Ceres and the Poison Sea

I just finished Chapter 10 of The Demon King, an original fantasy novel about adult wizards making terrible decisions. This chapter is an extended flashback to the time before the apocalypse that created the world of the story. Although I’m still brainstorming the details of this disaster in terms of the universe’s magical system, what essentially happened is that a frustrated researcher with a wealth of funding but no oversight managed to create the equivalent of a miniature sun that exploded into a supernova before collapsing into a black hole. This set off a chain reaction that rapidly accelerated climate change, which in turn significantly raised the sea level and irradiated the ocean.  

The researcher’s tech firm was located in New York. Because of the disaster, the city no longer exists, nor does anything east of Newark Bay and the Arthur Kill Straight. In order to prevent the decimation of the entire Mid-Atlantic region, mages pushed the landmass of Manhattan Island and Staten Island westward to create a mountain range protecting the mainland from the toxic ocean and its storms. This mountain range also serves as a water filtration system that feeds a system of freshwater lakes and rivers to its immediate west, which has become a kingdom known as Whitespire.

Geographically speaking, Whitespire is somewhere in the vicinity of Elizabeth Seaport in New Jersey. Although a great deal of I-95 is underwater, Route 1 still functions as a major trade route, and Whitespire is about halfway between the Northern Kingdoms (Hartford, Springfield, and a bit of Rhode Island) and the Southern Territories (Baltimore and Washington DC). Because of changing climate patterns, everywhere north of Albany and south of Richmond is uninhabitable, as is the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Meanwhile, most of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania is a wasteland where water is scare and nothing grows.

The Northern Kingdoms are governed by draconian regimes that are constantly at war with one another, while the Southern Territories are lawless and threatened by the steadily rising ocean. Whitespire is the only real civilization left on the East Coast of North America, which has been isolated from the rest of the world by the impossibility of travel by sea or air. The citystate thrives because of its mild climate, access to plentiful fresh water, and relative distance from other centers of power.

Whitespire is ruled by a royal family whose primary duty is to ensure that the system filtering the seawater through the mountains continues to function properly. The bloodline of the royal family is not strictly hereditary, as anyone able to command the necessary magic may be adopted into royal line. Generally speaking, however, knowledge of the kingdom’s secrets and rituals are passed from parent to child. The queens and kings of Whitespire are supported by a religious order dedicated to preserving the magic necessary to protect the kingdom.

Under the stewardship of its royal family, Whitespire has been peaceful for several hundred years, but this doesn’t mean the monarchs have absolute authority. Political power is shared between the noble lines that maintain the rivers and lakes that spread from the Whitespire Castle, and there are occasional disputes over succession, taxes, and territory rights.

Ceres is the current reigning queen of Whitespire. For reasons known only to herself, Ceres’s mother resolved disputes among Whitespire’s aristocracy through strategic assassinations, which eventually resulted in her murder. As a result, Ceres ascended the throne during a political crisis when she was nineteen. She is a supremely competent ruler, but her reign has been marred by lingering political tensions. She navigates this challenge by presenting a wise and virtuous image of herself in public but being crafty and merciless behind closed doors.

Ceres was born to be a queen, and she plays her role with style and grace. Her only concern is that she is entirely ignorant of the vast majority of Whitespire’s deep magic, as her mother never shared the kingdom’s lore with her. To make matters worse, the former queen killed many of the people who were close to her, along with the entire order of priestesses dedicated to the worship of a deity called The Weaver, who supposedly established Whitespire by wresting the primordial world from the control of demons.

Although the truth is more complicated, “demons” are believed to be powerful monsters whose magic can’t be controlled and can thus only exist in a state of madness and chaos. Demons are real; and the eponymous “demon king” Ananth, who has traveled centuries into the future from a time that he considers be the pre-apocalyptic present, is one of them.

Ceres is primarily a foil to Ananth during the first two narrative arcs, but I plan for her to become the main viewpoint character during the third and final part of the story. She befriends Ananth mainly for political reasons as she attempts to prevent a coup organized by operatives from the Northern Territories, but her real interest in him comes from his openly stated intention to steal the hidden relic that’s the key to the magic of the royal family. Ceres needs this relic just as much as Ananth does, so she aids his plans with the hope that he’ll find it for her. As someone who possess powerful magic of her own, Ceres has full confidence that she can fight and kill Ananth if necessary, so she’s completely unbothered by his antagonism toward her.

