Voice of the Monolith Trailer

At the beginning of this year, we (the first year students at Futuregames) had our second game project.

Half a week of pre-production. Four weeks of development. Four game designers, four 3D artists, two 2D artists. Here’s a peek at what we made:

Eleven years ago, the Monolith landed on Earth, and it became clear that humanity is not alone in the universe. But for eleven years, it has remained a mystery, yielding no clues to its origin or purpose.

In Voice of the Monolith, you play as a child gifted with immense strength, which aids you as you explore the small island village where the Monolith now towers over empty ruins. Who you are, and why you exist, is as much of a mystery as the alien artefact — all you know is that the Monolith calls to you. And perhaps, if you pay attention, the village may tell you something of what has transpired…

Gameplay screenshot — click to view full size

Why We Should Care about Accessibility in Games

Accessibility and representation in games is a topic close to my heart, and this short video pretty much sums up why. It’s an interview with Ian Hamilton, one of the people behind Game Accessibility Guidelines — a really terrific resource that anyone interested in making games should look at regularly.

Choice quote:

What people often don’t realise is that games aren’t just a bit of fun. The access that they give you to recreation, to culture, to socialising, is stuff that a lot of people take for granted. But if for some reason your means of accessing those things is restricted, then actually games can be a really powerful contributor to your quality of life.

Games are an amazing medium when it comes to allowing and enabling those who are often left by the wayside by mainstream society to participate. Often, from a development perspective, it’s as simple as allowing the players the freedom to customise their experience to fit their particular needs. And, as Hamilton says in the video, this isn’t just altruism: Making a game playable for more people means more people are likely to actually pay for it. Basically, we really have no excuse not to make our games as accessible as possible.

Go check out Games Accessibility Guidelines! Tell your friends in the games industry (and your boss, if you have one)! It really should be part of every developer’s toolkit.

The Pitching Assignment

Today starts the third week of a four-week game development project at FutureGames, and I’m home sick. My teammates made me promise not to work from home, citing my own principled stand against crunch culture. So I’m gonna blog about school instead!

One of the first courses at FutureGames (where, as mentioned in my review of 2017, I’m now studying game design) covered the topic of pitching. We were given the option of coming up with a pitch for a sequel to an established franchise, or answering a request for proposal for a big-budget Game of Thrones title. I chose the latter, because it was the more fun assignment, and also supplied more concrete specifications. I tend to do better work within a framework with clear constraints. Regardless of which assignment we chose we were to hand in a one page proposal, and (optionally) deliver the pitch orally in front of the class.

As an aside: The “one-page proposal” thing was probably the most confusing aspect of the assignment. When you start looking into this aspect of game development — planning, pitching and so on — it seems as though there’s little consensus in what’s actually expected or desired when it comes to the length and content of various types of documents. We were given to know that one-pagers are typically up to ten pages long, contain a lot of art and little to do with mechanics. But then you google it and find instructions that say something else entirely. I take this to mean that like with so many other things in this young industry, there are no hard and fast rules to how these things are done.

Project Sunlight

In a RFP titled “Project Sunlight”, “Big Publisher Incorporated” asked for a “fresh take on the brand” of Game of Thrones (but “you can’t alienate existing fans, since they will be the most important market”). They supplied the following requirements:

  • Must define the key elements of the brand: what makes your game more GoT than other games?
  • What is your angle to the brand – the thing that makes your game different from all other GoT games?
  • Focus on characters with audience sympathy, and not be an “evil” game.
  • Don’t dig too deep into the world lore – rights cover the HBO show, not the book series.
  • The game has to be marketable to a worldwide PG-13 audience.
  • Assume full voice acting resources and character likenesses, if applicable.
  • Suggest crossplatform tie-ins that fit with your core idea.

And without further ado, here’s what I came up with:

Game of Thrones: Shadow Pawn logo

“Every game needs its pawns. What if you find yourself used as one, suddenly embroiled in the world-shattering conflicts of Westeros’ noble class?

In Game of Trones: Shadow Pawn you step into the life of a young orphan in King’s Landing. An expert climber, outftted with street smarts, a sharp blade and a silken tongue, you are employed by powerful people to spy on their peers. But of course, nothing is ever what it seems…”

I would try to summarise what kind of game it is, but really it’s easier if you simply read the rest of the pitch here: Game of Thrones: Shadow Pawn

An androgynous person wearing dark fantasy armour against a dark backdrop. They are crouched on top of a street lantern, brandishing a sword and a large dagger.
“Key art” presenting the eponymous player character (adapted from an image found online)

Although I hadn’t planned on doing the oral presentation, I ended up doing so anyway after seeing some of my classmates deliver theirs. They are an inspiring bunch of people! I was very glad I chose to compose my one-pager in the style I did, so it could kind of function as an overhead presentation — the text is too small but at least the pictures gave the audience something to look at.

Afterwards, one classmate told me “I don’t really like Game of Thrones, but I’d like to play this game,” and another said “I don’t usually like this kind of game, but I’d want to play yours”. I guess I must have done something right!

How about you — would you play Game of Thrones: Shadow Pawn?

The Hermit’s 2017

Last year passed in a blur, and yet it feels like it was longer than most. My life was turned on its head in more ways than one, both good and bad — mostly good, thankfully.

I’ve been wanting to do some sort of review or evaluation, and thought I might as well do it in the form of a blog post. At some point last year, or maybe in 2016 but who’s counting, as a part of a similar exercise, I came up with a bunch of “categories”, or areas of focus, as help for thinking about and developing different aspects of myself and my life.((There’s a lot of these to be found online, but of course none of them quite suited me, so I made my own.)) I decided to review 2017 in terms of these areas, which are:

  • Physical environment
  • Career
  • Finances
  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Relationships
  • Creativity and self-expression
  • Personal development

So, without further ado, here it is – the Hermit’s 2017!((Mostly posted here for my own edification, but hey, maybe someone’s interested.))

