Leave it to Zombies: Aberford

So anyone who knows me knows I have Opinions about Representation. Representation in anything — games, movies, books, the gamut of communicative arts. So let me tell you about this thing that I just found because YES.

It’s a game called Aberford in development by an outfit called Sketchy Panda Games. Here are their four primary protagonists:

Clockwise, from top left: Peggy Whitman, Betty Smith, Doris Baker, Sylvia Hornberger

Clockwise, from top left: Peggy Whitman, Betty Smith, Sylvia Hornberger, Doris Baker. Oh, and Disney? Note how different their faces are. 

Yeah. That totally got my attention. In a sentence, Aberford follows four women in post-WWII America faced with a zombie apocalypse. There’s a single-player story mode and a multiplayer zombie-smash mode, too. But if you worry that this is being handled poorly, that the characters are cardboard cutouts and the story will be a thin veneer of zombie bashing dressed in June Cleaver’s best, let me point you to this excerpt from their tumblr, which they update quite frequently:

Besides being a game about 50’s housewives and zombies, Aberford is about people finding their voices and testing their true inner strength. So to do that, the story pushes these women to their physical and emotional limits in one brutal, terrible day.

Lots of modern zombie stories skip over the immediate fallout in a hurry to get to the cool “post-apocalyptic” world, but I think the real test of survival comes right at the start. The first time [you] to have to bash in human being’s head to keep it from killing you. The first time you have to leave a loved one’s mangled body behind. The moment you have to accept that this is what you’re doing today and not anything you had planned. These are the little moments where we see who we are, and that’s what Aberford focuses on.

It’s well worth the time to dig through the archive; people ask some really good questions — technical and philosophical — and the folks at Sketchy Panda answer candidly and honestly. From one of my favorite exchanges:

allgreymatters: I appreciate that there’s a woman of color and a larger woman included in the main character designs.

sketchypandagames: We felt you’d appreciate having someone other than Angry White Man or generic woman in a catsuit to play as. We also have a trans woman, a Japanese American woman, a Latina woman, and a teenage girl coming as expansion characters (They play roles in the main story and will be available in the free play mode. We’ll also make playable side campaigns for them if we fund enough. Hopefully I’ll have something I’m willing to show you art-wise soon). [Emphasis mine.]

If you go to their website (not the tumblr), you can drop them your e-mail address so they’ll notify you when their Kickstarter launches. I know I already have.

Ambient noise generator

This is the most fantastic thing I’ve seen in a while: A Soft Murmur, which lets you mix your own background ambient noise loop.

Mix your own background ambient loop. BRILLIANT.

Mix your own background ambient loop. BRILLIANT.

I don’t know how long it’s been out, but it’s fantastic. There’s no hiccup where a track loops back on itself, and you can have all of the sliders up and running if you like and it doesn’t slow anything down, nor does the sound stutter. And you can set it up with timers — a timer to start, a timer to end, and a timer to just gently fade out. They’ve got an Android app, but no iPhone yet.

You can even share your own mix. Mine is rain, thunder, and waves, with a little wind and a hint of singing bowl thrown in. I’m absolutely in love.

 

Pushing pieces of metal around

There is a fierce joy in being sore. I’m one of those people who doesn’t really respond to cardio; I’d rather chew glass than walk thirty minutes on a treadmill. But I love pushing pieces of metal around.

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The idea of bulking up never bothered me. I want to look badass! I want to be badass! My life has been, more or less, an extended attempt to attain and maintain some kind of dignity, which I never think I have. Stupidly Sisyphean. But we all have our quirks, I suppose.

So anyway, I love pushing weights around. I love feeling the steering in my car get softer — it’s an old car, with a carburetor and “assisted” steering, a term describing something that is almost, but not entirely unlike, power steering; I love feeling how stable I am getting up the stairs after apparently years of screwed up posture leg musculature out of whack.

Note how there’s no talk of weight, specifically my own, specifically losing it.

Well, I’m kind of done with it, when I’m staring it in the face. It won’t go away for any real length of time, and while there’s benefit in eating well, there’s no benefit in never approaching closer than five paces from a cake the rest of my life. Does that mean I won’t go into a misery spiral when I have to (God help me) go shopping for clothes and can’t find anything that doesn’t look warped in some awful way, even if it’s big enough to “fit”? Heck no. Society is a constant pressure, and I’m no Atlas. The water presses in through the leaks sometime.

And it hurts for a while, but it eventually stops, and I move on, though I know it’ll be back around again. But in the meantime, I take my lumps, and I keep leg pressing twice my weight, and start learning how to do Olympic style lifts. Because there’s a satisfaction in feeling sore, and I like pushing pieces of metal around.

Today is a hollow day.

There are days I feel like I’m striving toward something, striding. Something purposeful, something meaningful. Today is not one of those days.

I suppose it’s all right; I suppose you can’t always be on the march, you can’t always double-time through the shadows with a burning brand smoking up the corridors. But it leaves me hollow and empty and with no motion at all.

I don’t like being motionless. Well, that’s not entirely correct; I like being motionless when it’s a thing I’ve chosen, and serves a purpose. Or even if I didn’t choose it, but I know it leads to something else later on. An enforced sabbatical.

That’s not what this is, though. It’s a permeating fog of dissatisfaction, and I think that’s what I hate most. If something’s not quite right, I like to be able to try to fix it, or think about why leaving it alone is better in the long run. This is just dissociated and rootless agitation at an energy level that’s like the whine of a switched-on cathode ray tube.

Usually, when I hit this point, I find something to do that will cut through that fog. It can be as simple as talking to a friend, or having some ice cream, but I get the sense that this is more closely tied to creative output. Somehow, my actual output and my desired output are not in synch.

Well, okay, they’re never in synch, but there’s a dissonance here that’s more acute and less common than the usual. What’s happening now is a spring-loaded slapdown whenever I sort of think of something I’d like to build or write or map out. I’m in no way at a loss for projects; this has more to do with the squelching of ideas than lack of work.

I spoke before of telling stories as armor. Maybe there’s something in that that I should look more deeply into — a projection of idealized self. Maybe I don’t know what I want to be anymore, or, more worryingly, I feel like I can’t ever live up to the ideal so there’s no point.

Well, regardless, this bit of drabble has made me feel better, and I suppose that’s sort of the point.

Get to the point

DoYouCareCraftivistCollective

You know the person who, when telling you about some achingly mundane event in their lives, turns it into a sort of narrative epic of questionable insight and imagined valor? That’s me. And I know it’s me, when I’m in the middle of explaining the emotional context of a 3 AM subway ride and I can hear the rusty creaking strain of patience from my friends, and I can’t stop myself.

I just can’t.

So thank you, friends, and family, for your patience.

It’s times like those that make me wonder if my lack of self-esteem isn’t some foreign overlay, because when I’m telling you about the joyous schadenfreude of watching the jerk who cut me off halfway to my destination get pulled over by the cops for speeding, I am certain that you are feeling the righteousness just as much as I am, even though I’m only a third of the way through explaining why I was late for lunch, which was the point of the story anyway. I am confident that you feel it. And in those brief dissonant moments of self-aware clarity I dive in to press the point because that guy got what was coming to him hell yeah.

Stand-up comedians do this. This is their bread and butter. On occasion, I do it in front of an audience, too.

When you’re an outspoken fat chick who has completely given up on social norms of “feminine appearance” (because goddammit I just don’t have the energy or the time) you take what little advantage you have left and press it for all it’s worth. And that’s an astonishing thing to realize: I told stories once because I was good at it; I tell stories now because it’s a kind of social currency that I otherwise lack. It’s both an imperative and a defense mechanism: it’s not about me, it’s about an event. Sometimes any event. Does that make me lucky? Or should I have diversified?

There’s power in getting a word in edgewise before people make judgment calls about you. Now if I could just stop worrying what people thought in the first place.

Back to square one is not back to square one

The focus of my research has changed again — or more accurately, has refined itself even further, or become more fundamental. The upshot and downside is that the creative output for the research is now completely different (again). No game now, which is all right because I can put that together on my own once I’m finished with this research.

Now I’m helping on a larger project. And I couldn’t be happier, to be honest.

