Sekiro and the 40-year-old gamer

I’m nearing the end of my Sekiro journey and I don’t want it to be over. The whole game is a wonderful evolution on the Dark Souls/Bloodborne game design model, but I’ll save that for another day. I wanted to talk about how challenging it has been for me to physically play the game.
It is the hardest game I’ve ever played, even now, when I think I know how the systems work and how the game wants me to play. The lack of RPG elements makes beating technical bosses very hard. Very hard. You can’t work around mechanics that just require lightning reflexes.
I beat one of the hardest bosses last night (the second trip to the top of Ashima Castle), where the only way to damage him is to exploit split-second gaps and execute frame-thin counters. If you attack once more when you meant to roll or counter or jump away, you will take a lot of damage. The fight took me about 6 or 7 minutes to finish, which is a fucking long time to hold precise execution and strategy without a break. And it took me about 2 hours to train myself how to kill him. And I know there are at least 2 more fights ahead of me that are more difficult than this was.
The game is built around attacks and counters, posture breaking, and understanding when to attack and when to defend, what to avoid, and what to exploit, and this fight is the driest and most technical representation of that philosophy. A good player can probably finish it in under 5 minutes, and a very good player can do it in under 3 minutes though that would require picture-perfect counters and execution of attacks and dodges. The best-timed kill I’ve seen is in 2 minutes which is pretty fucking insane.
Point being, after 2 hours of fighting him, I finally killed him, and then quickly got to the next boss who isn’t as hard, not nearly, but as I started to learn her patterns, my hands were in so much pain that I just stopped and went to bed. If I hadn’t killed him, I’d have gone to bed and had to re-familiarize the fight again, so that my muscle-memory was triggering based on sight reads without any thought on my part which would have taken another maybe 30 minutes or so before I got back to where I was as my hands started to cramp.
So my aged hands now start to hurt faster, and my aged mind takes longer to see things and react, and my aged nerves react slower than a nineteen-year-old streamer who can execute the kills in 2 minutes. Fair enough. And maybe some of these guys are in their forties and fifties doing it better than me, I don’t know! I’m sure there are people my age and older, still playing and executing better than I can.
This is the first time I’m running into physical limits of what I can do while gaming. I don’t know how long I can keep playing games this tough, but it’s gratifying to know I can get most of the way through so far, even if I’m slower and it takes me a lot longer than the young wolves surging ahead of the pack to bring down the kills with vicious fangs and flashing claws.

