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.

100 – Small Game

Nothing lofty for the final sonnet; I’m sorry to disappoint you. If there’s one thing you can always rely upon me for, it will be my inability to muster solemnity at the appropriate moments. I’ve been fortunate enough not to have to stand beside many caskets so far in my life, but it’s pretty much a guarantee that one day I’ll be choking back laughter beside a family member’s corpse, because I am full of bad machinery.

Tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts I’ve had during this project and some plans for what I want to do next. Today, to thoroughly squander your faith and perseverance in getting this far, I have… a poem about my old WoW character. The rest of this is likely to be either impenetrable or blitheringly inane to you if you weren’t also a Warcraft player, so you have my permission to bow out now and come back tomorrow for the good stuff.

I played a tiny Blood Elf hunter who hung around a lot with a terribly large Orc warrior, and the way it went in our heads was that she was tiny enough to kneel on those goddamn enormous pauldrons they used to give Orcs back in Burning Crusade. I know you think they’re large now, but they reduced the size of a lot of the shoulder models during Cataclysm; they used to be bigger. I imagined my Hunter crouching on the Orc’s shoulders like he was a mobile artillery turret, raining down arrows while her lion pet trailed along handing out strategic maulings.

I also imagined that after she took down the Lich King in Northrend (Light of Dawn 25 before the nerf, baby) she retired to Nagrand for a few years to recuperate from frostbite. It was always my favorite zone. I thought she’d have a cabin there with a nice big porch, near one of the floaty islands so that the spray from the waterfall drifts across sometimes. Take potshots at the deer and the Allies and then go in for a nap on the giant Worgen-skin rug. Blissful retirement.

Yeah, I also did the legendary cloak quest.
Because when will that ever be relevant to brag about again?

Lines of spikes like soldiers ranked and filed
along the shoulders of the green-skinned man.
You wouldn’t think that there was room to stand,
but there are worse perches in the wilds.

She kneels on his shoulders as the scion
of the Frostwolves charges down the hill.
She does her very best to steal his kills,
as does that damn everpresent lion!

After the cold of Northrend she goes home –
a hunting lodge on the slopes of Nagrand,
its walls adorned with weapons from the war.
From the verandah she shoots at the gnomes
and clefthoof who stumble onto her land,
and then she mounts their heads outside her door.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

77 – Proving

I’ve been playing Path of Exile for a good while now – since, ah… Talisman league, so about four years. I’ve spent a lot of time on it, Steam tells me I’m just shy of 2000 hours, plus some on the game’s own client before I discovered it was on Steam, but in all that time I haven’t really “gotten good,” or not so’s you’d notice. I make it to maps every league, I’ve killed the Shaper and the Elder once apiece, but I’m scared of human interaction so I don’t trade with other players, which means my gear’s always a mismatched tuxedo stitched together from scalps and stolen pants. And when you’re not making it to the hardest content anyway, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit bad. I still have fun.

It’s an incredibly dense game, and you can go down that rabbit hole just about as far as you fuckin’ please, but the fact is I just want an endless grind. I don’t actually care about winning, I just like that the drops don’t stop and the world is weird and bloody and beautiful.

One of the characters in that game is a dude named Izaro. Actually, he’s dead, but it didn’t take – a lot of the people you’ll meet are dead, or have died multiple times; you will too, it’s just something you’re going to have to get used to in Wraeclast. Short version is, Izaro was an emperor who couldn’t sire an heir, and so he built a huge labyrinth of traps and promised his throne to the first person to survive it.

A kid named Chitus Perandus used his family’s vast wealth to buy plans of the place, and cleared it easily on his first try. As he’d promised, Izaro gave his throne to Perandus, who then promptly imprisoned Izaro in his own labyrinth. So then Izaro’s like, “Okay, first heir didn’t work out so good, this might take some time. No point in scrapping a good idea.” He prays to the Goddess of Justice for the power to judge and test the worthy for as long as it might take to find an heir. The Goddess of Justice kind of, uh… takes over his body? Or they fucked like bunnies and fused together? It’s probably thaumaturgy. Anyway, they’re one immortal being now, who sits in the Lord’s Labyrinth ready to test you for the throne of an empire that fell three hundred years ago. What he actually can do is give you treasure and Ascendancy points, another form of progression for your character.