Ananth doesn’t treat Ceres like a queen, so she returns the favor by not treating him as a demon capable of destroying her kingdom whenever the mood strikes him. As a result, they gradually form an unlikely friendship that gives Ceres a stage to be her best and most authentic self, namely, a strong and self-assured woman who loves drinking and dick jokes. It goes without saying that she’s a joy to write.

The illustration above was created by Doc Hollibee, who is on Twitter (here) and Tumblr (here). Doc drew me a picture of Princess Zelda with a sword (here), and I loved it so much that I asked her to draw Ceres with the same energy. Doc creates marvelous illustrations that depict the women of the Final Fantasy games as beautiful but still powerful and full of personality, and I’m thrilled and delighted to see the same artistic sensibility applied to my own original character.

Keep Making “Bad” Art

This is a copy and paste of (this post on Tumblr) in its entirety:

I think everyone should make dumb ugly zines and bad music and write shitty books with weird premises and publish them for pay what you will online. I think people should write plays that are only ever intended to be performed with their friends in their living rooms. I think people who like ttrpgs should explore bizarre itch.io games and new systems that have no affiliation whatsoever with any major publishing house. If youre lucky enough to have a cool local community radio station nearby you should listen to that and what people close to you have to say and what they’re creating that has no focus on being nationally appealing. I just think creation should be more joyful and local both in a geographic sense and a personal and social sense and unconcerned with whether or not it will be commercially viable or slick or even good beyond your own pride in it. And I think it’s good to seek out art that exists for its own sake or to appeal to the community it was created within.

Also relevant is (this tweet) that reads: “The key to making ‘better’ art is to keep making ‘bad’ art shamelessly and consistently.”

I linked to this tweet in (my recent post) about all the bad art that goes into the creation of halfway decent art, but I’ve been thinking about the larger implications. This is a bit of a story, so bear with me.

The other day, a scholar I admire gave me an opportunity to write a short review of an academic essay collection I’ve been looking forward to ever since I learned about the project two years ago. I’m thrilled to hear that the book has finally been published, and I replied as quickly as I could to say that I would love to write a review.

The person responded a few days later to let me know that he’d had a copy of the book be sent to me, and he apologized for taking so long to reply. It turns out that he was busy because he was doing something really cool. I went to his account on Twitter to see if he was talking about it, as I wanted to learn more and perhaps retweet a bit of what he and other people were saying. When I checked his account, however, I found that he’d unfollowed me at some point.

I seriously doubt that he unfollowed me because he dislikes me or because I somehow offended him. What I suspect is that he respects my work on artistic subcultures but doesn’t particularly want to see the work of emerging artists on his Twitter feed, and that he simply doesn’t know enough about social media to understand that he can mute people. Which is fair. No harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, I am a delicate flower with delicate feelings, and I ended up spiraling into a vortex of self-doubt that has nothing at all to do with this person. Or rather, it has nothing to do with him specifically and everything to do with the broader culture of what it means to be a serious adult who cares about art. Namely, there’s a certain unspoken consensus regarding what gets to be “art,” and a lot of major cultural currents fall so far outside this consensus that they don’t even register with people who aren’t creators and thus aren’t directly involved in creative communities.

I had a similar moment of vertigo during a recent conversation with a friend who invited me to attend a First Friday gallery event. While we were drinking and waiting for some other friends to show up, we got into a conversation about the effects of social media on artistic production. What my friend essentially argued is that you can’t count something as “art” unless it’s produced by hand and worthy of being sold at a gallery. It’s a stretch to say that digital art is indeed “art,” and it goes without saying that fan art is worthless.

