5 of Spades: Dark Souls of January

Dark Souls is a series of action RPG games made by FromSoftware and published by Namco Bandai Games. I called it the Dark Souls series but it is more often called the Souls Series, starting with Demon’s Souls in 2009 before moving on to Dark Souls 1 through 3 (2011, 2014 and 2016 respectively). The series was initially released on Playstation and Xbox, two consoles I have not personally owned, so the entire series kind of passed me by. However, I kind of know the basics of the games through pop culture osmosis anyway, and I am going to put what I think I know down here without actually checking them, as a way of seeing how much I think I got right at the end of the month.

1.) The Souls games are set at the end of a period called the Age of Fire. That flame is going out, and correspondingly we are journeying through the remains of a once great kingdom, battling the corrupted remains of it in an attempt to either rekindle the fire or put it out (I’m not entirely sure which).

2.) Mechanically, the Souls games rely heavily on using death as a teaching mechanic, with the expectation that the player is going to die a lot and come back, wiser. Characters are fragile and the world is brutal.

3.) You the player are undead.

4.) You can kill everyone, including friendly NPCs who would usually be invulnerable in games, which makes me think that you might be trying to put out the fire mentioned in 1 by removing everything it has to burn.

5.) The games are known for being incredibly hard, mainly as a result of 2.

6.) The phrase “X is the Dark Souls of Y” means that X is a very difficult or dark version of Y. Ironically, the overuse of this phrase means that comparing things to Dark Souls is the Mario 1-1 of video game analysis.

I’ve wanted to at least try one of the Dark Souls games. Like I said, they have kind of passed me by, at first due to them appearing on consoles I don’t have, and then, once they went onto the PC, just because I didn’t buy them, usually because of the cost. That’s not a problem now, since we are coming out of the annual Steam sale and I was able to pick up Dark Souls 2 and 3 fairly cheaply, so that’s one excuse gone.

I’ve been a long time fan of the Legend of Zelda series, another long running action-adventure series, and Dark Souls reminds me a lot of them, specifically Wind Waker. Besides both being post-apocalyptic settings (albeit due to almost exact opposite reasons: Dark Souls has too little fire and Wind Waker having way too much water, being set on the surface of a great sea that has flooded the land of Hyrule, the setting of most of the games), Wind Waker’s combat is heavily based around dodging and well timed strikes. Admittedly the art style is very different, but just from looking at footage, the mechanical combat feels similar.

The other thing I am curious about is to see if it is indeed as hard as everyone says. The way video games use death and failure as a teaching method kind of fascinates me, and we’re going to get back to that in a future post. Having a game that is has that mechanic as a primary feature sounds really interesting to me.

So, anyway. For the next month, my regular streams will be focused on one of the two Dark Souls games I picked up during the Steam sale, Dark Souls II and III. (Dark Souls I was not in the sale, so while it was my first choice, I don’t have it.) I’m currently thinking I will look at II, not III, leaving the sequel for later.
Given that, on the main blog, we will be looking at Agatha Christie, it would make more sense to be doing a detective series, maybe the Ace Attorney series, but as I said before, the streams and the blog themes will not always match up thematically, so…eh.

The first stream will be in an hour after this post is put up, at 7pm GMT 01/01/2019. See you on my channel then, or, if you want to revisit it later, I’ll edit this with a link to a recording.

update: Here’s the link to the recording. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNmbGIDM4_Q&feature=youtu.be

Mattilda.

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4 of Clubs: 2019, Theme Months, and Realistic Goals

It’s the final day of the year of 2018, a traditional time for some reflection and to make some plans for the future.

I tend not to make new year resolutions. Plans on the timescale of a year or longer tend to need to be broken up into a series of steps that I find easier to work on piece by piece, and any resolution that involves setting up some kind of regular routine, such as exercising or dedicating time to learning something, tends to break down because I don’t make suitable changes to the rest of my routine, or at some points in my life don’t have a routine at all for them to slot into.

In my personal and professional lives, I do actually have two things going on this year that would actually work fairly well as a resolution. The first is the long term plan type; I am entering my final year of my PhD study, and so I need to finish my project and hand it in before end of 2019. This is doable but it is going to be pretty difficult, and one of the major ways I am going to try and handle this is the second resolution. This is not really a new years resolution, rather it is a continuation of something I’ve been working on for a while now, which is to reconstruct my daily routine. Part of my current lack of one is my own fault but a large part due to mental illness (something I will almost certainly be commenting on) disrupting me, particularly my sleep cycle. I am hoping to fix this by trying to, one piece at a time, reconstruct my own daily routine, with regular sleeping times, exercising times and work times.

One of the things I often find helpful is accountability, so I will be posting my progress on this, or at least an edited version for internet consumption with important identifying details removed, in a weekly round up on this blog, which will also have links to that week’s posts, and if I do end up with a commentating community, possibly some discussion prompts or an open thread for people to talk in.

While my PhD is obviously going to take a fair amount of my time, it is important to have a separation between work and the rest of your life. I have really enjoyed writing my posts here so far, and I want to continue doing so. This will require some trade offs, obviously, but I think this, along with some other distractions, will serve as a good counterpoint to the life swallowing nature of a PhD; although as we get towards the deadline posts may slow down somewhat.

As I noted above, making long term plans, such as planning the future of this blog, usually requires them to be tackled as a series of smaller plans. At the same time, I would also like a framework for what I am going to write about; have something I can hang things off of and to focus down my range of choices from “anything and everything” to “something related to this topic”. I choose the theme of this blog, the idea of it being a deck of cards, because it allowed me to have a very wide range of topics to discuss, but the trade off there is that, when given infinite options, we tend to return to well worn paths of thought and creation. For me, the greatest weapon I have to focus thought and foster creativity is to give myself parameters that I must be contained in, both to active the problem solving parts of my brain and just to avoid being swamped by choice.

My idea for this is doing themed months, each with a series of posts roughly planned and laid out at the beginning of the month in a spade video. Similarly, I am going to focus my streaming each month on a particular game. I haven’t really linked my streaming to this blog yet, and honestly it is probably not going to directly crossover; I’m not going to be trying to do streaming based on what I am going to write here, although it will be nice when I can.

I have enough theme ideas to fill the year, but I don’t really want to put them out in an explicit order now since I’m not sure what the order will be, and whether I might want to change them, so I will announce the next month’s theme at the end of the previous month. Ideally I will be able to link the posts of one month to the next, to have a bridge, but again, I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep.

So. That is the plan for this blog going forward, and the plan for my life going forward. With all that, in the short term, what are we going to be looking at in January 2019?

Well, in terms of streaming, I have long been curious about the Dark Souls series of games, so we are going to pick one up and start playing.

For the actual blog…well, I have just written a 3000 word discussion on the recent adaption of a work by her and still have plenty to say so…we’re doing an Agatha Christie month.

See you in the new year.

Mattilda.

9 of Hearts: ABCDEFGH – a sort of review of The ABC Murders (BBC, 2018)

A is for ADAPTATIONS
Looking at an adaptation of a work you are familiar with into a new medium is always a bit difficult, particularly if it is a work you are very fond of. First of all, of course, there are some changes that are required simply because of the new medium; in the case of books being made into visual media, this is often the loss of the narration, whether it is from a character or a general omniscient voice. Beyond that, all manner of changes can be made. Thus, when looking at the adaptation, I find myself torn between evaluating the new work on its own merits, and evaluating it as an adaptation of what I am familiar with.

I try to do both, using three simple questions.
1.) Why adapt this work? What is being gained from the adaptation?
2.) What changes have been made, and what do I think they add or subtract from the work
3.) When examined as a standalone piece, what do I think of the adaptation?

With the first question, we are going to need some background context. I am rather afraid I am going to need to spoil the ending to discuss this, so I advise anyone unfamiliar with the story who doesn’t want to be spoiled to turn away here, and come back once you’re read it. If you either know the story or don’t care, click the more button below and let us continue.

Continue reading

6 of Diamonds: The Visitation of George John Leese Malthan (a first draft of Christmas Carol fanfiction).

Scrooge’s funeral occurred at half-past noon on the twenty first of November 1863, three and score years after his strange change in personality that one Christmas night. Such a change of such a publicly known miser had been a source of London gossip ever since; whispers and rumours and murmurs and burbles and babbles and tittle-tattle spread from the houses he rented to workers to the cosy holes of the middle class to his fellow money lenders in their counting houses, and the words had not followed their subject into the grave.

George Malthan, owner of a large weaving company and an old acquaintance of Scrooge, arrived to the wake clasping a card of invitation, carefully written in the hand of a long time banker. The funeral was well attended, albeit not necessarily by those Gregory expected to be there. Scrooge’s long time clerk and confident Cratchit had spoken at the front of the room at length about his deceased employer, his elderly voice cracking and too weak for Malthus to catch more that one word in three. In the first row of the pews the rest of the Cratchits sat in the seats usually reserved for family, the youngest son Timothy holding himself upright on his crutches even as he sobbed. Behind them, the man’s tenants rubbed shoulders with his fellow landlords, not a single one of them sure what facial expressions which they should wear. Afterwards, over a pleasant luncheon, Malthus and his colleagues discussed, once again, the matter of Scrooge.

George Malthan, it should be mentioned here, thought that Scrooge’s new attitude to be a fine improvement on the man, who George had first met as a young apprentice. George considered himself a reasonable, cheery sort of man, quick with a joke and a smile, a friend to all he met. He hardly ever met the workers of his mills. On a personal level, he had found the reborn (as he had called himself) Scrooge a great improvement on the old, at least until one June day Scrooge had inquired about the conditions at his factories, which George considered perfectly decent; in fact, he considered them excellent, and he told Scrooge such himself. An argument ensued, with Scrooge steadily frosting back over, until George had felt he was not standing in summer but rather some harsh localised winter, Scrooge’s sharp words and frozen eyes scoring over George’s soul and mind. They had not spoken since until Scrooge had written to George in July of this year, asking to meet him again. Scrooge explained, over a meagre meal (Ebenezer had never shook the habit of his personal misery; his home was still as carefully frugal as ever) that he was on his death bed, and would soon be dead. He said this casually while tearing a piece of bread for his soup. George asked him first if this was a joke (he was assured, it wasn’t), and then why Scrooge had called him here. Scrooge raised his spoon to his lips. “To get the measure of you.” And said no more.

A number of other factory and mine owners and landlords had had similar encounters with the man in the months leading to his death. All of them felt that the man had not been preparing for death, but rather seemed to be planning some new venture. A venture, they all agreed, had ended with his death as prophesized. George agreed with them, although there was one detail he hadn’t mentioned. Written on his invitation for the funeral, in shaky but recognisable handwriting was an additional note.

George.

I look forward to seeing you come Christmas.

Ebenezer.

George returned home that evening feeling more confident. He had the invitation disposed of and returned to his work.

November soon ended, and the winter season once again descended over London, snow and soot mixing on the streets. December was a busy time for the looms; much demand for more cotton for winter clothing and blankets, and George was all too willing to oblige. The factories churned and the workers toiled and George carefully watched each column of incoming cotton and outgoing fabric, payments and expenses and profit, the last of which he carefully put aside some of each week for his family’s Christmas feast. In church each sunday advent was rolled out, a red carpet for a baby in a barn. In the haze of numbers (and indeed, the more literal haze of London), George forgot entirely about the strange note from a dead man. Christmas eve arrived, and with it his family. George had no children, but enjoyed playing the host to his kin, his nieces and nephews he enjoyed spoiling behind his siblings’ back. George Malthan thought Christmas an excellent time of the year indeed.

By late evening on Christmas eve George and his eldest brother were alone in the great armchairs of George’s chambers, the fire burning low. With one last enjoyable biscuit, the brother departed, and now Malthan, with a stretch and a yawn, decided to turn in for the night, the fire dying in the grate.

He slept.

The clock hands ticked over past midnight, and it was now the day of Christmas itself. The fire in the grate suddenly relight, and the room was suddenly full of light and warmth. Under his thick winter covers Malthan boiled and sweated, until finally he woke. As he blinked in the firelight streaming through the curtains surrounding his bed, he realised that someone had joined in his chambers, and was sitting in his armchair in front of the fire. He rose, and, after a moment’s pause where he clumsily searched for a weapon, finding none, he peeked out into the room.

