There is an unspoken hesitation in the hideout, shared like broken bread at the eve of something new. There are four of them and who knows how many out to get them. They have only their wits, and ‘they’ have wings, beasts, and technologies to stifle even the greatest idea. Even if they succeed tomorrow, what comes after falls in the demesnes of two old deities. Kedvezö – godhead of reunions, lucky happenings, morality, opportunities of power, and the taste of water after thirst – or Megvetés – goddess of curses, fulfilled wishes, impermissible desires, and death. Both divinities are receiving a mess of messages, four chaotic hopes for survival roughly translatable into appeals for salvation, immaterial intervention. Prayer, a custom outlawed by the Alturans when they imposed themselves as the living divinities on the lower world, had never been the pivotal ritual by which to express faith. It wasn’t until those damnable vultures cracked open the sky that the people below began clasping their hands.
Beyond a nebula, hidden in the cosmic breath of the universe, there is a star that no one has even heard of. No one knows where to look for it, let alone how to think of it. It is categorically alone, which seems almost sad in the description of things, loneliness is a terrifying idea. But a star is only plasma and a bit of gas, unaffected by the whimsy of human emotion, instead prone to the irregularities of astronomical phenomena and the baffling laws of physics hurriedly drafted around them, done so by a flock of intelligent sorts who want to verify the existence of something else than ourselves. Proof that we, as a people, however vague or unscientific the definitions may be, are not alone, or worse, lonely.
Sadism demands a story, so mine began in a puddle of blood. The headless corpse of my mother, the wound of her neck poured and pulsed – her heart had not stopped, for her hate lingered beyond the killing blow. Beneath my mother, the wet black of blood had become an old stain. Beyond that atramental halo a greying expanse of a dying land. The ground transformed into a glutton, drowning in black milk. It was subsumed by the very thing it feasted on; no mouth can master itself. This mixture of dirt and damnation, burning and poisonous, could only ever be expressed by, what else is there left to say than to speak nothing, raw destructivity. From this process, I became whole.
I crawled my way out with the blood, careful not to damage her beautiful body. I carried bits of her and I was covered in her corrosive red – I was new. The stench of festering rot, the crumbled remnants of fever trees, my hands balled into bleeding fists. I turned to look at my mother, and I was immediately purposed. The body lay still, vandalised and symbolic, the head nowhere to be found. Incomplete. Imperfect. It was like a statue in its importance, petrified by my lament, my gaze only scratched the surface of true pulchritude, preserved in marbled stone. I did not know what had happened, I did not understand the meaning of what I saw, but desecration is recognisable by what it undoes.
I would seek the perpetrator for undoing perfection.
The land seemed brittle when I walked. Every step I took, took away from its colour and its heart. When I came upon a village, the inhabitants froze in fear. They and their scarce crops withered from the brush of my little fingers, the wheat retracting into death as to not become mine. Food could not sate this hunger, anyway, and neither could I call possession a priority, for this object of my anger had no material worth. I mourned what I caused, but I knew that no regret could ever outgrew these inflicted wounds. Generations of trauma paced behind my feet as I marched away from Libya.
First, I sought the family I didn’t know I had: my aunts. They would know more about my mother’s passing. They wouldn’t know me. Yet, we all know, eternal bonds are forged in castigative rage. Perhaps wrath – an excess of fear – is a commonality between women, dyed in the wool, red strings of fate that tie instinct to action. My instinct brought me to her uncharted worlds, often conceived as feral, untamed lands, though the question remains of whose maps are they measured with? Men will ignore what lies beyond their knowledge, a boundary marking their territorial downfall. These deepest, unexplored reaches allowed three women to organise in secrecy – we know this as safety.
The eldest, with her broad shoulders and hands shaped to keep what cannot be taken, welcomed me into her home and bosom. To her, I was a shard of resected history which had found its way back by accident. We showed our feelings, the natural thing to do. I, my ire, my eyes clamped shut to dam the tears; she, the sheathed and dulled sword of grief, her red snakes nestled in resignation. She spoke, softly, betraying that her voice must have once had cut and seared and controlled, that it feels like a century since her sister died. I tacitly agreed. We both knew that it may have been that long.
The middlemost sister, though now the youngest, rose and asked me what I aim to do. To avenge my mother, I admitted, and I only needed a name. They had tried before, she admitted sibilantly, but the gods had sided with him. Even the goddess of justice, Dikē herself, prayed to most by other women, could not hold this reprehensible deed as accountable, or its practitioner as responsible. Before I asked who, I wished to know, why? What could make a man behead and trophy a woman? They replied that my mother, no less bestial than her murderer, was an object, not an objection, to the desire of Perseus. Hearing that name, I said my loving farewells and promise of return to Euryace and Stheno, before setting out once more. Homer may liken my sorrow to the destiny of Odysseus – I welcome the justification.
It was halfway, or perhaps one-tenth of the way, or the last thing I saw before Perseus, that I met another woman. Hers were beautiful fixtures – carved, yet in no way louche. She was stone, though not sculpted, and could therefore meet my eyes. She stood still, elegant and wise, unshakable and powerful, and let me slither around her. She knew that I’d been looking for a man, though not out of pithy desire or social need. She applauded my wish to kill: finally, an honest woman.
Sphinx told me about another man: Oedipus was his name. She posed the man a riddle, a simple one, even I’d heard it before, and in the utmost of irony, besought him for an answer. He gave it, triumphantly, the answer was ‘man’, and he mistook her scoff for his victory. The universality of ‘man’ in question was meant as scathe, an admission of self-importance, yet Oedipus never once considered who asks the question, a woman of power. When the world is claimed by men, blind in the false security that all questions and all answers should arrive in their favour. Ignorance can be a shelter, impervious to clever words like a stone, but erosion comes with winds of change.
We shared a bed – our bodies were hard, and like she received my eyes, I received her. In the morning, we parted ways. I was new to it, but I understood that we weren’t to see each other again. Stone warms slowly, but it only took one night.
It wasn’t by any means difficult to track Perseus. The glory of his exploits, the monuments to his slaughter, the affect of his story, all were linear and predictable, both geographically and narratively. These spoils led me to Mycenae, which he founded and which he ruled, a land parasitised. Buildings and statuary sprouted like a fungal growth, celebrating him as the bringer of colony. His means and end were trophies, reducing my mother to contest and her death to game. The marble raised in his name, aesthetics used as a metaphor and as a lie, kalon struck into every etch, they showed his supple beauty, his ideality, his perfection. I finally knew what it looked like. I would undo it.
