And, after reading up on this, I started to think to myself: what would a role-playing game — online or table-top — look like if it were based on what we knew about Tolkien’s Arda down as much to the rune as possible? This led me to writing out some thoughts on my social media on the matter, hoping to get input from other Game Masters and other players I know, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this deserves a post. And while I am not a Tolkien scholar, I do have some ideas as to what this world would look like, how it would be possible to construct a campaign, and what such a game could be about.
It’d be a question of looking at the heart of Middle-Earth and Arda, and focusing on the idea that “there is hope in the greatest darkness.” That is the spirit of Tolkien’s world. With this central theme in mind, should at least a table-top Game Master and player fellowship choose to use it, it would be a case of the metaphysics of the world shaping what happens in it.
Setting a game in Arda during the First and Second Ages, for instance, would be a very different endeavour and situation than making it situated in the Third Age with which many fans are so familiar. I would argue that it would be easier to have High Elf players in the First and Second Ages, for instance, along with a Higher Mythic Age element of Maiar abound and more supernatural beings like werewolves, Balrogs, and even Dragons. Roleplaying in Beleriand, the lost continent of Middle-Earth and central to many Elven Kingdoms and even old Dwarven ones could be fascinating. Of course, you could have intrigue and some battles from Numenor, the greatest civilization of Men as it is referred to, if you want to spend time in the Second Age. The Silmarillion and other Books of Lost Tales on those times could be useful but they are very mythological, though there could be some fun in that.
But in the Third Age, around the time of The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit is what I was — and many others would be — thinking about setting a game in with regards to Arda. If it is a tabletop role-playing situation, the Game Master can set limits on who is what in this world, and it would be easier to do so. For instance, High Elves have tremendous skill in their Arts and knowledge — and can see into the Unseen World and sense Wraiths and the like — which might give a fellowship an unfair advantage. Also, there aren’t that many High Elves beyond the titular characters in the novels at this stage in the game. Likewise, in a video game or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you can just limit what classes and races players can be: with non-player characters being exceptions, of course. And, it goes without saying, that there are no other Wizards aside from the Five.
What I would do is something like this. I would take all the different races and genealogies that commonly exist in Middle-Earth around the time of the tail end of the Third Age: the Forest Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits of course, and Men — Humans — and even include some Rangers with their Numenorean blood to make things interesting. So far so good. I would have Warriors in their permutations as Horse Riders, Archers, and even Rangers. Have some Hobbit burglars even just to be a troll (and in this case, not a literal one, as they will be enemies, trolls). The Forest Elves are a combination of different Elven families or ethnicities and perhaps I would grant them some higher statistics, and knowledge.
Healing in the game would happen naturally. If you are injured, you need to rest, or have medicine applied to you. It’d be like the role-playing system in the tabletop version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you get injured, you have to take time to heal. Of course, if your Human or Elf knows some herb-lore, you could expedite the process, but it is not an instant heal situation. In fact, I’d be really tempted to list one’s characteristics as Fëa and Hröa. These are two very fascinating concepts, created in Tolkien’s Elvish which are apparently translated as “spirit” or “soul” and “body.” I would have Hröa as one’s health meter, and Fëa as being necessary to perform certain Arts, herb-lore, crafts, and the like. The more powerful your Fëa, the more sensitive you are to the Unseen World, and the more complex Arts you can understand and perform. Perhaps this would be a dynamic more suited to Elf characters, for obvious reasons, and perhaps some Numenorean descendants.
I would allow for some characters to be able to increase these basic traits. Elves, for instance, can increase Fëa and Hröa if they learn certain lore, and can start to perceive the World around them such as it is, perhaps even more than their heightened senses already do. However, I would make them more susceptible to any mood-affecting Arts or sorcery, and if their Fëa isn’t sufficiently recovered through meditation or what not, it can affect them physically. It would be interesting, however, for a non-High Elf to develop to a point where they can almost match their kin. I am even tempted to play with the concept of Elf characters being reincarnated from the Halls of Mandos if they are killed in battle, or they die, while Human characters — if they die — have to move on as their souls go to a place beyond Arda, and the player can have the option of playing as a descendant or a kinsman of theirs. It’d be closer in keeping to the metaphysical structure of Tolkien’s world.
It would really be cool if characters can learn how to train their traits through finding lore, or artifacts, or even wise people who might have, at one time, been taught a few tricks by other Elves, Dwarf smiths, or even Istari. It would be limited, of course, as secrets can be distorted or lost over time, and the power of Arda is not the same as it once was. But just think about an Elf learning how to sense the two Worlds, or a Dwarf figuring out how to make Moon-letters or doors — with time and effort — that can keep others away, or Humans learning powerful Oaths, songs or poems of power to bolster the morale of your group or army, some minor Spells, or wisdom. And everyone can learn some secrets of different locations that they find, perhaps even talk with a Maia or two and gain knowledge of subtle but useful skills. Perhaps there is a campaign where they go among the Easterlings and discover a cult dedicated to the Blue Wizards, and discover some lore from them: maybe in an attempt to figure what happened to the two who were lost so long ago, while never actually being anything but ambiguous about it like in Tolkien’s lore unless you want an interpretation.
Of course, you can train your Hröa through learning how to fight, how to survive in the wilderness and scout, to feed yourself, and through exercise and experience in battle. And there could be situations where you need something miraculous to happen, but you can’t just simply call on this power whenever you want: even as an Elf. You have to be in the right place, at the correct time, or like in some D20 systems you have a Fate Dice and you can only call on it once per session or — in this case — once per major event such as being in a battle with a Sorcerer who has a few Wraiths or Barrow-Wights on his or her side, and you have an Elven artifact that you need to repel them with azure light, or the sudden flood of a river in front of you to keep them all back.
It would be easy to find treasures of mithril and Elven blades that react to Orc presence. Orcs, Goblins, Wargs, Trolls — which would be stronger opponents — Mirkwood Spiders, Human Outlaws, Barrow-Wights, and Wraiths would be good antagonist non-player characters that you can fight, and outsmart. Perhaps you find some remnants of older more terrifying powers in remote places in Middle-Earth such as Balrogs, Dragons, or even some Maia that have gone renegade: shapeshifting wolves and vampires. I can see a quest to seek some Teleri elves (seafarers I believe) to find treasures in the waters where Beleriand used to be, or going to the East to see if you can find evidence of the Blue Wizards — as having done their part to divide the Easterlings against Sauron, failing to do so and being killed, or having made cults around themselves — or even trying to find those gosh darned reclusive Ent-Wives if you are particularly fascinated with herb and wood-lore.