Being a Black Metal Fan is Hard

I’ve been going through a serious ALCEST phase right now, listening to Neige’s records all the way through a couple of times in the last few days. Alcest is (primarily) a one-man French project by Neige, who’s been active in the underground European metal scene for almost two decades now.
There’s something about his music that speaks to me. Even though he sings in French, I empathize with it so much. His guttural and clean vocals build an atmosphere of conflicting extremes and the Shoegazey wall of sound and ringing clean arpeggios sit on top of Black Metal influences between long stretches of staid rhythms. The hints about the content of the songs and his intent come from his tone, his melody, the mood of the music, and the covers of albums like Les voyages de l’âme and Écailles de lune. There is something old-fashioned about this music, the obscure lyrics, the indecipherable music, the underground nature of it all.
But for me, Alcest is more than the sum of its musical components. It’s like Neige is translating my thoughts and feelings into music, there are moments of clarity, dramatic shifts of tone, evocative mood and texture, and he obviously cares about every measure of music that makes the cut. It’s the kind of care and love that speaks volumes about the empathy of the person building the piece.
It’s the kind of music that I adore – made without any considerations made to the listener, a pure expression of the artist’s feelings. And the feelings are a combination of wonder and loss, a melancholy tribute to lost dreams or a simple exploration of beauty through a haze of wispy fog sitting on Alsatian hills in a French spring. It’s music intending to portray something positive, a love-letter to something better than the here and now, despite the layers of sadness hovering underneath.
Anyway, I spent some time reading about Neige recently and noticed he’d played on some early PESTE NOIRE albums. While a lot of ink has been spilled on it, essentially, PN at least has a national socialist bent and Famine, the man behind the band, seems like a pro-fascist right-wing person who recorded a track called “Aryan Supremacy.” Neige has a drums credit on that track.
It’s not easy to track down responses to this. Black Metal fans like to cultivate a real “Tru Kult” feeling of outsiderness to it, with the National Socialist Black Metal being an active genre within the scope. Some people ignore the Nationalist elements to embrace bands that keep the scene feeling far more extreme and underground when political stances make up for what can’t be attained through musical extremism alone when a reasonably mainstream band like Deafhaven can release a Depressive Black Metal album in America and get lauded for it.
I get it. Maybe they really believe this shit, maybe they don’t and are just using it as a way to make themselves more shocking or underground. But I have to deal with musicians I adore who played with these guys, and there’s no way to talk to people online about it, it’s either “Burn all your Alcest records immediately,” or, “Go back to your mom’s basement, SJW!”
Happily, I was able to find an interview in a German magazine which had an English quote wherein Neige says he was 15, and playing for the band as a session musician and he certainly isn’t a racist and didn’t consider the implications of playing on the record as a teenager. The very short article itself is worth a Google translate, as it wrestles with the exact same issue I’m faced with – what do you do when you find out that musicians you love have a spotted past?
And I mean, that makes sense. Alcest has an Indian bassist, their last album was inspired by Japanese spiritualism which they encountered playing live dates in Buddhist temples on a tour of Japan… it seems like Neige is a multicultural and modern person with modern sensibilities who made a mistake as a kid. And also, what am I going to do, criticize a 15-year-old kid for playing in a Black Metal band? I was scared of feminism at 21 and worried about my own rights as a man. What did I know?
I suppose I’m glad that Alcest doesn’t fall into one of these bands that I just can’t listen to anymore, like Burzum or Emperor, who’ve committed actual hate crimes or hold ideologies that I just can’t condone, no matter how good the music is. While Alcest holds a niche spot in Black Metal, and the band transcends genre, it’s where Neige came from.
It’d be easy to just throw out all my Black Metal and tar it all with one brush, but I can’t. There is some truly wonderful and beautiful and important art here, but it comes with baggage. There are conflicting, important, complicated stories here. Whether it’s the silent homosexuality of Gaahl who remained in the closet while playing in the controversial Gorgoroth or the property crimes against churches by second wave bands in the nineties, the suicides and deaths of prominent members of Mayhem, the Nationalist scene active across Europe and in the UK – Black Metal isn’t a safe scene, it never has been. Even going to see a band like Opeth or Enslaved can cause run-ins with people wearing Nazi symbols, and those bands have never had anything to do with Nationalism.
A casual fan like me has to step carefully. I need to do my research, and it isn’t easy trying to find primary sources or quotes when most of the press coverage is in Europe and the community is polar extremes. The scene barely exists in America, and most American sources don’t seem to cover the controversy, gushing fanboyishly at bands that that do come over.
Coming back to Alcest, I’m glad I was able to find that quote. Neige’s music is very important to me, and I don’t want to lose it.

The Worst Fear

I don’t know how to function with the anxiety I’ve got bottled up inside me. It has been growing ever since the election but this week it has reached a new height (or maybe depth) that I hadn’t known before.

Perhaps I should preface by saying that I was born in India to a Muslim family, emigrated to the US in 1996 and was naturalized in 2001 a few months before 9/11. My family is quite religious, as is most of my extended family. Both my brother and I drifted away from faith, and no longer strictly identify as Muslim. It’s something I still yearn for, I miss the community that comes with faith, and though Judaism underwent a reform movement that gave rise to secularism within the faith, no such alternative exists for Muslims that I’m aware of. Yet, I’d still classify myself as a secular Muslim, if such a thing can be said to exist.

My wife in a American-born citizen, though she did change her last name to mine, and my children – both born here – have Muslim names.

I bring all this up, because I’m afraid of what the current administration is proposing – and I admit that my fear is irrational. As of 1/26/2017, INS and ICE are planning to go after undocumented immigrants for eviction and deportation, regardless of their family situation. That’s not me – I am an American citizen, I have an American passport, I have a Social Security number, I have been married to a citizen for 12 years – but I’m afraid, that after the undocumented immigrants, the next target will be registered Muslims.

When I picture my worst fear, I see myself forced to leave my home and family, whether it’s due to deportation or internment of some sort. I imagine having to say goodbye to my kids, one of whom is too young to even remember me. I can picture him saying “Bye bye Dada” as he does whenever I leave, not realizing that I don’t know when or if I’ll be back.

