An Unfound Door, Chapter Four

Agnes returns to Faloren Castle under the escort of her aide Myla, who had been searching for her. She immediately goes to see her father the king, who is bedridden from a lingering illness. She is met at the door to his chambers by her cousin Galien. Galien has conspired with Myla to hide Agnes’s abduction, and he informs her that it was he who sent the knight Caelif to her rescue. Without inquiring further, Agnes visits her father. He does not wake, and Agnes reflects on the decrepit state of the castle. She excuses herself and uses a discrete servant’s passage to visit the kitchen. The head of the castle’s staff, Taibh, gives her bread and wine and asks no questions.   

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This chapter presents the bleakness of the status-quo world to the reader. There are no people on the roads. The castle town is depopulated. The castle itself is a mess. The king is dying.

Fhiad parted ways with Agnes at some point before the start of the chapter, and she seems to take it for granted that he won’t find anyone in his home kingdom of Erdbhein. This presents a mystery. Why does she think this? What happened there? In Chapter Six, Agnes will explain what she understands about Erdbhein, but the truth is worse. Erdbhein has gone full Dark Souls, and it’s filled with ruin and blight and zombies.

In terms of the Save The Cat story structure, this chapter establishes the “debate” of the main character. Agnes thinks about how she wants to leave Faloren, but she feels that she can’t. In the next chapter, the reader will see that she takes comfort in routines, especially when these routines make her feel smart, powerful, and in control. She ends her debate with herself in this chapter by saying that she needs to concentrate on “work,” which she is obviously using as an excuse for not allowing herself to imagine an alternative to the shittiness of her current situation.

This debate makes a lot of sense to me personally, because I used to be the same as Agnes. I was driven by a need to be “productive,” and I was always working. Those routines made me happy at the time, but they weren’t sustainable. This is all the more true because the busyness distracted me from more important issues, namely, that there was something deeply wrong with my environment.

I had to go through this cycle a few times – and I got very, very good at it – before I realized what it was. I thought I could somehow fix things by simply working harder, and damn did I work hard. Realizing that the cycle itself was the problem was extremely liberating.

I’m not saying that we should all quit our jobs to live our best lives or whatever. Nobody has the money for that. Rather, I think it’s good to at least consider a shift in mindset, and it’s important to chill out and allow room for new ideas and new perspectives.

I also think it’s worth considering that some environments are just rotten. You can try to keep the lights on, but this requires a lot of effort and yields diminishing returns. Sometimes it’s better to allow things to decay.

The Potentate of Jarburg

About halfway through Elden Ring, I realized that the player’s character is the villain of the story.

At some point before the story begins, a manifest symbol of divine order called the “Elden Ring” was shattered by nefarious means, and the rulers of the land fought over its shards. Whether because of the battles or because of the nature of the shattering itself, everything is now in ruins.

As an outcast “Tarnished” warrior who has returned to the magical Lands Between, your job is to retrieve the shards of the Elden Ring from the fallen rulers and thereby restore the Golden Order of the once-great civilization. At least, that’s what you’re led to believe.

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the society enabled by the Golden Order wasn’t so great. The ruling class built its civilization by subjugating other cultures in fantastically horrific ways. This isn’t subtext, exactly, but neither is it surtext – it’s simply the story told by the environment of the game.

You may think that perhaps, if you repair the Elden Ring and become the new Elden Lord, you’ll do better. You’ll burn the ruined vestiges of the old order and create a more just and fair society. The game defies this hope at every turn, however. For every kindness you attempt, you cause only more suffering.     

In more prosaic terms, almost every sidequest in Elden Ring ends badly.

The kind and modest Sorcerer Thops, who has developed a brilliant form of defensive magic, asks you to spare a key to the Academy of Raya Lucaria if you happen to find one. Should you do so, he is unprepared to face the dangers of the battleground the school has become, and he is slaughtered at his desk.

The gentle and noble Irina has fled from the besieged Castle Morne, and she asks you to deliver a letter to her father, beseeching him to join her instead of perishing in a hopeless battle. When you find Irina’s father, you learn that the castle was overtaken by the slaves he abused. Irina is slaughtered in your absence. This drives her father mad, and you are forced to kill him.

