Monthly Archives: March 2020

Day Thirteen

‘sup?

Today is, more or less, day thirteen of my self-imposed quarantine/isolation. I’m not sick, but as someone who’s in a position to take themself out of the equation of contagiousness, I elected to do so. Social responsibility and all that.

In the time since, New York has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, with the City itself being a hub within it all. It’s a lot to take in; like knowing that a few neighborhoods over there’s a hospital that’s operating in crisis mode. I’m lucky in that me and mine are safe and sound, some of us are working from home, some are on paid leave, but some have had to file for unemployment. But we know it could be worse for all of us, and we know that others aren’t nearly so lucky.

I go on walks now and then, both because I’m told I need sunlight and exercise, but also because I need groceries and wanna get takeout from places that are still offering. Being outside in my neighborhood is surreal. Lots of places are closed, which is sad to see even if they’re places I usually don’t frequent. The diner I go to most weekends stopped offering takeout earlier this week and has a sign on their door saying they’re closed indefinitely. So too went the ramen joint I like and the restaurant I live over.  A coffeeshop I adore and served me many a ginger-tinged coffee during NaNoWriMo is selling its beans in bulk before they close this weekend.

Throughout all this, I can’t help but wonder how this will all look when the pandemic is finally over, whether it’s several weeks or several months from now. Will that diner reopen? Will the staff still be there? It feels a selfish question, but it’s a place where I know a lot of the staff by name and have holed up with a book and endless coffee for hours, and truth be told, I miss that. Plus, I’ve a soft-spot for hole-in-the-wall eats and I’m loath to lose one, especially one like this. Feels like there’s so much in the air right now.

It’s funny. There’s a part of me that’s taken pop-culture’s obsession with New York as being just a trope that works. Yeah, aliens invade the City; yeah, that’s where the Ghostbusters operate; yeah, that’s where all the supervillains are for Spider-Man to fight. Seemed like Washington State was gonna be the big one for the Covid outbreak, but, no, it’s here in New York. Guess there is some truth in television to it all.

But again, I consider myself lucky. The supply chain to New York is robust, so I’m not worried about running out of food and other supplies. So long as the infrastructure holds up, FaceTime and Google Hangouts can afford a sort of companionship. I’m not worried about myself making it through this storm, but I do worry for those who aren’t as privileged. For those who still have to go in to work at grocers and hospitals, for those out of a job and those who might not have a job when this is over.

I don’t know what sort of conclusion to draw here, at the end of this rambling blog post. But be thankful for what you’ve got. And please, if you can, stay home and stay safe. Let’s get through this whole thing.

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Quarantined

To stem the rising tide of a pandemic, the residents of New York are put under lockdown. Life in the city grinds to a halt; no one goes into work and restaurants and bars are limited to take-out only options. News chyrons speak of medication being shipped to cities and team games being banned.

Who would’ve seen March 2020 looking like some B-Movie from the 80s?

It’s a time that I’ve been filling with watching movies, playing video games, and playing board games with friends. And reading too, because it’s a good time to be curled up with a book and a cup of coffee (I’m reading Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, if you’re curious).

I’ve really taken a liking to Legacy-style board games. These are the ones that every game impacts the next one and rules develop as you go. You get to name characters and mechanics get added and changed. Pandemic Legacy has been a lot of fun, because Pandemic is a fun board game anyway and it’s a little topical now given the whole, y’know, worldwide pandemic. Given the opportunity to name the diseases, we naturally chose to name one Corona and, keeping with the theme, the other three Budweiser, Miller, and Guinness. Because theming.

A fun bonus of it is that it’s a cooperative board game, so rather than conspiring against each other (which believe me is one of my favorite things), you’re working together against whatever’s going wrong in the game. It makes for a fun tabletop experience because you’re united with a common goal. It also makes for a gaming experience that’s built more around puzzling and problem solving than usurpation, which is a fun part of the brain to exercise.

Tonight we’re gonna take a stab at the Legacy version of Betrayal At The House On The Hill, another game that lets you play together alongside each other until the Haunt begins at which point it becomes competitive. All the same, it makes for a fun time.

Of course, to play with people outside of my apartment is another affair, but we find a way. Like streaming Jackbox’s Quiplash through Twitch and setting up a Google Hangout for everyone to play together. Sure, the eight-or-so of us are all in different places, but there’s still that community of doing something together and laughing at the same jokes. Feels not too unlike everyone sitting on a couch together somewhere.

Another friend of mine is putting together some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns over Discord, which, again, though not the same as everyone sitting around a table with beers and chips, still makes for a cool simulacrum of the actual experience. We’re all still cracking jokes and riffing off each other, just not in person.

Community is such an odd thing; it’s something that you can’t really quantify but you know when it’s not there. I recognize its loss when I walk past shuttered stores and empty restaurants to grab pickup from a place I dearly hope is still open after all this blows over. It’s liable that things will look more than a little different when all the dust settles. Community will probably look a bit different, and I think we’ll really learn that we don’t have to actually be together to be together.

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Alone Together

I’m a big fan of escapism. Not the sort where you bury your head in the sand and ignore the world around you; the sort where you pay attention to what’s going on then seek out solace in entertainment. Call it self-care, call it recharging; but I believe that part of being an informed member of society is knowing when to disengage for a bit.