Physical Environment

2017 was the year I moved away from northern Botkyrka, where I’ve lived all my adult life. While I definitely liked it there, the commute to central Stockholm was really getting to me. I started looking for a new place in the fall of 2016, and suddenly got the chance to move toward the end of last summer.

My new place is quite similar to the old one  — a 43 sqm (~460 sqft) one bedroom apartment with kitchen, bathroom, hall and balcony — but with a much better floor plan. It’s also on the third floor instead of the first, fairly freshly renovated, and has windows facing more than one point of the compass. Best of all, it’s much closer to the city.

Although I love my new place, I’m not so happy about the state it’s been in since I moved in. Circumstances conspired to make me unable to actually “finish” moving in properly. I still have a whole bunch of boxes waiting to be unpacked, shelves waiting to be put up on walls, that kind of thing. It makes me feel stressed out and unhappy, especially so when my anxiety worsens, so it’s definitely high on my list of priorities.

Physical Health

2017 was probably my best year for physical health, like, ever, and it’s all thanks to gardening. Turns out it’s really, really good for me. I got so much stronger during the spring and summer, all thanks to all the digging, lifting, pruning, weeding, chopping and carrying I did. Towards the end of the summer, I could actually see the change (mostly through my arms getting bigger), which made me feel awesome about myself.

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Blue gardener floof thingy

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It goes to show that I really don’t mind exercise when it’s done not for its own sake, but as a necessary part of some other activity that I actually enjoy. Sadly, there really isn’t all that much to do in the garden during winter, and on top of that, I’m way busy these days. The plan was to maintain the fitness I developed last summer, and hopefully build more strength during the winter, by doing other kinds of exercise, but I haven’t managed — not yet, anyway.

I have a personalised exercise program provided by my metamour Rye, which I hope to get started with as soon as possible, but I’m trying to not set myself up for disappointment here. Life is pretty hectic at the moment and even though I know exercise would help, getting started costs a lot of spoons.

Career

This is another area where things have changed a lot. And I mean a lot.

This time last year, I was doing an internship at Really Interactive, a small company run by my mentor in all things game development (and also my friend). While it was definitely good for me and I learned a lot during my time there, it was a bit too comfortable (and also didn’t pay the bills), and I definitely felt internal pressure to move on and try to get a job.

But, thanks to this internship and a series of fortunate events, I instead applied to FutureGames. FutureGames is a vocational school in Stockholm with excellent reputation and hundreds of applicants each year. And I got in. So in September, right when I moved into my new flat, I also started on a two-year education to become a game designer.

I had previously told myself I would never study again. After high school (and one gap year), I studied biology at university for roughly four years. Although I learned a lot, I gave up on finishing my degree once I realised that I don’t actually want to be a scientist. Also, I suppose my constant anxiety at the time definitely played into that decision… Anyway, a few years ago I tried again, this time at Nackademin, another vocational school, where I studied .NET development. While I took to programming immediately, I hated the classroom environment, found many of the courses less than interesting, and basically decided I’m not made for any kind of academic studies.

I can gladly proclaim that I was dead wrong on that count. All I needed was to be studying something I’m actually interested in as a whole (rather than just certain aspects), together with people as passionate about what’s being taught as I am, with teachers who clearly know their stuff. And, of course, it helps to not be completely paralysed by anxiety.

So, I remain on track to become a game developer, but I must admit that this education has me even less certain of what exactly I want to do within that very broad area of work. I used to think scripting was my thing, and I still definitely enjoy it, but there are so many other aspects of game development I also find incredibly interesting! Thankfully I have about half a year of courses and game projects left before it’s time to do an internship, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea in a few months…

Finances

No amazing break-throughs on this point — the main thing that’s happened is that I’m now accumulating student debt once more. But to me it definitely matters that I feel I’m “earning” the money I use to pay my bills, even if I will have to pay most of it back after my education is done. And compared to what student financing is like in other countries, I count myself lucky.

Relationships

A couple of years ago, things happened that basically led to me losing most of my active circle of friends. Thankfully, by then I had met my partner Deus, and with their other partner (my metamour Rye) we formed the polyfamily. Family is what gives my life a sense of meaning when I’m too exhausted to appreciate the rest. These days, my polyfamily is the one most central to my life.

For over a year now, we have been spending most Sunday evenings together. Sometimes we all sit in our respective bubbles and do our own thing, sometimes we watch a movie while having dinner, sometimes we rescue each other from whatever pit we’ve tumbled into.

My biological family is and always has been very important to me as well. Last year saw developments on that front I will not elaborate on here, out of respect for their privacy.

I met a lot of new people last year, mostly through FutureGames. It’s been a while since I interacted regularly with a mixed group of people, rather than my own select circles, and in the beginning it was quite terrifying. But I’ve come to really enjoy the company of my classmates, and definitely see the potential of lasting friendships developing here and there.

One person that stands out, I actually got to know long before I started studying. We met at the Nordic Games Conference I had the privilege of attending in the spring. We hit it off during a separatist mingle party and kept in touch afterwards, and I’m immensely grateful for her continuously inviting me to hang out, despite me rarely having the energy.((If you’re reading this, you know who you are — thank you!))

Mental Health

Mental health is a tricky beast, as it’s always hard to make out trends until a lot of time has passed. A few months to a year is barely sufficient. Still, I do feel like I’ve made some significant progress over the past year.

