[GAME OVER] On Adapting the Tabletop Game

I’m currently playing Rogue Factor’s Focus-published Mordheim: City of the Damned (live-commentary reaction videos will start next week, captain, nothin’ to fret.)

Now, Mordheim is a title with which I have some history (in its tabletop incarnation) and I’m quite invested in this game doing justice to the original. While I didn’t know much going in to the PC version, I’d heard one or two comments from other tabletop fans that it “had nothing to do with Mordheim” – meaning the tabletop game.

Which is, as these things invariably are, somewhat of an exaggeration. Mordheim wears its aesthetic very well. For one thing, it re-uses a lot of the superb ‘Blanchitsu’ art from the tabletop game in its cinematics (‘Blanchitsu’, for those not in the know, refers to the distinctive Bosche-inspired outsider-art style of GW’s long-term illustrator and art director John Blanche, as well as a school of character, scenario and user experience design which feeds into and off that aesthetic.)

For another thing, it looks like the early-Renaissance Mittel-European City of the Damned as I remember it, as crowded and multi-layered as only the best of gaming tables could be. This is something I’ve always cherished about adaptations of tabletop games – if they’re done well they represent the peak of the experience, the big battle or the elaborate 3D terrain setup which is beyond the pocket-money investment I could make as a kid, the I-move-house-every-year-so-it-has-to-be-portable limitations of student life, or the I-can-afford-terrain-or-rent strictures of working-poor adulthood.

The one thing Warmachine: Tactics got right

However, the neckbeardish no-true-Mordheim response does have some weight. The gameplay is more like a Warhammer-skinned XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Percentage chances to hit, overwatch, gear micro-management, a revolving cast of active and off-duty warriors, areas-you-can-reach-based movement system (although Mordheim has some bizarrely FPS-like controls and a very sensitive camera, rather than the more distant third-person mouse-driven interface I’d associate with turn-based tactics).

Now, I’m not about to claim this is inherently bad merely because it’s not how the tabletop version played – that’s a fanboy’s claim if ever I heard one and it’s often not true. Warmachine: Tactics, after all, fell prey to exactly this fallacy – it cleaved to the tabletop game’s mechanics and like the tabletop game it’s frankly ponderous. In fact, it manages to slow itself down further by giving the disposable infantry ‘models’ multiple wounds rather than letting them die in one hit, a saving grace of their tabletop iterations.

There’s one huge thing to be said in favour of Tactics though. It cleaned up the virtual ‘tabletop’ a great deal; the tokens, counters, trackers, templates and widgets involved in playing Warmachine were mostly handled by the game engine and only visible when needed.

That’s a great strength of digitally adapted tabletop properties – they can automate an awful lot of the table clutter and the cruft and the remembering what stats your targets have and figuring out what you need to roll to hit them. They can – in theory – reduce cognitive load, and strip out the cumbersome or fiddly bits of the rules which are there to satisfy some idea of balance or simulationism or faith to the lore but which nobody ever manages to execute properly and which grind play to a halt. Things like grappling rules, which reduce tabletop roleplayers to fury the world over.

Exempla? Exegiesis? Exorcism? Vampire: the Masquerade – Redemption, anyway.

For all that I had fun with Vampire: the Masquerade – Redemption back in 1999 (when Mordheim hit the tabletop – there is a connection here, don’t worry), with the benefit of hindsight it’s a horrible game.

It takes the already-clunky Storyteller System and injects a further layer of complexity by making all the stats percentile, turning actions like feeding and healing and boosting stats into a Discipline tree, and giving all the Disciplines levels within their levels (so you level ‘sideways’ as well as up, deciding whether your XP go on more Dread Gaze or putting a token point in Entrancement so you can get Majesty).

I don’t know what this was intended to solve. I do know it’s a headache to spend XP, which convert into extra stat percentages or Discipline dots at varying rates, and which are needlessly granular in their own right compared to the tabletop game’s elegant “one XP for completing the objective, one XP for roleplaying, one XP for style, and your next Presence power costs [current level x 5]”.

Adding insult to injury, Redemption’s combat is frustratingly arbitrary. This is hardly unusual among Nineties computer RPGs. The genre was still burdened with faith to its roots, and insistence that the rolling of dice was integral. It never was.

Dice rolls exist to facilitate actions which a) have a significant chance of failure, b) have a relevant consequence for failure, and c) can’t be simulated with ease at the tabletop. That’s (partly) why most RPGs have so many rules for combat compared to anything else. Spinning a yarn to persuade a guard works. Using a hand-drawn map to indicate where we run to when it goes wrong works. Getting up and whacking the DM with the nearest sword-shaped object doesn’t really work (at least, not at my table), so we need an abstract system for resolving that, whereas with the other actions they’re nice to have.

Now. The point. The computer game can represent combat differently. Instead of using dice as the processing factor, the engine can simulate the combat environment and allow skill with the user interface to determine success or failure. It makes a lot of tabletop game mechanics redundant. You don’t need to roll to hit when you can click or press or fiddle and your aim/timing can determine whether you succeed or fail.

Since player skill is not character skill – I, personally, am a terrible shot and don’t want to be constantly reminded of that while I play games – most games have some sort of abstract mechanics hanging around. However, as a rule, I don’t think computer gaming should be governed by those abstracts in the way that Redemption is. Whether Christof hits someone with his broadsword or not has very little to do with me; I don’t even get to roll the dice myself! I just move him next to his target, click, and hope for the best.

Redemption is real-time, despite being built to imitate a turn-based tabletop game and having some sort of turn sequence involved in the AI behaviour. (If it’s based on time rather than turns… well, it’s not displaying any timers, so it’s still hiding the information we need in order to make our decisions.) Unlike the other RPG-to-PC adaptations of the time, the Bioware/AD&D greats like Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment, it doesn’t even have the decency to include a pause button so you can micromanage the behaviour of multiple characters to the extent that a turn-based combat system built for multiple players to control single actors demands. And don’t get me started on the AI…

Why am I going on about Redemption? To give an idea of what a truly awful tabletop to computer adaptation looks like. It manages to be both overly faithful to its origins (by simulating dice to simulate combat prowess rather than cutting out the middleman, and keeping the turn-based resolution architecture despite a real-time interface) and to betray that faith in a way that reflects badly on them (the stupidly granular statistics and XP mechanics, which are more complex than they need to be even in tabletop form). On top of that, it has a clunky interface and appalling AI.

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Mordheim: City of the Damn You God Why Can’t I Climb This Wall?

Mordheim isn’t that bad.

It’s still turn-based, for one thing, and a game which is going to wear its mechanics up front and encourage you to micro-manage had better bloody well give you time to do so.

What I can’t forgive is that Mordheim – the PC version – thrusts its new system right in my face, and it is so much more complicated than Mordheim – the tabletop version.