You can participate in minor battles that are involved in major events. You could find all kinds of fascinating artifacts such as, again, some Elven blades you can find, some Dwarf-wrought weapons, documents and lore of lost knowledge, perhaps a lost remnant of a Wizard’s staff that wouldn’t even give you a tenth of an Istari’s power but could make for a useful talisman. Hell, you could even find the Lesser Rings of Power: which are practice rings made by Elven craftspeople that could give you … a few minor advantages in certain statistics. Saruman did, after all, examine what he could of ring-lore and maybe there are some samples of it still out there, though whether or not they are influenced by Sauron can be up to interpretation.
It seems like scraps, compared to what the protagonists in the novels encounter or use, and compared to Dungeons and Dragons, but I see all these opportunities as — well — Lost Tales in and of themselves, stories that happen in between the gaps of greater epics that are no less meaningful. They would be character driven games and campaigns, and you can focus on “fellowship” or “the day a group’s courage fails.” You could have an Elf wanting to prove themselves to their people, or a Dwarf wanting to recover their lost smithing, or a human woman masquerading as a man — or not — wanting to fight, a rare halfling that wanders from home and can’t keep their hands to themselves, or an Easterling who simply just wants to gain profit and survive and doesn’t like the influence being exerted on their lands. I’m not sure I would have Beornings — essentially were-bears — exist as player characters, but I would not rule it out in a tabletop situation provided it is roleplayed well. Perhaps Beornings are descendants of Men and Maia with an interesting Fëa as a result.
And just think about these characters meeting canon characters, and having a whole other kind of interaction with them. Elrond could probably, if he so chose, direct you with different kinds of knowledge, or perhaps you can meet a different Gondorian Stewards if you aren’t … quite playing at the end of the Third Age. Perhaps Galadriel has entertained other guests before, or you really got lost in Lothlorien. You might be told by a small village of Hobbits that you are not welcome there, or a passing … grey-robed and bearded man gives you some good pipe-weed, and some sound advice. Maybe even a firework or two, if you are good. Or you meet other original characters who could plausibly exist. Imagine learning how to ride by riders of Rohan, or dying in Dunharrow because you were foolish enough to go into the Mountain … or you find some cursed item just outside of it. And going into a barrow is always fun, or dealing with some Huorns and Ents in Fangorn Forest. There are a lot of possibilities.
This … could work as an online game, but that depends on the interests of the players and how much of an audience such a game world as an MMORPG could gain. Many people are used to flinging fireballs, or instantly healing from a cleric’s spell. Likewise, however, there is a paternalism in Tolkien’s world: with certain peoples of humanity, or races being inherently bad or limited to roles that could also be an issue, not to mention gender-roles.
But this system, as I have thought of it, could also be adopted into its own world. A low or subtle magic world that focuses on exploration and understanding of the environment around you, and the friendships you can forge, the poems and artifacts you can find, the songs you can sing together, and even the food you can make and eat and trade while having your battles with evil.
I guess what I’m saying is that it can be done, and it would be fairly beautiful. I would attempt a table-top game of either a Lord of the Rings RPG like this, or a world with similar metaphysics. I know The One Ring RPG and Lord of the Rings Online do not quite have this, so I thought I’d just write about it here. Or perhaps only hardcore Tolkienites and scholars could attempt such a thing. I think this is the closest I might ever come to writing in Middle-Earth, though I make no promises. I don’t have any greetings or farewells to make in Elvish, but I hope you enjoyed reading this long digression into possibilities, this place of lore, which I feel belongs on Mythic Bios as it has been a long time since I have made such a ramble. And I wish you well.
I think it would be an understatement to say that I haven’t written here in a while.
There’s a pretty good chance, in fact, that I’ve even said this before. I remember when I used to write on Mythic Bios a lot. And when I mean a lot, I mean every single day. Then it became every other day. Then every two days, and after that, well …
Life happens, I guess is the best what to sum it all up.
How do I even catch up at this point? What highlights can I share with you?
Well, I can tell you that I’d been working on two very long pieces of fanfiction on A03. Both of them are set in the Fate/Stay Night universe. One of them, Fate/Stay Unlimited Bullets is finished — despite the errors I keep reading over and correcting — but the other, the longer one, Fate/Stay Life has gone into something of a hiatus. I know how I want to continue it. I know what parts need to be elaborated on. And I also know that if I sit down with it again, I will be able to continue more or less from where I started. But Unlimited Bullets really took a lot out of me: more than I thought. And given the content in FSL, I suppose it makes sense that because of a transitional period in my life it does make sense that I’m taking some time away from it. I do plan to come back to it, this 96 chapter monstrosity and ongoing thing mind you, but not right now.
But I know there are a few of you, who still read this Blog, that aren’t here to hear about my fanfiction, though you can definitely feel free to read it if you want as I am Ma_Kir on A03.
I’ve thought about writing more Alternative Facts short stories. I even have ideas and words and turns of phrase typed out in a draft somewhere. But … I don’t know. I just haven’t felt the impetus to continue for a time. Between having to find the right epigraphs, really focus on the language I’m creating, and think about what’s … going on, or could have gone on in Amarak, and just how derivative it all is, it is a lot of work to go through. I find that the stories don’t really work on their own, but you need to read through all of them in a certain order for them to get … some idea as to what is going on. I find it’s not as accessible, and I wonder just how good they really are when it comes down to it. If I have a story that is really pressing, rest assured I will share it with you. If not, they have been an interesting experiment in speculative political fiction.
I am, however, working a lot more on another universe. Actually, I have been working on two: creating one, and participating in the continued development of another. My original universe is derivative as well, with a Frankensteinian mix and mash going on, as these things go, and I hope to write two more stories in the series before attempting to get more readers to look at it. I play with horror archetypes and subvert a lot for human stories in that world. I hope them to be more accessible and while world-building is happening as a result or consequence, it is really the character interactions and more relatable characters that are forming that I hope to have stick. I look forward to sharing them, one day.