The only statue in his house was of my mother. Her head – her real head – was in his hands. Her body had been stripped of honour, of her wings. She stood lifeless and solemn, a symbol of triumph for anyone that agreed. What I saw was neither victory nor defeat, however. I saw grace and strength in the face of cruelty. He, however, was laughable. Old, frail, time-tested. He sat skeletally on his throne, but even that exhausted him. The warrior! The victor! The hero! A flatulent man who has outgrown his bored glory, clutching a shield as a mother would a child. Time takes all, eventually, but before it does, men take much more. I conceded to give him what had been a long time coming.
Now there were two statues in his house. A feeble megalomania eternalised, encased in a skin of stone. I did not even give him time to scream, let alone wake. I never once pretended to be the moral party, for what use is morality when it turns murderers into heroes and victims into monsters? I denied him the closure of acceptance or the fairness of facing death; that would require empathy. Empathy, subsequently, requires a subject. And a subject requires some sort of understanding. A meeting of eyes and a nod. Our eyes never met – my gaze saw only resentment, which requires only an object. I objectified him, a petrifying reciprocity.
My mother turned to stone anyone who looked at her. A punishment for the conceit of a gaze.
I turn to stone anyone who I look at. A fury for suffering undergone.
I get no name, nor do I want one, so remember that of the woman who was killed for a story: Medusa. I am the basilisk, a stifled vengeance in the throat of women, and I have avenged them.
If you’re interested in reading my post-writing thoughts on this story and its place in, say, a feminist or representational debate: here.
If we take a look, and by we it is meant all participants in a certain cognitive nexus, a method of looking, a thinking-way, at the distance between a city and the next, and therefore, the two interrelated cities themselves invoked by this measure of betweenness, we may see, for instance, depending on the person and the person’s upbringing and the habitus of the person that slipped into their skin while they were asleep or otherwise not paying attention, a comparison occurs. The road, as the line between a point A and a point B, will place both A and B on a vector, two sites that are made related, despite all the differences, but it is precisely these differences that will make one citizen think, “Hmm, I prefer the lophar woolcoats there over the ones they make here.”
This, of course, is referring to differences in clothing preparation that may be culturally engrained, which, quite comically, came about as an accident, when a sleepy tailor, more than 300 years ago, dropped her lophar shavings into the pot boiling with drunksparce oil, two separate disciplines (and typically reserved for different social classes!) hardened together as if they’ve never been apart. The taste is in the story, as every city henceforth prepares these wools the exact same way, but the distance to an arbitrary notion (such as origin, authenticity, and the elusive personable factor) is waylaid to a physical, measurable road – it was invented here, therefore, it must be better here. It is not so much a true statement as it is a sentimental presupposition, which, pertaining to these famous delicacies, is harmless, but when the road is invoked, with two differing people at its extremes, it becomes competition. Most simply nap in their woolly coats, however.
Of course, this is a severely limited thinking-way, and therefore serves as a frequent cause of frustration, shouting contests, and snackbar fights, as a road is constructed between two deliberate points. A road is made and there is a reason for it to exist, but it ignores every perceivable node existing on that vector. What about point C, D, E – Z, letters not on the common alphabet or ones we haven’t been introduced to yet?
Take point Low Lake, an ex-city previously populated by the once-proud, now miserable frostfolk who melted when the world became too warm and who continue existing as quite grumpy puddles of people-liquid (their true name, the sound that ice makes when it meets something it hasn’t frozen before, has become lost through irreplaceability, hence the reductive, colonial ‘frostfolk’). The road that came after leads through the memories of their grand, evaporated architectures seems almost sadistic, its unsinkable citizenry stepped into by travellers who come prepared with tailor-made rainboots, droplets of their consciousness carried on rubber soles to unreachable places. Does water feel pain? Best not think about it. But it was also this road that spread the Festival of Floes (the sound of ‘water crackling into the snowflake it dreams of being’) to places beyond its icy, incommunicado walls. Are we, the same participants, allowed to simply re-enact rituals as long as it gives us joy? A census of 7,000 people would protest, but they are nothing but whine-water.
A road also does not include anything outside its path, the wilderness outside its paved dirt nothing but a wilderness for those who travel it (remember: only the cities matter). Though the philosophical problem arises of thinking in absolutes, this is of no care to the mushroom people, deep in Forest (no article applies), who, through even the simple act of designation, have been assailed in the deepest core of their culture. Their culture, you see, is all there is, and our thinking-way puts them on the same vector as ours, an object of consideration, but there is no ‘them’. There is only ‘the culture’. All we may identify that belongs (again, an affront to everything ‘they’ stand for, as property is an arrogant abuse of sentience) to the singular collective of ‘the culture’, is, in and of itself, ‘the culture’. It may be correct to say they, or it, does not have identity, but it has sentience and it has units.
A mushroom, with its flat, disc-shaped head, its mitten-like hands and colourful fashions, is as much the totality of ‘the culture’ as is any one tree used as hollowed-out homes in Forest. Even their drawers, which are not furniture but symbiotic agreements of necessity growing from tree trunks where all non-locomotive units rest until needed, is all the culture. There are no names, no concepts, no other word besides itself. However! It, unlike the frostfolk, is not isolated: it is not self-important. Being one, it has survival in mind, and will adapt accordingly. Including crafts and commerce – visit Forest (you are welcome to) and you will see the lovely, ambrosial sight of mushrooms working wood into applications (they call it ‘helping’). Moreover, merchants appear regular in cities, covered with satchels and baskets, ready to trade units of the culture in exchange for something deemed necessary for growth and survival (they call this exchange ‘adopting’). There would have been different outcomes, had the road been missing, but we, yes, still that same we, must work the world for what it is, for better or worse: we now have delicious mushrooms in our stews.
