Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Little Sword & Sorcery

There's a peculiar joy in creating a fictional character from scratch, coming to terms with their personality, their quirks and foibles, the things in their past that define who and why they have evolved. More than that, there is a joy in becoming that character, discovering how this person you've crafted holds up within a plot. And that is the magic of Dungeons & Dragons. Organic storytelling, role-playing, an immersive and interactive narrative that brings with a camaraderie unique to gamers. And if you're lucky, the gamers bring with them beer and pizza.

I've never used this blog as a platform for creative writing before, but why not? I use it for everything else, and You People keep reading it. Allow me to introduce you to Damian Jakobi of The Aundairian Dragoons, a soldier, a scholar, and a lover of good, dark Stout (like myself).
(Unashamed references have been made to Indiana Jones, Daniel Jackson, and Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio.)

It was a long war.

Granted, Damian Jakobi only had to fight through the last few bloody years of it, but it was enough. They were the frontliners, scouts, paving the way to war for The Knights Arcane. Never had there been a more thrilling time to be young and dangerous, trained in secret arts of alchemy and steeped in a nationalism born of war. Light and fast, mounted on the best horses House Vadalis had to offer the war effort, a group of young men hand-picked from The Academy for wits as quick as their blades.

They were fearless, to a man. At the head of their column rode Hardan D’Tharashk, a stoic young noble schooled in scout-craft by the best of his House. Not all of them were noble-born. Jakobi’s father had been a tailor before Fairhaven was set ablaze. Diego the Miller’s Son was the fastest rapier Damian ever knew. They dubbed Damian “Jack”, on account of his name and his reputation as a Jack-of-all-Trades. If one could be taught to be canny, then Jack was a masterclass in it. He had quick fingers from a childhood perched on a stool in his father’s shop; hadn’t dropped a stitch since he was six. Jack’s mother was housekeep to a librarian at the University; she used to bring him back books discarded from the collections, tattered pamphlets full of obscure legal history, or maps with legends in languages none of them could recognize. Jack drank it all in. He loved secrets, knowing things that others would be envious of if they knew he knew, but they never would, and that made it all the sweeter.

But his love of secrets landed Jack on the frontlines of a war he wished he’d never known, and when it was over he did his best to leave it all behind him. He returned to Fairhaven where he dove back into his studies with a voracious thirst to understand the world he’d seen torn apart. The Last War had been cataclysmic, but it was not the End. History, he felt, would have the last word yet, and when it did it those who held The Past would hold The Future.

The post-war years drifted by. Jack found himself Head of Archaeological Endeavours at The Univerity of Wynarn, making frequent trips to study giant ruins in Xen’Drik or to the edges of the Mournland, riding the edges of the fog-bound plains in search of…answers. But the larger part of his life was teaching, standing in oak-paneled rooms to pontificate on the mysteries of the past. Hardan would show up at the end of the day with some newly formulated quip about how academic life was making Jack go soft, and then they’d go in search of beer. Hardan would bitch about the Fairhaven Watch salary, and Jack would explain some new development in Warforged psychology, each talking while the other had his mug to his face. To an outsider they made a strange pair, the Watchman and the Scholar, until the lamps started burning low and the seventh round was toasted with a quiet clink to the glory days, and they started telling stories. And then it all made sense.

And so, when Hardan came around one day with nothing to say about the rust building up on Jack’s rapier hilt, and when after two rounds Hardan pulled out a roll of parchment stamped with the seal of The Wayfinder Foundation and tossed it across the table, Jack didn’t really think twice. This was the Orb of Merrix, Merrix D’Cannith, and it was about time for a sabbatical…wasn’t it? “You could surely use the brains.”, Jack said. So it was settled.


