Thoughts On: Halloween

spooky

Not long before All Hallows’ Eve! Everyone tonight must be finishing the touches on their decorations, and getting their larders stocked up with lollies ready for trick-or-treaters. Well, that’s if you’re in the southern hemisphere anyways. I don’t find myself fussed with Halloween though, I stopped celebrating it not long after I turned 11 or 12 – not because I grew too mature or anything. I just never liked spooky themed celebrations.

I remember going to all the parties, and running out in the evenings to knock on doors for sweets. But the one thing I couldn’t shake off was this queasy feeling, when I saw someone dressed in a believably gory costume. Or when you were given Halloween themed food that looked a bit too much like brains, zombie heads or spiders. I remember when I was really young and my Mum had made (or bought) these biscuits, and the icing was done to make it look like an eyeball, and the iris was made of green and blue jelly. I felt sick to my stomach thinking about it. I’d argue to say I would still be like this now.

The thing is, it got me thinking. Why do we celebrate Halloween, and why do we celebrate it in such a ghoulish fashion?

Well as it turns out, Halloween – like most public celebrations prominent in the Anglosphere – originates from a Christian tradition (which some scholars believe to originate from western and pre-biblical Pagan traditions). In the Christian context, All Hallows’ Eve is the first part of the three day event knows as Allhallowtide, which is an event in which to remember the dead: the martyrs, the saints and the faithful souls.  During All Hallows’ Eve, one is supposed to fast, abstain from meat and pray for the wandering souls which are thought to manifest themselves during that night. The reason to dress up in costume is so that the souls don’t recognize you, and the tradition of sweetened fruits and treats like toffee apple and soul cakes is because of the abstinence from meat. In the next two days come All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, whereby you honour the Saints and Souls through feast and celebration.

It’s a long and interesting history, and one we see morph into the secular celebration we see today. Most neighborhoods across the world clamour to gather treats, costumes and party decorations during the week before Halloween. It’s usually a competition to see who can give or take the most sweets, who has the most ghoulish looking costume, and who comes up with the best party games (pumpkin carving, apple dunking, find-the-sweet-in-the-spaghetti, etc). You come to realize it really doesn’t have any relation to its origin, because the celebration starts and ends on that All Hallows’ Eve. No remembrance, no respecting the dead. But then again, that’s how most of these celebrations go. For most it’s usually an excuse for a piss-up – not that I want to sound like a miserable bastard. I already said that I like history, so I like finding out the origins of things like this.

There won’t be any Halloween celebration for me tonight, as I’m not Christian, so I won’t pray for the dead. And I’m too squeamish to dive into the celebration of ghosts and monsters. No, I will be having my biscuits without eyeball jelly tonight.

Thoughts On: Fallout 3 & Fallout: New Vegas

nv

Anyone who knows me well, will most likely know my position on the Fallout 3 vs Fallout: New Vegas debate. And that position is that I prefer New Vegas. I want to discuss a little as to why I prefer it, but before I do I’d like to confess something to the hardcore fans of the franchise: I haven’t yet played Fallout 1 or Fallout 2. Yes I know, utter blasphemy, and I’m ashamed for not trying it. I’ve played quite a bit of Wasteland 2, which is actually made up from a majority of the team who made the original Fallouts, and I’ve been told Wasteland 2 is merely a modern echo of the richness that is the old Fallouts. So, someday I will get around to playing them. I would just like to point this out, as I know how frustrating it can be to read the opinions of somebody who acts as an authority figure on a franchise when they barely know anything.

Okay! Fallout: New Vegas, what to say?

I believe it was somewhere in mid-2009 I played Fallout 3. I was even more ignorant of the franchise back then, but I went out and rented it for my Xbox 360. My reason for renting it was because I noticed it was developed by Bethesda Game Studios, who had made The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – a game which I had played to death. I thought I’d get the same experience when it came to the engagement aspect. But going into Fallout 3, the first thing I noticed – and disliked – was its faded, dreary and sickly looking colour palette. I know this was intentional, to go with the style of radioactive decay and all that, but combined with Bethesda’s pitiful Gamebryo game engine the results were nauseating. I think the only way they got away with it in TES III and TES IV was due to their use of varied colour palettes and fantastical art styles.