For someone who spends a lot of time writing, I spend a lot of that time in the company of others. Yeah, sure, I’ve got short stories that have been accepted, and I’ve got a couple of ideas for novels that are quietly keeping warm on the backburners of an extraordinarily large oven, but a lot of the making stuff I that I do is in the company of others. I spend at least one day a week, usually, in some kind of tabletop RPG, and plot all kinds of collaborative fiction projects that I have no business thinking about until this research is over. I cut my teeth on playwriting pretty early, too, and if there ever were a collaborative art, it’s theater.

With this project — which I’m being vague about because I still don’t have complete details to share – collaboration is built-in. I’m not responsible for generating the bulk of creative content; here I’ll be writing, but so will others, and I’ll be facilitating and coordinating, too. I can focus on collaborative processes as much as creative ones, and more importantly, write about what’s happening and why I think it’s happening. And I’ll have all kinds of people to talk about it to, to ask question of.

So back to square one is not back to square one. All the stuff I’ve pored through in the past few years is still relevant, just in a different way, and in a way that resonates more strongly with what I tend to do when I make stuff up (I’m not quite ready to call it “my creative practice”). There’s relief and new anxiety in equal measure, but the anxiety is toned down by excitement and that’s a fine place to be.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is fraught with all kinds of baggage. I used to be one of the people who vehemently hated it. I mean, I spent — spend? — most of my life feeling like I’m on the periphery of acceptable society (fat woman who likes to play and make games and enjoys learning how to use swords and can accurately diagnose and sometimes fix serious car problems), and VD (heh) was one of those things that just made that feeling worse.

This was the case even when I was already married. Human connections are complex and nuanced and commercial pressure is about as antithetical to that sort of thing as you can get.

But this year has been wonderfully low-key, completely by accident, and it’s been much easier to appreciate the non-commercial side of Valentine’s Day which is in reality non-existent and requires personal construction by those involved.

The reason I bring this up is because he got me beautiful flowers. Not your usual romantic theme, but bright, happy, cheery flowers that I really like.

photo (2)

In fact, I like flowers so much that I’d have them in the house often, if I could. But I can’t. And that reason?

photo (3)

This guy. Loki. He lives up to his name; he can unscrew drawer pulls – I have seen it myself.  He thinks flowers are his own private salad bar. And by the rule of three I should have a picture of him cheekily munching on buds while looking at me as if saying you can’t tell me what to do with my life you ridiculous furless two-legged food scoop manipulator, but he’s very good at not sitting still for a photo he doesn’t want taken.

‘Cause he’s a kitty cat. He also does things like demand to play fetch at stupid hours of the morning, but that’s a post for another time.

Anyway. Low-key Valentine’s Day that didn’t make me want to punch people marketers in the throat kicked off by a lovely bouquet of cheery flowers that are probably getting shredded as we speak by Little Lord Loki of the Incredibly Loud Purr was a very nice day, even if I stuffed myself to unpleasantly full with good food and nice beer and a lovely dessert in the company of my Mister, who tackled a Reuben sandwich that defeated even his vaunted appetite. The pastrami was gorgeous.

(Seriously, if you’re in the Brisbane area, check out Tippler’s Tap – a limited but very tasty menu of mid-western US favorites and a not at all limited selection of seriously good beer. And the serves are huge. No. Really. I mean American-sized.)

So, yeah. A bit of a dribble post, but hey, why not, right?

A question of home

Home is a hard concept for me, or maybe it’s just hard for me to reconcile it with the usual societal notions of home. Maybe that’s a part of growing up, learning that societal notions are rough guildelines and not strict rules, many of which are set up by people who do not have your best interests at heart.

I’ve been home in the US since mid-May. I got here in time to spend the little time my dad had left, and for that I’m enormously grateful. And I was able to be here for my mom, and for me.

And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of months. Grieving, logistics, supporting my mom, and having a brief getaway weekend to see a ton of friends in New York City. And seeing family from Mexico! People I haven’t seen in years.

Home is absolutely awesome, and home is a very hard thing. Because while I’m here, my friends and family back, er, home, I’m away from them.

Do we call the address on our driver’s license home? I have two. Do we call the place where we grew up home? I have, like, six. Is it where family lives (note that I include friends under the moniker of family)? I’ve got people on at least three continents.

My mom and I (and sometimes my dad) would go to Mexico every summer to be with her side of the family, at least for a few weeks. When I was young, it was just a trip, it was what we did. But the moment I got married and moved to live with the Mister on the other side of the world — it wasn’t so normal or usual anymore. I don’t know how my mom did this every year.