What I like about Izaro is his attitude. He talks to you throughout the Labyrinth, as you stagger into traps, get mobbed by statues come to life, and fight Izaro and his goddess three separate times. In one room of the Labyrinth you can find Argus, a huge monstrous beast known as Izaro’s “dog,” and killing Argus gets you another key to the treasure vaults and a mournful comment from Izaro, but even then, no rage, no hostility. No matter what you do, no matter whether you win or lose or how stupidly you die, Izaro never criticizes you. He offers sage advice most of the time, sometimes pointedly targeted at your most recent stumble, in the form of lessons to a protege, or an heir:

“Decisions don’t kill people… consequences do.”
“A wise emperor knows when to circumvent a troubling situation.”
“Astute perception may yield a wealth of insight.”

Goddess of Justice on the right, yours truly as a bulb-headed purple bitch with a sword twice her size on the left. It’s always this glorious late afternoon in the Labyrinth. I just want to hang out there.

When you beat him and take his throne – he’s not up on current events, so don’t tell him what happened to the empire – he praises you. The voice actor is amazing, and he never sounds angry, never sounds like he doubts the aspirant’s abilities at all, just offers insight and advice. His cry of triumph when you defeat him is one of the most inspiring sounds I’ve ever heard; it makes me feel like I just punched God.

It’s perhaps more deeply moving to me as someone who’s still learning that it’s possible to improve without being cruel to myself. The brutal lessons I was taught were “for my own good” were just sloppy, clumsy instruction, and pain is not the best teacher. It blows my mind that this is still a somewhat controversial statement to make, but I have never in my life seen cruelty make someone do better, at anything. Everyone’s got a story of some athlete whose family abused them until they won the Olympic gold, and that’s great and all, but when you start reading up on the rates of suicide among Olympians, you start to wonder if that’s what winning looks like.

Everyone’s got a parent who said, “hey, my folks beat the shit out of me, and I turned out okay.” And I don’t think there’s a single kid who had to listen to that who wasn’t biting their lip to keep from saying, “Are you sure you turned out okay? Because from here it looks like you turned into someone who would heartily endorse injuring, degrading and mentally subjugating a child, and that’s not anywhere in my definition of okay.” No. No one was ever improved by cruelty. Some people have been able to improve despite cruelty. If you were treated badly and you turned that experience into success, that choice and that victory is yours. It does not belong to your abusers. Or, as Izaro puts it:

“When bound by faith and respect, the flock will overwhelm the wolves.”

The sun in the plaza hangs in the sky;
it’s five in the afternoon all day long.
Wind in the broken columns sings a song
of victory, and worthy ways to die.

No empire now for Izaro’s heirs,
but no Perandus could pay them to stop
flogging the old man each day till he drops.
Pursuit of power – a grotesque affair.

His children all, he leads us through the fog,
introducing each new device with glee,
cutting down dilettantes and demagogues.
A toymaker trapped in his own workshop
with his last breath praises his enemy,
even the ones who stopped to kill his dog.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

74 – Dressing Womb

My sweet ones, to you I have sworn the truth, and so I offer it: my head is not in the game. I’m slippin, if I’m honest, and I was not prepared to battle today. Can I just keep listening to hiphop and daydreaming about beautiful girls talking about their Ph.Ds instead?

I wrote you something kinda weird about nightmares and masks. Imagine the little dudes at the end of Majora’s Mask, each of them wearing the mask of one of the bosses, and asking you probing psychological questions. Those little kids fucked me up proper. They’re still in my head, bopping around, asking questions.

We’re all such well-behaved little nightmares,
not one with even a hair out of place,
each one practicing their predator face,
selecting the most perfect mask to wear.

A couple of the little ones get stuck
and tumble down into the humans’ dreams.
They find it’s colder in there than it seems –
and then they think it’s more than just bad luck.

But the ones that make it through are colder.
They wrap themselves up in gears and wires,
make their escape, igniting small fires,
leaving behind a snail’s trail of solder.
It gets to be baseboard, but no higher –
nightmares never grow very much older.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

63 – Cold Cuts

At least once a day, I find a reason to end a sentence with, “…but then, I’m a bad person.” I grew up with the internet and the dark web both, and once upon a time thought it made me a Cool Chick to put up with the guys I knew sending me gore porn from 4chan trying to gross me out. The fact is, the internet just put a camera on what humans were doing to themselves and each other in real life. I’d done enough home surgery in my kitchen by the time I was twenty that nothing they were posting on LiveLeak ever surprised me. You do what you have to when you don’t have insurance.

What I’m saying is, the ghoulish shit I’ve been getting up to in Graveyard Keeper all day is probably funnier to me than it would be to someone less jaded by the internet. I sure do dig up corpses that have been in the ground since before I moved here, slice off enough body parts to make them pretty, and make club sandwiches from the remains. No one’s commented on that yet. Townsfolk seem fine with it. God knows where the socialist donkey is getting all these bodies. Maybe it’s frothing capitalist satire, like the new Monopoly? The leftist donkey running a cannibalistic deli with an unqualified gravedigger in the pocket of the inquisitorial church? That’s pretty spicy, son, that’s some QAnon shit.

