Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Second Song of Queen Aliissá

"Queen of Summer" by Ida Larson
This is the song of Queen Aliissá Suncrown, beloved Highborn Stormbringer, Love of the North-Northwest.

Aliissá was born when the Sun shone upon the Dawn-Snow atop the ancient mountains of the Far North. She was born again upon the North winds, which carried a summer thunderstorm to the ancestral archepelego in the southwest, showering its crystal coasts and shining meadows. In those days, Queen Aliissá was known by another name, a title she was granted by her island forebearers.

Aliissá grew and travelled for twenty-eight years (according to the Calendar of Men), at which point she came to the land of the Great Forest to meet with the Royals of the City of the Ancestors. But the Forest People did not recognise Aliissá, for she did not yet bear the Mark of Royalty and they feared and distrusted travellers from the Summer Lands. So Aliissá was driven out of the City of the Ancestors, and she journeyed to the East through the Hall of Mirrors.

When she reached the Eastern Shores, Aliissá beheld a vision of a great oncoming storm and heard the voice of the Lady of the Rose. Aliissá journeyed across the Eastern Lands, which was also the Realm of Mania. There, she met with her Verse-Sister the Erin Triune, who told her that she would become again the Once-And-Future Queen, but not of the Eastern Lands. Aliissá knew she must travel to the Red Tower, for upon that tower the Red King resided, with whom she desired a meeting to discuss the concept of The Dreamer and The Dream. Aliissá crossed the River of the Elder Spirits to reach the Red Tower, which was also the Heart of the World, and from that point on she was to be known as Aliissá the Underqueen, ruler of Maybes, Could-Have-Beens and the Space Between.

Queen Aliissá confronted the Red King atop his tower, for she was born of the Far North and knew the secret of language. And Queen Aliissá said unto him: “Behold this Dream where the Dream and Dreamer are once again one. I say this to you in the words of our ancestors, and in so doing I speak a truth.” Then the Red King winked out of this world, for Queen Aliissá channeled the light of the ether through her words, and the radiant sound resonated with the beat and melody of creation. This is why Aliissá is called Queen Aliissá Suncrown.

Queen Aliissá then went North into the Future, where she found the Tapestry of Paradox beginning to unravel under the light of the Moon. She once again met the Lady of the Rose there, who claimed to be the Keeper of the Tapestry and Lunar-Annointed, but Queen Aliissá knew this to be a lie as the Lady of the Rose was a spirit and spirits always deceived because this was their way. So Queen Aliissá told the Lady of the Rose “Please bother me no longer with your trifles and deceptions. Who cares for you?”. The Lady of the Rose didn't have an answer to that, so she left.

Queen Aliissá knew that this night was to be The Night When The Worlds Came Together, because she had made sure it was to be so. She spoke with the Lost Shamans, who recognised her as an ancestor of the future returned to them in their time of need. Queen Aliissá knew what the Moon was and what it meant, and it was this knowledge that allowed her to travel safely among the spirits and reweave the Tapestry of Time by reinstating the sacred connection between the Land, the Sea, the Sky and the Inexorable Duality of Being. While in the Future, Queen Aliissá also was reunited once more with the Storm of the North, whose wild and mighty declarations were as lightning arcing the Sky and driving snow on the wind. Queen Aliissá stood atop the highest mountain and spoke with the Storm, and as their words flowed together the Sun shone through the blizzard and the air filled with powdered diamonds.

Queen Aliissá Suncrown and Bringer of Storms then returned to the Days of the Eastern Lands, and travelled the world for many years learning, growing and helping those in need. But eventually, the Time came when she had seen all there was to see in this Time. Looking once more at the Future, Queen Aliissá saw that the Border of the Worlds was deteriorating once more, and because this was a story she had already heard, she returned to the Southwest and the Island of Eternal Summer, which was her birthright. Queen Aliissá Suncrown remained on the Island of Eternal Summer for two hundred years and departed this plane with it when the island disappeared from mortal sight. Meanwhile, outside the Blessed Isle, the universe had changed again.

When the two hundred years were up, Queen Aliissá consulted with her Ruling-Friends on the Blessed Isle, for she had heard rumours of a dangerous folly and great disasters to befall the Far North. Secrets were being held that had the power to reshape creation, and the Time had come once again to travel. Queen Aliissá's Ruling-Friends (who above all else understand and respect change) agreed, and advised her to be wary of the ever-shifting Poetic Geography of the World As It Now Was. The Blessed Isle itself remained “gone” in the mythic sense, but it too could feel the undercurrents of change brought on by the Voice of the Possipoints.

In the Far North, Queen Aliissá bore witness to the return of the the Master of Speech, brought upon by the Awful Fighting of the Men of the North. The Master brought with him an army of Philosophers, who declared they would lord over the story by divine right of their discourse and debate. Queen Aliissá sought the guidance of the Blessed Sky Men of the Land of Eternal Winter, who recognised her as one of their own come to them in their time of need. Queen Aliissá remembered her kinship with the Men of the North then, and was once again adopted by them, and they cheered her on when she brought down the Master of Speech with the power of her voice and the swiftness of her blade. But Queen Aliissá took pity on the other Philosophers, especially the Old Dragon, whom she had known fondly in a time before creation, and the memories of those shared summers Long Ago and Far Away allowed him to ascend to the Plane of the Ancestors.

Queen Aliissá also knew the Men of the North were looking for a powerful Construct of Future's Past, and that this would cause the Erasure of History. Infinite possipoints recoiled in terror as the forces of the Master Narrative tapped into the Sacred Architecture, and it was only when History Folded In On Itself that the world was saved again. But this Construct was not the person Queen Aliissá was looking for: Her identity was revealed when Queen Aliissá forged an alliance with the Daughter of Blood and Steel to slay the King of Leeches, who sought to translate the Master Narrative for the Sunrise. Remembering her fealty to the Eastern Lands, its Triune and the Dawn Times, Queen Aliissá helped the Daughter of Blood and Steel remember the Sigil of Royalty and slay the King of Leeches, as she had done in the past. This is why Aliissá is called Queen Aliissá Suncrown.

Queen Aliissá and the Queen of Blood and Steel shared many adventures together after this, such as the Story of the Tonal City, The Journey to the Ether Upon the Wings of the Engines of Music and a return to the Present of the Future, where both Queens were remembered by the Lost Shamans. After this, Queen Aliissá and her Sword-Sister,whom she Loved dearly, parted ways in body, but not in mind or spirit, and the Young Queen (who was also the Triune) returned to the future upon the Winds of Tomorrow, where she met the Lieutenant and became the most beloved Saint of Gold, who was also known as Tomorrow's Guardian. The Saint of Gold had many adventures and made many close friends of her own, and the Universe itself recognised her Voice as the Blessed Melody of the Ancestors. But this is not her story.

Aliissá was born when the Sun shone upon the Dawn-Snow atop the ancient mountains of the Far North. She was born again upon the North winds, which carried a summer thunderstorm to the ancestral archepelego in the southwest, showering its crystal coasts and shining meadows. In those days, Queen Aliissá was known by another name, a title she was granted by her island forebearers.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Goddess On The Mountain by Liquidd-1

May 4: Born on the first breath of summer, the Dream-Child finds the Walking Way.

November 4: The crown is seized for the Empire of One, bringer of summer to winter.

May 4: The Woman-Goddess convenes the Summit on the Mountain and touches the Sky.

November 4:

Birth and Death and Order and Chaos are two sides of the Looking-Glass that intersect at the turning of the year. The In-Between days remind us that such things are universes apart brought together at the World Tree, the I. Dreamers of Godhood within the Dream of Godhead. We exist at the point between opposite extremes where opposite extremes exist together within themselves. The Mirror-Globe reflects images of ourselves and our own future-past. And so it all begins again.

Helgafell. Myths tell us this is the burial mound of the Icelandic heroine Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. It is venerated as a sacred place of peace and enlightenment: It was the birthplace of the historian Ari Thorgilsson the Learned and once held a library of knowledge. It is also, perhaps because of its resemblance to a house with a door, seen as a gateway to other worlds.

What do we mean when we talk about Homeland? It's a question that has occupied my mind a lot this year. I was born and raised in Vermont and have spent my entire life here, but for the longest time I never considered myself a serious “Vermonter”, except by tautological default, largely because I guess I never knew what that really meant. Every place has a regional identity, and Vermont is no different, but “Vermonter” definitely means something special over here. It's just it took me awhile to figure out what that was, possibly because I've tended to be as isolated from my fellow Vermonters as much as I've been isolated from everyone else (not typically by choice, I hasten to add).

My parents moved here from Southwestern New York, bluntly, to hide. They wanted to be left alone and to be closer to the wilderness. Also though, I think they moved here because it reminded them of the United Kingdom and the British Isles, of which they're both enormous fans. There's a settlement on a mountain fifteen minutes away from me called New Ireland, and just beyond that is the stretch of land known as the Northshire, which is pretty much like what it sounds like it'd be like. They don't call this part of the United States New England just because it was the first place the pilgrims settled: There are parts of the Northeast US that would catch the eye of any Anglophile or visitor from across the pond. This all made sense to me. Until recently.

There are very few events I've lived through that I can decisively point to and say they conclusively changed my life. I can count them probably on half of one hand. Late 2010 into 2011 was a confluence of those events, including a chance meeting with a quirky and esoteric band of bloggers and Internet writers who would go on to become some of my closest friends and the first people I could comfortably and unhesitatingly call colleagues. But there are two important ones for the context of this piece: First was Vermont's behaviour in the 2010 midterm elections, in which a party of people advocating the state's secession from the United States and transformation into a anarcho-communist republic based around localist ideals blindsided everyone by walking away with a staggering 20% of the vote. They haven't made a lot of noise since, but our state has one of the most uniquely creative and progressive approaches to local politics you'll find anywhere in the US and is a natural breeding ground for that kind of thinking. This was the first time I realised how deathly serious we were about that. Vermont is one of the only places where the heart of the true and truly radical left still beats loudly in this country, and I suddenly realised I was a fit for this place.

But what actually is Vermont? I can't tell you objectively, as no-one can. But I'm sure my fellow Vermonters have a lot of strong opinions about it. I can, however, speak from my own personal experience. And I don't think Vermont is part of New England. I think it's something else. Whenever I spend time in Connecticut or Boston I don't really feel at home there. It doesn't feel like part of the same larger entity to me: It feels more like whenever I visit the Mid-Atlantic: It's close, both geographically and climatologically, and there's certainly a continuity, but it's not quite the same thing (no offense meant to my dear friends Phil and Maddy who do live in Connecticut and Boston, respectively: I'm sure they have just as complex feelings about where they live as I do). New Hampshire and Maine might be closer, but I still find them regionally distinct enough.

I'm not just talking about our quirky politics and local identity. There's an energy about this place I notice that I don't find everywhere. This year I read a wonderful book called Running with the Fairies which is an ethnography of the “Fairy Faith” in Ireland, which is in some ways an evolution of the earlier NordicXCelticXGermanic animism and folklore blended with bits of later Christian teachings. They use much the same language, saying that the Earth Magick, which they associate with the Fairies (who can be air or earth elementals) is stronger in some places than it is in others. The only other place I know I've felt a similar power or presence so far is, weirdly, Cape Cod, which is about as distinct from the rest of Massachusetts and New England as Vermont is...and almost as distinct from Vermont. Cape Cod is the place where the land disappears into sea and sky. The Outer Lands. It is, in the words of its greatest biographer, the Outermost, closer in kin to the Atlantic Ocean then to North America. It's also, funnily enough, probably the only other place in the US that has as staunchly radical, progressive and fiercely independent identity as we do. The exploits of Provincetown alone, at the very tip of the island, are legendary.

My parents always joke that I was born in the wrong part of the world. That I'm really a sea person who should move somewhere more tropical. It is true that I'm a surfer and subscribe to a lot of the beliefs and philosophies of the old surfers from Polynesia (not so much the commercialized glamour show of Southern California). I've had a fascination with that part of the world for years, and some of the first works that really captured my interest were nature documentaries about the ocean and movies like Disney's The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid statue sits off the Langelinie boardwalk in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Cape Cod, thanks to its unique location, has really bizarre weather patterns. It's in the North Atlantic, but it attracts plant and animal species more commonly found in subtropical and tropical coastal environments, typically as it's a convenient pit-stop during the migrations that happen in the leadup to every winter and summer. Thanks to deforestation and the harshness of the ocean, the entire island is now covered in a twisted, gnarled, dried-out blanket of pine barrens, which just makes the whole place feel rawer and more elemental.

Cape Cod is home to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, at one time the leading such institute in the world. Doctor Robert Ballard was based there, and launched his expedition to find the wreck of the RMS Titanic from Woods Hole. I wrote him a fan letter once.

Skálholt map, showing Norse conception of the Americas. The Vikings told of settlements in a region of North America called Vinland, or "meadow-land" where there was no snow in winter. Some scholars have placed the settlement Kjalarnes at Cape Cod.

The other event from 2010 and 2011 that changed the course of my life was the launch of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is a serious contender for not just my favourite video game ever, but my favourite work of fiction period. But you should probably know that given the fact I can't seem to stop talking about it. I initially just picked up Skyrim simply to give the series one more shot: I'd played an Elder Scrolls game once before, The Elder Scrols IV: Oblivion, at the start of the seventh generation, but it failed to really grab me. I really liked the concept of an open-world action RPG where player choice and the freedom to explore, not just the sprawling world but your own individual experience of the world, was paramount. But the Cyrodiil of Oblivion did nothing for me: It was one big expanse of identical green fields that was the setting for what seemed to me to be a generic rip-off of J.R.R. Tolkien. I didn't know anything about what The Elder Scrolls' Tamriel really meant. Skyrim fixed that for me.

At the beginning of Skyrim, just as in the beginning of any RPG, you're asked to design a character. The Elder Scrolls gives you a choice of eight possible races and two genders: Knowing next to nothing about the background lore of the series I arbitraily made my character a female Nord, as I knew Skyrim took place in their homeland and the player was supposed to be hero of Nordic mythology. It made sense at the time. I gave her a name that was a variation on the name of the heroine of Jan Brett's book The Wild Christmas Reindeer, a story I remembered once enjoying about a spirited stablehand who herds Santa's reindeer. Brett has written many other books set in Scandinavia and the other real-world Nordic countries, and I always appreciate how her meticulous illustrations convey the worlds of the far North she seems to love so much so well.

Desktop wallpaper by Artfall, based on concept art for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

If you're as unfamillair with The Elder Scrolls as I was when I first started Skyrim you would be forgiven for thinking the Nords are simply a stand-in for the Vikings, in particular the generic barbarian Vikings so common to fantasy stories. Start to pay attention to the game a bit more though and you'll find that's not really the case: None of the races in Tamriel have direct real-world parallels. They all draw upon many different cultures, myth cycles and belief systems to create an identity that's at once unique to The Elder Scrolls and also very logical extrapolations and exaggerations of real world patterns of human migration. While the Nords do in many ways resemble Vikings, they're actually far closer to what we know of the pre-Christian, pre-Norse GermanicXCelticXNordic inhabitants of northern Europe and also seem based quite heavily on ancient Egyptians, the Stone Age Megalith builders and, especially in the case of the Skaal (an isolated group of Nords living on the far northern island of Solstheim between Skyrim and Morrowind), the animistic shaman beliefs of the idigenous peoples of the Americas, the Inuit, the First Nations of Canada and the Sami of the Nordic countries.

Very quickly my choice to play a Nord became a retroactive no-brainer. As I was gradually drawn more and more into the game's world I started to feel as connected to the land of Skyrim as its own people do. Skyrim, as a place, means a lot to me now, as much as any real-world “homeland” might. I am still religiously playing the game nearly two years after it was released and have, as of this writing, clocked a little under a thousand hours into just my PC copy. I probably know my way around Skyrim better than I do a lot of real places, and I hardly ever use the game's fast travel feature anymore. I know exactly where I'm going, and I love the land so much I need to experience as much of it as I can. But that's the thing about lands like Skyrim: They are real places: The Tamrielic monomyth tells us the world came into being by the intersection of the primordial forces of Order and Chaos, of Stasis and Change, in the Dreamtime. Chaos traumatically inspires Order to create, and Order creates by lucid dreaming of Creation. Skyrim, like everywhere in Tamriel, is a world built around ideas and dreams and given life by its people, who are all dreaming of it.

Skyrim, goodmorning by Jorian89. Skyrim the way we see it.

One thing the Nords share with many of their Elven counterparts (though they'd never admit it given the longstanding hostility between humans and Mer) is their fixation on what has been described as a process of mythogeneosophy: A Sacred Geneaology that traces their lineage back to the Dawn Times. The primary difference between them and their enemies the Altmer is that the Nords much prefer mutable oral history to staunch objective, obsessively curated records. A Master Narrative for a people who have a troubling tendency to fancy themselves a Master Race. The Nords, by contrast, turn to their history and myths as guidance for how to live their lives day to day, and minor things like “historical accuracy” (if such a thing can every really truly exist) are acceptable casualties if the alternative is giving up a good story that might could help shed new light and new perspectives on whatever current crisis they might be facing. We frequently turn to our heroes, idols, role models and the stories we heard as children in the hope they might help us come to terms with adulthood, and in the process we constantly re-interpret them.

