Voices of the Shattered Sun – Adienne’s Story (Part One)

Quiet and dark sat the small single-story farmhouse on the edge of Renfell Village, mirroring the landscape around its small fenced yard; the hardwheat-filled farmland that surrounded the house had once belonged to the original owners, but ever since they passed away, it had been sliced up by the bank that owned the mortgage and sold it all off in parcels to people looking to build new homes and get a taste of the country life.

Those original owners just so happened to be the grandparents of one Adienne Lyn Petersen, a young woman who had grown up inside the creaky little home. They had left her everything the bank didn’t already own, namely the farmhouse property, the furnishings inside of it, and what remained of the retirement Grandfather Caleb Petersen had set aside during his forty-five-year career as the town ritual healer, or sanare. If you’re wondering how much the amount was, suffice it to say that the amount would look a mite different to a single twenty-one-year old woman than it would to a seventy-six-year-old man with a family. Nevertheless, it would certainly be enough to keep Adienne fed and clothed for at least a few years, and if invested wisely, would help her get the education she needed to survive on her own.

Not that money seemed to matter much at the moment. In fact, the only thing that mattered was the awful silence inside the farmhouse. It was maddening. Although it seemed as though nothing in the house had physically changed in the last twenty years, the last six months alone had brought a whirlwind of changes to the Petersen home.

First, Eliza Jane, Adienne’s grandmother, had fallen ill and remained so despite all of Adienne’s and Caleb’s best efforts to help her condition improve. It was a bit expected: the Wilting disease had flared up all across the countryside the spring prior, and even Adi and her friend Owen Larsintry caught it, coughing and gagging for weeks on phlegm and gasping for air. Eventually, the symptoms disappeared. But in Eliza, they intensified. Caleb brought a mask filled with aetheris crystals from the sanareum to help Eliza breathe, but it did nothing to improve her bone-rattling cough. From perfect health to her deathbed, it only took two months for Eliza to lose her short-lived battle with the lung-ravaging illness. It was bad enough to hear her cough echo through the small farmhouse through all the hours of the day and night. It was all the worse to hear them suddenly fall silent as she passed on from life, suffocated by her body’s own natural defenses.

The funeral was short, and the flowers were beautiful; the Petersen’s didn’t lack for friends, but they lacked for family. Adienne had only known her grandparents since she was a small child, as the War had taken both her mother and father. In this, she was not unique. In fact, many of the friends who came to Eliza’s funeral had themselves lost parents and loved ones. The catastrophe that had caused the Wound alone not seventeen years ago had changed entire demographics overnight.

But with the loss of Eliza, Adi lost more than a grandmother. And Caleb had lost more than a wife.

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Caleb and young Adi.

Caleb seemed to soldier on, squaring his shoulders as much as he could and standing as the anchor Adi needed as she grieved. He continued as Renfell’s sanare for three months and three weeks more before he too passed away. One morning, he rose from his bed, greeted his granddaughter in the kitchen, kissed her forehead, and headed out the door with his coat on his arm. It was the last time Adi would ever see him alive. About halfway on his walk to the sanareum, Caleb Petersen collapsed on the side of the road, clutching his chest. A few days later, Adi would stand alone, so very alone, at the edge of her grandfather’s oak casket, unable to be comforted.

No matter how concerned they may have been about Adi’s future well-being, the crowd of friends eventually moved on. The only two familiar faces that promised to see her regularly was her grandfather’s accountant (naturally) and Owen Larsintry, her confidant and friend since childhood. At one time, other friends had teased her because of her relationship with the awkward boy.

But those friends had disappeared. Owen had not.

The lusphere shone above Adi’s left shoulder as she and Owen approached the dark farmhouse. The sound of crickets filled the air, punctuated with the sounds of their footsteps upon the gravel walkway. Adi’s eyes were red and puffy, but the tears had since burned away. They would no doubt return soon. The white light from the lusphere increased as Adi reached the front door, hovering from her shoulder to land gracefully upon the wrought iron brazier that hung bolted to the stone beside the wooden frame.

“Hey, Adi…” Owen said quietly, adjusting his spectacles. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay over tonight? I know I wouldn’t want to be alone right now.”

“I’ll be fine,” Adi said as she turned around, the phrase coming out for more distant than intended. “Like Maribel said, I… I just need to learn how to be strong… and independent…”

“Maribel can take her ‘strong and independent’ and violently kick it down the road,” Owen said. “That’s not good advice. In fact, that’s very bad advice, and I know you know that. You just lost your grandfather… And you’re not very distant from losing your grandmother, either. You know what I was like when my Da passed.”

“I know. And thank you for stating the obvious, wickhead,” she said, just daring a smile to cross her face. None did, though Owen appreciated the effort.

“See? Calling me names is making you feel better already. You can call me all the bad names you like all night, so long as it makes you happy. I should think this quiet house would drive you mad.”

Adi shook her head.

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From Pillars of Eternity (he had the right face 😀 )

“Owen, I’ll…” She sighed. “I’ll be fine. Really. I just need some time. Besides, I’ve already gotten used to the house being quiet. Papa would often return home after I was in bed, and he’d be off to work before I got up. And Nana was quieter than me before she got sick. It’ll just be… different.”

Bad different, I should think.”

“Maybe.”

“At least until school starts, right?” Owen said. “And then you’ll have plenty to keep your mind occupied. I’ll be over every night struggling to understand alchemy the way you do.”

Adi nodded.

“Taking the sanare exams won’t be the same without Papa’s help.”

“I’m sure my Ma would love to help you. You’ve seen her garden, you could come up with all sorts of strange mixtures with all the herbs and flowers she grows. All she’s lacking are the fancy glass cups. And what’s that copper thingy you have what looks like a bent raindrop?”

Flasks, first of all. And it’s called a retort.”

“Yeah, those.”

“I thought you said you’d taken an alchemy class before,” Adi said wryly.

“I said I’d used a mortar and pestle before,” Owen replied. “It’s pretty much the same thing.”

“I’m pretty sure it isn’t,” Adi said, producing her housekey from her jacket pocket.

“But it did make you forget about everything for a few seconds, didn’t it?”

Adi paused, giving Owen “the look”. She’d had many years practicing it, of course, with Owen being a familiar target.

“Nice try,” she said.

“I thought it was.”

“Really, though, thank you, Owen,” Adi said, folding her hands around the key. “But I’ll be fine tonight. I have some… personal things around the house that I have to set in order before tomorrow afternoon, and I thought I’d rather get them done sooner rather than later. It really will help me keep my mind off things.”

Owen paused, giving Adi “the look”. It was different from her “look”, much more suspicious of falsehoods and involved a greater arching of the right eyebrow.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay,” he said, taking a step towards the road home. “But… make sure to leave the lusphere on tonight.”

“Why?” Adi asked with a frown. “You planning on scaring me through my window again?”

“No, I was just…” Owen frowned and looked to the ground pensively, taking Adi by surprise. “I was just thinking… Grief and depression are a lot alike, they put you in the dark and force you to stay there for as long as they can. But lights can help keep the dark away. Even a literal light. I just don’t want to think of you hiding in your closet tonight, hiding in the dark. Illuminate thy sons and thy daughters afield with reflections of knowledge and starlight… I suppose your lusphere could act like a star tonight.”

Adi blinked.

“I didn’t think you paid attention in seminary,” she said.

“I do sometimes,” Owen said.

Adi stepped forwards and wrapped her arms around Owen, pulling him close. He gave off a nervous laugh and embraced her in return.

“I promise not to hide in the closet,” Adi said. “This time.”

“And no time afterwards,” Owen said. “Right?”

“Aww. But I have such a comfortable spot in there.”

Owen pulled back, pointing a finger at Adi’s face.

“Tears are okay. Hiding from them is not. No matter what that old fussbudget Maribel Corsel says.”

Adi nodded.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Anytime,” he said back.

Owen turned and walked down the gravel path and beyond into the dark of the evening, heading west beside the road towards the lake and his home. For a moment, Adi watched him go, allowing herself a moment to get her bearings. Although a bit overly dramatic at the best of times, Owen was growing to be more than a friend. The more that her family and friends disappeared from her life, the more he remained. Part of her was telling to truth; there were many boxes of her grandfather’s belongings to organize and send back to the sanareum. But there was no real deadline.

Maybe one day, she would have the courage to stop lying to Owen out of convenience. Maybe he would understand if he knew there was more than grief. Maybe he already did. She didn’t want to press the issue hard enough to find out. She would never know how to explain it.

*          *          *          *          *

Unlocking the door, Adi stepped into the dark living room with practiced steps. She whispered “lus’vai” to the sphere hovering at the doorframe, and it followed her inside, lighting up from pure white into a warm orange-yellow. Removing her jacket and placing it on the coatrack beside the door, a thought dawned on her that she never thought would arise: despite the farmhouse’s tiny two-bedroom size, it suddenly felt very spacious and empty.