As for my other endeavour … I’ve written about 20th Century Boys before on this Blog, a long time ago now. In that manga, a group of children created a game — a game of make-belief — where they are a group of heroes fighting against the forces of evil. They made a whole mythology that someone, years later, adopts into an evil plan to take over Japan. I’m not really involved in something like that, but I can relate very much to a project or a world built between friends from childhood, and watching it grow with us.
My friends and I have been playing a homebrew world our DM created long ago for years now. I started playing it, with them, in 2001. I played one character from 2001 to 2004: developing him from a slave to essentially a demigod at the time. It was this process of collaborations and player verses player sessions, as well as solo sessions, that helped develop the game from a science fiction derivative to a more unique and quirky epic fantasy world. It isn’t entirely accurate, of course, but the the gist of it. I played again in 2005, as another character in the same world. Then I was gone for … about eleven years until 2011 when we continued the game where our old characters more or less became gods, and we played new characters in that world. And then, our DM made a multiverse in the form of various campaigns with these characters and elements which figured into it in 2012-2013 or so. They were fun in themselves.
I’ve roleplayed as wizards, mages, necromancers, sorcerers, alchemists, artificers, and the like. I have even been an assassin and a cleric at times. But the funniest thing is that the most enjoyment I’ve been having as both a player — and as a creator — is my current bard. I attempted to play a haunted bard in a Ravenloft campaign, and wanted to really add poetry — as an imitation of singing, or playing an instrument — to bring the bard to life. I had a choice, this current campaign and going back to our mainline homebrew world to either be a bard again, or a monk: which was another class I’d been thinking of trying out.
But I decided to be a bard. There was another game we were going to play where one of my characters in a faction setting was going to be one, and I just liked the idea. And she developed slowly from there, from a concept to more of a person. It’s funny. These days I tend to play female characters for some reason. Maybe I attempted to do so in 2012, to differentiate one alchemist character from another I was playing in a D&D campaign with my same friends. It … didn’t go well, for that character, and it impacted my experience.
But then in about 2016 or 2017, I tried it again, and I find I really like these characters. And my bard is one of the best. I have been writing whole epic “Ballads” of our adventures and certain world lore, in an attempt to spread information and misinformation on the world: to unify factions to deal with a greater evil. But I find I really get a lot out of this game writing these Ballads and actually reading them aloud in session. I haven’t really read anything I’ve written aloud in a while, never mind write something out by hand. I find it does affect the game, and not just because the DM gives us Inspiration or sometimes some bonuses, or even in my case EXP.
I just feel more immersed in that world. I feel like, when I write stuff like that, I am accomplishing something. Between that, and my own original creations … I could seriously live my entire life doing something like this. I wish I really could. If we ever made a studio, and I was asked to be a writer for it, I would do it in a goddamn heartbeat.
I find that the issue with my life right now isn’t that I don’t know what to do, or what I am doing. I do know what I want to do. Often, it’s just the world that won’t cooperate, or do what it’s told. Lol.
More realistically speaking, I just need material to work with, and collaborators, and people and resources that can help me make something tangible that will … support us. And the focus to do so, along with the determination in a hard, ridiculous world to keep going.
I’ve accomplished some other things too. I wrote some letters that got published in comics series. I’ve helped edit, and even make some character concepts for my friends’ — my role-playing group’s own game — Ankle-Biters: Pixies Vs. Gremlins game. And I wrote a Sequart article about the film adaptation of How to Talk to Girls at Parties that got retweeted by Neil Gaiman himself: which made my day for a really long time.
So I have not been completely idle or brooding in this time I’ve been away. Sometimes I think I should take my friend up on his old offer and see if I can redesign this Blog and make it look less … choppy, and plain with its ads. And maybe with something more substantial to offer besides my nerdy speculations and fanfiction, and the occasional story, I can build something more noticeable. Perhaps there is a way to get my works to interrelate. That would be sweet.
It’s been a stressful time, in an uncertain age. But I just wanted to write here to let you know that I am still alive, and I have not forgotten this Blog: or you. Hopefully, we will be seeing a little more of each other, if not here then elsewhere. Once again, thank you all for reading.
A long time ago, now, I used to play Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I’d play it every day before school, during lunch time, or on one of my breaks, during the downtime waiting for food runs between the table-top role-playing games I’ve always had with my friends, and before bed when I really needed to sleep.
It wasn’t even the DX version, which might date me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I did play it once and while when I got a GBC, but more often than not it’d be my old Gameboy with its chartreuse, grey-white casing, and faded grey yellow screen where I’d play the original. One of my friends might have told you about that already so I guess you’re not hearing anything particularly new.
Some retro players I know say that they like the 8-bit tunes: that it brings them nostalgia. You know the kind: the type that reminds you of being kids, not having to pay taxes, not working a dead-end job, not being on welfare or disability, always having energy — being so damned restless, vibrating with it — and going over to your best friend’s house after school. A lot of players like the original Zelda because of a similar feeling, you know? The Legend of Zelda was all cryptic and obscure on the NES, but it was really all about weird symbols, fighting monsters, and exploring. You never knew what you were going to find in that 8-bit world.
But to me, the music and pixels aren’t nostalgic. They don’t remind me of something that happened to me, of my childhood, or what I used to be. Playing those games reminds me of a place that doesn’t exist: that never did. When I played A Link to the Past, for example, it was new and exciting and tapped into a mythic place that even when you were directed to where you needed to go, there was still something new to discover in that colourful, dark world between worlds. And yeah, I’ve played Ocarina of Time, and Majora’s Mask that both tried to be all third dimensional, and all the games that became part of a timeline. The Hyrule Historia is a beautiful clusterfuck that tried to take iterations of a legend and a myth, and impose a linear-chronology onto the experiences: or a least a heroic test of multiple choice.