Washington D.C. - as depicted in Fallout 3

Washington D.C. – as depicted in Fallout 3

The thing is, normally this is exactly what you want for a post-apocalyptic game. But the problem I felt was that the way Fallout 3 approached the wasteland made it clash with the world they were trying to depict. The main feature of the series is the fantastical setting of a 1950s United States that never ended. Even after the bombs dropped, you’ve still got the ballrooms boogieing and the fedoras tipping. It’s like time had stopped after the apocalypse and no one is moving on. The biggest disappointment for me was the way most of the quests just dealt with resurrecting aspects of the pre-war world in order to survive the limbo that is the post-war world. I personally never felt like I was able to experience the wasteland as anything other than looking back on the pre-war era with a sense of loss I never even had in the first place. Fallout 3‘s Capital Wasteland feels like a world you shouldn’t exist in – compare that to the post-apocalyptic worlds seen in Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog, where everyone knows the end but not the world before it, all that exists in their world is the will to survive. The Capital Wasteland is like nostalgia manifest, despite Fallout 3 taking place roughly 200 years after the world was destroyed in Nuclear hellfire.

But with Fallout: New Vegas, I saw something more. From the moment you leave Doc Mitchell’s home to the final Battle of Hoover Dam, you see in the Mojave Wasteland an unfamiliar world. The memory of the pre-war times isn’t there, instead we as players navigate ourselves through the complex societies, factions, legends and conflicts present within the game’s setting. Fallout: New Vegas for me feels like what you could describe as a post-post-apocalypse. You see manifestations of the old world that existed, but instead of making them the focal point of the story and lore, they’re fed into the lore of Fallout‘s post-war world. They’re given reason beyond simple game mechanics, which I felt Fallout 3 didn’t do because they treated these aspects as outliers to be affected sparingly by the player. Take the Church of the Children of Atom in Megaton for example: in-game the Children of Atom are treated like kooks, barely given notice by the people of Megaton, and it’s the same with Megaton’s settlers as compared to the rest of the Capital Wasteland. The only interaction you have with the Atom Bomb that gave Megaton its existence is to either disarm it – leaving the town as it always was with absolutely no effect on the world at large (no influx of settlers, no rumours within neighboring districts etc.), or destroy it – turning the entire town and surrounding area to glass – all this at the whim of a businessman with barely any investment in the town anyways. To me that felt quite juvenile and pointless beyond the little flash spectacle of a mushroom cloud and the Ghoul’d up Moira we were rewarded with for doing it. I much preferred the approach taken with Fallout: New Vegas, treating these outlying communities as one part of an interwoven tapestry that makes up the Mojave Wasteland, and interacting with any of these factions causes possible consequences within other factions. It’s interesting, and makes you appreciate that the world you’re in isn’t just one of people scraping by, living off the memories of time long gone. You’re in a complicated place, with complicated relationships.

The Burned Man - One of many strange figures in Fallout: New Vegas.

The Burned Man – One of many strange figures in Fallout: New Vegas.

One of the big arguments against Fallout: New Vegas that I’ve noticed, is that it’s too railroaded, and doesn’t offer anywhere the same amount of freedom game play wise as Fallout 3 does. But what I think people tend to forget with Role Playing Games is that you’re not playing a self-insert, free to do whatever they want as reflective of the person playing them. You’re creating and filling a role, meant to interact and grow off the world they’re introduced in, and doing what’s appropriate to the role they’ve made. Fallout: New Vegas does have a more linear focus yes, but it’s needed for your character’s progression – again, from Doc Mitchell’s to Hoover Dam, you the Courier are journeying through the great tapestry of lore that is the Mojave Wasteland, and in that process the Courier integrates themselves into that tapestry.