A line inflates the importance of its points, and the journey on it is of equal boast, it does not provide appropriate respect for the multiplicities of spaces that exist neither despite or because of it. This is, however, not an appeal to stop thinking in lines. We should continue to, but in the plural (one hard-to-follow man might refer to such as a rhizome). Roads lead to places, but what do they lead? Circumstantialities, really, ever ending and never stopping. Point A is as arbitrary as point B, and looking at them as points in time, not in place, lets us enjoy subsequence: everything stacked together, thanks to the roads, culminated into a thing or idea or commonality.
The first celebrations of the Festival of Floes, copied from the smelted, didn’t really work out. Holding ice and thinking of warmth is a great coping mechanism for those lost in the snow, but for the people in the squares, it was nothing but frostbite. Then the awkward weaver bumbled a textile that insulated and could be dyed easily, and the fluffy gold-purple woolcoats emerged, which easily covered the shivering participants as they thought fondly of their fondest memories – when they met each other, when they continued to stay with each other. Standing communally in the cold strengthens bonds (the lines between people), but also gives them very empty bellies. Many songs have been written about the trio (three-one) of mushroom merchants who let the hungry celebrants adopt a hundred baskets of fungi as a gift of well-meaning. The seasonal stew that relies on this ingredient has eroded all bickers between people representing point A, respectively, point B, as it continues to taste miraculously anywhere. Such additions of accidence is thanks to roads and their cultures, a diversity of let’s-be. Once the points converge, and the lines form a circle, a big circle of many exceptionalities, excesses, and expressions, the transcendental of mutual consideration and equal import, well, it makes the world (typically a circle) a better place.
On the third floor, limping between a triple lane of desks and computers and personal paraphernalia, a small gallery of figures, succulents, or drawings from home, to mark a soulless corporate space with gentle sentiments, is a lone person: Yarrow Kaarter. He is a level designer, tasked with the shape of digital areas. Paving voids with streets, placing structure on cobblestone, inserting life into new rooms, his map editor filled with assets, textures, and recolours. The producer has a bottomless imagination of what the finished piece should look like; Yarrow does his best to form this dissolute overwhelm. Problems only arise in practice, so the programs and files and design documents and deadlines and hours he gets are never enough and far from perfect. His level drafts are strained under the scrutinising eye of quality assurance (QA) testers — the smallest gap, the slightest inconsistency, any unappealing sight or ugliness is noticed, taken note of, and noted in a massive list of complaints and workarounds he has to fix.
So, over twenty times a day, he journeys down and up the stairs (a perilous trek without an elevator) to the texture artists on the first floor to request, say, a tea kettle, an evil ship in the distance, the glass panes and the gorgeous jewel they ensconce, a gaudy throne, a slovenly bed, a dog. Anything you might find in a world, he asks for, convinced the minutiae are what make it compelling, atmospheric, holistic. His scrutinising design philosophy lets the individual parts tell a story as big as the sum, much to the frustration of testers and producers, who have to work overtime to curb his ambition. Both them and Yarrow know that he’s the best at what he does — no one can copy him. The games that tried, bombed.
He pours what he can muster into his levels. His passion, disguised as secret collectibles, disconcerting implications, and his trademark picayune stories; his life, barely manageable through the crunch; his exhaustion, the hours beating on his head, the days mushy and memory lossy. “But you already requested a tarried banner asset, don’t you remember?” Stress is a build-up, but it’s not a topsoil. It expands, like a balloon, claiming more and more as time goes on. It grows bigger, less avoidable, nothing else can be focused on, narrowing the things you should be engaged with: joy, reprieve, compassion, mercy, justice.
In order to make room, the balloon will and must pop, be it through a careful ventilation or by its own force. The latter will be violent, psychologically, and will thrum all the way through to social spaces or one’s bank account. The ‘culture’ of the studio, though there is nothing adorning, ennobling, or communal about it, is so organised that it keeps pumping air into the balloon, or balloons, of its most necessary people. In this competitive, intense, frustrating job, personhood is made to go at the expense of labour. So, at the suggestion of his therapist, Yarrow seeks out, between the hours, ventilating distractions.
It’s been five years since it was released, but there are still people making videos about explore the world of the first game he’s worked on: The Brightest Future in our Dreams 2: The Castellan’s Gastronomic Revenge. It strokes Yarrow’s ego to see people passionate about game-spaces, even though he knows his maps and tableaus only represent a reality. They don’t constitute as one, nor are they historical sources. So many theories on lore, so many attempts to map out the littlest of hints he left in a game, they become a gallery without title-plates. It is presumptuous to keep the fictional kept apart from the real, as if it can be its own thing. Never engaging with what it signifies or contributes outside of itself, never entertaining that entertainment can mean. It’s all a bit mute. Yarrow can’t bring himself to watch these sorts of videos to the end. Still, the videos are very nicely edited.
In the breakroom, chewing absently on a foil-wrapped, melty cheese sandwich, he overhears a group of four talking about their Lairs & Lizards game. That’s something he hasn’t done since high school! He remembers his first character — an orc mapmaker called ‘Ellf’. An orc called Ellf, that’s super funny. On afterschool Fridays, he would get way too into his role, overly keen on exploring every nook and cranny of the shared, imagined space of the fiction. Of course, this frustrated the game master to no end, unable to keep up with what he wanted to find. His, let’s be honest, very stubborn and frustrating demands were what drove him to this career in the first place. Every object is a memory to someone, every area a personal palimpsest, people are geographies are semiotics and no world is its own. So maybe this time, considering it’s all professionals here, it’ll work out. He wants to be the explorer, but mostly, he wants his job to stop hurting.
He introduces himself blandly, the only way he knows. The others return the tone.
“We play Saturdays, at 8.”
“Sure, I’ll be there.”
The first session
“We have a new adventurer in our midst!“
Raouel the game master introduces him with that familiar dryness. He hides behind his GM screen, like secretive parapets, obscuring his face as much as it does intentions, that of the story to come — their story — and how he intends to complicate the party’s success. On the table, aside from the pile of handprint-leaving snacks, is a stack of detailed, pencil-drawn maps accompanied by painted failures and other provisional shapes (Yarrow’s character is a rook).
The other players take their turns introducing themselves, almost comically typecast:
“Hey, I’m Stokely. Welcome to the team!” says the well-dressed supermodel with an amazing curly high-top. Yarrow almost slips out that they’re way too attractive to be doing this or working in game dev.
“Hail and well met, traveller. I am Mechalogist Haraway, inventor and seeker of truths.” says the older lady with the lustrous jewellery. She works in marketing, he believes.