Tears began to fill her eyes as she instinctively entered her grandparents’ room beside the front door. The inside of the room was always kept very plain and tidy by her grandmother, and it had remained that way in the time Adi’s grandfather had without her. Beside the bed was a box filled with the leather-bound journals Caleb had kept throughout his life, filled with detailed notes of his surgical methods and alchemical formulae. She grew up loving his handwriting and the style of his prose, always writing as if someone in the future were currently reading the words he wrote. His welcoming personality filled every page, no matter how scientific and precise the procedure described.

Picking up his very latest journal, Adi took a seat on the bed and turned the pages back three months and three weeks. Following many empty pages that represented so much pain and struggle, it simply read:

“The starlight of my heart faded away today.”

Page after page following this solemn line, the journal entries became less detailed and more obscure, lacking the charm of his storytelling ability. Anecdotes about his experiences in the sanareum and funny things his patients would say were noticeably absent. Instead, short remarks about the season or changes in the weather filled the pages, along with details of something Caleb rarely ever talked about: his regrets.

“My dear Adi is no longer a little girl,” Caleb wrote a week before his death. “Oh, that I could see her shine like the sun. She already aids me in ways I cannot describe. I love you, Adi. Would that I could tell you this more often than I already do. Your mother and father would have been so proud of the woman you have become.”

“Somehow you knew,” Adi said, tracing the words on the page with her finger. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have done… something. Anything.”

Being careful not to spill her tears on the delicate pages, Adi turned to the last journal entry Caleb ever wrote. The last line had no clarification:

“I could not solve it. Please take care of them.”

What was “it”? Some disease? Who was “them”? Caleb’s patients at the sanareum? Adi’s could only guess. But since the War, the sanareum of Renfell had seen fewer and fewer long-term cases, and of the ones that remained, only a handful had been under Caleb’s care. Naturally, they had all been transferred to the care of other sanares without a problem; Caleb’s healing abilities may have been supurb but they weren’t irreplaceable.

Adi sniffed, setting the book back down into the box. The lusphere silently continued to hover, its light mimicking that of brightly lit candleglow. But then, slowly, the sphere drifted off towards the bedroom door, leaving her in the dark.

“Lus’vai,” Adi whispered.

The command must have been too soft, as the lusphere didn’t deviate from its course.

“Lus’vai,” Adi said more intently.

The lusphere ignored her.

“Where are you… going?” she asked, standing.

The lusphere increased its speed as it exited the bedroom, turning right into the living room and then into the small kitchen. With complete precision, the lusphere descended to a few inches above the polished wooden countertop along the far wall and slowly turned a cold violet hue.

It only did this in the presence of danger.

“What?” Adi whispered, her hand clutching the focus that hung from her neck. She had no other weapon. But if something in the room threatened to hurt her, she would at least be able to tend to the wound in an instant. She spoke up, even though there couldn’t possibly have been space in the kitchen for someone to hide, even for a child. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”

No voice spoke up.

But something very small drew her eyes from across the room. Perhaps invisible at first, then strangely apparent in the shadows, and tiny pair of animal eyes met her own. They sparkled in the lusphere’s purple light, disappearing and reappearing as they blinked. There was no tapetum lucidum to reflect the light like the eyes of a rodent or cat, however. These eyes showed off a timid humiloid intelligence.

Adi took a step forward into the kitchen.

No, not timid. Fearful.

It was a child.

No, not a child. There was no way. It was too small to be a child. Yet, there it was, upon her grandparent’s countertop, cornered against the backsplash and a large box of funeral decorations. In the light of the lusphere, Adi could see the child’s long matted hair that clung to the head like a rag, a thick puffy shirt and baggy shorts made from mysterious materials, and a rucksack held together with a single small button that to which the child desperately clung. Whether it was a young boy or girl, Adi could not tell. It could not have stood taller than Adi’s thumb.

Not one more step from the countertop, and the child stammered in a light but hollow voice:

“S-Stop! Go away!”

The child’s voice cracked from the stress. Adi paused and stretched her hand towards the lusphere.

“Lus’varom,” Adi whispered, and the lusphere obeyed her at last, returning to its place over her shoulder and blushing from violet to a pleasant orange-yellow flicker. “I’ll not hurt you. Please don’t be afraid.”

This did not stop the child from crying. Tears were running down its cheeks, which Adi could now see very plainly.

“Where is Grandfather?” the child asked, grasping the bag in its lap.

“Grandfather…?” Adi asked. “You mean… my grandfather?”

My Grandfather!” the child nearly shouted, its voice cracking once again. “Where did you take him? Where is he?”

Adi stomach sank and tears welled in her eyes.

“I… I didn’t take him anywhere, he… Who… what are you…?”

“Go away!” the child cried again, curling up tighter against the corner. “Leave us alone!”

“Adienne?”

Adi’s eyes turned from the tiny child on the countertop to a voice that called out from somewhere above. The lusphere again quickly hovered towards the voice to her right and instantly turned deep translucent purple. This time, however, there was no one to see. At first. The voice came from above the cupboards, hiding somewhere behind the decorative crockery.

“Who… who’s there?”

Adi’s eyes darted back to the sobbing child, just in case someone had put a spell on the lusphere. But it was indeed still there, still panicked and cowering behind the rucksack. By the time she looked up at the cupboards, however, a small humil man had appeared. No, a boy, younger than Adi but certainly older than the child. “Who are you? Why are you asking about my grandfather?”

The boy took a seat on the very edge of the cupboard, no doubt putting on a brave face for one only a few inches tall.

“Is it true?” the boy asked. “Is he… gone?”

Adi wiped away a few tears.

My grandfather passed away, yes,” she said quietly.

“How?” came the question.

“His heart… well, it… gave up on him, I suppose.”

“Damn it,” the boy whispered, folding his arms.

“No, you’re lying!” the child screamed, standing to his feet. He didn’t release the rucksack, however. “Grandfather’s not dead! You’re lying! You took him somewhere!”

“Juni!” shouted the boy down to the child. Adi’s head spun from this strange conversation. “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Don’t you get us in trouble with Adienne!”

“I don’t care!” Juni continued. “I want him back right now! I want to see Grandfather! Bring him back!”

The boy rose to his feet, unhooking something from his waist.

“Juni, I said shut up! I will come down there and pound you until you stop shouting!”

“Okay, just stop, both of you!” Adi shouted, throwing her hands down and making both tiny creatures recoil in fear. The lusphere dipped and dived, throwing off multiple shades of red and purple. “Stop yelling and tell me who you are! Why do you want to know about my grandfather?”

The child stopped crying, looking up fearfully at Adi. The boy up above approached the edge of the cupboard again and folded his arms.

“He was our grandfather too,” the boy said. “He cared for us when no one else would. We would have been eaten by animals, or ran out of food and water. Juni would have died of the wilt if it wasn’t for him.”

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Adi asked. “Who are you?”

“My name is Kaelan. That’s my little brother Juni. We’re not family by blood. But we’re all brothers and sisters living here because of Grandfather.”

“Living here?” Adi asked. She frowned. “You live in my house?”

“It’s not your house,” said Juni, still defiant. “It’s Grandfather’s house. You live in it just like we do.”

“We just live… underneath it,” Kaelen said. “Out of sight. That’s where he told us to live. He made it comfortable for us. It’s warm and dry, and it keeps the wild animals out. We’re safe here from birds, cats, rats, farmers… Everything.”

Adi shook her head. Please take care of them. The words on the page were ringing in her ears. But there was no way. Adi had never seen any signs that her grandfather had ever kept a secret from her. Nothing like this.

“But what are you? You aren’t humil, are you?”

Kaelan fell silent.

“I don’t know. I was really little when my real parents died. They went out looking for others like us, and they… they never came back. I remember they used to say we were ‘ahm-bli-ree’. I… don’t know what it means, or how to spell it. Grandfather just called us his children.”

“Why would Papa keep something like this from me?” Adi said aloud. “Did… did my grandmother know about you?”

Kaelan shook his head.

“No,” he said. “We never talked to her. Grandfather said it was important that we stay hidden from… everyone.”

Adi pressed her fingers against her temple.

“I can’t believe this…” she said. “How many of you are there?”

“Thirteen,” Kaelan said. “That includes Juni and me. When we heard something happened to Grandfather, we didn’t know what to do at first. Everyone’s scared, especially the little girls. Lillie and I decided we were going to come talk to you in the morning, but…”

He paused with a sigh.

“…my blockheaded brother didn’t believe me when I told him what happened.”

Adi looked down at the poor broken boy sitting upon the countertop, still grieving and clutching his rucksack. Juni no longer looked up at Adi in fear or anger. He simply squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head downwards, concealing his face behind his hair. Adi’s countenance fell. She’d never seen anyone shaking from grief and fear, much less a child.

She bent down as low as she could, her face level with the boy’s.

“I’m sorry,” Adi said, resting herself against her knees. “It may not look it, but I’ve been crying all day. I miss my Papa and Mama.”

“You’re not like Grandfather,” Juni said bitterly. “You’re gonna kick us out and take everything away from us, and then we’ll all get sick and die, aren’t you?”

“No, that’s not true,” Adi said, shaking her head. “If my Papa taught me anything, it’s that we should always look out for each other. If he was your grandfather like he was my Papa, I’m sure he taught you that, too. There’s no way I can just… throw you out. If he told you that you belong here, then you belong here.”

“Really…?” asked Kaelan from up above.

Juni looked up, his eyes red and swollen.

“Yeah, of course,” Adi said, standing. “If everything you’ve told me is true. That, and assuming you’re not just black magick trying to trick me into giving away my grandparent’s house.”

“I’m not a trick!” Juni blurted.

“Y-Yeah, me neither!” Kaelan said. “It’s all true, promise! Wait just a second!”

Adi turned towards the older boy, and as she did so, Kaelan took a flying leap off the cupboard. In shock, she took a step backwards as a sudden tiny flash illuminated the kitchen, much like the flash of a small firework. The lusphere also panicked, flashing a violet warning and circling Adi’s head rapidly. In a split second, Kaelan had somehow “fallen” diagonally from the cupboard to the countertop in front of Juni, landing without harm. The lusphere returned to orange-gold.

“How… how did you do that?” Adi asked, stepping forward. Now she could clearly see that the older boy was indeed young, despite the deepness of his voice. He wore his dirty-brown hair shoulder-length similar to his younger brother. He dressed much the same way as well, although his jacket seemed much more padded and even armored in a dark but semi-reflective material along his arms, chest, and back.

“Practice,” he said confidently, looking up at Adi with a surprising amount of bravado.

“And aetheris crystals,” Juni whispered. “He’s not supposed to jump like that. Grandfather said so. Makes too bright a flash.”

Hush,” Kaelan replied. “You’re not supposed to tell on me.”

After a pause, he lifted his hand skyward.

“Here, shake my hand,” he said. “Then you’ll know I’m real.”

Adi smiled, lifting her hand. Gently, she took Kaelan’s hand with her forefinger and thumb. Spindly and bony but warm. Then, just to be sure, she squeezed her finger and thumb together  just tight enough around the hand and slowly lifted upwards.

“What are you…? Ah, ah! W-wait! Put me down!”

Adi obeyed right away, releasing her hold, and Kaelan dropped to his feet.

“Just had to make sure you’d react the right way,” Adi said with a giggle. “I’m pretty sure you’re real now.”

“That’s not fair!” Kaelan said, pointing an accusing finger. “Humph. Last time I shake your hand…”

Adi’s face showed remorse.

“I’m sorry, you’re right. I shouldn’t do things like that, should I? Teasing someone smaller than myself isn’t something my Papa would do.”

“No, he would,” Kaelan said. “But only to us older kids, when we do dangerous and stupid things.”

“Oh,” Adi said. “So… I have your permission?”

“Ye- N-no!” Kaelan spurted.

“You can be so dumb sometimes…” Juni said quietly.

Adi laughed.

 


 

So this is Adienne’s story! She will be Aeo’s great-great-great grandmother, born in a small village in Antiell only three years before the calamity that caused the Wound. Her story will lead to Aeo’s birthplace and reveal the source of his magickal abilities. I wanted to write something a little different in the timeline, I may or may not make this an important part of Aeo’s story (a sort of dual-timeline telling as Alyssum unfolds). However, lots of characters makes for tough reading, so I probably shouldn’t do that. I have enough characters in Alyssum as it is.

Still, I’m having fun writing, so depression hasn’t completely taken me.

Backstage Tales – Gaming Confessions

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My brain isn’t fully healed, and won’t be for a few weeks while the medicine my doctor prescribed slowly builds in my system. But it’s National Video Game Day, dang it! I must celebrate it! And I’m going to do that by writing down my Gaming Confessions in a precise and well-organized list (if, by precise and well-organized, I mean as organized by my brain right at this minute). It might not be in as much detail as I want for lack of time (I have a class to get to tonight unfortunately), but it’s fun regardless.

A Game Everyone Loves (But You Can’t Stand)

Sorry, all the people.

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I’ve tried. I really have. Dark Souls 2 and sit lonely and cold in my Steam library just waiting for me to try again, but I can’t. I know in my heart of hearts that the Dark Souls franchise just isn’t for me. The sheer joy that comes from clinching a boss with 1/4th of your health and no Estus remaining just doesn’t compare with the sheer disappointment of losing thousands of souls again and again after struggling through masses of vicious enemies only to get jumped on out of nowhere by that one dude you didn’t see. It’s like you’re choosing to play a game where your memory card gets corrupted and deletes your progress every time you die or rest at a bonfire. Combined with the lack of a clear jargon-free narrative and a menu and combat system that takes serious time to comprehend, I’ve just never been able to get into it.

Maybe it will click for me one day, and will hop on the bandwagon for Dark Souls 6. I hope so. Everyone seems to be having such a good time with Dark Souls.

A Game Everyone Hates (But You Love)

Yay!

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I played Spore way too much. I bought my first graphics card specifically so I could play this and Fable (I guess both games could tie here). This was before I had any idea the kind of shenanigans Peter Molyneux could get himself into with his big mouth. I knew nothing about Spore before purchasing it except that it looked like a truckload of fun, and it was. I’ve played way too many hours of this to count.

Looking back, I probably should have avoided this game and its broken promises. But when promised a “galaxy-in-a-box”, I tend to overlook the negative. I’m a sucker that way.

An Older Game You Haven’t Finished (And Probably Never Will)

Makes me sad.

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Kain’s betrayal, Cecil’s redemption from Dark Knight to Paladin, Edward the Spoony Bard, Palom and Porom’s sacrifice… Final Fantasy IV was a special game to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t play it until it was re-released with Chrono Trigger as Final Fantasy Chronicles, and Chrono Trigger got the better part of my fandom.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to give the game the attention it deserves, but if I do, you’ll hear it here first.

A Guilty Pleasure Game

This. Just this.

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Holy crap, I’ve gotten into this game this past weekend. It is so much fun. And I don’t even have a Playstation Plus account. If I had the money, I would seriously consider picking up the PC version and hook up my PS4 controller to it just so I could circumvent Sony’s stupid online connectivity and play with other people.

Yes. A game that I would willing play with other people.

Don’t get me wrong, Monster Hunter World is totally solo-able. But I don’t see me getting up there too high in rank without some help. Despite this, I will still happily long sword the crap out of rathians, radobaans, and nergigantes until my thumbs fall off. I came into the series on my PSP, and I’m loving every second of this complex slice-and-dice-the-monster simulator.

PETA, eat your heart out. I prefer to capture, anyway.

A Game You Really Love (But Haven’t Played in Years)

Oh man. Zelda time.

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I was 12. It was April. It wasn’t Christmas. My birthday had passed. I begged my Mom to get this game for me.

She actually did, Expansion Pak and all. I thank her to this day.

I haven’t played it in many years, but I watch speedruns of it regularly (they’re fascinating, check out MajinPhil for the latest tech in Majora’s Mask speedrunning). It’s incredible how easily they break through obstacles that I couldn’t figure out as a kid.

A Game You Never Play Seriously (But Others Definitely Do)

Remember how I hate multiplayer?

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Yeah. Starcraft 2. I’m in love with the co-op at the moment, don’t get me wrong. But I have neither the competitive drive nor the reflexes necessary to be a Starcraft player, much less a good Starcraft player. I am stunned at how necessary both speed and confidence are to play this game properly, and I have neither of those in any sort of capacity.

I know that Starcraft is an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But don’t mind me, I’ll just swim in the shallow end with the kiddies playing co-op missions and the campaigns over and over. I don’t mind. At least I don’t have carpal tunnel from all the micro.

A Game You Completed (But Hated By The End)

Yeah. Great beginning. Poor ending.

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Dead Island was what I wanted out of a zombie game. It was relatively open world, in an iconic locale, and I’d pick up weapons and loot from luggage and tiki bars, all the while smacking the crap out of undead beach-going corpses until my paddle broke. That is, until I got my electrified katana, and all was well with the world.

And then cliché story about paramilitary something-or-other, zombie wife, ‘kick the dog‘  trope downer ending sequel yadda yadda yadda… All the freshness of the ‘tourist resort turned zombie playground’ got sucked out by the vacuum of the story. I don’t think I’ll be playing it again, but I had my share of fun with it until the ending happened. Why do Colonels always gotta be the bad guys, huh? It’s like that rank has some stigma attached to it or something.

And despite almost being stuck in development hell for six years, Dead Island 2 is still coming. We’ll see if I end up playing it. After the whole Dead Island: Riptide pre-order debacle, I’m not sure I want to shovel any more money towards the company who thought that was a good idea.

A Game You Thought You’d Enjoy (But Definitely Didn’t)

Aww. I was so excited for this game.

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I was stunned speechless by the physics engine and all the pretty lights. I loved the voice acting and the motion capture. The first game was an original Star Wars story; sure, it may not have been canon-friendly, but it was one I was sure I wanted to continue.

By the end, I had had enough. With half the total playtime and a quarter the story of the first game, The Force Unleashed 2 was awful. Playing with the most confusing aspect of the Star Wars extended universe (aka cloning force users) and offering no concrete answers in return, it managed to resurrect the Gary Stu (or male Mary Sue) of Starkiller and make him even more powerful and angsty.

“You weren’t sure of you identity in the first game? Well, this time, you’re not even sure you’re a clone of the original guy or the real article that survived somehow! You squish AT-STs with your bare hands, but Vader controls you by your unstable emotions somehow!”

Yeah, wasn’t impressed, won’t be playing again.

A Game You Didn’t Think Was Meant For You (But Definitely Was)

I’m so glad I played this at least once.

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I’m not a COD player. I’ve only played Modern Warfare 2. First-person shooters are a struggle for me. So I don’t entirely understand what possessed me to pick up Spec Ops: The Line in the first place. It might have been on sale, and I think I was going through a phase.

According to critics (to whom I will defer for details about the combat system), Spec Ops: The Line isn’t the greatest military shooter. But I don’t think that’s why it was created in the first place. If you have the stomach to look at some pretty graphic imagery and understand that the game is trying to tell a very specific story about the realities of war and “heroism”, play this game.

I wouldn’t recommend a replay, although maybe it’s time I did just to take it all in again. But as an English major with great interest in the consequences of the modern Western military mentality (and the industry equivalent that seems to want to make gamers into soldiers), it was definitely for me.

A Game You Are Still Excited For (That Hasn’t Come Out Yet)

This one:

Square-Enix. Square-Enix, please. Please. It has to happen. You would shatter my heart and fill it with such happiness. Yes, it’s a fake trailer. But please make another Chrono game. And please make Janus the main character. He deserves to regain his memories. He deserves redemption. He deserves to be reunited with his sister.

We need to know the consequences of Serge’s actions in Chrono Cross. Did he and his friends free Schala for good, banishing Lavos forever to the darkness beyond time, thereby erasing its existence from history? Could the world even be the same without Lavos in it? Or does some part of the monster still exist in the world as long as humanity thrives?

I need to know.

I NEEEEED TO KNOOOOOW.

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Fill in the blank. Ha!

Anybody else want to fill out their Gaming Confessions before the day is through? 😀

Mental Chains – The Gauge of Death

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No, it is not.

I had a mild panic attack and a whole lot of depression this week. In fact, I’ve been in bed for the past two days (yesterday I don’t think I even got up to sit at my computer until 5 PM). It’s incredible the amount of energy drain currently going on. And I don’t see my doctor until next Tuesday.

Ugh. Slow medicine is slow.

I’m not sure my upload schedule for the next couple of weeks as I will be adjusting my medication again. Things are not working as they should. But I am alive, and I will write when I can. I’ve been distracting my mind with Starcraft 2 co-op mode and Monster Hunter World, both of which I would love to review.

So yeah. I can barely keep my eyes open right now. And yet my mind is buzzing away, daring me to think about negative things. Sucks.

Backstage Tales – A Reason to Game

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Hey everybody, I’m back. Sorta. I’ve emerged from a depression coma into a three-day weekend, so that’s an improvement in anyone’s book. Nothing medicine-wise has changed yet, however, so I’m still stuck in the same darkish mood. Accordingly, I’ve had a really hard time deciding on what to write; I promised Graveyard Keeper, but something about the game is really bugging me, and I can’t explain it. Hopefully for the next blog I can iron it out.

Instead, I wanted to expand upon an answer I recently wrote for Quora, as I felt I wasn’t entirely truthful about my feelings. I’ll post my answer as I wrote it and add more to it, and hopefully it won’t feel like a rambling mess by the time I’m finished. The question I answered went like this:

——–

Does playing video games feel pointless and unproductive to you? Why or why not?

“Very much yes. And very much no. And also absolutely not.

“Very much yes, because (as my Dad would put it) the hundreds of hours I’ve put into Skyrim, Diablo, and Escape Velocity could have been spent honing more practical abilities, such as writing, playing an instrument, or picking up a more hands-on hobby like leatherworking, sculpting, or sewing. While these hobbies are expensive and often require a mentor, I don’t like to comprehend the amount of dollars I’ve put into my Steam library searching for what I hope will become my next favorite time-absorber.

“Very much no, because my electronic hobby has enabled my depressed mind to take a step back from itself and literally voyage into other worlds. For someone with depression and social anxiety, games like Final Fantasy XIV has allowed me to become part of a group of people that enjoy the same game and want to experience it with other fun-loving drama-free people. Minecraft has allowed me to become a kid again and share an infinite blocky world with friends and family in a way that would be prohibitively expensive if we did it with Legos, wood, resin, or metal.

“Absolutely not, because video games have helped me become a more confident and critical reader and writer. I love the medium of video game storytelling because I’ve experienced the shock of betrayals, story twists, and character revelations in an arguably stronger way than books can. Books allow you to follow a protagonist, movies allow you to see the protagonist, but only in video games are you allowed to be the protagonist and experience stories in a way no other medium has yet to share.

“The first time I experienced the climax of Bioshock was something I’ll never forget. Although a little formulaic, the first Knights of the Old Republic reveal really got me good. And the climax and ending to Spec Ops: The Line is something I thought could only dared be done on paper or on the big screen (there’s a reason the game developers promised to never create a sequel). Sure, you get floppy story structures like Fallout 4’s main story. But in the same game, you get the tragedy of Arlen Glass and the challenging of the concept of personhood and personal identity (what is a synth?). As the medium evolves, the stories will improve, and they’ll continually challenge us and our assumptions about what makes good fiction.

“Video games are just like any entertainment medium: it’s up to us to determine what we make of them. From Madden and Arkham Knight to Borderlands 2 and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, they all have a purpose. Find some that suit yours!”

———-

I’ve probably talked about this at length in previous posts, but I think it’s been long enough. There’s another aspect to my love for video games that is perhaps larger than all of the ones I stated in my answer that I couldn’t have covered properly in a Quora answer. And that involves my depression and how I deal with it.

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Madness? Insert ‘this is Sparta’ meme here.

I’ve always fancied myself a very independent person, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. I simply like to be alone, as being in a large group of people is uncomfortable to me, even if the crowd is made up of friends and family. If I can be home free of distractions at my computer listening to my favorite music and playing my favorite games, that’s where I’m going to be. That’s my default. Is that healthy? No, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Would I prefer that I spend my time honing my writing skills, or drawing, or leatherworking, or learning to play the guitar? Some part of me thinks so, but whenever I sit down by myself and don’t distract my mind as soon as possible, I open myself up to negativity the moment I take a seat.

So I’m damned: do I force myself to enjoy the company of others, building up more and more mental tension inside myself until I go crazy from the social drain, or do I confine myself to a solitary existence, playing the victim to my own treasonous thoughts? My answer is neither. My answer is to distract my mind with as many digital micro-goals as I can focus on to avoid the spiral of depression. Beat this level, obtain this item, talk to this NPC… ever on to the next thing.

This answer has always been a crutch of mine, a backdoor in case someone demands why I waste so much time on my computer. An excuse. But it’s really the only one I’ve got. Let me give you an example of how awful this is.

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This exact one.

Right next to me sitting on my desk right now if a leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping on and off since 2011. It’s currently a little more than halfway full. My journals have been the source of my worm drawings and are filled with little cartoons and doodles. But if you ignore all the cute pictures and actually read the words I’ve written over the years… It’s not really pretty. I only write in my physical journal when I’m really bored or really depressed, sometimes both. This does not make for a very fun and optimistic read. In fact, I’m hoping that no one reads what’s in my journal for many many years, long after the sting of my emotions has passed.

My previous journals are very similar, especially my mission journals. I was a much happier person on my mission mostly because I didn’t have the burden of my mind keeping me occupied all the time. I had a constant companion and friend that kept the thoughts in check. Of course, even then, I had my off days, not to mention how devastated I felt after I came home early because of kidney stones. My journal writing stopped for a good two years after I came home, starting up again when I got a handle on life.

A handle made of det-cord.

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Now, ten years after I returned home from Los Angeles, I have no companion to help me monitor my thoughts. And the thought of asking a girl on a date and going through the motions of all that again fills me with such dread that I am loathe to think what kind of man I would appear to be if I actually went through with it. Certainly not one I would consider for a healthy long-term relationship with. But there’s my anti-me bias again.

