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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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.

Fright! Horror Zine Preorders Open

Fright, a classic movie horror zine, has opened preorders!

I contributed a story called “The Girl in the Screen at the End of the World,” which is about Sadako from Ringu picking off the last humans to survive the collapse of society. The story gradually comes together through vignettes narrated from the perspectives of different characters, all of whom encounter Sadako’s curse in unexpected ways. Some of these characters actually seek her out, as it’s always good to have a friend to help you deal with the end of the world. If you’re interested, you can check out the zine through these links…

💀 Carrd: https://frightzine.carrd.co/
💀 Twitter: https://twitter.com/frightzine
💀 Bigcartel: https://frightzine.bigcartel.com/

Himawari House Review on WWAC

I recently had the honor of writing a review of Harmony Becker’s graphic novel Himawari House for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Himawari House is an interesting and meaningful follow-up to They Called Us Enemy, Becker’s collaboration with actor and activist George Takei about the illegal internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. While They Called Us Enemy is about how individual lives were subsumed under the cultural identity of “Japanese,” which was foreign to many people to whom it was forcibly applied, Himawari House is about finding and negotiating Japanese cultural heritage as a chosen aspect of individual identity.

You can read the full review (here). You can also check out the book’s page on the publisher’s website (here) and follow the artist on Instagram (here). I’d also like to acknowledge the fantastic work of my brilliant editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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.

What Should We Do With Your Body?

I contributed a story called “What Sadie Didn’t See” to What Should We Do With Your Body?, an original collaborative murder mystery zine that’s free to download on Itchio (here).

“What Sadie Didn’t See” is a story about the things people throw away. Sadie is the manager of a custodial agency in the isolated town of Rosewater, where the body of a young man named Gabriel has been discovered in an abandoned mining tunnel. Gabriel was the son of the wealthiest family in town, and Sadie’s agency services their manor, just as they handle many of the other notable buildings in town. It’s possible that Sadie may have an important clue concerning what happened to Gabriel, but she has a longstanding habit of remaining silent about what the town residents don’t want to be seen.

I worked for a custodial agency in Atlanta during my first two years of college, and Sadie is based on my manager, a cheerful but no-nonsense woman who liked to say that the most important element of the job is discretion. My manager was kind and supportive to everyone who worked with her, so it was important to me to establish Sadie as a respected member of her community with ties to just about everyone. Although Sadie’s decision at the end of the story may be questionable, I hope it makes sense to the reader why she values the wellbeing of the living and the dignity of the dead over the success of the ongoing police investigation into Gabriel’s disappearance and probable murder.

I’m honored that my story opens the zine, and I hope it provides an intriguing introduction to the town of Rosewater and the secrets of its inhabitants. I’m equally honored to have received a character illustration by ZombieGaby, as well as a story spot illustration by Taymets. The focus of the zine is on the stories told by the characters, but the pages are filled with gorgeous art and graphic design. If you’re a murder mystery fan, or perhaps a connoisseur of Stephen King style peculiar little towns, please consider checking out the What Should We Do With Your Body? zine.

🟠 You can download the zine for free on Itchio (here).
🟠 You can follow Vinegar Zines on Twitter (here).
🟠 You can follow ZombieGaby on Instagram (here).
🟠 You can follow Taymets on Twitter (here).

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.

An Unfound Door, Chapter One

The chapter opens with Agnes walking in the woods while leading a gigantic boar demon on a magical silver chain. To keep herself awake, she talks to it, confessing that she wants to study its magic in an effort to revitalize the fortunes of her dying kingdom. The demon eventually begins to reply to her in garbled human speech. It responds strongly when Agnes asks about a golden medallion that she found on the battlefield after she spared its life. The demon, who is clearly in pain, asks Agnes to place the medallion against a scar on its forehead. She feels compelled by something larger than herself to do as it asks, only to be overwhelmed by magic.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

During the past two weeks, I submitted all of the writing I owed to various venues. I’m sure there are still going to be edits here and there, but I think I’ve wrapped everything up. I want to hold off on writing short fiction for the time being so that I can focus on An Unfound Door, a novel I started last October but abandoned at the beginning of this year due to a major life disruption.

