Vigil: The Longest Night dropped yesterday! (first impressions)

At long last, Vigil: The Longest Night is now available to the public!

I am still very much in the beginning- I have barely been able to surpass the territory covered in the open beta event from earlier this year. During the open beta, I commented on problems with the collision detection and button response time. While there are some imperfections with where on the ladder or ledge will grab, those issues are largely gone with one conspicuous exception. There is a vertical platforming area between Maye village and the entrance to the first dungeon. At the same time, there is a waterfall in the area which needs to be perpetually animated. The button-response and collision detection with the climbable ledges gets worse when the game needs to animate a large volume of smaller animations. Outside of this area, though, I did not struggle with the platforming.

Something I do not remember from the open beta is automatic zooming in and out depending on location. Other side-scrollers that have implemented it, like Salt and Sanctuary, usually streamline the process so as to not draw any attention to it. Which is perfectly understandable if the perspective-shift is just meant to make navigation easier and has no relationship with the overall style of the game. In Vigil, though, situational zooming is used in a way that makes the world feel bigger and makes the different art styles used for different effects feel much more like a unified whole. The situational zooming really pops when trees are rustling or something close to the foreground moves.

The opening cutscene feels somehow more detailed or longer than it was in the beta. Whether it is or not, though, the specific art style of the cutscene (above and below) also helps all of the different stylistic influences feel like a bigger whole. Consequently, Leila’s sword-swings and other quick movements look way more authentic and natural this time than they did in the beta.

The greater visual continuity really, really came together. And it’s beautiful. Perhaps more importantly, though, it gives Vigil more of distinct identity. Which matters a lot since 2D side-scrolling “Soulsborne/Metroidvania” has now caught on as a recognizable sub-genre, adding to the imperative for newer additions to distinguish themselves.

While I’m talking about “Soulsborne/Metroidvania” as a sub-genre, there is also an optional Salt and Sanctuary and Vigil crossover event. I don’t know how to communicate how exciting that is to me. In my opinion, Salt and Sanctuary was not just one of the first “2D Souls” side-scrollers, but it captured something basic about the format itself. If it was not for S&S, we probably would have saw more typical action-RPG mechanics in Hollow Knight and Blasphemous, like exp, leveling, etc. Aside from all that, though, S&S is simply one of my favorite games and I could not be more stoked to see what Vigil + S&S is like.

One thing that has become fairly common to both “Soulsborne” and games that blend the formula with side-scrolling is ambiguity. This is probably because Hidetaka Miyazaki, the main creative force behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne, often uses circumstantial and visual storytelling. Vigil inverts this trope by giving us Leila, a named protagonist, with a family and a hometown (apparently- at least in the very beginning). What’s more is that she is no-nonsense, perceptive and goal-driven. If there is any use of an unreliable narrator at all in this story, it does not look like it would be Leila.

The difficulty was also adjusted since the open beta. The boss of the first dungeon actually required some persistence, experimentation and grinding. Like a lot of “Soulsborne/Metroidvania” games, leveling in Vigil is based on an allocation point system. The threshold for leveling up, in the very beginning, is pretty low, so those first few easily-obtained levels are a satisfying and engaging way of introducing the player to the skill-tree. This is fortunate, since I suspect that throughout the game you will need to be proficient in different combat styles. The accessible introduction to the character-building makes experimentation with different builds more accessible as well.

Legend of Zelda Challenge: Outlands (spoilers)

The Legend of Zelda: Outlands is a rom hack of the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda by Challenge Games that dates back to May 15, 2001. Chronologically, this game as situated as a hypothetical “Zelda 3” that immediately follows Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It also uses details from the Ninetendo 64 Zelda games, such as multiple ocarina songs, Gorons, the Gerudo and the Kokiri. GameMakr24, the author of this hack, also carefully preserved familiar sights like the black rooms with white dialogue and familiar enemy AI, spawning and spatial design. These familiar touches combined with the late nineties ideas add up to a cool “what if” scenario, as if the world of Ocarina of Time existed a decade earlier.

Immediately after the events of Zelda II, the Thunderbird has apparently survived and has discovered the location of the Triforce of Power in the Outlands beyond Hyrule. The Thunderbird imprisoned the Tetrarch Fairies that stand guard over this third of the Triforce and now must be released by Link in order to get it back.

Upon release, rare physical cartridges of this rom hack were produced, packaged like the original with a printed world map. While I would love to have one of these maps simply for its raw coolness, I instead played it the way so many of us played the original years ago: completely dependent on trial and error.

I WISH I actually had this

This being a rom hack of the 1986 Zelda, it naturally has the same overhead design and nearly all of the same textures and sprites along with some from Zelda II. Sometimes, basic movements, hit boxes and attacks used by a monster from the prior games will be dressed up in a new sprite. The AI and hit boxes of peahats and keese are swapped with each other. In an early dungeon there is a mini boss that moves back and forth and breathes three fireballs at a time, like the dragon from the first game, but is now a giant skeleton.

A lot about this game feels quite familiar, though, in spite of these differences. Like the first game, you start completely naked: the opening text crawl tells you nothing about where to go and only the vaguest hint of what to do. You don’t even have a sword, but at least the first Zelda put an old man in a cave directly in front of you to meet that need. This time, you won’t have a sword until you get to the first dungeon, and guess who gives it to you:

Princess Zelda herself is a constant companion, helping out in almost every dungeon

A key difference between this rom hack and many official Zelda games is the necessity of going back and forth between dungeons before and after releasing the Tetrarch Fairies. In level 2, there is a moblin that refuses to let you pass to the next room unless you feed him some meat (Kinda like in the first Zelda, remember? “Grumble, grumble…”?). This meat, however, is in an underground side-scrolling area in level 3, perpetuating Dracula’s tradition of storing meat in secret stone compartments.

Requires meat
One meat later

Having given the moblin the meat, you will go on to discover a raft that will carry you to a water-isolated place on the map where, for enough rupees, you can buy a Kokiri sword, a Goron shield, a bow and some arrows. The bow and arrows turn out to be extremely useful in dungeon 3- nothing else can kill the tektites efficiently that early in the game.

The bow is also necessary to kill the one-eyed blobby thing in dungeon 4. After that, the door to the left unlocks and Zelda will give you the ocarina. This is necessary to get the step ladder from dungeon one, which is guarded by a monster that resembles digdogger from the first game and, with the ocarina, can be done away with in a similar way. The door at the bottom of the screen will open up and the step ladder is all yours.

The step ladder, meanwhile, allows you to cross gaps that are roughly the size of a sprite which you need for multiple dungeons and overworld navigation.

While you are taking advantage of the water-locked peninsula, go straight to your right as soon as you get off the raft. Eventually, you will arrive at an area with two little indentations in a rock wall. Place a bomb between them to blow open a cave where a friendly Gerudo waits for you.

Right here

Take the letter and go as far as you can toward the lower right hand side of the map where you will find a sprite from the enemy wizards from the first Zelda, facing straight ahead so they look like they’re just standing there with arms raised. Use the B button to give the wizard the letter and they will sell you blue and green potions along with more meat (I’ve been playing LoZ: Oracle of Seasons and the wizards in this game remind me of Subrosians…or maybe the potion vendor from A Link to The Past).

Around the time you have secured 4-5 Tetrarch Fairies, you will probably notice that the Gerudos usually do one of two things- steal your money and hoard heart containers. On the continent accessible with the raft, there is a cave with a Gerudo who will give you The Staff Of Byrna once you have twelve heart containers. As she stands guard she says that she can only give the staff to “the hero”.

The staff itself, which deals damage, doesn’t expend rupees like the bow and doesn’t depend on your health, is an all-purpose reliable range weapon. So long as all you want to do is attack- the boomerang and the bow can collect objects for you and you will definitely want to gather stuff from a distance in this game. The Staff of Byrna fires the slowest projectiles.

Since the staff doesn’t “cost” anything to fire, you may find yourself using it a lot against enemies that deal range damage and are too unapproachable for melee combat. And the enemies most likely to fit that description usually turn out to be the hostile Subrosians/wizards/whatever.

(after googling I learned that they are called Wizzrobes but I’ve been thinking of them as potion vendors from ALttP or Subrosians for too long already)

Little details like that can get you to speculate on the finer story details. Is there a reason why the Gerudos have the weapon that you are most likely to use against the wizards/Subrosians? You usually find the Subrosians/wizards close to the ninth dungeon that has the Spectacle Rock music from the original LoZ. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the Gerudos and the Subrosian-thingie-people and how does it connect to what’s going on with the Thunderbird and the Tetrarch Fairies? What about the Gerudos gathering the objects (heart containers) that you need to collect for the staff? I like stuff like that, that’s organized enough to imply story threads.

Classic Zelda weirdness near the end

Rather like the original, the first play-through only gets you half of the content of the game and that’s where I’m at right now. This is basically a custom edit of the first Zelda game but it feels weirdly authentic. The final dungeon and final boss, in particular, really made me feel like I’m playing an actual “lost” Zelda game. In fact, more than once, it made me feel the same way I felt when I played Ocarina of Time as a preteen.

Civil disobedience and “social issues”

In my last post I wrote about the legal precedents being set in states like Tennessee and New York that punish non-lethal civil disobedience as severely as violent crime, entailing in some cases a felony conviction. This is particularly amoral since civil disobedience is one of the few tools that American political minorities have historically had at their disposal. Punishing civil means of resistance and discourse can radicalize people for lack of any other option and could contribute to civil war.

Remember, this was done ostensibly out of a fear of violent uprising. If vandalizing public property, blocking access to public places and other non-lethal crimes are punished with felonies, then political minorities are shunted squarely in front of militarism out of necessity.

This is clearly a double-bluff: with fear of rioting being the stated reason for these crack downs, Republican legislators have framed the notion of civil unrest in a way that takes attention away from the natural outcome of the policies they plan to enact. That outcome, civil unrest, will confirm what they’ve positioned as a worst case scenario (rioting). This reflects a calculated awareness of the purpose of civil disobedience and a wish to use the result for political gain.

To address some common sense concerns, yes it makes sense to punish minor crimes and the law is meant to be followed. However, that attitude must coexist with other social realities. Ever since the labor organizers of the early 20th century and the nineteen sixties civil rights movement, though, civil disobedience has been established as a means of civil discourse.

What is the thing that stops it from being insurrection? Non-violence. If no one is harmed, then no one is alienated against the inevitable implication: that this specific law can be broken or that a prospective or related law can be given social censure. More often than not, the implication is that the specific law should be broken or that a legal or political act should be censured. The subtle depth to what has happened in Tennessee and New York is that, when non-violent crime is punished identically to violent crime (a felony charge) it discourages non-violent activism and emboldens those who claim that civil discourse is fruitless. If civil activism is not seen as an effective choice then non-civil activism begins to look practical. If that course is followed, then those decrying BLM as violent will claim to have been right all along.

Such well-informed social engineering enacted from above makes me wonder about everyone else. Especially since the ability to define an idea by being the first voice in a conversation to articulate it is used so carefully (“BLM are violent” *does things that drive out non-violent protestors and leave the violent ones* “See?”). Social calculations and dynamics are mixed up in how we think about social issues.

The importance of the herd-instinct and our mammalian, prosocial hard-wiring cannot be overstated. Language is how most problems are solved between individuals and language (whether it’s speech, writing, typing or any other medium) is how we are taught to express ourselves. After the example of self-expression, it is no surprise that the language we use most frequently probably looks a lot how we think our private thoughts.

It follows that some of our private thoughts may resemble external social dynamics. If one believes that those in power will never negotiate with those without, then an actual refusal to negotiate will create the appearance that you are right. If this “you” is a BLM protester, others will remember claims about how violent your movement is and will think they are right while you are receiving the message that nothing short of violence will be heard.

This is nothing new: most of us have heard about stereotype threat (aka labeling theory) and confirmation bias. If you have not: both of those things refer to ways that social stereotyping can effect both behavior and private thoughts.

Recent events have made me wonder what the current state of things looks like, though, through the eyes of social engineers. In a recent speech, Trump mentioned that he was afraid of running against Bernie Sanders since Sanders had a movement following, like himself. With Joe Biden, he is less afraid, since the majority of those voting for Biden are doing so because he is not Trump.

Donald Trump realizes that the Democratic Party scattered their base when the DNC gave the nomination to Biden. He is now attempting to hit us where it hurts: by saying he was intimidated by Bernie’s movement, he is trying to touch a sore spot of progressives to stop the left from uniting.

The senators in Tennessee and New York are preparing to punish civil disobedience harshly enough to escalate violence. And Trump just attempted to use the emotional momentum of the scattered Democratic base against itself. One reflects a calculated effort to get people to think and act a certain way and the other reflects an informed knowledge of how people feel to begin with and how to exploit it.

This kind of manipulation only works with people who believe that their value system furnishes everything they need to know. If one believes they have an airtight grasp on an issue, it becomes easy to be disinterested in other consequences. What most people know more about, than anything else, are their personal experiences. The kind of political issues that can most directly effect our experiences are often social issues.

Speaking of recent political events, Kamala Harris used an interesting rhetorical device in her speech to the DNC: she began talking about an impersonal and voracious virus which turned out to be a metaphor for racism.

If you start talking about a virus right now, people are going to think of COVID-19. Did she say COVID-19? Nope. But I think it’s importance in general (to say nothing of it’s importance in American politics) is hard to ignore. I don’t know of anything else such a metaphor could be referring to. It strikes me as likely that she did intend to use COVID-19 as a metaphor for racism.

This rhetorical technique is familiar: start your talk with something everyone knows about in order to frame your point as comparable to it. Is a viral pandemic the same kind of problem as racism?

I’m not saying it’s not possible for overlap. Racism effects the function of government infrastructure, so systemic racism can impact how a response to a pandemic unfolds. And I have no doubt that it has. But when you equate a social issue like racism with a non-social issue like a pandemic, it’s clear which directions the emotional support is coming from and going toward within that analogy. With the intended metaphor and the metaphor’s meaning, the emotional momentum of anti-racism is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those two things we all probably know at least something about, and the other is a mystery that our best doctors and scientists are still laboring over. For most people, to relate those two things will allow one to borrow emotional “weight” from the other. It makes the mystery less scary.

But if the effect that racism has on the pandemic is the actual point, the comparison cannot be literal. It relies on the emotions that the viewers bring with them. To start with emotional momentum is not necessarily proof of bad faith but it makes it easy to suspect: either the emotional momentum is supposed to make the truth evident or the emotional momentum is the point itself.

In either case, the psychological button being pressed is more visible than what the person pressing it wants. Not knowing what someone wants could make one feel like they’re not being honest. If their end game is not stated, then they either feel no need to or think you already know. Neither inspires confidence.

Obviously not every statement that invokes ideas with strong social resonance with a vaguely defined or undefined goal is social engineering. Context, as usual, must complete the picture. What makes the legislation in Tennessee and New York so unique is that it reflects both a knowledge of the function served by civil disobedience and how to exploit it. Every day, though, I wonder when the psychological momentum summoned by those in power will clash against forces it cannot move.

American civil unrest and America’s social imagination

Plainclothes officers in Portland, under the Federal direction of Donald Trump, abducted BLM protesters this summer. In Tennessee, lawmakers are currently finding ways to charge those protesting at the Capitol with felony offenses. Tear gas and rubber bullets in addition to ordinary violence are being used by police and Federal agents with punitive abandon.

All this happened because George Floyd did something that I myself did on accident years ago: I had a counterfeit bill in my wallet while buying a sandwich during my lunch break at work. I think I must have gotten the fake bill in some change. Anyway, the old lady who rung me up took the bill and held it up to a fluorescent light. Her face lit up and she said “Hey, check this out!” I went back there with her and she showed me how she knew it was fake. We both kind of giggled over it, I paid with plastic instead and ate my lunch. George Floyd was asphyxiated by a cop for doing the same thing, though.

Obviously, I have nothing but love and support for #BlackLivesMatter. The authoritarian crack down and violence used against both protestors and bystanders has brought something out in this country that may be very difficult to ameliorate or pacify. This is something that could, potentially, involve every American soon. Like I said in my post about trans rights and the modern left though, this is also something I hope I am wrong about.

Tennessee lawmakers wish to charge protestors with felonies (entailing revoked voting rights and a six year prison sentence) if they do things such as block access to public places. In July, Nikki Stone was arrested in New York for spray painting the lenses of security cameras.

One of the main assets of marginalized political groups in America is civil disobedience: civil defiance of laws that we have a principled disagreement with. By imposing draconian consequences for non-violent law-breaking, Tennessee and New York state officials are taking specific aim at the means of civil discourse between law enforcement, lawmakers and the public.

The civil part of civil disobedience usually gets less attention than the disobedience. It is important, though, because if the legal disobedience is civil and hurts no one, it remains a statement. One can agree or disagree with a statement and the person making a statement can be engaged in discussion. If legal defiance stops being civil, it becomes either insurrection or terrorism.

Adding insult to injury, legislators in Tennessee are citing the possibility of violent revolt as a justification for this crack down. What these policies will do, though, is strongly discourage people from non-violent legal defiance. This could send the message that nonviolent activism will not be heard and push people toward violence. GOP lawmakers may engineer a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For many American millennials and zoomers, nothing like this has happened before in our lives. More Americans than usual lately have had to grapple with how to respond to something outside of our personal and/or moral frame of reference. For some, the first taste was the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville during the summer of 2017. The authoritarianism of the Trump administration could make a second term of his presidency feel like an existential threat. There are also just as many Trump supporters on the other end of the spectrum that see a potential Biden presidency as equally threatening for their own reasons.

The last time there was violent civil unrest escalating as a presidential election draws closer was before the time of millennials and zoomers, though. It was the American Civil War.

I’m not saying that I believe the upcoming election will be that catastrophic, but I think it’s a possibility that needs to be acknowledged. Without any prior experiences to draw from, violent activism is unexplored territory for a lot of people. While many people in America are heavily armed, the majority of those armed individuals have no idea what a military combat situation feels like.

If the authoritarianism ramps up, the armed civilians are set up for death and defeat. So then we will have people who are traumatized, humiliated and heavily armed. With situations that we have no basis for comparison for, it is difficult to know limits.

Some of those armed people belong to anti-racist groups like the Not Fucking Around Coalition. While the trauma, grief and anguish they are feeling are as alive now as they were at America’s birth, many of the individuals themselves are as new to the lived experience of combat as the right-wing militias.

If more states follow the recent examples of Tennessee and New York and non-violent activism becomes illegal, that’s only going to leave one more outlet. If any militia groups tried to wage war on the government now, they would be swiftly and painfully quelled. Wounds create resentment, everyone loves an underdog and martyrs provide moral validation. The military response to such an event could create emotional and psychological momentum that could rebound destructively.

If I sound like I’m catastrophising, it’s because the American government simply won’t quit lately. Trump has engineered a nationwide postal service emergency in order to thwart mail-in voting and criminal charges that prevent voting are being weaponized against protestors. Every day there is a new civil rights violation to read about. With so much pressure coming from above, it does not seem likely that those below will simply do nothing.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/13/tennessee-camping-felony-capitol/%3foutputType=amp

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8573305/amp/NYPD-release-clip-woman-throwing-paint-security-camera-pushed-unmarked-car.html

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2020/08/15/us/post-office-vote-by-mail.amp.html

The Sandman Universe: Lucifer (spoiler review)

Out of the new Sandman Universe comics, this is my favorite. The Sandman Universe: Lucifer is on a tier close to the original Sandman and Moore’s Promethea. This is a great comic in general rather than a great Sandman story.

One reason is that, while the SU Lucifer shares the same cosmology as the Dreaming, what is happening is remote enough from the Dreaming for its relationship to be overlooked. Lucifer’s previous exploits in The Sandman provide context, but someone who has never read The Sandman can pick up these books and understand everything (albeit with the help of a close reading).

The shared cosmology with The Sandman, though, may be a subtle factor in another strength of this story. It employs subjectivity in a way that’s different from how The Sandman did. The key to that difference could lie in how Lucifer uses expectation as a structural and thematic device.

The first book, The Infernal Comedy, features fragments of a conversation between Lucifer and his son, Caliban, scattered throughout the story. This tempts you to wonder if it took place before or after the rest of the story. Later on, a story about an otherworldly, bleak village inhabited by Lucifer and the ghost of William Blake alternates with another story set in the 20th century, involving a detective whose wife has a brain tumor. Until the last few chapters, it is in no way clear whether the village story is happening simultaneously with the twentieth century story or if one preceded the other.

In the purgatorial village where Lucifer is, he repeatedly tries to dig up large statues and attacks spirits attempting to perform William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If you were wondering what the biggest connections to the original Sandman were, this usage of The Tempest is one of them. The Tempest is deconstructed in a way similar to how the new Dreaming comics deconstruct the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

Near the end of The Infernal Comedy, we find out that the world containing Lucifer, Blake, other spirits and a mysterious caretaker are in a pocket dimension within the ancient skull of Sycorax. Sycorax, the Blue-Eyed Hag that occupied the island in The Tempest with her son Caliban and captive familiar Ariel, before the arrival of Prospero.

The story can be understood and appreciated without the context of The Sandman comics, but that context adds depth if you have read them. The second play that Shakespeare owed to Morpheus for the gift of inspiration was The Tempest. Sycorax, late in The Divine Tragedy, says that Morpheus commissioned the play in honor of her.

This matters because of the story at the end of The Wake. It contains, in Morpheus’ own explanation of why he wanted The Tempest to be written, the last explicit word on the angst that drove him to suicide. He says he wanted the play to be written because he may never leave his “island”, like Prospero. Shakespeare assures him “that can change. All men can change.” Morpheus says “I am not a man. And I do not change. I asked you earlier if you saw yourself reflected in your tale…I do not. I MAY not. I am Prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever.”

Morpheus eventually let go because he was haunted by dreams of freedom beyond his responsibilities. If those were the feelings that caused him to inspire The Tempest, then SU Lucifer is telling us that the events of that play were modeled after Lucifer’s family. Sycorax says that Morpheus commissioned a play “about” her that doesn’t have her in it. Rather like how, in the background information provided within The Tempest, the father is never mentioned.

What is the “story” that Morpheus wanted to tell by it’s absence? Thessaly says “The Moon would have made you Queen of The Tides, but you chose Lucifer instead. Lucifer would have made you Queen of Hell, and you chose to be yourself, instead. Your story has resonated down the ages, you know.”

If ever there was a mission statement for the opposite of Morpheus, it would be that. Lucifer has a similar legacy: in The Divine Tragedy, Lucifer attempts to bargain with various afterlives of different mythic pantheons in order to save Sycorax from the wrath of the angels.

(Some context for that: Within the pocket dimension inside of her skull, Lucifer uncovered a buried statue of Sycorax, causing the caretaker to remember that she is Sycorax. At that moment, she “wakes up” from the “dream” of the pocket dimension and rematerializes in the physical world. Angels from The Silver City state that this resurrection is a blasphemous aping of the return of Christ and must be answered. Lucifer negotiates with the angels and buys Sycorax three days before they kill her. He then tries to find a pantheon somewhere that will shelter her.)

When Lucifer approaches the entrance of the Egyptian afterlife, Anubis weighs his heart against the feather of truth and finds that they balance. Lucifer says he expected as much, because “My heart is never heavy. I do as I will, and never otherwise.” To which Anubis says “Would that all had it that easy.”

Lucifer clearly values his freedom as much as Sycorax values her own. But consider Thessaly’s wording: she says that Sycorax inspired generations of witches with this example. Thessaly also says that she, herself, would not have been brave enough to refuse the Moon or Lucifer and remain herself in preference over all else. What she is saying is that Sycorax embodied an ideal to aspire to. Perhaps not one that Thessaly or even most people could count on achieving, but an ideal worth striving for nonetheless.

When Anubis hears Lucifer claim that he never did a single thing against his will, he says “(w)ould that all had it that easy.” A life of absolute individualism is clearly not attainable for most of us. As if to emphasize this, Lucifer’s son, Caliban, attempts to follow him into the Egyptian afterlife. His heart fails the test and, when Lucifer finds him, he is wrestling with Apophis / Ammit.

In fact, Caliban may be the motivation for much of the plot in The Infernal Comedy and The Divine Tragedy. Early in The Infernal Comedy, Lucifer realizes that he abandoned his own son the same way that he himself was abandoned by God (as was as the universe, in his estimation). This similarity to the author or his misery is too much for Lucifer to bear, so he resolves to repair his relationship with his son. He begins by putting him back in touch with Sycorax.

By the end of the first two volumes, though, Caliban became my favorite interpretation of Shakespeare’s character. In literary criticism, Caliban is dogged by the need many feel to define him. Is he a racial caricature, a comment on colonialism, a psychoanalytic foil to Prospero, etc. The Tempest is one of my favorite plays from William Shakespeare but I don’t think I ever saw a version of it that didn’t give me at least a little bit of racist-cringe. Caliban is also unlucky enough to be…potentially…one of the only passive antagonists I ever encountered in fiction.

His mother, Sycorax, died two years before Prospero and Miranda show up. So his angst over losing her coincides with Prospero’s arrival. It’s like Shakespeare knew that he wanted Prospero to kill Sycorax but was afraid Prospero wouldn’t be as sympathetic if that happened. So he left enough information for a reader/audience member to make an associative connection without saying it openly. So his hatred of Prospero comes off as just pettiness.

Caliban, in the SU Lucifer comics, struggles with feelings of belonging, having lost both of his parents early. The angelic court tempts Caliban with an offer to embrace him as one of their own (being the half-angel spawn of Lucifer, after all). To be made an angel, if he sabotages his father. In the end, though, he decides that the unchanging nature of angels is too static and gossamer an existence for him. He even says, “I will die…as Caliban” and Lucifer says “You prove yourself, at last, your mother’s son.”

I sensed a connection between this exchange with Caliban and Thessaly’s last moments with Sycorax. Thessaly sees Sycorax as the mythic hero of all witches and all those who wish to be free from control. The difference between mythic, sublime freedom and the reality of human struggle is highlighted by Lucifer effortlessly passing the feather test and Caliban being forced to fight Ammit. But Caliban gets there in the end, in the eyes of his father. His words about dying as himself, Caliban, because angelic existence is too static for growth and discovery also seem to echo the sentiment repeated near the end of volume three of The Dreaming: the point is to feel. Process constitutes identity and belonging- it is not simply a means to get there.

Linearity versus open world in game design

First question is “When are words?” Are they the first thing you see or not?

Consider the first Zelda game. You’re just plopped somewhere with three directions and a cave after an opening cut scene telling you to find the triforce pieces but not telling you how. You are only spoken to if you enter caves, holes in the ground or certain rooms in dungeons. You don’t even get to read what’s written in the letter a hole-dweller asks you to deliver.

Words are only accessed by interacting, spatially, with your environment. They help to connect dots but the words themselves are not relied upon to convey a narrative. The opening text-crawl did as much of that as the game needed. In fact, if the narrative was “opened” by the text crawl, does it have any closure? There is more dialogue to read upon defeating Ganon and rescuing Zelda, but how much of your time spent playing was actually spent reading? If the text crawl opened the narrative, the rest of the narrative must necessarily be visual and procedural as you play.

Why must it? Because the gameplay will necessarily make up the majority of your experience with the narrative, and the only text that could possibly follow up on the opening text crawl (however loosely) can only be accessed through playing. Any Westerner who has played the first Zelda game, though, knows that the translations were famously obtuse. “Master using it and…” etc. So, for myself and many other Westerners in the early nineties, even the in-game text we would discover required a little bit of interpretation even after unlocking it through gameplay.

1986’s The Legend of Zelda, in my opinion, embodies the principle of an open world game. Nearly every detail of “how” you progress through the game needs to be deduced by the player, and the game only allows you to deduce by exploring and experimenting with different ways to interact with beings, objects and places. The only way to progress is to look for possibilities and test them.

What would explicit direction add to this? What does direction even look like? When you put in Sonic, it’s obvious just from the gameplay that you are expected to run to the right as fast as possible. Final Fantasy VII has dialogue. Lara Croft has a voice over explaining what specific buttons do.

If all this is still a little esoteric, ask yourself: should a game tell a story? If so, should it use the same narrative devices as a novel or a film? If not, what does the player’s experience consist of?

A video game might tell a story without requiring narrative structuring to make sense. Metroid II: Return of Samus and Bloodborne communicate the bulk of their stories through visual and circumstantial storytelling. The player sees things and is put in situations that reveal the story by implication. This means that the gameplay and the graphics do most of the work with storytelling.

If you know that the story will be told without words, that means you can use the words the player does hear and read with more freedom, since it is not their job to tell you the “important parts” of what’s going on. If the core story is relayed through gameplay experience, you can even have the diegetic text and speech contrast with the gameplay or supplement it. In Bloodborne, most non-player characters are completely incapable of understanding what’s going on around them for themselves, let alone helping you out.

Of course, the first Dark Souls game used similar storytelling years before Bloodborne, leading a YouTuber called RagnarRox to call the game “Zelda for grownups.” This was not meant to imply that Zelda was childlike- simply that Dark Souls built upon 1986’s LoZ implementation of open world and non-linear story-telling. No one tells you what to do in a Soulsborne game: it is up to you to experiment and figure it out, and most of the time if an NPC has something useful to say the meaning will not be literal or direct.

Another way to use words in a game that does not rely on them to do all of the work of storytelling, is to use their placement to determine their meaning. The majority of words in the first Zelda game is in the opening text-crawl. Words give you a naked premise and almost everything else that follows up on that premise is gameplay, meaning the interpretation of the player is needed for it to make narrative sense. It’s not that the words are “wrong”: it is that they are part of a bigger whole that involves things that are not words.

The Silent Hill games use this strategy often. The majority of Silent Hill characters do not know how the magic of the town works or what is going on: all they know are their own experiences. In Silent Hill 2, regarded by many as the most successful in the series, NPC’s are used in a way that’s even less useful to the player than the NPC’s in Bloodborne. James Sunderland, SH2’s main character, runs into a few different people, none of whom seem nearly as aware of the mysterious danger of the town as him. Each character has their own mutually exclusive set of concerns and separate reactions to the magic of the town.

The behavior that reveals that the other characters are not experiencing the same thing as James also usually put him at risk, such as getting locked in a room with a monster by both Laura and Angela. Neither one seem to know that James could die as a result of their actions and the monster that Angela leaves James with even has a name that speaks to its importance for her and it’s mystery to James: Abstract Daddy. To whom is the Daddy Abstract? To James, at least. Angela was yelling about “daddy” just before the fight. This tells us that every outsider who enters Silent Hill sees something with unique importance to them. The specific content of what the NPC’s say does not reveal as much as the patterns of their stories: each one is personal and traumatizing. Except for Mary which, along with Pyramid Head, reveals how the town is creating the personal, isolating hell of James like it does for everyone else.

So far, though, I’ve spent a lot of time taking about how the relationship between words and experience can inform storytelling. As a fiction writer, I can’t help but be biased in that direction. What I have not discussed, though, are video games where storytelling is either peripheral or nonexistent.

Some of my favorite memories of the PS1 involve a development studio called Artdink. In particular, two games that they created: Tail of the Sun and Aquanaut’s Holiday. Those were the very first open world games I ever played. In Aquanaut’s Holiday, the only thing there was to do was explore the ocean floor and attempt to communicate with sea creatures. Tail of the Sun was about a tribe of ancient cave people with a legend that the Tail of the Sun can only be caught from a tower of ivory. Hunting mammoths for their ivory constitutes a small portion of what the free-roaming world has to offer, though. Offbeat animals and oddities were found in the most remote and unexpected places. One of them was a pair of human legs with an ass. No upper body. Zero context. Then again, the only context offered by Tail of the Sun’s story is pretty minuscule, anyway.

Both games refuse to tell the player how to spend the majority of the time in their worlds. This makes them almost pure experience / gameplay with almost no reliance on words or any narrative. (The only modern successor to this pattern that I know of is an independent developer named Loren Schmidt, who has done some of the best non-narrative game design of the last few years. Link to her itch.io page below)

Perhaps the very first Donkey Kong and Mario games are the furthest possible extreme in this direction: no one who has ever enjoyed those games ever did so for the story.

It all depends on the nature of the piece you want to create- a story, a procedural/visual experience, both or neither. Like so many other artistic mediums, success depends on the nature of the germ (be it narrative, visual or something else) remaining consistent.

Consider Heavy Rain from Quantic Dream. It’s possible to finish the game in a few hours but a single play-through will not show you all the game has to offer. In fact, the majority of the game’s content can only be enjoyed with multiple play-throughs. The length of time of the story is relatively fixed (almost like the run time of a film) because the narrative is as close to cinematic as the technology of that day would allow. It is modeled after a film and time passes at the same rate as a conventional television crime drama. To say nothing of the fact that the plot is built on a race against time.

How would the dramatic momentum be effected if you could just go and do whatever you want as soon as you felt like it? If you take a break for weeks to mop up side quests off the beaten path would you be able to go back to the story and feel the same sense of urgency? I know I rip on FFXV way too often (in spite of the fact that there’s a lot I enjoyed about it) but that is precisely the weakness that the open world dimension brought to that game.

Games that are dominated and defined by their narrative typically rely on words more than any other kind. Although there are just as many narrative-dominant games that use sights, sounds and situations to do the same job that words do (Silent Hill, Bloodborne, etc).

https://lorenschmidt.itch.io

The Dreaming, volume 3: One Magical Movement (spoilers)

It came through. Not without loose ends and weaknesses, but…there’s still no getting around it. Some things that have a distinctive authorial fingerprint should not be continued by another person. My affection and reverence for the original Sandman by Neil Gaiman made me extremely skeptical of the idea that any other writer could pull it off. But here we are now.

How exactly this happened can be seen in a few of the key plot resolutions. In volume two, Empty Shells, Dora was our main character. The framing of the story doesn’t always position her as the clear protagonist in One Magical Movement, but Dora continues to be one of the driving forces of the plot. The mystery of her origin, which was set up in the first two books, is revealed to be centrally important to the whole story. As do mysteries in general.

The fate of Cain, keeper of the House of Mysteries, is also connected to the man responsible for Dora’s lost memories: Hyperion Keter. This is the same Mr. Keter whom we saw briefly, unconscious in a hospital bed, at the end of Empty Shells. Also at the end of Empty Shells, we learn that Fawney Rig was the setting of this confluence of events.

Dora, it turns out, is a Night Hag. A Night Hag is a regional variation of the Succubi/Incubi myth. One Magical Movement actually starts with a support group for ancient, supernatural creatures that are struggling to exist in the modern world. The forbidden pleasure they all share and revile (almost like recovering addicts) is to simply obey their nature without the consideration of a human brain. Nikki, a fey creature that got turned into a dragon by popular reinterpretation, barely stops herself from attacking an intoxicated night-swimmer she encounters in the ocean.

The support group decides to crash a Pride March, as it is constituted of mortals who wish simply to celebrate their existence and survival after a lifetime of secrecy. One of them, an ancient guardian spirit of sailors called The Gentle Goellan, wanders over to the radical Christian protesters. He begins to mutter an old sea shandy and instigates a brief riot. The Gentle Goellan felt a naked need to cause havoc within the protestors (apparently) and gravitated toward it like an oceanborn tempest, in which sailors would often invoke him. After the Pride Marchers come out unscathed, Nikki transforms into a literal draconic fairy.

The notion of following one’s nature in the face of adversity is central to both Dora’s arc and the story in general. Dora was doing exactly that when she first encountered Hyperion Keter: specifically, following her nature as a Night Hag. Hyperion- or Perry, as he is known to his intimates -simply chose to assert, in his loudest psychic voice, that she is not real.

This rid him of Dora but woke him up to an uncomfortable truth: humanity is dogged by too many unreal things to keep track of. Many of them, in their multitudes, are too dangerous to be borne. This realization moves Hyperion Keter to make it his life’s work to save humanity. He eventually learns that Dream, the embodiment of the intellect and imagination, had been magically trapped and held at Fawney Rig, in England.

This was done by Roderick Burgess in the very first Sandman comics and Hyperion decides to reverse-engineer Burgess’s spell. However, he does not use the magic in the same way: he does not want Dream trapped, merely exiled from the Dreaming. This creates a power vacuum that Hyperion fills with an alchemical AI. This AI has a consciousness whose subconscious hides an algorithm to systematically purge all irrationality from the Dreaming, which also removes it from the minds of all sentient beings.

This explains the appearance of Wan- the enigmatic moth deity -and the soggies from the first two volumes. The soggies were drones created by the AI to remove all superstition and irrationality and replace it with productive scientific and technological knowledge. Wan is the AI consciousness, unaware of its subconscious activities.

There is so much to unpack in these details, but I’ll start with a large commonality that might connect the finer ones. By this, I mean the nature of the Dreaming itself. In popular wisdom, we usually conceptualize dreams as taking place in our own heads, with no outside influence that did not originally come from waking experiences. Some people entertain the existence of a collective subconscious that all minds are equally connected to, but different individuals assert this with different degrees of literal or metaphorical meaning.

Those exceptions being accounted for, people commonly think of the space in which they dream as exclusive to themselves. In the world of The Sandman and The Dreaming, all dreams happen in the same place. Everyone has a mind of their own where their dreams are “born” into, but once you begin to dream, you take the contents of your mind into a universal space shared by all sentient beings. This model clearly has more in common with the collective subconscious than individual, mutually isolated minds.

This aspect of the world building is referred to and elaborated on throughout One Magical Movement. This is implicit in the beginning, with the struggling mythic creatures, and explicit at the end. It turns out ordinary modern skepticism is not the biggest threat to the fey, spirits and other magical beings.

Early in the book, Matthew the raven is picking up on a subtle but ever-present feeling that something is dying. He learns that he smells it everywhere because the world itself is dying. People everywhere are committing suicide because they are oppressed by a feeling of inescapable pointlessness, due to the soggies replacing all dreams with scientific knowledge. The motivation to go on living is missing without the irrational. One might say why was sacrificed for how.

While the story states that this is impacting mortals in particular, there are beings in the Dreaming who are similarly affected, such as Abel and Lucien. Abel, the keeper of the House of Secrets, is now struggling with life without his brother Cain, of the House of Mysteries (which might also be an imbalance between how and why). Lucien’s angst, meanwhile, stems from being cut off from his library of unwritten books, from which he frequently narrates. Irrationality is part of his why as well.

The three currently available Dreaming volumes all mention Lucien’s inability to narrate. They also conflate the omniscient third-person narrator with Lucien, Rose Walker and other characters. Meaning, a text box that initially appears to be a non-character narrator turns out to be Rose Walker, Lucien, etc.

This means that the reader’s point of view of the story is equated with reading a book that does not exist. In this fictional world, Lucien would only be narrating- and exchanging narration -if this comic came from his library of non-existent books. To say nothing of the fact that it is literally true that these stories are fictional, they are even set in a fictional dreaming world that contrasts with a fictional waking world in which these events were never “written.”

The story never gets any more meta than that, though, which is fortunate. If it did, it would risk upsetting the balance between the authority of the story’s fictional premise and the authority of the author/narrator.

The reason why I’m spending so much time on this is because it reflects on Simon Spurrier’s reading of the original Sandman comics. He clearly read those stories closely and lovingly, as that is where many of these ideas first appeared. The personal versus collective dialectic of the Dreaming are explored frankly in The Doll’s House, A Game Of You, Fables and Reflections and The Kindly Ones. The dialectic is present throughout the original comics, but those books in particular have plots that involve it directly.

The importance of the dialectic in One Magical Movement is where nothing or non-existence is located. This is also precedented in the original Sandman: the perpetrator and method of the death of Morpheus is one of the most fun uses of the McGuffin I’ve ever seen. This teasing Easter Egg hunt is contrasted against Morpheus’s clear desire to commit suicide. In One Magical Movement, nothingness is used similarly as a McGuffin.

The subconscious is usually imagined as a repository for all the backed up information that enters through your senses but is not immediately relevant. Frued famously described consciousness as housing the smallest portion of the mind. With Wan, though, the opposite is true: all of the personality is contained in his waking self and his subconscious (the Dark Moth) is an empty, sucking void of destruction.

Dora, who feels deeply and lives in the moment, is haunted by a forgotten past. Later, when she recovers it, it is clear that the only thing she ever lost was a name and a description of the nature she follows anyway (Night Hag). She could feel, was troubled by the fear that feeling was not enough, and eventually learned that the lost information pointed back to feeling. Her experience in the Fulcrum, the former home of Destruction, points her in the direction of hope back in Pathways and Emanations. Destruction, Lucien tells us, is a frozen moment between ending and beginning.

Hyperion, after scattering Dora’s identity with his declaration that she doesn’t exist, unknowingly wages war on the chaotic and irrational subconscious which saps the motivation and life from existence. On several plot and thematic layers, where nothingness is located and what it is doing shifts constantly. Even the narration, which is implicitly coming from a non-existent book, participates in the implementation of nothingness.

Likewise, the absence of Dream creates a void that needs to be filled and the AI that eventually gave birth to both Wan and the Dark Moth can only occupy a single physical location. Something from the Dreaming had to replace the AI so the AI could fully mature in the Dreaming. (This also gives Cain a brief but delicious opportunity to become a supervillain) This same phenomena is echoed when Wan volunteers to absorb the new dream vortex to spare the life of Daniel once he returns.

Like I said, there are loose ends but nothing that threatens the overall integrity of the story. Particularly, the fate of Ivy Walker, who is trapped in the world of the Mundane Egg that Daniel used to create a new universe during his exile from the Dreaming. It mirrors the saga of Daniel and his mother Hippolyta, but doesn’t do much more. That could be something future Dreaming comics may elaborate on.

Love the usage of the Bowie quote and it’s roots in the Sefirot ❤️

Final Fantasy VII Remake lore theory (ending spoilers)

In a recent interview for the Final Fantasy VII Remake Ultimania Guide, Tetsuya Nomura dropped some huge lore bombs. Among them was the very strong hint that the Whisper bosses at the end are Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo from Advent Children. The descriptions revealed by the assess materia, for all three, state that they are defending their timeline.

Later, the party catches a glimpse of events from Advent Children and Nanaki says “this is what will happen if we fail here today”.

Two paths that fork from the point of departure at the end of FFVIIR are discussed. One openly, the other by implication. Advent Children was a sequel to the original Final Fantasy VII. The path of the original that proceeds into Advent Children is what Nanaki said would happen if they “failed”. The path revealed by implication is what the party embarks on after they appear not to fail.

Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo are protecting the timeline that shaped them as they were in Advent Children. Three of the Whispers at the end are meddlers from outside of the timeline.

What about the giant Whisper Harbinger that looms in the background during that fight? It looks a hell of a lot like Sapphire Weapon. Why would a Weapon be intruding into another timeline?

The planet created the Weapons to defend itself in the event of an existential threat. They were originally created to combat Jenova (according to Ifalna) but so long as Jenova exists in an undead, “viral” state, they can’t go away. The planet will also lash out at any soul that’s been exposed to Jenova as it passes through the Lifestream on its way to its next existence (Geostigma).

It is intuitive to think that a Weapon is attacking another timeline because it poses an existential threat to the planet in its own timeline. Aerith, in her dialogue describing what she knows or has deduced about Sephiroth, says that she thinks that he has good intentions even if his actions are destructive (“he would probably say he would do anything to protect it”, loose paraphrase). Later, after the final boss fight, Sephiroth tells Cloud that he wants him to exist for as long as he himself does.

In the original game, Sephiroth never said or did anything that would suggest he cares about the planet. Nanaki’s remark implied that the timeline of the original FFVII was a worst case scenario, yet in the chronology (which ends with Dirge of Cerberus, if I’m not mistaken) nothing seems to back this up.

If Jenova ever fully corrupted the Lifestream and turned Gaia into a new Meteor, we haven’t seen it yet. Maybe this is a mystery that the Remake series might elucidate in the future.

If Sapphire Weapon is penetrating into a new timeline, it is equally possible that it’s either attacking Jenova or defending the planet in its own timeline. If Jenova ever succeeded in corrupting the Lifestream, though, would the planetary Weapons continue to distinguish between it’s wellbeing and attacking Jenova?

And if the Whispers are pure, spiritual agents of destiny, why do they seem beholden to Sephiroth? Why, at the end of FVIIR, does it seem like both Sephiroth and the Whispers are protecting the same thing?

This theory depends on the ultimate fate of the original timeline. Either Jenova “won” in the end, during some far future event we just haven’t seen, or Jenova was somehow subtly “winning” the whole time. Either way, the Gaia of the original timeline does not seem to exist.

The behavior of the Whisper Harbinger and the three boss Whispers begins to make sense in this situation. Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo have no other existence except for the one that happened in the original timeline. They want to “enforce” the chronology that happened in their own past because it’s the only way to guarantee their existence in a new timeline. Sephiroth, Sephiroth clones and Jenova attempting to shape the events of a separate timeline to conform to their own only makes sense if the world they originated from doesn’t exist any more.

An event like that would also explain why Sephiroth wants to protect Gaia and why Aerith sees him as a threat in spite of that. Jenova is a colony organism that exists by spreading its cells into more bodies. When such a body dies and it’s soul passes into the Lifestream, the essence of Jenova is now mixed up in the planetary transmigration cycle. Jenova exists through “possession”, almost like a demon whose cells can be both spirit and matter. If Jenova “possessed” every body and every soul on Gaia in the original timeline, then the Lifestream itself would be possessed. The Lifestream is the spiritual existence of the planet, so even beings like the Weapons would end up enslaved. (That Sapphire Weapon was originally right next to Sephiroth in the Northern Crater might also be a factor)

If the Gaia in that timeline ceased to exist, though, Jenova would be saddled with a Lifestream with no planet. The existence of both Jenova and Sephiroth would be dependent on that Lifestream, so it makes sense that they would stop at nothing to protect it. If you have a Lifestream with no planet then you would want to find a new one. In a parallel timeline, for instance, within the same planet it came from.

This possibility also clarifies what Nanaki meant when he said “This could very well be her last line of defense, it won’t be easy.” If Jenova would “burn out” a planet while possessing or consuming it, the search for a new planet to move the corrupted Lifestream into would be the last line of defense.

If the Whisper Harbinger actually is a Weapon that (like Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo) originated in a doomed timeline, what about the rest of the Whispers? If the world was destroyed in that timeline and the displaced souls are pushing through to the timeline next door, there’s gotta be more than three. Maybe all visitors from outside your timeline look like Whispers in this fictional world.

I suspect that the Whispers are not agents of destiny but migrating souls desperate to create a timeline that will bring them into existence. That would mean making sure everything happens the same way it did last time. Not a single detail can be out of place because every single detail probably played a role, ala “butterfly effect”. That would also explain things like resurrecting Barret after the Sephiroth clone skewered him- he’s not allowed to die like that because he didn’t the first time around.

This begs another question- the last boss fights in the game imply that Sephiroth and the Whispers are working toward the same end. The whole theory I just unpacked would also support that. However, Sephiroth and Jenova need to shape the neighboring timeline to resemble their own in order to preserve themselves. If the old timeline is recreated in every detail in the new one, though, both universes might end the same way.

Me and American Patriotism

I originally published this a few years ago but I decided to take it down for reasons of my own. Now it’s back :3

Please excuse how outdated it is:

As a Native American, I’ve found it hard to have a straightforward way of identifying as an American.

Before I get into a bunch of personal stuff let me clarify what I do not mean.

Clearly, I have no doubt of my legal nationality.  That might sound too basic to bare mentioning but we’re all familiar with how idea exchange on the internet works and sometimes basic stuff needs to be clarified.

I am also not claiming to speak for anyone’s experience but my own.  My use of the personal pronoun I in that first sentence looks a little clunky to my eyes but I did it anyway.  I’ve held onto a few basic assumptions about writing and grammar from college English classes and one of those is that, since your writing is authored by you, there is no need to attribute your own conclusions and chains of reasoning to yourself.  Nonetheless, I’m leaving that sentence as “I’ve found it hard” instead of “it is hard” in order to emphasize that I’m only speaking for myself.

(I’ve never broken anything like that down before now, and I’ve definitely been way less careful when talking about books and video games, but I suspect this is a topic where the reasoning behind word choice might be looked at closely)

A third thing that I am not claiming actually segues into the rest of what I wanted to write about: I am not anti-American, although throughout my life I’ve found it hard to be well disposed to America emotionally and morally.

So, getting back to me-

Early in life, like many Native Americans, I learned that the nation my family has historically belonged to had it’s autonomy wiped away for no better reason than that white people wanted their land.  Said white people were also guided by a moral force that made land piracy innocent so long as it happened to non-Christians.

If I wanted, I could take this into a bigger argument about the annexation of Native America in general, but as this is a blog entry about my personal feelings I’ll confine my scope to my own heritage and my own thoughts. The history of my ethnic group has a lot in common with what happened to a lot of Native American nations.  When rampant disease broke out upon initial contact with white people, a missionary led a handful of us to a place to start a new settlement.

It is documented that this missionary wanted to abolish the rank of chief, largely because our chiefs were believed to be the descendants of divine, supernatural beings.  The chiefs were considered representatives of the spiritual world which made them religious authorities.  In his letters, he wrote that he intended to replace the authority of the chief with Christianity.

Now, this missionary is justly celebrated in my community as someone with genuine good intentions and a worthy legacy.  He wanted the settlement to be an economically and socially self-sufficient community and today he is remembered as one of its essential founders.

But it all came at the price of forfeiting our historical spirituality and replacing it with Christianity.  And the movement to the new settlement happened in reaction to rampant disease and economic displacement, which makes the moral framing of this missionary as a great founder really questionable.  If someone offers to save you from death and disaster if you do whatever they say, is that person really a hero?

This is a minority opinion among the Natives I grew up around and I’m well aware of it.  Once, as a teenager, I attended an anti-suicide event with a handful of other kids from my hometown with family ties to the reservation that the settlement became in the end. A few community leaders chaperoned. One of those adults accompanying us mentioned once that conversion to Christianity was the one undeniably good thing to happen from white contact.  Many rural Native communities in Alaska are strongly Christian as are many rural communities across America.  One night, during a summer-camp trip organized by the local Native corporation that I was a part of, a few adults and a few kids decided to assemble a traditional sweat lodge.  Many of those participating helped build this and participated in a sweat, while many others refused on the grounds that it was “witchcraft”.

While many in the Native community I grew up in are heavily invested in our traditions, language and culture, Christianity is given priority whenever it clashes with those traditions.  The moral sanction that Christianity gave to the American conquest of Native Americans was the main reason why American patriotism was emotionally and morally repugnant for most of my life, to say nothing of the emotional and moral repugnance of Christianity itself.

While, as a thirty year old adult, I am not anti-American, this is not because I think any of these things turned out to be good in the end.  Nothing can ever exonerate or justify the erasure of Native American culture and spirituality and nothing can diminish the role the Christian Church played in it.

In spite of that, my distance from  being anti-American even extends to being pro-American.  This is because, in many substantial ways, America has set important moral and historical standards.  The moral elevation of freedom of expression, religious and intellectual pursuit and democracy are all essential steps forward for both the West and the rest of the world.  I absolutely believe that the existence of a global standard-bearer for democracy and the steps the Enlightenment helped us take away from monarchical autocracy and religious tyranny is necessary on the world stage.

Make no mistake, like any other huge developed nation, I think America harbors an inevitable degree of confusion and animosity.  While there is always a rational-to-irrational spectrum within public opinion, I feel like many sides of many common conversations agree on the right things.

For example, the importance of individual autonomy.  In spite of what many Libertarians claim, they are not a besieged minority.  Most people in America think the individual is a basic cornerstone of our values and any politician who wants to get elected will need to say so.  You could be a corporate Democrat with everything that makes them repugnant, the kind of person that Republicans think of whenever anyone brings up big government or political correctness run-amok and Progressives think of as a Hilary Clinton-style bad guy who gets cuddly with Super PACs and is totally okay going to war with whistle-blowers like Edward Snowdin and Chelsea Manning…and you would still have to at least pay lip-service to the individual.  Sorry for the ugly run on sentence, lol

To illustrate this a bit more: my values as a libertarian made me a feminist.  For me, feminism has been a logical expansion of the values I had back when I identified more strongly as a libertarian.  As far as defending ones right to control their own bodies and govern their lives as freely as possible while not disenfranchising anyone else, feminism has done way more heavy lifting.

I’m not gonna waste my time defending second-wave feminist insanity any more than a self-proclaimed Libertarian will defend Timothy McVeigh.  I don’t think any transsexual (such as myself) or anyone who is a sex worker or thinks that sex workers are human could ever get behind second-wave feminism.  Those who espoused second-wave feminism were also disturbingly willing to ignore the autonomy of large groups of women and queers, this would happen along the lines of “you’re too saturated with internalized misogyny to be reasoned with”, with transsexual women being especially likely to end up on the receiving end.

With the freak-bin safely out of the way, I feel like the link between feminism and libertarianism is pretty hard to avoid, at least in terms of moral reasoning.  No one is wed so much to the sanctity of the individual and self-determination as feminists and libertarians.

(if I seem inconsistent about capitalizing things like proper nouns, it’s because I know there is a difference between those who identify as Libertarian with a capital ‘L’,  as a proper political party, like Republican or Democrat, and those who use words like ‘libertarianism’ and ‘feminism’ as generalized categories like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’)

What I’m saying is that, a lot of the time, we agree on many of the essential and necessary things even if we disagree on a million other things.  Lately, I’ve become less convinced of this.

While I feel like many people are aware that the press has been profit-driven and manipulative in the past, it has never really bothered me as much as it does now.  While presidential elections in America have often been a personality competition, I don’t feel like I’ve observed anything like the 2016 election in my lifetime.

Before 2016 I feel like there was this threshold for cynicism, within which was permissible irreverence and a somewhat hopeful spectrum of possibilities for an elected official.  Before 2016, if your choice for president made it to office, you might be resigned to the fact that they will play ball with the big money on the other side but still confident that some of things you voted them in for might reasonably happen.  Now, I’m not altogether sure if that threshold still exists.

At least a little bit of my doubt began when Donald Trump began his relationship with Alex Jones.  A presidential candidate had chosen to validate someone who thinks all mass shootings were false-flag operations carried out by NWO puppet masters to trick America into surrendering its guns.  Trump validated a group of people who don’t think mass shootings even exist.  So far from introducing a specific side in the debate on gun violence, the American mainstream was now embracing people who are willing to dispute whether one even exists.  Perhaps involving disagreement over the nature of reality itself was meant to provide room for a positive view of how an unobtainably expensive border wall will impact our economy.

My doubt grew a little more when anti-SJW internet trolls unanimously fell in line behind Trump.  These are people who felt like a hypothetical anecdote from Anita Sarkeesian was the same as an attack on all male gamers and the panic surrounding non-binary individuals.  I think, inevitably, the hysteria over genderqueer people within alienated nerd subcultures has some link with the stigma of furries and otherkin.  A ton of Anonymous and 4chan groupies had already built something of a subculture over ripping on otherkin and furries and the second someone got confused over the concept of “non-binary” it became an intuitive lightening rod for these people.

I mentioned in my very first entry in this blog that I have, for a few years, anyway, followed Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast and considered him the last remaining good guy among pop-atheists (I might include Ayaan Hirsi Ali in that as well but she’s not very invested in theism versus atheism).  And even Sam Harris mentioned “nude pronouns” as one of the things that alienated people from the left and contributed to the election of Trump, as if it was a clearly insane priority that the left should have known better than to get involved with.

The reason I’m mentioning trolls is that Trump validated a whole movement of people with a ton of anger and no inclination to map that anger onto anything that exists in the real world.  Within internet troll culture, ripping on feminism in gaming and gender non-conforming people didn’t beg any further explanation because, within its own culture, it was understood to be supported entirely by malicious humor.  After internet trolls were embraced by the alt-right, though, they were empowered  by the realization that they were taken seriously without an explanation.  Feminism and queers were accepted as illegitimate and threatening on their face and that position could not get called out in public without drawing censure and ridicule.

The generalized dismissal of feminism and queer equality also had a smooth consistency with many men in Trump’s fan base who showed up to rallies wearing t-shirts saying ‘grab America by the p****y’.  The whole ‘p***y grabbing’ buzz phrase evolved from a sexual abuse allegation.  Not infidelity, not being a closeted gay or bisexual, not for being a closeted kinkster or any number of morally innocuous (in my opinion) things that politicians have been discredited for in the past.  The allegations were about sexual assault. Soo…within mainstream right wing culture, the people who claim to support individual autonomy no matter what, up to the point that they think you should be able to shoot trespassers on your property…these people, so many of whom being self-proclaimed Libertarians, have ceased to consider sexual assault discrediting.

Remember when I said that we are generally aware that the press has a history of being self-interested and manipulative?  Strictly speaking, I think shifting popular conversations away from policy and facts toward generalized attitudes is nothing new.

But maybe, now that I’m thirty, it’s really sinking in for the first time.  Or maybe this time it really is different.  Presidential addresses have definitely been very suspect in the past for similar reasons.  How many former presidents, though, have called the American press the “enemy of the people” and mentioned political fads in popular sports (at least) twice?  The Independent recently published an article about spent casings from artillery used by ISIS has been tracked to nations and groups that America supplies with weapons.  And yes, the casings and the weapons the ammunition goes to are of American make.  The rebel groups and nations that we are supporting in the Middle East are openly playing ball with ISIS and Trump is making stupid little pot shots at sport stars who support BLM.

All that can be simplified as: the American president is now openly attacking the press while at the same time using it to establish links between pop-culture and the attitudes of his base.  What sort of political leaders attack the press outlets that aren’t being bent to their will?  While also hijacking attention away from things our government is doing that has real consequences?  Where in history or contemporary geography have we seen things like governments that go to war with the press while using it for misdirection and propaganda?

Again, manipulating the masses through buzz-words and oversimplifications is nothing new.  But I can’t help but think that America has never had a president that is as openly cynical about it.  And sure enough, whenever some stupid new outrage catches the ire of CNN some talking head is going say that this isn’t going to happen a second time, that this isn’t the new normal.  They’ve did it more than once, every time CNN or some other big name news outlet compiles a list of lies spoken by Trump they’ll also add some comment about how this is just a contemporary anomaly and that Trump definitely is not setting a new standard.  I find it very hard to believe these optimistic claims…but if they’re as wrong as I think they are, then what does that suggest about our future?  Have we actually passed the threshold from political cynicism to political nihilism?  Have our disagreements over the nature of reality passed beyond the attacks the religious right makes on science into something even more ubiquitous and destructive?

AAaaaaaaaaand now we’re full circle regarding my own personal feelings regarding patriotism and my beliefs about America’s role in the world and what being an American is even like.  I mean, I’m not gonna say right now that America has abandoned its moral and cultural vitality, but I’m definitely closer than I’ve been to thinking that than I’ve been in a very long time.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-missile-arms-deals-west-us-uk-saudi-arabia-a8459731.html

https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/why-wall-wont-work

Lying by Sam Harris (by a beleaguered “fan”)

There are certain Sam Harris books that I think are worth reading in spite of his willingness to kiss the conservative ring.

Since Harris did away with his fig-leaf disguise of neutrality through his embrace of Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray, I have largely stopped following him. I therefore don’t know if his loyalty to the right has been expressed in print.

(And yes I’m aware that Harris had substantial disagreements with Peterson- read the very first post of this blog if you want my breakdown on that)

If not, then his bibliography may allow posterity to remember him at his best rather than his worst. A look at his writing reveals him to be a succinct, accessible and subtly brilliant philosopher. Sam Harris had an early bite at the atheist hipster apple when he wrote The End of Faith, which put him in the same company as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For awhile after that, though, Harris was less interested in fad-chasing than Dawkins or Hitchens: his best work was either completely divorced from atheism or only peripherally concerned with it.

This is one of them. It is almost as small as Free Will, even though Free Will is the bigger bombshell and arguably more important (my favorite Sam Harris book is Waking Up). The subject of lies might strike some readers as so prosaic or universal as to be too bland to write about. What I took from it, though, was an essential critique of the most common reasons for common lies, which adds up to its own kind of bombshell.

One weakness of this book, however, is that it is written from a perspective of good intentions. A central message is that to tell “white lies”, to spare someone’s feelings, avoid harsh truths or to spare your own nerves, is to infringe on the autonomy of another.

Illustrating examples in the book include infidelity and secrecy around health care. Person X is being cheated on by their spouse and it’s an open secret where they work. Person X does not know, but no co-worker will tell Person X that it is happening: their co-workers assume that either Person X must already know and, if not, it’s not their place to reveal it to them. It is uncomfortable, and if Person X gets a divorce as a result, the snitch may feel as if they made Person X worse off. The co-workers, then, have made a decision that their personal comfort and the apparent “bliss” of Person X’s “ignorance” is a good enough reason for Person X not to know.

Another example, offered by a reader and used by Harris with their permission, involves a middle aged woman with MS. This event took place before women were trusted by doctors with their own health care and would often share urgent information with husbands first, believing that a woman would take the news better from her spouse. In this story, the doctor tells her husband that the MS has spread too far for medical intervention. The husband, therefore, decided not to tell her that she has MS, because he believed that her final days should be as comfortable as possible and that she shouldn’t be bothered by worrying about a problem that cannot be solved.

The woman, meanwhile, figured out she was terminally ill on her own and refused to tell her husband because she wanted to spare his feelings. Both wife and husband are now suffering in silence and isolation. Later, during a family doctor visit, the doctor casually mentioned the MS, believing everyone is up to speed. The couple’s adult son is with them and he had no idea. Their son learns from his parents that they both knew but actually kept it from each other and chose not to tell him for the same reason: to spare feelings.

In both examples, secrets are kept from the people they directly involve in order to spare their feelings and the discomfort of a difficult conversation. The avoidance of “harsh” truths, then, can at worst allow a person’s life to crumble without their notice or, at best, force the involved parties to suffer in isolation when they could have had the support and understanding of each other.

If something bad is happening to someone without their knowledge, to keep it from them is to make their decision for them: that you know more about what is best for them than they do. If subverting the autonomy of another person is too abstract for you to care about, then what is unavoidably tangible is that you are either closing off avenues of support or causing them to be surprised by tragedy.

Another common motivator for avoiding difficult problems with others is the possibility that they will not believe you or accuse you of sadistically lying. If one avoids it due to this fear, you have not even given the person the chance to either agree or disagree.

In order for this assessment to be true, the observations of others would need to be genuine, or at least honest. Harris addresses this, saying that,while honesty may frequently turn out to be more practical if less comfortable, it is still possible that someone may be mistaken about a harsh truth. The book offers an implicit rebuttal to this: to not broach a possibility is to cop out of finding out if you are right or wrong. Which is worse: embarrassing yourself by being wrong or allow someone to suffer if you are right? Does your pride matter more or less then the well-being of another?

While I cannot disagree with these answers to the risk of being wrong, I believe Harris sold short the vast influence of this fear. I apologize for being anecdotal here, but a lot of the worst examples of secret-keeping and rumor-mongering are done because of how convinced we are of the facts and of our own altruistic intentions. This can, arguably, be refuted by Harris’s remarks about how people avoid verbal confrontation because they want to spare their own comfort and the feelings of others. Yet I think people’s certainty of their own perceptions can do just as much harm as good. It is, admittedly, a two-sided coin and it is easy to discuss the role of good intentions in passive dishonesty while overlooking the role of good intentions in active dishonesty.

This fine point comes up again when Harris makes another, related claim: that to commit to rigid honesty is to live without calculation or the pressure to “keep a story straight”. More specifically, he writes that “the world” itself can become “your memory”. This can, in effect, turn out to be true in practice, but the opposite is just as probable. After the age of eighteen, I realized that my grasp on the chronology of my life was growing less perfect by the year. Almost everyone I know describes the same thing- the longer you live, the harder it is to remember fine points about events that are spaced between more colorful memories.

One psychological possibility is that less things of personal interest happen in adulthood compared to childhood, so in the long run we don’t feel the need to retain as much. Whatever the reason, though, even with the intention of being honest, it’s still possible to misremember or confabulate.

Let’s recap the weaknesses: can one spread destructive falsehoods and compromise relationships because of a sincerely-meant misunderstanding? Yes. Does Harris adequately address it? He does so admissibly, if not perfectly. Do I have any unambiguous disagreements? Only with Harris’s claim that committing to honesty in all things removes the pressure to maintain a timeline and that the “facts” will always back you up. That point is not central to the book, though.

However, the resonance this book had with me was because of some personal experiences of my own, which involved a conclusion that would have been at home in a book like Lying. Victor Hugo has influenced me more than any other writer because he got me to think of the consequences of human behavior, however subtle, as things that one is ethically responsible for. Are we in control of the layers of cause and effect that emanate from our decisions? Not on the level of direct authorship. Nor does it make sense to act like every consequential ripple is something you knowingly did.

But novels like Les Miserables, Quatrevingt-treize and L’homme qui rit are written with clear moral and spiritual sympathies and portrays the struggles of their characters in terms of their social meaning, either contrasting or complimenting the original psychological origins of a given act. This complimenting and contrasting relationship between society and the psychological origin of behavior had a profound impact on me. It seemed to invest the moment to moment ethical and practical calculations of ordinary people with the import of nearly mythic struggles, as if the currents of history are running just beneath the surface of our minds.

After my first reading of Les Miserables, I was never the same. I was, and remain, unable to contemplate any position I hold or act I might commit without considering every possible ramification and whether or not I am comfortable being the author of those ramifications.

This has led me to behave in ways that others have found strange. Like when my dad adopted a litter of cats to help out with a rodent infestation. The cats began hunting as soon as they were mature enough and our mouse problem vanished. A friend of mine told me to tell my dad to get the cats’ bells for their collars. They said that the cats could still hunt mice with bells because their ears won’t pick up the ring, but that song birds would be warned by it. Because, he said, birds make pretty sounds and look nice and shouldn’t be killed. I refused to relay the message because it seemed like an unethical way to treat the cats: the cats were adopted because they would hunt. The cats were desirable because of their cat behavior: it would therefore be wrong to punish the cats simply for following their nature. This friend has never stopped giving me crap about my “strangely serious” attachment to inter-species morality.

Victor Hugo’s influence on how I thought of ethical responsibility caused me to interrogate any action before carrying it out. I felt compelled to match what I wanted to be responsible for with what I am, in fact, responsible for. Not only does honesty make us more considerate of the autonomy of other people, but it also makes your own personal assessments of what you believe and the kind of person you want to be more rigorous and accurate. One may be afraid to be honest for fear of being wrong, but honesty can also train your mind so you are less likely to be wrong.