Things As They Are

There can be no doubt about the peculiar nature of my gender
and the appearance it affects;
the curiosity it inspires is something I have patiently endured
and accepted.
Most will merely stare, only to remove their gaze
as soon mine should cross with theirs,
and some will persist beyond a reasonable glance
with dumb obliviousness of their impropriety.
Some are vicious provocateurs
who intrude upon the serenity of their victim’s mind
with a cruel remark or a threat of violence.
Years of experience have accustomed me to their occurrence,
having the dual effect of habituating and sensitizing my mind
to their poisonous purpose,
but the compassionate and comprehending love,
which I have received
in such abundance from my family and friends,
protects and secures my character
from the compelling imposition of petty malevolence.

Despite the strength of my resolve and the low regard
in which I hold my tormentors,
my composure sometimes falters under the weight
of frequent ridicule from strangers
and the fear that someone will one day follow through
on their threat or even take my life.
Though renewing my resolve is easy enough,
I cannot deny the effect these occasions have upon my senses
and the prolonged, and often hidden, impact
they continue to have.

The integrity of my androgynous identity has frequently been
the subject of praise
but it has also been the reason for my rejection.
The very first man who returned my affections did not
seem to mind at first
but over time he admitted to my awareness his discomfort
and his desire for a more masculine boyfriend.

It would be the first of several such disappointments.
Many other men, being heterosexual, can never love me,
so long as I remain male,
yet I have found myself falling for them
despite how bitterly aware I am of their apparent indifference.
The few men who have had any interest in me
will only contact me in secret
and, though they confess to love my body,
their interest stops there;
after all, men such as they merely want a piece of “auxiliary ass,”
a substitute for the girlfriend who refuses to be sodomized.

Though it does not entirely ameliorate my pain,
I feel far more comfortable in the androgynous category
than in any other
and have determined to embrace it bravely.
Strangers call me she but my friends call me he;
I often find my self-perception shifting freely between the two
and take delight in the intricacy of their interplay—
free to feel whole … and wholly myself
without the traditional gender dichotomy.

Strange Encounters of the Absurd Kind (or, Die Entfremdung des Individuums in der Gesellschaft)

If a friend is, as I am led to believe, a person whose company
one longs for,
then it is perhaps fair to say that I have few …
few who ask if I have some time to spend with them,
few whose thoughts I’d like to know,
few whose absence from my life would bring discontent.
Many of the people I have met I have never missed,
those I long to know I rarely see,
and the few I have loved rarely, if ever, loved me.
A tragedy unfolds each time I dare to compare my life
to another whose company is so widely desired.
Often now it seems to me that others are more needed than I;
and this, as far as I can tell,
is evidenced by the number of people they call their “friends.”

Once it was a habit, all too common to my disposition,
to wait in hopeful anticipation of someone reaching out to me,
but so seldom do such invitations come
that I have become motivated to seek out the company I desire
of my own accord,
yet the messages I send rarely receive the reaction I require.

Some will respond only to confirm their indefinite unavailability
and some do not respond at all,
which leads me to feel like any solicitation is an importunity;
and when those who I like most, counted up, come only to a few,
the loss is even more devastating and sad.
When the life I live is centered only on introverted purpose,
involving little else than the fulfillment of my own needs,
I find myself lacking a great deal more.
When I cannot merge my life, my needs, with those of others
I feel truly alone.

At parties, or other social gatherings, where every other person
is well engaged in conversation with another
and I am left on the peripheries,
silently observing the spectacle,
the fullest extent of my participation is a simple sequence
of response,
of nodding, smiling, and laughing
only at the appropriate moment;
and if I remain thus employed for too long
I begin to feel less involved
and less enthused by what others experience directly.
My “self” demands explanation and quickly resolves
to find the reason for its problems
but the expostulations of fear are suppositious at best.

My mind shifts through various emotions as fluidly
as the dialogues I listen to.
I can enjoy being silent for a while but I want to actively engage
in other people’s lives.
I’m afraid that if I don’t I will quickly lose favor
among my friends,
to be forgotten and surpassed by others.

When their company consistently includes less of mine
I fear they are intentionally excluding me,
the thought of which fills me with dread.
When I cannot cut through the conversation and speak,
I feel disconnected from them
and truly alone.

The savage image of lacerated flesh flashes before my eyes
and I instantly recall the quick rush of warm blood
that once, but briefly, flowed freely from my left arm.
Instantaneously I fear making the same mistakes
I made before and the inevitable setback they entail.
I don’t want to lose my grasp on the world
and all that I hold dear …
to alienate those I love most with peculiar, minor defects
or frighten potential friends with embarrassing improprieties,
but with the faltering of my senses,
by the crippling force of insecurity,
I am thrust into a labyrinthine world of feeling
inhabited only by monstrous thoughts
and where the only sanctuary
from the frightening things outside is a dreadful oubliette.