This is why I preferred Fallout: New Vegas. I appreciated how it made me a character within the world, rather than having it make a world around my character. Sometimes, it’s good to play an RPG that doesn’t make you a self-insert, but rather an established part of the world that forces you to go out and seek answers yourself instead of letting you create answers based on your personal preference. Hopefully, we see this kind of approach taken with the upcoming Fallout 4 – although I really doubt it. Anyways that’s enough rambling, if you enjoyed Fallout 3 but haven’t tried Fallout: New Vegas, or you like lore rich RPGs but haven’t tried the Fallout franchise, give it a go.

And remember,
True to Caesar!

Thoughts On: The Creative Spark

eureka

So, yes… It’s been a while. I suppose I could say it’s down to my schedule or busy life, but I sort of backed myself into a corner by telling you I’m enjoying the spare timetable of an Arts student and all that. Quite frankly I was more concerned with getting my work out of the way, and during my free hours I didn’t feel like talking about anything, so I hung around with friends and played video games instead. However, as well as that I’ve got other projects laid dormant, such as some short stories I’ve been severely procrastinating with. I wanted to work on them, but there’s nothing interesting that comes to mind with which to expand upon; I have these horrible dips in creative energy every now and then, where I simply can’t come up with something to write about. But a few days ago I experienced something great, lying in bed at night I started thinking about things like we all do – life, work, relationships, sexuality, food, the weather – and all of a sudden I was struck with all these weird snippets of ideas, pictures, songs and words. I have it! I’ve got the creative spark!

You know what I mean by the creative spark right? It’s when you get hit with something weird and bizarre, something you want to tell people about – but you never do because you’ll look mad. Like when you last had that dream about everyone you knew from school visiting you at your grandma’s, or when the sky went purple and all you could smell was petrol as you walked through slimy meadows. It’s great. But I think it’s something most people tend to disregard, because they don’t want to come off as weird for keeping record of it. It’s a shame though, because a lot of great art has come out of these instant moments of illumination. I know for a fact that many musicians live by this process, making sure to record any tune, melody or beat that comes to them, lest the idea wither away within the same night they thought of it. Even painters, such as H.R. Giger, whose many ghastly paintings are reminiscent of the constant nightmares he was said to have suffered.

For some people this process is a strange one. In regards to dreams, you hear of people writing dream journals, where they record and reflect on the many odd encounters they find within their slumber. And while I don’t record my dreams, I do sometimes write down snippets of things sprung into my mind: like quotes, phrases, descriptions, scenes and characters. Heck, I even had a scene for a comic panel spring to mind, and tried my hand at it. The results were horrendous, but I wouldn’t mind revisiting it if I ever improve enough to be able to draw a face without it looking like a mix between Quasimodo and John Matuszak in The Goonies. But whatever it is, I highly suggest you find some way to materialise it for safekeeping, you never know when you might want to use it in the future. The creative spark is a beautiful thing, and it would be a shame to see it go to waste.

Thoughts On: Funk Music

jamesbrown

So on my holiday break I’ve been finding ways to pass the time, alongside trying to find new topics to write about. And while browsing the net I randomly came across a new track I hadn’t heard before, it sounded really cool, so I looked further into the artist and found this apparent resurgence within the indie scenes with bringing back Funk music, and it made me think, heck lets talk about Funk! So yes, I like Funk. An odd choice of genre for someone that likes history and writing, you’d think I prefer classical orchestral pieces or jazz. Well, I do but Funk is usually something I can always fall back on.

Now personally, I’m not the type to sub-categorize music into thousands of little niches – rock music is rock music regardless of its little Progressive or Acid offshoots. The same is with Funk, you get all the Jazz Funks; Soul Funks and more modern variations like Electronic and French House, but to me it’s more or less Funk; simple labels for simple music for simple minds, as it might appear. One of my favourite things about the genre is its simplicity: short songs composed around a small group of chords and usually based on one catchy melody. With that foundation the energy of the artist and their band begins to pour passion into the written progression of notation, turning it into a track designed to twitch your muscles and tease your brain with dreams of the dance-floor. However, before you start to get cringe worthy images of me ripping it out on the dance-floor, I’d like to mention I never dance. I’ve never liked dancing. I was always that kid at the primary school disco that would skid along the floor in tracksuit pants, or hang out in the corner with mates with sore feet because of all the standing. Yeah I’m boring like that. But that doesn’t stop me enjoying Funk in private, I find the energy of it productive to me: if I’m writing, working or even driving I usually like to put on some funky tunes to keep my spirits up. I find its positive energy output quite interesting, because personally I’ve never really came across a sad funk song. While there’s not one solid reason for this I’m personally thinking it probably had much to do with time Funk became popular: in the 1970s, when the world was going through tough times, a lot of people would most likely want a spirit raiser, and this was an outlet for that.