“Call me Logan the Pernicious. Don’t get in my way,” says the spindly one with the short, boring hair. Yarrow doesn’t recognise him, probably an intern.
None of them used their real names, at least he should hope so. It’s endearing how nerdy that is, and also forebodingly awkward for when they’ll walk past each other in the studio. Their eyes fixate on him and Raouel throws a small nod in expectation. He introduces his character thusly, blandly.
“My character is… Frawd the dwarf.” His overextended pause for laughter is met with a cruel quiet.
“He is… let me read it correctly on my sheet… a Clairvoyant. His skills are –“
“Please, try to stay in-character.”
“Right! Sorry. Er, I’m Frawd, a Clairvoyant. My skills are Predict Future and Uncover What Time Lost.”
The table around him sighs, banishing the spectre of high hopes.
“Tell me a bit about yourself and how you’ve met the rest of your crew. Fra… Frawd.”
“I wrote that down on my sheet too hold on… Ok, I hail from… the Crystal Peaks, which lie far to the north — “
“Hm, no, those don’t exist.”
“But it’s my backstory? Here, I have it all written out: it’s really cool.”
“Backstories should stick to the canon. There are mountains in my world, just no crystal ones. You can hail from the Sundering Mountains.”
Raouel switches to an abrupt harshness. Yarrow feels disappointed at being told no, almost by reflex, having already written four pages on Dwarven culture, the religious significance of the precise geography, the mining economy, the procurement of crystal ores and their processing procedures, and so on. He unpuffs his cheeks. He is the newcomer here, so, he thinks, I’ll concede. This story between the four here has been going on for a while and is long past its delicate world-building phase. Still, he has a place in the narrative, so he might as well find out what exactly the map contains.
“So, I’m from the Sundering Mountains. I hail from a wealthy family of — “
“Can we start already?” Logan sees fit to interrupt Frawd’s introductory statement, a crass, sibilant impatience that, despite the layer of fiction between separating map from room, feels personal.
“We can. Stokely, Logan, Haraway, you meet a dwarf by the road en route to the castle…”
The rest of the session alternates between irritable sluggishness and frenetic pacing. The game’s tempo is stunted by both Yarrow’s inexperience and piqued curiosity. At one point he spent 30 minutes asking about the castle we’re headed for, which, to be fair, awarded the group with useful information: tidbits of its defences, revealings of its architecture, and, something the others neglected to even investigate, its surprising name.
“The name of the castle you have been tasked with investigating is Lavan-Mavan,” Raouel monotones.
“Isn’t that the name of the fortress in Save Yourself, Milord, Your Living Castle Is Actually An Antimonarchist!” Yarrow nearly yells, excited about the reference.
“Is it? Okay, cool.” Raouel is as dismissive as he is blunt.
And with that unceremonious namedrop, the session ends, before Yarrow’s enjoyment could really start. He wonders if the others even had fun today, or if they’re just used to this being the campaign. The road to the castle was littered with random bandit after random bandit; Frawd’s foresight only useful to announce the next bandit. It wasn’t a very thrilling experience. But roads end at destinations, and Yarrow can’t help but feel the drone of tedium is over. He smiles to himself, first time in months.
It’s 9 PM, he is alone, and he still has an entire castle to plummet into existence, arranging the exact (mis)shape of the outer walls, the sway of chandeliers, and the position of some standard traps, like pendulum axes, darts and rolling boulders, or poisoned buffets. The artist department sent back a banner asset that is much clean and colourful to be in an abandoned and haunted castle, but he has no choice but to use it until he gets the updated models. Hopefully, tomorrow, but realistically, not until next week. The producer will get on his case — he only demands the undeliverable most. Yarrow can already hear those debilitating, poisonous words, the enfeebling effects of power, as if a series of brass tubes are pumping them from his office all the way to his inner ears: “The deadline’s in two weeks and you’re still making these mistakes.”
The bobble head on his desk violently shakes for the how many-eth time now, his fist pounding his leg in an accustomed anger. It was frightening at first, how casually he wanted to pummel himself, a cold, rational solution as to force the terraqueous misery to a single, concentrated pointed. Now, however, it had become mysteriously joyful to bruise himself. Again the bobble head shakes, a dragon person, the protagonist of Flame Breath Man, given to everyone who worked on it for those six unsuccessful years. He puts it to a halt with a finger and, as if a transference of motion, his hand begins to shake. The attempt to take a sip of coffee fails with a stain on his sweatpants, new tears of resignation flooding the ones that barely had time to dry.
Yarrow retreats to the bathroom to clean his clothes and thoughts and eyes. The fresh clothes he brings in case of another sudden overnight don’t make him look like less of a chaos. Flushing does little to drown out the core bad thoughts, “You are not happy here” and “Where else do you have left to be happy”. Yarrow dries the tears with toilet paper, feeling like piss and shit all the same. But this is of no concern to him or anyone in his life, maybe one person, but it’s far past the time to start caring himself. Emotions flushed down the drain (where else?), he leaves his pushdoor bunker and sees
“Oh, wow, hi Yarrow. Crunching, too?”
“Yeeeaah. Can’t leave till I make a castle.”
“I see. Good luck with that. I have about six different builds to test.”
“You work in QA? Rough.”
“Yeah, been here for five years. Someone’s gotta make sure shit’s playable, right?”
“Haha, yeah. And hey, I’ve also been here for five.”
“Cool, cool. Hey, see you next session?”
“I’ll be there. Can’t wait to see what’s in the castle!”
“Heh, well, you’ll get to see.”
These types of conversations never last longer than they should. The tired colleagues stay exchange a quick platitude before returning to the churn once more. Yarrow ‘s design document lists the essential details of his rooms. The infirmary has the only antidotes that counter the castle’s unique poisons; the throne room is a wide, bright room decorated with the world’s riches and, at the far end, a single, gaudy, jewelled seat that doubles as a trapdoor trigger which leads to a dungeon; and so on. In the next two weeks Yarrow ships off a build, endures the rehearsed disappointment from his boss, then reconvenes at Raouel’s house.
