Big Jack is Dead

My novel is now on sale. In the US, the Kindle version is $5.99 and the paperback is $11.00. Thanks for reading. Big Jack is Dead – A visually striking Southern Gothic novel.

UPDATE – BIG JACK IS DEAD NAMED ONE OF THE BEST INDIE NOVELS OF 2013: Kirkus Review

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Sacrilege by Cara Ellison

Sacrilege

A month or two back, I was alternating between several games – the shipping version of Gone Home, a nascent version of the Novelist, and Far Cry 2, which I wanted to replay for the third time on the Infamous setting with Dylan’s Mod and SweetFX installed. Around the same time, I played the brilliant and moving Papers, Please – a game that is hard to include in lists because of the way commas fuck with my head. Papers, Please is a really good example taking a situation and exploring it deeply.

Compared to the amount of free time I have, I can barely keep up with the good games, books and movies being created.

Somewhere in that mix, I played through the IF game Sacrilege, and found that it had a fairly profound impact on me, continuing to resonate even now. It’s constructed of energetic, well-written prose, but since you’re driving it along, reacting to the ideas at your own pace, the impact goes deeper than that. More importantly, the protagonist-perspective and the mediation of the player’s options evoked a constant stream of realizations, popping off in my head as I played through four or five times.

Sacrilege filled my mind with realizations about the interplay of personality archetypes, feelings of abandonment that I still harbor, and the absolute cafe-bombing power of social failure. There were times when it turned me on, filling me with the drive to pursue. The entire thing was fascinating, seeing desire from within one particular woman’s perspective. It’s all about what people need from each other balanced against risks and the terror of social rejection; the delicate auto-manipulation required to maintain confidence and resist screaming from the anxiety inherent in seeking connection, which at times feels like trying to keep a kitten alive while its heart is out on the operating table.

The notion of youth and soul (and time) as precious, not to be squandered on sex with someone unworthy, is not a concept native to my thinking. Another way the game is a fascinating look at the world through the eyes of someone else, even if this praise risks categorizing the author-designer as too “other” from my own life.

Mild spoilers, but the notion of the friendly NPC slipping the hero a book was rad; reading it in a club made me laugh in a great way because it was something I’d do if I met such an NPC. The text makes a point about the way men are constrained, developmentally – leadership is a requirement, with all the failure and high stakes anxiety that brings about. The simple honesty of the term fuckplan is so great. Another non-native concept, but it instantly opened my eyes to another murky part of the world, of life. The evoking of the YEAH YEAH YEAHS through the game name and MAAAAPS created a kind of synergy. As someone with a lifelong kind of mild body/facial dysmorphia, I found the protagonist’s confident desirability very powerful. Sacrilege is rich, and was crafted in such a way that it produces an endless series of reactions in the player. I’m not sure if this means it’s packed with ideas, or if – even more clever – it unrolls in such a way that leverages the player’s own experience and prompts self-reflection that manifests as ideas.

Even as an atheist, I felt an embedded Biblical reaction to the names of the men. Insecurity ran through me when John was described as tall, and upon hearing a “twenty-something body” described as hot. Awe-struck, I stopped playing and sat back to absorb this moment that made me feel like I’d been in the perimeter of some kind of minefield; deadly territory that seconds ago I’d been skipping through, but now had to stand frozen, considering how to inch out and away. Playing, you’re caught in a social trap that you cannot even see, which is fucking terrifying. It’s all made worse because we’ve all lived through those social situations that make up the game’s narrative world, where you cannot stop and consider because the clock is running and to pause would be weird, so you push ahead. And as you do, you’re screaming internally at the mistakes you’re making. Sacrilege, more than anything I’ve experienced, touched upon the power we give other people over us, to define us – to define our status as winners or losers – which is completely illusory in most cases, but can be mind-destroying anyway.