At the beginning of 2017, I was in a pretty bad place. This time of year is often the most difficult, from a mental health perspective, not just for those of us suffering from some kind of mental illness.  Basically,  winter is awful.

I ended up switching medications, from escitalopram to venlafaxine, which has been working well for me. I lowered the dose during the summer as I was feeling better, and then increased it as my anxiety came back during the fall. Though I’ve had some pretty rough patches, I feel I’ve come a long way in learning to deal with them, both in terms of “damage prevention” and dealing with “fallout”.((While my symtoms don’t include anything particularly destructive, they can definitely cause problems — for instance I might not make it to class, or fail to complete assignments.))

I’ve also made progress in identifying limitations and challenges I have, as well as how to utilise my strengths. There’s a lot of work to be done, still, but I’m definitely headed in the right direction.

Creativity and Self-Expression

I had two primary creative outlets during 2017: Gardening and aquaristics. I sort of took over as gardener-in-chief at my parents’ place in the fall of 2016, so a large chunk of my summer was spent there. As for aquaristics, I’ve been wanting to start up a freshwater tank for a very long time, and when I moved last year I got a huge but cheap used tank… and things sort of spiralled from there. (I’ll probably blog about this, at some point. Then again I say that about a lot of stuff, don’t I?)

Both hobbies allow me to combine a whole bunch of skills and knowledge I enjoy, and there’s actually a lot of overlap between them. I think working with living systems is probably my ultimate form of self-expression.  I get to geek out on stuff I love, work with my hands to create tangible results, and create something beautiful, all at once.

Test Chamber 171230

Thanks to these activities I’ve learned a whole lot of new things, spanning a wide variety of topics — for me, practise always has to be founded on a solid understanding of theory, so there’s been a lot of refreshing my old biology knowledge. But I’ve also learned things about myself, such as how much I can truly get done these days, my adaptability and resilience in the face of change or failure, and so on.

There’s a lot of things I wish I had had the time and energy for in 2017 but which has had to wait. Moving to a new place afforded me the chance to start over in terms of interior design, and I’ve been wanting to use it to really express myself. But studying has had to be my first priority, and so I still have so much to do on that front. I don’t colour as often as I’d like to, and I still haven’t gotten into creating music… And then there’s this blog, which has largely been silent for the past year. Right now, I’m really itching to write more about games and game development, so hopefully it will see a bit of a renaissance soon!

Oh, almost forgot – just before I started at FutureGames, I got my first bit of ink! It most certainly won’t be the last.

Freshly inked

Personal Development

I touched upon this under the Mental Health headline already — basically, I think 2017 was a very good year for personal development. I’ve gotten to a point in my therapy where I’m definitely seeing some very clear results. Partly, it’s about discovering who I am when no longer suffering debilitating anxiety as well as a severe attention deficit. It seems that I am actually far closer than I thought to being the person I’ve always wished I were. And partly, as mentioned earlier, it’s about mapping out the challenges I still face, challenges I am now equipped to deal with.

I want to keep working on becoming more accepting and non-judgmental, both of others and myself. I want to be better at handling differences in opinion and values in those around me. And I want to worry less about what people think of me. So… I guess I have my work cut out for me!

On a more practical note, I’ve kept up my morning pages routine, steadily filling up notebook after notebook with stream of consciousness writing. At this point I can’t tell if it’s helping me or not as a general rule, but why stop now? I’m enjoying it, and sometimes it definitely helps me process stuff and discover new angles on whatever is on my mind.

I’ve had some trouble getting (back) into other routines that I know I need, however — keeping my flat clean and tidy, for one. This is definitely something I feel I should focus on this year.

On Identities and the Process of Being

May not have a strong sense of identity, and can be very chameleon-like, especially before diagnosis.

Questions place in the world.

I read those sentences on a couple of long lists of traits which are common among autistic women((The most comprehensive ones were Rudy Simones lists of female Asperger syndrome traits, and Samantha Craft’s “Females With Aspergers Syndrome Checklist“.)), but which are not necessarily diagnostic criteria. I found myself going over those lists again and again, eyes twitching across the page as my thoughts raced, seeking patterns and explanations. Words were suddenly put to a strange emptiness I’ve long sensed inside me.

Ironically, reading those lists, and seeing comment discussions where other people exclaimed how they described them so perfectly, my sense of disconnect and outsidership was made worse. That’s not me, I thought as I read something that didn’t fit, That’s not me either… And then every now and then, sentences like the ones above hit me like a fist in my stomach, leaving me reeling.

Who am I even?

2004, a lifetime ago. I would say I was looking for something even then, but honestly, I can’t remember.

I have always battled that feeling of being an outsider. That life is a party I can’t seem to join even if I was invited and wanted to go. I stand outside, looking at the rest of you with my hand pressed against the window. Occasionally, someone steps outside and joins me in my world, and then I’m less lonely for a while. But in the end, I carry a conviction within me of being fundamentally separate from the social world that surrounds me.

I don’t want to be alone. I want to be part of something.

I try not to shame myself for this longing I have to fit in, if not with normative society then at least some sort of tribe. But it’s sometimes difficult. I always thought of myself as an individualist — in fact, if there was ever a label I identified with, that would be it. Seeing the “normal” people around me as enemies while I grew up seeded an intense desire to distance myself from them, from everyone. To swim against the current, not because it wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go, but simply for the sake of it.

Because I had no idea where I wanted to go. I knew what I didn’t want for myself, but not much more than that.