As I prepared to return to the story, I changed almost all of the character names and reconsidered their appearances. To summarize, I was strongly influenced by the visual design of The Green Knight when I first started the project, but I think it might be best to move away from that influence for various reasons. Recontextualizing the characters helped me think through the details of the setting, which I think is much stronger now.

An Unfound Door is a Gothic mystery set in a decaying castle. Agnes, the princess of Faloren, hopes to save her crumbling kingdom by unlocking the secrets of long-lost relic, but she must conceal it from Fhiad, a mysterious emissary with sinister motives. As their paths cross in twisting corridors and hidden passages, Agnes and Fhiad realize that they must descend into the shadows of the past together if they hope to bring light to the future.

This story summary needs some work, but I’ll keep editing it as I write.

In terms of “Save the Cat” story structure, this initial chapter provides the opening image: A young woman sitting at a campfire next to a boar demon in the darkness of a huge forest.

The closing image, which will mirror the opening image, will be Agnes and the now-human demon sitting in the shade of a lone tree as they watch the sun rise. In both cases, Agnes will be leaving the scene of a battle with the demon to return to civilization. What Agnes considers to be “civilization” will have changed, as will her understanding of herself and her relation to the magic she’s trying to harness. And obviously she and the demon will have kissed.

This chapter sets the Gothic tone of the story – a brave but somewhat naive young woman not-quite lost in a dark and sinister place – as well as the central set of mysteries. What is the demon, and where did it come from? What is the medallion, and what relation does it have to the magic that created the demon? Where did the hero come from, and where did he go? Why is Agnes’s kingdom in decline, and why is she alone in the forest with a demon?

To establish Agnes’s character as the protagonist, she has literally “saved the cat” here, except the “cat” in this case is a giant horrible boar demon. I assume the “hero saves the princess from the evil demon” narrative pattern will be familiar to most readers, who will hopefully be intrigued by the element of Agnes’s character that leads her to capture the demon instead of killing it. She perceives her need of the demon’s magic to be worth the risk, but she’s also intellectually curious and looking for trouble. Essentially, she is the sort of person who willingly gets herself caught up in forbidden magic.

Agnes is going to start wearing a series of masks once the story gets going, so I think it’s useful for the reader to see her true face at the beginning. As corny as this sounds, the way that Agnes needs to change over the course of the story is to learn to follow her heart, by which I mean she needs to recognize her own face underneath the masks she wears. Also, I want to use the story to explore the beauty of decay, and I’d like to use Agnes to make an argument that some kingdoms should be allowed to crumble.

Japanese Ghost Stories

This fall, I’m teaching a new class called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” Here’s the course description…

This course offers a survey of the numinous and supernatural through Japanese fiction, drama, comics, animation, and video games from the Heian period to the present day. Students will assemble a foundational knowledge of Japanese religion and folklore while studying popular narrative traditions representative of their historical eras.

By peering into the liminal spaces connecting the living with the dead, students will develop critical thinking and media literacy through careful investigation into the matters that people of different times and places have perceived as monstrous, alien, and unspeakable. Issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnic minority status will receive special attention as we navigate theories relating to the cultural role and social relevance of ghosts. By the end of the semester, students will possess a broad perspective on Japanese narrative traditions and popular culture, as well as an understanding of how fantastic stories of the dead reflect the tangible experiences of the living.  

You can download a copy of the syllabus (here).
I’ve collected PDF files of the course readings on Dropbox (here).
If you’re interested, a copy of the course assignments handout is (here).
You can check out the work of artist who drew the banner image (here).

I’d like to acknowledge that this course was inspired by Professor Naomi Fukumori’s class “The Monstrous in Japanese Literature and Culture,” and I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the course syllabus (here).