It’s still all hung around random number generation, but with percentage chances (more granular than the 1-6 linear or 2-12 bell curve probabilities of the tabletop). Damage – dealt or taken – is expanded into the dozens or hundreds rather than the “you’re either wounded or you’re not and you can take this many wounds before you drop” simplicity the tabletop game pulled off.

It expects me to give a toss about 10% extra this or -5% that or double-but-subtract 25% from the other when equipping my dudes, who have dozens of stats and choices on how to enhance them. It introduces a baffling array of stances – parry, dodge, ambush, aim, delay – compared to the tabletop’s relatively simple “move, attack, and let your defenses take care of themselves”. It handles things like choosing your stance through the same contextual “scroll wheel to select your action” system that it uses for looting, climbing and jumping – most of which you can only do when in very close proximity to an often arbitrary point on the screen. It governs movement range and number of attacks by an arcane system of ‘strategic’ and ‘offensive’ points and doesn’t even have the courtesy to highlight them in the HUD. It asks you to confirm and reconfirm your every action – which, given how easy it is to pick the wrong one, is probably for the best.

Now. Here’s my question.

Aren’t computers supposed to be labour saving devices?

Aren’t they supposed to take cognitive load away from us? Aren’t they supposed to automate fiddly, pedantic, precise calculations and enable us to make our decisions with clear heads, untroubled by minutiae? Don’t they have the capacity to simulate environments without throwing the mechanisms of simulation in our face at every turn?

Mordheim on the PC somehow manages to be more work than Mordheim on the tabletop, and I have to build things for the tabletop one. With my hands. It’s not bad because it fails to literally and faithfully replicate the tabletop experience, like the nerds say it is. It’s bad because it is harder to play than the tabletop game, despite being on a platform which was invented to make life easier for us. It’s bad because it makes a fundamental error in adaptation that should have been left behind with the Millennium Bug. Developers keep doing this: seeing the computer’s raw calculative potential as an excuse to throw in more and more mechanics instead of quietly managing and obfuscating the ones we have.

The worst part is, I still quite like it. It’s not as toothgrindingly awful as Redemption – it’s not real-time, it doesn’t force you to choose between breaking immersion (by pausing) or leaving a clueless AI in charge of your characters, it at least has the courtesy to tell you when a new turn sequence has started.

It still feels like Mordheim, too. Like XCOM it has that investment factor where a string of probability events create emergent narrative and character. The first two tutorials gave me my Skaven minion who cut down an ogre-sized Possessed, his sniper buddy who never missed a pistol shot, the Mercenary band who hadn’t figured out how shields worked and Dieter the super-halberdier, last survivor who beat up three Sisters of Sigmar with ambushes and charges.

That’s the sort of thing that hooked me on the tabletop version. That’s the kind of faith-keeping I want to see in an adaptation – the equivalent of translating a poem for its effect (or affect) rather than the strict definitions of every word. Recognising the essence of the original game and recreating it with a sense for what works in this medium, not with a literal, slavish devotion to the nuts and bolts of an analogue engine you might not even need.

I just wish Mordheim’s new nuts and bolts weren’t so bloody complicated.

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Thanks for reading. See you next month.

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Gothic Spaces: The Horror of Bradensbrook

Transcript

Introduction

Somehow – don’t ask me how – I managed to confuse the word “Bradensbrook” with the word “Ravenholdt” when submitting this abstract. Or maybe it was “Black Rook Hold” with “Ravenholdt”. Or it might have been “Rooksguard”… or “Ravencrest”…

Thing is, this confusion allows me to make a point. World of Warcraft is awash with these ominous, Gothic-sounding corvid-based names, rattling them out at a rate of knots, drawing on a fantasy roleplaying tradition that goes back to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ ‘Ravenloft’ in 1983. Ravens – or Rooks – are oversubscribed, as co-ordinates go.

I’m borrowing this term ‘co-ordinates’ from Tanya Krzywinska’s 2015 piece in Revenant – ‘The Gamification of Gothic Coordinates in Video Games’. There, it refers to points in a complex web of discourses, expectations and cultural semiotics that are acting within any given game environment. The coordinates here relate to the imaginary “headspace” that circulates around a videogame, as well as to the locations within the game’s virtual world.

Krzyswinska’s paper issues a call for deeper and more sustained engagement with individual games – rather than the broad generalisations which have characterised the rush toward workable theories of computer games. It calls for a move away from pure ludology, and the polemical entrenchment between narratology and ludology, towards a more diverse and focused reading of game texts.

Kryzwinska’s analysis “attends to the experiential “doing” element of what it is to play a game in order to make its argument that games have the capacity to bring a new dimension to Gothic – even if that capability is by no means fully realised”. She claims that “Gothic is always rhetorically constituted… there are more coherent claims on the nomenclature than others, and that these must be identified if we are to understand in what form Gothic appears in games.”

The gist of her argument is this. When video games draw on Gothic, they deploy the genre’s semiotics to varying degrees of success for an audience that’s varyingly familiar with them. Kryzwinska asks us whether a superficial, aesthetic, purely semotic presence is enough to deem a particular video game ‘Gothic’.

She also mentions World of Warcraft, the behemoth among Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games – MMORPGs to their friends – and this is where I come in.

According to Kryzwinska,

Gothic is used in World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) with the Undead race to demonstrate moral relativism… Warcraft and World of Warcraft players might recognise Arthas’ journey from Hero to False Hero as one way that this game calls on and makes use of the Gothic.

Which it is. But we can go further, and talk about spaces.

World of Warcraft – I’m going to call it WoW from now on, because I’m bound to start doing that out of habit even if I try to use its full name – is of interest to me as a player and a storyteller and a critic because it has so much work to do.

It has a player base numbered in the millions. (Somewhere between three and ten million – Blizzard are reluctant to reveal exactly how many and there’s constant churn as people unsubscribe, resubscribe, stop playing but don’t cancel their subscription and so on).

All of these players have varying levels of literacy and literary inclination. Some are interested in the minutiae of story. Some only care about how many bearskins they have to collect for their next quest. Some of them are hardcore roleplayers who want to feel involved in the game’s narrative and actively resent being told they’re a Champion of Azeroth when they would rather be just one cog in a big machine. Some of them couldn’t give a rat’s ass – not a quest collectible yet, but give them time – about their presumed status, but still react to the aesthetics of the environment, the ethical quandries in which the game makes them complicit, and how well the mechanics of play integrate with all that.

When WoW decides that it wants to be Gothic, it has to make the semiotics of the genre work for a huge variety of reader responses and readerly techniques. It has to make them work as a game space, creating a set of Gothic coordinates to which players can find their way from a variety of starting points, and with a variety of navigational and interactive techniques.

Those co-ordinates can be geographical, within the game’s virtual space. They can be ethical – video games having this capacity to make a Gothic anti-hero out of us all, to ask as WoW asks “what would you have done differently?” They can also be ludological. Game mechanics surrounding location and character death can have intrinsically Gothic qualities to them, or at least be a point from which the Gothic coordinates are triangulated.