 

I realise this is rather abstract. So let’s take style, for example. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I happily let my mother buy my clothes. Her ideas of how I should dress were slightly eclectic but in no way extreme, and that suited me just fine. I liked being different and getting acknowledged for it.((Besides, clothing stores gave me some pretty severe anxiety, although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. All I knew was that I was completely incapable of going into one, looking through the racks, deciding what to try on and then deciding if I wanted to buy anything, because it was all just overwhelming.))

The thing is, I was never sure if something I thought looked good actually looked good. And despite this idea that I was an individualist, that I did things my way, up until the last few years I could never wear an outfit I wasn’t absolutely sure was acceptable to others — not unless it had been explicitly approved by someone else. Letting someone else buy my clothes was simply the easiest option.

I don’t need my mother to buy clothes for me anymore. But the fact is that even as an adult, every major shift in my personal style has been precipitated by me finding new people who inspire and encourage me to try something out that I previously didn’t quite dare to do.

 

Noticing this pattern, not just in dress sense but in how my interests, hobbies and overall focus in life has shifted over the years, has left me with a feeling that I lack … substance. Of course, I see “personality” not as a thing but as a constant, ongoing process. We are all being shaped and reshaped by our past, other people, our surroundings, circumstance, the world we live in, and so on.

I’ve identified with a lot of things in the past. Particularly movements; at first atheism and natural science geekdom, then humanism, then skepticism — never leaving the previous identities behind, but simply shifting focus. I’ve identified strongly as a beekeeper, as well. Then I spent a few years identifying as a kinkster.

And now? Now I don’t know. I’ve left all those lives behind, if not the interests and opinions. I have picked up a number of new labels for myself: Nonbinary, relationship anarchist, programmer, neurodivergent, gardener. But none of them have become my “primary attribute”, and I feel insecure about many of them. Insecure whether I fit in, whether I’m truly allowed to use them about myself. This despite my own very strong ideological viewpoint that labels of identity is something that each person must be allowed to pick for themselves.

Pop culture tells me that you’re supposed to have a strong sense of self that is more or less constant. That there’s supposed to be an unchanging core that is you. And, well, I don’t think I have one. I don’t know, because just like I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like to have a gender identity, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like to have an identity overall.

Which brings me back to autism.

What if there’s nothing there?

May not have a strong sense of identity…

I think it hit me so hard because it dawned on me that there might not be an answer to the question of who I am. That I might be navigating this labyrinth trying to find my core, only to find that it’s empty.

The fact is, I very much would like to be diagnosed with ASD. I can’t get rid of the notion that it would allow me some respite from the background buzz in my head: Who am I? Why am I? Why don’t I know these things already? It’s hard not to shame myself for it. I question my need for labels. Why should I need labels to know who I am?

But I do want a word for what I am. I want an explanatory model.((It does not escape me that this desire to categorise and label myself could very well be seen as a symtom.)) And I want it to come from outside of myself, because apparently I can never, ever trust myself to do things right on my own. I want someone with a degree to hand me a piece of paper saying I’m allowed to use this word about myself.

 

At the same time, on a different level, I really don’t care. Right now, I am so wrapped up in the process of being, that most of the time I don’t mind that I don’t know what that actually entails. The other day, I thought to myself that I feel like I have grown up a lot over the past year, but then immediately changed my mind: I don’t think there is such a thing as “growing up”, because that implies that we are all reaching for some sort of finished state. As I said, I see personalities as far more malleable than that.

Personalities, to use a gardening metaphor, grow like long-lived perennials. We’re modular and resilient, changing shape and direction depending on what goes on around us. I guess I used to think that everyone was a tree and that I had to be a tree too, but now I feel like maybe I’m a climbing vine, or something else entirely.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter in the end. Because a plant doesn’t need to know its shape or heritage to keep on growing.

A Reality of Abuse

Stock photos in tones of black and blue, of women shielding their face, of fists and black eyes. A stair lined with knives, tweeted by the police. They are so effective, those images, so evocative. So simple. Is that really what domestic abuse looks like? I can’t tell you. I don’t think it looks like anything in particular.

 

[Content Notice: This article discusses non-physical domestic abuse.]

 

This article was shared by someone in my facebook feed, weeks ago, and it stuck with me. Something in it made me feel uneasy, beyond the obvious horror of a stair lined with knives.

Eventually I found the answer in the quote at the end:

This picture is a snapshot of the horrific reality of domestic abuse. We hope it raises awareness of the barriers facing survivors who want to flee. If people ask ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ – show them this picture.

–Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid

While I absolutely do not deny that many women stay in abusive relationships because they fear for their lives, I know for a fact that there are many other reasons why people don’t leave their abusers.

 

Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’re financially dependent on them. Because they’re disabled, because they have kids, or because that was just always the plan: Their partner would take care of them, so they didn’t need to work.

Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’ve been convinced that they are completely hopeless and unloveable, and that this relationship is the only one they will ever have. That they’re lucky to have anyone at all.

Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’re codependent; because the immense gratification they get when they feel able to aid their loved one overrides all other concerns.

 

In my case, well, I didn’t leave my abusive partner for two very simple reasons:

The first was that I was in love.

But more importantly, I didn’t understand that I was being abused.

In fact, I didn’t realise what had happened until several years had passed. Sure, there were the immediate scars of a bad relationship, of lies and broken trust. But there were other, deeper things. Subtle conditioning of emotional responses that took years to suss out.

It’s been so long, and I still remember that person’s moodswings. How they would get violent towards inanimate objects, breaking stuff on a couple of occasions, because of inconsequential things making them lose their shit. But it was never about me, so I didn’t think of it as abuse. I simply lived in fear of those sudden outbursts and their interminable aftermath. Their black mood would fill the room like a poisonous cloud, and they wouldn’t lift a finger to disperse it. It was up to me to try to make them happy again, or at least not annoy them further.