Meanwhile, Preceptor Seluvis, a member of the only group of good guys you encounter in Elden Ring, asks you to deliver a healing potion to one of your former companions. What this potion does is to turn her into a mindless “puppet.” This is an act of revenge against the woman’s adoptive father, with whom Seluvis has a feud that he never bothers to explain. It’s strongly implied that Seluvis uses his puppets as sex dolls, but this unsavory magic is necessary is help another female character. In order to save her from endless torture, you must agree to collude with Seluvis.

The only pure and wholesome place in Elden Ring is Jarburg, an isolated village filled with flowers and animate Living Jars. Living Jars are magical war machines that were abandoned because they happen to be extraordinarily bad at fighting. Should you visit Jarburg, you will be greeted by Jar Bairn, a young Living Jar who asks if you will become the Potentate of Jarburg. Jar Bairn will happily chat with you, and he has more lines than almost anyone else in the game. Aside from enjoying a few rounds of idle conversation, there’s nothing to do in Jarburg. There are no battles or treasures or quests, just Living Jars lazing about in the grass and tending to the flowers.

So the player will leave Jarburg – if they ever bother to find the village at all – and probably never return.

Instead, you’ll continue through the game, murdering and pillaging and destroying everything you encounter. Elden Ring doesn’t give you much of a choice. If you don’t kill something, it’s only because it succeeded in killing you first. You have to survive by any means necessary, even if that means leaving a trail of blood in your wake. In order to become the new Elden Lord, you must be utterly ruthless.

Along the way, you’ll bear witness to the atrocities committed by the former rulers of the Lands Between. You’ll gradually understand why this violence was necessary, and you’ll begin to realize that your own choices are limited. There is no happy end to this story, not for you or for anyone else.

So why finish the game, then? The former rulers are no longer in any position to subjugate anyone, and the formerly enslaved peoples are now free. Castles will crumble, and ancient cities will be forgotten, but the dead will finally be allowed to rest. Why not simply lay down your sword and allow the Lands Between to heal?

I am very bad at Elden Ring, which is an extremely difficult and punishing game. To make matters worse, no one in the game offers you real or meaningful guidance. On top of that, all of the guides available online are fragmentary, disconnected, and clearly written in haste. The artist Frankiesbugs is a veteran of the Soulsborne games, and she’s been patiently helping me find my way forward as we slowly navigate the Lands Between. Mostly we’ve been making silly jokes about the game’s shitty wizards and their appalling sense of fashion, but we wanted to try to create something a bit more serious that reflects the deeper themes of Elden Ring.

This collaborative comic is a tribute to a masterpiece of the medium that forces you to ask difficult questions with no easy answers. I have to admit that I may not ever finish Elden Ring, but maybe that’s okay. It wouldn’t be so bad to be the Potentate of Jarburg.

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You can follow Frankiesbugs on Twitter (here), on Tumblr (here), and on Instagram (here). If you like this comic, you can leave Frankiesbugs a tip on Ko-fi (here) and browse her creepy-cute Plague Doctor merch on Redbubble (here). If you’re interested in stylish gothic horror with a heart, please check out Frankiesbugs’s ongoing comic Necrobirth, which you can read on Tapas (here), on Webtoon (here), or on Tumblr (here).  

An Unfound Door, Chapter Three

Early the next morning, Agnes tries to light the campfire with an intonation used by Fhiad the night before. She reflects on how the kingdom of Faloren was once renowned for its sorcery, and how the suppression of magic following the war with Erdbhein led to the king punishing her for her childhood gift for spellcraft. Fhiad wakes up during her attempt to kindle the bonfire, and he mocks her lack of success. Agnes acknowledges that his disdain is not undeserved, and her sincerity convinces him to share more of his story.

Fhiad says he was unsuited to be an emissary and left of his duties to his cousin Lukhara while he studied Faloren legends in the castle library. His interest in a magical relic called “the Eternal Tear of Soreiya” was encouraged by the princess, whom he accuses of manipulating him. He was imprisoned shortly after uncovering a map of its location under the castle, and he claims that he is unable to remember much of anything that happened since then. He tells Agnes that he wants nothing more than to leave the past behind him, and she makes the decision to free him from the silver bridle. They agree to part ways as soon as they leave the forest but end the chapter on friendly terms.

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This is the chapter in which the theme of the character development is stated: Agnes needs to break the chains of the past and move forward in a different direction.

This theme is mirrored by the story catalyst: Agnes breaks the magical silver chain binding Fhiad. She decides to trust what she sees for herself instead of believing what she’s read in books. By doing so, she nurtures the seeds of doubt regarding her kingdom that lay fallow while she was still in the castle. This act is a “catalyst” because Fhiad is going to come back and cause a lot of trouble in the near future. Also, Agnes will never be able to return to her old way of thinking – although she’ll certainly try.

I’ve been keeping the initial chapters short and punchy instead of dumping exposition on the reader’s head, but this chapter contains the basic setup of the world of the story. As Agnes makes accusations and Fhiad corrects her, the reader starts to understand Faloren’s history and Fhiad’s place in this history. This chapter also presents a tiny bit of mythology, as well as the first glimpse into what happened in the past to make the present so terrible.

In addition, Fhiad hints that the main villain of the story is the princess of his era. He’s right. This woman is the sleeper villain, and she’s awful (and I love her). Hopefully Agnes will be able to make a different decision when faced with the same choices.

It’s very clear to me that this story sounds like Legend of Zelda. In my first draft of this chapter, I complicated the plot to disguise its origins. I decided to simplify matters in this draft, as I think stories like this work precisely because they’re so archetypal. Also, I think my dystopian interpretation of the Legend of Zelda lore is so niche that very few people are going to understand where I’m getting these ideas. And besides, I like to think that my version of Princess Zelda’s story is much more interesting than anything that actually appears in the games, so hopefully no one will complain even if they do see the connection.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Two

Agnes wakes to find that the boar demon has transformed into a young man who identifies himself as Fhiad of Erdbhein, a notorious criminal who was accused of high treason after attacking Faloren a hundred years in the past. He is cultured and well-spoken, but he doesn’t hide his frustration with Agnes, who refuses to free him from the silver chain that bound him as a demon. He tells Agnes that he never had any intention of attacking Faloren. He claims to have had no interest in her kingdom at all; rather, he was only serving as an emissary because he was ordered to do so. Agnes doesn’t know what to think of him, but she’s exhausted and decides to stop for the night.

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This chapter is about two tired people snapping at each other. Nothing happens aside from the reveal that the demon was originally a person, but I did my best to establish the geography of the world and its history without dumping exposition on the reader.

This is what I want the reader to take away from this conversation: Agnes is from a kingdom called Faloren, Fhiad is from a neighboring kingdom called Erdbhein, and there is someplace called Cretia far to the south. Fhiad, who has no concept of how much time has passed, thinks he recently returned from university in Cretia. This establishes him as being in his early twenties while establishing Cretia as a center of culture in contrast to the forest, which is all we’ve seen of Faloren. According to Agnes, Erdbhein attacked Faloren roughly a hundred years ago, and Fhiad supposedly instigated this attack. Fhiad denies this, but he won’t be forthcoming with more details until the next chapter.

In other words, this chapter establishes the broader conflict of the story through the small conflict between Agnes and Fhiad. This conversation sets up a dynamic of Agnes as the straight man who is pragmatic and emotionally grounded, while Fhiad is the funny man who is well-spoken but catty. Each character gets a “save the cat” moment during which, despite their bickering, their first instinct is to be kind to one another when it counts.

“Bickering” may sound like an inappropriate response to the situation, and it is. In the next chapter, the characters will have an opportunity to reflect on their circumstances, and the more serious aspects of the central conflict will be revealed and discussed with a more appropriate tone.