Each of these three ideas – geography, ethics and ludology – underpin a section of the video you’re about to watch. I’ll be talking about the game’s narrative throughout, but I’m conscious that we came here to talk about space and so I’m going to focus on how narrative creates a headspace for the player. Or tries to.

A couple more things before we get stuck in. Methodology stuff.

I take a similar sort of view to Grey Carter and Cory Rydell here: “Ludonarrative dissonance” is not something I think of as a problem. I try not to think about it at all. Game mechanics are not the enemy of story.

You only come to that conclusion if you start off ‘reading’ a video game like a book or film. Do that and you will find moments where the medium doesn’t work in the same way and the techniques you’re used to finding and employing yourself break down. The proper response to this sort of thing is to build new methods of readership, not to decide that videogames are a flawed storytelling medium.

When I read a video game, I prefer to think in terms of two kinds of story.

Matthew Tyler-Jones calls them “authored” and “procedural”, although I favour “emergent” over “procedural”, to distinguish it from ‘procedural generation’, the technique Diablo or Bastion use to create environments.

Basically, they’re the story in the game and the story of the game. Authored narrative is what the developers put in – the semiotic cues and scripted events which provide context to gameplay and provide the hooks for player involvement. Emergent narrative is what arises from play – the events that happen when a player, or group, tackles the game in a particular way.

When we were recording the third segment of this presentation, one of our characters was hit by a rolling ball trap and almost deaded. Her player maintains she did that to make the video more interesting – which I don’t believe for a second. The presence of the ball in the first place is an authorial decision, but what happens with the ball is an emergent event that becomes part of our narrative. The developers didn’t squash Langwidere – she got in the way of the ball and squashed herself.

That’s the difference. I’m going to refer to this architecture of story a lot as we go forward. That said: let’s talk geography and revelation.

Geography and Revelation – the Bradensbrook quest chain

The lone escapee dying by the roadside is a classic of the fantasy role playing game – it’s the plot hook for ‘Ravenloft’ for one thing – and it’s already priming us for the experience we’re about to have. It’s followed by an aesthetic shift in the surroundings, from the bright and colourful woods of Val’sharah to the ominous cliffs and muted tones of Bradensbrook. We’re moving into a more Gothic space already.

Bradensbrook itself is exactly the kind of Gothic Village that Emily Marlow talked about, a location where the Gothic aesthetic is almost everyday. Although there are supernatural events, and they are a problem, they’re a problem because the town is under attack – not because of any innate fear of the supernatural.

There follows some questing where we drive back the ghosts and carrion birds besieging Bradensbrook, and we rescue the Mayor’s daughter and earn his trust. I’ve cut that because it’s honestly not all that interesting unless you really want to watch someone who’s bad at WoW get lost looking for crows to beat up.

The interesting bit starts when Jarod Shadowsong, the chap on the tiger, invites us to ride with him to the Ravencrest Mausoleum. We turn up the path here, and – with some dodgy camera work on my part – we see Black Rook Hold above us, the huge ruined pile, digital Otranto looming large over the landscape. Beneath, we start to uncover a mystery…

We’ve come up here looking for Jarod’s sister Maiev, a hero in her own right who’s disappeared while pursuing the anti-hero Illidan Stormrage. Once we’re up here, though, we learn more about the shared past of these characters, and the character Kur’talos Ravencrest – he’ll do some shouting while we explore the Hold.

This whole layered narrative, in which we the players are experiencing the Hold as it is now, Jarod is reminiscing about the Hold at its best, and the ghosts are reliving its last days, reminds me somewhat of Wuthering Heights or the opening chapters of Dracula or especially Otranto.

(I draw on literary examples here because the tropes originate with them. The sense of what Gothic is comes from books, video games only differ in their execution of the tropes.)

In each of those texts we are several steps removed from the original event – the titular Horror of this presentation. The texts ask us to accept that characters tell their stories to an author who relates them to us, often anonymising their own self in the process.

Video games do this sort of thing a lot too, especially the survival horror genre, as Christopher Scott points out, by activating the experience, making us do something to get it. The norm is the scripted audio log that the player uncovers while exploring, or can uncover as a completionist challenge, with narrative revelation the reward for fully exploring the virtual space that’s created.

What makes it Gothic here is the semiotics of the space itself, and the sense that there has been a Wrong done, something that warrants all this haunting that’s going on.

That revelatory aspect is a key technique in the Gothic.

The wandering through dark corridors uncovering lost heirlooms, secret documents, signifiers of what took place here before, reporting them back to a reader, remediating them even as they go through their own discovery process, and the auto-triggered logs in the Hold make it that kind of Gothic space.

All of this is embedded on the authorial part, but it also operates in the emergent sphere. The player character is exploring the ramparts and courtyards and dungeons of the Hold, becoming the Jonathan Harker figure, who’s part of the narrative’s outermost layer and uncovers the layers beneath, remediating them to the player.

It’s the same storytelling device as the Gothic novel, but we’re a step further in – we’re viewpoint character as well as reader, doing the legwork of uncovering for ourselves.

Whether or not we’re the Gothic hero is another matter.

We can argue that Jarod is the Gothic hero of this narrative – it’s his sister we’re looking for, after all – and that numerous characters are jostling for the role of Gothic anti-hero or villain, depending on which layer of the authorial narrative we’re currently looking at.

There’s a distinction between ‘hero’ and ‘protagonist’ which is hardly unique to videogames, but useful in thinking about them – it was first pointed out to me by Lawrence Miles’ 2011 essay “Everyone’s A Destroyer Of Worlds These Days.”

If we’re talking about the Gothic we’re definitely in the territory where a protagonist may or may not be a ‘goodie’ in the modern sense of the word ‘hero’, and where the antagonist is more likely to be the larger-than-life, too-weird-to-live too-rare-to-die Classical Greek sense of ‘heroic’.

But beyond that, there’s also a question of narrative function – why are we, the player character, even here? What’s our stake? What’s our incentive?

If the developers of WoW or a similar MMORPG want to author a narrative, tell a distinct story for themselves rather than relying on players to do the heavy lifting, which I think is what we’re seeing in Black Rook Hold, they have to leave a kind of player-shaped hole in it.

They’re telling a story which has to leave room for millions of player characters, who might be from either of the game’s two factions, from any of its twelve classes or thirteen playable ‘races’. It has to appeal to players with a wide base of what Blizzard’s dev team call ‘class fantasies’ – they peddle a distinct idea of what it is to be a Warrior or a Warlock or, in my case, a Monk, but those ideas are interpreted by players and coloured by preferred choices of in-game activities.

It’s entirely possible that a given character might have no direct connection to the Hold or its story, no reason to bite on any of the hooks being offered, save the rewards of experience, gold and treasure.

I play a Blood Elf Monk. I don’t really have any in-universe reason to be concerned about the doings of night elves, other than sheer curiosity (and, I suppose, the last request of a dying woman…), so it’s a good job I’m both nice and curious – or at least easily led.

