I realize I’m dating myself here—and also fingering myself as a dyed-in-the-wool total nerd—but one of the more profoundly shaping experiences of my childhood was Richard Garriott’s Enlightenment series of games (Ultima IV and forward). Though the series decayed somewhat over time, IV and V at least were transcendent. The use of the second person tense was nothing new to either gamers or veterans of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, but this was different; beginning with Ultima IV, the character creation process was entirely devoid of stats to assign. Instead, “you” were asked a number of probing questions about semi-complex moral choices and encouraged to respond how you yourself would actually respond, and you were assigned a class based on those choices[1]. For the first time in gaming history, the second person tense wasn’t just a quirk of the narrative. Your hero was you, encoded however fuzzily into the game’s fantasy world by numeric abstraction.

Let us ignore for a moment the fact that any fantasy realm with me as its savior is probably totally boned. A tangent for another day.

“You” began the game walking up over a slope and looking down into a green valley at an otherworldly Renaissance Faire (Garriott flies his SCA freak flag pretty darn high); the character creation process as described above begins at a fortune-teller’s wagon therein, and this is where the technical magic described above begins, but the part that really stuck with me was the moment that came right beforehand. There’s nothing new about “child discovers fantasy world” as a narrative trope. The literary canon is full of rabbit holes to Wonderland and tornadoes to Oz and phantom tollbooths to the Lands Beyond. But perhaps as a twin function of the fact that I was already being encouraged to imagine myself there and the utter simplicity of merely walking over a hill, this one gateway to the Magical Kingdom has always stuck with me.

On my farm, there is a point near the lowland where, if you hold your head just right, a great rise of rutted earth fills your entire vision. You are so low, and the land so high next to you, that nothing is visible beyond it. No trees or buildings or silos or whatever. The hill appears to open out into the sky. Once a year, before the lowland gets too swampy to traverse and before there are crops to be messed up with my boots, I go down to that point, look up at that hill, and believe.

Once a year, I let myself believe—just for a moment—that there is something over that hill. I’m not sure in my mind if it’s Garriott’s Sosaria, or Faust’s Equestria, or what. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Standing there, in the grim gray Wisconsin winter surrounded by a waste of stiff, blunted corn stumps, I imagine that just a few steps away is a warm, green valley just like the one in Ultima, a border-town to some magical world beyond.

I climb, and am always disappointed.

Here is the inspirational point where I look out over the farmland from the top of the rise and determine that I Actually Am In A Magical World After All Here On My Farm. A nice feel-good moral. But it never quite happens. I never quite escape that little pang that comes from having hopes dashed that you knew were laughably unrealistic in the first place.

But still, every year, I keep believing, and I keep climbing. And every year I worry about the day when I will no longer bother.

I was disappointed again today. But I guess I’d rather that than the alternative.

[1] Tinker or Mage, depending on which order the questions came, in case you’re curious. Seems about right.

After only a short time in transit, the Bitching Betty on the peoplemover begins displaying a track failure warning for the conduit ahead. It goes on to hypothesize a number of different possible explanations for the warning, but it’s clear that we don’t need any of them, because the one clear explanation for our predicament here is “Hamilton Warhawke.”

Hell, we could have done without the Bitching Betty altogether. Hamilton’s presence is profoundly obvious to the naked eye. As the peoplemover coasts us toward the disruption at a cautious speed, we catch a glimpse of him, silhouetted against the glare of a magnesium lamp, an Aryan shadow wielding a five-foot motorized chainblade. With disturbing gusto, he brings it down and down again upon the track before us, a gesture more suited to your average flamboyant axe-murderer than to a proper naval officer. Harsh, bone-jarring clangs meld with the squeal of tearing metal in a sort of infernal chorus that boils and echoes out of the conduit ahead and washes over us as we creep forward. LOLcat covers her ears. A purely theatrical gesture, of course, since she doesn’t technically have ears, but I feel a pang of sympathy for her nonetheless.

Read on!

We find a pod waiting for us at the peoplemover station nearest the crew quarters. Predictably, LOLcat is at the controls, clad in a kicky little conductor’s cap and vest, holding a gold pocketwatch. Sometimes I wonder who designed all the outfits for the October’s de facto computer interface module. I do hope that it wasn’t me. Irrationally, I have the sudden urge to harangue her for not being back at my cabin, cleaning out my toilet. Clearly, I’m stuck on biocentric thinking; as an extension of the ship’s data infrastructure, she naturally has the capacity to be in both places at once, but I can’t always make my monkey instincts respect the logic of the situation.

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The problem started, as usual, when our holographic shipboard catgirl filled my personal head to the brim with fuller’s earth in a botched attempt to improve its functionality.

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“Grandfather! Grandfather! You’ll never guess what just happened!”

The old man fixed his grandson with a world-weary gaze and cleared his throat once or twice. If he had had the strength to shift himself in his elaborate iron wheelchair, he would have.

“You were visited,” he said eventually, “by a spiritual being with a strong Scottish accent which took the form of a fairy-winged stoat. In exchange for a tribute of one hundred green copper pennies, it offered to grant you your heart’s keenest desire.”

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A few more miscellaneous practice pieces for Nera and Jonah.  First, we have a fragment of Nera’s Civil War steampunk fantasy novel (referenced last month) and then a bit of Nera and Jonah eating at their not-favorite restaurant.  None of this ever made it into the comic (I was too busy killing Jonah over and over again to dwell much on his eating habits and/or literary tastes) but I thought it was kind of amusing.

* * *

“We have to destroy it, Captain.”

“We don’t,” said Captain Wilderburn. “It makes my ship go.”

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When trying to get the hang of writing a character or characters, I will sometimes do word-sketches to try and feel out their patterns of interacting.  When Shaenon and I were hashing out the primary cast of the webcomic “Skin Horse” I did a series of short scenes involving the characters of Jonah Yu and Nera Vivaldi to practice with them.  In honor of their recent re-appearance in the strip, I thought it would be interesting to show you a couple of them:

* * *

“Specialization,” said Jonah.

Nera looked at him. “Your point being?”

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