New site is up!

Eugh, it looks dreadful in here, doesn’t it? I’m sorry, darlings, I was setting up your new room and I let them get started cleaning up in here before I was through. I’ve got enough up that it feels like home over there, so now please go ahead and follow me over to the new site!

Further improvements will be forthcoming, and I’m deciding which of the old stuff I want to polish up and repost and which of it can be scrubbed, we’ll see. At any rate, that’s where updates will be from now on – I’m seeing how the Squarespace designer serves me for a while. So far I’m enjoying it, although it’s a bit on the buggy side.

Dogtime

I have been working a lot at my new job at the Humane Society, so I’m just getting back to my arting after a few intense weeks of training and so on. My only offering to assuage your no-doubt intense ire is these pictures of cute dogs, who are not mine, but in fact at the Humane Society in Longmont, Colorado and waiting for YOU to take them home. You can have them, can you believe it? How often do you see pics of animals online that you can just… go and get and make your own?

So these are Carly and Greta. They are both the most velvety, wonderful girls, and they’re waiting for you to come tell them so. I usually post pics from work on my Instagram, along with bits and pieces of in-progress art, so you can check that out if you need soft dog noses quickly in an emergency.

Salvage

Chapter Eight of Bluebird

She couldn’t see anything but the blinkenlights.  They spun, blurry above her, and shattered into stars when she blinked away tears.  Her fingers hurt.

“Sweetness.  This isn’t going to – Tia.  Please, Tia. Stop.”

“No!” she growled.  Under her scrabbling hands the broken concrete shifted and crumbled.  She was too cold to feel it when one ragged edge tore her fingernail, but she saw the blood smeared across the stone and shifted herself between it and the doorway, the only part of this room Bel could see.

“The charging bay is thirty-five meters down the eastern wall from where you are.  It would take a terraforming team to get to it now. Please, Tia, I know you’re upset – “

“I’M NOT UPSET!” she shouted, throwing the chunk of concrete behind her toward a growing pile of similar shards.  Twenty minutes of frenetic labor had made a small dent in the wall of debris before her, and she reached into it to dislodge another piece when a slide began above her.  Small rocks pattered down, followed by a ragged wedge of wall that bounced off her shoulder, knocking her to the floor with a sudden numbness in her right arm. “Augh!”

“Tia?  Sweetness, speak up, are you all right?  This is what I was – “

“Ugh, I’m FINE.”  She dragged herself upright and back toward the door, peering down at her shoulder.  A nest of gouges and scrapes was rapidly coloring into an ugly bruise, but after the initial shock, her arm moved all right.  “I’m fine,” she repeated more quietly, and slumped against the doorway, abruptly exhausted.

Bel turned on the heat in the hallway and the vents above her head rattled to life.  “Sweetness…” he murmured, “Please talk to me.”

“Why?” she mumbled through her fingers, hands over her face.

“Because you haven’t since you came back from your house, and you came back much more quickly than I anticipated, and your visible vital signs indicate profound distress.”

“Oh, what do you know,” she snarled, and instantly felt chagrin that melted into grief.  The tears started again.

“About you?  As much as anyone living, I’d estimate.”

Saltwater scattered from her fingertips as she threw up her head, staring at the monitor that showed Bel’s face.  “More, okay? More, now. Because they’re dead, they’re all dead!  There’s no one now, just me, just me all alone!”

Bel was silent for a second, and somewhere in the desolate depths of her Tia felt a small satisfaction – she rarely managed to surprise him.  Then it curdled into rage.

“Surprised?  Why? You should have known they’d die, how long was it, how long did you keep me down here?  I could have helped! I could have – I – “

“Sweetness, no.  You yourself told me what it was like out there.  How could I keep you here? How could you possibly have gotten home any sooner?  This was not your fault.”

“It was, it was, and Rack knew, I’m sure he did, he sent me away -”

“Then he was as smart as you always told me he was.  He could see what the weather was like. He couldn’t have gotten you and your mother here in time; you all would have been stranded on the road.  Listen to me, Tia: he saved you. He knew he couldn’t save all of you together, so he made the best choice he could, and he succeeded in that much.  It wasn’t your fault. You don’t control this weather.”

“No…” she murmured.  “No, not yet. But I know who does.”  Her tears slowed as the loneliness inside began to knot and clench into anger.  “She’s taken everything from us, the entire planet, every single thing. Everything from me.”  The yellow-eyed girl looking back at her in the black surface of Bel’s terminal looked rabid, her teeth bared as if the Queen had a throat she could tear.

