an acceptable distance

It me.

Traditionally, I have little love for isometric roleplaying games. I liked them well enough in the 90s, sure, because that was the best angle we could get. I certainly preferred them to side-scrollers, with their claustrophobically limiting 2D prisons. When I started playing video games, the isometric perch, at a 45 degree angle in the air over the character, was a few years yet from evolving into a standard, but you could see it coming. A child, I called them “see yourself games.” As opposed to those where you could not. I preferred them.

But over time, what I wanted from games changed, and so did the distance I desired to have from them. I grew to hate the isometric perch, floating so far away from details I wanted to see: the graffiti scrawled on mages’ desks; the contents of various bowls in a kitchen. From the isometric distance, everything was limited to a blur of pixels, and detail depended upon someone having bothered to code in a description triggered by your click. Perhaps, coddled first by text adventure games and then by MUDs — where such details would most definitely have been added — I was spoiled.

There is too, though, the fact that I’m less desirous of seeing myself in games now, in third person. I’m less interested in having to see the necessary disconnect between the character and myself, maybe: whereas before, I delighted in the appearance of a new cloak or sword on my character in accordance with my having added it to my inventory, now all I wanted to do was meld into the game, without the prop of the character between me and the environment. When people gather to discuss this or that game and the talk turns to mechanics I want to dig a hole in the ground. I don’t care about mechanics, I want to snap. Just give me a world I can vanish into, and don’t bother me there. I’ll jump through whatever hoops you want me to vis-a-vis how the character or combat is controlled. I don’t care. Just let me in, and let me shut the door behind me.

I had little interest, then, in Pillars of Eternity, when it came out in 2015. People tried to get me hyped; I took one look at the isometric angle and said no. Not gonna happen. Not when I can fade into Skyrim, or at least drag the camera down over my character’s shoulder in Dragon Age or, you know, most other modern games. Games that wouldn’t force you to keep that damning distance between you and the action. Diablo, Darkstone, even remasters of old point-and-click adventures: I had tried them already, and found them lacking.

But I bothered to pick up the first Pillars last week because its sequel just came out. And the sequel boasts free DLC that places the members of Vox Machina, whose Critical Role voice actors already voice tons of characters in both Pillars games, in as recruitable characters for your party. And I mean. I’m not made of stone.

And it turns out I love this game.

I love the immense amount of writing that sits within it, waiting to be discovered — or not. As with the Elder Scrolls games, you can read all the in-game books — or you can not. (I always do.) As with the early Sims games, you can read the lengthy, often tongue-in-cheek stories behind every item’s description — or you can not. (I always did.) The very fact that reading all that text was optional makes it more valuable to me — maybe how books I chose to read automatically had more value to me than those I was forced to read. It’s juvenile, I know. It’s artificially limiting. But I hate being led by a flagrantly obvious carrot on a flagrantly obvious stick. Unless we are talking romanceable NPCs, which is another question entirely. Having the choice to do all this reading of details, of stories-within-stories, will always invite me to read them. Forcing it all to be read as part of some ham-handed fact-finding mission will curdle my tongue. I have never liked mystery novels or hidden object games, and don’t like have to engage with a warped version of either.

In Pillars, though, I do care about the written details behind these characters. Yes, these characters I can barely see — and I have no doubt that the portraits (themselves visual callbacks to older games, older ways of looking for identity in a sea of pixels) of major characters that appear next to their text when they speak go a long way toward warming me to them. Even frozen into stillness, they still give you more of the character than the sprite. (This is probably a deficiency in me, peculiar to the specific time I came into games, and the nature of the games I played first, but there it is.)

Yes, McCree. Yes indeed.

There’s the plot, too — which, like the characters, is not crap. “This must be upsetting for a lot of people,” I murmured to my husband, who played a little of the game when it came out, but not much.

“How so?”

“Well, anyone who’s lost a baby, or had it dragged lifeless out of them, or had it show up breathing but a vegetable. It kind of touches on all of that with zero subtlety. Look.”

“…oh.”