And oh yes, that was another thing: They told me I was the most annoying person on earth. Of course, I was also the most amazing person on earth, sometimes. During one particularly difficult conversation towards the end, they called me a robot for being so calm and reasonable in dealing with my emotions, and later declared me overly sensitive when something they said upset me so much I had to go to the bathroom because I thought I was going to throw up. As I recall (though this may have been from a different conversation altogether), they had compared me unfavourably to the lover they had slept with behind my back for months but then claimed to have stopped seeing.

I didn’t understand that when they refused to answer a perfectly reasonable question about how they had spent some time with that supposed ex lover, saying they didn’t want to “feed my paranoia”, that was a classic example of gaslighting.

I didn’t understand that the way they hardly ever gave me compliments or showed any particular affection towards me when we were around people we knew, preferring instead to mock me on those occasions, was abusive. That it slowly ground me into a pulp, left me desperate and emotionally destitute.

And of course, there was the jealousy. They were jealous of me, of everything I did that didn’t have to do with them. I quickly learned to avoid mentioning social engagements with others. I cut short my foray into dressing more femininely and “showing off my goods” in public, because they wanted my body all to themselves. I never knew if showing myself to be skilled at something would draw some mild praise, or simply send them into a huff because it was a skill they lacked.

 

I was walking on eggshells for the entire duration of our relationship. And even today, years later, I notice the same worries and thought patterns in myself, being applied to people who never did anything to earn that sort of fearful response from me. When a later partner got out of bed to fetch something and ended up stubbing their toe in the dark, and my whole body tensed up with anxious fear … I think that was the final piece of the puzzle.

I didn’t understand that I was being abused, because to me all those things were just personality quirks. My partner was a difficult person, I knew that when we got together. They had cultivated a self-image of the tortured genius, one which I happily encouraged, as it attracted me and spoke to the codependent tendencies I do have.

Sure, they treated me like a dishrag, using me to wipe up their filth and then wringing me dry — but that’s not abusive, that’s just being a terrible partner. Is what I thought.

And I loved them. I was so deeply committed to them, I simply couldn’t let go. It wasn’t possible.

 

They dumped me, eventually, for that lover I mentioned (whom they probably never stopped seeing). We tried to remain friends. When I landed a rebound a while later, they got upset. Called me — I think I can count on my fingers the number of times they spontaneously called me during our relationship. But now they needed me to talk to them, pick them up again, just like I had when I had been theirs alone.

And when they started feeling better, they saw fit to inform me how much all their friends had hated me, back when we were together.

That’s when I left. When they had already left me, and I was no longer rewarded with some token of affection for the immense emotional labour they required of me. That’s when I could finally let go.

 

My point is, domestic abuse isn’t always so obvious and clear-cut as knives stuck into the steps of a stair. Sometimes it’s gaslighting until you start questioning every thought and desire you have. Sometimes it’s years of tiny barbs that slowly wear you down. Sometimes it’s having to carry the entire weight of your partner’s emotional burdens, because they have no idea how to do it themselves.

I’d wager a lot of people, like myself, never understand that they’re being abused until afterwards, and perhaps not even then.((Especially if they are male, and the abusive partner is female. Because men can’t be abused by women. It simply doesn’t happen. Even if you do realise you’re being abused, what can you do about it? Who would believe you? You’re a man, after all.))

And, conversely, I suspect many abusers have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They aren’t hitting their partner, after all, or threatening them in any way. How could they possibly be abusing them?

So when we see photos of knives in stairs, accompanied by quotes from knowledgeable people saying that this, this is the horrifying reality of domestic abuse … how are we to connect that to the reality we live in, where the knives aren’t always made of steel?

 

You don’t talk about abuse openly, for many reasons, not least of which is your abuser still being alive. Mine may very well come across this blog post some day.((If you are reading this, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive yourself for what you did to me. I probably never will.)) Every person who decides to talk openly about what happened to them have to face the fact that there may be repercussions. I’ve made a risk calculation and decided that it’s worth it, that I can write about this.

I wish I couldn’t — I wish I had never experienced it. That relationship sucked life out of me, and most certainly made my anxiety worse than it already was. And I guess the only thing I can do with the memory is talk about it, in the hopes that maybe it will help someone. That maybe, someone reading this might take a closer look at their own relationship(s) and understand that they need to leave. Or that they need to stop abusing their partner. Or that they need to talk to that friend of theirs whose partner always seems so rude to them. You get my drift.

I hope to raise awareness, just a little bit higher than the image of a stair full of knives might.

On Truth, Love and Sugar

Stephen Fry’s first memoir, titled “Moab Is My Washpot”, takes 11 hours to listen to. It was worth it. Apart from finding it interesting and entertaining, it also left me with a thorough sense of validation. By no means do I want to compare myself to Stephen Fry – I’m well aware my intellect and education are no match for his. Nevertheless, I identify with him. And his book (as well as his reading of it), in both content and form, made me feel that I am okay.

That it’s okay to be a bit of a freak, I already knew. I’ve never thought myself normal, and have embraced my status as an outsider and individualist for as long as I can remember. But so many other qualities I possess make me feel just as ashamed as they fill me with pride. The hidden message I found in Moab was that I can let go of that shame. It’s okay to be both eloquent and loquacious, and it’s okay be these things and also use swear words. It’s okay to be educated and obsessed with facts. It’s okay to be intelligent. None of these things in themselves make you a bad person. They don’t make you a snob or elitist.

