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.

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

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

40 – Hamlet

I know this sounds like more anti-capitalist ranting, but this time you are wrong, my dear children! The pigs are real, and they despise me for being a vagrant in their city. I’ve been playing Don’t Starve Hamlet all day and I’m feeling particularly ill-served by the local porcine authority. Stand there and watch me starve to death because I don’t have any of your ridiculous pig-gold, will you? I’m fairly sure I could have this pig tried at the Hague.

Wendy bout to introduce this ham-stuffed shirt to her machete,
and maybe her dead sister.

In the hamlet, pigs lurk all around me.
They’ve watched me this way since the day I came;
not one of them has ever asked my name.
They just called me “unpig” when they found me.

They sneer at me struggling to survive.
I scrape their leavings from the cobbled streets
and sell them back to every pig I meet.
Each morning they’re surprised I’m alive.

I cower before pigs with mighty blades
Fawning, I beg the well-dressed swine for gold,
huddle in their doorways out of the cold,
watch the guard-hogs barely contain their rage
that a tiny unpig should be so bold
as to demand a meal or working wage.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

32 – Stabilized Glitch

At my wife’s behest, another one about No Man’s Sky. It’s all we’ve been playing lately. We’ve found a lot of [REDACTED] planets that have been mostly creepy as hell, and a lot of Breached and Anomalous planets that have been mostly beautiful. The creatures on such planets are usually… geometrical, or architectural, rather than animal in structure. Floating spires, a general collection of excited stones, a huge crystalline orb sweating quietly in the moonlight. I’m enjoying making very abstract friends.

Vaulting ‘cross the hills in search of glitches,
surrounded on all sides by floating stones
Ahead, a motivated mountain roams,
flanks all seamed with ore like shiny stitches.

The mountain’s children play in its shadow
jasper-yellow crystals that resonate
bob in the air and agitate
the ions swimming free around my halo.

One rests its central spire ‘pon my back.
I feel a blunted point against my spine.
Then all around me, mountains start to cry,
electric tears to rise from minute cracks
and as I chase their sorrow to the sky
they weep a river that runs back in time.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

30 – House of Waves

A cool planet I found. This is not the ocean planet.
I’m not going back there to get a screenshot; I don’t love you that much.

I was playing No Man’s Sky this morning, and I came upon the first ocean planet I’ve seen. I don’t think that was a thing before this recent update, but… I’mma be honest, guys, I’m not okay with it. It turns out that my thalassophobia is very real. I landed in my ship on one little island in a whole world of ocean, and for a whole minute I sat there, too terrified to get out. And it’s not like there’s a damn thing in No Man’s Sky’s oceans I haven’t met and mined for its precious minerals, so this is not a practical fear. I can’t tell you what I thought would happen. I felt somehow as if the entire world were a mouth, at the edge of which I was flickering like an infinitely tiny fly about to be swallowed. Just… just fuck every part of that. Went back to space. There’s nothing down there I need.

I have a lot of nightmares about the ocean. It’s not about drowning; most of the time in my dreams I can breathe underwater. That doesn’t help. There’s something about a bounded void, a fundamentally unknowable and yet concrete space. I think there are some similarities in this to the fears that House of Leaves plays upon. If you haven’t read that, go read it; come back and blame me for your lost sleep later. Anyway, this poem is about… all of that.

Once, in your arms, I learned a sinking waltz.
Full fathom five my father lies, they say.
He can’t see the sun, even at midday.
Instead, he constructs endless… empty… vaults.

I confess it’s that emptiness I fear.
All empty spaces, by their nature, ache –
what if that darkness should come wide awake
thoughtlessly yawn, swallow a thousand years?

I fear the emptiness of space much less
than a void with limits, a house with halls,
an ocean with an unseen floor below.
What will I find when my feet come to rest?
What if, down there, it’s just more floors and walls?
Would you bring a light?
Would you want to know?

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

10 – In Memoriam Moron

Been playing Oxygen Not Included all day, so today’s offering is a rage-filled eulogy for my Duplicants. Your little asteroid-mining dudes are so breathtakingly stupid that they can and will:

  • Build themselves into the wall like a very proactive Poe protagonist
  • Get so stressed out by their need to pee that they stop fixing the toilet to fill the room with urine, then complain that their shoes are wet
  • Happily abandon friends and loved ones in pits, behind locked doors, in freezing or boiling water
  • Willingly enter a gas-filled chamber, destroy the exit from the inside, and suffocate to death with a bewildered expression on their face

And so much more. It’s actually good that they’re so infuriatingly dumb; if they were any better at staying alive, I might feel the slightest bit sad when they die.

Trapped beneath the floor, Gossman jumps and flails.
The water’s rising ‘neath his sneakered feet.
Finishing his work, he takes a beat
to be proud of his well-constructed jail.

Above the floor, his friends would help him bail,
but first they’ve got to cook up some lunch meat
and just make sure their bedrooms are neat.
Gossman lets out another bubbling wail.

The light flickers, but then – he sees his wife!
Mi-Ma will save him!
Mi-Ma is sweet and wise!
Trouble is, in a crisis… Mi-Ma cries.
As sure as if she stabbed him with a knife,
she drowns her gurgling husband with her eyes,
just so upset that she can’t save his life!

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets