It was a great class, but I have some thoughts about literary double standards.
What Remains of Edith Finch
What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking sim that takes about two hours to complete. It was released in April 2017 for Steam and PlayStation 4, but it’s now available on a number of other platforms, including the Nintendo Switch.
What Remains of Edith Finch is visually gorgeous, and it falls into my favorite category of games: It was created for an adult audience by a small team of developers who take full advantage of the interactive gaming medium but don’t frustrate the player with unnecessary puzzle or platforming elements. There’s a lot to explore in this game, but the atmosphere is never broken by the player having to get up and check a walkthrough.
You play as a teenage woman named Edith Finch, who is returning to her family’s house on a small island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The house has been abandoned ever since Edith’s mother moved away in order to escape “the family curse,” which holds that everyone who is born into (or marries into) the Finch family dies in a tragic accident. In order to find closure, Edith tries to reconstruct the details of her family’s deaths, which the player experiences though a series of vignettes that play out in the form of short interactive stories.
Progression through the game is definitely on rails, but it doesn’t feel particularly linear. This is partially due to the unique architecture of the Finch house, whose rooms seem impossible yet manages to fit together neatly like the pieces of a puzzle. The game’s sense of progression is also enhanced by the player’s interactions with the environment, which are essential to the storytelling. I’m going to use the case of Edith’s older brother Lewis as an example of what I mean.
Lewis is a young man who loves fantasy novels, video games, and weed. After he graduates from high school, he drifts aimlessly for a few years before getting a job at a salmon cannery. This job is just as dreary as you might expect, but Lewis survives the tedium of menial labor by immersing himself in daydreams. As the player, you use one joystick to control the repetitive motion of decapitating fish and throwing them onto a conveyor belt while simultaneously using the other joystick to guide Lewis’s avatar through his RPG-themed fantasies.
Lewis’s daydream gradually becomes more interesting and complex. This is reflected by the game inside his mind being upgraded, almost as though it were being remastered across various eras of gaming consoles. The controls for the salmon cannery aspect of Lewis’s life never change, and they remain a constant annoyance as the fantasy slowly expands to fill the screen. When the player is jolted out of this daydream back into the bloody and poorly lit factory, it’s much more jarring than it would be if we were simply reading or watching Lewis’s story.
The psychiatrist who narrates this vignette says that Lewis’s death was caused by a hallucination triggered by withdrawal from hard drugs, but the player understands that it was a suicide brought about by his overwhelming desire to no longer be anchored by an unpleasant and unsatisfying reality. This episode is only twenty minutes long, but I cried. Kind of a lot actually.
What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t sad or sentimental; rather, it’s nuanced and incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t offer the player the same sort of transcendent experience as a more ambitious game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but its smaller and more personal stories are replete with mystery and wonder. Although the two games were made by different developers, What Remains of Edith Finch feels like a spiritual sequel to Gone Home, and it’s such a pleasure to see the gaming medium used to apply magical realism to gothic dramas of family ghosts and personal journeys of discovery.
I was inspired to return to What Remains of Edith Finch by a recent episode of the podcast Watch Out for Fireballs, which you can listen to (here). Reflecting on the game almost six years after it was first released, I would agree with the podcast hosts: Although What Remains of Edith Finch was almost universally praised when it came out, I’m afraid that its Wes Anderson style of twee humor might not land the same way on social media now. What Remains of Edith Finch treats the twinned subjects of death and mental illness with humor and sympathy in a way that celebrates the joys of being alive, and I’m not sure its multilayered tone would necessarily survive the black-or-white mentality of Twitter.
Still, I love this game, and I appreciate it even more now that I’ve had more personal experience with grief. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that What Remains of Edith Finch is uplifting, but the two hours I spent with the game improved my mood, bolstered my courage, and reignited my creative motivation. As with any work of art, the specificity of the game’s tone and viewpoint may not land with everyone, but it’s precisely this specificity of storytelling that makes What Remains of Edith Finch so strange and fun and interesting.
At the Edge of the Garden
When I was ten years old, all my friends had trampolines. I wanted a trampoline too, but my mother was opposed to the idea. One of my cousins decided to jump onto a trampoline from the roof of his house, breaking his arm and becoming a neighborhood hero in the process. My mother used my cousin’s behavior as a justification for keeping our yard trampoline-free, but I understood that she didn’t want her garden to be invaded.
My family lived on the outskirts of a pine forest bordering a small town. The property would later be sold, cleared, and incorporated into a subdivision, but our house was fairly isolated when we lived there. Since I had no one to play with and nothing better to do, I spent the summer roaming the forest with my dog while pretending to be a dinosaur. After a boy was shot in a hunting accident only a mile away from our house, my mother came to the reluctant conclusion that keeping me and the dog in the yard on a trampoline would probably be safer than letting us run wild in the woods.
The trampoline dominated my mother’s garden, as she had known it would, but this was more than likely a relief for her. She had neglected to do any weeding that summer, and the plants had gone feral. The trampoline blocked the view of the overgrown tangle of the rose bushes and ornamental shrubs that she used to keep meticulously maintained. My dog would sometimes disappear into the thistles and milkweed that grew as tall as my waist at the edge of the yard and emerge with his coat covered in burs, and my mother would pretend not to notice.
My parents’ marriage had turned sour. They fought after dinner, so I tried to be in the house as little as possible. I would go outside to jump on the trampoline every evening. It was soothing, almost hypnotic. I would position myself in the middle of the black canvas tarp and bounce in place as I watched the sun set over the pine trees standing just beyond the garden. I would hop off the trampoline and head back inside once the sky had gone completely dark, but twilight tends to linger in that part of the world, especially during summer. Sometimes I would be on the trampoline for more than an hour, letting my mind draft into various fantasies of prehistoric life while my dog barked at the rabbits that sniffed around the patch of soil where my mother used to grow carrots.
One evening, just as the sun had begun to sink below the tops of the pines, I saw a figure slink out of the dim forest underbrush. There wasn’t enough light to see clearly, but I was convinced it was a person. My dog was somewhere else, so I was alone with the shadow.
I was struck by a sense of terror, but I couldn’t stop jumping on the trampoline. My body moved mechanically as the blob of darkness made its way across the yard. Eventually it halted, raised the stalks of its arms, and slowly waved at me. I kept jumping, and it kept waving. It seemed as though it were trying to get my attention, but I refused to acknowledge its presence. If I looked at it directly, the stalemate would be broken, and I would be eaten. I was only a dinosaur in my mind, after all, and I knew that I was no match for whatever had come out of the trees.
As the sun disappeared, the shadow sank back into the forest. I hopped off the trampoline and ran inside as quickly as my shaking legs could carry me.
The next day, when the sun was fully back in the sky, I ventured out to the line of trees beyond the garden, but I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The thick mat of pine needles covering the ground lay undisturbed.
Later that afternoon, my dog got hit by a speeding truck on the state highway that ran past the end of our driveway, but I don’t think there was any connection to what I’d seen the previous evening. How could there have been? Nothing made sense to me at the time – not the death of my dog, not the end of my parents’ marriage, and not the creeping realization that my mother and I would have to leave our home at the end of the summer. All things considered, a strange shadow lurking in the woods at the edge of the garden was the least of what was wrong with that house.
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This story was originally published in Issue 7 of 3 Moon Magazine in April 2021. The issue’s theme was “Growing Malcontent,” and this story was my first foray into botanical horror. 3 Moon Magazine ceased publication and closed its website at the end of 2022, and I am reproducing this story with the kind permission of the editors.
A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story
I’m honored to have an essay in one of my favorite online magazines, Cosmic Double. “A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story” is about how I discovered the joy of queer transformations in HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”
“A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story” is free to read on the Cosmic Double website here:
I originally created this essay as something of a writer’s statement for a short story called “Don’t Eat the Fish.” The story is about the uncanny space at the intersection of queerness, disability, and economic precarity, but I also think it stands on its own as an unsettling work of body horror. I workshopped this story for years as I slowly developed my skills, and I worked hard to polish the narrative voice and sharpen the genre effectiveness while also being as honest as I could about the nuances of my own personal experience.
I generally try to keep overt identity politics out of my writing, which isn’t a value statement as much as it is a personal preference. It’s not as though my stories aren’t informed by my identity or social environment. Rather, both my identity and my environment constantly shift and change, and my stories generally aren’t about myself to begin with. Still, because this particular story was so strongly informed by my positionality, I spent more than a year submitting it a series of literary magazines dedicated to raising the voices of queer, disabled, and economically precarious writers.
Unfortunately, every single magazine I submitted the story to was like, “Oh damn, that’s truly upsetting, and this story is not Positive Queer Representation™ enough.” Usually, when I have a story rejected, I’m lucky enough to get a personal note from an editor along the lines of, “This isn’t a good fit for us right now, but we all enjoyed this piece and would love to see more work from you in the future.” With this story, the response was inevitably: NO.
I therefore wrote this essay as a way of processing what my story and its literary influences meant to me. I’ve long since accepted that the story itself will never be published, but I’m truly grateful to Cosmic Double for being willing to publish an essay that may not be Positive Queer Representation™ but still attempts to represent what I believe is a very real aspect of nonbinary (and trans!) queer identity. That takes courage, and the essays I’ve been reading on the site led me to believe that the editors are open to an earnest investigation of what it means to feel “monstrous.” If you’re interested in well-crafted essays from unexpected points of view, please check them out!
A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game
A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game
A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game is exactly what it says on the label: a cute and pastel-colored pixel game that teaches you how to make marshmallows. You play as a pastry chef who has just been promoted to the kitchen of a company that makes pink heart-shaped confectionery. The recipe includes sugar, corn syrup, water, and a secret ingredient… love!
Just kidding! The secret ingredient definitely isn’t love. Anyone who is squeamish about gore should probably avoid this game.
A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game was made for the Two Minute Horror Jam, with “two minutes” being about how long it takes to finish the game. The experience of playing A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game actually takes about five or six minutes to properly savor, which will probably include you laughing and saying “oh no no no no no no fuck no” to yourself at least once.
The game also has a secret ending. Along with a lot of people in the comments, I got the secret ending the first time I played the game, as the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
There’s not much I can write about such a short game without spoiling it, so let me just say that this is a neat little story with perfect presentation that uses its medium well.
Another fun two-minute horror game on Itchio is:
Make Sure It’s Closed
Make Sure It’s Closed does a fantastic job of creating a palpable sense of dread in a very short span of time, so much so that I want to recommend this game to any writer who needs an easy and effective reference for what “dread” feels like. I was so impressed that I also played the creator’s game The Open House (free on Itchio here), which is a bit longer and less immediately accessible but still a lot of fun.
Cosmic Horror and the Ruins of Capitalism in Night in the Woods
I maintained my sanity during the pandemic by spending time outdoors in abandoned places. Some of these places exist in the real world, but most were virtual. One of my favorite haunts has been Possum Springs, a depopulated town in western Pennsylvania that serves the setting of the 2017 story exploration game Night in the Woods.
In Night in the Woods, you play as Mae, an anthropomorphic cat who has dropped out of college and moved back to Possum Springs to live with her parents. With no job and nothing better to do, Mae decides to investigate the disappearance of several local children. It turns out that there is a monster living in the abandoned mine tunnels under Possum Springs, and a cult of town residents has been feeding young people to this creature in return for a promise that it will prevent the town’s economic decline. When Mae and her friends catch the cult in the act of sacrificing one of its own members, its leader tells the group of teenagers that these rituals aren’t easy for them, especially now that they’re getting older. It’s time for a new generation to take over and ensure the prosperity of Possum Springs, however modest this prosperity might be.
Mae and her friends don’t join the death cult, of course. They escape from the monster, and the mine tunnels collapse and trap the remaining cult members underground. At the end of the game, Mae reflects that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in a hostile universe, then she and her friends will have to help each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.
The elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods are genuinely creepy, especially during Mae’s interactive nightmare sequences, but the purpose of the cult is to serve as a thematic juxtaposition to the true terror of Possum Springs, a large and impersonal set of interlocking systems that collectively exploit hardworking but vulnerable people – namely, capitalism.
Mae’s parents are afraid of losing their house to the bank because of an usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s college tuition, and entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs are filled with repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. The pastor of the local church wants to open a shelter for the newly homeless and the railroad drifters who camp out in the forest next to town, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council due to concerns that lowering the property values in the neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.
The horror of an absurd and uncaring universe in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the unfathomable monster lurking in the mine tunnels, although the cult of older people who sacrifice members of younger generations for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living comes uncomfortably close to allegory in the wake of the 2016 American presidential election. Forces beyond our control and comprehension are indeed destroying individual lives and modestly thriving communities, but these forces are nothing as quaint as a stygian tentacle beast that eats children.
According to Scott Benson, the lead writer and artist of Night in the Woods, Possum Springs is located in western Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. This situates the town in the Rust Belt, an economically depressed region stretching around the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Detroit. The cities in the Rust Belt were centers of American manufacturing until the 1980s, when international free trade agreements incentivized companies in sectors like natural resource extraction and the automotive industry to outsource materials and labor. Formerly bustling mines and factories closed, resulting in a dramatic decline in population that in turn resulted in the bankruptcy of many smaller businesses.
It’s currently possible to accrue a sizeable following on social media by posting urban exploration photos of shuttered factories and other ghostly relics of infrastructure, such as empty schools, hospitals, movie theaters, and shopping malls. There’s a certain poetic charm in high-contrast photos of healthy green weeds stretching up through the cracks of ash-gray concrete and leafy vines twining around rusted iron support pillars. Images of the remains of modern civilization devoid of human presence provide fertile ground for the imagination to run wild.
Night in the Woods denies its players the solitary pleasures of urban exploration, however. As a dialog-driven game, its story can’t be advanced unless the player participates in conversations with various people around Possum Springs. As the you learn more about the town, you begin to understand the problems experienced by its inhabitants, which range from poverty to alcoholism to severe depression. At the same time, you come to appreciate the people who care about each other and want to do right by their community even despite the financial and emotional burdens they carry.
Night in the Woods suggests that the fractures in the community cannot be repaired by any given individual action, like “going to college” or “owning a home.” Rather, the problem lies in the larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the characters Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them don’t have the agency to make any real choices about their lives.
Night in the Woods features a number of optional sidequests that tell an ongoing story about the historical tension between the former mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the working conditions for miners were deplorable. The mines closed at least a decade before the story begins, but the labor of the workers in Possum Springs is still exploited. Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job at a small factory, now works at a large supermarket by the highway that forced the local grocery store in Possum Springs to be shut down. At the end of the game, Mae’s father considers starting a labor union at his workplace, which pulls money out of the local economy without benefiting the town or its people.
The game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive, however. As Mae’s friend Bea explains, the unions are male-dominated, and homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry for the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills while working at the local pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.
Night in the Woods is ultimately about accepting uncomfortable realities while moving forward and finding friendship and community in difficult times and circumstances. The game isn’t just a protest against the violence of the global neoliberal capitalism that destroys local economies; it’s a model of resistance on a small and personal scale, as well as an argument for the quiet beauty of allowing outdated structures to fall gently to ruin.
Small town life isn’t for everyone, but neither is building a community from scratch in a big city. If nothing else, it’s good to have choices. The gameplay of Night in the Woods is centered around making choices, and the choice Mae and her friends make is to bury the monster in the mine, sacrificing short-term gains for long-term stability.
Although Night in the Woods is set in the days leading to and following Halloween, its advocacy for regrowth and positive change is a welcome message as society gradually begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic. If nothing else, Possum Springs is a great place to find surreal and spooky chills, and Mae’s homecoming is a crash course on how to make conversation with other people in real-world places that will be hopefully be not so abandoned in the future.
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This essay was originally published on May 18, 2021 in Entropy, a digital magazine about the fringes of art and culture. Entropy closed its website in late 2022, and I am reproducing this publication with the kind permission of the editors.
Bad Writing Advice
One of the more frustrating aspects of being a writer is receiving outdated or irrelevant feedback. Here at the end of the year, it’s important to reflect on the good things – but also the things that didn’t work so well. I’d like to share some advice I saw on various Discord servers that didn’t match my own understanding of the realities of what it means to be a writer.
Advice: Delete adverbs to create a streamlined flow.
Reality: This is an extremely useful piece of advice given to screenwriters, but the conventions that apply to spoken dialog don’t necessarily translate to prose fiction. Prose writers can’t rely on cinematography to direct the reader’s attention, so we have to use words to create a sense of focus through pace, which will sometimes be slower and heavier.
Advice: Open your story with an action-packed intro hook.
Reality: Many readers find this sort of decontextualized opening explosion confusing and exhausting, and it’s not appropriate for every genre. This style of storytelling became common during the YA fiction boom of the 2000s and is still frequently used in screenwriting, but it’s not as ubiquitous as it once was.
Advice: Write 2,000 words every day, no exceptions.
Reality: Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes you’ll find yourself writing many more than two thousand words in a day. Still, it’s important to write at your own pace and allow yourself to rest. When it comes to professional writing, it’s also important to respect wordcount limits instead of charging ahead with the “more words are better” mentality that many writers pick up in high school or college.
Advice: Only write what you’re passionate about.
Reality: Passion will only carry you so far. Famously prolific writers from William Faulkner to Chuck Tingle have argued that discipline, persistence, and a good-natured willingness to occasionally make concessions to market trends are much more important in the long run.
Advice: Apply to an MFA program.