And every time, when left to my own devices, I’d return to Link’s Awakening. But just like I don’t wear baseball caps nowadays, I don’t play that game anymore, at least not as often these days. I always said that one of the reasons why it’s my favourite Zelda game is that the game’s not about Princess Zelda at all … if any of them ever really have been. I’d relax into the familiar koan of Link gradually realizing that he is asleep in the dream of a greater, ancient being that dreamed an entire island into existence on the open sea. And I’d think to myself, way before the Historia ever came, that this was more the Adventure of Link than Zelda II, and its cool side-scrolling uneven linear weirdness, had ever been.
Way before I knew about artificial intelligence attaining consciousness, or awakening — far before dealing with Mother 2 and its Magicant that we barely missed out on in North America, I just felt that quest of Link encountering all the strange entities that made up his dreaming mind: his hopes, his humour, his play, his fears, and his pain. I mean, can you imagine being someone knowing that you will always have to save a princess? That she will never really be safe? That no matter what you do, you will have to go out there, or your kids, or spiritual successors will need to head out and fight the demons and the monstrosities that you can never fully quell? After a while, if you were that character — if that kind of character had a consciousness — the cycle would all seem so utterly meaningless.
But I think what made me really stop playing Link’s Awakening, was Marin.
Zelda isn’t the only girl you meet in the Zelda series. From Malon to Princess Ruto of the Zoras to Nabooru and her questionable gifts to helpful little boys … to Midna and her clever little games that lead to her true nature, all of them were interesting. And sometimes you had to save some of them, or fight alongside another, or do a quest for them. And whatever else, they always wanted something from Link.
Even now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s just life really, miniaturized and making you see just how things are. But Marin is … she was different. At the beginning of Awakening, Marin is the one that saves you. She nurses you back to health at her and her father Tarin’s hut. She sings songs in the Animal Village and it’s her song that helps you progress past the Walrus. And all you have to do, in exchange, is spend time with her. That’s it. You fool around with her in Mabe Village, falling down a well, playing the Trendy Game, and eventually talking on the side of the beach where she found you the first time … and you almost talk about real feelings.
Even when you do have to save her on Tal Tal Heights, she almost tells you something important: something that isn’t part of waking up the Wind Fish. By the time the game is almost over, she will teach you “The Ballad of the Wind Fish” and ask that you remember her when you leave the Island, as she will never forgive you if you forget her.
Of course, you always discover the truth: that Koholint Island was created from the dream of a primordial and powerful being known as the the Wind Fish, and that once the Nightmares keeping it asleep are defeated, it will awaken and the Island and everyone on it will cease to exist.
In the end, when I look back on the game now Marin, the girl who saved Link, and never asked anything from him aside from spending some time with her … also never existed. At least Midna exists somewhere in the Twilight Realm. In many ways for Link, it’s so much worse than someone you love being dead, than not being in the same reality anymore, than your Princess even being in another Castle.
I’m a lot older now, obviously, since the first time I played this game … since even the first couple of times I played it. I can refer, roughly, to a Japanese sentiment of mono no aware: an understanding of the beauty of sadness in the transitory nature of things. I can also go into some Classical Western thought and look at a woman representing the wisdom that a man gains when he ultimately loses her, especially by his own hand: as Link did when he beat all Eight Nightmares, and used the song that Marin taught him to awaken the Wind Fish.
Yeah. Even now, I’m still not comfortable with either thought: that Marin had to cease to exist, that she had never existed, so that Link could complete his own awakening as a whole person away from Zelda … before, you know, presumably returning to Hyrule and reaffirming the cycle all over again. Hell, Marin even looked like Zelda, when it comes right down to it.
That was my final koan, really, as we all finished high school. What did it mean when you met someone — when Link meets someone who helps him, who just wants to spend time with him in exchange and ends up never existing? Is gaining and losing someone like her the only way he could be free? And was he truly free? I used to dream about it, at times, even when I fell asleep in front of my laptop playing the “Sword Search” theme of Link’s Awakening: the song making me think of a Link who had gone old and grey, who’d retired from adventuring, who had put the Master Sword away for his successors, and dozed on his front porch remembering bygone days when he was a hero and he persevered, and had many quests. I wondered if sometimes, in his sleep, he thought about a seagull singing her song across the world. I wondered if, in his sleep, he ever murmured her name, after all that time.
I was a very angry kid back then. Like I said, the game was never nostalgic. For me, it always reminded me of the present. And when the present became the past after a while, and I got tired of playing and watching playthroughs past 5 am, I put the game away, and moved onto other things.
The thing about a game is that when it frustrates you, it generates the opposite of a Zen state. And it’s in that negativity, when you can’t solve that part, that sometimes you need to step away and do something else for a while. Maybe one day, after I’ve played some other games, I will return to this one, searching across an invisible shore, an ephemeral beach. And maybe then, I’ll finally find the answer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 illusion. Even 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wrote a brief post about Toby Fox’s Undertale a month or so ago. It was difficult as I was really trying to remain spoiler-free while, at the same time, attempting to actually say something relevant about the game itself. But now that I’ve had some time to think, and talk, about Undertale there are some more things about it that I would like to write about.
You are now in the Spoiler Bone Zone. Please either play the game first, as it is excellent, or don’t upon your own risk. As always, you have been warned.
Mechanically speaking, the game is a work of pure genius. For the most part it feels like an RPG with some very elementary, archetypal cartoon aesthetics. On the surface, it is a combination of turn-based battles and puzzles. But then there are some interesting aspects to the conflict portions of the game: interactive gameplay elements that will really affect the plot as you go on. And, believe me, you will see these effects almost immediately.
The fact that you have the option to either Fight and kill, or Act and Mercy enemies is not a spoiler in and of itself. Acting actually gives you many options as to how to deal with monsters as people: each one having their own likes and dislikes.
When you interact with them through the Act option long enough, you can Spare them and continue onward: sometimes gaining money, but no EXP. Or, you can kill them and they disintegrate into dust.
The battles, or if you want to get more technical, the Encounters are structured in an interesting fashion. While they are turn-based, allowing you time to heal with items or choose other options on your screen, the monsters’ turns are mostly bullet-hell mini-games. You play as a small red heart in a box, and the object of those games, on the turn of your opponent, is to avoid their attacks until it’s your turn again. Generally, you can move all around the box but then … sometimes … Toby Fox will change the game dynamic.