The second session
Thankfully, entering Lavan-Mavan has made playing the game a bit more thrilling. Less randomly-generated dangers, more intentional, more preconceived iterations of world hostility. Frawd nearly lost an arm to a pendulum axe, Logan got stuck with a strength penalty after touching a cursed painting, and, right now, Haraway is dying of a poisoned buffet she couldn’t help but eat from, even though Yarrow’s foresight warned her of ‘dooming food’. Despite frantically searching for an infirmary in the castle and laughing at ‘Haraway’ mimicking dying of poison, Yarrow been unable to shed a lingering sense of déjà vu. Raouel presents the party with a T-shape intersection, describing the intersection as follows:
“In the dim, blue light of an overhanging chandelier, its taut rope creaking and swaying, you see two signs mounted on the stone walls next to you. Reading the words, you can tell that one sign leads to the infirmary, and the other to ‘the biggest, most awful, most tragic place in human history.’”
Everyone chortles at the silliness of it, except for Yarrow, taking over by a confronting seriousness.
“Guys, we should go to the other place.”
“Are you daft, dwarf? Or just illiterate?” Logan sneers. Yarrow wonders again if he’s merely staying in-character.
”No. No, I can read just fine. Nor am I, uh, soft of mind.” Yarrow gives a skeptical eye to Raouel, continuing, “I want to cast Predict Future for when we take the ’infirmary’ route.”
Raouel’s brow furrows in frustration, revealing his hand. “Why?”
“Do I need a reason? I just have to roll, right? And I just rolled a natural 20!”
“…you do so. And through clairvoyance, you see yourself venturing down the passageway… and into the maws of a grand, sophisticated hybrid of monster and machine.” Taking a risk, they venture down the other path and, to everyone’s splendid surprise, find the opposite of awful death: an infirmary with the specific antidote to Haraway’s poison.
“Wowwww. Okay, glad we have you around Frawd. You just saved Haraway and all of us. Didn’t he, Logan?” Stokely’s expressive, fun voice makes the praise feel warm and a bit embarrassing.
“You saved me, small one,” Haraway plants a playful (in-game!) kiss on his cheek.
“Yeah, sure, whatever. Good job, dwarf,” speaks a dismayed Logan. That one’s a bit less warm.
“Yes. Good job, Frawd,” grits Raouel, giving off the coldest sensation of all. Those who design the maps are always a bit miffed when people don’t fully explore them, or at least reach the end of the most dramatic hallways. The sighs and silence that such frustration brings creates suspense, one that isn’t differentiable. Whether or not it is out of a narrator’s idea of what would be fun or interesting, or out of more punitive attitudes, Raouel raises his voice from its usual nonplussed pail.
“From the other end of the, the hallway. There is a, you can hear a series of loud metal noises. A stampede of metal, a monster crashing toward you…”
“Heavens. Didn’t we avoid that thing?” Stokely asks the group in- and outside the game.
“Maybe I should have also cast looked at what would happen if we went the other route,” Frawd scratches the back of his head.
“The great metal beast, breathing heavy flames, is now standing before you, having tracked your scent…”
“Scent? It’s made of metal. How can it smell — “ Logan’s first try at lightening the mood is interrupted with a loud crash on the table. Figurines topple, coffee mugs barely miss the maps, and Stokely’s glass of water stains the gray carpet. Raouel is standing up, wilder than the beast he just described, slamming hands on the table. A judge, at least in film, will bang her gavel to restore order, the sound keeping the run-high in line; nothing comparable to lawfulness happened here. A loss of control, desperation as it’s called, garnishes this noise.
“IT HAS SMELLED YOU AND NOW IT’S HERE. OKAY?”
Voices stay in mouths, not out of the scared indecision (all players deal with this from time to time when faced with an ordeal and too much freedom). This doesn’t even have to do with the interaction between characters and the world. This is power at play. Intimidation.
“I think that, uh. This is a good place to stop, anyway.”
Everyone at the table responds with an unsure nod.
Ending the session and promising a next fortnight, Yarrow can’t help but feel an unsettled nestling in his chest. Raouel’s outburst is part of it, sure, but moreso there’s more to it. That intersection felt very familiar for some reason. He once put a similar joke in a build for Flame Dragon Man, but because of the risk of possible plagiarism the signpost had to be renamed to just ‘certain death’. Whatever, this is stupid, thinks as he Yarrow shakes his paranoia.
We simply share the same sense of humour, It’s better to accept that I’m here for fun, not to think myself into agita, I sympathise with Raouel — I want people to explore my areas, so when players make an effort to circumvent painstaking surprises, I’d probably get angry too.
With a forced kindness near the front door, Yarrow says a spritely goodbye to everyone in the group. Despite the awkward end, he really is relieved to have found a lasting friendship.
Closing his front door, Raouel rips apart the castle map.
A surprise meets Yarrow’s face on the 243th day into this project. For the first time in seven months, everyone, actually everyone, gets to go home on time. For once, no pillows bearing the weight of insomniac heads, no misaligned spines twisted by office chairs, no company pizza night (this is a pang). The surprise is on Liefde’s face, too, when he hears a bell ring at 6 PM and sees his partner in the doorway.
“How the hell are you home this early?” Yarrow shakes the rain from his hair, adding to how unkempt it is.
“I got fired,” Yarrow can’t take off his big, unflattering coat without Liefde’s help.
“Fuck off with that.”
“Busted. Hey, I’m really glad to see you.”
“Out of bed, you mean?”
“In general. But also that.” Yarrow trudges toward the living room.
“You gonna kiss me or what?” An arm stops him.
“I look like hell, though.”
“The mouth of hell looks inviting.”
Two smiles, bright, mash against each other seventeen times before refusing to let go in the living room and the bread tastes stale and the wine is cheap and the prep feels bad but the movement afterwards lacks little of the cartographer’s thrill of reckless adventure and careful exploration when we are each other’s maps and there is no destination but the end of the night, no landmarks less shrouded in mystery than his cock and his moans and their sleeping hands knit together like they’ve never been apart.
Neither Liefde nor Yarrow has to acknowledge, as certain communication can be found in implication, the pleasure or their exhaustion. So instead, between hairy arms and overheated covers, they talk about the past 7 months of living in the same house but with their living days tracked apart. Liefde will never adjust to his early and long mornings, or the shitty coffee, or the broken heating at the station, and god will he ever start to earn a minimum wage, but today a child ran up to him and personally thanked him for making the world a cleaner place, which made him and his co-worker cry. He showed Yarrow the video that the boy’s mother made — already circulating on the internet, flooded with unexpectedly heart-warming and congratulatory comments, as if the respect for the greatest urban labour, that of the garbageman, had been rationed away for the moments that mattered/were marketable.
