‘Yes’ means nothing if you can’t say ‘No’

I’m fortunate. I’m lucky in the extreme, in many ways. One of those ways is the fact that I exist at all. My existence in the first place was improbable—my conception was a wildly unlikely event. And, given everything else going on at the time, there was no guarantee my mother would want to give birth to me. Yet my mom has told me many times that she feels blessed to have had me. I feel blessed in turn.

“Ah ha, Henry must be anti-abortion!” You say.

No, the opposite.

I was born because my mom wanted to keep me. I was born in a world where she had a choice, unconstrained by legality or safety, about whether or not I would be born. I was raised by a mother who was able to look at her life, at her family, and say “yes, I want to bring another child to this, and I am ready to love and provide for that child.”

I am lucky, I am blessed, because my mother was able to make that choice. In many ways, my life feels more meaningful because my mother had other options and chose me. I was never unwanted. I wasn’t a burden. I was chosen.

I want others to be chosen too.

But being chosen requires that it be a choice. That choice matters. Preserving the ability to choose matters. ‘Yes’ is an empty word when you can’t say ‘no.’

Taking away someone’s ability to say ‘no’ doesn’t mean they’ll say ‘yes.’ It means you don’t care what they think or feel. You might as well just tape their mouth shut.

And it’s dishonest to look at this issue on its own. Abortion access may be legislated separately, but the arguments about abortion and restricting access to it are deeply entwined with other political messages. They coexist with other narratives, and other goals.

The political party that would restrict abortion access also votes to cut funding for public health care. In Mississippi, anti-abortion legislation is passed even while support for future parents is not. And politicians arguing against abortions often also vote against funding programs that support poorer people, or expanding that support to prevent poverty in the first place.

Here in America, many of these arguments come back around to personal responsibility. Individuals are to blame, by the logic of personal responsibility, for all of their success or failure. And many anti-abortion politicians support measures that push this narrative. They sell the idea that they’re empowering the individual to plot their own course or stand up for themself.

Unless you’re pregnant.*

Raising a child in our society is extremely expensive. Giving birth is more dangerous here than in many other countries, on top of being pricey. Quality medical care is not reliably available to everyone, and where it is available it’s still costly.

Choosing not to raise a child under those circumstances is a responsible decision. Choosing to raise only the number of children you can afford to raise is a responsible decision. Choosing not to take the medical risk of bearing a child is a responsible decision.

I am lucky because my mother knew that she could provide for me. She knew that having me wouldn’t be the straw that broke the family’s back. She could make the choice to have me without being irresponsible.

But politicians who love personal responsibility would prevent people from making responsible choices. Because if someone is pregnant, then these politicians know best. They know the government should strip away that vaunted individual choice, they know the government should disempower pregnant people in their own personal lives.

I firmly believe that people should be allowed to not get abortions if they don’t want them, or if they feel abortions are morally unacceptable. They can choose to never have an abortion. They can make many personal choices, for themselves, as they see fit.

But they can’t make those same personal choices for others. They must not gnaw away at other people’s access to health care. It’s unacceptable to force anyone but yourself to carry a fetus to term.

There’s far more to say here: about political narratives, religion, extremism, and broken systems… but I’ll leave it at this for now.

Being chosen was a blessing. Let other people choose for themselves.

*In fact, this message of “empowering individuals” comes with far more caveats. It’s not just about being pregnant: when you look at larger patterns it also often matters whether you’re white, rich, male, straight, etc.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

I’ve only seen the first episode. I loved it. I’m really excited for more.

It’s hard for me to see this show without immediately comparing it to Star Trek: Discovery. Obviously, the two shows are connected by their events and characters. And, very mild but necessary spoilers, if you watch the first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds you will be spoiled for the end of Discovery’s second season. Given the continuity of experience for several main characters (and especially Captain Pike), that’s inevitable.

Most of the details of Discovery aren’t brought up because they’re classified in-setting and there’s little reason for anyone to actually divulge anything. But the vital bits come out in a few conversations, or are heavily hinted at and shown in characters’ internal struggles. This means that you don’t need to have seen Discovery in order to enjoy this show, and all the plot-relevant emotional strife that grew out of the previous show’s events is made accessible to new viewers.

That’s all for the best. I have mixed feelings about Discovery, and I think Strange New Worlds made the right choice by making itself more accessible to new viewers. Moreover, I think Discovery’s emotional and narrative tone felt more like a grim Star Trek movie… and Strange New Worlds feels like a marvelous return to the tone of Star Trek as a TV show.

I’ve written about this here before. Discovery had piles of narrative tension, and character development, and drama… and it felt like watching a high production-value miniseries set in the Star Trek universe, with all the bubbling idealism stripped out. When I watched it, I did not feel hope. I was engaged by the story, and I appreciated the growth seen throughout each season. But Discovery was fundamentally about season-spanning dramatic narrative arcs. 

Star Trek benefits from dramatic narrative arcs. Yet for all my love of a good narrative, Star Trek has long been more focused on exploration, and on ethical, moral, and intellectual engagement with difficult subjects. Sometimes it does that well, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it leavens itself with exciting narrative interludes. But it’s a series anchored in idealism, hope, and a willingness to engage critically with its setting (with varying levels of success).

Strange New Worlds delivers that. Watching Strange New Worlds felt like watching the next iteration of the old Star Trek shows, in the best possible way. I loved it.

I know there are some people who have seen it and don’t like it. I understand that a number of people are upset about the bridge crew being both mostly non-white and/or women. Fuck ‘em. If that’s seriously their gripe with the show, they haven’t paid enough attention to the whole rest of the show’s history—and they’re apparently unsatisfied with the fact that the captain is still a white dude.

I haven’t yet heard other people’s critiques of the show, and I’d be more curious to hear those. This meme applies, to be sure:

But not only does this new Trek feel hopeful, I once again trust that the show will continue in the optimistic and idealistic traditions of older Star Trek shows rather than chase ”serious drama” at the expense of its emotional and philosophical tone. I am so excited for more.

World Seeds, Whimsy’s Throne, DriveThruRPG

I’ve made a DriveThruRPG storefront for my World Seeds project (see Whimsy’s Throne for details). I’ll link to that after I’ve uploaded my first Seeds. I knew this step was coming, once I had another finished Seed ready for publication. And now I’m dealing with the intricacies of posting content on DriveThruRPG while trying to figure out how to optimize the PDFs I’ve made for general distribution. I don’t want to publish content that immediately breaks when a stranger tries to open it, after all.

Unfortunately for me, I also don’t want to optimize my published content such that the art turns fuzzy and indistinct. This might be an issue.

My next steps are to upload the two World Seeds I have thus far. I’m making one available for free, and one for cash. Then I need to find another artist I like working with. Meanwhile, I’ll keep chugging along: writing more rough location descriptions and expanding existing descriptions into full-fledged Seeds.

My goal with this project has always been to produce a bunch of these things. And I want them to have notably distinct art styles for each Seed, for the most part. If I can have different artists bringing distinct styles (or experimenting with styles that are new to them), that’s perfect. I’m happy to do repeat work with artists, of course—I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with the artists I’ve worked with so far. I look forward to working with them again—I just don’t want the Seeds to be tied to only one style. The more variations, the merrier.

My hope is that I can have a varied body of artwork and styles reminiscent of the huge variety that was present in early 90’s Magic: the Gathering art. That’s what I grew up with. And while some of it was bad, I loved the way I could find so many totally novel art styles in the same game. During the 00’s MtG homogenized their style significantly, allowing some variation between sets but building a unified “house style.” While I can see how that makes sense for a company managing such a large quantity of content (and a company concerned with consistency in its artistic brand), I feel like MtG lost something when they stopped having such significant variation in artistic style from one card to the next. The individuality and experimentation faded away.

Given that I’m trying to build a product that engages people on as many levels as I can, and which appeals to as broad a group as possible, I feel like changing up art from one Seed to the next is my best option. If someone hates one art style, maybe they’ll love a different one and pick up that Seed. The dream would be for people to love and use every World Seed, but I’ll absolutely settle for catching people’s eye with a few different options.

RPGs as tools, quick thoughts

RPGs are magical. They’re incredibly powerful tools for personal exploration, when used intentionally. And they’re some of the best fun I’ve found.

I’ve played many different characters, seeking many different things. I spent a long time playing characters who wanted to control things or be prepared for all eventualities—something I associate with the style of game I played as a kid, and with my fear of failure or character death (heck, even character misfortune). Those traits, and the struggle to optimize or avoid failure, took a long time to unlearn. I still feel their pull.

I suspect that Monsterhearts, with its suggestion that you “drive your character like a stolen car” helped me break out of this mold the most. But it took me a long while to carry that same delight and freedom, and embracing of consequences as part of the game and story, into my games in other systems. Now, years later, the majority of the characters I’m playing these days are closer to that carefree mode. I feel considerably lighter playing those games, and I feel lighter when I am able to bring some of that same openness to the rest of my life.

I appreciate how my awareness of this has shifted, how I’m better able to recognize my preoccupation with not-failing and not-suffering in games and elsewhere. And I appreciate how RPGs give me an opportunity to explore failure and suffering without actually being stuck in those things. That exploration has been therapeutic for me. Giving in to my characters’ heedless pursuit of fulfilling their desires and achieving their (often simple) goals—and accepting the many ways they end up stubbing their toes or bloodying their noses on the way—offers a profound release from the constant clenching struggle of seeking perfection and avoiding failure. 

In many ways, this exploration has paralleled my personal struggles with perfectionism, control, and risk avoidance. My characters have served as a means of venturing outside my comfort zone, of exploring what other possibilities I have and what other modes are available for interacting with the world. My characters often take that exploration to the extreme, far beyond anything I’d want to engage with in real life, but they offer a safe place for experiencing what it’s like to live differently than I do. And they offer an avenue for both self-reflection and growth.

Of course, I play my characters for fun. Most of my characters aren’t designed with any of this in mind. And I don’t make my explorations at the expense of other players at the table, or without their engagement in the kinds of characters I play (my friends’ fun matters too). But with a bit of foresight, self-awareness, and reflection I’ve found RPGs to be right up there with meditation (perhaps like meditation’s active counterpart) as a means of uncovering and facing parts of myself, and growing myself in new directions.

Worldbuilding: Ephemera & Epigraphs

Reading The Butchering Art, with its record of snarky arguments in medical journals, gave me an idea.

The setting for my stories about Miska, along with all the various Andre & Jerome stories I have, is a complicated one. It’s big, in-depth, and just enough like our own world that it regularly leaves people guessing when I try to explain it. Perhaps I should try to simplify some of the setting, but… I think the perverse complexity and deep similarities to our own world are what makes the setting engaging and exciting. It’s a what-if, a thought experiment, and a sometimes-grim sometimes-hopeful social commentary.

Part of the similarity is in geography and place names. That’s the thing that trips up folk the most, I think, and the thing I’ve considered rewriting time and again. The world is—mostly—our own. The continents are mostly the continents we would recognize from our own Earth. As such, I have regularly used our own world’s historical names for cities that match up with a city’s location in this setting (e.g. Paris and Marseille). At times, when I’m trying to convey that there’s something distinct from our own world, our own expectations, I change a city’s name (as I’ve done with most bodies of water). But I know that’s confused readers even more, at times.

It doesn’t help that I’m not totally consistent about it, or haven’t always settled on names for some places.

But those shifted names still don’t address the shift in social conventions, or the difference in histories. Explaining why I’m using some of our own world’s city names doesn’t give a reader any understanding of the detailed history of this alternate Earth. In some ways, I think it actually makes understanding the setting harder for readers—which wasn’t my goal at all.

Enter my flash of inspiration.

The snarky medical journal arguments presented in The Butchering Art conveyed so much more than their surface disagreements. They served as a touchstone for the culture of the time, and they contained such startling similarity to modern academic sniping—and comment section flame wars—that I immediately felt like I had a better connection to, a better read on the world depicted by the book.

So I started writing in-setting documents for this world. Some were the stiffly polite and horribly condescending disagreements of people writing to various society papers’ opinion sections. Another was an excerpt from a personal letter between two people involved in city politics and what might be called clandestine activity. Every so often I have another idea and try it out.

With this, I think I’ve finally found the way to give readers a window into the setting. This material can preface some chapters or stories, or serve as introduction to a section of a book. What I’ve written so far feels clunky as an epigraph, but I think this can finally give enough context to ease readers into the world. Better yet, I can showcase in-setting struggles and disagreements, political squabbles, and personal opinions. I can reveal information that some of the characters might know, or comment on at some point. And, I hope, I can do some of the world-building work that would otherwise clog the rest of my story with exposition.

So here, enjoy the first idea that came to me a while back. It won’t be nearly enough on its own to show you all of this setting, but maybe you can enjoy peering in through the cracks.

***

Letter on the latest troubles of the Inner Sea, to the editor of The Parisian, first and finest of the continental ladies’ magazines

Regarding the recent abuse levied against the fine Doctor Gilarien of our daughter-city Marseille, this writer must protest heartily. It is by no means sensible for any to wage too harsh a battle against the natural allies of our fine city, and this is precisely what La Fleur du Sucre proposes to do. Our daughter-city—along with her denizens—is our responsibility to protect and guide, and the true proof of Parisian majesty will be evident in the beauty, grace, intellect and fortitude of her daughters in the face of the dangers of the world. Certainly I would hope that La Fleur du Sucre would not be the type of mother who so admonishes and smothers her children that they never learn to fly from the nest of their own accord. No, what is needed here is not chastising whip-tongue remonstrations, but rather the gentle guidance and support of a mother for her child. We may prune back ill-reason and train the growing limb of intellect to our trellis where we know it will be healthy and bear fruit.

The estimable Doctor Gilarien is entirely correct that our city’s agents operating as they are, along the coast of the Inner Sea, have brought forth suffering amongst the many tribes present there. But the good doctor must recall that these tribes have long allied themselves with the Ones to the East, the very same who sought to maintain “Enlightened” dominion over all of us despite the wishes of the Good Masters. Given these tribes’ warlike disposition and their frequent exercises upon the borders of our allies, it would be insufferable for us to not interrupt their works, lest they grow too numerous and powerful and form once more the armies that they once were. For let us not forget that those selfsame tribes, the ones the good doctor feels such concern for, were once the engines of destruction which drove the burning of Köln, Rotterdam, and even our lovely Paris. Thus it is that one would do well to balance the—admirable, and well-reasoned!—concern for innocent life made more difficult by our own actions, against the cost of allowing such hostile forces to regain their strength and organization to rampage across our continent once again. This writer is entirely certain that the good doctor will agree that the actions of Paris and her agents must, in the greater balance, come out the lighter price to pay.

As to the fine doctor’s points with regards to the treatment of the prisoners of war captured amidst the strife along the Inner Sea, this writer must surrender to their local experience and expertise. It is the doctor’s knowledge of the prisoners’ circumstances which must, clearly, take precedence here, and La Fleur du Sucre would do well to recall that one’s daughters will only grow into their own skills of reason if they are trusted to observe and report their own findings in all earnestness, and assess proper courses of action from there on—with their mother’s guiding hand, of course. Therefore to the doctor this writer suggests that it would be to everyone’s benefit if some documentation could be made of the present circumstances of the prisoners during their transportation. There is no course by which the transportation may be stopped—it would not do to domicile prisoners too near the fighting, nor to leave them anywhere they might escape unsupervised, and as such the verdant gardens of the New Sea must be the best solution—but perhaps the transportation might be made less onerous and perilous to those transported. Certainly there is no need to torture, as the good doctor would have it, those who have surrendered or otherwise been captured. After all, these vanquished foes are not insensate beasts, but merely the doughty and fearsome battle cadre bred and trained from birth to serve in the Enlightened Ones’ armies.

Lastly, this writer must commend the good doctor’s dedication to the ethics of the profession; surely the doctor’s presence in this world is of considerable value to all, and a guiding light for all others of the daughter-city who might seek the health and well-being of their fellows. If this writer lacks any merest atom of knowledge of the arts of medicine, may it nevertheless be that this writer is able to remind the fine doctor of Marseille to think beyond the simpler personal suffering of a vanquished few and to encompass the greater wellbeing of free civilization upon the continent without the dominion of those who once held us all in bondage. It would be a foul sickness indeed were we to squander the freedom granted us by the Good Masters, and fought for by our ancestors, by failing to protect it from the encroachments of those who may wish us ill.

With love and kindness,

A Parisian Mother

What about a 2X game?

I’ve been watching people play Civ again, as a writing break. It’s less dangerous than letting myself play the game, what with the likelihood of one-more-turning through the rest of the day. But all this Civ-watching is tickling a game idea I’ve had for a few years.

Years ago, there was an article on RockPaperShotgun reviewing a 4X game in which the writer mused on why there weren’t any 3X, or 2X games. For those unfamiliar with the term “4X,“ in this context it stands for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”—a series of objectives common to many real-time and turn-based strategy games, considered foundational to turn-based strategy games like Civilization. But that writer’s comments resonated with me. And while there are first-person exploration games and walking simulators (which might count as 1X games), I’m really curious about a map-based game.

Civilization, and games like it, engage me most during the early stages. It’s the exploration that really does it for me. The discovery of new possibilities, the uncovering of new places of interest, and the process of learning how to connect the places you already know with the places you’ve just found. These are similar to the themes and experiences that I love in exploratory RPGs.

By the time that I’ve reached mid-game, the game often feels more stagnant. I can usually run the numbers at that point and have an idea of whether I’ll win or lose, or I know that the focus of the game will shift to the (almost) inevitable grind of fighting some other group. I’ll need to declare war on someone else, or they’ll declare war on me and I’ll need to defend myself. And even there, I can often tell beforehand how those challenges will play out. It doesn’t help that the AI isn’t very good at using its military in most Civ games. This means that the game, which had been exciting and engaging and full of discovery, slows down and fills with busy-work and micromanagement.

I expect some people really like that stuff. Sometimes I find it rewarding too.

But I’d love to see something else. I’d love to see a game that is predominantly about exploration, and about making connections. Maybe it’s about spreading out from one point and building trade networks? Maybe it’s about finding ways to connect things you’ve discovered with your home. I’m honestly not sure, except that I know I want the game to be more about discovery and exploration than about any of the other eXes.

What’s kept me from making this, for the most part, is not having made time for it. That, and the pandemic, which has made playtesting with excited friends more difficult. But I want to try putting together something with index cards, flipping tiles from the top of a deck as you uncover new spaces. There are definite limitations to doing this by hand instead of programming it, but at least it would avoid needing to a) refresh my ancient programming skills to be able to program such a game, and b) figure out how to generate satisfying maps through procedural generation. Instead, I simply need to puzzle through how to make satisfying maps via kludge and fiat with tile placement.

If you do know of something like this, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll be sure to share whatever I discover, when and if I try it myself.

Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks

Sometimes books read like TV shows. This is one of those times. Hardly surprising, given that the author has a background writing for TV dramas. She does a good job of it here, too.

Lily SparksTeen Killers Club handled me roughly. I loved it. Riding its ups and downs, I felt emotionally whipsawed and had to set it aside a few times to take breathers and regain equilibrium (something our poor narrator never has a chance to do). By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, still locked in admiration for the ways the story had pulled me back and forth time and again. Because for all that I’d been on a ride, it was an impressive ride. Sparks knew how to grab my heartstrings, and she did it fearlessly. The book had caught me and reeled me in, and pulled me along for the whole thing.

Well, not quite the whole thing: at the start I was partly distracted by needing to finish another book. But it was easy to slip back into it after finishing the other book. Then, of course, it was hard to put it down.

And yes, I’m on board for reading the sequel (which I suspected would exist, but wasn’t certain about until writing this). I’m a little concerned about it, for reasons that are lightly spoiler-y and which I’ll share in more detail below. Blandly put, I’m not sure which genre tropes the story-to-come will follow. There are a variety of options available, after all. But the story’s overall tone could go in several directions, and I won’t know how well it will fit my palate until I read the dang thing—which I will definitely do.

All of which is to say, if you like YA teen drama and serial killers and murder mysteries, this is a great book for you. Be ready for a heck of an emotional ride.

Now.

I can’t go into detail about this without implied spoilers for the book. But this series of observations are eating my brain, so here goes.

*IMPLICIT SPOILERS*

This varies by subgenre, but dramas don’t like to kill characters or let them stay dead. This is especially true of TV dramas, which often suffer from what I’ll call a dramatic conservation of characters.

I say suffer, but in moderation this conservation is a positive thing. Because dramas build up value in their characters, investing them with growth, backgrounds, and relationships that make them richer and more interesting, these dramas are loathe to sacrifice their developed main characters or let them die—even when that death would make sense. This dramatic conservation of characters feeds into the “main character glow” or “plot protection” that shields developed characters from death. But this conservation also provides the audience with reliable narrative focal points, and both encourages and rewards the audience’s emotional investment.

Some stories are more prone to this than others, but I think it’s especially prevalent in character dramas that specialize in arranging (and rearranging) their characters along various social faults of contention. Characters twist or are twisted into new disagreements, the situation is milked for all the drama it can hold, and then some new development arises that prompts another realignment. The longer a story runs, the more realignments happen, and the more strange situations people end up in as the writers try to deliver new and exciting stakes. This is the process that leads to jumping the shark. It’s also the process that results in somebody being caught in a terrible accident or dangerous what-have-you and then miraculously surviving (possibly with some character-altering development, like amnesia).

Usually, dramatic conservation of characters is maintained. Usually the characters don’t actually die, or if they do they aren’t actually gone for all that long. That’s part of the reason that so few character deaths are treated seriously in these stories… or at least, why so few are treated seriously amongst these stories’ audiences. The genre-savvy know from past experience that characters don’t usually die or stay dead.

This, sadly, only makes it harder to actually up the stakes in these genres.

It doesn’t help that these stories sometimes try to up the stakes by killing off people the audience has little attachment to. Instead of demonstrating that the situation is dangerous, this only reinforces the relative safety of the main characters. Scalzi’s Redshirts is all about this trope as it exists in Star Trek. Other stories try to demonstrate how dangerous and gritty they are by killing off characters seemingly at random—sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels like the author is trying to be edgy.

I think character death in these stories usually works best when it’s given space and weight, or at least makes an impact on other characters (I’ve written a bunch of posts about this). There are a handful of exceptions.

But the thing that’s eating at me, the thing I’m concerned is going to happen in the sequel, is that Sparks won’t let characters die when they really ought to… or will kill more characters just to show that she can. She’s set herself up for a tricky path going forward, and I suspect *EXPLICIT SPOILERS* based on the end of the book that she won’t let characters stay dead when that would actually fit her story well. But I don’t know! Maybe she’s just lulling me into a false sense of security. As I said above, I’ve got to read the sequel to find out. *END SPOILERS*

Still on board for YA drama about teen serial killers, with some murder mystery on the side?

Get thee to the library (or bookstore).

TUNIC

TUNIC is good. It’s great. It has a goofy, simple name that has encouraged Google to serve me both articles about the game and articles of women’s clothing, and it’s drawn me in magnetically over the past two weeks. There have been nights where I’ve had to peel myself away from the computer, and gone to sleep still puzzling over how to get past the latest obstacle I’ve found. It’s worth checking out.

This game has never had a name that, to my mind, properly acknowledged its potential. I first saw it teased at PAX East years ago, when it was still called Secret Legend. From what I can tell, the game has grown significantly since then.

And it’s good.

Other people have already made this quip, but they’re on the right track: TUNIC is a Souls-like by way of Zelda nostalgia. But that’s not all. In many ways, TUNIC reminds me of a less bloodthirsty Hyper Light Drifter (HLD) with more puzzles and more Metroidvania-esque exploration. It’s softer aesthetically, with all its gentle shapes and bright colors, and less challenging in its basic fights. But it still rewards—and requires—mastering its combat-mechanics in order to progress. As is traditional, boss fights are designed with the expectation that you’ll die a number of times. You’ll gradually learn the bosses’ patterns and how they change over the course of the battle, and might find sneaky ways to use those patterns against them.

TUNIC starts you off slowly, a classic ”wild Link” waking on a sandy shore. It introduces its mechanics in a dribble, offering you new equipment and consumables in chests hidden throughout the game—some hidden better than others. It even gives you an in-game manual. But TUNIC requires you to collect every manual page you want to read, and (again like HLD) almost all of its in-game text is in an unfamiliar script.

Just enough of the manual is in English that I haven’t needed to translate the script in order to understand how to do things yet. But nearly the entire “Background Story” page is impossible for me to read, along with other big chunks of the manual. So making a translation is on my to-do list; there are enough pages mostly in TUNIC’s script, enough clues and explanations that I can’t read yet, that I think it is worth it.

Frustrating as this might be, it’s part of what sets TUNIC apart from other similar games for me. It has somehow doled out just enough information to keep me feeling hooked and encouraged, and I haven’t yet spent long enough mashing my head against a wall to despair. Better yet, while there are clues hinted at in the manual, there are also secrets the manual carefully doesn’t explain or mention, which only opens up the feelings of possibility even further.

Given what I heard about the game developers giving their early reviewers a Discord channel where they could share questions and hints about what they’d discovered so far, my hope is to find other people who are playing and compare notes with them. Maybe I’ll do that on the official Discord server; while I’d prefer to confer with friends, the community there looks like it’s doing a decent job of not spoiling things for the most part. And that’s good, because I don’t want spoilers! And I don’t want to spoil anything for another player. I might be willing to tell people that yes, there’s an item that will allow you to do something, or that yes, there’re hints pushing me to investigate in another direction… but I want to find the actual discovery for myself. The few hints I saw on the official server reassure me that I’ve barely scratched the game’s surface, even though I’d thought I was pretty far along.

I guess that makes sense. So far, I’ve just kept finding more things hidden around the world of TUNIC. And every time I discover a new tool or technique, I revisit all the old places I’ve already been and hunt for what I might have missed. So far, I’ve missed a lot! But I’ve also uncovered tremendously cool things, and it’s that feeling of discovery that I love so much. The satisfaction of puzzling out how to do something—how to open a door I’d struggled with or how to sneak my way past it—is what feels so rewarding. I don’t want to ruin that for anyone. And if that’s something you enjoy in a game, I have to recommend this to you.

If you’re able to play it, and if you like Zelda-ish games with many deeper puzzles, and don’t mind an occasional tricky boss battle… damn. Try TUNIC.

The Orpheus Plot, by Christopher Swiedler

The Orpheus Plot is fun, and an excellent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Its dramatic arc has a similar structure, it has good kid vs adult conflict, and it digs into some moral quandaries. Even better, it’s all about a young teen coming into his own through his larger struggles against the powers that would control him and his world. It’s more than that, too, but those are parallels enough for me to know that I should reference this book. That fact that it’s also space-adventure MG sci-fi, vanishingly rare, is just icing on the cake.

The biggest reservation I had with In The Red is resolved here; The Orpheus Plot clearly digs into the social questions and issues of its setting, rather than more or less pretending those things don’t exist. I’m glad it does. I can see how In The Red’s narrator might not have been aware of those larger struggles, but I think The Orpheus Plot is more interesting and more rewarding for focusing so much on the societal struggles of Inner System-vs-Belter politics and the struggles of life in the Belt in general.

Now, because of how similar our stories are (and because I do actually think both my story and Swiedler’s are good) most of my quibbles about this book are smaller scale and more personal. If you want middle grade space sci-fi I can already tell you to pick this up. If you want me to pry a little deeper, keep reading.

First, a few thoughts about some of the emotional arcs.

Some of the emotional resolution later on felt a little rushed or unexpected. There were hints of social and emotional arcs that had outgrown the established material without enough support in place for their final end points—mostly in the narrator’s interactions with other students towards the end. And there were a few places as the climax rolled on where it felt like a scene or interaction happened because it needed to be in the story and the main character needed that push, rather than because the story world led us there… just normal issues, spots where I felt like I could see the seams that revealed the story’s artifice. Also, those interactions are classic genre tropes, and they don’t feel out of place so much as they feel noticeable.

Now, a bigger difference between The Orpheus Plot and Bury’em Deep: I think Christopher Swiedler has more positive opinions of hegemony, authority, and the system than I do. That, or he’s less willing to question such things in fiction for middle grade readers.

Relatedly, there are some ways in which Swiedler’s space-future feels remarkably staid. There isn’t much queerness (I think I recall one mention of a non-het couple?), and neither the hegemonic center nor the frontier fringe have much visible divergence from our own social norms. That feels odd.

Historically speaking, divergence from shared social norms increases with time and distance. “The past is a foreign country,” to quote L.P. Hartley. People telling stories about the past usually put considerable effort into rewriting, recontextualizing, and even obscuring pieces of the past in order to make history match the author’s social standards, preferring to highlight the places where things are still the same (and make up commonalities where they need more). Many Westerns are an excellent example of that, ignoring the queer, non-traditional, and racially intermixed communities that developed on the frontier of the expanding US in favor of writing about strong independent straight white men.

But the future is a foreign country too. I wanted more of a departure from our own ideas of how society works, more ‘foreign-but-recognizable’ social conventions. The Orpheus Plot clearly has some, and highlights the differences between Belters and Inner System folks, but I wanted more of them. I wanted to know that there were “total weirdos” out there somewhere, and I wanted to feel more confident that life as we know it feels totally foreign to our narrator—that, from our narrator’s perspective, we readers would be uncannily different.

But I think the key to this, the reason this story feels more staid or in line with authority, comes back to the stories it most reminds me of. This story’s narrative arc reminds me of Treasure Island, or a reimagining of something from C. S. Forester’s Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien’s series. And whatever issues this story might raise with authority (the Navy, Inner System-dominated politics, etc) those authorities are still presented as less-bad than the alternative.

I’ll go into further detail, but there’ll be some *SPOILERS*.

So, this story is more than a modernization of those old Age of Sail adventure stories. But while we’re exposed to the ways in which the system is clearly bad for Belters, and we’re given a sympathetic view of Belters’ complaints, the story’s key revolutionaries are never painted with anything but a villainous brush. Heck, the big villain—leading the revolution—is almost comically evil, engaging in some really tropey, mustache-twirling bad stuff. And we never see enough of his side of things, or hear enough about his story, for those actions to feel anything but melodramatic. Moreover, he’s enough of a scumbag the rest of the time that it’s easy to ignore the validity of his larger complaints. No matter how much sense some of his complaints might make, and no matter how the narrator might pointedly agree at times, he’s still obviously bad rather than complicated.

It’s okay to have bad guys in your stories. But I wanted there to be more complication to the central conflict, rather than having the most sympathetic revolutionary (not that main baddie) feel more like a less-charming Long John Silver. 

Part of the struggle here is just time and focus in the book, I think. That less-charming Long John Silver, a Navy crewmate involved in the lower decks’ conspiracy with the revolutionary Belters, never quite has enough narrative focus to become a helpful replacement parental figure. Without that narrative focus, without the warm fuzzies of a friendly older ally on the ship, we (and the narrator) don’t quite feel close enough to him to wonder why he makes the choices he does. That means that even when he offers us a little more moral complexity near the end of the story, it doesn’t carry as much narrative weight as it could have, had there been more connection there.

Plus, our narrator is so concerned with making it in the Navy and not rocking the boat that we never get as much honest reflection on how the Navy isn’t doing well by the Belters. There’s a brief scene where that becomes relevant, but it’s not in the forefront enough of the time, the way it’d need to be if the story were really digging into the oppression experienced by the Belters. Honestly, I’m not sure how the story would have worked if that had been written differently. I suspect the book would have had to be longer. *END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I don’t know that I did a better job (in Bury’em Deep) with any of the issues I’m critiquing in The Orpheus Plot. But I think interrogating those points, poking the issues and digging deeper, is really important. And maybe, I hope, doing that in fiction for kids will invite their further reflection.

The Orpheus Plot is good space adventure fun. If that’s what you’re hankering for, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Update, 3/17/22

Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.

I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.

Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.

I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.

Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.

I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.

With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.