The way that Fox changes the game dynamic in encounters often ties into the Special Attacks of particular monsters. For instance, there are at least a few situations where a bullet-hell can become a platforming or even a shooter mini-game. Having mini-games in an overall game is nothing new, of course, but these different games — turned into specific dynamics or interactions with characters — provides the skeleton (if you pardon the pun, which is ironic as there are two Skeletons that love and detest puns respectively, with their own encounters) of Undertale as a game.
Of course, I’m probably not saying anything at this point that no one has heard before. The game itself, like many contemporary and independently created interactive narratives, is fairly self-referential and — a jargony word — intertextual. It is a game that spiritually and mechanically knows its a game to the point of fourth-wall breaking and is aware of other games. Even the plot of the game is fairly straightforward at first glance: where you play a silent protagonist child character who is trying to escape from an Underground realm ruled by Monsters that were banished there by humans during an ancient war from long ago.
But aspect from the Pacifist options of being able to Act and Spare in encounters, Undertale has two more unique characteristics that can either make, or break, a good game.
These two elements play into each other well. The first is that Toby Fox creates archetypal and relatable characters. You very clearly know who they are from their brilliant musical leitmotifs and their cartoon aesthetics. And the best part is that a majority of all the other characters are Monsters. That’s right. They could be your enemies and Toby Fox goes out of his way to make sure that they are people who have their own hobbies, likes, dislikes, families, and friends. They are not nameless creatures that you kill to gain EXP. And some even befriend you on their own.
Fox manages to blend enough self-awareness, humour, and far-reaching emotional resonance into your interactions to make you seriously look at what you’re doing in the Underground and what you are willing to do while you are there.
Just think about it. That Woshua that just wants to clean you and might not be aware that they are hurting you until you Act with it, could be a Monster that you just kill. Or that Froggit that comes at you in all ignorance, that could have given you some advice in the beginning, could be your unintended victim.
But you see, you can’t really kill by accident. Well, not exactly. Because there is also the other element of Undertale to consider: the moral structure of the game itself.
And here lies the rub. There will be times, especially in the beginning, when you don’t know how to Spare a Monster if they won’t Act with you. In my experience, what happened was that without knowing what to do, I reverted back to my old time and tested gamer routine: I tried to damage an opponent to the point where I hoped they would ask me to Spare them, or give me the option to do so.
It didn’t work. And they died. They died because of my own actions.
I was horrified. That was not what I intended to do, and yet in retrospect I realized how flawed that idea was. I mean, when you meet someone sympathetic in real life and they get in your way, do you beat them within an inch of their life to get past them? To get what you want? Just what kind of person does that? What kind of person does that make you?
And so, I decided to reset, to Load my Save because I knew there was another way to deal with it without killing them: this character whom I’d grown to care about, to relate to, and made me feel conflict when they opposed me. But even when I figured that out, the game itself … remembered what I did in my last Save. It didn’t let me forget.
The game still forgave, then, but it didn’t forget.
Undertale’s moral structure acts like something of a stereotypical gamer deterrent. It punishes you for gaining Levels, for grinding for Levels, for resolving issues with “Solo shooting first violence” and even for the extreme end of Determination: for seeking to do something just because you know that you can.
This is the spirit of Undertale. It is more than one of those games that have consequences for every action of the player. It is the child of a popular idea in various parts of the independent game-making scene: the notion of deconstructing violence as a normal interaction in games and creating alternatives. And some of those alternatives branch into consequences and elements of diversity and representation. What I love about Undertale is that these aspects do not lead into places of heavy-headed preaching or messages. Rather, your actions are reflected in what happens to the characters whom you’ve grown to relate towards: even and especially if they are different from you.
In a way Undertale can also represent the idea of a ludic society: of a social order and community operating on interactions of “playfulness” or games. The Underground literally has a tradition of puzzle games to confound and challenge humans and outsiders. These puzzles are how the denizens of the Underground interact with each other and the player: and they notable because they are generally non-lethal. Even befriending certain characters triggers parodies of dating sims mini-games.
It can also be seen to reflect another ideal in some of the independent game-making scene: of games being more than just entertainment, but art itself. But perhaps this potential Games studies look, with its possible influences on independent game-making night be reading a little too much into what Toby Fox might be intimating.
But these implications are good to discuss. Because Undertale does say something about a particular stereotype of a gamer that is hard to ignore. The way he does this is fascinating. At the beginning of the game you are told to name the character that you will, presumably, be playing. In addition, you will encounter your first enemy: who will continue to follow you around and offer “advice” throughout the entire game. It even fits well into the story.
As it turns out, you have a special power as a human called Determination. In your case, it allows you to control time to a limited extent. You can Load and Save your progress. You can even Reset the game: the very world in which you are interacting. Your enemy, if he is your enemy, also had this power once until you came along. He is, in a lot of ways, your shadow: your doppelganger. He represents what happens when you replay a game far too many times, when you commit all good and evil on each reset, when you become bored with your game, when you persevere to great and ridiculous lengths to gain an achievement … and he will question and mock you for everything you do: while sometimes helping you … for his own benefit.
But here is the thing that you need to understand. This first enemy of yours, as powerful and terrifying as he can become, may not really be your enemy at all. He represents something. And depending on what you do, this antagonist is just Player Two to the real enemy that can manifest in the game.
After all, there’s a reason why the mirrors in Undertale have dialogue boxes when you click on them.
Eventually — depending on what life choices you make — you realize that the person you named, early in your adventure, isn’t who your silent protagonist actually is. It turns out there was another human, long ago, who fell into the Underground. They are the person that you name. And if you choose what’s called the Genocide Route, namely going through the intense grinding motions of leveling up and killing every Monster in your way, they will manifest and you will lose control of the character.
In fact, the person you play as isn’t even your character. They have their own name. It is a revelation that through the grandiosity of the True Pacifist Ending actually took me out of my immersion with the game by sheer confusion. I named that character. Even if they were different from me, that was how I related to them. Naming was yet another assumption that gets subverted. It’s only when you play the Genocide Route, it is your murderous intentions, your capacity to kill, your lack of caring for puzzles or characters as people, your lack of fun, that will re-awaken someone or something else that will take control of the person you were supposed to guide. It is pretty clear what Undertale states through these actions, and the words of some characters towards the end, about certain kinds of gamers.