In practical terms, this means Blizzard has to engineer a Gothic story which could resolve itself without the player character – in case the player is largely indifferent towards it, and the story needs to drive itself – hence Jarod’s commentary on the various bits and bobs of Maiev’s equipment, and his ability to arrive at various points before you do. He could get this done himself, but we’re here and we helped him before.

The presence of a player character is superfluous to the authorial narrative, but has to feel integral to the emergent narrative. We can’t just be dragged along in Jarod’s wake.

We have to be doing something that helps him out and gives us a dynamic role in our own emergent narratives.

Considered as Gothic, though, this creates an odd distance between the viewpoint character and the events. Jonathan Harker or Emily St. Aubert or Catherine Morland are integral to the plots they move through, whereas we are awkwardly co-existing with an authored figure performing the same role.

It’s not that WoW can’t integrate the protagonist functions of its authored and emergent narratives, but in this case it doesn’t fully integrate them. It’s a balancing act, with Blizzard leaning one way or another to keep the game moving. In this case they erred on the side of the gameplay and the class fantasy. In the next segment we’ll see another approach to resolving this problem of protagonism – one which is arguably better at being Gothic, but worse at being an MMORPG.

Heroes and Protagonists – Illidan, Jared and the Player Character

Little bit of context for what’s happening here.

The content you’re currently watching takes place during a later visit to Black Rook Hold, as part of another plotline. We’re going back in time, having a vision of the terrible events which took place thousands of years ago, and traumatised all these ghosts-to-be we encountered on our first trip. This being a video game, we’re able to uncover events from the game’s past in a variety of ways. Discoverable documents, dialogue with NPCs, quest text, cinematics, or – as we see here – actually playing through them, being projected into the past of the fictive environment.

I find this to be the best, most gamified way to deliver exposition or revelation in this medium. It’s a direct, experiential exposure to the tragedy that made this Gothic space what it is. It allows us to inhabit multiple perspectives within and around that space and its narrative. There’s us, the player-stroke-reader; there’s our character, the avatar of our readership and the mediatory ‘discoverer’ of the revelatory narrative within the fictive universe, and the awkward co-protagonist of that narrative; and now there’s Illidan here, the anti-hero we’re steering through his defining moment of sacrifice and cruelty and desperate expedience.

(I’ve cut a lot of Illidan’s backstory, because the quest line takes about forty minutes to play through, and there’s only so much I have time to show, but take my word for it – he’s a Gothic anti-hero. Grand destiny, spurned in love, feels second-best to his brother, pursues forbidden knowledge and power to compensate, decorated hero of the world-shattering conflict du jour, leader of a feared but effective military elite; you know the drill. It’s all there.)

It’s an effective design choice because in an interactive medium like this, allowing the player to directly access and experience events is more respectful of the general point of the enterprise than dumping a cinematic on us and expecting us to passively receive what Tyler-Jones calls “narrative atoms” – discrete bits of gameplay and context that join up to make a sort of “molecular” story.

It’s also effective because it allows us to be the Gothic anti-hero, rather than witnessing his deeds and misdeeds either second-hand or on the receiving end. We’re controlling Illidan here – we’re complicit in what he’s doing. When he drains the life out of these Moon Guard because it’s that or get stomped by demons and fail to save the world, and he’s choosing the lesser of two evils, it’s our finger on the button.

I think this is something games can do that most textual forms can’t – induce that sense of responsibility in the reader, or player, or participant – and I think that can be an effective deepening of the Gothic that’s only possible in interactive texts.

While we’re talking about Gothic roles, though, I want to bring up my earlier question. If Illidan’s the anti-hero, who’s the hero? Jarod, still? He’s fighting alongside Illidan in this battle, but at the last he rejects Illidan’s methods, decides he went too far, and it’s Jarod’s return to the Hold in the fictive future that kick-starts the narrative as we’ve experienced it.

But if he’s the hero, what are we?

This makes me think of Manuel Aguirre’s observation that

Gothic abides by fairy tale narrative rules; it is only that Gothic individual who crosses over into the Other is no real hero … a key to Gothic thus resides in its centring the flawed character as protagonist [while] the standard hero of traditional tales is often demoted to a helpless or passive stance.

That’s our in. Jarod may be our Gothic hero but he is not the protagonist. He can afford to be that helpless and passive figure whose story is only resolved when a player – either in their own avatarial guise or, as here, inhabiting Illidan – comes along. Protagonism here works in the sort of drifter sense: the hero who’s just passing through, resolving other people’s stories along the way.

Maybe I’m sticking my neck out here, but I’d argue that if, at any point, the protagonist of a video game is anyone other than the player character or characters, the developer has failed. Many do. There’s a long and noble tradition of such failures in fantasy roleplaying that’s about as old as the hobby itself. The old j’accuse for these people is “failed novelist”, a claim that goes back to Gary Gygax. They don’t want you to make your own story; they want you to finish theirs, providing the impetus and motivation to a narrative they can’t resolve.

The problem, for our would-be Gothic game developers, is integrating protagonism into the narrative architecture of the Gothic  while leaving space for players to move, and execute decisions, and interpret, and project “the fantasy” – whatever that might be for them – and otherwise exercise their agency, and in so doing, create an emergent narrative. Gothic is a fundamentally authored genre – the defining tropes of location, character and plot events almost have to unfold in a particular way, or along particular lines at least, in order for a text to be functionally Gothic.

Video games have, as I’ve said, a kind of molecular structure to their storytelling – narrative atoms are associated with a particular gameplay task, a mission or quest or match, and the movement of the authored narrative is contingent on players completing the task and moving on to the next atom.

(In the course of play, choosing to ignore the quest objective and instead creating a chain of emergent narrative atoms is totally valid – but if you want to find out what happens next in the story in the game, as opposed to the story of the game, at some point you have to turn that quest in.)

The author has more control over the emergent narrative than a purely theoretical understanding of authored and emergent storytelling might suggest.

In the current case, those discrete narrative atoms are links in a molecular chain which leads Illidan from crisis to decision to renewed crisis to desperate decision. His crimes – his descent into Gothic anti-heroism – are pre-destined by the architecture of the game. Unless the player wants to faff around this flashback being Illidan Stormrage forever, they’ll either have to abandon the quest chain that brought them here, or complete it.

Predestination of this kind – the fictive universe having it in for a character, shaping them into what the story needs – is arguably the heart of the storytelling process. It’s also quite appropriate to the genre, really, as an explicit force and factor in the Gothic anti-hero’s arc. Siting the player’s perspective inside Illidan allows for a more concrete Gothic experience, and also reasserts the Hold as a space where Gothic things happen,in preparation for our next visit.

That next visit is going to highlight a challenge faced by all computer games, but especially multiplayer games, and especially multiplayer games which have gone out of their way to facilitate instantaneous shifts between modes of gameplay, as WoW has.

Ludology: Modes of play and means of dying

Our third visit to Black Rook Hold is a group activity – a dungeon!