It makes you feel vaguely like a monster, wanting to leave and not wanting to leave, the faint guilt of missing someone and being willing to be away from another person you love to go be with them a while.

So what is home? That’s a question I’m tackling in my doctorate. What is home, how do we define it, how does it define us? How does it limit us and give us strength? For years I had a deep struggle with leaving New York — I used to feel like leaving that town was admitting defeat. I never imagined a neutral or even happy withdrawal.

Over the years, it began to sink in that I’m bigger than any one place. They can inform me, but none define me exclusively. As a working title of the creative portion of my doctorate I’ve been using a line from a Talking Heads song — “Naive Melody”. The opening like is “Home is where I want to be.”

Just like I recast the role and importance of place in how it informs who I am, I recast the grammar in the line. It can read “I want to be home right now” or it can read “home is defined as the place where I want to be at any given time.”

I prefer the latter. It’s easily the truth, and it gives me the freedom to not feel locked to just thinking of one place as home.

Evolution of research

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So before the middle of the year hit, I was in the middle of refocusing my research from the application of polyphony to transmedia storytelling, to examining polyphony and its role in shared emergent narrative in tabletop role playing games.

A friend of mine calls this a “PhD&D.”

There are studies on the culture and anthropology of gamers and gaming (and when I say gaming here, I mean tabletop RPGs); there are studies on performativity in gaming, the potential of gaming in therapy, and in education. There are evaluations of gaming materials as literature. But so far, there are no examinations of narrative processes happening in a game in progress.

Because polyphony posits that every voice influences the collaborative results of the interaction of those voices in a given work, and because an RPG setting constitutes a voice contributing to a game even partly based in or on it, I am writing an original game setting to be run using FATE Core rules*. A part of the examinable output of the degree will be that game setting, whose primary themes revolve around questions of war, refuge, personal identity and the meaning of home.

It may seem like analyzing this kind of process doesn’t have broad application, but that’s incorrect. For tabletop RPGs, this research can illuminate ways to improve gameplay, game running, and even setting design. Extending outwards, the research may offer better ways to improve player immersion in story-heavy games, finding better ways to give players more granular and meaningful consequence within current and near-future technological parameters. Even more broadly, analyzing emergent polyphonic narrative processes can have implications in the workplace, improving communication and productivity among employees and management. The original focus of my research — polyphony in transmedia storytelling — remains relevant and can still benefit from my new focus.

The truth is, I’m really excited about all of this, but I do not have the energy or personal focus to lend the attenion and work that it deserves right now. But I wanted to let you know what’s slowly ticking around in my head, because even though I can’t throw all of my focus on it, I haven’t stopped thinking about it, working things out slowly in my head.

 

* I’m using FATE for three reasons: one, the creation of an RPG rules system is complex enough to deserve its own dissertation; two, FATE is easily usable under both Creative Commons and Open Game Licensing; three, the very structure of FATE — particularly character creation — encourages exactly the kind of collaboration I’m examining.

 

Mid-year update

How awful is that, a mid-year update. Well, for the moment, a good part of my life is on hold due to a close death in the family.

My research is on hold while I help my family with paperwork and the other inevitable logistics that come out of these things, but if you want a good snapshot of where my thinking was going as recently as April, Josh T Jordan at Tell Me Another just posted an interview with me conducted at that time with co-host PK Sullivan. Tell Me Another is a bi-weekly interview show featuring storytellers of all kinds, and I’m honored and delighted to have been asked to participate.

I also had a story accepted by Tiny Owl Workshop for Unfettered; I have no idea how my story will appear, which is part of the fun! I’m honored and humbled to be included in this project.

In a brief aside in this brief aside, there is a very small chance I might be going to New York City for a weekend later this month, but that relies on a lot of other variables, so there’s no word for sure on that.

Finally, I, like many others, am ill over yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling. The court confirmed today that the ruling covers all forms of birth control, even though Hobby Lobby itself only wanted to omit coverage for morning-after pills and IUDs. What a wonderful precedent. So in the spirit of civil dissent, I offer you Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion.

Ginsburg Dissent by Abby Ohlheiser