Sitting alone in my room, leisurely attending to the same
solitary activities that occupy most of my time
I wonder why it is that I, unlike others,
receive so few solicitations while they entertain so often.
In the absence of company, I speak aloud
and pace about my room,
delivering to no one but myself lectures on topics
of any sort or kind and discussing them at length
until I tire my voice and mind.
Dusk brings delight, for at last the day is done,
and whatever thoughts that may be troubling me
are removed from consciousness … one by one.

What I fear most when I’m alone and longing
is not necessarily being wholly worthless
but the possibility that I will be disqualified by necessity,
regardless of any actual personal value,
and declared … superfluous.
When others make new friends easily while I struggle to feel
anything more than a minute interest in my peers,
I worry about my capacity to relate.
What does it take for me to make friends?!

The action of the drama rises yet again and the labyrinth
in which it is staged is growing even darker.
All passages take me in the same direction as before,
towards the wrongful vindication of my worst fears.
I do not trust my senses here;
what they tell me may well be a lie,
but even this (I know) cannot last.
Every journey to this void ends
with the serendipitous discovery of a subterranean river,
from which I drink the liquid of Lethe
and recover with renewed resolve,
feeling as though nothing has ever troubled me;
I am strangely optimistic about what paths
I may take to positively impact my future state
and confidant of the methods at my disposal.

Among the many relational possibilities come a variety of types,
each differing in form, function, and orientation;
but despite their shared effect of fulfilling
the fundamental need for love, each serves an individual role.
The designation of “friend” is a most misleading
vernacular trend
and if I fail to recall what I now know about the unique qualities
that determine the appropriate nature of any given relationship
I will once again be left to the mercy
of fearful misapprehensions.

There are those I like more than most and many
I could easily live without
but all in all I do not need too many people demanding my time
to feel that I am needed, appreciated, and loved.
In times of doubt I remind myself of the potential
my past never had
and how much I have grown;
I think of the moments when friends were glad to see me,
and the one man who, unique among all others,
fills my life with the greatest love I know.

The Witness (Video Game Review)

WitnessPoster (1)The Witness first came to my attention while I was perusing a popular gaming magazine, the name of which I cannot recall, my sister had subscribed to years ago. It caught me quite by surprise because most gaming publications focus on anything but puzzle-adventure games and has ever been so since the decline of the genre in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Apart from the Portal series, Antichamber, and Fract OSC, there have been very few (good) puzzles game in the last 10 years (or more) for me to look forward. I was excited just to see one featured in a major gaming magazine and am glad to say that it was worth the several-year wait. With genuinely challenging puzzles and a beautiful environment, The Witness succeeds, but often tries too hard to sound smart.

The graphic design of The Witness has been widely praised and is, indeed, deserves it but I feel the architecture on the island serves special praise. Thekla, Inc. hired consulting architects to design the architectural elements of the island. Many game developers give little thought to architectural details and how crucial it is in creating a believable world. In games architecture is often only a superficial set-dressing, providing a semblance of time and space, but rarely achieving anything near historical accuracy or spatial sense. The Witness is one of the few games I have played that does justice to one of humanities oldest arts.

The game-play on the whole is very well organized. Unlike most other puzzle games that preference environmental or inventory puzzles, The Witness uses abstract logic puzzles. These consist of mazes that gradually increases in complexity and difficulty as the player progresses. The rules of these mazes are indicated through a variety of video and audio cues. Symbols, shadows, sounds, reflections, and, yes, even the fruit growing on the trees can provide vital clues to a puzzle’s solution. Some puzzles are quite easy, while others require more time, and some are downright difficult. Indeed, The Witness is easily the most difficult puzzle-based game I have played since Trilobyte’s The 11th Hour. However, as difficult as the puzzles can be, most of them do not feel unfair. In the cases of The Witness, a little patience can go a long way. I often found myself solving a previous frustrating puzzles after a several hour break and always felt gratified by doing so. It can be hard to find puzzle-based games that are genuinely difficult and The Witness does this very well, if at times too well.

In fact, the difficulty can be so great that I can’t help wondering if the game could have benefited from difficulty settings, thus allowing players to tailor the game-play to suit what they feel it appropriate to their skill. If they complete the game on a lower difficulty, they could always return and replay it on a higher setting. Given how many puzzles there are in the game (more than 400? or is it 600?) they could easily have sorted them into several levels of difficulty.