For those not in the know, this is a game mode for multiple players who fight their way through groups of fairly trivial foes, and a number of more significant antagonists – boss fights.

The bosses are minor characters. Each has an amount of story, implicit in their brief snippets of dialogue during the dungeon, and a greater amount of story tucked away in the Dungeon Journal, an in-game function which explains a bit more about where we are, who these big scary people are, and gives us a heads up on their mechanics.

In the earliest days of WoW, dungeons were difficult, poorly explained, and not exactly easy to get to. Your avatar had to travel to the dungeon over land and sea, with limited fast-travel options, and you had to arrange a group of four other brave heroes to come with you, meet you there, or take your chances with a Pick Up Group at the entrance.

Thing is, dungeons take time to design, develop, flesh out, test, rebalance and make ready for play. After a while Blizzard realised they were putting a lot of time and money into content which wasn’t being seen on the reg by many players – apocryphally, I’m told only one or two per cent of the player base even saw the original forty-man raid dungeons, back in the day.

So they implemented a queuing system, whereby player avatars can join an automated matchmaking service which teleports them all to the dungeon of their choosing – or a random one – once the right number and combination of characters has been reached.

They also provided incentives, such as bonus loot, collectibles, accelerated experience and reputation gains, and achievement awards, for engaging with the random group finder, deliberately steering players into new habits. You can still do things the old way, and Blizzard has steered back toward this ground with the Mythic dungeon and the Challenge mode for pre-made groups to test themselves against, but the prevailing model for most players is the random group, visiting the random dungeon.

I bring this up because it’s created an air of disposability around the dungeon experience. The nature of a game’s virtual space, how easy it is to enter and navigate, creates a headspace in which genres and narratives can take root – or not.

This is not about dissonance between gameplay and narrative, but about the kind of emergent narratives that the gameplay encourages, and the dissonance between those emergent narratives and the narrative the developers are trying to author. It’s story vs. other kind of story.

It’s easy to take dungeons for granted, see. You probably didn’t choose a specific one, unless you were following a ‘breadcrumb quest’ that led you in there as part of a molecular narrative chain. You probably aren’t doing it with people you know, or who share your basic attitudes to and interpretations of the game, or even care about the story at all.

I had to do this with guildmates because trying to pace a PUG, capture all the dialogue, have time to read and show the dungeon journal, simply doesn’t work. People want to come in, ‘speed run’ – skip as many of the incidental enemies as possible and complete the boss fights with minimal fuss – collect their loot and their bonus reward, and be on their merry way.

This headspace makes Gothic storytelling in WoW… challenging. It’s hard to evoke an atmosphere of pathetic fallacy and all-pervading gloom when some barely literate stranger, with an avatar named something like Cuckmeister and dressed in the skimpiest armour imaginable, is bouncing around demanding a speedrun and cluttering up the screen with slurs and automated damage reports if you dare to slow down.

Even my guildmates, who are as a rule interested in stories and immersion and integrity, have a tendency to spam cosmetic effects whenever they have to stop moving for more than a minute.

I do know people who roleplay in dungeons – who approach them in-character, proceed at a snail’s pace, and invest seriously in the events taking place around them. These people are a tragic minority – and to be honest, I’ve tried it and know I can’t keep it up while concentrating on actually playing the game.

Despite this dissonance between forms of narrative, most of the bosses in Black Rook Hold represent a credible effort at authorial Gothic, even in an environment where player behaviour means the emergent narrative is likely to be nothing of the sort.

The Amalgam of Souls is a cluster of tortured ghosts, valiant defenders of the Hold who – once defeated – separate into their component identities and unlock the rest of the dungeon. The winding corridors of the Hold’s interior lead us from this mausoleum-like space into the presence of Lord Ravencrest’s daughter, herself a tragic anti-heroine in the vein of Illidan Stormrage, who’s returned to her father’s castle and is defending his delusional reality from intruders like what we are.

The final fight – against Lord Ravencrest himself and his most trusted advisor – occurs at the pinnacle of the Hold. In a rooftop battle, we free Ravencrest by destroying his resurrected body, and reveal his advisor to be an agent of the Burning Legion – the demons who ruined the Hold in the first place, and have been the architects of all our pain.

Ravencrest is undisputably the victim here, although his position as a final boss – and his ghostly condition – misrepresent him as a Gothic villain in his own right. This is a pretty basic subversion of gameplay expectations, all things considered, but not an unsatisfying one, and we’ve been well primed to expect something fishy by the confusion various Ravencrest associates have displayed on the way here.

I imagine that if one hadn’t bothered to read the dungeon journal, it might even come as a surprise – although if Blizzard didn’t provide a dungeon journal, players would be sure to datamine the dungeon during testing, and spoil the surprise for everyone by posting guides to the optimal strategy. After all, why wouldn’t you? It’s a game; the point is to beat it.

This, as Kryzwinska tells us, is the fundamental issue of video game Gothic. To quote:

Games and puzzles are built on the notion that there is a solution, a winning condition, and many games that we might easily call Gothic… are therefore caught up within a polarization between the generic vocabulary of games, where players are catalysts for redemption, and the inescapable sense of loss and entropy that characterizes Gothic.

This is a problem in headspace and attitude. A problem of Game Stories vs. Gothic Stories.

Gamers, as a rule, don’t like Pyrrhic victories. It’s a broad generalisation, I know, but unless the less-than-desirable outcome is framed as an obvious sequel hook, I feel we prefer the authored narratives of our games to come out in victory. We definitely like the emergent narrative to come out in victory. We want to beat the game.

There’s an added complication in that death, for a player character in an MMO, cannot be permanent. (Not unless the player has chosen it to be so, by subscribing to a challenge like WoW Iron Man or a set of roleplaying rules, anyway.) The expectation in this genre is that death is merely a setback – avatars’ equipment will take some damage, and they may have to “corpse run” back to where they died, or ask very nicely to be resurrected, but they’re not dead forever. There are whole plot points that turn around it. The game goes so far as to explain that some characters – like all playable Demon Hunters – can’t actually be killed, justifying the game mechanic within the imagined world.

I still think the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ is bunk, but I also admit that the relative cheapness of death in WoW creates a practical problem for storytellers. Once death is no longer a permanent or even particularly significant outcome, the consequences of death start to lose their weight. Grief is not a particularly strong emotion when the first thing that springs to mind upon a death is “can’t you just res her?”

It’s just as true for the emergent narrative as for the authored. I could cry for Langwidere when she’s butchered by the Amalgam of Souls (and WoW provides me with a sardonic emote for doing so) – but my resurrection ability is right there and for us to get on with the dungeon, our errant healer must live.

The novel Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw is set in a WoW-like MMO, and centres on this idea, poking and prodding at the meaning of death in a world where nobody really dies. In a closing flourish, a fictional review of this fictional game in his own acerbic style, Croshaw points out that permanent death completely throws off our sense of how MMORPGs should work.

Part of Croshaw’s critical perspective is that highlighting the oddities of game mechanics – accidentally or on purpose – brings them to players’ attention, creating the sort of splinters on which immersion can’t help but catch and become unravelled. If the game reminds us that we’re playing a game, the integrity of its authored narrative is compromised, while its emergent narrative is tainted by our irritation. WoW can’t help but do this when it does death, and it doesn’t have the flexibility to turn a Gothic narrative on much else. (It’s unable, for instance, to talk about rape, or even to seriously talk about sexual desire, without sacrificing its suitable-for-twelve-year-olds rating.)

With Black Rook Hold, WoW makes Kur’talos Ravencrest the site of defeat, loss and entropy, so that we don’t have to endure them; once again, the weight of the Gothic genre falls on an authored character, leaving the player avatar free to exit the Hold in whatever direction they see fit – undoubtedly toward victory.

Conclusion

I said earlier that siting the player’s perspective in an authored character cements the Gothic, gives it a chance to set properly – that’s the success of using Illidan for one section of gameplay in the Hold. It’s a mechanical commitment by Blizzard; the decision to give us some Gothic gameplay, where our options are either “give up” or “see it through, make the sacrifice, become the anti-hero”.

That’s more difficult to achieve with a player avatar, who might at any moment abandon their current plotline because the player fancies a trip to the arena, or a random dungeon, or a pet battle, or back to town with the click of a finger, because the game has obliged itself to make all these things possible.

Right now, my avatar has come back to Black Rook Hold on a flying visit to complete an arena quest, which is only here because the courtyard of the Hold makes a great location for this kind of challenge and looks interesting and spooky.

The headspace of WoW is built around convenience, access and agency. The virtual spaces it offers have to be re-used regularly to make them worth the investment. This creates a certain kind of headspace, limiting the game’s generic potential. It can imitate the Gothic, but it can’t quite pull it off.

Players have to consciously adjust their expectations and attitudes, committing to the Gothic experience, or be committed to it by an imposed style of gameplay. In WoW, the compleat Gothic can only really prosper in the text-chat-based roleplaying my WoW guild exists to foster. Players have to buy in, and mechanics have to deny them an easy out. It’s not possible to integrate the Gothic fully with the convenience that WoW players have come to expect of their gameplay, or the picaresque emergent narratives the game thrives on creating, with which its mechanics are more in tune.

I do think that an immersive, consequential Gothic videogame is possible – tabletop RPGs have been doing it for years, and have been adapted semi-successfully to digital platforms. The medium has produced some solid attempts of its own – like Christopher I was very taken with Resident Evil 7, and if that had been out when I conceived this paper, you might have sat through a presentation on intimacy and isolation, virtual spaces, and the Southern or sci-fi Gothic instead.

It might have run into the same problem of endings, but that state of “defeat, loss and entropy” can be achieved if the protagonist walks off into the sunrise alone, winning for everyone but themselves, and I think that fits the genre and audience expectations. I think that delivers. The right authored narrative can create Gothic expectations, and a headspace which fosters a Gothic emergent narrative.

There’s also the option of sandbox games, erring more toward the emergent than the authored, reinforcing a sense that the whole rotten world goes on and on being rotten and we can only win small victories. That might work. Sandboxes also give the lie to Kryzwinska’s suggestion that games have to be winnable – you don’t win a sandbox, you just get bored with it and play something else after a while.

I’m not sure it can be done in this game, though, the dominant influencer in its genre, which makes me wonder how possible a Gothic MMO is without being dangerously unlike the model of proven success. (Which makes me worried for Paradox Interactive’s upcoming adaptation of Werewolf: the Apocalypse – but we’ll see.)

WoW prospers by attempting to be all things to all players. Generally, it makes credible attempts – it’s not the best at anything but it’s good enough at everything. Black Rook Hold is an attempt, in that spirit, to make a Gothic space in one little corner of the World of WarcraftPlayer avatars can visit for a while, players can commit to a sustained exploration, but sooner or later we have to emerge, and be in some other genre for a while.

Thanks for watching.

CITATION

Garrad, Jon. ‘The Horror of Bradensbrook’. Gothic Spaces. University of Sheffield. 12th – 13th May 2017. Online: https://youtu.be/u5yeSR_f_x8

REFERENCES

Tanya Kryzwinska – http://www.revenantjournal.com/contents/the-gamification-of-gothic-coordinates-in-videogames/#_edn1

Grey Carter and Cory Rydell (1) –
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comicsandcosplay/comics/critical-miss/9852-Uncharted-Drake-s-Misdirected-Anger

Grey Carter and Corey Rydell (2) – http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comicsandcosplay/comics/critical-miss/10484-ARTARTARTARTFART

Emily R. Marlow, University of Sheffield, ‘Religious Beliefs and the Gothic Village in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’, Gothic Spaces, University of Sheffield, 12-13 May 2017

Christopher Scott, University of Sheffield, ‘Gothic Gaming: Terror in the Virtual Spaces of Early Survival Horror Videogames’, Gothic Spaces, University of Sheffield, 12-13 May 2017

Matthew Tyler-Jones – https://memetechnology.org/category/narrative-structure/

Lawrence Miles – http://beasthouse-lm2.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/everyones-destroyer-of-worlds-these.html

Manuel Aguirre – Liminal Terror: The Poetics of Gothic Space

Yahtzee Croshaw – http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/columns/extra-punctuation/11509-Immersion-in-Games-Are-You-Into-It.2

2016: Done More?

I certainly haven’t done more blogging, have I?

2016 has turned out to be a jagged shit of a year for a great many people. That’s all I have to say on the matter, whatever you think it is; I’m done arguing with people who bring their own adversaries and paste their faces over mine. This right here is a personal reflection, and despite all things I have come out of 2016… and done all right for myself.

Professionally things are as good as they’ve been for years and better. Despite a wobble towards October I haven’t needed to sign on this year, and despite a fiscal hit around the costs of establishing Rob’s art shoppe, she’s working and I’m working and so we’re both actually earning money at the same time. That’s never happened before. More like that please. I’m courting another client – all a bit hush hush until something comes of it – and I’d obviously like to do more work in 2017.

Creatively, things are… decent. I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front because I’ve been mucking about with videos instead and dumping the least rubbish ones on that YouTube thing. It’s a nice break from writing blogs for a substantial part of my living. I’d like to do more of it, and broaden the focus to include the best of the content from my gaming blog and more stuff like that. I’m sorting channel art out for that and I’m starting to remember how editing works, or at least how to avoid needing too much of it. That’s the second thing I want to do in 2017: be a bit more pro about videos.

Physically… well, the bindrune worked for a month or so, but then I lost some of the post-its and I didn’t get out much for a few weeks when we weren’t well off, and I started drinking, and… if anything I’m in slightly worse shape than I was six months ago. At least a workable dosage has been calculated for my arthritis medication, a balance struck between “less pain and swelling” and “your immune system and liver are dangerously compromised”. M’colleague Chris has challenged all and sundry to walk a thousand miles during 2017. I’m not going to come in first, but I’m determined to come in successful.