And there the book ever sits, always inviting me to write in it but ever filling with the most negative of my thoughts and anxieties. I’m writing a testament of my own darkness. I’m an observer of my own life, and nothing more, because the alternative to too difficult for me to comprehend.

A few blogs back, I said I would never throw a pity party for myself because of my depression. That I wasn’t a “snowflake Millennial” for all of my experiences. And yet so many of my male peers seem to be going through the same thing for similar reasons. How can I resent a descriptor that is so lock-step with my experience? Video games are wonderful things filled with incredible experiences and innovative systems, but when they come at the cost of my personal health, I begin to wonder if there’s anything I can actually do instead. I always have a choice to play or not. That’s not the question. It’s more of a question of what I would replace video games in my life. And nothing else compares. Not even writing, and I love writing… when I’m not depressed.

Let me tell you, the journal sitting next to me is not an appealing alternative.

Have I chosen my hobby or has my hobby chosen me? Do I play for fun or do I play to survive? I think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Is it bad that my gaming hobby (call it an addiction if you wish) is the only activity I consider strong enough to distract the negativity in my mind? Or is it just sad?

And in the end, is there anything that I will do to try and change?

No, not really. I suppose that’s why you could call it an addiction. I’m not even brazen enough to say, “I can quit whenever I want.” I fully admit to being dependent on my hobby to remain sane. But if my chosen hobby were leatherworking, music, or even writing, would it be any more preferable? Or safe?

Hey, at least I’m not doing hard drugs.

…or am I?

Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

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I’m not quite ready to give a full review of Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games; I’m about eight hours in, and I can’t stop playing. Just know that I’m missing a lot of time in Minecraft and Final Fantasy XIV performing autopsies, burying “sinless” corpses in the local graveyard, throwing “sinful” corpses into the river, and giving sermons at the local church in the hopes that someday mods will be developed that make this already very engrossing game perfect.

So yeah, I guess that’s a good early review, at least.

I’ve never played a game that gives you the gameplay options it does without throwing out the following message in nearly any way:

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I say nearly because the main character, the titular graveyard keeper, upon learning what his job entitled (namely, the dismemberment and disembowelment of human corpses in order to dispose of them) complains about it. Just once, though. After that, you, the player, are free to harvest all that meat, blood, bone, and brain matter to your heart’s content (and the corpse’s heart’s content, too, don’t forget those). No need to worry, however. It’s all in the name of… SCIENCE. Besides, they’re dead; they’re not going to need all those entrails and flesh. Why not put them to better use instead?

If you’re at all familiar with Fallout 3, you might remember the story of the little town of Andale and the families that lived there: not only were the only two remaining families incredibly inbred, but their source of food in that dark urban wasteland was none other than the visitors and raiders that happened upon the small collection of still-standing homes and shacks. Don’t agree with the lifestyle the residents of Andale enjoy? Don’t worry, you’ll soon change your mind… once they invite you to dinner.

You get one but two trope/memes out of Andale: “DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT” and “STAY OUT OF MY SHED” (specifically SHED.MOV, NSFW but entertaining). Choosing the “good” ending for Andale ends with defending yourself from these well-dressed and well-mannered knife-wielding maniacs.

The Wanderer: “Bring home the bacon? Those are people, not bacon! What the f-ck?”

Jack Smith: “Hey! I’ll have none of that language in this house!”

The Wanderer: “I can’t believe I’m being called a potty mouth by a cannibal…”

Jack Smith: “Okay, that’s it. I warned you. Now I’m going to sock your jaw, mister.”

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Mmm, strange meat.

Unfortunately for Jack, his wife, and his neighbors, death by the Wanderer’s combat shotgun and his companion Charon ensues. Yes, that’s the “good” ending, the murder (admittedly in slightly self-defense) of all the cannibal adults. The two children go to live with their grandpa Old Man Harris (yes, they are cousins, and they were set to be married once they grew up, meaning their parents were siblings, incest did in fact occur…). From one point of view (the karma-aligned “good” choice), these children will grow up as normal as one can in the Wasteland without the influence of their cannibalistic lineage. But at the same time, while the parent’s crimes were great, these children are left bereft of their parents in a very unforgiving world without a source of food, employment, or protection. Would Old Man Harris and the children abandon Andale? Likely, if only to distance themselves from their destructive heritage. Will they move to Rivet City or Megaton for protection? Likely, as Andale is fairly remote and dangerous for an old man and two kids. Will they all have trouble integrating into normal society? Very likely; the only contact with the outside world the children had was with visitors that disappeared pretty quickly and reappeared as a breakfast menu item.

Of course, the binary karma system of Fallout 3 doesn’t take into account many of these particulars, and time constraints in game design mean the family never moves away from Andale in-game, despite how little sense it makes to remain there. In Black-And-White-Land, cannibals = bad and dead cannibals = good, no matter the other consequences.

Old Man Harris: “Better an orphan than a cannibal I guess?”

Graveyard Keeper, on the other hand… is definitely not Stardew Valley.

Right after learning how to butcher- er, autopsy a corpse, you’ll learn how to cook! And what’s the first thing you’ll learn how to cook? Baked meat! And where does this baked meat come from?

…th-the corpses!?

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Just don’t tell ’em you’ve turned into a cannibal. Keep that on the way down low.

Worse, you learn that the village for which you gravekeep is in the midst of a meat shortage, and the only way you could sell meat is if you had a royal stamp proving that it was well-sourced and fit for human consumption. After all, there’s been rumors going around of someone forging a stamp and selling suspicious meat… and we wouldn’t want to be caught selling strange meat, would we? No, especially since everyone’s pretty sure the Graveyard Keeper doesn’t own livestock! Haha! No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?

But we can. That’s a thing you can do in Graveyard Keeper. Not only are you encouraged to chop up and eat corpse meat (for a guy from the present day looking to return to his own time, he sure takes to cannibalism like a duck to water), you can “disguise” the meat with a royal stamp and sell it to the tavern owner as “legit” packaged meat for a pretty good profit. And as long as you toss the bodies into the river or cremate them afterwards, the bodies from which you procure the meat won’t spoil your pristine graveyard with all their icky red skull “sins”.

And you get all of this without a single hint of this:

I’m not sure which is worse: Fallout 3 with its ambiguous and overly-simplistic expressions of morality, or Graveyard Keeper with its unambiguous uncomplaining evil that would become obvious to even the most ignorant villager if they tailed behind the graveyard keeper for even half a day. In Fallout, you can choose to be a raider or a slaver, and spend all day slapping slave collars around the necks of children and the elderly. You can murder almost every NPC you meet. These are things you can do. In Graveyard Keeper, you can strip the skin off of the recently deceased and refine it into sheets of paper upon which you can write a church sermon to present to your ignorant congregation. You can turn human flesh into delicious burgers that restore your energy. These are things you can do.

But one game tells you what you’re doing is evil and one doesn’t. Two important questions: should a game alert you when you’re doing “bad” things? And should the game be responsible for telling the player what they’re doing is evil?

#1: I don’t think so.

#2: I believe so, to a point. What that point is depends on the message the game wants to send. And Graveyard Keeper is anything but a solemn soul-searching narrative of inner darkness.

Of course, Fallout 3 and Graveyard Keeper are two entirely different beasts, and not entirely comparable. But I find it fascinating how cannibalism in Fallout is a trait that must be sought out and used, all consequences be damned… And in Graveyard Keeper, it’s pretty much acknowledged from the beginning that harvesting meat from the dead is a good and expected way to make money. Is this lack of a “morality system” a fault on GK’s part? Or is the ambiguity the only thing that separates it from Stardew Valley and other resource management and crafting games?

I’m not sure! But time willing, the game’s review will be my next blog!

Theories of a Gamer – The Protagonist

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Are you familiar with the “Valve Narrative Formula”?

Y’know, the “Valve Narrative Formula”. It goes like this: your game is a first-person shooter where the only evidence for your character’s identity are the arms that carries the guns and possibly the reflections you see in mirrors/portals. Other than that, the protagonist is embarrassingly silent through their entire stressful ordeal, presenting the non-player characters as the almighty bearers of total narrative structure and progress.

Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are mirrors of the player, meant to say nothing and meant to be nothing besides a moving camera for the player to experience the story unfold around them. A story, I might add, that would have been radically different had the main character been given a voice with which to protest and reason. I mean, from nerdy nuclear physicist in a hazard suit to a one-man global-alien-regime-toppling army? Only in a video game. In fact, I would make the argument that Half-Life 2’s real protagonist is Alyx Vance, because the real character development (and loss of family, spoilers I guess) belongs to her – if Gordon Freeman lost family to the Resonance Cascade and subsequent Seven Hour War, he never remembers it in a flashback or reacts to it and the player never sees evidence of it. And for Portal 2’s case, I think you’ll find that GLaDOS is the one that develops from a cold and calculating AI murderbot to a cold and calculating AI murderbot that allows Chell her freedom. For GLaDOS, that’s saying something.