I think this emotional energy is also one of its most intriguing attributes. I dare any of you to listen to a track like this and not have any reaction from your body, not even a foot-tap. It’s strange how it pulses through your head, forcing a reaction. It also stimulates thought; conjures up scenarios and ideas in your head you wouldn’t normally think of. I want to say something like lust, but that isn’t quite the feeling, I suppose the feeling is more like fun: the cheeky and almost flirtatious joy to get out there and have a good time. I don’t mean in this just a sexual way, but in general, Funk has they way of opening you and loosening you up a bit.

Yeah this was a short and strange post, but I thought I may as well share it. I know that some of you may have similar sentiments to their own preferred genres, as music is a very subjective medium and only specific tunes can impress upon specific people. I thought I’d write about Funk as being one of my main points of stimulus. But for those who have others, please, feel free to comment what types of music work well for you.

Thoughts On: History

history

I’m starting to feel like there’s a small correlation between my posts, which is probably down to my thought processes tending to focus on one field for a while… Well, anyways, I’d like to talk about history this time. history is a topic I’ve been interested in since I was a child; most of it started off with history movies and games, so I tended to enjoy the aspects of war like most boys my age did. However, growing up I began to explore the larger scope of history, and how we came to know about all the things we understand today. In intermediate school I’d have this book that I’d always read (even during lessons) – I can’t even remember it’s name, but it was a fantastic book that covered much on the ancient world: from Mesopotamia to Rome. I think it was this book that sparked my desire to learn more about history, and to turn it from a fleeting curiosity to a serious interest.

I think history is an important subject, and some would disagree with that. I’ve always heard the classic line, why should I care about something that’s happened in the past? And with that comes the classic those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But it goes beyond learning the subject as a warning for future mistakes, it’s also a way for people utilise the past in order to make a better future. Think of all the most pressing subjects in our world today: all of these have a rich historical foundation and development, that – through their history – we come to acknowledge and develop upon. Science, for example, is arguably the driving force of the twenty-first century: figures like Archimedes and Hakim Ibn-e-Sina who are responsible for some of antiquity’s greatest innovations, how would we have been able to develop upon these concepts had we not known about them in the first place? There’s the idea that eventually someone elsewhere would rediscover the idea themselves further down the line, but to be caught in an endless cycle of rediscovery in pursuit for innovation, it just seems silly.

Alongside knowing about the past in order to prepare for the future, history also provides the ability for one to deal with the present. Nearly all the foundations of government, economics and religion can be traced to a historical root, which means any problem arising in the present most likely stems from similar problems that had risen in the past. This is one of the reasons world history has taken a precedent over the former Eurocentric teachings, as our contemporary world begins to experience a globalisation of sorts, and with this comes the benefits and problems from all parts of the globe. Nearly all pressing issues taking place within the world today are all traced back to historical moments and events: the Middle Eastern conflicts; North Korea; Russia and the West, it’s all part of an intricate web of information already available at our fingertips.

People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. – James Arthur Baldwin

I know that to others, history just feels like a farce agreed upon by the academics, as it’s almost always changing with every new revision or reflection. The events you thought you knew so well twenty years ago turn out to be mostly false, or the revisions you’ve come to acquaint yourself with turn out not to hold a candle to the original work. But this is something I think is an important development, as – like science – those that work tirelessly to seek out truth are helping to further our understanding of the world we live in. And that to me is as useful a subject as you can get.