Because I’m so immersed in creative communities of people who produce most of their work digitally and draw fan art because they enjoy it, it was wild to me that someone my own age would have what I consider to be such a conservative perspective. I want to be clear that I’m not friends with assholes; and I think that, if we were having a serious conversation that wasn’t fueled by alcohol procured at a pay-what-you-want shot bar, my friend would have gladly discussed the matter of “art” with more nuance and specific examples drawn from his own personal history as someone who has been involved in the curation of pop-up art galleries at fan conventions. Let’s be real, this dude has probably seen some crazy shit.

But at the same time, I think most of us have to make an active effort to ignore this sort of perspective on art if we’re serious about creating meaningful work. I think most people would agree that “good” art is specific, and probably the vast majority of “specific” art isn’t going to speak to people outside of a specific community. So while the maxim of “create for yourself” has serious limitations, I also think that it’s important to do what you enjoy while not worrying about creating “bad” art.

And as the Tumblr post suggests, it’s fun to seek out super-indie work that wasn’t created to appeal to a large audience. I’m not saying that everyone needs to watch depressing arthouse movies about political refugees and dysfunctional marriages in order to build character. Rather, if you like horror and you like video games, maybe it might be fun to go play some free ten-minute horror video games on Itchio. Maybe you might even be inspired to download some free software and make one of these games yourself. This specific example probably only applies to me, but the point still stands. Once you make the decision not to care about what’s “good art,” it’s much easier to have fun and be creative.

Even Wizards Need Day Jobs

In my post about how I’m rewriting The Demon King to be a proper novel instead of serialized story, I mentioned that it’s important for the reader to know from the beginning that the main character is using time magic, but that the extent of his time travel will only be revealed gradually. It turns out that Ananth, the eponymous demon king, is actually from the present day, and that the world of the story is postapocalyptic in a major way. Just to amuse myself, I drew an illustration of the world before the apocalypse in which Ananth is the IT manager of a private biotech research firm. Even in a world where magic is commonplace, Microsoft Excel is probably still a dysfunctional mess.

The other day I saw a tweet that resonated with me. It reads: “The key to making ‘better’ art is to keep making ‘bad’ art shamelessly and consistently.” And damn if that sentiment didn’t resonate with tens of thousands of people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “bad” art recently, and I realized that this illustration might be a good example of just how much trial and error goes into making something halfway decent. Here’s my process…

This is a quick thumbnail sketch that took me about five to ten minutes to draw. I thought it would be fun for Ananth to have his bangs tied up in a baby ponytail, which is something a lot of boys at UPenn do around spring finals season after having gone months without cutting their hair. I immediately realized that this looks way too young for him.

This sketch is a bit more refined, with each of the separate elements drawn in a different color on a different layer. This makes it easy to make each element larger or smaller, and you can move them around to experiment with how they fit into the overall composition.

In the last sketch, the character doesn’t really have any distinguishing features, and his eyes felt a little too “anime.” For this sketch, I studied photos of real people to try to refine his face. The style still feels a bit flat, however.

In order to think about how to stylize the character, I made a separate test sketch that broke away from the original composition altogether. This style still feels way too anime, mainly because the eyes are too big and the face is too wide.

I made another test sketch, and I really liked this one. The proportions of the face and eyes are more realistic, but they’re balanced by the stylized mouth. I felt like portraying the character’s grit teeth as small and sharp was an apt way to convey the frustration of being the only technologically literate person in your office.

Now that I had a grasp on how I wanted to stylize the character, I returned to the original piece and overlaid another sketch onto the composition. I decided that it’s not necessary to show Ananth’s hands on the keyboard, but that it would probably be good to look at reference photos for the computer. In the real world, an IT manager would definitely have a set-up with two monitors, but I decided that this would be too much of a pain in the ass to draw. Ananth’s tie is also a bit on the short side, but I decided not to care about that either.

I inked over the sketch and added flat colors. I originally intended to draw a background, but I decided that the photo reference I used for the test sketches would suffice. I generally have a fair sense of what will do well on social media, and I knew from the beginning that this illustration wasn’t going to get much attention. Since I don’t have any interest in drawing offices anyway, I don’t think it matters that I left the reference photo intact. I’m also not entirely satisfied with the character’s face – the eye on the right is a little too far away from his nose, for example – but we only have so much time on this earth, and you have to choose your battles.