“I’m sorry, dearest.  I’m so sorry. She’s… got a lot to answer for.”

“She’ll answer me.”

Bel didn’t scoff, but he didn’t sound any less dubious either.  “From the data I have, that’s very unlikely. No human can get within a hundred miles of the capitol without being detected, and no artificial would hesitate to – well, do away with you before you said a word.”

“You didn’t.”

Bel hesitated again.  He was doing that a lot lately.  “If I had been in my own body, and on duty when I met you… I might have, Tia.  Even if an artificial doesn’t despise organics on its own… you can’t know what it’s like to live with the Queen in your head.  She obliterates everything, all doubt, all fear, all self. No networked artificial is even capable of forming a dissident thought; they don’t have the vocabulary for it.”

“But you do?”

“I am a prototype.  We design the new models of machine, and so we have more freedom – of a kind – than most artificials, and more knowledge.”

“So you’ll help me?  You’ll fight her with me?”

“Fight – sweetness, how could you – how could we possibly fight the Queen?  You don’t have anything but your soft, puncturable body, and I don’t even have legs.”

“That’s not true.”  Tia stood up. The rage and grief swirling in her had awoken a certainty that had always been somewhat lacking.  The thing she did with the mice in the woods was instinctive; she didn’t understand it but rather felt it, like muscle memory.  When she’d awoken Bel, it felt the same – like reaching out to a consciousness that, when she closed her eyes, was very much like her own, just living in a machine made of wires and copper instead of meat.

But the thing that had happened earlier today… the creature now rising in her like capsaicin on her tongue, making her sweat – it was fiery and clear-eyed, and it knew exactly what it was doing.  She laid her hand on Bel’s terminal, and for the first time, instead of simply opening her “ears,” as it were, listening for him in the wires, she dove in herself. She didn’t linger, didn’t try to wrest the machine from his control.  She slipped through like a rogue glitch, sidestepping security routines and shifting her weight from one neglected backwater of storage to another. She felt Bel’s surprise – it reverberated through his system, through his body, and made it shake under her.  When he spoke, it filled every part of her mind, like the Queen’s voice he’d described.

“Sweet – what are you – this is not… this is not possible!”

Okay then, she thought, unable to speak, no longer able to feel her face or her flesh at all.  If it’s not possible… then stop me.

There was so little of her here – a mote of volition, a will like a wisp in the wires, with no ability to weigh alternatives or speculate.  Her intention as she’d entered was the direction of her travel, and it was toward the warehouse. The wires were broken there, in a thousand, thousand places.  She could see where Bel had shored up the system, cut off routines related to the space and the rooms beyond, and she could see the other victims of the fall – there were four porter androids buried in the wreckage, and another two in the charging bays next to the one Bel indicated held his own body.  Savage joy went through her like a spark, and threw her onward.

Not all the connections were broken, but the lines that survived were under the floor, maintenance and auxiliary wires.  In her mind’s eye, Bel was vast, an amorphous consciousness slowly moving through a network that seemed grossly undersized for the amount of data he was storing there.  No wonder he was so well-informed.

You were never a grocery store manager, she thought.  The revelation didn’t trouble her – somehow she had never really believed Bel was no more than what he seemed.  And the size of him, the amount of space he required simply to exist, was more than the maintenance lines were ever built to transmit.

But Tia was small, most of her consciousness still lighting up her grey matter with limbic subroutines.  She dove into the maintenance line and instantly felt her world squeeze down to a crushing claustrophobia.  Like clinging to a bullet in the barrel of a gun, the sense of speed and narrowing space accelerated until she thought she would scream – where would it go? – and then she was through, in the comfortable little maintenance server for the warehouse, the software a picture of undisturbed calm beneath its physical ruin.

She touched the porter androids in their charging bays.  Both of them responded immediately, activating themselves as if they’d waited decades for something to do – and perhaps they had.  Tia was blind – none of the data coming back to her translated into sight, but nevertheless she could hold the shape of it in her mind, like she did when she reassembled the mouse.  She could see every part next to every other part, and fix the small errors, the little, world-shattering mistakes.

Tia guided the androids to open their charging bays, slowly in case the stone was piled up against the doors.  Neither reported any issue with that, and so she directed them to begin cleaning their immediate surroundings. As the several hundred tons of fallen ceiling and debris separating them from her certainly fell into the category of “a mess,” the porters carefully set about disentombing themselves.  It might take them a year, but it would probably take her ten, and get her killed in the process.

She withdrew from the system much more easily than she’d entered, the shard of her will drawn inexorably back to the meat she’d left the rest in.  Bel was talking, but she only caught the end of it.

“ – to get back out.  I can’t even feel you in here anymore, sweetness – are you all right?  Tia, please -”

As she rejoined her body, the grief and rage that had overwhelmed her swept back in, still cascading through the meat in the form of chemicals.  It made her loose-lipped, her mind exhilarated, her body exhausted.

“Shut up, I’m fine, I just brought my mom and my brother and two robots back from the fucking dead; why wouldn’t I be fine?”

Bel’s babble stopped.  “You did what?”

Her body had gone to its knees while she’d been away.  She dragged herself up, subconsciously wiggling herself comfortable, like slipping into her favorite pants.  “I just… asked them to stay,” she murmured, looking at her fingers on the terminal.

“Tia, you – and they stayed?  Conscious? Did they speak to you?”

She nodded.  Bel’s face on the monitor was frozen in an attitude of shock, so focused on her that he had stopped updating his avatar.

“How is this…”  He fell silent for some time, and Tia strayed over to the door into the ruined warehouse and stuck her head in, listening.  Very, very faintly, she could hear scraping deep in the wreckage. The androids were at work. She retreated to the office where it was warmer, and there Bel greeted her from the desk with, “I think this is wrong.”

“Oh yeah?” she murmured, too drained to care.  She sunk into the nest of blankets she slept in here, and pulled one of them over her head.  Bel continued to talk.

“I don’t pretend to understand everything about your biology, but I think the consciousness should go wherever it naturally would go after – after its machine shuts down.  Don’t you think they’re suffering?”

“No!” she snapped, sitting back up.  “I wouldn’t hurt them!  I fixed them!  I made it better!  I did, I made – I made it better…”  Tears choked her again, and Bel fell silent.  When he finally spoke again, it was more gently.

“I’m sorry, sweetness.  I know you don’t want to be alone.”

“‘M not going to be,” she sniffled.  “You can’t die. We’re gonna get your body out and then we’re gonna go find a nice new one for you to live in and then we’re gonna kill the Queen and live happily ever after.”

Bel didn’t know what to say to that, and in time Tia cried herself to sleep.  The next day she went back to the farmhouse, and found her Mama and Rack there, just like they were supposed to be.  Rack helped her clear the snow off the porch, although he took a little longer than he used to, and Mama got up and made soup.  She didn’t smile, and her hug was cold, but it was a hug, and Tia returned it with a ferocity that made her mother’s bones creak.

Save Some for Me Next Time

I just started a new job, which I love, except that it’s terribly exhausting and long hours sometimes. As a result, though I’ve been working on the art for the next bit of Sects, the narration is somewhat eluding me so far.

All of this is by way of saying I’ve been playing a lot of Hades, and here, have a bad sex joke because my brain is fried. I googled “pert man butt” for reference images, and got exactly the level of pertness and impudent jutting I required. NSFW, obviously. Unless your workplace favors pert man butts, in which case, by all means invite your coworkers to join our cult. Open enrollment floggings on alternate Wednesdays.

Too Dear

This update is five pages and it was fuuuuun; there will probably be more of this inverted look because I love how it came out. Feels appropriate to the world of Sects.

Little bit of backstory here, about the night the world ended. It wasn’t supposed to, but… they told us what we’d have to sacrifice to save it, and the price was too dear.

See the rest over on the page where we have Sects.

Terrible Child

Two new pages for Sects! I loooove this brush-pen more than most men I’ve known and I think I’m achieving a style that’s a little more usefully detailed for scenes – like this one – with a lot of movement or exposition. So finally we can jam some plot up in there. It feels like my style changes every time I draw? I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing; certainly I’m learning a lot every time, and I’m happier each time with the result, so let’s call it good.

All the rest of it (which is more colorful than this portion) is over hereaways.

Five Great Reasons to Fight Your Dad

A love letter to Hades, Supergiant Games’ new father-fighting simulator

It’s a cool breezy night here at the Temple of Styx and we’re back for another electrifying round of your favorite game show and mine, FIGHT… YOUR… DAD!