Of course these fears are irrational, I know that, I live in New York City which is putting up a great deal of resistance to the administration’s efforts to deport even the undocumented let alone naturalized immigrants; but I think irrational fear is the kind that keeps you awake at night, staring at a dark spot in the ceiling, without any certainty for what will come next.

There are documents in Washington with my name and picture from 20 years ago, my fingerprints, that list my country of origin as India and my religion as Muslim. Today, those documents are in the hands of people who seem to be hellbent on making America Christian and White again. I don’t know what sort of actions they’ll take.

Irrational and absurd thoughts enter my mind, like what if I’m deported – what happens to my holdings and properties? Should I see a lawyer about having my name taken off the house deed so that it’s in my wife’s name alone? Should I transfer my 401k and IRA into her name as well, just in case? Put them in trust for the kids? Should I change their name to John and Henry? How can I secure my family from the uncertainty of a future I can’t fathom?

This government has made me afraid, irrationally afraid. And I resent this fear – I don’t want to have to live with uncertainty because of a xenophobic policy. And yet, there’s nothing for me to do but continue on like everything is fine, afraid that any moment will break this normality, so I keep waiting for it to happen, constantly walking with hunched shoulders, ready for the other shoe to drop.

I can’t undo this knot in my stomach, I can’t swallow this lead ball in my throat choking me, and the terror of being separated from my family hangs on me like a burning coat sewn into my skin. And I don’t know what to do about any of it.

2016 Sucks

The level of anxiety and stress I’m experiencing over this election is unbelievable. It hasn’t been a good year for many reasons, mostly to do with health issues throughout the family (except for my older son, thankfully). The election has only added to the miserable cloud raining crap over everything.

In this bleak look back, there’s one bright moment of light, and that was our Irish vacation – it was a lovely country to explore, and I was very sorry to leave when we did. Dublin is a wonderful mixture of the modern and antique, while the countryside retains a primordial and elemental beauty that I haven’t seen since I visited Scotland an age ago.

But I returned to these shores, and plunged headlong into the most banal and mundane problems, each of which deserves its own essay, but age has also made me more private so I sequester those thoughts rather than letting them out to play on a blog, like I once did, many years ago. This privacy is also rather isolating, as I found that airing out gloom is a good way to banish the bats of depression. There’s no solution to this problem, I’m merely acknowledging its existence.

I’m naturally voting for Hillary – and I’m happy to do it. I think she’s liberal, pragmatic and no more or less stained politically than any politician with as much time in the public sector as she has. Reports claim that she’s rather more honest than the median politician, which is good, and the fact that she’s embraced socially progressive politics is hopeful to me. Yes, she’s got a hawkish demeanor, but I think that’s something I’m willing to compromise on, and I’m also able to accept that a country like America sometimes will need to intervene in international incidents. I’m not an isolationist.

All of that said – my biggest issue with this election (like all others) is that it diminishes the actual issues I want to see addressed.

  1. I want someone, anyone, to talk about Global Warming in detail, I want to hear what they want to do about it in concrete steps, I want to hear about carbon extraction from atmosphere, I want to hear about a plan to reduce ocean acidification. Tell me about a massive move to clean grids, scaling back private transport use at least in clustered American urban centers… something. Paying lip service to the existence of Global Warming doesn’t come close to what I need to hear about what I think is the most pressing concern of our time.
  2. Someone needs to step up and talk about minimum living income. Whether its a negative tax rate below a certain threshold or a check that goes out to every citizen – at some point, there needs to be a realization that we’ve moved from a manufacturing industry to a data industry, primarily because of automation. And we’re heading towards a second wave of automation that will put the majority of the world out of work. What’s their plan for when unemployment hits 50%? Clothing, feeding, sheltering and providing medical care for every human being on the planet is within our means. The fact that we don’t do it in the interest of corporate profits is a crime against humanity.
  3. Education needs to become more affordable because the vast majority of people who’re being left behind in this automation are people who have little to no education, people with no options to move on when their blue-collar job vanishes never to return. Part of the Trump wave are these people aggressively ignored by the Democrats or pandered to without any follow-up. Trump is lying to them about bringing back industry – we know that’s a dead end. They clearly want to work – what do you have to offer them?
  4. On a more modest note, adding single-payer to the ACA to cap insurance costs shouldn’t take more than a simple vote. It will force insurance companies to compete beneath the level set by the Federal government while VIP plans can cost whatever they want. If it leads insurance companies to scale back their employees, then so be it – but to allow industry to hold citizens healthcare hostage is disgusting. The boogeyman of “this hurts industry” is smaller than the wraith of extinction hanging over humanity.

Everything else is behind these issues for me. I guess I want a technocrat in power who’s capable of working with science and industry leaders to move aggressively on topical concerns. One of the things I don’t care about is security – I don’t understand the American mindset of fear. Maybe it’s because I lived in India through race-riots, political turmoil, street violence and so forth, but I kind of accept the uncertainty of life as a given – I’m not willing to sacrifice the multi-generational concerns over a guerrilla proxy-war with Russia half-way around the planet. The last two times that happened, it was Vietnam and Afghanistan, and we all know how those turned out.

I don’t hold out any hope of these concerns being answered at the debate tonight, or any point between now and the election, but I hope I can get some sleep once President Hillary Clinton is sworn in. And I’m already hoping for a better 2017 while it’s only mid-October.


When I run games, they become filters for me to experiment and play with themes and ideas that I enjoy most – namely horror tropes and elements of Gothic storytelling and tragedy, all seeped in misty atmosphere. I might even go so far as to say, my games allow me to be decadent in my indulgence of these thematic elements, and I might occasionally go overboard.

So last year, when my gaming group’s resident GM moved across the country to pursue a job at Paizo game company, I volunteered and took up the dice to run a game. The group enjoys playing through the long, connecting stories that Paizo publishes in six volumes called Adventure Paths, and I quite like the books they’ve put out so I’m happy to oblige. We decided on a vote to see which of the dozens of Adventures Paths we’d play next – the epic fantasy of reclaiming the world wound? The war against an underground army ? A classic adventure of Fantasy kingdom building?

Somehow, to everyone’s surprise, the Adventure Path that emerged was the Gothic Horror – a path that sneaked into the list for reasons I don’t even recall. I certainly never suggested it, and I didn’t vote for it either. And yet, it came out on top somehow!

To say the Adventure Path was in my wheelhouse would be an understatement. The whole adventure is set in a Gothic Horror setting, with mist and moors and mountains, an ever-hanging threat from a restless but slumbering undead wizard demi-god, vampires and serial killers in urban centers, werewolves in the woods and haunted old buildings everywhere.

Well, who’m I to say no to the people’s will? I dove in with gusto, running the adventure path more or less as written, but for the occasional flourish of Gothic flair. Everyone has been enjoying the game, and I haven’t had to do much more than play out the story as written. I’ve been quite restrained with my wishes to meddle with the story and to push it even further into horror tropes and themes.

That is, until the players decided to nibble at one stray side-quest that I tossed out to gauge interest. Like travelers in some Hammer Films production from the sixties, the characters arrived at an old inn in the countryside, and descended into a valley to recover some lost children of a failed branch of a once-noble family.

What followed was an utterly self-indulgent tale that ran characters through a barely-disguised Fall of the House of Usher remake. Roderick and Madeline were there, one wounded and failing, the other drained of all vitality, their children under the dark guidance of wraiths.

A valley full of mists where a servant’s corpse swings above a deep, cold pool, crypts beneath the house where generations lie restlessly, a haunted harpsichord, Roderick’s unexplained disappearance, Madeline’s utterly self-destructive depression, a girl unable to stop playing the same music over and over, past the point of exhaustion, a boy who follows new friends down a dark chamber to fall to his death, the youngest daughter, lost in the woods and hiding within a tree-hollow, like some feral animal, afraid of the sun.

By the time all was said and done, the players walked away from the house, a fire consuming its rotten timbers, before a crack split the house at last, like a rotten beam sighing with relief to be put out of its misery.

I do feel a little bit guilty for indulging myself so much, but man, did I have fun.

Warrior Princesses in the Realm of Everafter

A few months ago, I mentioned writing for a project that a friend of mine was working on. The project has finally completed, and is raising funds so that it can go to press and see the light of day. While I’m terrible at marketing my own projects, I feel much more motivated to promote a group project where I’m just a part of the whole.