When people talk about the value of making “bad” art shamelessly and consistently, I think the messiness of the creative process is a large part of what they’re talking about. You do the best you can, and you try not to let it bother you that what you’re creating in the real world isn’t as brilliant as the image in your mind. Even if the final product isn’t great, you’re building the skills that will be ready and waiting for you when the perfect flash of inspiration strikes.

At least, that’s what I think people are talking about. In the end, I’m a writer, and I don’t know much of anything about visual art. Honestly this is why I ask other people to illustrate my ideas, but that’s no reason not to enjoy drawing.

The Demon King Reboot

Around this time last year, I finished an original fantasy novella called The Demon King. I serialized it on AO3, posting each chapter as I wrote it with a minimum of editing. This year I’ve been slowly editing the story into a legitimate novel. The process has been a lot of fun, but I’ve had to make some major changes.

I originally planned to serialize The Demon King in five arcs. The outline of the story was structured for each arc to focus on one character while providing the reader with one major revelation. I wanted there to be something resembling a punchline at the end of every scene, so I wrote the story as a comedy centered on character interactions. In other words, I saw The Demon King as something like an ongoing prose webcomic illuminated with occasional illustrations. AO3 isn’t a good platform for a project like this, however, and it was impossible to build an audience. I therefore closed the story at the end of the first arc.

In the original version of the story, I deliberately left room for the plot to spool out across later installments. In order to write a proper novel, however, I need to make the structure more streamlined and compact.

My strategy has been to simplify the plot in order to focus on the most important themes and character development arcs. The easiest way to go about this has been to remove half of the cast from the story. This was relatively painless, as I’m sure these characters will return in another project.

Another efficient way to simplify the story has been to make certain aspects of the plot clear from the beginning. A major component of this was to drop the conceit of the main characters going by multiple names. In the first draft, the eponymous demon king called himself “Balthazar” because he thought it sounded like a wizard name, and the characters closely associated with Balthazar humored him by using wizard names of their own. I decided to cut the plot points relevant to Balthazar using a fake name; so, in the current draft of the story, he goes by his real name, Ananth.

Ananth uses time magic, which needs to be clear from the beginning. The extent of the time travel will only be revealed gradually, but it will make my job infinitely easier if the reader sees Ananth using time magic in the very first chapter. Not only does this explain a number of aspects of his character that would otherwise be needlessly mysterious, but it also creates a compelling sense of mystery by providing opportunities for the reader to understand that Ananth is in fact very bad at using magic. Given that his only real talent is a basic ability to manipulate time, how did he become so powerful? Where (or when) did he come from, and what are his intentions?

While Ananth’s character has changed significantly, his foil Ceres hasn’t changed much at all. Ceres is her real name, and she’s not hiding anything by being catty and manipulative; that’s just her personality. The one significant edit I made is that Ceres is no longer a princess, but a queen. Then again, this isn’t much more than a matter of using the “find and replace” function to switch a few words, as Ceres was always a queen in my heart.

In any case, I’ve succeeded in compacting the story outline from fifty chapters into a solid thirty, and I’ve managed to finish the first ten. I enjoyed serializing fanfic novels on AO3 because of the constant stream of positive feedback and encouragement, so the major challenge of writing an original novel has been working in relative isolation. It was difficult to get started on revising this project, and it’s been slow going. Still, now that I know the shape of the story, I have a better sense of working toward an achievable goal.

The illustration above is by @Lunie_junk on Twitter, who also shares her work on DeviantArt (here) and on her Patreon page (here). I love Lunie’s Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy art, and I’m a huge fan of her soft pastel style and colorful fantasy illustrations. She takes character commissions on a regular basis, and I recommend checking her out on her Carrd page (here) if you’re interested. I adore the story illustration Lunie created for me, and I really enjoyed working with her!

Goddess Reborn Zelda Fanzine

I’m excited to share a preview of the story I contributed to Goddess Reborn, a collection of art and fiction that celebrates the female characters of the Legend of Zelda series.