Most voiceless protagonists (especially the ones who use bigger and ever bigger guns to do the talking for them) are placed in a world where reason and compromise have been thrown out of window. For the Doomslayer, there are no words that will eradicate the forces of Hell (or force the enigmatic Samuel Hayden to back down from exploiting Hell for its power). For Samus Aran, you can’t talk your way out of a metroid’s maw (unless you make her into an overly dramatic and badly written character like in Metroid: Other M). For Chrono or Serge from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, let’s face it… your friends are going to talk for you, just nod and say yes (but they might just abandon you once you’re dead anyway). And as it turns out, Link is either too early to save Hyrule (Ocarina of Time), too late (Wind Waker), or just plain under-prepared (all of them, but especially Breath of the Wild for plot reasons), but he gets the courage to fight all the same.

Everyone has the same argument. Which one is better: a voiced protagonist that holds the plot hostage just like a movie or first-person novel protagonist would, or a voiceless protagonist upon which the player can mirror themselves and make their own decisions? And then what about voiced characters that speak according to the choices you make? Does the fact that Lara Croft and Nathan Drake can speak make Tomb Raider and Uncharted any less fun? Does the voiced protagonist in Fallout 4 take you further into or further out of your immersion? Does a voiceless protagonist make you wonder what your motivations are supposed to be beyond “do thing, get loot, level up, hooray”?

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Onward, Epona #75! I can’t afford to pay 1,000 rupees to the Horse God!

But instead of all those well-trod arguments, let’s instead turn the voiceless protagonist trope on its head: what if you have a main character that is an absolute chatterbox, won’t stop talking to himself (or herself) about everything he (she) observes and experiences, makes all the decisions for himself (or herself)… and is surrounded by “NPCs” that have no voice, no emotion, and no personality? Or, better yet, what if they develop a personality based on the kinds of inputs and interactions the player has around and with them?

Could this be fun and entertaining, or in the very least, not annoying?

A game that comes to mind first off (that is certainly not annoying) would be What Remains of Edith Finch and other games that could be called “walking simulators” . The narration in the game comes solely from Edith revisiting her childhood home for the first time in many years, and retelling all of the stories she heard and lessons she learned while living there as a child. But that kinda breaks the rules, as all the other characters presented have “voices” all their own as you learn their stories. No, I’m talking about a game where the characters have little to no personality besides what the player can reflect onto them instead of the other way around.

The first type of this game that comes to mind is a person who starts off sane, but starts talking to random objects around their office/cubicle/workshop/tool shed/submarine/nuclear launch bay/presidential bunker and gives them personalities by talking to themselves at first, then to the objects themselves as they go slowly insane from boredom or isolation. The isolation would be necessary to maintain an excuse for the lack of actual active NPCs, and the tone could turn anywhere from comedic and light-hearted “oh look the shiny red button is talking to me” madness to tragic “why won’t all the voices stop” madness. I think a game like this would either require a very talented team of writer/designer/programmers who know how to take dialogue and mix it up so that every game is a unique, player-driven experience, or a team of writer/designers working to tell a very specific story about isolation, mental illness, the power of boredom, or all of the above. An example of this (but only kind of) would be the Lab Rat comic from the Portal series; poor Rattman has only one friend in the whole world left, and he slowly hears the voice of his bestest friend in the whole world (the Companion Cube) go silent right when he needs him the most after he takes his antipsychotic meds.

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The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.

Another idea that comes to mind would be more akin to the whale from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxya character that is so brand-new to the world that they start giving names to objects they see, and then giving them personalities based on what you think they do (naturally everything will HAVE to be taste-tested first). I think it would be rather silly to be in control of an infant learning about the world while the thoughts going through the baby’s head sounded very excited and slightly British, but that’s just my enthusiasm for Douglas Adams. Again, it would have to take place during a period of isolation, in a crib or a playroom, some place without other active NPCs. Maybe you can meet an object that hurts you or smells bad, creating a negative personality that then calls you bad names, making you upset enough to cry and call for Mom, which would reset the experience. Again, you could set the tone to be light-hearted and funny or as tragic and terrible. It reminds me of Among the Sleep if you’re angling for horror, as experiencing a dark and stormy night as an infant can be a very frightening experience.

Just a thought exercise, that’s all. What other ideas come to mind when you play a chatterbox protagonist surrounded by mute companions?

Edit: It just occurred to me that my theory put into practice could produce something like Bubsy 3D. Heaven help us.

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Mental Chains – A Bit More on Shame

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In response to my last blog, which was written mostly out of frustration at what I was feeling and what I was thinking, I wanted to clarify a bit more by what I mean by ‘shame’. When you hear the word ‘shame’, you often hear it in the context of someone pointing a finger at a politician and declaring “shame on you” after they’ve done something reprehensible. If caught red-handed, you’ll also hear that politician say, “I am ashamed of my actions” (whether they are or aren’t is entirely another issue, haha).

But that’s not really the kind of shame I’m describing. It goes farther than feeling ‘shame’ for what you’ve done, and goes into feeling shame for who you are. In fact, it feels like there should be an entirely separate word for this kind of fully internalized shame in the English language. But alas, English is again inefficient at describing something that’s such a big part of my life at the moment.

This article by Behavioral Health Evolution about shame-based thinking is exactly it: “The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects. Without realizing it, we become continual victims of shame-based thinking. Every day, we focus on our failures. Every day, we re-convince ourselves that we are defective. Our thoughts become riddled with judgment, regret, and images of impending failure. When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity.”

(Speaking of continual victimhood, here’s my one potentially-political viewpoint for this blog, and I put it in parenthesis because it’s unrelated but relevant; I’m “covering my bases,” you could say, for the future. For those of you who stumble on this blog and think you spy yet another “precious snowflake Millennial” looking to play the depression victim card in order to gain some kind of advantage in life, that’s real cute. First of all, you read nerdy WordPress blogs to search out people to belittle? Second, “snowflake”, “Millennial”, and “victim card” are all modern buzzwords whose use identifies you more than they identify me. Third, am I not human? Are you not human too? Get over yourself and seek to connect with someone instead of putting them down. I promise to do the same for you. Fourth, I fully realize that I’ve chosen to be a victim many times in my life, and I have yet to find the ways it gains me any kind of leverage. In fact, the only advantage my depression gives me at all is an increased feeling of empathy for those that have depression. Everyone goes through some soul-searching every once in a while, and those that don’t are selling something.)

(More than a few times on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve seen people arguing against someone with a mental illness, insisting that they’re using their “victim complex” as an excuse to slack off or think differently. I’ve even seen this beloved clip from The Princess Bride used as a weapon to attack people with mental illness. It makes me sick every time I see it. If these “victim complexes” exist among my age group as deeply as you think they do, your first course of action is to indulge them and actually make them victims of your “righteous” indignation? Or, if you believe that mental illness is more than just a petty excuse, you’re choosing to attack and devour the weakest among us anyway? Do you not know the power that anonymous words on the internet have over the introverted? Isn’t there enough shame in the world for those that deserve it that you feel the need to pass some more around just for good measure?)

(Anyway. I’m not arguing against the existence of a “victim complex”, because, to be honest, that’s what the shame cycle is: a self-inflicted victimhood. Nine times out of ten, you don’t have to point this out to anyone with a mental illness. No, I’m arguing against anyone shaming those that dare wear their hearts on their sleeves and share their personal experiences with mental illness. One in five of us suffers from some form of mental ailment. If you’ve never suffered an inexplicable panic attack in a public place, endured depression or PTSD huddled alone in a dark closet, or finance and relationship-ruining mania in your long and storied life, consider yourself blessed.)

(For everyone else, thank you for reading my rant, and I will continue.)

The article shares the following examples of shame-based thinking:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).
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“Why you desire to wipe out the past is of more significance than knowing how to wipe it out. The intention with which you approach the problem is more important than knowing what to do about it.”

“Shame develops as the slow, relentless accumulation of such thoughts,” the article continues, “one self-insult at a time, delivered to ourselves over weeks, months, and years. Notice that each of the previous statements starts with the words I am. This reinforces our definition of shame as a state of being that goes far beyond anything we do or fail to do.”

I didn’t reach the point I’m at now in a single day. This kind of self-punishing thinking is something I’ve developed for many years, possibly through my entire life. I remember my mom asking me once, “Where and when did you learn to think about yourself this way?” I didn’t have an answer for her, and I still don’t. It really did come gradually until one day I realized I hated myself and that my brain had tricked itself into believing a lie: that I had to be a perfect, mistake-free being in order to be whole.