“You Took Too Long,” December 2005. Some of my earliest Photoshop work – I don’t think this is very good, now, but someone saw it recently and liked it, so if you find it interesting, there it is.

I wish I could say the leftist donkey
growing moss outside in the picket line
wasn’t just the latest waste of my time –
what good are you if you don’t bring me bodies?

It’s flesh I want, and I will dig it up.
I’ve got the disinterment order here –
the bishop signed it for me over beers –
he’s a close personal friend, the bishop.

I’ll dig up your dead grandpa over lunch;
his face is hurting my graveyard’s feng shui.
We’ll pull out all the parts that make him crunch
and trim off any meat that looks okay.
Now, you could use a sandwich, I’ve a hunch –
do you like pork? I sliced this just today.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

58 – Main Tank

Another one for my wife. She’s having a tough time with her own mental and physical health journey right now, and I know that I’m not easy to deal with while I’m in this process also. I’ve tried to stop dumping so much of that on her. Then too, we both have a tendency to shame-hide when we should ask for help. The thing I’m trying to absorb is that, when I perceive a deficiency in myself, an inability to get something done or give an answer or be what someone needs, the fastest way for them to get what they need and me to stop feeling awful is to admit what’s going on inside me. I want us both to be able to ask for help without shame.

I find this very difficult, so I look at it through the metaphor of raiding in World of Warcraft, because that’s something we used to do together and a metaphor we use quite a bit. At the time, she was playing a Paladin tank, and I a Paladin healer. I’ve been playing my Paladin Mahavira as a healer since Wrath of the Lich King, when I learned from probably the best healer I’ve ever met in WoW. At a time when Paladins had switched from spellpower-driven builds to stacking straight Intellect, Levin and I were the last two Paladins on our server building spellpower, ignoring the huge, long-cast-time heals in favor of Holy Shock and Flash of Light. It was a spiky, risky way to heal, and relied on having a tank that trusted Levin utterly. See, if a tank doesn’t trust their healer, they might get scared when their health gets low and pop one of their own defensive skills. Some of these skills can make the tank lose control of the boss they’re tanking; some of them are simply on long cooldowns and will be unavailable in a few seconds when the shit really hits the fan. Either way, a tank that doesn’t trust their healer to save them can wipe a raid as fast as a bad healer.

Mahavira, also known as “Healmom,” because apparently that’s mom hair?

Levin was a very, very good healer. I saw a few raids wipe because newbie tanks didn’t know to trust her; I never once saw a raid wipe because she failed to save someone’s life. I tried to be at least half as good, even though Pally healing has changed a lot over the years. And when I met my wife, we did a lot of raids together that involved me quietly chanting, “I got you, I got you, trust the healer… okay, NOW!” She was a brilliant tank, and had a brilliant off-tank at her side, and that’s the experience I think is relevant to real life: that feeling of listening to the raid channel, mostly quiet because we are working, son. There’s just the two tanks every few seconds: “Taunt. Four stacks. Five stacks. Taunt. Can I get a cleanse? Thank you. Taunt.” When she gets low, my wife’s voice doesn’t change, she doesn’t panic. She trusts her healer. When we wipe, she has to make an effort to die, and I have to make an effort to let her.

I want to work on this kind of dialogue in our real life – just the steady updates on how it’s going, the instant, “Hey, I need help, you got it?” The trust that asking is okay, that your friends are there to help you, that you all want the same thing and are working together, not against one another. “I can’t hold this, need another person on this quick quick – yep, thanks.” There’s no shame and no criticism during the fight. Just trust and communication. It’s tougher in real life, during a real fight with something scarier than a self-important Blood Elf in a fancy hat. But we also trust each other more than I ever trusted anyone I raided with, and I believe that will get us through the damage spikes. We don’t need cooldowns. We got this even if it goes sideways. We can two-man this thing if we have to, baby, you and me.

The green bar gets down to just a sliver –
still, the paladin grits his teeth and taunts.
Only looks back over his shoulder once,
praying that his healer will deliver.

The man who hesitates will lose his life.
Trust your luck when you can’t trust the dealer;
most of all remember
trust your healer.
The tank raises his shield and trusts his wife.