As the first entry in a spicy new genre I’m prepared to call the father-fighter, Hades lets us join Zagreus, the immortal son of the eponymous lord of hell, as he works out some daddy issues the only way the Greek gods know how: trading mortal blows and expensive gifts until someone consents to stay dead.  It seems that Hades’ erstwhile squeeze Persephone has wearied of the old man’s sparkling wit and sunny disposition, and lit out for the surface, leaving her godling son to absorb an endless torrent of divorced-old-man whining and backhands, and the underworld in a state of lockdown.  Living or dead, mortal or divine, nobody gets out.

Fortunately, Zag’s not the only one who thinks Dad’s being a little unreasonable about this.  The cousins and uncles on Olympus have sent letter after letter, and Hades won’t even look at them.  We get that he’s pissed about being assigned the underworld, but that’s millennia ago now.  At some point, you have to move on, fix up the house, find a hobby.  Zagreus did – learned to fight at the knee of Achilles himself, and was that ever a mistake on his father’s part.  Kick a boy around for thousands of years and then have the greatest warrior who ever lived train him to kick back?  Maybe this is why they say all fathers subconsciously raise their sons to destroy them.

No telling where he got the weapons, though – that must have been the Fates.  Some of them haven’t been seen since Hades and his brothers sealed away the Titans.  Some were already lost before that battle began.  Most immortals won’t lay a hand on the powers Zagreus is stirring up, and most wouldn’t defy the Lord Hades to his face, but having found some kind of direction for his endless life, the boy moves through the underworld like a wave, like lightning, like an arrow in flight, wearing the blessings of his Olympian relatives and bringing change to this unchanging realm wherever he goes.  Perhaps it’s because everyone else has a place here, of a kind – Mother Nyx has the old man’s trust; Thanatos a sacred duty that never ends; even Cerberus sits at the throne’s right hand.  Zagreus has never once, not for a day in a thousand years, been allowed to forget that he is unwelcome here.

There’s a term for games that are ridiculously demanding and yet satisfying to play – it’s becoming a little dated now, but we used to call that “Nintendo hard.”  These days, Nintendo focuses on expanding gaming’s fanbase beyond its existing demographics, and there’s nothing wrong with that; anybody shit-talking a game for being accessible or “casual” is a little boy trying to keep the other kids out of his clubhouse, and destroying his own hobby so he can feel superior.  There was a time, though, when Nintendo was known more for making games that wanted you fucking dead.  There’s an appeal to that, if the game is well-designed, as the wild success of games like Dark Souls can attest.  But the game must be well-designed – it can’t be hard because it’s obtuse, badly balanced, responds sluggishly or unpredictably, communicates poorly or lies to the player.  That’s the kind of hard that makes a gamer quit, not the kind that makes her grit her teeth and reload from the last checkpoint.

Hades is Nintendo hard, in the most beautiful way.  So much of this is gamefeel – the experience of maneuvering around the world, the responsiveness of the character, the speed and elegance of the animation.  Rewarding progress with power is one thing, but starting a player off limping feels punitive in a roguelike game where you’re always restarting – and Zagreus never feels weak.  He fights like a god from the first step he takes, and grows more powerful from there, and the challenge scales accordingly.  This scaling isn’t just bigger numbers, either.  Too often, “New Game Plus” just means another zero tacked on the end of all your stats, and the only difference between “Normal” and “Hard” is that enemies have twice as much health in hard mode.  And you can do that, in Hades, if you want – make the numbers bigger if it embiggens your… enjoyment.

But you can also cause the Hydra that spat fire at you from the sidelines to hop right out of the lava and chase you on its dangling neck-stump, if that sounds more fun.  Face Theseus and the Bull in Elysium’s arena enough times, and you’ll realize that raising the difficulty here actually makes Theseus easier to hit – he jumps into a chariot to charge you, but doesn’t carry a shield and block all damage from the front anymore.  This is active, thoughtful game design, and it requires active, thoughtful play in response.  You often find yourself wrecking shop through Tartarus and Asphodel, only to discover that your build is atrocious when facing a single, huge enemy, or you have no good strategy for dealing with armor.  You have to adapt to what you find and when you fail.  You fail more often than not.