The project is called Warrior Princesses in the Realm of Everafter. It is a setting for role playing games that’s fairly easy to adapt to any game system, but the one we’ve used is Dungeons and Dragons. Here’s a video outlining the setting and giving a few details about the project.

The video uses a (very nicely) edited down version of the opening fiction as narration, and it works to great effect. The art work is gorgeous and has a touch of Victorian whimsy to it. I think it looks almost painterly, which is a refreshing break from the de-rigueur of contemporary fantasy art, with its skulls and blood and dim, monochrome palettes.

Let me talk a bit about the project – we took the female characters from popular western fairy tales – Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel – along with other non-western sources – Pocahontas, Fa Mulan – and wrote the game around them. They are protagonists, with the agency to be the vanguard of change or the champion of their people. You play as one of them in a story of your own telling.

One of my favorite things about this project is that it’s female-focused, multi-cultural content in a genre that tends to speak only to white men. We’re seeing the tide shift toward plurality, and I’m glad to be a part of that movement. All that said, we’ve done our best to be as inclusive as possible, and if we’ve fallen short, we hope to be able to do better next time.

In addition to the writing and art, there is of course the game-setting itself. It includes fully constructed character sheets for the protagonists and antagonists, there are details on the settings with areas of interests and maps, and plot hooks to use in game. The game is ready to go more or less out of the box.

We’re hopeful that our first launch goes well, and we’re able to do a second deck in the setting, with more characters and realms. If this sounds like your sort of thing, we would appreciate your support, and any help you can providing in spreading word of it to other interested parties. Thank you!

Ad Hoc Writing

Generally, I write for myself more than anything else.

Writing is a pleasure, one derived from exploring stories that begin with a single idea. I follow the thread to where it leads, scenes pile up on top of each other and then suddenly, there is a story, all formed and standing up on its own. The remarkable thing is how often problems solve themselves. Often, all that’s necessary is time.

However – while writing for others, this sort of luxury and joy isn’t possible. There are considerations for the other person’s taste and specific desires, there might even be explicit expectations. I’ve talked before about writing spec material, but there is another sort of writing that I quite enjoy. Writing for others, when they need a speech or ceremony.

This weekend, I was lucky enough to be invited to not only write but conduct the wedding fro two dear friends and I worked pretty hard on the ceremony. Performing in front of others isn’t generally an issue for me, and the Bride and Groom were both great sports about everything. But here’s the odd bit – the ceremony as I wrote it, was fairly somber and serious – the sort of decorum one might want to ground such a solemn function.

The rehearsal played out that way, the night before, but during the actual ceremony, as I was reading, the words took on a new tenor, a different rhythm and tone, different words emerged from my mouth than the ones on paper. What came was, generally a bit funner that what I had written down. A couple of jokes improvised themselves on the spot and the ceremony felt a good deal more… I suppose, loose and comfortable rather than stiff and formal.

I wonder if that was me doing an impromptu draft on stage, or if it’s the sort of thing that stage actors talk about, reading the room and then modifying what they’re doing to fit the space they’re in. (Yes, I’m sure some works exist that are designed to discomfort or set an audience uneasy but I had no such pretensions (at least, this time.)) Regardless, I found myself enjoying this version of the ceremony quite a bit more.

So, there was an ad hoc sensibility that came together and – to my delight and surprise – worked in this instance. I find that the times I’ve had to improvise at a crunch moment is when I’m able to suddenly find disparate threads and tie them together. Something it makes a neat bow, and at others, an ugly knot. And that’s the risk – careful, planned and outlined writing will always be at least good if not better than good. Improvised material have a might higher possible peak – and also a far deeper pit to stumble into.

Writing feels so safe at times – well, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when you’re submitting pieces. But ultimately, the embarrassment of a bad piece is distanced through reviews and layers of abstraction. A performance leaves you at the mercy of the people right in front of you. For me, the risk of absolute and public failure elevates whatever small measure of skill I might have. Of course, none of this accounts for the actual reading and performance of a ceremony, and for that, I have no objective ability to judge myself. And considering my posture, voice, diction and lack of dramatic training, that’s probably for the best.