The cascade of light nearly strikes him blind
with a sound so sweet it calls tears to his eyes,
the fading spell leaves his wife’s touch behind.
They have wings, but not the kind that know the sky –
the treasure is this fight, not what they’ll find.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

54 – Prison Age

There are a lot of tattoos I want to get, when I can afford it. I’d like to be the old lady just covered in tattoos; frankly, I can’t wait to see what nursing homes look like 50 years from now. It’s gonna be tattoos, green hair, and heirloom XBoxes from hell to breakfast. Anyway, one of the many tattoos I would like is the Star Fissure from Myst on my back, because Myst is another one of those games that is really, really important to me.

When I was a kid, we had an NES for a short while, but after that it was just the few games my grandparents had on their computers at their house, which is how I ended up much more comfortable with PCs than with consoles at an early age and became the kind of insufferable dork for whom less-than-cutting-edge graphics can ruin a game. I’m not immune to the charm of 16-bit remakes, especially when they’ve had the cruel coin-op edges sanded down, but I’m sorry, I do not understand how the drama of Cloud and Aeris was ever in any way emotional. How can you get choked up about the suffering of a dude with a bowling pin dangling from each shoulder and a skull shaped like a milk carton?

I got really obsessed with Myst, read the books and became very nerdy about the lore. The power of words to create worlds, and the idea of quantum dimensions separated by branching probabilities, are two ideas that came from that obsession and have absolutely shaped my current work. Moreover, I think I found Myst, especially the main island, to be a kind of refuge. It was a completely different experience from the rest of my life at the time.

I only got to play when my grandparents were otherwise busy, so I was never bothered. We all played on the same save, and wrote down notes – little sketches of symbols, descriptions of levers, questions to answer – in a notebook kept by the computer. We all worked cooperatively this way, and I was able to contribute just as much, because in the world of PC games in 1993, we were all noobs and being older didn’t help. Being allowed to do something difficult, requiring lateral thinking and attention to detail, and not having control wrenched from me every few seconds to demonstrate how badly I was doing, but having my input respected and welcomed… it was intoxicating. Being somewhere quiet, where every sound and movement was in my control, where no one could ever possibly surprise me by appearing where they hadn’t been before… I felt safe. Safety and agency. Myst gave me what my family was supposed to, precisely because it made my family leave me alone. Video games became a place I could hide where they would never try to follow.

So I want to get the Star Fissure tattooed on my back, below a quote from Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

The ending has not yet been written.

A world of words, it starts with waves and me,
on one side, a sloping hill and a door,
on the other, a dock but no far shore –
just me, infinite silence, and the sea.

Over time, I color in the silence,
purple groan when
has changed
Sirrus in blue with his cold, smiling rage,
Achenar red with impotent violence.

I burn the pages and the linking books
make my home in the planetarium
soon begin forgetting the world I’m from
fish in the fountain with tiny fishhooks
a world of nothing but ocean and sun.
No one will find me cause no one will look.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

50 – Kaleidoscope

Owing to, y’know, all the writing, I’ve somewhat neglected to notice what a very visual thinker I am – everything’s keyed to color and shape in a way that is inconvenient when it loses things and fucking wizardry when it succeeds. I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler at a tender age, and that’s very much the flavor of memory retrieval in the stacks of my brain. The conversation usually goes something like this: “The middle name of a friend I had in junior high school? Ah… her best friend had red hair, right? She was really into Ozomatli… Irene! Her middle name was Irene. What? Why are you looking at me like that? I’m right, aren’t I?”

My memory is often somewhat frightening in its comprehensiveness and specificity. I can recite entire conversations, word-perfect, from twenty years ago. I can step into full-sensory hallucinations of virtually any significant event and lose track of the real world entirely, at will. I can tell you the plot, in pretty exhaustive detail, of every book I’ve ever read, which I didn’t think was that weird, but my wife can reread things years later and they’ll be totally new to her. I could give you rough directions to just about any destination in Tucson, Arizona, and I haven’t lived there in over a decade.

But you’ll find that I don’t know the names of things. Any things. People, stores, songs I like. Can sing the whole song, mimicking flawlessly the inflection of the first recording I heard, but if the name isn’t in the lyrics, I still don’t know what it is. I couldn’t tell you the names of my Hunter’s skills in World of Warcraft even though I’ve played her for ten years now, but I could draw all the icons from memory, and my DPS is still good. Was never reliably number one, but you can count on me to be third DPS or better and the last person alive at the end of a fight; I’m damn good at getting out of the fire. I have a raid-leader’s eye on things: zoomed too far out to see details, just the great, abstract sweep of things, the arc, the plot, the gestalt.

That said… I’m also high all the fuckin’ time, so take it for what it’s worth.