Spiritually… I don’t like to talk about the spooky dos too much, but after a few months in the armchair, bored to tears by arguments about meme magic from people who wish they’d thought of weaponising that fucking hideous frog thing first, I recently had… a shock. A rather drastic restatement of purpose. I am lowly, but I talk to gods; though no prophet, I am witness. It’s been a sharp reminder of what I am and what my place in the world is and the sort of thing I should be doing. On Christmas night I shocked myself with the surprising declaration that I want to live. I don’t say that very often. I don’t always want to die, but I don’t have much lust for life either. It surprises me when it comes. It’s a good surprise.

For this year I had no plan except do more. This year I have… a whole bunch of plans. I’m aware that I have the luxury of time on my hands, and that I often don’t do a whole lot with it. Since I started tracking my working time (I was told to, and it’s come in useful for estimating mates’ rates and paid-in-kind arrangements) I’ve become painfully aware that my days slide away.

There’s a bunch of stuff I’d like to do every day.

  • Walk 2.74 miles (that’s around the edge of the village and back; easily achievable even on a day when I’ve nothing better to do).
  • Write something for myself (my uncle won Shitscram Present Of The Year with the writing journal that offers a daily challenge and a page to do it on).
  • Paint a miniature: I’ve signed up for a Tale of Gamers challenge and sworn the Oath of Moment, so the Corehammer crew may rip me a new one if I don’t crank out the promised forces by the promised dates.
  • Draw a rune and commit its symbolic resonances to meaning. I managed this for a month, and it was good, so it’s time to take that to the next level and git gud enough to do readings without needing two reference books to hand.
  • I feel like there should be something else here to fulfil the Law of Fives, but I can’t think what it should be. It’ll come to me, I imagine. Maybe listen to or read or watch something I haven’t seen before: that’s a good one. I’m a devil for re-consuming the old instead of tackling the new.

These things should be their own reward. I don’t mind saying that after everything that’s gone down this year I’m feeling a little more spiteful and a little less patient and a lot more like I want to live, rather than mark time in the gentle dissolution I’ve craved for so long. That may not last, but everything that tugs me from the armchair and the habits and the vacillation is a tiny act of power in the face of misery, and that is what I’m supposed to be about.

Of Weight Loss and Bind Runes

I’m a fat lad, me. Not morbidly obese or anything, but possessed of a certain stoutness about the tum. I know I’m overweight, although I didn’t realise how overweight until I was weighed before a routine rheumatology appointment last week.

The discovery has spurred the sides of my intent. I have traditionally held by the Satanic principle that vanity alone should motivate one to take care of oneself and keep oneself in trim, but that clearly hasn’t been true in my case and so I have arrived at the point where it’s become a medical matter.

I intend to shed four stone in four months, so that I might be well within the recommended range of weights by my next appointment, and present a more stylish figure by Hallowe’en.

Robin has me keeping a food diary – every morsel that passes my lips is noted down on paper – and this is certainly helping me account for my existing habits, but it is not helping me correct them.

I do not write this to castigate myself, nor to describe my situation in exhaustive detail or repeat well-worn explanations. I write to discuss solutions to problems.

The biggest problem I perceive right now is that I eat when I’m bored, or when I’m thirsty (because it is impolite to drink without eating, as C. S. Lewis cautioned me in my youth – I remember nothing else from Narnia except that line), and that I do so in a sort of distracted haze in which my conscious will is temporarily suspended.

What I need is disruption – something which shakes me out of that addlepated state and into the clarity of responsible decision-making. Hence this:

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This is a bindrune – a composite of letters from the Futhark which combine into a symbolic meaning. Thorn denotes change and willpower – is denotes deprivation – eoh denotes improvement. Through willpower, I deprive myself and thus improve. One of these is stuck to each of the food cupboards, and to the fridge. As I drift, I recognise the rune and am reaffirmed in my grand design.

Why not a simple note? Because I would express it in English as a reprimand, an instruction, and my feelings would be hurt, and I would eat to spite myself. This is something positive, a refreshment of my statement of intent. Also because I would ignore a note in English, skim over it, not acknowledge it. The rune is special. It is out of the ordinary. It demands decoding and interpretation – activating the mind and thus disrupting that empty grazer’s meander which leads me to the nosebag in the first place.

This is but one element of the plan. I do not expect Rune Magick (TM) to solve all my problems. It is a part of my armoury, however, and I intend to make use of it.

 

A Candidate The People Can Trust

 

Friends and Welshmen, I hereby announce myself as an Independent candidate for the Monmouth constituency of the Welsh Parliament. All being well and the will of the voting public being with me, the Senedd will soon play host to its first openly devil-worshipping, self-serving, ruthlessly materialistic rotten bastard – as opposed to my long-haired opponents, those closeted part-timers in the mainstream political parties who hide their convictions behind weasel words, grand ideological claims and outright lies.

It is with a heavy head and a solemn heart – not to mention a full bladder and a dicky spleen – that I confront the burden of political office, and the terrifying prospect of representing constituents with whom I cannot reliably make eye contact.

My manifesto is a work in progress, as a month is a long time in politics and I am indecisive, but here is the current state of policy in the Garradian camp:

  • Economy
    I stand for revaluation of the British Pound Sterling. Billions and trillions are stupid numbers for ‘winning’ playground arguments. Make everyone’s pounds worth more and whack a few zeroes off the end – that should bring the numbers down to levels which ordinary humans can understand. As a bonus, a loaf of bread will once again cost something sensible like ninepence, and the farthing will be returned to circulation. A tax on billionaires’ tears will fund the other measures on this manifesto.

    To further protect the British public from the depredations of the financial sector, saying “four nine nine ninety-five” instead of “four hundred and ninety-nine pounds ninety-five pence” in advertisements will become a hanging offence. Offering goods for £499.95 instead of £500 to make them look cheaper will be punishable by two years’ hard labour. Falling for it will be punishable by two weeks’ community service under a supervisor wearing an “I’m With Stupid” shirt.
  • Europe
    Wales will immediately withdraw from the European Union and, under the provisionally-titled Taking Our Ball And Going Home With It Act, found a League of Celtic Nations with Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man. Ireland will be granted provisional membership provided their delegate stays sober and turns up. In the event of their failure to do so, membership will be offered to the top bit of Italy or the Basques instead – whoever can beat the other lot at rugby.
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Your Candidate, kissing babies! The stuff of which great statesmanship is made!