As an aside, there are a lot of shitty things about being in your twenties, but one of the nicer things is being physically fit by default and being able to walk for miles without thinking too much about it. For me in my thirties, I exercise every day but can still only walk for about 45 minutes before I need to sit down. Youth is wasted on the young etc etc etc.

The Cruel King and the Great Hero

The Cruel King and the Great Hero was developed and published by Nippon Ichi Software, and it’s the spiritual successor to the studio’s 2018 title The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. Just as The Liar Princess is a simplistic puzzle-platformer set apart by its distinctive manga art style, The Cruel King is a JRPG that’s so traditional it would probably be considered retro were it not so visually gorgeous and beautifully animated.  

When I say that The Cruel King is “traditional,” what I mean is that there are a lot of random encounters. The battles are turn-based and controlled solely through text menus. There’s a bit of strategy involved, but not much. Your character walks slowly, and there’s a not-insignificant amount of backtracking. If you suspect that you’ll find this frustrating, then The Cruel King probably isn’t for you.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed gameplay experience, however, The Cruel King is a delightful way to spend about 20 to 25 hours. Personally speaking, it took a few play sessions for me to readjust my expectations of how quickly the battles should progress, but I became hooked on the gameplay once I got used to the pace.

You play as Yuu, a young human girl who has been adopted by The Cruel Dragon King as his daughter. Every night before bed, the Dragon King tells the girl about her “real” father, a great hero who defeated an evil demon king. The girl wants to become a hero like her father, so the Dragon King decides to make her dream come true by coming up with little quests for her to undertake. These quests are in service to the various monsters who live in the Dragon King’s territory, and the girl becomes involved in a series of adorable sidequests.

Most of these sidequests are optional. Because the game isn’t difficult, the sidequest rewards aren’t strictly necessary. Rather, the real reward is the friendship you find along the way. In less cliché terms, the reward for playing the game is being able to experience more of the game.

The environment is not quite 2D and not quite isometric, and it reminds me a lot of the style of the Paper Mario games. There are no puzzles and no platforming, but your character gradually gains abilities that allow her to bypass environmental obstacles and thereby gain access to more of the map. Like most of the sidequests, exploration isn’t strictly necessary. Still, if you want to poke around a bit, the map screen is annotated in a way that’s easy to understand and keep track of, and there will never be any need to consult an online walkthrough. The player has access to a quest log that visually signposts the objectives for each quest, and you can instantly return to the central village hub whenever you wish.

Your adventuring party only has two characters at a time, Yuu and another character specific to each chapter of the game. This can occasionally cause difficulties when a group of enemies is designed to take advantage of an earlier companion’s special abilities, but most players will never experience anything beyond mild inconvenience. Your characters’ skill points are limited but naturally renew after each turn of battle, and it’s fun to play around with different skills and strategies without having to worry about conserving resources.  

The chill and low-stress gameplay allows the player to appreciate the most notable feature of The Cruel King, which is its gorgeous artwork. Playing the game feels like walking through the pages of a storybook, albeit one that’s beautifully animated. All of the characters and environments are hand-drawn, and each screen is filled with unique details. The illustrated bestiary that you can gradually complete as you find and defeat enemies is a treasure.

I’ve gotten used to ambient background noise in contemporary video games, so it was a treat to realize that each area of The Cruel King has its own theme music. I thought this music was nothing special at first, but over time I found that I enjoyed the fantasy flavor it adds to each section of the game. None of the character lines are voiced, but the actress who narrates the storybook-style cutscenes in Japanese gives a lovely performance (although you can silence her voice and fast-forward through these scenes if you like).

The translation is of uneven quality, but this didn’t bother me. Most of the dialog is cute and quirky but still feels natural, and many of the characters have distinctive ways of speaking that are fun without being annoying. The translation for the third-person narrative cutscenes tends to be a bit shaky, both in terms of style and grammar. I don’t think the errors were intentional (especially since the original Japanese text is relatively polished), but I still appreciate them, as the amateurish writing style made the storybook sections feel more intimate. It reminded me of Super Nintendo JRPGs, whose imperfect translations were a significant part of their charm.