Of course, it is rather more okay to be these things if you are a famous comedian/actor/writer – and, more importantly, male. Personally, I definitely bashed my head into a bit of a glass ceiling more than once when it comes to being accepted for who I am. But I digress.

What I actually wanted to write about is this: Apart from all of the above, the book told me that it’s okay to be a romantic.

Not to be romantic, as in flowers and chocolate and so on (although those things are obviously perfectly okay too). I’m not talking about actions here, but feelings, and the words we choose for them. Romance in itself is okay.

Well, Actually…

Once the first rush of this sensation had settled somewhat, I started wondering why this is even an issue for me. I have always, or at least since my teens, had a propensity for shaming myself for any romantic impulses.

My first problem is that I’m obsessed with facts. The one person I know who’s likely to say “Well, actually…” without any trace of irony is myself. For this reason, I always had trouble with phrases such as “I’ll always love you”, or “yours forever”. I mean, aside from the fact we have yet to discover immortality, and that it’s reasonably certain that the universe will eventually die, the statistics (as well as my lived experience) are clear: Most feelings don’t last forever, nor do relationships.

Similarly, whenever I catch myself thinking that my partner is the most wonderful person I ever knew and the most amazing partner I ever had, whose personality and temperament and looks and everything fits me better than anyone could ever dream of, a voice at the back of my mind immediately points out that I felt much the same about previous partners.

Those are the facts, but what is the truth?

I use truth here to mean a sort of emotion, that I really cannot describe in any other words than just that: Truth. It’s taken me a long time to suss out that what my brain recognises as a fact and what it recognises as the truth are not necessarily related to each other.

An example: When I am firmly in the grip of anxiety, I sometimes think the most bizarre thoughts. I had a very rough period a couple of weeks ago, and I remember thinking, “I’m suffering so much anxiety now that it’s pointless to go see my psychiatrist on thursday.” It wasn’t because I didn’t think they could help, but because of a sense of failure. As if I were a student and hadn’t studied for an exam, and, knowing I would fail, thought it pointless to even show up. I knew immediately that all this was not just factually incorrect but fucking ridiculous. Nevertheless, it was true.

Just as it is true right now that I have never loved and will never love anyone as I love my current partner.

Of course, not all romantic emotion and expression thereof are factually incorrect. Sometimes they’re just overly … much. Flowery, sickly sweet, and so on. You see my problem, right there? The internalised disdain for the kind of expressions some may call adolescent and immature, but which if penned by Shakespeare or Keats is suddenly poetry. I used to write poetry, of course I did, what introverted intellectual child didn’t? But I left that behind, and these days it takes the strongest of emotions to plunge me into a headspace where I can allow myself to express them fully and without censorship.

And then I saw him and nothing was ever the same again.

The sky was never the same colour, the moon never the same shape: the air never smelt the same, food never tasted the same. Every word I knew changed its meaning, everything that once was stable and firm became as insubstantial as a puff of wind, and every puff of wind became a solid thing I could feel and touch.

Those are but a few of the words Fry uses to describe what happened during those fleeting moments when he first laid eyes on the object of his adolescent adoration. Listening to the ardour in his voice as he reads them out, I finally understood that you don’t actually have to choose between being intellectual and being romantic. Facts and emotions, even though they are sometimes inconsistent with one another, are not mutually exclusive.

Part of me now wants to exclaim that of course I already knew this. That it’s self-evident, and that it’s rather ridiculous of me to go off on this long-winded ramble as if I have had some sort of revelation. But again: Just because I know something for a fact doesn’t mean that I believe it is true.

To Be Skeptical

I think part of the reason I ended up this way is that for most of my life I have been deeply entrenched in scientific skepticism. And that, I’m afraid, is not an environment conducive to romance. Not that I think skeptics aren’t romantics – many of them most definitely are. There is a deep spiritualism present in the reverence many scientists and science enthusiasts feel for the natural world and the theories we construct to describe it. Consider:

The cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
— Carl Sagan

And:

We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically.
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

If these sentiments aren’t romantic, I don’t know what is.

But I rarely heard anyone talk about love in these circles, except as something to be enjoyed, something which fills our lives with meaning and purpose. Love as expressed through poetry, art, fiction, music, and even as analyzed through philosophy, is simply not a topic of common interest. I suppose individual skeptics probably find themselves wrapped up in romantic feelings at roughly the same rate anyone else is likely to be, but it wasn’t something we shared with each other.

And so, with a lack of affirmation from within my social circles, there was no way for me to battle the onslaught from without. I was told (not always personally) that as a skeptic, one’s emotional register is poorer than that of those who are religious or otherwise “open-minded”. That you can’t know true love unless you know Jesus. That unravelling the mysteries of the universe through science also unravels its beauty. (And more bizarrely, that if you don’t call your partner cute nicknames, you can’t love your partner as much as those who do – this one actually was told to me personally, and I was obviously quite annoyed.)

Of course I knew all these things to be false, or at least felt reasonably certain in my belief that most humans function much the same emotionally. But when a message is thrown at you again and again it is hard not to let it seep into your consciousness and settle there. I am a scientifically minded person, known for being fast thinking and logical and rather dry. There was no way for me to incorporate “romantic” into my self-image.

Nothing But Chemicals?

“So you think love is just, what, chemicals?”

I think I must have been asked that question more than once, although I can’t remember any particular people or circumstances. I’ve tried to answer it in previous texts on previous blogs, and the answer comes down to something like “Yes. Well, no, not if by ‘just’ you mean to diminish or disparage the emotion itself. But essentially yes. Wonderful chemicals, though!”