  • Education
    Welsh, Latin, High Gothic and Gallifreyan will be compulsory school subjects until the age of eighteen, in order to prepare our young people for life in the modern vast cosmic nothingness inhabited by terrifying entities of colossal and arcane power. The blasphemous croaking speech of the Deep Ones and their half-human spawn will remain an option after GCSE.
  • Law and Order
    The statute books will undergo immediate review to protect Welshmen from being shot with a longbow by Englishmen anywhere at all. (Note to Campaign Management: the eating of hot cross buns outside the Easter period will remain a criminal offence, pending a referendum in the event that any scandals need covering up.)
  • GBLTQ&A* Issues
    Pronouns will be abolished because I’m fucked if I’m going to remember whatever jumble of syllables the genderqueer crowd have come up with for their fictive headmate multiple systems this week. Or rather, Jon’s fucked if Jon’s going to remember. Doesn’t that sound grand?
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Your Candidate expresses his extremely mature and nuanced critique of mainstream politics. This is the plain speaking our country needs!

  • Red Tape
    Members of the Senedd will have to pass a written examination, set by experts in the field, before proposing a policy affecting professionals within that field. (Note to Campaign Management: this legislation will come into force after I stand down in disgrace following a carefully-engineered scandal involving my genitals, an offshore tax account, four separate nests of serpents and the schematics to Bentham’s Panopticon. NOT FOR CIRCULATION.)
  • Expenses
    I have every intention of paying for my own damn housing, holidays, transport, blackjack, hookers etc. etc., but demand a modest stipend of £185.50 per calendar month for the upkeep of several cats.
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Your Candidate treats his Campaign Manager with exceptional respect – no institutionalised sexism or Clarksonesque abuse on his watch!

  • Transport
    Funding will be withdrawn from the Severn Bridge – people who want to go to Bristol will just have to take a sodding train – and diverted into a Welsh space programme, devoted to establishing Anglesey as the first lunar colony by means of a really big elastic band.
  • Urban Development
    The people of Wrexham and Chester will be encouraged to sort it properly. You know what I mean. Let’s have it out between their top boys. No more faffing about. Just sort it.
  • Drugs and Alcohol
    All Class C drugs will be decriminalised. All budget cider of the White Ace/Lightning/Mischief/Power/Trash variety will be criminalised. (Note to Campaign Management: this is not reverse racism but a sincere effort to get cheap, nasty booze off the streets. Be sure to make that clear.)
  • Culture

    https://youtu.be/1i4EnjRKVQw

 

Queries, inquiries, donations, wild accusations and improper suggestions should be addressed to my Press Office, which can be found down the back of the sofa in the King’s Head Hotel, Abergavenny.

Hail Satan, and let the good times roll!

Two Sonnets

Today is World Poetry Day? Good. Here’s Patience Agbabi, utterly nailing the relationship between poet and form, writer and muse, inspiration and punctuation – and being absolute filth about it.

I’m slim as a silver stiletto, lit
by a fat, waxing moon and a seance
of candles dipped in oil of frankincense.
Salt peppers my lips as the door clicks shut.
A pen poised over a blank page, I wait
for madam’s orders, her strict consonants
and the spaces between words, the silence.
She’s given me a safe word, a red light
but I’m breaking the law, on a death with,
ink throbbing my temples, each vertebra
straining for her fingers. She trusses up
words, lines, as a corset disciplines flesh.
Without her, I’m nothing but without me
she’s tense, uptight, rigid as a full stop.

Patience Agbabi, ‘Transformatrix’ (2000)

And here, unworthy to stand in such company, is your host, with fourteen awkward unsprung lines about horology.

Time is not a healer; instead, she makes
us all her co-conspirators, her lost
idols and adulterers, our memories
by turn enshrined, by turnabout betrayed.
She keeps our secrets safer than ourselves,
yet keeps no watch, places no guard upon them;
Protecting them from us, but not the world.
A treachery we’ve earned, if one considers
how we tie her down and measure her,
a rape by minutes, seconds and degrees.
How we stretch her out from point to point,
uncurling curves and cycles, and pretend
her nature knows of anything like ending.
Now, silently, she passes, in revenge.

Unlocking My Word Hoard

I had some plans for this blog, along the ‘scheduled content’ kind of lines, but they’ve all fallen away somewhat after the staggering amount of other writing I’ve done this month. I’ve actually worked something like proper adults’ hours for a couple of weeks, while plugging away at a major project for GEMS Education. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say, but I think I can publicly state that it will be some time before I want to read another poem (although I have fallen in love with ‘Transformatrix’ by Patience Agbabi, and with Ruth Padel’s delightfully accessible essays, which have almost displaced The Ode Less Travelled as my favourite popular books on poetry).

When I haven’t been writing for GEMS I’ve been writing for Future Content. In fact, I’m taking a break between two articles for them by… writing this. Something is broken. I’ve been working for Future Content for about a year now, and they seem to like what I do (to the point where they trust me to edit other people’s work – rather more than I trust myself). They’re not my only client at the moment, but they’re paying more and more of the rent, and I haven’t had to do anyone’s homework for them in ages.

When I haven’t been writing for Future Content, I’ve been writing about World of Warcraft. I had intended to play a bit less, and do more of more or less anything else. The trouble is, at the moment when I was becoming disinterested in the game, some forum nonsense drew me to a guild which is… more or less exactly what I wanted to achieve with the guild I (briefly, disastrously) ran a year or two ago. The level of activity (pretty much constant), the activities themselves (PvP and roleplaying) and the quality of the activities (pretty good, I haven’t felt this challenged as a player since the Black Temple two years ago) have conspired against me and kept me around. It’s all been inspiring me to produce some actual fiction about my character, which again hasn’t been the case since 2014. The old lightning, in which gameplay and roleplay combine and actually involve more than a handful of other people, appears to have struck again. So I’m still playing WoW, but in a less… vague, directionless way, and with other people involved. That’s an improvement.

And when I haven’t been writing about (or playing) World of Warcraft, I’ve either been asleep, or maintaining the domesticities, or crudely slapping paint on Hordes miniatures in an effort to be ready for SmogCon. It’s brought home to me how much I dislike conventional miniature painting, and how I should have faith in the layers-of-ink process I developed while working on my Revenants. I really must pull my finger out and produce some maps for that event – or rather, make Robin do them for me, since she’s the actual artist on the premises.

I’m not reading as much as I’d like to be (in that none of my Goodreads reads have progressed in the slightest), but I’m hoping that the imminent arrival of E. R. Eddison’s complete works will induce some consumption of text again. I’m also not witching enough; when I plucked a piece of fluff off my bag of runes, I felt a palpable shock, and my dreams have been lively to say the least in the last few weeks. I’m waiting for a question to present itself for divination, although Arianna says I should settle for “what the hell is going on?”, chuck the runes at the carpet and see what presents itself. Perhaps she’s right.

At least I made it to the Green Party’s special conference (it was around the corner, I couldn’t dodge that one). Not really my scene – the bureaucracy and procedure aren’t really what I’m in this for, I prefer executing the decisions – but I am slightly more in the loop than I have been, and I look forward to throwing in some weight when the Senedd campaigning starts in earnest.

It’s a step in the right direction, at least. I’ve started using Toggl for work and I may start feeding other activities into it – Robin’s currently doing some serious journalling in an effort to take control of her time, and I feel like that’s something I should be doing too.