Preluding his rant with a kiss on his lover’s cheek, Yarrow, to no one’s surprise, has much to ventilate about the studio, the ungodly hours and workload, and the producer’s constant shittyness (as if misery will motivate any worker, held above the fires of annual reviews). Then he mentions how good it feels to be like this — tired and sad and together (and a bit messy). For all the mapmaking he does, there’s really no place like home. Home as defined as Liefde, that is, the Dutch word for ‘love’, but also his partner’s name. After a warm quiet snuggling silence, oddly and awkwardly, Yarrow opens up about last Saturday, too. How giddy he felt when Haraway had to roleplay being poisoned. How excited he was about leading the party away from danger. How threatening Raouel sounded when things didn’t go the way he’d planned. He knows it’s all make-believe, but participating produces real feelings.
Partners do good to you by listening. Partners who are good do too, but they will reach into what you have to say: questions, subjects, thoughts, clarifications, or topics — wanting to know more than just what you can think of in the moment.
“That’s kind of shitty, aren’t you supposed to have fun? If he wants things to go his way he should write a book or someting. Also I like Frawd, it’s a funny name.”
“Right? Thank you.” Collaborative fiction is a sequence of compromises made out of good faith in what comes next: a moving scene, an interesting outcome, a dramatic turn. But what happened during the second session was none of these things — it was forcing setpieces to behave in an obligated way, as expected, hoped for, when making any map; any object carries the question “what will it do?” The answer of representing geography lends itself to a greater, connective purpose and a direction. On a map, a statue will be a temple will be worshipped. A beast will be danger will attack. Things will happen when you go there, more of a threat than a phenomenon. Spaces are transformative; their openness violently so.
The third session
“Hey, is that a new map?”
“Oh, yeah. I redrew it. I spilled coffee during the last session, haha.”
“Ah right, that robot monster that got you so excited.”
Getting right back into it, Logan speaks up, “Leave this puppy to me” in a rehearsed (not rehearsed enough) growl that leaves him coughing. In his normal voice, an uninflected baritone, he adds that he wants to roll for a cleave attack. He groans at the net damage; he forgot, but Raouel hasn’t forgotten about his strength penalty.
Action, the expression of agency, and rules, a limit on the extent of action. There is no game without both, but the ideal system emphasises how free the player is, not how limited they are. Raouel sandbagged Logan’s attempt to cut off the jaw of ‘The Spirit Machine’, handwaved Stokely’s suggestion to bring down a chandelier on top of the beast, and forbade Haraway’s very likely bid to haywire it using her mechanology. Any idea outside of the box — one that would reward creativity — was stomped out like it was made of wet cardboard. When the party tediously defeated it without much ceremony, Raouel narrated that ‘it lay broken and whimpering as if pleading for mercy’. Robotic intelligence emulating animal behaviour is pretty interesting, but the party stopped caring six combat turns in. They move on without much aplomb. Raouel panics.
“Wait — don’t you want to inspect the body?”
“Is there anything worth looting on it?” asks Haraway.
“You, ahem, begin investigating, uh…”
“I didn’t say I was, though?”
“Investigating… the, the destroyed remains of the metal-clad monstrosity. Rummaging through its parts… you… You, Haraway, ah, recognise something. A whirring core that bears the, that belongs to the exiled mechanologist faction, the Inquest — ” She sighs, being used to this.
“Look at this little gizmo, everyone! I show everyone the whirring core.”
“You found a prize!” Yarrow adds enthusiastically. Both persons giggle.
“H, how does Haraway feel about that? Seeing technology of her rivals in this place?”
“Oh. I’m quite surprised, but I keep it to myself. Don’t want to distract us from the mission.”
Raouel frustrates his lip with a tooth. Yarrow notices, the game master’s look one of frustrated jealousy, and asks if he’s okay. He doesn’t respond, instead resuming the game. The party is railroaded through considerably fewer booby-trapped halls and triggers noticeably fewer interesting events up until they arrive at the destination of their long-forgotten quest: the throne room. Stokely pretends he’s too weak to open the entrance doors, so Logan, almost flirtatiously, rolls up his tunic sleeves and slowly opens the heavy doors. Raouel welcomes the party to their destination:
“The throne room is a wide, bright room decorated with the world’s riches and, at the far end, is a single, gaudy, jewelled seat.”
Yarrow shoots from his seat, his face severe.
“Uh, wow. That’s quite the reaction,” Logan sneers.
“Yarrow, It’s just a throne,” Stokely chuckles.
“Do you… need to go to the bathroom?” Haraway wonders.
Raouel says nothing, but watches carefully.
“No. No, I don’t. And it’s not just a throne. It’s my throne.”
“What? Oh, you’re doing a bit. Frawd, are you overcome with a lust for lucre.”
“No, I’m not doing a bit, Lo — “ Yarrow stops himself before he betrays the fact he doesn’t know his real name.
“It’s not a bit. It’s, I used that exact description one month ago.”
“Used it? For what?”
“No, you didn’t,” Raoeul rests his head against his hand, “now sit down.”
“How do you know?”
“Who do you think tests your levels, Yarrow? Don’t be paranoid, you just misremembered. No one’s stealing from you, but you’re stealing our time.”
“I, uh, m” Yarrow’s voice withdraws turtle-like down his esophagus, any trace of indignation and surprise distilled to a non-effective dosage. Shame fills the silence left behind by a voice, buffers it. He’s certain that, but is he, wait, am I?
“Like, a throne room? C’mon, Yarrow, anyone can come up with that. Besides,”
That’s definitely true. It’s the standard of any castle map, but the phrasing, and the next phrase, barely a whisper, scarcely audible from behind that tall GM screen of his, was so insidious, carried so much weight, mapped exactly the positionalities between them, that Yarrow had to excuse himself , amidst worried faces and an annoyed one — Um, I, I don’t feel so good, I’m gonna head home, go on without me, I’m not that useful anyway, haha:
“you’re not worth copying.”