This character was created to fit the Eberron setting for D&D; if you're at all interested I encourage you dig further into the history and cultures of Eberron. It's a glorious Sword & Sorcery stew of wars, dragons, gods, and heroes ranging from Epic Romance to Fantasy Noir.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Banner Saga - Remembering the Meaning of Epic

I am, possibly, the slowest gamer I know. So when I say that I'm 6 hours into Stoic Studio's The Banner Saga it's implied that I've been taking my sweet time. Because this isn't a game you can rush through. This game is a tale, a myth, an epic in the truest sense of the word.

And above all else, it is beautiful.

There was a really excellent review written by Chris Suellentrop for the New York Times last week that drops names and gives production stat for this game. I recommend you read it. Chris sums up the game nicely when he says,
...the story is well plotted and set in an original world with a deep mythology and history, even if it approaches boilerplate high fantasy: The gods are dead. The sun is frozen. War has returned. The end of the world is nigh.
Why, Chris, you say "high fantasy" like it's a bad thing! That is precisely why I am going to gush all over this game; it feels like a true medieval epic brought to life. I've been looking for a game like this for some time. Way back in 2013 (practically ancient history), I played King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame for a couple months, and boy was it fun. For fans of Mary Stewart's Arthurian fiction, the game is full of pleasantly familiar places, people, and tropes. After a while, though, it felt a little forced. I lost interest in the story, because there wasn't really a story. I was undertaking a long series of disconnected quests with no real investment. I didn't know who my knights really were beyond their stat bonuses and magical powers; there was no real dialogue, very little you could say in character to change the story. So while the game was both challenging and very, very pretty I felt that it was squandering a lot of narrative potential. And I stopped playing.

The Banner Saga caught my eye on Steam the other day, as I perused lists of games that I really don't have time to be playing. It was the art that jumped out at me, not the glossy digital airbrushing makes up most video game art but crisp cartoon lines and vibrant colour, like the love child of Disney and Arthur Rackham. Actually, very similar to the work Fiona Staples is doing for (ironically) Saga with Brian K. Vaughan's. I was wonderstruck, and hesitant, fully prepared to be let down by shoddy game graphics and shallow gameplay after such a wondrous initial image. But it never happened.

Having only recently read Stephen R. Donaldson's essay on the nature of Epic Fantasy (recommended reading by Nobody Important), the sudden discovery of a story on this scale was a brilliant surprise. Donaldson writes of The Epic in the following manner:
...what makes something "epic?" Length, of course. But nothing in literature is that simple. An epic is not "epic" merely because it is longer than anything else. As Marx observed, "Differences in degree become differences in kind." An epic is "epic" because it deals explicitly with the largest and most important
questions of humankind: what is the meaning of life? why are we here? who is God and what is She doing? what is the religious and/or moral order of the universe? In fact, back in the days when epics were more commonly written, their acknowledged purpose was to tackle such questions. The "epic" was the highest form of literature, and was expected to say the highest things.
In effect, epics articulated the best religious and cultural, the best social and psychological self-perceptions of their times: they recorded the way humankind looked at itself.
It's interesting that throughout English literary history no writer has been able to write an enduring "epic" without using the metaphor of magic and the techniques of personification. Apparently, to be "epic" a work must not only be long and profound; it must almost be fantasy.
The reason for this is simple. Throughout English literary history, the writers of "epics" have wanted either to say something transcendent about what it means to be human, or to say something about the nature of transcendence itself. The tools and resources of fantasy were formed for just those subjects.
The game reads like it was plucked straight out of the pages of Heaney's Beowulf or the Volsungsaga. It is epic in the way The Lord of the Rings is epic, a story of warriors and kings and people fighting for survival in a world of truly mythic proportions. And yes, I say "reads" very deliberately; the voice acting is minimal and the script elaborate, leaving you to play out the dialogue in your head (or, in my case, in terrible Scandinavian accents when nobody else is home). You play through parallel stories in alternating chapters, as the leaders of two ragtag clans made up of Viking-like Humans and horned giants called Varl. The two races live under a tenuous alliance born of necessity in the forge of war, when the gods were killed, and the world was ravaged by the colossal and ferocious Dredge. That war ended years ago, but now a new crisis has arisen: the Sun is frozen. It hangs, motionless, in the sky, leaving the northern lands in a bleak perpetual daylight. Alliances must be maintained, but in this time of forced diplomacy the Dredge have returned. The clans find themselves on the move, though for different reasons. You must become a leader willing to make the hard choices to save your people...or you will die.