So it’s times like this that I really enjoy a good video game, in this case, Death Stranding. Because what better way to escape the current headlines than by playing a video game in which communities are isolated and it’s up to you, Sam Porter Bridges, to bring necessary supplies to these holdouts and help reconnect them to the greater world. In a world where no one’s going outside for fear of what it portends; you’re the one who can help bring everyone together.

It’s a lonely game too. Sam’s out there in the American wilds by himself. Most of the people he makes deliveries too he talks to via hologram, even though they’re sharing the same space they aren’t really there. The only people Sam actually comes into contact are the hostile MULEs, who  you have to fight, and the enigmatic Fragile, with whom Sam isn’t willing to get too close to. You’re alone out there.

Except, you’re not.

Death Stranding is actually a multiplayer game. You don’t interact with other people directly as in other games; you don’t pass someone else running deliveries out there. The multiplayer aspect in Death Stranding is very passive, and also very wonderful and tied into the way the game works.

Transporting cargo is difficult. The terrain is unforgiving, with rivers and cliffs impeding progress at every turn. There are ways to get around this; a well-placed ladder can help you ford a river, a climbing anchor makes it safer to descend from a cliff’s edge. You can carry a PCC with you that can be used to build structures, like generators to recharge vehicles’ batteries, bridges to get those vehicles over rivers, or shelters to wait out the dangerous Timefall and repair damaged cargo.

What’s cool is that these structures aren’t limited to your own game state. Ladders you place and bridges you build are shared among other players, meaning that CoffeeMan69’s ladder could make your trip that much easier. You can also upgrade and repair others’ structures, so if ol’ Coffee’s bridge is falling apart you can contribute materials to repair it. Roads that scatter the terrain require a lot of materials to be built, and constructing an entire network usually means a few people coming together to get it done.

It’s such a terrifically subtle form of multiplayer that has you really appreciating the other people playing the game. I’ll never see CapnCasper in the game, but I’ll be eternally grateful for the bike they left behind that made my delivery that much easier. Though there’s a small gameplay benefit to helping others out, it’s mostly to better the community as a whole. That bridge you build won’t just help you, but any other player who comes across it. You should help build that road ‘cuz it will make everyone’s life that much easier.

Death Stranding is a game that’s, in part, about being stranded from society, about being alone but still doing what you can. You, the player, though, aren’t alone. You’re part of a community of other players all working towards the same goal. It’s a reminder that even if you’re stranded alone out there, you’re not really alone when you’re at it alongside someone else.

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Conjuring Worlds

I had the opportunity to go to a talk by one of my favorite authors this week. In the Rare Books Room at The Strand, Ken Liu talked about his new short story collection, the art of translating, and the process of crafting sci-fi and fantasy worlds.

Worldbuilding, as the process is called, is a fundamental part of any work of fiction — particularly genre work that takes place in a world not quite like our own. You can’t just say “there are wizards” and call it a day since the reader (or viewer or player) probably won’t have much of an idea as to what that entails. What kind of world is it?

Though the idea of worldbuilding gets thrown around a lot with regards to science fiction and fantasy, it’s present in any work. Maycomb, Alabama of To Kill A Mockingbird is a very specific place and so needs to be developed thus. It might not need a firm idea of how faster-than-light travel works, but we still need to have a firm grasp of what Maycomb is like. For a reader who’s never left Liverpool, it may as well be another world. When people say that Harper Lee really brought Maycomb to life, what they mean is she did some topnotch worldbuilding.

Even landmark places like New York need worldbuilding. Sure, everyone knows something about the city by cultural osmosis, but there’s always gonna be the question of which New York we’re dealing with. Is it the grungy one of Taxi Driver? The one rife with adventure J exists in Men In Black? The one that you see in How I Met Your Mother or the one in Spider-Man Homecoming? You still have to create the city so the audience knows what they’re dealing with.

Granted, it’s definitely easier to create a town in Alabama than to weave Middle-earth from the air. Worldbuilding an entirely imaginary place takes work, in part due to having to take the audience on the leap past reality with you. Middle-earth isn’t real, but Tolkien made it feel real.

During his talk, Ken Liu described it instead as ‘world conjuring’ (a term he borrowed from writer Jo Walton). The distinction is that building implies making something concrete for others to see, whereas conjuring belies the act of weaving something out of nothing; it might not be perfectly solid, but like an image in the smoke it’s there.

Reading — and really most forms of storytelling — is a collaborative process between the author and the reader. The author throws up characters and concepts, and it’s up to the reader to engage with it. The Lord of The Rings won’t land for you if you find elves and dwarves to be hokey nonsense. The mindset behind world conjuring is to lean into that when it comes to creating your world; not everything needs to be spelled out, let the reader fill in the gaps. After all, whatever they come up with will most likely be cooler for them than whatever you could prescribe.

Star Wars conjures up an amazing world. There are so many ideas thrown out with little explanation that aren’t vital for the story but clue the audience into the existence of a world out there. Ben Kenobi fought in the Clone Wars. Threepio frets about the Spice Mines of Kessel. The Imperial Senate has been dissolved. These are small details that conjure up images in the viewer’s head of a world far bigger than what is being shown on screen, and it all seems a little more real.

Worldbuilding is no mean feat. It requires a tremendous amount of imagination and logic to come up with it and keep it all straight. The idea behind world conjuring allows for the onus of creation to be shared between two imaginations, and the world produced the combined result. It requires the creator to share ownership of their world with the reader, and in so doing invite them in. Conjure up enough of an image and the reader will fill in their blanks as they will, and in so doing make the fictional real.

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