Thoughts On: Michael Kirkbride & The Elder Scrolls

mk

Now here’s a topic more people may know about – Bethesda Softwork’s The Elder Scrolls: a high-fantasy video game series set within the world of Nirn and its main continent Tamriel, in which nearly all the games take place. Now normally I’m a bit picky when it comes to video games I find exceptionally interesting, especially amongst the circle of the Role-playing game genre, but The Elder Scrolls stands out to me because of mainly one thing: the lore. Now since their first title, –TES: Arena – the initial world was laid down by the old Bethesda team members such as Ted Peterson,Vijay Lakshman, Julian LeFay and Chris Weaver; later members would come as the development for TES: Daggerfall, TES: Battlespire and TES Adventures: Redguard called for larger staff, but it wasn’t until TES: Morrowind that the scope really began to take off into the popular franchise that it is today. And it’s from Morrowind we come to encounter the work from Michael Kirkbride.

Now I can’t stress enough for fans or people who have played a TES game that Kirkbride isn’t the sole reason the games are as they are, that’s far from the fact, as video games are immense team efforts rivaling that of film production. So to praise one member for the result of the game would be unfair on all the other team members who toiled away on the project. No, Kirkbride’s work is more of a personal interest to me because of the way he brought a serious ambiguity and almost esoteric attitude to the meta-physical aspects of The Elder Scrolls universe. Don’t worry, I’ll try not to use those words too much.

Concept Sketches from Kirkbride - The God-King Vivec

Concept Sketches from Kirkbride – The God-King Vivec

What I like about Kirkbride’s approach to the world building of TES is the blending of mysticism and spiritual philosophy into the outer fringes of the seemingly concrete fantasy world. It works well for the kind of players – like me – that seek to explore the deeper aspects of the game, because with the physical depth, we are able to enjoy the richness of the open world setting alongside its plethora of characters and conflicts – but beyond that immediate presence we might begin to wonder about the world itself; the history; the science; the creation, why? This is where Kirkbride’s writings begin to entice us towards ‘the deep end’. Throughout much of TES:Morrowind, TES:Oblivion and TES:Skyrim you’re able to access a lot of in-game lore through characters, quests and especially books. And it’s these books that are an exceptional look into a world beyond the one you’re playing; books like Spirit of the Daedra and N’Gasta! Kvata! Kvakis! present to you a greater underlying narrative that is constantly being laid down into the foundations of the Elder Scrolls universe. Kirkbride takes this further with his development on some of the sketchiest parts of the universe: for example, the book Where Were You When the Dragon Broke?  that was written in TES:Morrowind, was on part a response to the events of TES: Daggerfall in which multiple endings occurred due to Bethesda’s desire to facilitate player outcomes of the story, normally one of these endings would be declared canon and the rest dismissed, but what instead occurred was an in-game explanation known as ‘the Warp in the West’ in which all of these events occurred simultaneously. Where Were You When the Dragon Broke? is a development on this concept; the Dragon referring to the God of Time, Akatosh, and how the ending events of TES: Daggerfall were so powerful they disrupted the authority of Akatosh, momentarily breaking linear time. Now some of you would start to wonder that all this begins to feel terribly convoluted, it’s not what you remember in the main quests! And you’re probably right, delving into these texts probably invites a lot of confusion, and starts to undermine the solid foundations of the series’ universe. But to me that’s where half the fun is, because those who seek out these concepts will begin to see their presence within the surface levels of the game. Perhaps the most memorable concept of Time present within TES is within TES: Skyrim: in which you must expel the Dragon Alduin; if you had further done your research you would begin to recognise the terms ‘Dragon Break’ and ‘World-Eater’, that had been present in one form or another within the texts of the earlier games.

The Dragon God of Time - Akatosh

The Dragon God of Time – Akatosh

I really appreciate this sort of work on a universe like TES, where the scope is so daunting that to experience it all is only on the whim of the player. But the reward for undertaking such efforts enriches your experience with the game. The only issues I started to see, were with these lore texts written by contributors – including Michael Kirkbride – who had left Bethesda Studios, and the validity of their canon beginning to become a matter of preference and developer approval. I think the most glaring of these texts has to be the project, C0DA: an intended comic written by Kirkbride that takes place in the far future of the TES universe. The ambiguous and downright cryptic attitude to the narrative has led many people astray in terms of looking for an explanation (I personally haven’t given a read yet, as I was hoping to wait until I could enjoy it in the comic book form he had intended for it), however what I believe many have concluded is that it tries to explain the non-canon nature of the universe, making it easier for those to decipher their own reasonable interpretations of how the grand narrative is. This is something I find pretty interesting, not so much for the content but the idea of so much work and effort going into the narrative, I could dare even say it’s almost in reference to the grand religious texts of Abrahamic or Vedic traditions – the contribution of many to the greater narrative.