My worldview is strictly materialistic. I believe we’re made of atoms – or star stuff, as Sagan put it – that make up chemicals and that yes, our emotions could probably be tracked scientifically if we could only understand how the damn thing between our ears actually works. I know for a fact that ingesting chemicals can alter your emotional state without touching your senses (the way for instance chocolate will), because that is how I’m no longer utterly trapped by anxiety. But how does that lessen the impact of the feeling? I never understood the need for anything to be magical to feel magical.

Anyway. What do I think that love is? The question came to me recently as I was falling asleep whilst arguing with imaginary opponents, as I am wont to do, about this very topic. I have a university education in biology, humans are animals and as such fall under that scientific domain, so what would be my educated guess?

Before I could hazard such a guess, I would have to decide how to actually define “love”. So I thought of love in all its forms (which I, if I were Stephen Fry, would now list greek words for, but I’m not so I won’t). What unites the emotions we have for our partners with that which we feel for our family and friends?

Well, love tends to make us want to be with someone, to share our lives with them and to help them if we can, as well as accept help from them when we need it. Even when it’s difficult, love gives us an incentive to stand by others. And I believe this to be the main point.

To explain what I mean, I want to talk about sugar.

Sugar for My Honey

Enjoying the taste of sugar is a completely different thing from those more base urges such as hunger and thirst, where we feel first a need and then discomfort and even pain if we don’t fill that need. Eating as such is absolutely necessary for survival, so as long as what we eat is digestible and not poisonous, it will still our hunger, regardless of how it tastes.

Eating sugar, on the other hand, is pleasurable. We are immensely attracted to sugar because foods rich in sugar used to be good for us, before we invented Skittles and Mars bars. Carbohydrates weren’t always available in such abundance, and when they also come bundled with a whole bunch of vitamins, that’s basically hitting the jackpot.

Love, I think, is rather like the taste of sugar. Love makes it pleasurable to be around other people, to be close to them. And evolutionarily speaking, this has been absolutely crucial to our individual survival, and thus to the survival of our genes.

After all, humans don’t do very well alone. Especially not when we’re trying to procreate. “It takes a village to raise a child” is no idle fancy: Babies are a huge liability to their parents, for a very long time. And before day care centres and hospitals and grocery stores, before farms and villages and even houses, I would say it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to raise a child on one’s own.

In this view, love is the biological urge to be dependable, and to allow ourselves to depend on others.

So yes. I do think that love has a basis in biology. I don’t even think it’s peculiar to humans, I think all animals that interact (consensually) with others of their species in any way that gives them pleasure could be said to experience love. But does that mean I think love is “just chemicals”?

You tell me.

Postscript

As I’m writing this, intending to post it on my blog, my thoughts stray occasionally to how I will then present it. And I find that I tend to get apologetic or wryly critical of myself. I mean, man, just look at the mess I made. Nary a word from my writer’s glands for weeks, and then suddenly, BOOM, 1700 words about romance and love. And so on.

I may have started accepting that it’s okay to be the way I am. But I wonder if I will ever stop worrying whether anyone else accepts it.

Most Special Gifts for Most Special People

Having received a starter kit from Panduro for my birthday a couple of years ago, I’ve made the occasional foray into jewelry making, but never got heavily into it. That is, until I came up with the idea of making personalised bracelets with hidden meanings. There’s lots of ways to convey messages that don’t involve letters or symbols, after all.

When the poly family became a thing, I realised I wanted to make them something to show them my love and appreciation, and soon came up with this idea: Three unique wrap bracelets that spell out all of our names with beads.

The first section of each bracelet

The bracelets are divided into three sections, the first of which is displayed above. The sections, separated by simple knots, spell out our names using the binary code that computers use to store characters.((The internet is full of binary converters; here’s the one I used.)) I used dark stones to represent zeroes, and lighter ones to represent ones. What you are looking at above is the section of each bracelet that says “alex”: 01100001 01101100 01100101 01111000.

Each bracelet consists of round beads made of natural minerals; mostly semi-precious stones. In fact, I’d say that of all the time I spent on the bracelets, at least half consisted of me carefully selecting beads that fit each person’s style and personality. I wanted the bracelets to reflect how we are parts of a whole, but also unique. So, for my partner Deus, I ended up choosing lava and tiger’s eye – the lava reminded me of our trip to Tenerife last year. My metamour Rye loves turquoise, so her bracelet consists of pale green amazonite and deep turquoise apatite. For myself, I got rose quartz and hematite.

Ladder wrap bracelets are most commonly made with leather cord, but since all three of us try to stay away from animal-based products I decided to find an alternative. The cord I ended up using is waxed cotton, which is not quite as stiff as leather, but still works quite well for this sort of bracelet.

Because the beads were slightly different sizes, the bracelets came out different lengths in the end, but since they’re made to be wrapped that wasn’t a problem. Also I left the end knots unglued, so Deus and Rye were able to adjust them to their liking, after which I fixated them with a drop of instant adhesive.

Serendipitously, the bracelets ended up being the perfect length to wrap thrice arount the wrist.

I managed to finish them just in time for Xmas, so my partner Deus and metamour Rye got them in boxes made of glittery wrapping paper. A most successful gift for my favourite people. <3

Why I Play the Games I Play

In my ever ongoing quest for personal development, I have now started on the part where I improve as a gamer. This has nothing to do with skill, but rather appreciation. As I’ve mentioned before, my taste in games is rather narrow. I want to broaden my horizons, and if not learn to love new kinds of games, then at least gain some understanding for why other people do.