The creators of this game have created a living, breathing world with an elaborate history. From the beginning of the game you have access to the map of Ubin, the clan chronicler, depicting a vast world stretching hundreds of miles in all directions. Clicking place names brings up a window briefly detailing the role each landmark played in shaping the history of this brutal land. Now, this is no open-world RPG. Your movements are scripted, the path you must walk already planned for you. You're being railroaded, in short. Your input comes in the form of the decisions you must make along the way. Travel is no small matter; collect what resources you can, stay on the move, keep an eye on the size of your caravan as starvation threatens your clansmen and raiding monsters descend from the hills on the slow and weak. At one point I had to sacrifice a wagon full of treasure to save the life of one of my dearest warriors. It was costly, but Gunnulf is still with us. Thank the, wait, they're dead. Never mind.

The thing that jumps out of Donaldson's description (above) at me is the idea that "[Epics] recorded the way humankind looked at itself". In that regard, writing a fictional epic seems a little divorced from the whole concept, and I love the way The Banner Saga addresses that. The banners referenced in the title are long, trailing swathes of fabric that writhe in the wind as you watch your caravan trundle across the northern hills. Upon them are embroidered the running history of your people, with a section for each family's lineage. Members of the family (admittedly usually the women) learn to master the art of embroidery, for it is their responsibility to keep the story of their blood alive. There is talk of The Menders, arcane weavers of history, and an enchanted banner in the King's city that records events upon itself. This is a story about Stories of the most sacred kind, the stories that cultures tell of themselves, that form the foundations of their identity. The standard bearers in the armies of old were skilled warriors, tasked with defending the colours at all costs and until the bitter end. The 2011 film The Eagle expounded upon the weight of a soldier's honour tied to the symbol he fought for; the 2001 film The Last Castle with Robert Redford did much the same. The Banner Saga instills you with that respect for the symbol of your people. So I find myself fighting desperately to keep my clan alive, knowing that if they fall to the Dredge and the banner is lost it will mean the end of their history.

One last note on character development. I am impressed, because the women in this game are phenomenal. If there's one term I'm sick of hearing, it's "strong female character". Thankfully I'm not alone; this gem of an article was written back in August with the sub-header "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong." (Sophia McDougall). Damn right. So when I found myself in the middle of this conversation with Oddleif, the chieftain's wife, I literally fist-pumped and yelled for joy. We'd just come out the wrong end of a brutal skirmish to discover her husband lying dead in a cart, and this is what she had to say:
People tell me I'm a "strong woman". It's funny, my father named me Oddleif before I was even born. He wanted a boy so badly. Strong woman. What does that even mean? If I feel nothing about my husband dying people think I'm strong. If I cry because my insides feel life they're on fire I'm weak. Why does that feel so backwards?
To whoever scripted that bit of dialogue: someday I will find you, and I will hug you. I've also had a character refuse to auto-attack in combat because she decided through a conversation I had with her that she didn't want to kill Humans or Varl. It was a shock, and a welcome realization that this game means business when it come to knowing who your characters are.

Needless to say, The Banner Saga tells a beautiful tale. It's slow, quiet, contemplative at times and emotionally desperate at others. It's immersive in its scale and intricacy. Above all else, it is epic.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Welcome to 2014. Now Get to Work.

Well. Here we are. It's a brand-new year, a bracing new semester, a brave new world. And, frankly, the size of that open horizon of opportunity is daunting.

Probably because mine isn't nearly as open as I like to think it is.