Lewis Carroll always felt children (though really, girls) had a kind of perspective worth holding onto throughout life. Not the blissful naivete of children per se, but more the sense that the world is a grand and wondrous place and that some form of appreciation and acceptance of this makes us happier and healthier, a perspective shared by Shigeru Miyamoto. Maybe that's why we still turn to supposed children's literature like Carroll's Alice in Wonderland diptych, or Miyamoto's Super Mario games...and why works like those are frequently deeper and more meaningful than about 95% of the stuff targeted towards adults. Of course there's no way I could ignore the Once and Future Underqueen on her summoning-day: There's no way she would allow this, and the Dreamtime's Chessmaster checkmates again. As she always does. As she always will.

Alice by Antichristofer is a similar interpretation of the Underqueen and her realm to mine. To me, this version of Wonderland bears an uncanny resemblance to Morrowind. Using DeviantArt's "Browse More Like This" feature on this picture gave me fanart for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
A long time ago, perhaps as many as two decades, I once watched a nature documentary about a woman who lived alone deep within the Boreal Forest of Canada. She was fascinated by the lives of the local moose (known as Elk outside North America) and spent her days trying to join their community and painting gorgeously elabourate portraits of scenes of taiga life. I don't recall much about that special, though I remember the lady's name vividly: Gisèle Benoit. The idea of studying animals from a cultural perspective has always fascinated me. It dates back to the earliest forms of naturalism, back before, like all life sciences, it was subsumed by and folded into the monolithic engines of celular biology and neuroscience. From a zoology perspective this is often called ethology, although it's in many ways actually closer to ethnography and the Kratt Brothers (another team of modern-day naturalists who were big inspirations on my relationship with wildlife) call it “Creature Adventuring”. In fact, this is the primary reason I'm such a big fan of the Pokémon franchise, and what was going to be the philosophical underpinning of the multipart retrospective on that series that's supposed to be here. This was also the primary reason I abandoned the natural sciences to pursue anthropology instead. Years later, Donna Haraway, one of my biggest anthropological inspirations and one of my very favourite writers and thinkers wrote a book entitled When Species Meet, outlining the framework for a new philosophy she called “multispecies ethnography”.

I've always felt a kind of kinship with Canada as a whole, though I've never really been consciously aware of it until recently. I'm closer to Canada than I am to a lot of the United States, and in perhaps more than just a geographic sense. In the 1990s one of the only other television series I made a point to watch whenever I came on apart from Star Trek or Scooby-Doo was Acorn the Nature Nut, hosted by Alberta-based entomologist John Acorn. Like the Kratts and Gisèle Benoit, John Acorn was another naturalist on whom I based my conception of nature. Acorn was also known for his distinctive dry, understated tongue-in-cheek humour also shared by The Arrogant Worms, one of my favourite music acts, and that has been described as distinctly Canadian. I've sometimes been told I have a similar sense of humour. One of my favourite TV shows now is still Survivorman, hosted by Ontario native Les Stroud. What intrigues me the most about Survivorman isn't so much the survival techniques Stroud is ostensibly teaching us, but how intimate he seems to become with the land when he's alone in the wilderness for seven days. The show is as much about our connection to nature and our natural roots as much as it is about what to do if you crash your bike in the Canyonlands in the middle of winter (this is, incidentally, what's missing from not just every other survival show, but every other contemporary nature show period).

Athabasca River Valley, Alberta, as seen from the Geraldine Lakes. The Athabasca River is mentioned in the Arrogant Worms song "The Last Saskatchewan Pirate", and greatly reminds me of Skyrim's soaring mountains and winding valleys.
I don't know what possessed me to, randomly out of the blue, look up Gisèle Benoit online recently, and for what purposes. But I did, and I was curious to see if she had done anything else in the intervening twenty years or so. It turns out she has: She still lives in the Boreal Forest with only her parents and the animals for company, and has put out documentaries, paintings and art books hoping to chroncile the ebb and flow of life in the northern forests and to, in her words, “renew the sacred bond with nature”. One of her more recent masterpieces is a mammoth tome of an art book called Cascapédia, a comprehensive look at life in the titular region through her perspective. Although the book is now out of print, Benoit put the whole thing up on her website for free with annotations under the book's sketches and paintings, all of which bristle with her signature power and emotion. Cascapédia is just what I remembered Gisèle Benoit's work to be like, and, astonishingly (though perhaps predictably) I was taken aback at how much her artwork reminded me of Skyrim: Her renditions of Cascapédia are equally evocative of the atmosphere and energy I sense in Falkreath and Whiterun.

Cascapédia sous la neige, by Gisèle Benoit.

Every once in awhile I'll cross the border into New York with my family. This is largely because if we need to get any substantial shopping done, it's impossible to do that where we live. On the highway coming out of the border town of Bennington and leading towards Albany, there's a ridiculous tourist trap of a place called the Big Moose Deli just across the state line. It advertises itself as “the last stop in New York” and the place to go if you want to stock up on “Vermont Gifts” and souvenir kincknacks. And yes, there is in fact a gold-painted moose on the roof of the building. That and every kind of gaudy, tawdry eyesore you can think of piled up as far as the eye can see in the parking lot. Sadly, it's but one of many such institutions you find as soon as you enter the Mid-Atlantic (though it's probably the worst). Vermont is one of the only four states in the country where roadside billboards and advertising are expressly forbidden (the others being Alaska, Maine and Hawaii) and you don't need a “Welcome to New York” sign to let you know you've crossed over.

My family and I have debated on numerous occasions what precisely the purpose of the Big Moose Deli is. Do tourists think Vermont is one big empty expanse of forests and mountains and that the Big Moose Deli is the last bastion of civilization they'll bear witness to before boldly plumbing the heart of the wilderness? I mean, people do live here, and we can probably sell you better maple syrup, barbecue and handmade crafts. I suppose it is one of the highest profile places between the tri-city area and the ski resort communities if you don't ever leave the highway, and the Big Moose Deli enthusiastically sells itself as the “Gateway to Vermont”.

But that got me thinking that maybe Vermont is a kind of gateway itself: A Gateway to the North. Part of what makes us distinct is that our mountains are known as the Green Mountains, because they're heavily forested instead of rocky. But also I think it's because of our abundance of conifers when compared to the rest of the Northeast US. Climatologically speaking, Vermont is the gradient between two biomes: The mixed broadleaf forests characteristic of southern New England (excepting Cape Cod) and the taiga of Canada. The Boreal Forest. Ironic for a state famous for autumn leaf-watching tourism, the further north you go the more pines you see (and the fewer deciduous trees) and the more and more Vermont starts to look like a proper Northland. Vermont is the space between.

View from the summit of Killington Peak, home of Killington resort. Nicknamed "The Beast of the East", Killington is one of the largest and most challenging descents on the eastern seaboard. Nowadays, it also incorporates the resort at Pico, its neighbouring mountain. Pico is the oldest ski resort in Vermont, founded in 1937 by the Meads, a family of Norwegian immigrants. Daughter Andrea was an Olympic gold medalist. Pico can be seen in the distance.

The closest Canadian province to me is Québec, and I do now wonder how much being so nearby has shaped my positionality. I'm far enough north to feel closer to my neighbours in Canada than to my neighbours in New England or the Mid-Atlantic. In many ways I now consider myself a true Northerner. That said, I'm also far enough south to be disconnected from the sociopolitical machinations of the province, which, given Québec's staunchly and infamously nativist and racist history is probably a good thing. Québec is also where Gisèle Benoit's legal residence is, though the fact she spends most of her time distant and removed from human society in the forests of Cascapédia leads me to wonder how connected she feels to the strife and upheaval going on around her. We were all Wandering Ehlnofey in the Dreamtime. It was the Old Ehlnofey who turned to isolationism, but they did so out of insular, incestuous xenophobia, not a desire to become close to the land and the sky. It was the Wanderers who settled in Alt Mora, the Elder Wood, who learned how to do that.
Concept art for Elise Riggs from the 2012 reboot of SSX. Elise (played by Lucy Liu in SSX Tricky) is a Canadian snowboarder, surfer and base jumper. She's one of my biggest idols and role models. One of my favourite levels in the original SSX Tricky is called "Aloha Ice Jam" and is set on a glacier that's been towed from the arctic to Hawai'i.

In talking about the Alice in Wonderland diptych, Martin Gardner (who, in spite of the numerous problems he had in regard to his scholarship and motives in his other fields and careers, probably remains the foremost authority on Lewis Carroll) once mused on the irony of the mathematician and Reverand Charles Dodgson becoming most famous for his “pagan nonsense”. Gardner was most likely talking about how curious it was for the formative work of Victorian children's literature, and really all children's literature, to have nothing to do with Christianity, or really Westernism in general (indeed, its status as one-part venomously barbed social satire makes it rather the opposite of those things), but I'm going to take him literally. Alice is a pagan queen.

While Alice in Wonderland is very British, it's most evocative of the parts of British culture that predate the arrival of Westerners: All the references to the sídhe, (and to Elves in the working title) and to Otherworlds (including, debatably, Tír na nÓg) make this rather self-evident. It's also quite critical of the parts of Victorian Britain that come out of Westernism, most notably its attitude towards royalty: Gardner describes Carroll as a Tory royalist, but he's always seemed more ambivalent on this front to me and illustrator John Tenniel, a famous polticial cartoonist at the time, certainly seems less enamoured with the whole prospect. Either way, with or without Carroll's and Tenniel's positionalities, it's perfectly easy to afford the work this reading, and I'm not the first to do so.

Meadow Elves, by Nils Blommér, depicts a gathering of Light Elves from Álfheimr, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology. It is said Elves, like all spirits, would gather to dance on the hills during the festivals of Beltane, Midsummer and Samhain.

One of the things that's most impressed me about the history of the Tamrielic Nords is how logical and sensible it actually sounds. While, as I said, the Tamrielic races have no explicit real-world analogues its tough not to spot the influences in Nordic culture. They're Northerners, and it was through The Elder Scrolls I was finally able to come up with a theory about what that might mean. The Nords, the original Nords from Atmora, not the ones who absorbed too much influence from the Cyrodiilic empire and the Dragons they once revered, were mystical, animistic shamans for whom living as harmoniously with the land as was possible was a virtue of paramount importance, and they worshiped the sky as the domain of deified ancestors, and to understand all of this was to understand enlightenment. These are traits the Tamrielic Nords very overtly share with real-life Northerners: It's a cultural model shared by the Indigenous Americans, the Inuit, the Sami, and the real-life pre-Christian, pre-Norse Nordic peoples, and it decisively sets them apart from Westerners: These people are far more similar to each other than they are to those who originated from France, Italy, Spain and Greece. And its to them who I feel I might share a strong kinship with as well.

Fanart by Rafaken of the Throat of the World, the mountain serving as the symbolic and literal centre of the land of Skyrim. Also debatably the tallest peak in Tamriel. It is said the snow on the Throat of the World cannot melt, and dates back to the Dawn Times. The Nords believe humans were created when Kyne, wife of Shor, breathed life upon its peak. Nowadays, the renegade Dragon Paarthurnax, leader of the the Greybeards (a pacifist order of Nordic monks who devote their lives to worship of the Sky), meditates here on the concept of Voice, and how it can be used to touch divinity.

I suppose this would raise the question of how I reconcile my newfound Northerner heritage with my pre-existing magnetic attraction to the ocean, especially the tropical Pacific. In Norse mythology, Skaði, the Jötunn goddess of winter, skiing and the mountains was once married to Njörd, the god of the sea. While together, they split their time evenly between their two realms, with Skaði spending half the year with her husband in the ocean and Njörd spending the other half with his wife in the mountains. But neither was happy with this arrangement, and each would long for home while away from it, so they eventually divorced. But, strangely enough, I find the people the Northerners are most similar to may actually be the Polynesians.

In Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble! and its sequel Donkey Kong Land III, Dixie Kong travels to the "Northern Kremisphere", a Northlands-inspired environment south of tropical Donkey Kong Island, eventually discovering the "Lost World", spoken of in myth and legend. The Northern Kremisphere, much like the Kongs' homeland, features tropical jungles intermixed with snow-capped mountains. The Donkey Kong Land series was one of my first real video game loves. Dixie Kong returns in 2014 in the WiiU sequel Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, by Retro Studios (known for Metroid Prime) and which features Vikings landing on Donkey Kong Island.

Both groups have similar attitudes towards oral history and both revere deified ancestors and elemental spirits. Most critically though, both placed great importance on the interconnectedness of worlds, in particular that of human life with the nature, as they are ultimately one and the same. Both also felt tied to their lands in a very deep and meaningful way-It's just the Poylnesians' “land” was in fact the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, both the Polynesians and the Norse Vikings were exquisite navigators (though the Polynesians were unquestionably superior): In fact, Te Rangi Hīroa's landmark ethnographic history of the Polynesians was titled Vikings of the Sunrise...and was cited by H.R. Ellis Davidson in her comparative analysis of the Celtic, Norse, German and Nordic peoples Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions.

Mauna Kea, as seen from the Ocean. The tallest peak in Hawai'i. Known as Mauna o Wākea, literally "The mountain of Wākea" in the Ancient Hawaiian, and seen as the land of the Gods, home of kind and helpful spirits, the seat of the sky deity Wākea and realm of Poliʻahu, goddess of snow.

I suppose I exist between extremes, or perhaps more accurately where extremes intersect. The Celts divided their year into a light half and a dark half, but it was the in-between times, when both light and dark comingle, that was the most sacred to them. I've never much cared for Fall. Actually, I loathe it. I much prefer Summer and Winter. Like the spirits, I celebrate midsummer and midwinter, but I'm most energized at Samhain and Beltane when summer and winter begin and end and coexist simultaneously. That's when I come alive.

Concept art for Tundraful, the second level of Alice: Madness Returns-American McGee's (of id Software fame) Gothic and surrealist re-interpretation of Alice in Wonderland.

May 4: The Dream-Child takes the Walking Way and learns to Dream.

November 4: The Dreamer Dreams anew, and henceforth Dream becomes Dreamer.

May 4: The Walking Ways lead us to the Mountain, upon which we may touch the sky.

November 4:

SummerXWinter. LightXDark. SeaXSky. These are the names of the Looking-Glass that we find at the turning of the year. The In-Between days remind us that such things are universes apart brought together at the World Tree, the I. Dreamers of Godhood within the Dream of Godhead. We exist at the point between opposite extremes where opposite extremes exist together within themselves. The Mirror-Globe reflects images of ourselves and our own future-past. And so it all begins again.

May 4: Taika, who is Ysmir Storm-Crown, returns as Adaleiz, born Adalhaidis of Atmora.

Snowgirl repainted, by Yoggurt.
“Tamriel never belonged to Bethesda. It was the other way around.

As for canon, it's really all interactive fiction, and that should mean something to everyone. That said, I appreciate and understand the stamp of 'official', but I think it will hurt more that it will help in the long run.

TES should be Open Source. It is for me.”

-Michael Kirkbride

Saturday, May 4, 2013

An Account of Queen Alice's Meeting With The Young Adventurer

This is but one of many stories told to children by their village elders involving The Young Adventurer or Queen Alice or both or variations thereupon. As with all such stories, the details differ from version to version, although the fundamental structure is found in all of its forms. The accuracy with which the events chronicled within are described is of course suspect and a matter for debate. Readers are encouraged to formulate their own opinions on the Authenticity and Truthfulness of this particular account.
Join me atop the Sacred Rock, for here the All Thing resides.

Then the Young Adventurer ascended the mountain and came upon the Law Stone, which stood within an open meadow. Atop the Stone sat Queen Alice, thrice-exalted usurper and Lady of the Green, her legs folded in the manner of a Lotus, her head adorned with a Crown of deep red flowers. In front of her lay a succession of objects, perfectly arranged in a row. It was known by all that Queen Alice was to be consulted at this juncture, and so the Young Adventurer approached her forthwith.

“My Lady, I have journeyed long and travelled far and I must now seek your counsel. I wish to partake of your wisdom and experience so that I may deepen my knowledge of the Way of the Sword and Shield.”

“You needn't try and explain yourself so,” replied the Queen “For I know your true purpose. You approach me clad in green, or violet, or crimson, or blue or in cold metal or in a mighty helm of brilliant flame. You shall carry on doing so, and you will do so in the hereafter and times long passed. Your intent is surely clear enough; it's your meaning I don't follow.”

“I require training in the martial arts,” the Young Adventurer said “Or, barring that, some formidable tool of honour and power that will aid me on my quest. Is that not the purpose of this assortment of items between us?”

“What you see in front of you is what you wish to see” Queen Alice said “Or perhaps,” she hastily added “What you expect to see. I appear to you in this manner because I am expected to and am thus invoked, though I appear in this form because it rather suits me. We have met this way before and we shall continue to meet this way time and time again until the world grows dark and the land grows cold.”

Confused, the Young Adventurer countered “I see what I see in front of me because it is there and it was there before I climbed this summit. How can it be otherwise?”

Alice responded “What you see are half-truths; between us stands an impenetrable wall of nothingness. You bear witness to the simulacra of meaning and virtue.”

“Is a Thing Not-A-Thing? What I desire and what I am presented with have no correlation, as you are right now effectively demonstrating.”

“A Thing ca'n't be without its symbol.” Alice gestured to her collection of objects “I could give you this this canoe (which is the world) this book (which is the link in the chain), this ball (which is the aspect of thunder and lightning), this skateboard (which is the door and the eye), this cobra (which is the voice of the dragon) or this wheel (which is the tower) and each would be useless to you stripped of their subject. Furthermore I daresay they mayn’t even exist if you wished it.”

The Young Adventurer was now thoroughly confused, and asked of Queen Alice “What is the purpose of all these riddles and symbols? This is getting me nowhere! I've come all this way and I should like to have some answers to all of this.”

“They get you nowhere because you choose not to follow them, of course,” said Alice. “The secrets of which you speak and seek are spelled out before you; answers written in words carved out of summer's clear sky. Pick a path and follow it, for it shall lead you towards divinity.”

The Young Adventurer was growing angry and proceeded to criticize Queen Alice “Will you not give me what I seek, or are you simply incapable of giving it? Is a Queen not a Queen if I wish her not to be? For in you I see the simulacrum of a regent. Does a Queen not sit on a throne and preside over her land and people? Pray, tell me: Where do you rule and who are your subjects?” The Young Adventurer said this, for it seemed Queen Alice possessed none of these Things, then added one final question: “What Are You?”

“Is the answer to your question not already clear? Do the words not appear before you, though you are unwilling to read them?” Alice replied “I am the Queen without a throne, for my throne is the field of scented rushes. I am the Queen without a queendom for my queendom is the Earth, the Ocean, the Sky and the space beyond and between. I am ruler of everything and nobody. I am the third of two Queens of Dreaming and have no predecessor or heir for my apotheosis was my will. I am Woman-Become-Goddess and Goddess-Become-Woman. I am the form to which you must aspire.”

To this the Young Adventurer had no response, so Queen Alice thus continued “Do you not see some reflection of yourself in me? Is that not this reason you have come yearning for my company and guidance at this moment in time?” Alice paused for a moment, than continued “You seek wisdom and meaning. These are not Things I can give you, but things which you must discover yourself and absorb into your aspect. But you also seek knowledge of topics with which I have a particular experience. Such knowledge is the beginning of a path, so this I will tell you.”

The Young Adventurer raised no objection to this, for the quest must continue, thus there was no objection that could be raised. “Talk with me then about The Path.”

“There is not one Path, but many paths. The road and the destination can remain the same, but should the trees change colour or the cobblestones be re-layed, the path will likewise change.”

“Surely The Path remains the same? The Road still stretches across the same piece of land and it still ends up at the same place.”

“A road is only a Thing if you perceive it to be such. A road becomes a path when a Master perceives it to be one. Or perhaps rather, the path is the way to become a Master, but only a Master can recognise it as such. Either or both. The path is the Endeavour.”

Queen Alice knew this puzzled the Young Adventurer, for she had seen a vision of it doing so before the words left her lips, so she shared a story. This was that story.

“It is a truth that in the days when I walked alongside my foster-father I was a warrior, much as you are presently. A Warrior Queen assumes her mantle through combat, and I am coronated through the slaying of the High King: I slew him once in the Hills of Erin upon the raven’s wings, once in the House of False Love, once in the Mead Halls of the Gods and again atop the City of Fire. I likewise felled him amongst the Missing-Birds of Aetherius and in Darkness and in Sadness and then in the Dreaming, which is all places and all moments. The clashing of our swords echoes back to the dawn of time and forward to the End of All Things.”

Alice continued “My infinite victories win me only my self, which is nothing, yet everything. This is true inasmuch as it happened, I exist, and therefore this must have happened. But it is also a truth that in those days I wore the Storm Crown and thus did righteously slay the High King, for he knew not Love, and had I not the world would become Poison and I should cease to be.”

“So one becomes a Master by finding a path, following that path, and slaying he who resides at the end of the path.” The Young Adventurer offered.

“It is a truth that heaven may be reached by violence,” Alice responded “But I slay kings with Love myself. They are not such disparate forces, you know. The House falls for it promises Love where there is none. A real Master knows the value and power in this.”

“What more must a Master know?”

“That a Master is not a Master until The Name is both spoken and forgotten. Only then can Masters recognise themselves and attain liberation, wisdom and power, which are the same. I am Alice and I am Not, but I Am. This is the true purpose of the path, for the path is the Endeavour. One needn't worry so much about the end of a road, it's the walking that's important. After all, one ca'n't go around slaying kings all the time, now can one? Bearing the Sun Crown I travel where I may; my processional train the daylight of summer itself.”

“But the warmth of a summer's day can turn just as quickly to the fury of thunderstorm...” the Young Adventurer almost hesitated to point out.

Queen Alice smiled warmly and said “I was born in both and exist in both. Always and forever.” for she was not at all ashamed to admit this.

The Young Adventurer thought about that for a time, and then asked Queen Alice “Pray, My Lady. Please tell me about The Dreaming.”

“The Dreaming is part of everyone and everything, and everyone and everything is also part of The Dreaming. It is shared between all, yet it is also the domain that no two people may ever truly share. It is above and beyond and deep within. It existed long before this moment and shall carry on forever after it.”

“But which dreamt it, then? Whose dream?”

“The Dream is the Dreamer, and the Dreamer the Dream.”

“But,” the Young Adventurer cried out “If I am nothing but a Dream than nothing I do shall ever amount to anything and I have wasted all these many hours!”

“Hush now,” Alice spoke softly and gently “There's no need for that sort of talk. For the true mark of a Master is learning the secret and one true purpose of The Dreaming: A Dream may Dream as Dreamers do. The Dream remains and is reborn again. Eternally.”

While this wasn't entirely comforting, the Young Adventurer said nothing, but continued to listen to Queen Alice with rapt attention, so she went on. “We all leave our mark on The Dreaming, don't you see? It is always around us and we always feel its presence, though we may not be able to reach back to it. A Master may do so, for a Master walks both in the land of the Dreamtime and in that of the Waking Dream. That is the true purpose of the path.”

After some thought, the Young Adventurer finally spoke, saying this: “I believe what you say is a truth, though I also believe I mayn't see it quite the same way. But I shall heed these things you have told me, for I must continue my quest.” Queen Alice knew this would be the answer, for she had foreseen it far into the future.

“Come now,” she said, her elfin sun-smile once again crossing her lips “Sit with me for a time upon the meadow of flowers. Cast your gaze to the valleys in bloom, the river which flows ever on to the sea and the mountains of snow from whose summits you can touch the sky. Meditate on these Words I have given you, for hidden within them is the secret of the Endeavour.”

You shall learn to Dream with the dawning of the sun on a brighter day. Your path lies before you.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"But, even in the west, the Rainmaker vanishes. No one needs him anymore.": Linkblogging at the end of Skyrim?

This isn't going to be a really massive update: I do have big plans for this site I'm busily working on behind the scenes to set in motion and I have a major blog project unrelated to this one I'm currently scrambling to get into a reasonably presentable form. But, there was one piece of recent game industry news I absolutely had to say something about.

As I'm writing this, Bethesda has just announced the cessation of development on and support for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While minor patches will continue to be released for awhile, Dragonborn, the expansion pack that returns players to Solstheim, the remote northern island first seen in the Bloodmoon expansion for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, will be the last piece of official Bethsoft DLC for Skyrim. It's a more than fitting end for the game, but the announcement has left me with somewhat conflicting emotions.

The news has been difficult for me to deal with for a number of reasons. For one thing I have a habit of intentionally not beating many games: When I was young I somehow got it into my head that if I beat a game, then that was sort of the end and I couldn't enjoy it any more. This is of course silly: I've played through Super Mario Bros. alone a frighteningly incalculable number of times over the years without it ever becoming trite or hackneyed and I've gotten 100% on Metroid Prime and Alice: Madness Returns at least four times apiece. I continue to play SSX Tricky over a decade after its release in spite of the fact there is literally nothing more for me to unlock or accomplish that physically exists on the disc. Even Skyrim I must have played through at minimum a dozen times already if for no other reason than how often I've had to start from scratch thanks to corrupted saves brought about by mods conflicting with each other and even the official DLC packs and updates. But the fact remains I remain, at least subconsciously, uncomfortable with the finality the end of a video game signifies.

And The Elder Scrolls is different from other video game series. More than any other game I can think of, each TES outing relies on the dynamic interaction between players, developers and the physical game itself. Tamriel is a game world that on every conceivable level works under the assumption that it will be shaped by each of these forces working cooperatively-The world of Skyrim exists only because they collectively want it to. It could be convincingly argued this is true of any video game, possibly any work of fiction for that matter, but The Elder Scrolls is overtly, textually *about* this at a basic, fundamental level. And among Elder Scrolls games Skyrim means something very special, at least to me. It's too early for me to say exactly what, but it's something.

As a result, even though the end of Bethsoft support for Skyrim certainly doesn't mean Skyrim will necessarily cease to exist, there is still a palpable sense of loss to be felt here, at least for me. Yes, Skyrim is now fully in the hands of the ever-vibrant Elder Scrolls mod community, who continue to amaze me with the absolutely unbelievable things they can do with the game and who will most assuredly continue to support it for many years to come (there are even still modders supporting 2006's Oblivion and 2002's Morrowind to this day), but I still can't help but feel one of the engines of creation has run down and a major sense of creative drive is no longer with us. It feels like part of Skyrim, and a very significant part, has died.

This is neither the time or place for me to go into great detail about exactly what Skyrim has meant to me over the past two years: There's far too much for me to say and I'm still not entirely sure about how I'm going to go about saying it (nor am I, for that matter, terribly confidant I can put it it into words at all), but I do fully intend to make Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls series as a whole the subject of a major, large-scale project of mine at some point in the future. What I do want to do with this space is take a little time to gather some initial thoughts about the game's legacy and how the world it's helped create will live on, even without Bethesda. Unfortunately, I don't have a ton of my own at this time. What I do have is access to some very touching things I've read from other people. I suppose that makes this entry little more than a glorified linkblog, but that's all I've got right now and I would highly recommend checking out each of these articles regardless. They're not explicitly about the end of Bethsoft support for Skyrim, but they all feel oddly fitting in the wake of it. Sometimes things work out that way, as if the gentle touch of the ideaspace is subtly reacting to our collective zeitgeist.

Sky above.

Voice within.

Wind guide you.

-Arngeir of the Greybeards

Skyrim is unique among contemporary so-called AAA video games, and likewise Bethesda is unique in terms of studios that put out AAA games. Destructoid's Jim Sterling noticed this too, and sat down with them for a very frank and candid interview about the state of the modern video game industry, its overall sustainability, and how games like Skyrim show the way forward. I'd actually go even further and say that Skyrim, and the larger Elder Scrolls work as a whole, might actually be wholly unique in all of pop fiction. It's certainly consistently proven itself to be the one exception to pretty much every rule I can come up with for franchise Soda Pop Art.

Eurogamer has an extensive, and very beautiful, interview with Jeremy Soule, the composer behind the soundtracks for, among many others, Secret of Evermore, Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In it Soule talks about near-death experiences, the spiritual dimension behind his music and his inspirations. He also muses on music's ability to allow us in some ways to channel those who came before us and speaks not of “composing” but “transcribing” and makes the act of writing and listening to music sound like an almost transcendental, magickal experience. Those who've read the entry where I name-check Avital Ronell as one of my favourite philosophers will know this is a statement that speaks to me. I think Soule might just have it figured out, and I feel similarly about video games. Soule also spends some time talking about the Kickstarter project to fund his first symphony, The Northerner, which will be an extension and continuation of the themes and stylings of his soundtrack to Skyrim. While The Northerner won't be The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim II, I do find it telling that a guy with the kind of mind and list of credits Soule has felt moved and touched enough by Skyrim to revisit it in a work of this magnitude.

The Northerner is due out this September at the earliest, and you can hear a musical sketch of what it might sound like here.

Finally, Skyrim itself might be given new life via the Oculus Rift, quite possibly the single most exciting thing to come out of the current video game industry climate. Indie developer and YouTube user Cymatic Bruce has gotten Skyrim running on the Rift and recorded a video to show us his first impressions. I've already spoken at great length about how much I'm looking forward to the Rift, and I won't lie and say Skyrim wasn't one of the games I've been most hoping to see in VR. Up until now though I had assumed that was only a pipedream. Even if no new content were to be made for Skyrim, experiencing it again on the Oculus Rift would be like playing an entirely new game.

As fancy and as technically fascinating as the Oculus Rift is though, the key thing it contributes to Skyrim is the same thing the mod community and The Northerner do: It reminds us of and continues to reinforce all the thoughts, ideas, emotions and experiences the game stands for and has allowed us to share between ourselves these past two years. Bethesda's involvement with it may be over, but things like this might just ensure that Skyrim lives on not just in the hearts and minds of its people, but because of them.

The eruption of Red Mountain was caused when the meteor Baar Dau crashed into Vivec City following the disappearance of Vivec, despite the efforts of Morrowind's best mages.

-From Lore-Based Loading Screens, a featured mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mythic Dimensions: Digital Technology and Performative Art


Recently, I went to go see Peter Jackson and Weda Digital's latest opus The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theatres. I enjoyed it, which should say something given what it takes to actually drag me *to* a movie theatre, let alone appreciate whatever's onscreen. I'm not going to talk about the movie itself here though: I'm far from a Tolkien fan so I have precious little investment in the plot or characters. Basically I thought it was an entertaining, if clunky and painfully padded, children's fantasy movie frequently weighed down by its desire to canonize itself with the fundamentally tonally incongruous Lord of the Rings trilogy. In other words it's just about a perfect film adaptation of the book.

No, what I primarily wanted to talk about is the other big thing that's been fueling discussion over The Hobbit for the past few months: The fact it was shot entirely in 3D and a “High Frame Rate” 48 frames per second (HFR). This has apparently made a great deal of people very angry, leading critics whose opinions I would otherwise tend to respect to make stupidly sweeping statements about “The Death of Cinema”. I'll deal with this argument a little later on, but for the moment let's focus on why someone would even want to shoot a movie this way in the first place.

For those who might not know, traditional movies are filmed in 24 frames per second. This has been the industry standard for, well, just about as long as there's been an industry. Now, the human eye processes information about the world at 60 frames per second, which means movies, and really any medium that is descended in some way from cinema (such as television, though crucially not typically video games) plays at a significantly slower speed then what we're used to in Real Life. Choosing to shoot a movie at a higher frame rate means filmmakers can by definition convey much more, and much more nuanced, visual information than was previously possible, meaning their movies will look much more naturalistic. Indeed, in a video blog about the choice to shoot the Hobbit trilogy in 3D/HFR, Peter Jackson described the experience, in the words of a pre-release screening group, to be as if the screen at the back of the theatre had been removed and replaced with a window into Middle Earth.

Jackson's comment reminded me of some things Shigeru Miyamoto had said in the past about the Legend of Zelda series. According to Miyamoto, the original Zelda game on the NES was originally built around the idea of a fantasy world inside a desk drawer, which makes a lot of sense if you stop and think about it: Imagine opening up your drawers and looking down at Hyrule and all those tiny little sprites-It's a wonderfully imaginative and very typically Miyamoto way of phrasing ideas. The original Zelda even helped to popularize a top-down perspective for action RPGs. Coincidentally enough, a year prior to the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Nintendo released a handheld console built around the concept of portable, glasses-free 3D video games, and one of the first marquee titles on that system was a 3D conversion of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

In a previous post I've already argued for the use of stereoscopic 3D in video games in strictly technical terms. To briefly summarise my earlier argument, I feel stereoscopic 3D, via the reintroduction of naturalistic depth perception, can help bring back some of our innate ability to orient ourselves in our surroundings that polygonal games lost due to their lack of kinesthesia and fixed, flat perspectives. This would prevent things like the troublesome platforming in Mirror's Edge and the godawful camera in Super Mario 64 (or indeed any other polygonal platformer to come in its wake: Despite a generation of gamers becoming accustomed to it, the problem's never gone away). Here though, I'm arguing from strictly aesthetic ground, because if anything felt like a literal window into a fantasy world it was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D running at full tilt with the 3D slider up all the way. 
Ocarina of Time 3D is one of the most visually stunning video games I've ever played and remains possibly the best showcase for the 3DS' kit to date. Hyrule has an unmistakeable depth and weight here, and running out onto the field at dawn as you shield your eyes from the realistic sun rays glinting above the horizon is a powerfully vivid experience that can be described as magical. Like so much about 3D, the beauty of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D comes subtly and in small moments, like sunrise on Hyrule Field or using the built-in gyroscope to aim Link's bow, a trick which really gives the sense the game exists in an actual place that's just on the other side of the 3DS, or perhaps more accurately a place that exists *within* the 3DS. It lives up to Miyamoto's pitch for the series like absolutely no other game in the series has: It truly feels like you're holding the gateway to a fantastic realm in your hands.