For this reason, I’ve dug into Rock Paper Shotgun’s Advent Calendar of 2016, where their excellent writers have collaborated in assembling a list of the 24 best games of the year. And while this definitely did give me some ideas of what to look out for when trying out games outside of my comfort zone, more than anything it helped me suss out why I play in the first place.

My Cup or Not My Cup, That Is the Question

I decided to sort the games I read about into categories – “My Cup of Tea”, “Not My Cup but OK”, “Meh” and “That’s Not Tea”.

My Cup of Tea Not My Cup but OK Meh That’s Not Tea
North Inside Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Darkest Dungeon
The Witness Sorcery! Tilt Brush DOOM
Burly Men at Sea The Curious Expedition hackmud Tom Clancy’s The Division
Owlboy Dishonored 2 Civilization VI Hitman
Firewatch American Truck Simulator Duskers
Thumper  Overwatch XCOM2
Titanfall 2
The observant will notice that there are only 23 games in this table. That’s because one game got its own category, called “OH HELL NO!!!”. I’ll get back to that one later.

As it turns out, this very exercise shed some light onto what sort of games are attractive to me and what features turn me off.

The outside columns are easy to analyze. Looking at the games that immediately interested me and that I’m quite sure I’d enjoy playing, we have a few puzzle/adventure titles ranging from cute to eerie, a beautiful retro platformer, and Thumper – a bit of an outlier that, but I used to love Audiosurf. I’ve been itching to play The Witness since I first heard of it and was happy that it made Best Puzzle Game.

The games that RPS failed to get me interested in are predominantly focused on horror, gore and/or manly men shooting other manly men in the face. Or robots, or demons. Same diff. Duskers might have appealed to me if I enjoyed horror at all, but, well, I don’t. Hitman is interesting because of its sandboxiness, but that’s about it.

Interesting puzzles and beautiful trees – no wonder The Witness appeals to me

Getting Into Specifics

Looking at these games, as well as ones I’ve enjoyed in the past – and ones I’ve failed miserably at enjoying despite giving them my best((I’m sorry, Team Fortress 2!)) – a picture starts to form. Or, well, a couple of lists, really. Firstly, attributes that are likely to make me interested in a title:

  • Story
  • Mystery
  • Humour
  • Puzzles
  • Roleplaying((By which I mean getting to make choices as to who you are and how you interact with the world – not anything to do with stats, die rolls or inventories.))
  • Vibrant, colourful graphics and/or an interesting or unusual art direction
  • Female main character

And then of course, attributes that are likely to make me less interested in a title:

  • First person shooter or real-time strategy as the main game mechanic
  • Timers
  • Competition
  • Dying a lot
  • Drab colour schemes and/or an over-reliance on skulls&spikes or gory aesthetic
  • Lack of female representation, and/or over-sexualisation of women

Looking at these lists, it’s perhaps no surprise that the game RPS dubbed their Game of the Year didn’t even make the “That’s Not Tea” category. It’s called Devil Daggers, and the best I can say about what I’ve seen is that the art is brilliant. Pity it all consists of darkness and monsters.

Nope. Nope nope nope. Even the RPS writers were divided on it; while they mostly agreed that it’s extremely well executed, several of them seem to agree with me that such games are pretty much unplayable.

Anyway. What does all this really say about me as a gamer? In the end it comes down to why I play games in the first place.

The Point of It All

Games, for me, are a means to escape my life and either simply put every thought on hold for a while, or enter a different world and maybe even be someone else. In other words, I play games for much the same reasons as I read books and comics: To get entertained, and to experience things I can’t experience in my own life.

For a game to truly capture my attention, lots of little factors need to click. For instance, it doesn’t seem to matter if the story is interesting if the primary game mechanic involves shooting people (or monsters) and the world looks like a wasteland. This is why, no matter how clever and interesting I find Fallout lore, the actual games don’t work for me. Why should I spend time in a world that basically looks like Stockholm in January, but where pretty much everything that moves is trying to kill me?

FPS, RTS and all games that involve stress-inducing mechanics such as timers tend to leave me cold. After all, stress is one of the things I’m trying to get away from when I play. Competition is even worse – PvP has on occasion triggered pretty severe anxiety.

Dragon Age: Inquisition – even the deserts are pretty

On the other hand, what I truly love is getting to explore worlds that are different from my own, and to get challenged just enough to keep my brain busy but never so much that my progress is halted. Most importantly in that respect, I don’t want to die. Few things break immersion for me as much as dying. I’m the hero of the adventure, if I die the adventure ends! Imagine if you were reading a book and suddenly the remaining pages spontaneously combusted because you read a sentence wrong, and you had to start over at the beginning of the chapter for the pages to appear again.

For similar reasons, I often find it difficult to get into games with a bird’s eye perspective. Whenever I mention enjoying RPGs, someone inevitably assumes I loved Baldur’s Gate – truth is, I didn’t care for it at all. Playing felt like moving pieces on a board, not like experiencing a story first-hand.

Expanding My Horizons

People change, and I’m changing a lot these days. Over the past year I have learned to tackle my insecurities and tolerate discomfort in ways I couldn’t before. And I hope that if I can just get past the worst hurdles, I will be able to play more types of games than the rather narrow range of puzzles, adventures and RPGs I tend to feel drawn to. I won’t love everything I try, of course, and perhaps I will discover that some genres simply aren’t for me. But I want to at least be able to understand what others see in the games I don’t enjoy.

So what games will I be trying out, to see if I can maybe learn to appreciate something different? The games in the second column all contain elements that pique my interest while at the same time containing game mechanics that I’m either completely unfamiliar with or doubt that I’d enjoy. Those feel like an excellent place to start.

Well – after I’ve finished The Witness, of course…

Thoughts. Opinions. Etcetera.