And this shame cycle isn’t solely concentrated on the self alone: it colors how we view everyone around us as well. The article points to other authors and their views that shame spreads itself around; shame-based thinking can lead to:

  • Negative explanations of other people’s behavior
  • Dire predictions
  • Selective focus on negative aspects of events
  • Doubt in coping skills
  • Rigid rules about how people should behave

I may not be the brightest light in the sky, but I don’t believe I have these negative beliefs about the intentions of other people; in the very least I haven’t developed them in the last ten years since I’ve come to understand myself and my depression. In fact, I find the “rigid rules” part to be surprising, because if anything, my feelings about letting people live the life they want to live has actually loosened quite a bit since my mission – “live and let live,” I say. But maybe that’s not what it means, I’ll have to do more research. “Selective focus on negative aspects of events”, on the other hand, I do see quite a lot in myself. When something bad happens (or when an event has the potential for badness to occur), I don’t often think about what good could arise from it. I don’t see the silver lining in the clouds.

As for solving my shame-filled thoughts… maybe I’ll save that for another day. I’m already running late on this blog, and I won’t use the release of the one on Friday as an excuse to release this one tomorrow! I shan’t!

I apologize for my scatterbrain brain scatter (that word is legitimately a single word, according to Google, neat), and Thursday’s blog will be more joyous and game-filled!

Mental Chains – Guilt, But Mostly Shame

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Getting to the heart of depression and anxiety is always difficult.

Firstly, the mind is really good at tricking itself, hiding the real problem in plain sight and digging around it in search of a fast solution. Being honest with yourself can be very difficult since the reality of self is so easily obscured by depression. “I’m fat, I’m ugly, no one likes me,” I may say. Or, more deceptively, “I feel this way because of all the times I’ve screwed up.” Often, the number, severity, or amount of time since the perceived mistakes will be irrelevant. The mere memory of them will cause a downward spiral that can feel impossible to escape from. Without the ability to look on the bright side of just about anything, how could anyone be expected to rise above the strength of such thoughts?

Don’t get me wrong – my medications have been sent from heaven, and help me feel 1000% more in control of my mind than I would had my doctors and I never discovered the correct cocktail. But that doesn’t mean every day is filled with rainbows and unicorns. In fact, yesterday (Thursday), I could not pull myself out of a day-long pit caused by pain and discomfort, namely the inability to breathe and a bad headache right in between my eyes.

Anyone would get down from pain like that, I suppose. But my pain wasn’t the true source of my depression. It was the one-two punches of guilt and shame that came with my inability to function that knocked me out.

Simply put, guilt is the negative feeling associated with acting in a certain way contrary to your personal principles. On Thursday, I failed to make it to work. Accordingly, I felt guilt for not having been the faithful and dependable employee that my supervisor and co-workers (hopefully still) expect me to be. “Well,” you might say. “Why didn’t you just go to work? You would have avoided all that guilt if you’d just gone and done your work!”

True, sure. Guilt is a powerful motivator to do better, to improve, to actually act correctly. But you’re missing the second reason for my depression: shame.

Shame isn’t feeling sadness and fear due to your actions or choices. It’s feeling sadness and fear because of who you are, resultant of a poor evaluation of self. As this article by Jay Boll for Esperanza entitled “Shame: The Other Emotion in Depression and Anxiety
describes, “Shame is sometimes confused with guilt. But there’s an important difference.  Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior, while shame arises from a negative evaluation of one’s self. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, while shame is the feeling of being wrong.  As such, guilt can be a powerful motivator to change one’s behavior for the better. Shame can have the opposite effect, making a person feel that change is hopeless because the problem is one’s self.  This is what makes shame such a toxic emotion.”

Perhaps to my detriment, guilt is the lesser of the two evils, and the one feeling that gets ignored. I wouldn’t make the choices I do otherwise. I feel ashamed of the person I am, and so it is my innate reaction to any negative emotions to withdraw and become insular. From that shame comes the guilt of not having done what I promised to do, and it spirals in on itself until I’m pretty much not able to do anything at all.

“Victims of trauma and abuse are especially susceptible to toxic shame,” Boll continues. “But it does not take an abusive childhood or severe misfortune to experience dysfunctional levels of this emotion. More often, it results from shaming messages we receive from parents, teachers, other authorities, and peers that we internalize and tell ourselves over-and-over.”

Believe me, I have a lot of negative shaming messages in my brain that it just relishes to replay again and again, some from my mission, some from work, and some from school. I have many negative interactions with teachers, for example, that make me internally shy away from classroom settings, and make me hesitate to raise my hand or ask for assistance. It’s why I’ve done so poorly in classes and why the upcoming semester (that starts Monday) fills me with such dread, even though I’m only taking one class.

Know why I hate talking about politics so much? Shame. Know why I have such difficulties talking about religion with other people who aren’t my immediate family? Shame. Know why I’ve quit or lost work opportunities, preferring to be caught dead than be seen losing control of my emotions? Shame. Know why I haven’t been on a date in over ten years? Shame. Know why I continually fail to show up to church a decade after coming home early from serving my mission? It’s shame. Shame for failing to become the strong and independent individual I had half a mind to become after I graduated high school. I feel shame for not being stronger than my bipolar depression without chemical assistance, shame for not being more outgoing in my personal life, shame for liking video games and daring to believe myself a writer or game designer. I feel shame for being politically open-minded but innately conservative, I feel shame for being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, and I feel shame for all these powerful emotions of sadness, anger, and fear that I’ve been told I’m not supposed to feel as a man. I even feel shame for suffering from things I have no control over, like sinus infections, colds, and possibly even sleep apnea (this is being investigated at the moment).

But you know something? While there are many different people I can blame for the many unpleasant memories that flood my mind every time depression returns, I know my enemy isn’t external. It’s internal. It’s the shame that I don’t know how to process. It’s the ideal, impossible, perfected “me” that I’ve envisioned that keeps the real me from finding happiness in the moment. It’s taken me fifteen or so years to understand where my anger and sadness comes from, and it’s nearly impossible for me to communicate this clearly enough to be understood. I can’t even describe these things to my parents without receiving looks of confusion and concern.

I wish shame were some small thing to step over. But it’s not.

The story in the article about Mr. Boll being called “Twinkle Toes Boll” by his teacher in sixth grade despite the fact that he had been born with a clubfoot is intensely fitting with my experience. But in the deepest recesses of my reluctant heart, I know that the people who have shouted me down might have reconsidered their critical tone had they known me and my experiences. But, of course, this is impossible. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are the name of the game in this wonderful world of ours, and unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know I have moderately functional bipolar depression. No, I imagine you’d just see an undermotivated, unimpressive, and overweight male Mormon college student with a patchy beard.

That’s all I imagine my teachers and “friends” saw, too.

Speaking of his realization that he had overcome both his physical weakness and the bullying he experienced, Boll continues, “Both discoveries are instances of cognitive restructuring. In the first, I reframed my experience of shame into pride by having the compassion for myself that the ‘shamer’ never showed me.  In the second, I devalued the shamer by seeing him through other people’s eyes as the bully he really was. The sad truth is that many bullies are also driven by toxic shame, which they disavow by projecting onto others.”

This is difficult for me, since I have neither avenue of reframing available to me. I have neither friends suffering with me to let me know I’m functioning any better than anyone else with Bipolar Type-2, and I don’t have the fortune of knowing that my bullying experiences were like anyone else’s. I’ve never had a therapist ask me, “How are you able to get to work at all with what you’re experiencing?” Just once I’d like someone to acknowledge how hard I try to manage everything going on in my life, but of course no one really knows but me, so what’s the point?

How do I reframe my experiences to help me feel better about my place in life? And do I truly have to reframe every single memory that arises in my head to finally find peace?

Honestly, that sounds impossible. I suppose I’m going to have to go back to a therapist to work through this, because it’s affecting my everyday life. And that means time and money, two things I have just NO shortage of (#sarcasm).

Sorry for a hopeless extra blog today. Just a lot of sadness and frustration in my life at the moment that I don’t know how to process. Writing it out helps. Sort of.

My 100+ Hour Tale – Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

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On Tuesday, I finished the main story quests of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (I got the end credits and everything), and now I feel that the game can truly begin with the expansions of Heavensward and Stormblood. But before I continue, I wanted to condense my thoughts about the base game as much as I can and share what I think works in this MMORPG and as well as what things I’ve seen that have been done better in comparable titles.

Here is my Warrior of Light, Jerik Noa:

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Sing, O sing, ye Candidus Fellows, unto the pure Light of Dawnbreak!

And yes, with the conclusion of the final story quest, I just received another bottle of Fantasia, so I might be changing into a female character soon. They just seem to have so many cooler fashions and styles available, besides the fact that I usually prefer to play female characters (I’ll have to write an article about my thoughts of gender in video games, especially in games where you customize your character down to the freckles on their cheeks; although, come to think of it, that approaches the unassailable gates of feminism and political discourse, and we all know how prepared I am for those topics). I’m thinking a Mi’qote, as that was the first race I played as when I first picked the game up, although the thought of playing a hardass Dark Knight Lalafell is hilariously intriguing. I would be playing a nightmare-fueled spikey-armor clad toddler with a three foot soul-sucking blade that just wants a hug.