Despite how vivid and clever this effect was and how it was clearly designed to hold up the original guiding tenant for the series, you know what *didn't* happen during my playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D? I didn't trick myself into thinking I was Link trekking through Hyrule. I never forgot I was playing a video game. Likewise, when I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D/HFR I never forgot I was watching a movie. Apparently, if you listen to some critics, this is a major failing on the parts of both works and both Weda Digital and Grezzo should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. Indeed, this even seems to run contrary to Peter Jackson's own statements on the matter. Thing is, the way I see it both Jackson and the film critics are barking up entirely the wrong tree. Since the argument against 3D, and now HFR, is the most fully formed and bandied about the most in film critic circles, Jackson is most likely talking in marketing buzzwords and video game critics seem to mostly be parroting film critics (as opposed to gamers, who seem to be mostly being reactionary and opposed to any sort of change) it's the film critic version of the argument I'll focus on responding to.

Film critics seem to be having a bit of an identity crisis from where I stand. On the one, hand, there is, as always, a push and a desire for things to be as “realistic” as possible, hence the popularity of dark, anti-romantic and “cinematic” filmmaking techniques (see a similar trend in video games as publishers and developers race to improve graphics technology at all costs to make games look as much like movies as possible at the expense of everything else). On the other hand, there is a contingent of cinephiles who seriously argue that movies ought to be watched in a “dreamlike reverie” and only the combination of 35mm film and a 24 frames per second frame rate will achieve this. I guess we're supposed to be completely lost and overwhelmed by the rapturous cinematic spectacle of the director's vision...somehow...and anything else is nothing short of blasphemy. I've never experienced anything remotely resembling what these critics are proselytizing with any movie I've seen, but as someone who doesn't really enjoy movies all that much maybe I'm not the best person to be talking about this subject.

Even so though I find a lot of problems in this argument, especially as it relates to 3D/HFR. There is a belief that 3D is nothing more than a distraction and the enhanced detail of HFR makes everything look unnaturally fast and “hyper-real”. There is a legitimate technical argument to be made against the use of 3D in movies (see this article from the Chicago Sun Times), but this really isn't it and at least for me personally, 3D has done nothing but enhance my enjoyment of anything I've seen it used in in recent years. In regards to HFR though, rebutting this argument requires a great deal of technical explanation and knowledge about how eyes and the visual centre of the brain works. So it's a good thing Tested already did that then as I am neither an engineer nor a cognitive scientist (in brief, those bemoaning HFR's “hyper-realness” are frankly deluding themselves. Even the creator of Adobe Photoshop agrees with me).

As for the “dreamlike reverie” part of the argument, this actually gets at something that's a bit of a touchy subject for me. See, the flip side of this argument is that anything with an enhanced clarity of detail gets a negative reputation for looking “campy” and “theatrical” (say, a TV show), as opposed to being “cinematic” and “realistic” (like an old movie) which is, apparently, better. My good friend and colleague Phil Sandifer has already looked at this argument in the context of the switch from television being shot on film to television being shot on video tape here and here. When put this way then, the big film critic objection to 3D/HFR seems to actually be that the enhanced detail provided by the new digital technology breaks artifice and suspension of disbelief. In other words, it makes the movie look like a movie.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, most critics I read yelled and screamed about how HFR made Rivendell look like a Matte painting (which it was), the interior shots look like movie sets (which they were) the lighting look unnaturally harsh (which all movie lights have to be due to the nature of being movie lights) and the prosthetics look like rubber and plastic headpieces (which I shouldn't have to explain). This is apparently a Bad Thing. It's also an argument I simply cannot get behind: The Hobbit doesn't look “hyper-real”, it looks just plain *real*. This is demonstrably and provably what a movie set looks like, period. Putting aside the troubling and I sincerely hope self-evidently false possibility that some film critics don't know what a movie set looks like, this leaves the argument that movies shouldn't look staged because of a need to be “realistic” or, alternatively, to uphold some lofty ideal about the Magic of Cinema. I've always been opposed to the idea fiction has to be representationalist at all costs. To be blunt I think the fixation on making things look “cinematic” and “realistic” has been one of the most dangerous and distasteful trends in visual media and it irks me more than a little to see things assigned objective value because based on how cleverly they hide the fact they're make believe.

Because this is the thing: Movies and video games, despite what most people seem to want to believe, are not real things. They are facades; storytellers playing pretend. They've never been anything else, and they will never be anything else. Trying to cast them otherwise does nothing except fool people into thinking filmmakers who are being stupidly crass and hegemonic are actually representing reality, thus continuing to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and lead to dangerous assumptions such as thinking the reactionary and truly reprehensible Lincoln is actually a historically accurate biopic or that romantic comedies are an accurate representation of the way relationships and people in general work. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are not windows into Hyrule or Middle Earth and they were never going to be: They're windows into a crude technological facsimile of what Weda Digital and Grezzo *imagined* those fantasy worlds to be like. Fictional worlds do not exist in and of themselves: They are imaginary spaces made real by the interaction of readers, writers and the works meant to act as representations of them.

Possibly my favourite video game of all time is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As a series, The Elder Scrolls has the intriguingly paradoxical reputation of being a trailblazer in immersive world building and for pushing the limits of game technology to such an extent each and every game is plagued by an incalculable number of glitches and bugs that range from hilarious to game-breaking and are frequently both at once. One could make the argument Skyrim fails as a work of fiction because the constant technical problems take players out of the game and it's world and keep players from getting “lost” in the dreamlike reverie, but I would sternly disagree: Never once have the glitches in Skyrim caused me to enjoy the game less as a work. Sure, I get upset if it randomly crashes and deletes hours of progress or spontaneously decides to make my save file unusable forcing me to start the whole game again, but I accept that as part of what Skyrim is because it posits a fantasy world that could only exist as a video game. Inexplicably levitating mammoths and farmers falling through the ground are as much a part of the world of Skyrim as dragons, wizards and Blakean Eldritch Abomination Dwarves. Skyrim is a game that embraces being a video game and all that comes with it, and that includes the glitches Skyrim is a game world in every sense of the word, but that's a topic to which we must return at a later date.

I have no problem accepting the fact that my movies and games are actually made by people with technology and imagination instead of Real Places I can escape to that magically come into being out of nothingness. In fact I think that's marvelous, because it just helps me get to know the creators more *as people* rather then aloof Gods. I celebrate the death of artifice instead of bemoan it because, in its dying throws, it reminds us that art, and all art by definition, is performative. Fiction and art cannot represent reality; they can't even be a 100% accurate depiction of any individual creator's vision. At best, all they can do is provide a brief, blurry glimpse into the minds of those who helped usher it into being or strike a chord with individual readersXplayersXaudience members to form an entirely unique kind of meaning.

In a famous and frequently circulated interview (well, comparatively so given the participants) philosopher Avital Ronell, a personal role model of mine, though she'd probably resent that label, flatly rejects the title of “Writer” or “Creator”, preferring instead to call herself a “writing being” or “secretary of the phantom”. For Ronell, writing is not something one, in the manner of a patriarchal God, makes happen and wills into existence. Rather, it can be more accurately described as the act of taking dictation from an incomprehensible ethereal force and trying one's hardest to throw up a facsimile that in some way could be construed as a crude representation or simulacrum of the original set of ideas. One does not “Write”, one is possessed and consumed by “writing”. Ronell compares those who write to drug addicts: Figures imbued with a manner of unreliability and social stigma who nonetheless have a grasp over a unique perspective and insight.