Reality: MFA programs are expensive, and you also have to take the cost of living and the opportunity cost into account. Meanwhile, week-long writing workshops and retreats often have financial aid available and may be more accessible to people who aren’t interested in pursuing an academic career.
Advice: Be active on social media.
Reality: Many agents and editors have made it clear that they don’t take a writer’s social media presence into account, and the days of being signed because of a viral tweet ended several years ago. While it can be useful to pay attention to calls for submissions on social media, especially Twitter, it’s not necessary to have a lot of followers (or even a public account) in order to find a venue for your work.
It’s important to note that a lot of this advice isn’t “bad” so much as it is “not generally applicable.” For example, the “write 2k words a day, no exceptions” maxim makes perfect sense for a professionally established novelist under contract to produce three manuscripts every two years. If you’re given the opportunity to be that sort of novelist, “2k words per day” is what you need to do. Nothing controversial about that. Still, the extent to which this advice has transformed from a specific professional practice to A Gospel Truth About Writing can be frustrating.
If you’ve been subjected to any similarly “bad” writing advice, please feel free to leave a comment. The end of the year is a good time to vent and get it all out so that you can start the new year fresh and energized.
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A version of this post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership is open for 2023 through January 16, 2023. The community’s content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.
One Night, Hot Springs
One Night, Hot Springs (here on Itchio) a short visual novel that takes about twenty minutes to play. It’s the free-to-download first chapter of A Year of Springs, which is available for $5 on various platforms, including Nintendo Switch. The story is about a 19-year-old girl named Haru who spends the night at a fancy onsen hotel with her childhood friend Minami and Minami’s friend Erika. Everything seems set up for a fun girls’ night out, but Haru is worried that being trans might make getting into a public bath tricky.
Minami and Erika are both a bit clueless about what it means to be transgender, but each is kind and supportive of Haru in her own way. The onsen staff are kind and supportive as well. No one particularly cares that Haru is trans, but they still go out of their way to make sure she feels comfortable, just as they would for any other guest. Haru is shy and doesn’t want to cause trouble, but a staff member assures her that plenty of people need (and deserve!) a bit of extra attention, and that trans guests aren’t actually as uncommon as one might think.
There’s a big pink banner with a content warning for transphobia hovering over the game’s page on Itchio, which is why I didn’t take the plunge and buy the full game. I got seriously burned by The House in Fata Morgana, and I don’t want to play another visual novel about a trans character being abused or harassed. It turns out that I need not have worried, thankfully. If you’re honest to everyone about your character being trans, the ending you’ll get is called “The World Can Be Kind, Too.”
There’s an educational element to the game, and this can be something of a bummer, as the social and legal realities of being LGBTQ+ in Japan aren’t great. Still, One Night, Hot Springs is mostly about simulating the experience of spending a relaxing evening in the company of good friends at a beautiful onsen hotel. The artwork is cute yet polished and offers the player lovely visions of traditional architecture, delicious food, and screenshot-worthy outdoor vistas.
One Night, Hot Springs is just as wholesome as its artwork is adorable, and I really enjoyed the story. I was inspired to get the full game, A Year of Springs, and I’m looking forward to playing it soon.
The Academy of Raya Lucaria
This is how I imagine Sellen and Rennala celebrating the end of the semester at the Academy of Raya Lucaria.
The postapocalyptic world of Elden Ring isn’t a great place to live, and good people usually end up dead. The Academy of Raya Lucaria seems as though it was dangerous even before the world ended, as very few of the wizards who studied there had even the slightest hint of ethics regarding the otherworldly powers they were attempting to harness. As much as I would love to study magic myself, I’m fairly certain that I would die – or even worse, become undead – within the first semester of wizard school.
Also, multiple people have commented to me that Elden Ring contains the most accurate portrayal of academia they’ve seen in a video game. As a professor, I think it’s best that I keep my comments to myself, but damn if that isn’t the truth.
If you want to fight your way into the spotlight, it always helps to have a dear friend with sharp teeth.
This is a fan illustration of an original short story written by a fandom friend, Runicmagitek on AO3. Their story is called “Dear Friend,” and it’s about a sinister shadow who follows an aspiring chanteuse from a dark corner of the forest into the bright lights of the city.
Runic is an incredible prose stylist, and it was a lot of fun to draw their characters! For more monster girls and murder friends, please check out their writing here:
🥂 AO3: https://archiveofourown.org/users/runicmagitek/
🔪 Twitter: https://twitter.com/runic_magitek
✨ Tumblr: https://runicmagitek.tumblr.com/