Without spoiling anything, I think it’s fair to say that The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince was a horror game that got especially dark toward the end. The Cruel King and the Great Hero doesn’t have any nasty tricks up its sleeves, but the story ends up being much more interesting and nuanced than you might expect. If nothing else, you get to be friends with all sorts of monsters, and who doesn’t want a kind and supportive Dragon King for a dad?

A Legend of Shadows, Part Three

This is the third and final section of a speculative comic about gods and mortals in Legend of Zelda lore and mythology. The first part is (here), and the second part is (here). This is a continuation of the ideas I expressed in a short collaboration comic called Hylia’s Chosen Knight.

The goddess Hylia is more than a little scary, and it’s interesting to think of Ganondorf as being the hero of another story. I’m fascinated by the theme of “the failed or corrupted hero,” and I think it would be interesting if Ganondorf went on a quest that paralleled Link’s journey. Maybe young Ganondorf saw Hylia as the villain, but the power he needed to stand against Hyrule ended up overwhelming him. To me, that’s much more compelling than the idea of power only being “good” when it’s wielded by the “chosen” person.

Watching from the Shadows

I contributed a story about Impa and Princess Zelda titled “Watching from the Shadows” to Goddess Reborn, a zine celebrating the female characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can check out the zine’s Twitter account (here), and you can read my story on AO3 (here). Here’s a short description of the story…

Impa prepares to train Princess Zelda as a Sheikah warrior during the year following the fall of Hyrule Castle. Zelda is tired of hiding and eager to fight, so Impa shares stories from the past to demonstrate that there is wisdom in waiting for the right moment to strike.

This spot illustration was created by the magical and marvelously skilled Frankiesbugs, whose sharp and deadly work can be found on Tumblr, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

Hylia’s Chosen Knight

I had a horrible thought about the Legend of the Zelda mythology the other day. Demise’s curse supposedly follows the bloodline of the goddess Hylia, so all she needs to do to release Hyrule from an endless cycle of destruction is to stop reincarnating as a mortal. Why she insists on being reincarnated isn’t clear, but Skyward Sword strongly suggests that it’s because she loves Link so much. This is a little creepy…

…but I have nothing but unironic respect for ancient deities who behave like teenage girls!

Once I started thinking about Hylia being creepy, all sorts of interesting possibilities presented themselves. What if Hylia isn’t just a “goddess,” but also completely inhuman? What if she isn’t a sky goddess, but a being from beyond the sky? And what if it’s not necessarily Link she loved, but Hyrule? The idea of an eldritch cosmic entity who wants to become human because she loves the earth is beautiful. It’s also romantic, sort of like The Little Mermaid but endlessly apocalyptic.

Then I started thinking about the Sheikah, the group of people who have historically served Hyrule’s royal family from the shadows. In Breath of the Wild, the ancient Sheikah built incredibly sophisticated technology that is completely at odds with the otherwise medieval world of the game. In addition, their technology also features cosmic and sidereal motifs. What if the Sheikah always knew what Hylia was?

I was partially inspired by (this) comic about how potentially creepy Hylia is in Skyward Sword, and by (this) illustration of Zelda as subtly but undeniably monstrous. I’m fascinated by darker interpretations of the Legend of Zelda universe, and I would love to see more horror-themed Zelda art in the world. While I’m waiting for the sequel to Breath of the Wild to be released, I figured that I might as well create some myself.

Frankiesbugs is one of my all-time favorite horror artists, and I was beyond thrilled when she accepted my commission to draw this comic. She had the brilliant idea to model Hylia on Ebrietas from Bloodborne, who bears the sobriquet “Daughter of the Cosmos” and is theorized to have enabled the dystopian world of the game because of her desire to coexist with humans. Frankiesbugs also drew a connection between the iconic eye motif of the Sheikah and the possibility of Hylia having multiple eyes as someone who watches the earth from the skies – or as someone who always keeps watch over her chosen hero.

Frankiesbugs posts original horror art and video game fan art on Instagram, on Tumblr, and on Twitter, as well as on Teepublic and on Redbubble if you’re interested in wearing some creepy-cute graphic design.