I love this description for a number of reasons: Firstly, as someone who identifies as a similar “writing being”, I can honestly and confidently state this is exactly what writing feels like for at least me personally. Secondly, it's a great argument for the inherent performativity of all forms of personal expression. Indeed, interviewer D. Diane Davis even uses that exact term when referring to Ronell's breakout work The Telephone Book, a piece designed to invoke static noise, contradictory information and the deconstruction and destruction of the book itself as a concept. A play doesn't represent reality and doesn't even try to: Its actors and stage sets are meant to *stand in* for things and situations the audience is familiar with and the real erudition comes from the interaction of all the pieces working together to create a larger, weirder whole. Just as Ronell says, any kind of creative endeavor, be it a book, a movie, a literary text, a journalistic piece, an ethnography, a video game or a blog post, works the same way, no matter how much certain people might wish to pretend otherwise. Personally, I find that a far more fascinating and inspiring concept then the idea our works of art and fiction spring magically fully-formed in the manner of Athena from the skulls of patriarchal Godlike Creators whose Works and Actions must be respected and worshiped in the same manner.

I think of all forms of modern media video games have the biggest potential to emphasize and reinforce this fact, which is part of the reason I'm bothered so much by the language from certain developers and critics that games need to be more “cinematic”. Due to the irreducible factor of player agency, by definition there's no way a video game can force a passive narrative or specific experience onto its audience, despite the efforts of some developers to do exactly that (but that's perhaps another post). Games are fundamentally set up as dynamic interactions between multiple parties at a very overt, literal level, so this performative thread shines through the brightest with them. For a good example of how developers can write this back into the text, let's look at one of the best spokesperson characters for games-as-plays around: Princess Peach Toadstool. Yes, it's once again time to do one of my signature hyper-redemptive readings of a character or text either nobody likes or has nobody has ever heard of.

But how, my indignant readers wail, do I think I can redeem Princess Peach of all gaming characters, the poster child for sexist, stock damsels-in-distress? Well, I respond, it's actually quite simple once you realise what the Super Mario games actually are. The common perception of the Mario games, most famously and succinctly articulated by Yahtzee Croshaw in articles such as this one, is that despite the original Super Mario Bros. (or Super Mario Bros. 3 depending on your preference) being an indisputable classic, it's a tepid and unchanging series that has somehow managed to last over 25 years telling the same basic story and rehashing the same basic game over and over again with absolutely no variation. Also, Peach is reprehensible because all she does is look pretty and get stupidly kidnapped, serves no purpose and lacks any personality or characterization, which would be a valid complaint were any of it actually true. The Mario series' lack of so-called gameplay innovation is one thing and an argument to be examined another day (and one I think might have merit, at least as it pertains to the games of the past decade or so), but Yahtzee's dead wrong when it comes to plot and here's why.

First of all, I'd mention that despite my universal disdain for any kind of kidnapping plot, King Bowser actually had a somewhat acceptable motivation for kidnapping Princess Peach in the first Super Mario Bros. and one most modern critics seem to have forgotten. See, what no-one remembers anymore is that in the story printed in the original manual, it's stated Princess Peach is an extremely powerful sorceress, possibly the most powerful in the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the *only* one with the power necessary to push back the Koopa invasion force and secure the land. Naturally, Bowser wants to seal her away where she can't do any damage so he can stomp over the Mushroom Kingdom uninhibited. Frankly, Peach is the one who saves the world in that game: You, Mario and Luigi, are just there to give her a hand and clear a path for her. Even if the plot of Super Mario Bros. made sense though, that doesn't explain or excuse all of Bowser's subsequent kidnappings of her, does it? Well, no it *wouldn't*, if he had done it again, as I'm inclined to argue Bowser never kidnapped Peach a second time, and even the first time is debatable.

Shigeru Miyamoto is not a hack writer. I mean I really don't think I should have to state this, but a lot of critical readings of Nintendo games seem to operate with this as an implicit fundamental premise for some reason. Even in the more recent games where he has little-to-no creative input, he still has to sign off on the game and let the developers know they're being somewhat loyal to his original vision. They have to be meeting his expectations to some extent, and unless he's a terrible writer there must be something more going on here. And indeed there is: Look *very* closely at the Super Mario games that came after the original, starting with the US version of Super Mario Bros 2 (A.K.A. Super Mario USA), the next game Miyamoto had a major hand in. The story is, as is well known, meant to be a dream, but the game opens up with a *curtain call* and you select your character by *shining a spotlight* on them. Super Mario Bros. 3 takes this to the logical extreme by not only having the title screen be a big stage with a curtain and props, but the level design itself looks like it's been built by stage hands, as there are conspicuous amounts of bolted-on scenery and scaffolding and Mario and Luigi even “exit, stage right” whenever the level ends. The Super Nintendo games Super Mario WorldXSuper Mario Bros. 4 and Yoshi's Island take a slightly different tack by opening with fairy-tale narration, but the main point is still there: These games are stories being retold via the act of playing them.

Not a spotlight. I think it happens in the SNES version. Still, picture is worth 4.532 words.

I think it should be obvious what the logical conclusion to all this is: The Super Mario games are plays, and Mario, Luigi, Bowser and yes, Peach, are part of a travelling acting troupe. Peach just happens to be comparatively badly typecast, or maybe it's an attempt to retell the same story many times with subtle variations as a kind of metaphor. This isn't, I hasten to add, solely my interpretation: It's a fan theory gaining significant momentum online (to the point even Cracked mentioned it) and has even been confirmed in a statement from Miyamoto-san himself. This also handily explains the various Mario spinoff games and why Mario and Bowser play tennis and go kart racing together when they're not at opposite ends of a plan for world domination (incidentally, this revelation, paired with the working-class origins of the characters, leads to the intriguing conclusion Miyamoto is likening Mario's acting troupe to William Shakespeare's. Do with that what you will). This reading does seem to hold: If we look at just about any Mario game made since the original five or so, we see that curtains, stages and retelling stories have become fundamental parts of the series, not to mention the infamous fact it's difficult to read the Mario and Donkey Kong from the original Donkey Kong as being the same characters from Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country and their successors. Obviously they're not: They were playing different roles in a different play at that point.

To return to the main thrust of this post, which was how high-end digital technology like 3D and HFR enhances performativity in media, let's look at the most recent Mario game as of this writing (or at the least the most recent one I've played): Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS. The case for HFR is fairly straightforward and self-demonstrating in my opinion, something I feel I've sufficiently justified and not as relevant to video games, so we'll talk about 3D here. The Paper Mario spinoff series has always driven home the theatrical production reading harder than other Mario series, and this new game is no exception and clearly delights in having stereoscopic 3D to play with. Mario can move in, on and around various bits of scenery, which can be knocked over, picked up again and rearranged to suit different gameplay needs. Everything looks to be made out of cardboard and a key aspect of the game is remembering that the levels are literally cut-out facades in a three-dimensional world, and the game forces players to keep checking things from all angles to find everything. It feels as if Mario's in a play and improvising on the fly when props and sets don't always do what they're supposed to. While the game's major point could probably be conveyed without it, clearly it's relying on stereoscopic 3D to get it across particularly vividly.

Another 3DS game I've been playing recently, Atlus' Code of Princess, uses a similar approach. It's a cross between an arcade beat-em-up and a JRPG that's wholly aware of the inherent ludicrousness of both genres. The characters are all delightfully self-aware parodies, and even more laudably mostly female, but the most interesting aspect of it from our perspective is the way the battle stages work (and as an aside, note the ubiquity of the term “stage” to describe video game levels). Like in most beat-em-ups, Code of Princess uses a static camera angle that slowly follows the character as she fights her way from left to right. The main innovation here, aside from the aforementioned RPG experience system and genre awareness, is the fact there are three main battlefields on the screen at once, and the characters can leap into the background and foreground at various degrees, which is where the stereoscopic 3D comes in. It's not as overtly theatrical as a Mario game, but the world of Code of Princess definitely feels much more like a stage set thanks to this sort of gameplay (in addition to the general look-and-feel of the game on the whole) than a fully developed fantasy land, and that's to the game's benefit.

Just like a play, these games work by recognising they're inherently performative and gain a lot of their strengths as works by playing off of the audience. Each playthrough of a video game is different, even before you factor in the different styles and tastes of individual players, just as no two performances of the same play, even if it's put on by the same troupe, will be identical. This is abundantly clear here, as it is in all video games, but I maintain a thread of performativity runs through all creative works: We wouldn't have differing interpretations of things if it didn't. So why pretend it isn't there? Why pretend movies, music books or your medium of choice exist in a vacuum separate from human emotion and thought? That's the perhaps uncomfortable truth things like 3D and HFR force media critics to come to terms with. Far from getting us closer to some mythical Truth, all these new technologies will do is remind us of the multiplicity of meaning, and I for one couldn't be happier.  

O Objectivity our subjugator, your legend is lies, lurid and false; your dreamlike reverie a con for the ages.