Back at home late, Yarrow is sweating. Liefde is already in bed, so he opts to sleep on the couch and not wake him up. At least, if he could sleep at all. Toiling with the blankets, switching positions from under the covers to on top of them to next to them, shaking his leg to punching his leg to waiting for the ice pack to cool, hating all he’s done to crying in the sink to eating an unhealthy amount of chocolate spread out the jar, Yarrow is a lost cause to sleep, unable to challenge the darkness by keeping his eyes closed but his mind held agape. Four words, four words, when Liefde told him he loved him in Dutch, those were four words, Ik hou van je, he added a fifth, zoveel, but Raouel said four, too, and he feels the opposite of then. Back then, he said me too, now, no words come, only restlessness and the promise of exhaustion.
As time-waster and more (metaphorical) comfort food, Yarrow watches lore videos on his most recent published game: Script of False Idols. His complexion looks beautiful in the blue light of his laptop. When the textures for random characters were being made, he made 15 extra trips on top of his usual 20, to the lighting department — Look at this, no look at this, look at me, do you think they look good in this lighting, they look like demons, am I a demon, fix it, take your engines and, and, black skin deserves better. God, I hate video games. He’d told them all about Kodak film and Shirley cards, made the artists make beautiful his siblings, the technology that won’t account for him will be made right, justice coded into the system. In light, Yarrow and Liefde and everyone else is beautiful.
In Script of False Idols, the player is a playwright-turned-warrior who is forced to play through all his hyperviolent plays as punishment for his louche writing style. Yarrow follows the narrator’s camera as if it were his own eye; he recalls those three long years and every creative decision he made. Every revised build, how the buildings were furnished over time, the grass’ colouration browned like he wanted, the bloodstains he placed on walls were given actual liquid physics. The narrator shows particular interest in two bloodstains in the ballroom from level 3: when the player pulls out their torch, they can see that one of the puddles is fresher than the other. That’s brilliant level design, Yarrow thinks to himself.
He thinks, he thinks.
I didn’t put that there.
His head splits open with the memory of only ever putting one bloodstain on the marble tiles— he argued with the producer over the non-contribution a second bloodstain would make. The narrator continues, entertaining the implication of two dancers, locked in a waltz, who stabbed each other on subsequent measures. Yarrow had insisted on one, just the one, because in his head, a ballroom, the red on white, is the perfect scene of an assassination. One or two bloodstains, it doesn’t matter; it adds nothing — it’s empty storytelling. He frantically opens up another video, Gun Priest IV, this time. The secret passage behind the altar is gone, instead it got moved underneath it. Another, Village Youngman and the World Saving Quest. The village elder’s attic doesn’t have a chest with the game-breaking Grass-Cutting Sword anymore. Where did all these things go? All these secrets, all these additions, all these little inputs. Yarrow knows well, so well, that they’re meaningless outside of the game, but then, but then, then why is he feeling like this? Why is he screaming like this?
Coldly, he shivers in Liefde’s cradling arms, like he always does when work catches up with him and nothing adds up.
The fourth session
At the office, Raouel asked if everything was okay. It was genuine and heartfelt, as if he felt responsible and, more importantly, accountable; ready to make amends. His offer for another session this Saturday was a welcome distraction from the crunch time the producer had called into life for the fifth time this project. At his suggestion, he’s sat down opposite of Raouel instead of to his left.
“I’m the first one here? Normally everyone arrives before me.”
“Oh, they won’t be coming today.”
“We need to talk about what you’ve missed.”
There is a cold sharpness in his breath, like the drawing of a dagger.
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t get to see the finished product, so it’s time for you to catch up.”
“Oh, okay. I guess that makes sen — Ah!”
Raouel scares Yarrow by nonchalantly lifting a small box on the table, filled with paper shreds. “So,” the game master starts, “as the party entered the throne room, decorated with the world’s riches and, at the far end, a single, gaudy, jewelled seat,”
Is he doing that on purpose?
One by one, he lays them on the table. “Logan found out that the throne itself was actually a trapdoor trigger, which caused the floor to collapse.”
Like a jigsaw puzzle, he slowly assembles them, connecting more and more pieces of what seems to be a map. “All of you fell into separate, distinct dungeons. Everyone else got out last session, so you, Frawd, need to escape.”
That’s what I put into the game. Well, not the separate dungeon bits. That’s new, but, this is exactly what I sent in. No doubt about it, Yarrow’s thoughts mix with nervosity and the shaking of his leg reverberates all the way to the chess rook representing his (combat-averse) character.
“What do you want from me?” Yarrow asks in a diffident tone.
“For you to realise your vision isn’t always the right one.”
“What… does that mean?”
“I don’t like to metagame, but, try casting Predict Future.”
Yarrow tries to, then, and Raouel flat-out rejects him. An anti-magic field permeates the dungeon, apparently, and it drones all the way through to the room they’re sitting in. That same double-edged snarkiness he suspected in Logan’s never-ending quips, Yarrow is now feeling in Raouel, yes, but also from the rest of the campaign so far. Even the room, them face-to-face, even the rook, it catches up with him as a retrospect. He feels light-headed.
Raouel flips over the last piece of paper — Yarrow recognises it instantly.
“That’s Lavan-Mavan… this isn’t a coincidence, is it?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why, why did you pretend you didn’t get the reference?”
“Is it a reference if it’s my work?”
“What? We work for the same studio.”
Raouel’s shrugging shoulders stand out from behind his GM screen.
“I tested that castle, I tested all your castles, your so-called specialties. And you know what I did? I assured their quality. I know all about the way you design and how you want the world to speak for itself. Very noble, you’re such an auteur. But it still has to be playable. You added nothing but work on my plate with your pretentious bullshit.”
He’s not wrong, Yarrow knows this. The experience, as has been made clear throughout the game they’ve been playing, is more important than the rules around it. Don’t force a player to abide the rules — adjust the rules to match the player. And what is a map but rules of the land? Yarrow often felt self-important, but is that a bad thing if it’s a great result?
“I’m good at what I do. I made sure the base was there.”
“And I made sure it became a finished product. Whose credit is that?”
“So, what, you edited all my levels? That’s not your job. You have to tell me that so I can fix them.”
“The producer is just as up his own ass as you are, Yarrow Kaarter. Believe me, I’d have loved nothing more but send back your builds with my 20 pages of complaints attached. But no, he told me not to disturb you, that I should fix it himself.”