And it can be both unsettling and off-putting.
The truth is, you can’t accidentally play the Genocide Route. You have to painstakingly, numbingly, grind through all those Monsters with their own thoughts and feelings. You have to distance yourself from your emotions and capacity to feel relationships to kill and maim and take what you want. You will destroy people that you could have been friends with: that you could have loved. And you will encounter bullet-hells and platforming battles that are completely unforgiving: and the ending of the game will not be a pleasant one. You do not get rewarded for mass-murder.
In fact, your “reward” for doing this will ultimately be a jump-scare worthy of a creepypasta.
And it gets worse. If you play Genocide before Pacifism, it will taint every other playthrough that you make. It is at this point that the game does not forgive you. You deal with the consequences of your actions. And if you played Pacifist first, killing and tormenting your friends will feel like agony unless you have completely distanced yourself from these interactions as “just a game.”
This morality is Undertale‘s greatest strength. It can also, arguably, be considered a flaw. Genocide reveals other information about the story line that you would not have gotten in any other route. There are different interactions and sides to the characters that you will not see in any other way. And if you do this, you will be punished for it in all of the aforementioned ways. For the most part, it isn’t preachy but there are some moments where it feels like you are being punished for wanting the full experience of the entire game. It even goes as far as to castigate you if you watch the Genocide route on YouTube.
Obviously, this moral mechanic destroys Undertale‘s replay potential. You don’t want to go back and kill your friends. You also don’t want to obliterate their — or your character’s — happy ending if you have achieved the True Pacifist run. And so here is this game, with all heart, that when it’s over — if you think of these characters as people — you should just make sure it’s over. It is said that art is an imitation of life, and if Undertale subscribes to that ideal of being art instead of primarily entertainment — even through the microcosms of the puzzles that the Monsters make in their society — then there you are: that is your experience.
In fact, it’s not even your experience. It’s not supposed to be about you. The person you name isn’t even the protagonist and all of your aggressive gamer impulses, if you have them, are vilified … by you. And no matter what, whether you are Pacifist or have committed Genocide, the story becomes about someone else. And if you respect the flow and the rules of the game and its code, you will have to walk away.
The fact that Undertale feels like it is against replay value can be seen as a detriment and a punishment to that completionist mentality in a gamer, but the Catch 22 of the thing is that without it, this game would not be Undertale. It would not be special.
And there is the rub. Just like the foe you displaced by coming to this world of games, you are not the central character. How does it feel to actually know that you were always Player Two? And do you have the strength to play through it, to guide your character, to go for the best ending, to relate to others without hurting them, to walk away when your time is finally done with some grace? Will you need to alleviate that need to know more by “cowardly” viewing “other timelines” on YouTube or other recordings? Will you need to read and create fanfiction to make the emptiness of Undertale‘s completion go away? Or will you just grind on and become a Dirty Brother Killer?
In the end, I know what choice I made when I put my metaphorical controller down.
In honour of Halloween, tonight’s quick and dirty Mythic Bios article will be a video game review appropriate to the season at hand.
It is a fine game to play on an autumn afternoon or Halloween night. Imagine taking Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and combining it with Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween, apparently some Earthbound and some subversive turn-based RPG mechanics and what you might get is Toby Fox’s Undertale. And this description doesn’t do the game any justice.
In Undertale, you play as a child who has climbed up Mount Ebott and found themselves in the Underground: the site of which the race of monsters was banished ages ago in an ancient war with humankind. Now, there are two ways you can play this game. However before I go on, I want to reiterate something. A long time ago, I mentioned that a friend of mine truly appreciates “games with consequences.”
So imagine the phrase “games with consequences” existing in a Dictionary somewhere. If you can do that, think of the picture right beside the entry. That picture would be Undertale.
The first way you can play this game is to utilize one of its unique mechanics. This Path is called the Pacifist Run. That’s right. You can play through the game by killing absolutely no one. But what fun is that, you might ask? Well, imagine a child’s world. Think of a child coming across an Underground world of monsters: each one with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. Consider how scared children can be, but also how curious they often become, and then think about how they might handle a situation with a strange and eccentric being compared to how an adult might — or might not — do so.
Ironically, in a lot of ways the Pacifist route is a lot harder than its … opposite. But if you play it right: if you get to know the monsters and realize they are not different from you — and if you pay very close attention to details — you will be well rewarded.
And then you have the other … route. The alternative isn’t that hard to figure out if you are a long-time gamer. Basically, when you encounter monsters you consider them enemies and you essentially kill them all. You kill them and take their EXP. You level up. You will also learn a lot about this world, but your lessons — for all the ease of killing and staying to the tried, tested, and true mentality of being a gamer — will ultimately be harder ones.
It might be all the difference between an epic fantasy adventure … and a personal horror game.
I’m not going to go into much more detail beyond any of this, I’m afraid. To be honest, I’m just not feeling it. Toby Fox and his team create an excellent archetypal world of almost cartoonish beings, but with a lot of heart and serious subject matter amid some silliness verging into the profound. Also … they play with the form of the medium and genres that they are working with: a lot.
I really appreciate the story and the surface level simpleness of the game belying its true complexities. It is a game filled, literally, with heart but also secrets, and mysteries: some of which have still not even been solved to this very day. The music and graphics hearken back to the 8-bit nostalgia prevalent in much of the independent game scene.
But if I had one major quibble with Undertale, it’s ironically with the core of what it is: that actions have consequences. I will tell you right now: as with real life, if you are not at all careful your actions will leave a permanent mark on your gaming experience. And no amount of Saving or Restarting will ever change this. In fact, you can count on Saving or Restarting to have consequences of their own.
It is amazing to see a game that is so moralistic to the point of being both forgiving at times, and completely unforgiving: while also not being particularly all that preachy. Sometimes, it will give you just a few opportunities to see something wonderful but if you’re slow or you don’t pay attention, you will miss it. Yet what’s worse is that you will not get the entire story through one playthrough. It’s just not possible. You will miss details if you only have one playthrough. But the Catch 22 of another playthrough is, well that …
Consequences will be on you.