I know people to whom all of these situations apply, and when this is the backdrop to your story, it demands attention:

Holy shit.*

I get that it’s dark, but…I appreciate this particular darkness. Like how I appreciate an adult losing their shit over their lost mother, as appeared to happen during Critical Role two weeks ago (however briefly). It’s…affirming, surrounded by those who have either not experienced hardship or who who have dealt with it but seem unphased by it (the curious emotional immaturity of the vast majority of Californians I’ve met here has at its root, I assume, as least as much wealth and luck as it does climactic or societal ease)…affirming that in this soft, beautiful land of soft, beautiful people, who seem unable to be stirred to extremes of anything, to see someone break down is just a relief. Ah yes, the thought is. So you still believe in some kinds of precipitation out here.

This sounds irrelevant to Pillars of Eternity, but it’s not. All day I listen to people talk about games, but about the parts of games that are entirely interchangeable for me. Economies of this or that, balance, meta, I don’t care about any of it. I never have; if I have appeared to it’s only to look polite. And it’s frustrating, to be neck-deep in something you should love, only to find everyone most caught up in the minutiae that does not move you. Or for them to be so, so close to doing something meaningful, only to veer sideways into frippery or a cheesy joke instead. Oh just have the balls to be earnestly dark, I want to tell them. Just bring people to their knees and don’t apologize for it.

This is so not the time and place, but this dovetails so well into my loathing of labels…

Pillars does that. The character of the Grieving Mother, for example. At first I glowered, thinking how debilitatingly shallow of them, to define a woman and sure, a mother, by what she lost. The losses she continues to feel, magnified throughout compounded losses of those who follow in her wake. But then it became clear that even proffered with other names, other options if she could not remember hers (and she can’t), this is the name she chooses to go by. She claims it. And probably that is more helpful, and empowering in a way, than if her sorrow were swept under the rug after one or two paragraphs. “Sorry for your loss lady, now let’s call you Pam, shall we? Because The Grieving Mother is just such a downer, amirite?”

Well, yes, she is. (Speculative spoilers: she’s probably also some sort of amnesiac maternal goddess, temporarily dissociated from powers and her identity as a result of The Legacy, and my hope is that like Meridia in ESO she’ll burst out of her sad shell in a blaze of blinding light and roast everyone who caused harm, before the end. But that’s just hope and speculation; I haven’t finished the game.) But that’s the point. There are plenty of rogues with hearts of gold out there — every story ever has its obnoxiously charming rascal. I’m looking at you, Mat Cauthon. But rarer are the stories to show women wracked with grief — and not as flavorful background noise (think banshees) but as actual party members, who sometimes speak past or around their grief with insight or shrewdness, without having to erase the sorrow that shapes them. Or having it vanish after a single sidequest and a couple lines of follow-up conversation. The Grieving Mother is barely even seen by other characters. Her sadness makes her invisible to them. She doesn’t know why you see her, and you don’t, either. But you — I — want to. I want to know what makes a sad woman worth seeing. What they’re saying it is burning in there, waiting to burst forth and blind everyone.

With characters like this, both heavily written and yes, heavily voiced (having grown so coddled by the gift that is modern voice acting in games — even going back as far as Inherit the Earth, whose then-rare voices entranced me as a kid — returning to older or cheaper games that lack it is disappointing), I can stomach the isometric distance. I still have no desire to float up there at 45 degrees, so damned distant from everything and everyone…but with so much accessible to me through words, it’s an acceptable distance. One I am willing to put up with, even if I can’t disappear into it.

And if you haven’t had your fill of feelings, there are always the in-game memorials to people real and fictional, granted to Kickstarter backers of the first game. While many are silly, trite, or make no sense, every tablet has at least one line that will kick you in the guts.

*Also, holy shit that puberty is the dealbreaker for animal souls shoved into human bodies (?!), but…that’s a whole post in itself.

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“striking lavender orbs”

Okay, hold up.

My DnD group encouraged me to familiarize myself with the lore of the Forgotten Realms, since we’re running our campaign in Faerun. I always saw the books on the shelves, growing up, but I confess I’d only read one of them — Dragons of Autumn Twilight — and that only as part of a calculated wooing initiative. But my character, as a multiclassing bard, ought to know, I was told, something about Drizzt Do’Urden. So I picked up the first of his backstory trilogy.