Is that racist? That seems racist. Can you be racist against fictional fantasy races? I mean, it’s no better than my character now: whenever I change job classes to weaver or goldsmith, I suddenly become Eorzea’s most frightening butler, complete with cummerbund and necktie. Mi’qote just seems like the right middle road between plushy-adorable and mildly-threatening.

 

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On the left: Warrior of Light. On the right: adorable Papalymo. Would you believe the one on the right is arguably more dangerous?

So, how was the ending? Without spoilers, of course, I can say that it was… unexpected. Having gone into this MMO aware of some of the story elements, I knew a few different things had to happen, and a few things still need to happen. I just wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. Unaware of what parts of the story fall into place between A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood, I realize that I still have a ton of content to get through, not to mention taking to time to master all of the other classes and trades.

Here’s my list of good versus bad (with some neutral sprinkled in) from what I’ve played so far in Final Fantasy XIV:

Positive: Changing Classes Made Easy

I started this particular playthough as a gladiator, although I quickly realized that starting the game off as a tank is just asking for trouble in multiplayer dungeons and raids. If you aren’t familiar with a run and you tank for the first time, you’ll probably tick off your teammates. Fortunately, FF XIV makes it super easy to change classes and level them up, even going so far as to make the process of leveling faster for those who already have a high level in another combat class. I hadn’t been an archer before, so I chose to continue my game as an arrow-slinger and eventually as a Bard.

I’m really looking forward to playing as a machinist, as machinists have royally screwed me over in PvP with their pushing and pulling abilities, and I would like to experience being on the other side of the coin. But, then again, tanks are in short supply nowadays, and dark knight looks awesome. Either way, I’ll get to it all eventually.

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Astrologian, too. Heart of the Cards, baby.

Negative: Vesper Bay

Why. The heck. Does Vesper Bay. Not. Have. A FAST-TRAVEL OPTION.

I would say this is a simple complaint, but bear with me, it’s more complicated than just missing an important waypoint. This has more to do with a lack of balance and a clear insistence on wasting my time and resources than it does with ease of travel. Considering you come back to this place repeatedly in A Realm Reborn makes this a travesty in more ways than one.

First, there are two ways to get to Vesper Bay. The first is by fast-traveling to Horizon and hoofing it all the way across the map of Western Thanalan to get there. Even on chocobo-back, this is an annoying journey to have to repeat again and again. I consider this the ‘unintended’ slow way, but the alternate route is no better. The other way to Vesper Bay is by boarding a boat from Limsa Lominsa (by talking to an attendant next to the Arcanist’s Guild). This necessitates teleporting to Limsa Lominsa, teleporting to the Arcanist’s Guild, then taking the boat. Unless you want to spend a lot of money teleporting to Limsa Lominsa again and again during the story missions, then expect to set your home marker to Lominsa.

But with your home marker on Limsa Lominsa, what’s the use of being in any other Grand Company than the Maelstrom? You’re going to spend a lot of money teleporting to Gridania and Ul’dah if you join the Twin Adders or the Flames, since acquiring and spending guild seals with your Company is a good way to keep your character’s gear up-to-date, not to mention keeping your Barracks active once you reach that point.

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I’d rather not, Minfilia, thanks.

Once you’re done with the story missions, I imagine (or desperately hope) you won’t have to travel to the Waking Sands as often, and you can set your home point elsewhere. But it really bothers me when games make important oft-visited locations difficult to get to. Even search “vesper bay ffxiv” in Google, and the third entry is: “How do you get to Vesper Bay”. When you’ve made it that inconvenient and confusing to repeatedly return to a story-critical location, you’ve either accidentally screwed up as a developer or you’ve done it intentionally. As the game has been out for almost five years now, I’m thinking the latter.

Related Negative: Fast Travel Costs

Just a short point: fast travel is insultingly expensive. I’ve never played an MMO with such high costs of travel. And since your home point is Limsa Lominsa, a landmass away from Gridania and Ul’dah? You’ll be paying out the nose every time your journey takes you hither and yon.

Positive-ish: Oh, the Joys of Resource Gathering

Remember when I talked about fishing in Ocarina of Time and Dark Cloud 2? Well, strap on your gathering pants and get ready to make some money, honey! Whether it’s steel, alumen, mythril, electrum, red coral, fleece, or boar leather, there’s goods to procure from your local environment. I’m not overly fond of the resource node system, especially with how difficult it can be to obtain necessary materials like elemental shards. I understand how high-quality materials work, and I like that part of the system; it’s a thrill to hit those HQ nods and hear the sharp bang of the sledgehammer or the golden glint of the catch on your line. But in The Elder Scrolls Online, for instance, you’ll obtain about three to five resources per node in a single instance and only have your crafting skills to worry about. In FF XIV, the craft and the gathering are separate, and the gathering is more literal, piece by piece.

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Until you rage-quit from worse-than-XCOM accuracy percentages. What do you mean, I missed three times in a row with 92%?!

Oh, and if you don’t upkeep your gear with your current level, you’re going to find gathering a waste of time. Instead, worry about leveling up with fieldcraft leves as soon as you can, then go back and get the materials you need.

Related Negative: Inventory Space

I don’t have housing yet. All my money has been spent fast-traveling and getting stupid lightning and wind shards for crafting. So my inventory is full, my chocobo’s pack is full, and I’ll soon be turning to my retainers to hold mats. You can’t sell anything in this game. Almost everything has a crafting purpose, no matter how obscure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chucked something to free up space just to have to go grovelling back to the Market Board to buy more later on.

Everything about the inventory is so dang inconvenient. Except the ‘Sort’ key, that I like. Let me have a material’s sack like The Elder Scrolls Online, realism be damned!

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I have to have all these coeurl skins and pinches of mythril sand and fishing bait and walnut logs and…

Negative: The Overabundance of Story-Critical Dungeons and Trials

I’m imagining this is how it went.

One thing the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic realized as the game was getting longer in the tooth was that its emphasis on story was more important than multiplayer gameplay. That isn’t to say The Old Republic had lackluster gameplay; far from it. They realized that they had so much content gated behind dungeons and trials that most players passed it by on their way through the main story missions for each class. Not everyone who plays MMORPGs wants to do so with friends. So they chose the RPG over the MMO and rebuilt their dungeons so players could single-handedly go through 4-man dungeons by themselves (with help from a tanky battledroid and their NPC companions).

And it doesn’t matter what class you choose to be, either. A tank can DPS, and healer can tank, and DPS can… well, DPS more.

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Violence solves ALL the problems!

Final Fantasy XIV went the completely opposite direction. Not only are their 4-man dungeons not optional, there is no way for players to accomplish them by themselves. Dungeons are strictly one-tank, one-healer, two-DPS affairs that break down if any player doesn’t do their part with relative skill. I’m making this sound more dramatically bad than it is, of course, but you all know how I feel about multiplayer; last night I was the only one in the group who hadn’t run the 8-man final dungeon, I fell behind pretty dramatically at one point, and all the other players talked about while the unskippable cutscenes were playing was Japanese porn and masterbation. I won’t question their ability to kick Ultima Weapon in the junk, but I’d rather not hear about what they plan to do with theirs.

“You’ll be doing this dungeon a lot,” they said when I fell behind.

Uh-huh. Like hell I will.

*sigh*

I probably will.

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Despite their vulgarity, my fellow players in that 8-man dungeon were very nice about me getting behind since it didn’t impede their progress. If it had… I would have had a worse experience.

Positive: Gameplay. Like, All the Gameplay

Everything I wrote above this would probably make you think I dislike Final Fantasy XIV. But that isn’t true; I’m 250 hours in, and I’ve probably got that much to give and more with the fun I’ve had so far. I’m in a good Free Company that answers questions (and at least doesn’t kick me out). I’ve nailed down being a level 55 Bard, and I’m excited to see where the storyline goes as I proceed into Heavensward.

It’s a joy to fight, especially when you line up all of your attacks appropriately (and with my mechanical keyboard, it sounds good too). Maximizing my DEEPS (or DPS, damage-per-second) is awesome, and I feel like I’m in a good spot.

Just as long as I can keep multiplayer at arm’s length. Or find a good group of friends to connect with, which is unlikely considering I’m one of the few people I know that cares for a subscription MMO and Final Fantasy and has an appropriate system that can play it. In other words, yes, I anticipate my journey in Eorzea will end due to repetition, multiplayer negativity, and poor time-wasting design decisions. But it won’t be for a while.

At least until Fallout 76 appears. Or I buckle down and actually write more for Alyssum. Type-type-type-type.

A Realm Reborn Review: 8.5/10