There were bits I found brutally cynical, touching upon heart-breaking aspects of some romantic tangles. At one point the game drives home the protagonist’s dilemma, the choice between two of the men, in such a painful way that I wanted to stop playing, but couldn’t:
The guy you are going to hurt
The guy who is going to hurt you
The are only two options

So brutal. So much hunger, need, desperation and risk.

because you might not be offered
something like it again
they never actually
give you anything
Instead only take
When they want
place you out on the chessboard
egos think they will always have pawns

Sacrilege is worth your time, but I’d recommend playing it when you’re alone and in the right frame of mind. It’s short enough to play a number of times, which will let you see all the angles.

About the game, Ellison says, “…I really wanted to make a ‘dating sim’ for the Pulse Pounding Heart Stopping Dating Sim Jam and instead of making it about weird and wonderful sexual experiences I wanted to make it about the heart stopping drudgery of being heterosexual in a world where heterosexuals are conditioned not to talk to each other, or listen to each other, or really have any idea what they are doing. So I made this Twine game. However, I famously have somewhat manic-depressive tendencies, and therefore it takes place in a red-hot club atmosphere where your eyes are being singed and music is forcing its way into your skin and you love every second of your descent into hell. Oh, yes, and turn your volume up, there is music at a certain point.

Play Sacrilege.

 

In Space, No One Can Hear You Curse

Capsule

Capsule

I just had the chance to play CAPSULE, the space (?) horror game by Adam Saltsman and Robin Arnott. It’s amazing, the kind of experience that only comes from the tiny subset of games that work on me.

Stark and understated, it’s the interactive medium’s answer to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sound effects and art direction in the game are stylish, but in the service of the game’s desperate, doomed mood – discolored glass (or is it icy?), creaks and groans, darkness closing in as you run short on air.

Playing with the UI, learning the mechanics and controls, involves the kind of ‘sense of discovery’ that only some games provide. And this is a sensation that seems increasingly uncommon, as game developers continue to strive for clarity and “ease of use,” usually at the expense of the most powerful parts of the interactive medium. Through all the years, I still seek out this experience: The early days of experimenting with the physical forces in Lunar Lander, learning the give and take of the systems; that first stealth encounter in Thief, where you’re trying to gauge the acuity of the senses of the guards, the effects of lighting on stealth, and the distance at which you’re safe; a clever puzzle solution snapping into place in Portal as you manipulate the geographic flow of space itself; moving time back and forth in Braid, ears attuned to the associated changes in music; simply exploring the world in Sword & Sworcery; realizations exploding in your head the first time several of Far Cry 2′s systems close on you like a noose – fire propagating through tall grass, distant enemies being drawn into a fight, listening to your downed ally crying for help from (somewhere!) nearby, herd animals getting caught in the crossfire. (This murkiness and that uncertain exploration of controls and mechanics was one of the goals Raphael Colantonio and I discussed for Dishonored. Whether we achieved it or not, it’s rare in games now and CAPSULE does it incredibly well.)

The game mechanics are simple, but brilliant, forcing the player to balance oxygen and engine power. Unless I’m inferring too much, when you’re rich in air, you can afford to go very slowly. And when you’re up on fuel, you can burn it fast to save oxygen. None of this is relevant until you’re ready for it, because another thing the game handles superbly is the ramp-up curve; each time you dock with another in-space entity, the mechanics change, making the game harder and more complex. The only thing I struggled with in CAPSULE was breaking my brain away from interpreting the game as 3D first-person navigation. That, and the heart-stopping tension. (Play with headphones, in the dark! Alone!)

Part of Austin’s indie scene for a while now, Saltsman is kind of a cosmic superhero boy scout and Arnott is like that thing that has been following you through a scary forrest, with bells and bits of bones interwoven through its hair, only later you realize it’s some kind of friendly spirit guide. This is my way of saying that they’re both amazing creative people, making interesting games that I’ve been lucky enough to play.

So far, I’ve only played CAPSULE up to the point where I got meters away from the Science Lab before asphyxiating. The desire to play again – right now – is gnawing at me in a good way, but I’ve learned to savor games like this.

Special thanks to Brandon Boyer for helping to motivate this sort of project, all Gertrude Stein-like.

PS) As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily (or not even probably) set in space.

Download CAPSULE here:
http://www.milsci.info/

Statements from Saltsman and Arnott:
http://venuspatrol.com/capsule/