And yet failing never feels like a waste of your time.  Only got as far as Asphodel before you stood in the fire while picking your nose and contemplating your build? (I’m in this picture and I don’t like it.)  It’s fine, you got a fistful of gems that you can use to change the draperies in the hallway for the fourth time this week.  I change ’em every time the option comes up; hearing Dad bitch about it is worth ten gems a day to me.  Even if you only made it to Meg before she spanked you (which you love, and you know it), so long as you ran into Sisyphus, you’re doing meaningful work out there in hell.

The most wonderful thing is, often that work is just bringing a little joy to someone who sure as hell doesn’t deserve it.  That’s the Supergiant special sauce – their complicated, flawed, heartfelt characters – and there’s not a single one in Hades I don’t want to cuddle all night long.  Except maybe Dad.  Fuck you, Dad.  But everybody else… I can’t tell who’s been in Zagreus’s bed and who hasn’t (my current ship list includes Meg and possibly all her sisters, Thanatos, Achilles, and Dusa, don’t judge me), but everyone I meet feels real, and like their life is bigger than just our interaction in this moment.  They make bad choices; they’re emotional and shortsighted; they don’t always do what I want them to do.  Sometimes I work very hard to help someone… and nothing changes, it doesn’t help.  That’s sad, and frustrating, and most game devs haven’t got the courage to do it, because the Skinner box of “Do Hard Thing > Get Reward” is so fundamental to gaming.

Not every game needs to be a slot machine, though.  Gaming can offer many kinds of experiences, nuanced with emotional and mechanical challenge, and Hades is one of them. It appeals to me as a profoundly absurdist experience: there is no win state, no possibility of escape.  The only control you have in this universe is the ability to choose, to try when you know all too well you can’t succeed.  It’s an irony wrapped in an irony – an unfinished game more beautiful and involved than many finished games; a journey that you can start a thousand times and never, ever finish; a fundamentally pointless and futile fight that, by its very existence and our choice to participate in it, rejects that futility.  We know where this story ends… but we’re gonna tell it again.  Smash that button and start over, because somewhere deep down inside, you and Zagreus believe the same thing: despite all the evidence of your eyes and the blood you’ve shed, despite every soul in the universe who insists it’s impossible… we’re going to win one day.  Never know when it’s going to be.  Just have to keep trying.

Stand Down

I’m home, darlin’! It was a wonderful week in a number of ways. I found a few bits of myself still knocking around where they used to live, keeping an eye on the ghosts. We talked for awhile and agreed that we can go now. The war is over.

The best I can hope for on a given day.

I did some drawing as well, though less than I intended – girls are distracting. You’ll see the girls in question below; two of the beautiful women I love. Any imperfection in evidence is the fault of my clumsy hands, not a fault in the models. I’m terribly clumsy; I try to cultivate an air of well-meaning bumble in the hope that it will be considered my “brand” rather than a serious handicap. Whether I’m a charming eccentric or an active danger to myself depends upon both the day and your perspective.

Exorcism

‘Lo childs! I hope you have successfully performed the solstice rituals pertinent to your local tentacled monstrosity, and that your sacrifices have been accepted with lavish blessings for all. My particular Old One is a lethargic beast who tends to be anywhere from two to four weeks late in showing up to be kowtowed to, so I will be going on vacation next week, over the new year. You’ll hear from me again on Sunday and then after that probably not a lot for a week, although I promise I’ll return with a great deal of sketching to show you. At least some of it might not feature naked ladies, but no promises.

This week I’ve been putting a lot of words into… well, a semi-autobiographical romance? The lengthy backstory to the unlikely epilogue I am currently living, perhaps. My Lady and I used to write together a lot, and I’ve missed it. It’s also somewhat an opportunity to reflect on our constant miscommunications and missteps over the eighteen years we’ve been totally failing to get it together. And an opportunity to channel some horrible shit from my adolescence and perhaps exorcise some ghosts! It’s all very cleansing and emotional, and as usual, I prefer to do that kind of raw, vulnerable self-examination IN NEON LIGHTS IN THE STREET, so here we are.

We gettin naked over here

One of the fun things about writing with someone else is that nobody’s process is the same, or even remotely similar. She tends to plan out stories in detail, and knock them down bit by bit. I avoid planning with a kind of superstition, and treat my writing like summoning a dark god: apply various oils, ungents, spirits and offerings of flesh, and excitement will doubtless result. I find her mild outrage at this… entertaining. It’s all going very well. But be advised that it’s very unfinished, and there are huge bits missing! We’re working on it.