Sitting in his recently vacated armchair was Ebenezer Scrooge, warming his hands in front of the fire. The man was dressed in a simple dressing gown and nightcap, looking as old as Malthan had last seen him, but such details were ignore given the strange, unearthly pallor and fading appearance of the man. But what was worse was the chains. Long, terrible chains, circling around Scrooge’s body, lock boxes and safes hanging from them. Some disappeared into the shadows of the room, while others cut across the floor, vanishing under furniture.

The spectre seemed unperturbed by this. “Ah, excellent, Malthan, you are awake. Please, sit down. We have business to discuss.” He raised a hand and gestured to the other seat, sending the chains attached to the limb to rattle and shake.

Malthan staggered out from his bed, surprise carrying him from behind his curtains before he realised it.

“Don’t look so surprised. I gave you notice I was coming, did I not?” Scrooge’s tone was light, but his face was as stern as that June day.

Malthan swallowed, and pulled himself upright, trying to determine how best to respond. His fingers fumbled and touched his Bible’s leathery cover on his bedside table. “You are just a phantom. A trick. You should not be here.” He raised the bible in front of him. “You should move on. Go. Now!”

Scrooge raised an eyebrow, and muttered something about gravy, or possibly graves. “That book will not banish me, if that is what you are hoping. I am here on its writer’s behalf, in a way.” He crossed one leg over the other, the chains rattling and tugging at him. “I am now merely the lowest of a group of spirits you shall be meeting tonight. They will explain their own purposes in time. As for my part, I wish to discuss our chains.”

Malthan clenched his hands, flexing his unbound wrists. “Your chains, you mean?”

“Oh no, our chains. We share a very similar set, you and I, although I worry yours might be crueller.” The phantom rose from the chair, and stared at George eye to eye. “This chains are built by our sins and cruelties towards our fellows.”

“What sins? You were a model of a man for the last twenty years, and I am a kind and generous fellow. Ask anyone who knows me!”

“Ah yes. Anyone who knows you. Or rather, anyone you know personally. Anyone who you have deemed to be worth. Listen!” Scrooge spoke, and Malthan felt the world go silent. “You have played the game of a spider, weaving a thread to connect yourself to hundreds, thousands, who you pretend are nothing but flies! You show kindness to those you know, kindness towards those you deem worthy, a kindness built of the toil and death of your kin on this planet! You celebrate your family’s Christmas while your factory mills still toil and devour! Yours is a chain made in your looms, built of biting machinery, cotton threads and the hands of those who worked on them. It is a cruel chain indeed you wear, and that will tie you to this realm when you die, unless you change now.”

“Then what of your chains spirit, or Scrooge, or whoever you might be. What did you build your chains from?”

“Coins. Pennies ripped from a beggar’s hand. A rather popular chain among the unquiet dead above London. I built my chain over years. It only stopped extending after the meeting with the three spirits you will meet tonight. Listen to them Malthan, and you may not find yourself so tightly bound as you are now destined to be.”

Even in front of the spectre’s icy anger, Malthan scoffed, although it was more from an attempt to hide his fear than actual cocksureness. “And what good did following them do you? All of that good you did, making sure we all saw what a changed man you are, and You stand here, still bound! Perhaps I should call a priest and have you released from your drudgery on this earth, that might be a better favour. Call it a final Christmas Gift!”

Scrooge gave him a look that Malthan couldn’t place. “I was able to break some.” He held up a short chain, attached to his collar. “This was my sin towards the Cratchits. I was able to make amends for this at least. But the rest of them…” He spread his arms wide, the chains rippling and clanking so loudly Malthan had to cover his ears. “This chains I could not remove. Whether because the ones I hurt to build them chose not to let me go that easily, or because I was unable to atone for them, these remain. But, what the spirit’s lesson did do was to strength my soul. I cannot undo these chains because I cannot undo the wounds I made. But my actions since then make it easier for me to move. These chains bind me only because I chose to be bond. I took on the commission of my old partner to allow him to leave to Heaven, while I walk the Earth in search of wretches like you to be saved. Listen Malthan, and listen well!”

Scrooge stepped into the air as if mounting a stage and stared down at George. “Not matter if you heed my warning or not, let this message be clear. You shall be visited by three spirits this night! Without these visits you cannot hope for salvation, or to understand why you must change your ways! Expect the first ghost tonight, when the bell toils one!”

And with a final clatter of chains, Scrooge disappeared, and the clock continued clicking towards an inevitable meeting.

5 of Hearts: The True Gender of Santa

Santa Claus does not exist.

I kind of want to get that out there first of all. Just so we are entirely clear. Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and that is quite possibly the most powerful thing about Santa.

I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a brief recap of recent nonsense.

Earlier this month, December 2018, a marketing company, GraphicSpring, sent out a survey asking how to best modernise Santa. One of the questions was “If you could ‘rebrand’ Santa for modern society, what gender would he be?”, with the three answers being Male, Female or Gender Neutral. Of the respondents, 10.6% said female, 17.2% said gender neutral, and 72.2% said male. Anyway, this has worked up some people, with a wave of pieces from various places decrying the idea of a gender neutral Santa.

Let’s be entirely clear here: this is not a measured opinion poll. This is a marketing company creating buzz, and using the fact that a lot of people have knee jerk reactions both to Santa himself, as a beloved holiday figure, and to anything they regard as “shoving transness down their throats”. A cynical viewer might even argue that it is a clear attempt by GS to use transphobia as a cynical way to get marketing clicks, knowing that the brunt of the anger will be directed at the trans and non-binary communities, not at themselves.

Anyway, this is clear attempt by GS to use transphobia as a cynical way to get marketing clicks, knowing that the brunt of the anger will be directed at the trans and non-binary communities, not at themselves. All the trans and non-binary groups* I’ve been involved with have generally been mostly confused by this entire thing, since no one has really asked for Santa to be made gender neutral. Maybe as a joke, but seriously, that’s not really something you need to worry about. It isn’t actually a thing.

But there is another side to this, and for that I want to return to what I mentioned above. Santa isn’t real, and that is one of Santa’s greatest strengths.

Santa Claus is in many ways a symbol as much as he is a character, and I think the best thing he symbolises is generosity, and anonymous generosity at that. There’s a couple of ways to read him. Santa as a judge of behaviour, who know when you’ve been bad or good, and the bad get coal** is another popular reading for instance, but my personal view of Santa is less as a character, and a role that people step into. Signing a gift from Santa removes the giver from the equation. We know Santa doesn’t exist, but still, it is his name on the presents. Santa gives without the hope of receiving anything back, except maybe a glass of milk and a few biscuits. Santa is a mask for us to wear so we can in turn, focus on giving and kindness, and I think that is Santa’s greatest strength. Santa does not exist, and we can all be Santa.

So, if you ask me what Santa’s gender is, then my question in turn is, what is your gender? Because that is Santa’s. And Santa is also agendered, using they/them as their pronouns, because I am also Santa. And Santa uses he and she and they and all the neo-pronouns you like, because Santa is all of us. Just stepping into the red suit, and quietly placing down a present, before disappearing unseen, back up the chimney into the world that doesn’t exist, just North of the North Pole.

* I am agendered, and I generally use they/them as my pronouns. I will almost certainly be exploring this more, but this is the first post where this has come up.

** Which in itself is another interesting point; is it a warning, or, given that the tradition dates back to when coal fireplaces were used to warm the house, a way of saying “you may be bad, but you still don’t deserve to be cold”? Although in some traditions it is coal from the fireplace, so that is a whole other thing. I tried to look this up for this piece, and for a story I’m working on, but no one’s really sure where the tradition of coal comes from, other than it is pretty widespread and not really done anymore.

3 of Hearts: An excerpt from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. “

2 of Hearts: Drafting the 2018 Recommendation List

As the year of 2018 draws to a close, I propose we all take a moment to step back and think about what we loved in this last year, and which we would like to share. Games, movies, books, stories, blogs; everything is fair game.

My personal list this year is still being decided, but I think so far I have to include Sunless Skies by Failbetter games, which I have had fantastic fun streaming for people, and Spiderman: Enter the Spiderverse, a fantastically animated movie that really has fun with its characters and their dynamic movements, while also having a genuinely good coming of age narrative and is that rare superhero movie that understands we already know Spiderman’s backstory.

I’ve only just started coming up with this list, and to be honest the year has kind of flown by in a blur, but feel free to post your suggestions in the comments, or, if you’ve done something you want to show off this year, feel free to post that as well. Self-promotion is always welcome here (as long as it doesn’t become spam!)