The zine is beautifully inclusive, and the amount of love that has gone into this project has been incredibly uplifting. I can’t wait for everyone to share their full pieces, but you can check out previews on Twitter (here) in the meantime. Preorders are open until May 31, and all proceeds go to international women’s charities.

goddessreborn.etsy.com

Red Trees

Red Trees by Caramel
https://caramel.itch.io/redtrees

Red Trees is a free nonviolent adventure story game made with RPG Maker in a style that emulates the Game Boy Color. It’s about a small village that might be haunted by ghosts in the woods, and it’s adorable.

The game is divided into three sections: the village’s residential area, its business center to the north, and the forest to the south. In order to progress from one area to another, you embark on an extended trading quest. For example, someone asks you to find their cat. To convince the cat to follow you, you need to feed it fish. In order to procure a fish, you need to give a can of worms to the person fishing at the local pond. The trading sequence isn’t strictly linear, but it’s not so complicated that you’d get lost or frustrated.

Red Trees isn’t a horror game by any means, but it gives me strong Omori vibes. (Although, having made that comparison, I should say that Red Trees was originally released in 2016, four years before Omori.) The music is relaxing, the character portraits are super cute, and the writing is wholesome with a touch of light humor reminiscent of Tumblr circa 2015. I especially love the menu screen’s character log, which collects short profiles of everyone you’ve met. The item portraits and descriptions are lovely as well.

Red Trees takes about an hour to complete, but this is mainly because of the game’s spatial layout. Your character can’t run, and the town is so spacious that it takes time to walk from place to place. This never becomes frustrating, but you may want to download the game so you can save your progress, step away, and come back later. Red Trees is extremely charming, and the experience of playing it is much more enjoyable if you take your time instead of rushing to finish it.

If you’re going to download Red Trees, you have the option of paying $2 to get an extra file folder of illustrations and a PDF booklet with annotated concept and development art. I highly recommend this extra material, but I’d also recommend not checking it out until you finish the game, as it spoils the ending. In fact, the bonus content functions almost like a separate postgame story, and it’s just as sweet and adorable as the game itself.

Deep Forest

Deep Forest by Small is Beautiful
https://small.itch.io/deep-forest

Deep Forest is a free GB Studio adventure game that takes about 45 minutes to play. There’s no combat, and the game is driven by puzzle-solving and exploration. You play as a forest witch tasked with helping three trees that have become mysteriously cursed. To purify a tree, you must first find it by exploring the forest. You then enter its nightmare, which functions as a dungeon. Once the tree’s curse is lifted, its thorny roots vanish, thereby allowing you to explore more of the forest.

This is the basic gameplay cycle of the Legend of Zelda series, and the simple puzzles of Deep Forest remind me of certain segments of Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages wherein you:

(1) Use an animal to procure a seed.
(2) Find a patch of soil to plant the seed,
(3) which sprouts into a vine
(4) that allows you to climb a cliff.

If this similarity is intentional, it’s a lovely homage to the debut work of Hidemaro Fujibayashi, who went on to become the director of Breath of the Wild. In addition, I had a nice “Legend of Zelda” moment when I found a secret in Deep Forest. I was delighted when I realized that you can water the single square of roots in front of an otherwise unremarkable cave in order to discover a hidden spring. This moment of discovery lit a spark of excitement that reminded me of exploring Hyrule for the first time.

In terms of its visual style, Deep Forest is reminiscent of the Game Boy games that were released in the West under the “Final Fantasy” logo, which include the first Secret of Mana game and the first three games in the SaGa series. This style feels extremely nostalgic, and it’s cool to see it used to depict a thriving forest.

Deep Forest is fairly linear, and the gameplay mechanics are beautifully intuitive. I would have loved this game as a kid, and I’m extremely fond of it as an adult. It’s exactly the perfect length, and I enjoyed the exploration elements and wholesome story. As a unexpected bonus, the interactive postgame credits sequence is beautiful and genuinely feels like a reward for playing.