Only to encounter, from the self-proclaimed god of DnD lore, no less, terrible writing, laughably sexist fantasy norms, and this in a world where women who write consistently better fiction are derided as sex-crazed whore posting lewd fanfic on the internet, whereas auteurs like R.A. Salvatore get to pen gems like this:

lavenderorbs

Let’s review:

1.) “striking lavender orbs”

2.) Drow are evil because they’re dark (…) but also, hurr hurr, because their society is matriarchal and women who don’t like men or who fuck who they want are evil, duh. But of course they have to assert their matriarchal power with whips that end in snake heads because Penises Ueber Alles amiright?

3.) “striking lavender orbs”

4.) Obviously sexually free women are estrogen-crazed harlots capable of finding infants attractive (?!?!?!?!) or of forecasting the development of said attraction in the future. Because you know. Harlots.

5.) Striking. Lavender. Orbs.

There is a certain amount of sexism in my DnD group anyway, I know. Half of them are ex-military. I expect that from them, even if I’m disappointed by it. I pick my battles. And it’s true that my own childhood favorites wouldn’t hold up too well under a modern gaze, either — I’m looking at you, Wheel of Time, which I end up miserably defending more often than I like to note. But still.

Striking lavender orbs?!

 I care little for the desultory dismissal by most of the internet of women who are out there writing well. I know how most of the internet works. But it’s the desultory dismissal by men I know, supposedly progressive, who have daughters, who act like they are somehow paving the way, with their own behavior, to make the world a better place for said daughters when they come of age into it, that bug me. These same people hold male writers like this up as shimmering beacons of fantasy writing achievement, while simultaneously shitting on women writing more and better, for free.

That nettles me to no end.

You want to be some judgey douchebag on the internet, fine. Join the club. But don’t strut around pretending you care about women, about your precious daughters, when you promote dross like this as the best fantasy has to offer, and dismiss “those internet sexpots” as just that.

Because I mean. We are completely capable of smashing your orbs until they are well and truly lavender, my dudes. And most of you wouldn’t particularly enjoy the experience.

a dented bowl

ferrante.jpg

So I went on and got the next Neapolitan novel even though I complained loudly through the first one. Not because of any real deficiency in it, but more because of the way people talk about these books. As though the kind of relationship they portray is, through its realness, somehow something to be celebrated.

It ain’t.

And I kept wondering why it nettled me so; to hear people I respected sing the praises, not just of the books, but specifically of the relationship central to the story. That is what makes a growl rise in the back of my throat. On the one hand, I suppose, hooray: people are finally celebrating and recognizing prose that treats the female childhood experience in the the way the male childhood experience has been eulogized for as long as there have been novels.

On the other hand: that’s a pretty fucking low bar.

And again, this friendship isn’t healthy. Even if it is real. Even if it is relatable. It’s not anything anyone should gravitate toward and say “ah HA! me too!” You don’t want to be a me too on this one folks. This is like the relationship between the narrator and Phineas in A Separate Peace. That constant, anxiety-ridden comparison. It’s awful. It may be relatable but it’s awful. Consider this passage (spoilers for book one):

“For her whole life she would sacrifice to him every quality of her own, and he wouldn’t even be aware of the sacrifice, he would be surrounded by the wealth of feeling, intelligence, imagination that were hers, without knowing what to do with them, he would ruin them. I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books. And for a fraction of a second I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing. At that point, with a sharp sense of anguish, I felt sure that I had ventured too far. I must go back, I said to myself, I should be like Carmela, Ada, Gigliola, Lila herself. Accept the neighborhood, expel pride, punish presumption, stop humiliating the people who love me. ”

As I said, this is relatable, without a doubt. Everyone whose friend was the pretty one, the complimented one, the one who started fucking first — you know how this feels. But…that grim familiarity doesn’t make it a thing worth celebrating.

For a long time, the full length of the first book, I worried that what I was balking at here was the ugly mirror the text presented me with. But that would be terribly, laughably simple, and anyway it’s not as though I go around pretending to be a saint, or to have been one, ever. I freely dispense the anecdote about how my best friend’s boyfriend suggested his dog fuck me, since no one else would. I dispense that anecdote so people understand how hideous some kinds of female friendship can be, and how desperate we are to hang onto it, still, when that’s all we have.