I’m just going to say this: this game is a self-aware completionist’s bane. Perhaps the best way to explain this without spoilers is to talk about two other games. Gaming Pixie created her own RPG: She Who Fights Monsters. At the very end, depending on your choices — even those made in the blink of an eye — and how much you pay attention to details, you will have only a few chances to get a particular ending. Your actions will colour what you get.
At the same time, there is also the lesson inherent in Gaming Pixie’s Shadow of a Soul. Sometimes, the only way to play a game is to not play that particular game at all. Either way, I hope that you will play Toby Fox’s Undertale and that no matter what you do you will stay determined.
It always seemed clear, at least to many Five Nights at Freddy’s fans, that Scott Cawthon was not finished with Five Nights at Freddy’s even after stating that his fourth gamewould be the last in the franchise. Yet what has always been striking was the fact that while the premise of the games was that the animatronics of Bonnie, Chica, Foxy, Freddy and friends were possessed by the spirits of dead children, the animatronics themselves seemed to have personalities and history beyond just being haunted.
When you also consider how much time Scott Cawthon put into designing these animatronics and their toy selves, it isn’t really surprising that he wanted to create a new game like FNAF World.
The main indication that FNAF World was going happen was through Cawthon’s constant website updates. Cawthon’s fanbase got to watch as his page changed from a thank you tribute with all of its motley antagonists, into a shinier version of its former self replete with new additions and cartoon “Adventure” character makeovers.
It was during this transition, from horror into fantasy, that Cawthon informed his fans on Steam of his intentions to make FNAF World as a role-playing game: in which all of the animatronics, formerly nightmarish enemies, will become its player characters.
This transformation from Five Nights at Freddy’s horror into FNAF World‘s adventure is not unlike watching Disney create cartoons from the grisly nature of early folklore. Still, early Disney always had a dark and adult sensibility and with Scott Cawthon’s storytelling abilities, FNAF World will have its own intriguing story premise.
Let me be clear on the matter. It’s not because they were necessarily the younger sibling stuck with being Player Two on their Famicom or Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s not because they’ve felt second best throughout most of the entirety of their lives, or feel like they are only talked about in relation to a “better person:” to the point of their last name being the first name of said before.
I’m not talking about Luigi in the original games or even the newer adventures that have been released in recent years: particularly in The Year of Luigi.
No, I think that most of the people who can relate to Luigi have played Super Mario Brothers 2.
Yes, I know. Super Mario Brothers 2 is problematic. I mean, in addition to it only being a single-player game for the multiple choice of characters at your disposal, it is also goes in and out of being Doki Doki Panic: the intended Mario sequel, made into its own game, and whose bones made the game we all know and love from the late 1980s.
And in this game we have another problematic character. For the first time we see that Luigi is different from Mario! He is not just Mario with a green hat and shirt under blue overalls. He is taller and thinner. And he even jumps higher than his brother.
For the jumping alone, Luigi should be superior to Mario. The problem in the problematic here, however, is one simple fact: much like my green-feathered budgie, Luigi sometimes has troubles when he attempts to land.
It’s true. He jumps magnificently in the air only for his feet to spin under him in a slapstick cartoonish fashion. This is especially annoying when you try to aim for a platform: which might as well be made of ice due to the fact that Luigi is too busy spasmodically moving up and descending.
I know I’ve been frustrated many times in attempting to control Luigi’s jumps: just for him to scuttle or slide off a platform or a brick. It can be downright infuriating.
But imagine what it’s like to be Luigi. Mario doesn’t jump as high as you, but he is a more dependable jumper and lander (for the most part). He is consistent. He gets the job done. People generally like him a lot more. And it all seems so effortless. It’s as though its all innate: all natural to him.
Yet you, Luigi, know you can jump high –higher than anyone else in the game — but you have to work at it. You have to think it out, and you become self-conscious of that process. Maybe you have more energy to expend than Mario. Perhaps you are so afraid of potential danger that you have to channel that frenetic energy somehow, or you’re excited, or that is just how you move under scrutiny. Or maybe you wish you could glide more like Princess Peach.
Maybe you like to imagine that you can fly.
And it only gets worse when someone is frustrated with you or draws attention to you when you attempt to jump under orders. Some might find it right on hilarious. And few people, if they only see you in one video game — in Super Mario Brothers 2 — will ever truly appreciate your jump. All they will see is how you struggle, and fail, and fall.
That is why I think some people like Luigi better: not because he’s perfect, or even good. But because they are Luigi: and they don’t get the luxury of a curtained stage with a Player Select Screen.
Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s series has taken Internet imagination by storm this past year or so. There has been so much speculation as to what is going on in the story line. For games where you must survive five (or so) nights against stained and rusting animatronics trying to stuff your frail little fleshy body into a suit filled with pistons and wires — if not worse — it has a very complicated plot that is spread across narrative fragments of 8-bit mini-games (often only accessible when after you die), newspaper clippings in the background, easter-eggs in the games, and even code on Scott Cawthon’s own website.
It’s insane: in a very good and deliciously evil way. Much like this cupcake.
All of the games have been talked about and analyzed: from gaming journalism sites, to professional YouTubers and Let’s Players, and all over Reddit forums. It is also no exaggeration to say that the series has its own dedicated community of fans: many of them attempting to dissect the game as if they are playing a warped and twisted totenkinder version of Halliday’s Easter Egg in Ready Player One. But one particular Five Nights at Freddy’s Game is getting a lot of attention right now.
Five Nights at Freddy’s 4: supposedly the final game of the series.
The fact is, Scott Cawthon could have ended the series with Five Nights at Freddy’s 3: where the fate of the murderer of all the children that he, might have, stuffed into the animatronics at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria was finally revealed. But Scott couldn’t leave it at that. Each game reveals a part of the puzzle, of the story, that we didn’t know about before. And everyone is scrambling to figure out the significance of what happened in Five Nights at Freddy’s 4.