A Time for Giving

A Time for Giving by CobGoblin
https://cobgoblin.itch.io/a-time-for-giving

A Time for Giving is a free Game Boy “dark cottagecore” horror game about being a human sacrifice. It takes five to ten minutes to play, and it’s divided into three main areas: your protagonist’s cozy family cabin, an isolated village preparing for its winter festival, and the haunted snow-covered woods. The overworld graphics remind me of the cute rounded style of A Link to the Past, and the character artwork that appears during the dialog screens is delightfully eerie and upsetting. The dialog is well-written and communicates the themes of the game without pulling any punches.

A Time for Giving was created for a winter solstice-themed game jam, and the creator apologizes that there’s no sound because they ran out of time. I’m of the opinion that the lack of music is actually quite lovely, as it creates an environment reminiscent of a silent forest blanketed by snow so heavy that it muffles all sound.

A Time for Giving is very short and very simple, but the writing and visual style are exactly what I want from a handmade Game Boy game. It’s also a perfect combination of nostalgia and “what the fuck did I just play,” which is a major component of what makes these games so fun.

I played A Time for Giving a few times and made varying choices in an attempt to get a different ending, but alas. I wonder if there’s a way for this poor kid to make it out of the forest…?

Waking Nightmare

Waking Nightmare by Polyducks
https://polyducks.itch.io/waking-nightmare

Waking Nightmare is a free homebrew Game Boy horror game in which you navigate a short and simple maze. Every dead end presents you with a nightmare scenario and the notification that you’ve woken up, thus restarting the maze. The game moves very quickly, and each dead end is creative and worth the trouble of discovering. The game also marks every dead end that you’ve already seen twice in order to minimize frustration.

When you make it through the maze, you’re presented with a series of dialog choices that determine one of three endings. The maze layout doesn’t change, so it’s easy to finish the game and see all three endings in about fifteen minutes. The maze screens look like something a kid would build on a graphing calculator, and the gritty lo-fi pixel art is great, especially for the three closing screens. Apparently this is all text art, or “textmode” art, which the creator explains on their website (here). This website is just as interesting as the game itself, and I recommend checking it out if you’re interested in internet art history.

I was never a big fan of first-person maze games, but I’m glad I gave Waking Nightmare a chance. It’s visually distinctive, it makes excellent use of its medium, and the music will definitely get stuck in your head.

Capacity

Capacity by Renee Blair
https://heptad.itch.io/capacity

Capacity is a Game Boy style RPG Maker story game that uses generic pixel graphics and original character illustrations to tell a short fantasy-themed story about a bad relationship. The game describes this as “a toxic relationship,” but I don’t think it’s that complicated; it’s just a teenage girl who is hung up on a boy who clearly isn’t that into her. She doesn’t know how to let him go, so she embarks on a quest that she hopes will fix the relationship.

Capacity is extremely pretty and features a number of clever design elements. The monster art is great, and the final boss is a demon after my own heart. The game is driven by its narrative, and there’s no actual fighting. It takes about ten minutes to play, it’s totally free, and you can play it right in your browser window.

Capacity’s message is a bit heavy-handed and occasionally inappropriate to the situation. The game’s text drops mentions to “a cycle of abuse” and “generational trauma,” but really, it’s just a girl who’s hung up on a boy who isn’t that into her. Presumably because they’re both in their early teens. This isn’t to say that the boy isn’t a jerk and a coward, or that the protagonist isn’t a bit unhinged for pursuing him despite the clear “I don’t want to be involved with you” signals he’s broadcasting at every turn, but this is normal behavior for teenagers who are still figuring out how relationships work. It doesn’t make anyone a “toxic” person, especially not if they’re just a kid. We’ve all been there.

Putting the heavy-handed elements of Capacity’s story and writing aside, the game is really fun to play. In order to “save” your shitty “boyfriend” from his “curse,” you walk through a fantasy castle and interact with monsters, all of whom give you some variation of “he’s just not that into you.” At the top of the castle, the smoking hot Demon Lord tells you that a relationship doesn’t have to be like this, and that you deserve so much better. The fact that you refuse to listen to him proves that you still have some growing to do, and this is reflected in the game’s twist ending.

Capacity’s entire narrative structure emphasizes the point that sometimes your “demons” are right, and that you need to listen to what they’re trying to tell you about the situation that’s triggering your anxiety. It took me years to figure this out, and it’s a powerful message.