“Bee Queen,” July 2009

I see time passing by the faces there –
mostly women’s faces, if truth be told;
yes, I’ve been gay since I was two years old –
I watch the seasons in their changing hair.

A girl like a rabbit, with hair as soft.
Laughter and a mop of platinum curls.
Straight brown curtains hanging around my world –
I know the faces, but the names are lost.

I hear a fluttering like wings and see
them riffle before me like a slideshow
as if what constitutes the best of me
stands entirely outside the time flow.
This alien out here has loved them deeply…
but the alien’s not the one they know.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

48 – Wisdom

My wife’s computer spontaneously shit itself a week or so ago, and so she’s been playing a lot of console games while we wait for the new machine-baby to arrive. There’s been a lot of Smash Bros., which is why this sonnet is about Zelda.

It’s also about Zelda because Zelda, as a concept and as a franchise, is really, really important to me. I had an NES, and then a Nintendo 64 a bit later, and I remember a lot of nights where I ended up sitting in the dark, transfixed by Mario, and Starfox, and Goldeneye, and Ocarina of Time.

Link and Zelda is maybe the purest expression of that ancient knight-errant-and-fair-lady trope in our modern mythologies, and when I was a teenager falling in love with other girls and trying to insist I wasn’t… the formal, ritualistic purity of that relationship, the deep devotion of it alongside the constant consciousness that it can’t ever be closer than it is… I fought hard not to notice how much I related to that feeling.

Roughly 1990. I’m on the right, and four.
My best friend has fallen down, I have taken care of her, and I feel like a hero.

In every game we played, I was the Knight. The other girls didn’t want to play the boy characters – fine, great, more swords for me, give it – and I was a head taller than everyone else starting at five years old. When they fell down and scraped their knees, I bandaged them with my scarves and carried them home. I felt proud. I felt useful. I felt like a Knight, and unlike when my grandmother endlessly harped on me to “act like a lady,” acting like a Knight didn’t make me feel weak, didn’t make me feel small, didn’t make me feel like a toy on a shelf, something pretty and pointless, something to be seen and not heard.

I put that part of myself – and pretty much every other part – away around the time I was fifteen. I tried very hard to conform, to follow all the proscribed steps. I thought that would keep me safe.

You know the rest of the story. No one is safe. I let them take my swords because they promised me a palace. Only obey for a while longer, stay for a while longer, and your kingdom will come.

Children, they burned down the kingdom. But swords and ocarinas don’t burn, so grab yours and let’s storm the palace.

I only saw a flash of your blue eyes –
your cry the same blue light, cutting the rain –
your face alive with fright, but not with pain
you let something fall as the horse sped by.

I’ve known you only minutes now, all told,
or should I count the words you’ve said to me,
the secrets heard, the fear you let me see,
the burdens we were both too young to hold?

Trouble is, each move you make has power.
There’s not a breath I can afford to waste.
Whether seven or seventy-two hours
in every single mask I see your face
and I promise, when I find your tower,
I’ll butcher the pig who’s taken your place.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

42 – Master Puppet

My wife said, “You should write about… an altruistic adventurer! Something upbeat and heartwarming.”
This is… not upbeat and heartwarming.

When she said “altruistic adventurer,” what popped into my head was how a man would feel, having fought to save people on a one-to-one basis all his life, suddenly given a lord’s seat or a duchy for his valor. Now he has the power to affect the lives he used to save individually, and he can change all their lives… but now the questions are so much more complicated, and he no longer knows how to help anyone. It feels like every hope and good intention he has can’t make it through the walls of paper and men and stone on every side, out to the fields where the people he used to save are starving. He helped them more by stabbing goblins than he has in five years as their king.

The way I was intending this to go, the last stanza would feature him taking off back to the road again, to do it the way he knows he’s good at. But I’ve been reading too much news lately and the wires got crossed with my dour thoughts about the way our current government is draining the populace and the planet with such naked, drooling glee. My writing often runs off with me – I rarely know where something’s going to end when I start. That’s what I like about it.

Seemed like a good moment for some weird monkey art I did.
This one’s called “So Uh… Monkeys.” May 2007

Once I had a sword made of silvered steel,
the ransom of ten men in the hilt alone.
I had a fortress built of quarried stone
whose halls rang loud with laughter, click of heels.

From this lofty seat I surveyed my lands.
I saw men starving with the fields unworked,
houses empty while men in doorways lurked,
saw the ill die with medicine at hand.

Those lofty halls were full of vampires.
Remember when we used to slay such beasts?
Now we let them sit down by our fires
and let them plan the menus for our feasts.
Now with the silvered steel that won this peace,
I spit my own people for their fires.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets