Might as Well be a Drug

A while back, I wrote about how the relative ease with which I traversed the education system led to a lifelong habit of procrastination. Suffice to say, the bad habit’s not yet kicked.

It’s not a terminal condition, to put it crudely. I have a job, and I get things done. But every minute I spend wandering YouTube or TV Tropes is a minute of a finite life pissed away. And while I’m not likely to go to the extreme of never indulging in these largely useless pastimes, the balance in my day is pretty badly skewed at present. It’s too much, and often at inappropriate times when I’m clearly putting off more important matters. Something’s gotta change, and that something is me.

Cue Zen Habits, a book whose Kickstarter I chipped in on last year and which has provided me with a great framework for bumping up my sporadic writing to a daily practice. Most of the book is dedicated to the formation of new good habits, but there is a chapter and an accompanying worksheet for helping quit a bad habit. So I’m putting that to use, in similar fashion to how I used public accountability, a Zen Habits tip, to goad myself into finishing last year’s NaNoWriMo. (Maybe I can come up with a similar stinger of a punishment for failure, eh?)

The goal starts this Saturday, Feb 22, with a super-easy target: 25 minutes a day of effort in which I indulge no digital distractions. Succeed with that, and I’ll add on another 25, and another 25, and so on until I have my work day full of wall-to-wall productivity. I’ve sketched out a whole plan beyond that according to the above worksheet, but that I’m sharing only with my accountability compadres on Habitica. For you folks in the blogosphere, I will instead post updates to Twitter.

Wish me luck and keep me honest!

We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.


1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.

Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.


* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here

 

Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I’m gonna say this straight up: Honor Harrington is a Mary Sue. At least in On Basilisk Station. Spoilers ahead…

I don’t mean that she’s a self-insert, or that she’s stunningly beautiful and has every possible magical power. She’s not that blatant. But she is one of those eye-rolling characters who has no discernible character flaws, never makes a mistake, has privileges no other character gets, and receives the respect and admiration of almost every single character in the book even when it makes no sense.

Our first introduction to Harrington treats us to her treecat companion, Nimitz. While I’m generally in favor of feline companions for characters, and Nimitz is a pleasantly quirky addition to an otherwise serious-minded space opera, the critter has no plot role whatsoever in the book. He’s a status symbol, allowed to pal around with the protagonist despite military regulations because reasons. Perhaps if any other character in the book had such a companion, I’d be cool with it, but HH is the only person ever depicted with a treecat buddy. He’s a special-snowflake marker, nothing more.

Nimitz also kicks off one of the book’s biggest facepalms: Honor’s strained relationship with her executive officer, McKeon. I might have hoped that McKeon, with his dislike of Honor leading to stubborn, passive-aggressive behavior, would be an example of a character not swooning with adoration of the sainted protagonist. But it turns out, well, he resents her because she’s just too awesome and he wishes he was that good. I kid you not. Even the villains have a tendency to get interludes lamenting how HH is troubling them by being such a badass. There’s exactly one character who isn’t doe-eyed over Honor Harrington, and that’s the slacker ship’s doctor, whom the book goes out of its way to show as a terrible person nobody likes anyway. So there’s that.

Not that I can blame the characters themselves, I guess; it’s not like author Weber gave HH any character flaws to speak of. She’s depicted as something of a hardass, which would be interesting if the book weren’t so in love with military discipline and regulation that doing things by the book turns out to be the right answer nine times out of ten. And in those remaining ten percent of situations, Harrington lets things slide a bit anyway. So, not a character flaw: it never hinders her in any noticeable way. She’s said to be bad at math. But since she’s the captain, not an astrogator, she never needs deep math skills; plus, she does sophisticated arithmetic in her head all the time, and sometimes higher-maths stuff by “instinct,” always arriving at the correct answer. Heck, it doesn’t even impede her in her backstory, poor grades in that area of study failing to bring down her class-topping scores across the board. The only other criticism the book levels at her is that she’s unpretty, I guess? Which A.) isn’t particularly relevant in a romance-free space opera, and B.) everybody gapes at her looks anyway, they’re just not described in gushing feminine terms.

Lastly, though HH does get to face some hardship, it’s never on any level her fault. She makes no mistakes, no errors of judgment, no wrong calls on matters of chance. Her ship gets kicked around in war games, demoralizing the crew, but that only happens because higher-ups gave her ship a dubious armament configuration and because she managed to “kill” an enemy flagship with it in the first set of maneuvers, earning the jealousy of the opposing team. Another case of hating her for being too awesome! There’s one field operation where a bunch of soldiers get killed in a trap laid by the enemy, but Honor isn’t in command of that attack, and the other characters quickly absolve her of any fault. And while maybe you could argue that she lost too many crew, took too much damage, in the climactic starship chase, you’d be hard pressed to make a strong case for that reading. It’s pretty clear from the heaps of commendations HH earns for her adventure that she did the absolute best she could with what she had.

It’s not that I want to see the protagonist make pratfalls, or that I begrudge a book having a happy ending. And I did enjoy On Basilisk Station enough to finish reading it. The SF world-building is particularly strong, with just enough technobabble to justify the dramatic space battles in ways that feel internally consistent. But if I’m to read any more of the many novels featuring this character, I need to confirm from someone else who’s read them that Weber lets Harrington off her pedestal at some point. It reads to me like she has a nasty case of Strong Female Protagonist Syndrome—that in an attempt to break gender norms for space opera heroes, Weber forgot that a woman character still needs to feel human. Unlike Honor Harrington, humans sometimes make mistakes, have unpleasant quirks, and have to deal with people simply not liking them.

Biological and Supernatural Horror

(This post contains spoilers for the graphic novel Wytches: Volume 1 by Scott Snyder as well as the TV series The Walking Dead. If spoilers bother you and you’re not already caught up on both of these, take heed!)

A friend of mine in college pointed out that there are two principal types of zombie in horror fiction: biological zombies and magical ones. Biological zombies operate under the mode of a disease. The creature is still alive, but thanks to the infection, it’s subject to necrosis of the flesh and uncontrollable violence. Magical zombies are true “undead;” they really are corpses, animated puppet-like by a supernatural force like an evil spirit, lost soul, or sorcerous spell. Biological zombies are easier to kill, in that they are subject to all the laws governing organisms; the infection might numb pain or otherwise force the sufferer beyond its normal limits, but injure its vital organs and it’ll die like anything else. With magical zombies, on the other hand, special measures are required. These are the things that might keep coming at you if you hack them to pieces, the severed limbs still flailing about with the force that animated them. To defeat magical zombies, you must undo the force moving them around, which might mean striking them with holy water or enchanted weapons, dispelling the necromancy controlling them, etc.

These concepts apply more broadly to horror fiction than simply zombies.* Do the events that transpire receive a scientific or pseudoscientific explanation, or are the monsters and their powers paranormal in nature, operating on magical, metaphysical, or religious rules–if, indeed, any rules at all–rather than natural laws? Something like Paranormal Activity falls squarely into the latter category, of course; most of today’s zombie fictions go for the former, with “infection” and “virus” being extremely common terms.

Both of these horror paradigms have their merits. Biological horror has the advantage of being a little more plausible, more amenable to thoughts of whether such a thing could really happen in our world. Supernatural horror keeps us guessing, in that the regular rules of the world may not apply in full, so we have less certitude about what might happen next. But in today’s highly skeptical, secular world, supernatural horror seems to have become somewhat passé. Even when the creators of horror fiction want the flexibility of supernatural horror, where the characters’ mundane solutions to the problem are likely not to help, they slap biological-horror explanations onto the thing, and it ends up creating a muddle.

The Walking Dead, at least as depicted on the AMC television series, is one such muddle. The zombie-making phenomenon is supposed to be a biological agent; the Centers for Disease Control were the hope dashed at the end of the first season, and the hoax errand Eugene takes the characters on regards the development of a vaccine. While these missions don’t pan out (or else the show would be over), the characters don’t react as if they’re unthinkable. Everyone does take the “walkers” to be subject to mundane methods of disease control. But if you think about it for more than a moment, it’s clear these critters are supernatural in their mechanisms. As early as the first episode, you see walkers whose musculature is entirely mummified, but because the skull is intact, the creature still moves around. That’s magic, not biology. It just happens that the spell is broken by head-stabbing, for some reason. While that in itself isn’t enough to ruin the show for me (there are plenty of other flaws for that!), it puts an extra strain on suspension of disbelief.

Another example from recent memory is Wytches, a graphic novel about a species of burrow-dwelling humanoid monsters that abduct and eat people “pledged” to them, and in exchange, give people medicines that cure crippling illnesses, extend life, inspire love, and other wondrous effects. The theme at work is that as horrible as the wytches are, those who would pledge others to them for health and power are perhaps even more monstrous. It’s a great premise, and leads to some seriously disturbing scenes. But Wytches, too, suffers from a biology/magic muddle. It’s revealed toward the end of the first volume that the wytches’ powers are a “natural science” peculiar to their species, and the various phenomena associated with them are chemical in nature. The process of “pledging,” at first implied to be a thing that takes premeditation and cruel intent, turns out to require no more than splashing someone with a bit of green goo that attracts the wytches’ attention. It becomes no more horrific or personal an act than firing a gun, and in fact in some of the closing scenes, one of the characters sprays her enemies with a hose full of “pledge” (like the cleaning spray!) to defeat them. It trivializes the horror in a way that a more ritualistic pledging might have avoided.

The reasons this bothers me so much vary from one instance to the next. In some cases (Wytches), it’s the man-behind-the-curtain effect, where when the story reveals how things work, it’s a letdown from the more chilling hypotheses you’d come up with yourself. In others (Walking Dead), it’s that by claiming a science-friendly basis for the horror, the world raises the standard for consistency and believability, then fails to meet that standard by treating its subject with too many stretches and handwaves. So I suppose my word of advice for horror creators is thus: we may live in a world with a lot of post-supernatural thinking, but when it comes to fiction, we’re looking for our perspective to be stretched. We’re more likely to be frightened by what’s fucked up and unexplainable than things that follow all the rules to begin with—especially when their explanations end up tepid!


* Note that I’m leaving out things that don’t really require a mechanism of explanation, like the stalkers and serial killers of psychological and slasher horror. I’m here discussing horror that has at least a tinge of the fantastical, like some kind of monster or freakish phenomenon.

Modrim

In my last post, I mentioned The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game is from 2011, so readers may be amused that it’s my current obsession, here in 2015. Especially with the much newer and shinier Fallout 4 by the same creators devouring people’s attention across the world even now! But I’ve always been one to delve into games several years after their release. Part of it’s a matter of cost; $60 for a game, then more on top of that as expansions come out, is too steep for me. If I wait a few years, I can usually get the game plus all its downloadable add-ons for half the price that the base game was at launch. But not only is it less expensive, it’s more valuable to me as a well-aged game, because of mods.

I first became involved with game modding in college with Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, a sprawling Dungeons & Dragons-based role-playing game that attracted a vibrant community of fans to hack and tweak it. You could get bug fixes above and beyond those the game’s original developers had time to take care of, put more characters on the roster, rebalance abilities, and add new dialogue including, hey, sexy romantic interludes between the main character and their love interests. The same applies to today’s open-world RPGs by Bethesda. Such tinkering appeals to my perfectionism as well as my interests in programming and game design, and enriches my appreciation of the game itself… when I stop downloading and applying mods and get down to actually playing, anyway!

Mods start to come out as soon as the game itself does, but the best fan work takes time like anything else, and waiting lets the modder community zeitgeist come to consensus on the top-quality stuff. For your amusement and edification, here’s a list of what I’m now putting to use in my Skyrim game!

The Skyrim Total Enhancement Project (STEP), version 2.2.9.2. This comprehensive guide walks you through the setup of dozens of individual mods, specifically geared toward beautifying, bugfixing, and improving the usability of Skyrim without making huge changes to the gameplay as originally designed. If you’re willing to take the several hours needed to go through it, this will get you a much prettier, thoroughly fan-patched game, and equip you with all the tools you need for any further mods you’d like to add. I use almost everything from their “extended” mod list, except for:

  • Complete Crafting Overhaul. It conflicts, in design if not on a technical level, with something I add later.
  • Burn/Freeze/Shock animations. Reputed to be unstable.
  • Skyrim Enhanced Camera. It’s supposed to be immersive, keeping you in first-person camera whenever possible, but a lot of the animations are disorienting and suffer from camera clipping that way.
  • Lock Overhaul. It adds skill level restrictions on what locks you can open with the minigame, and I dislike “you must be this tall to enter” restrictions on accessing areas.
  • Not So Fast Main Quest. I get that the main plot line can feel hurried if you rush through it, but I like knowing what the next step is at any given point. No need for extra delays.

Onto that, I added the Immersive Survival pack, which adds some beautiful weather effects and requires that you feed, shelter, and rest your character to keep them in fighting shape. I love that, for instance, Realistic Needs and Diseases makes food and drink items relevant (normally they’re weaker versions of potions, no upside) without making hunger management a Roguelike-esque slog. After playing for a little while, I removed the following mods from the list:

  • Frostfall. It’s a great mod, don’t get me wrong; it makes a lot of sense to have cold-weather survival as a gameplay theme in a frozen land like Skyrim. While I used it, I had some intense situations where I got wet and nearly froze to death before I stumbled into the warmth of the inn. But I found that it slowed down the pace of things too much. I’d venture into a snowy new territory, and oops, I’m getting too cold, so I have to stop, build a fire, upgrade it, and stand there for a minute while my warmth meter refills. And if the fire is badly positioned, the wind takes the heat away, so you need to try somewhere else. Too much of a drag. That said, I kept the Campfire mod that’s a prerequisite for Frostfall; it’s still super fun to be able to throw down a tent wherever you need to sleep or build up a fire to cook things on the road.
  • Hunterborn. Skinning and butchering animals instead of “looting” them is clever and well implemented, but again, it was more of a brake on gameplay than something I found engaging in its own right. Each animal you harvest from eats up several hours of your character’s day, and until they get their skills trained up, what they get out of the process is of lower quality than what you’d have playing vanilla.
  • Harvest Overhaul. The main effect of this is to give you more alchemy ingredients, which I didn’t find to be scarce to begin with.
  • The Huntsman. It’s thematic, sure, but I didn’t see any need to add a random special weapon to an otherwise broadly-scoped set of mods.

To the above, I added Perkus Maximus, a top-to-bottom rebalancing of spells and skill perks by one of the mod community’s biggest names. It’s in fact the guy’s second major effort in the same sphere, putting to work all the lessons learned from his prior popular perk overhaul mod and the feedback it received. I’m super impressed by it: looking at the skill perks available, I have an “ooh, that’s cool” reaction to almost every option, rather than the “meh” that loads of vanilla perks produce. To tune the experience, I’ve added several mods suggested in PerMa’s discussion forums: extended perk descriptions, missing weapons, rebalanced shouts, tweaks to artifact items, and a mod that makes arrows shoot bullet-straight (what can I say, I like feeling like a badass sniper, not a fumbling putz).

Having restarted the game a few times due to modding and unmodding, Live Another Life is a breath of fresh air. No more sitting through that long, stuttery carriage ride to Helgen–start somewhere else on the map, with a character backstory to suit. The alternative starter areas can be a little more dangerous than Helgen and Riverrun, but that’s fun too!

The last major mod I added was ASIS (Automatic Spells, Increased Spawns), using the improved INI files here with the settings they recommend. I initially picked this up for the “automatic spells” part, to let the game’s NPCs use the various spells introduced in Perkus Maximus. But I gave the “increased spawns” the old college try too, and found it a quite enjoyable change. It makes miscellaneous fights a lot more challenging, in that instead of facing e.g. two or three bandits at a time, you might have to deal with five or a dozen! Despite not liking difficulty-boosters in general, I’ve been able to adapt my play style to this one, with a lot more attention to terrain, hit-and-run tactics, and target selection. It makes for some epic, memorable battles, where it really feels like you’ve assaulted a fortified enemy stronghold.

And last but not least, I tossed in Khajiit Speak. Because I almost always play cat-people when I can, and it makes the player character’s dialogue much more authentic to the way you hear other Khajiit talk in game!

Sexy Fictions

As most regular readers of this blog would know by now, I won the National Novel Writing Month this year, putting 50,000 words into a rough draft between the start and end of the month. What you don’t know, though (because this is the first I’ve told anyone), is that some 2000 words of that was smut.

Aside from some by any standard quite embarrassing cybersex back in high school and college, it’s the first I’ve ever created something sexually explicit. No doubt that’s in part due to that Catholic upbringing I wrote about earlier. And I certainly don’t make any claim that it’d be worth reading, given the WriMo ethos of quantity over quality added to the intrinsic silliness of most smut and most first efforts. But I certainly found it exciting, and a little liberating!

Much has been made of the USian double standard when it comes to violence vs. sex, in entertainment. It is far easier to find a TV show that will depict a disembowelment or a decapitation than one that will show a penis. I find that particularly strange, given that sexuality is a significant part of most adult lives, and certainly a much healthier thing in itself than beating the crap out of people tends to be. I often feel the lack of it, when reading or watching things that otherwise portray a wide variety of human needs and experiences.

It’s not that simply finding something titillating is difficult. “The Internet is for porn,” as the song goes, and it takes mere seconds to have the ‘net deliver on that purpose. But the sort of mass-produced stuff that’s easiest to find is soulless and formulaic, quick to deliver a sexual buzz, but entirely bereft of anything deeper. I want it all, I suppose: sexy action that means something due to how it’s situated in a larger narrative. Not just actors, but characters; not just foreplay, penetration, and climax, but character arcs and relationships that, as relationships do, sometimes lead to the bedroom.

I’ve looked for the kind of meaningfully situated sexytimes fiction in various places, to varying degrees of success. I’ve played a few eroge, but it’s difficult to find one whose gameplay doesn’t feel trashy and misogynistic, the player building up points until they can add characters to a portfolio of sexual conquests. This Salon article about a plot-driven porn flick had me hopeful, but the film fails horrifically in the respects the creators boast about; it’s a bunch of conventional pornographic scenes interspersed with badly acted arguments about monogamy, hardly a plot worth following. There’s a whole Web site dedicated to modifying games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to have sexual content, but from what little I can tell before I need to leave in revulsion (there’s a lot of love for… nonconsensual stuff there), it’s as vapid as the rest, adding nudity and erotic animations without any character or plot context.

The closest I’ve come to satisfying this odd craving has been in genre fiction that happens to have great sex scenes. N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Broken Kingdoms, for instance, have some really well written encounters between their characters that fit perfectly within the greater stories of those relationships. The Saga graphic novels feature some pretty steamy images with their main characters. But it’s difficult to specifically seek those things out, because books are rarely reviewed with this focus in mind.

Which brought me to this point with the WriMo novel. In my outline (I find I’m most successful if I have things mapped out to at least the chapter level, if not scene by scene, before diving in), I had a spot carved out for an amorous encounter between the protagonist and a chief rival. When I got there, I skipped over it. I told myself it was because the relationship between the characters had developed a little differently than I’d planned, and it no longer made sense for them to hook up. Of course, that was my comfort zone speaking.

When I got to the end of the subplot involving these two characters, though, I found that I was only a couple thousand words shy of the 50,000-word target for the month. I wasn’t likely to get very far with something entirely new; I had plenty more in the outline, but I would barely have scratched the surface of the next major arc before running out of space and/or time. So I looked back at that passed-over interlude, and thought, what the hell. Be the change you want to see in the world, right?

It was fun, in any case, though it’s probably for the best that no one else will likely ever read it! Now that I’ve done such a thing once, maybe it’ll be easier to psych myself up to doing it again. Practice makes perfect?