But I have the self-respect now to realize what a total waste of time preserving that friendship was, and I look at Lenu’s obsession with Lina and want to scream at her. Move on, cut her off, let her fuck up her life on her own terms and stop competing with her for godsake. Do what I couldn’t, for crying out loud. Live your life somewhere else and don’t let it get bogged down by this constant, unnecessary comparison. This competition.

There is also some frustration with the datedness of the sexual repression: the pre-marital bathing scene, for example. In 2018 you can just admit to yourself that you’re attracted to her, okay? Just do it and let it go. You don’t need to label it; you don’t need to wave a flag, or have a crisis; just out and out admit to yourself that hey, it’s not just her acumen and wit that demands your attention; her body demands it too. And poof, there goes the need for all these circuitous explanations, to yourself and to us. It is so much easier, in prose and in life, to just own up to your attraction to someone, rather than to wax poetic on all the reasons it’s just their mind/writing/joie de vivre whatever that moves you, rather than the whole, ah, package. It’s just so much easier to be honest with yourself.

But I get it, this was 1950s Italy. Fine. Writing about 1950s Italy in the 2000s though…just let it go. Especially having begun as, and striven to continue as, Anonymous. Just let it go. As a teenager I used to return again and again to a line of Alice Munro in The Beggar Maid, speaking of a girl’s fixation on her female teacher: “sexual attraction that had no idea what to do with itself.” Aha, I thought, foolishly. This is what I feel, this is who I am! When in fact, all that is is an elaborate falsehood designed to make oneself compatible with what one feels is expected of one. A terrible waste of time. Even if you never look at another woman like that again; even if no one else moves you like that; even if you have no interest in joining any movement, ever: it is so much more beneficial to you, the observer, to acknowledge that you are moved by all of a person, rather than having to twist your way through these elaborate hoops to explain yourself, to yourself. You’ve got better shit to do. See what you are and carry on, girl. Stumbling around with your hands over your eyes, you’re going to get hurt.

Anyway, I’m continuing on in this series, despite annoyance with the women who sing praises of the friendship depicted therein (this is not what healthy friendship looks like, hello!) and outright disgust for the men who do the same. (“Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” is quite possibly the most inaccurate and inane pull-quote on any book cover I own, John Freeman, you patronizing prick.) I hate to think that I’m continuing in the vain hope that Lenu moves beyond her obsessive competition and comes to find value in her awkward, bookish self, beyond that which Lina ascribes to her — but I suppose that’s a possibility. There’s still that marked difference between us, though: every girl I realized I hung my heart on like that, who exhibited an obsessive and desperate need to be deemed better than, I broke from, resolutely. This despite the disparaging observations of those close to me who find themselves unable to tear themselves away from any relationship, damaging or otherwise. You cannot spend your life like this:

“I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worst off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.”

No. No no no no no. You have got to do better for yourself. If you find this depiction of a friendship relatable, fine, own that — but then, don’t go on and on about how great it was. If you can relate to it then you know it sucks. So hard. For everyone. And what bothers me about what people say about this series is that they skip over that. “Yay truth!” they proclaim, without acknowledging that the truths they resonate with are hideous and awful and indicative of a gross and violent need for change. It can’t be nostalgia — I refuse to believe that of anyone whom I’ve yet seen or read praising these books. It can’t. You can’t think so little of yourself that constantly being the lower tier of a competing pair of adolescents holds any kind of attraction for you. You can’t think that kind of daily competition feels good, surely. You can’t think so little of yourself, now.

I hope, for everyone’s sake, that these books whose friendship they keep praising reach a point, in the characters’ thirties or forties maybe, where they realize they’ve been digging their own graves with this pointless rivalry. Where they set about burying said rivalry. But given the opening to the first book, this may never happen. That lurking comparison may persist throughout their lives — and that is such a sorrow, to me. Both of them have so much more worth doing, and being, than each other’s rivals. This isn’t friendship. Not as it ought to feel. If someone drains you so much, avoid them. If you have to lie to yourself to explain away your obsession with someone, stop lying. You’ve only got so much time to go around. Why waste it on constantly measuring yourself against someone who is supposed to be your companion, your confidante, your sister in arms? (And if you realize you want her to be more than your sister in arms…go find someone who is willing to be more. Do it.)

If there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women; if we all cultivate friendships like this…then we’re all doomed. Because we’ve all been there, and we ought to grow enough to realize that it’s not a place we should ever long for again.