Anyways, I think it’s time to tone down. The short line is, I think the universe of The Elder Scrolls is a vast and complicated creation, and this in part can be attributed to the efforts of Michael Kirkbride and his many mystical revelations in the writing. I suppose I can only hope for those who played the series to maybe come back into it with a new appreciation for the world Kirkbride and Bethesda made. Also, for those who are familiar with the TES canon, be sure to check out some of his work on The Imperial Library, some of the extra writings on VivecTiber Septim and Cyrus the Restless are quite interesting.

Thoughts On: The Man in the High Castle

the-man-in-the-high-castle

Since I’m easing into the method of sporadic posts, that are usually unrelated, I thought I’d jump away from the bigger pictures to focus on some more specific thoughts I’ve been having as of recent. I suppose the first thing that came to mind was this book: The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick. For those of you who are a fan of science fiction you’ve most probably heard of him. But for those who haven’t, Dick is one of the most renowned sci-fi authors from the twentieth century. Most – if not all – of his books have had a huge influence on succeeding authors in the genre, as well as figures within other aspects of the artistic medium, such as television and music.

Now the reason I focused more on this particular book more than Dick himself is because I actually haven’t read most of his work, and to make a thought on him as a whole based on the few books from him that I’ve read, seems a tad misguided. But from his work I found The Man in the High Castle resonated the most with me.

The thing that I think interested me in this title was its premise of alternate history. Before this book I had always personally been interested in history and – even more – the concept of alternate historical scenarios. It started off young with computer strategy games: like Creative Assembly’s Total War series, or Bohemia Interactive’s Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis. Apart from them being enjoyable, the premise of history being changed because of the events you partook in through the game really sparked some interesting concepts. Later on I would go on to discover some of the books from Harry Turtledove, specifically Opening Atlantis  and Ruled Britannia, which further developed on the concepts of changed history and how it would affect the lives and narrative of this different world.

However, once I had read The Man in the High Castle, I discovered something profound about the book. And that was Dick’s ability to make his strange world seem so alien, yet at the same time as real as one could get it. This book went beyond the concept of what if? It put you within the mundane lives of its citizens, it put you in a personal circle of characters that you could care about – even though deep down you knew you’re weren’t supposed to sympathise. There’s this immense shifting in tone that occurs both physically and meta-physically within the book, that leaves you torn and lost; the entire premise, the climax of the concept – this alternate universe – it doesn’t actually matter. You read along with multiple narratives from characters of varied backgrounds, and it’s their perspective that is made to feel important, despite the fact that you as the reader are focusing on the ghastly yet infinitely intriguing concept of an Axis ruled world. I feel like the book portrays a message of infinite possibility without meaning, and to accept the placement of one’s self within that structure; this may be the reason for the book heavily featuring the I Ching, a Chinese text on cosmological philosophy that one uses in conjunction with a hexagram to randomly produce a guiding path. The idea of an alternate history in which an unspeakable enemy were the victors, could be the reason it’s used with this concept, as it provides an exemplary setting in which we must come to understand that which we normally wouldn’t. And I think that is a deeply profound way of thinking, and a masterful way of executing this thinking on the author’s part.

So, if you find the time to spare and you’re looking for a more intellectually stimulating novel to burn through, I highly suggest this book. Despite my most probable incoherent rambling, the actual book is relatively easy to read: the prose is simple and the size of the book is relatively short. It’s the overall idea rather than any numerous themes that lend to a powerful concept, and that idea is what makes The Man in the High Castle one of my personal all-time favourite novels.