So that’s why. What an absurd idea — QA never getting back to him, never sending any single message his way, why would that be a proof of expertise? It’s always been a lack of communication, in this case even an embargo. All the praise, the reviews, the (very infrequent) bonuses, all the videos that were made, they weren’t actually in any way relevant to Yarrow, it seems. They were meant for Raouel and his ability to, apparently, make better.
“Raouel, can I ask you a question?”
“Are you fucking serious, dude?”
Yarrow starts to laugh. Raouel starts to get mad.
“What does this have to do with me? I knew the producer was an arrogant idiot, but this much? I didn’t know about this, because apparently he didn’t want me to know, he just worked me to the bone. Like, jeez, I’ll just have a word with him.”
He stands up, his leg’s stopped shaking. Raouel shrinks in his chair, melting behind his screen in a hot wash of shame and guilt, but Yarrow keeps the eye-contact appropriately confrontational.
“But this. Is this, like, your idea of a boss battle? You, sitting across from me, telling me all this, all grandstanding? Did you seriously bear a grudge on me for five years over a video game? You couldn’t just go up and tell me? You had to seriously, like, torture me and make me doubt myself?”
Yarrow suddenly remembers that he was missing two words he wanted to say to Raouel for last session.
Everything Yarrow said he’d do, he did. He nearly lost his job for yelling at the producer — not only for this weird behind-the-scenes deal, but also for working him to the teeth, grinding him into bonemeal, stomping him into insecure dust. The lack of feedback kept the pressure on, kept the stress growing, kept the balloons popping, kept the therapy programmes going, kept the wallet small. He persuaded a few days off, paid.
Raouel came around, too, having realised how dejectedly pathetic he was being. Since learning that, things have been less insidious between them, although they did agree it was better they not play Lairs & Lizards together again. But now, they actually start working together. His master plan ended up being nothing but a petulant, pitty revenge fantasy that was stoked by the same fire Yarrow was also suffering under: crunch.
Yarrow was at home when, out of coincidental curiousity, checked the first proper feedback of his castle build. Raouel wasn’t kidding: it really was twenty pages.
Liefde held Yarrow as he had to cope with what criticism is like.
“…So, in conclusion, the current literature on the irrigation systems employed by Sumerian farmers around 1700 BCE has underestimated the importance of the smoothing effects of shod oxen’s trampling efforts, exaggerating the efficacy of the eight-tier furrow system, which, while important, in no way accounts for the shitty fart turd man — ”
Red-faced and breathless, the speaker blinks at the words. He finds an audience blinking back at him. The speaker tugs at his collar and his clip-on tie falls off.
“Excuse me. There, ah, seems to be a misprint.”
Washed up on stage, the man is too dry to spin it as a joke, and after two clearings of the throat and three attempts to restart the sentence, as if jumpstarting an impotent car, it is too obvious that he hasn’t memorised the words. He excuses himself off-stage to the sound of a single pair of hands clapping hesitantly, just once, before stopping. A woman witnessing this disaster slowly recedes further off-stage, hiding herself, shoes showing, behind the red velvet of backstage curtains, until she hears him finally marching away. Both know very well that she’s the one who wrote that research speech for him. She stayed up till 5 AM to do so, after he sent her an urgent email at 11 PM. And, simply enough, in the dead of night, what’s on anyone’s mind worms itself through social filters and splats down on print like a ladleful of gruel (thankfully, she’d fallen asleep before any real expletives came to mind).
She treads carefully in escape, passing a number of pencil-biting and nervous-ticked colleagues and curmudgeons waiting for their turn to prove they have the most interesting thing to say tonight, about, for instance, the influences of Sapphic poetry on the formation of the Hellenic league, a re-examination of the names for coloured dyes middle chronology Mesopotamia employed, and other grab-bag attempts at classicist relevance and what-have-yous. Academia is a ship sinking in an ocean of sweat, and it smells just as muffled.
Finally, the woman sees the land-ho of her predicament. The humming green of the emergency sign and the hurrying figure, presumably leaving in the same manner any other does. A symbol of universal danger, though it is never shown what this nameless runner is running from. A beast, a fire, an army? That’s too specific, isn’t it — these are things you could possibly face and fight and defeat. So, what else to run from but himself? The figure is a sign is the signifier — and he won’t be safe even when he’s left, because, paradoxical to his own existence, he is required to remain in danger. Which is more or less what happens to the woman, who finds herself staring at the disgraced professor.
“Hey, I made dinne–uhhhhhhh what did you do.”
The workshop, usually equipped with machines and materiel for the making of magical media, now also has a hole punched through reality. It’s seeping copious amounts of slime and that is definitely the worst thing a trans-dimensional doorway can do. Thematically, it’s the next logical step when it comes to Magicraft outfitting, but remember: the act of surprise is a more honest compass than the rational.
When a commenda was formed,
a swan feather and a handshake,
maybe a smile between the two,
officiated a single trading mission.
(An unofficial finger found its way
onto a pair of eager lips, exploring)
Outside that dusty Venetian office,
the sinking edifice becomes a feeling:
hope, confidence’s pendant. Though
it is anxiety that stops its swinging back.
One stayed precociously with the wares,
the other stayed with a silk heartache.
“The Dynasty has brought civilisation to the lowest corners of the galaxy. The truth of history fixates on our technology, our culture, our compassion. Yet, as you well know, there are some who would reject our native kindness. The Mutiny happened on this day, six years ago, an atrocity of betrayal. 13 of our discovered planets gripped their swords and slashed our Throats. They must be made to understand that only mercy will be met with mercy. And we will teach them through you, recruits, as you will be made merciless.”
Six years ago, I enlisted in the military. Two years later, I graduated as a pilot. Both ceremonies had the exact same set-up. Marshal-of-stars Goldenlove reading the same speech from a sheet of paper (even mistakenly saying “six years” again), a proud Ebru beside me mouthing along with the speech, Eeves smiling and waving despite the fierce scowl I shot him. Even the cheap plastic chairs that hurt my ass were exactly as I remembered. The only difference was that this time around, fewer seats were occupied: 87. 87 people didn’t survive, and none of their families were eligible for any recompense or grief leave simply because they were only recruits.