This is all the more poignant due to the fact that Scott Cawthon went on on record as stating that while the community fanbase seemed to have solved most of the mysteries in the previous three games, they still didn’t get everything in Five Nights at Freddy’s 4. He then rubbed some salt in the wound by saying that the October 31 update for the game will not include the opening of the locked box included at the completion of the game’s Night 7.
So aside from an obligatory Challenge Accepted meme across the Internet, I have my own theory with regards to the story of Five Nights at Freddy’s 4: and what the game may have really been about.
The issue is taking details literally. Here is what I think happened. People went onto Scott Cawthon’s website and saw the source code for his page while waiting for Five Nights at Freddy’s 4. They looked at the source code and saw the number 87 repeated over and again in chains. 87 was believed by many to refer to the Bite of 1987 in the game’s lore: where apparently an animatronic bit off the entire half of some poor unfortunate’s frontal lobe.
There were no other details provided aside from that and so, when people saw 87 in the code of Scott’s page many people believed Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 would either be set during that time, or would at least explain what happened via some mini-games.
And it seemed so clear cut. The game even ended, initially, after Night 5 with an 8-bit rendering of the crying child protagonist getting his head chomped down — seemingly by accident — by the Golden Freddy animatronic: know known by some to be the original Fredbear and possibly the first animatronic in that franchise. We thought we saw the Bite of 87 in action and the events that led up to it.
But some things just didn’t add up. The YouTuber MatPat, in his two Game Theory videos on the matter, explained that the game itself — which seems to take place in the nightmares of that comatose child’s mind after his bite — had inconsistencies if he had been the victim of the bite. For starters, missing his frontal lobe would have affected his fear responses and even his subconscious perceptions. And there is also that fact the person who lost their frontal lobe, according to FNAF lore, actually survived while this child does not.
And then there is that fact that if you find an Easter egg following Night 3, you will realize that there is a cartoon playing on the crying child’s television that is Fredbear and Friends: with the date of 1983, not 1987.
Yet here is the thing. At one point, before Scott changed his webpage to create a chain of nightmarish animatronics asking, “Was it me?” and seemingly referring to which of them caused the Bite of 87 — a major point of contention in the FNAF Community — he had an image of Freddy Fazbear’s top hat lying by itself on the stage: making it unclear as to whether or not he would continue the series past the third game.
Musicians like the singing animatronics aren’t the only ones that perform on stages, however. Stage magicians also perform on stage. They traditionally wear top hats, and they are known for their misdirection and slight of hand.
Scott Cawthon is no less an entertainer of that caliber. Mostly everyone was so distracted by the idea that they might be seeing the Bite of 87 unfold and the mystery of whodunnit finally solved that other possibilities were not as prevalent.
Look at it this way. In the first Five Nights at Freddy’s game, Scott added an update after being asked about the Bite of 87 so often. There is a Custom Night menu where you can program the difficulty level of the animatronics that you are dealing with. If you type in 1-9-8-7, Golden Freddy will automatically appear and “crash” the game. Many took it to be that Golden Freddy caused the Bite, while others thought that Scott was just trolling them after being harassed about this question for so long.
But what if the code chain of 87 in on his webpage was actually there to tell everyone that Golden Freddy was central to Five Nights at Freddy’s 4? And what if that reoccurring question “Was it me?” in all the subsequent images that followed on the same page had nothing to do with the Bite of 87 at all? 87 was a red herring, or at least a way to make you possibly more aware of Golden Freddy: of Fredbear.
What if the real question wasn’t who made the Bite of 87, or how? What if the real question is which spirit was impetus in making the events in all of Five Nights at Freddy’s possible?
MatPat and other YouTuber theorists believe that the crying child in the fourth game becomes the Puppet: the animatronic who reanimates the spirits of four other dead children into their current animatronic forms in all the games. But he doesn’t rule out that the crying child also becomes Golden Freddy: that in terms of the story it would be much more satisfying given what happened in the third game.
Here is my understanding of the situation. In the second game, we see a child get murdered outside of what might be the first Fredbear’s Family Diner: and he becomes the Puppet. Then years later Fredbear’s expands into a chain of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzerias. We see the crying child in 1983 get tormented by his older brother in a Foxy mask, and also the fact that he is deeply terrified of Fazbear’s: as if he saw something happen in there he shouldn’t have. On his birthday, his brother and friends stuff his head into the Fredbear animatronic and it accidentally chomps down on him. The Puppet, sensing a kinship with another tormented child who didn’t even get to enjoy his last birthday, takes action. He doesn’t have his body, but he makes the child is first attempt to restore life: and makes him into a Golden Freddy ghost as that was how he had been fatally wounded and rendered comatose.
Then the murders of the children start to happen. Everyone thought that the Puppet was reanimating the children through the animatronics of Freddy, Chica, Bonnie, and Foxy to get revenge on their murderer. But if you play the secret mini-game in Five Nights at Freddy’s 3, you have the opportunity to set the spirits of those children free. If you are successful you get a final scene where children wearing the Puppet, Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy masks give a cake to another child in a Golden Freddy mask. Then they pass on.
Scott Cawthon used to create Christian games before he set out on his adventure into horror. One central tenet of Christianity is redemption. Perhaps, when it comes down to it — though not in a purely transparent C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia fashion — the question of “Was it me?” was really which animatronic’s spirit motivated the Puppet to set everything into action: that it was more than vengeance or blood lust but an actual need to set things right. And it would only be fitting that Golden Freddy, possibly made after Fredbear the first animatronic, would be so integral in beginning and ending the series.
There are a lot more details I haven’t gone into of course, but I will leave that in more capable hands. We may never know what is in that locked box, of it is as simple as whether or not the Puppet or Golden Freddy started all of this. But remember: the narrative above the box, and in Scott’s Steam message didn’t say that the secret would never be revealed. The text above the box reads: “Perhaps some things are best left forgotten, for now,” while Scott himself states, “maybe some things are best left forgotten, forever.”
Based on the fact that Scott Cawthon has released the Five Nights At Freddy’s series relatively more quickly than most people expected, while releasing the fourth game earlier than his originally stated Halloween date, and his history of playing with assumptions, I think he is kind of a tease and I take everything he says with a grain of salt. I would not be surprised if there is more to this story one way or another.
And now, more than ever, I am looking forward to Halloween.