I have a bad habit of piling my plate high with every project that catches my attention. My eyes are far larger than my calendar, and it tends to get me into trouble. I would do exactly the same thing with my course schedule, if time-slot conflicts weren't standing in my way; I would sign up for six or seven classes per term in an endeavour to learn, do, and write all the things, and go well and truly insane/broke in the process. Thank goodness for institutional restrictions. So, I have to make do with extra curricular activities to make my life a tightly scheduled and overbearing hell. It's good times.

Here's a glimpse of the coming year.

First and foremost, I have my BFA exhibition to worry about. The key word in that last sentence was worry. Hence, this is the the single most high-pressure and important semester of my entire degree. In theory, what I accomplish this term is what I will be showing to grad schools in the future. I have set myself goals that seemed good in the planning stages and seem insane, now, as I jump into the creation process itself. Long story short: I am writing a comic book, drawing it, and then turning it into a three-dimensional, walk-through, reader-activated media installation. Yes, that is as complicated as it sounds, but I believe it's an important formal exploration. How do you effectively take a traditionally 2D narrative form and translate it into 3D space? I aim to find out. If you're interested, and unafraid of reading, you can check out the rough-up of my research thesis on the matter here, on my portfolio site (

I have a list of conferences that I want to attend this coming year. They made up 3/4 of my New Year's resolution list on Twitter last week:
I have high hopes for this year; can you tell? In April I'll be traveling to Chicago, where I am presenting at the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association of America. My paper is titled Out of a Diasporic Metropolis: An Exploration of Jewish Comics Creators in the Urban Landscapes of the Early 20th Century. Yes, the rest of the paper is just as long-winded as the title, and I have a lot of editing to do yet. But it'll come together. The other project on the drawing board right now is one I cannot speak too much about, simply because everyone involved is still hashing out the shape of whatever it is we're trying to build. Suffice it to say that myself and a number of other comics scholars under the leadership of A. David Lewis are working together to start a conversation at the junction of Religion and Comics. Stay tuned; this could get exciting.

So, PCA/ACA '14 is on the list. Small Press Expo out East is on the list, and Toronto's Comics Arts Festival is on the list. And, as always, the Emerald City Comic Con is on the list, though I doubt that I will have the time or the money come March to make the trip to Seattle. There are a lot of excellent creators slated to be there this year: among them, Jeff Smith (Bone), Brian Clevinger, and Scott Wegener (Atomic Robo), Greg Rucka (Gotham Central), and David Petersen (Mouse Guard), all men whose work I deeply admire, and Kelly Sue DeConnick, a woman whose writing on the Image series Pretty Deadly has set my imagination afire and prompted me to buy a t-shirt, which I have been wearing far too often lately. If there is one person at ECCC this year whose brain I would love to pick, it would be hers.

PCA, SPX, TCA, ECCC, 2014, I want to attend all the acronyms. It sounds like fun.

The other part of the aforementioned tweet, of course, is number 4 on the list, "Go to Scotland". I'm mid-way through applying to UBC's exchange program in hopes of being able to study English Lit in the fall Edinburgh, home to the world's oldest English Lit department. I nearly went to Scotland a year and a half ago, for the third year of my degree...but, there was a girl, and a long-standing tradition of men making silly choices for women which I yearned to be a part of. So, I'm in good company. Any hope of that relationship is well and truly behind me, and nothing (paperwork excluded) is going to stand twixt me and the highlands this time.

This post has shifted insidiously from a declaration of my over-commitment and poor time-management to me daydreaming verbally through my keyboard about white shores and far green country. I may be overtired (despite having done nothing of note today except not get hired for a part-time job), so I'll wrap it up. I have a heavy few months ahead of me. I have rather a lot of reading, writing, and research to undertake and I have a daunting piece of media-installation-comic-art to tackle. I have classes to attend in the Digital Humanities and in Posthumanist Theory, areas I have no experience with. The work will be thrilling, and it will be gut-wrenching. The work will be broken up by gaming, by traveling, and by late nights at the pub griping about it all with friends. I am, I believe, going to love every bit of it.

I'll keep you posted.