Despite this, however, The Witness does provide some relief by organizing the island, and its puzzles, into separate distinct areas. Completing each section activates a laser but the 11 lasers available, only 7 have to be activated to proceed to the end of the game. This allowed me to bypass an areas of puzzles that stumped me for a long time and to focus on others. Unfortunately, once you get to the find stretch of the game, this rule no longer applies and you have to solve every puzzle.

The puzzles I enjoyed the most were those that directly altered the environment. In some areas, such as the swamp, laboratory, and tree house, the puzzles moved platforms, bridges, or rooms. Most other puzzles simply unlock doors, which is a fine mechanic in and of itself, but integrating the puzzles into larger functions made solving these puzzles especially rewarding. Unfortunately, it a rare experience in The Witness.

There was one problem that occasionally got in my way, quite literally, when solving certain puzzles. The solution to some puzzle are suggested by tree branch but unless you have the camera position just right, you won’t be able to solve the puzzle. If a piece of branch extends into your path it will obstruct your line. Curiously, another puzzles use a similar element with shadows but they never obstruct the line. In another instance, a maze panel is obstructed by debris, unrelated to the solution itself, and can’t be solve unless the player is standing in just the right position. These problems form unnecessary barriers to solving puzzles and increase frustration in an undesirable way. Fortunately, these problems are minimal and don’t render the game unplayable.

The one characteristic of The Witness that makes it stand out from the rest of adventure games is its story, or lack thereof. I expected, from what little information was given during its development and prior to release, that the game would have a minimal story and would center on the experience of solving puzzles. Granted, the ah-ha! moment is there but there really is no story to speak of. I had expected, even hoped, that there would at least be something to give context to the islands existence or purpose but this is one area where The Witness is odd—not disappointing, mind you, but odd.

Throughout the game the player may encounter audio recordings on small electronic recorders, scattered throughout the island’s variation locations. Each of the recordings are direct questions from a variety of real sources and not fictional. These quotes are interesting in and of themselves, and compliment the game’s awe-inspiring scenery but they are very difficult to find within the game. I knew for some time there would be recordings in the game, because it was explicitly stated in interviews, but I never noticed them until I got to the secret ending. Afterwards, I went back to find some of them, though I confess I did not feel motivated enough to do a thorough search after completing the game. The recording devices are just too small to easily notice and there is nothing to draw your attention to them. One is even hidden between a post. Even in a beautifully minimalistic world it’s easy to neglect a small detail such as this and I feel that this is a problem they could have easily avoided.

In addition to these audio recordings, there is an underground theater when the player can video a small collection of videos and, much like the audio recordings, these clips are not original material but taken from other sources. It’s a curious choice and one I think does not work. Some of the videos are quite long and are just indirectly related to the gameplay as they audio recording but unlike the audio recordings, which you can listen to as you continue to play, you must sit (or stand, really) and watch them. Compared to the audio recordings, they are at least easier to find, but the sitting and watching is somewhat unpleasant because the content of these videos are not crucial to the game. Even the audio reducing seems unnecessary. After all, I got through the game without even noticing them! If indeed the game is about discovery and the ah-ha! moment of puzzle solving, then these audio and video clips create a sort of intrusion into the player’s subjective experience of the game. Instead of forming our own impressions, we are exposed to a series of thematic primers. This would not have been bad, and might even have worked, if there were a more conventional story to provide context to the island and purpose to these recordings but without this the recordings just seem unnecessary.

The two endings are just as problematic. One will send you back to the very beginning, resetting every puzzle, and the other (secret) ending shows a long, drawn-out video of the creator waking up from a virtual reality headset and stumbling around. These endings make the completion of the game feel final but I found them very unsatisfying. Again, they might have worked if the game had a more conventional story but because it doesn’t these sequences feel rather superfluous. Personally, I would prefer the game to have no ending. That way the focus would be entirely placed on the puzzles and the environment.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed the game immensely. It is one of the most challenging and visually stunning puzzle games I have ever played but it’s lack of story remains a strong weakness of The Witness, which is only emphasized by the unnecessary audio and video quotations. The Witness certainly isn’t for everyone and I can easily understand why some people absolutely hate it but it made this puzzle-gamer very happy and I think it will please other puzzle-loving gamers as well, provided of course that they don’t expect a story to go with their puzzles.

Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe (Book Review)

25143464The works of Ann Radcliffe are of an immense importance to me, for reasons too numerous to name here, and it was with great excitement that I received the news that Valacourt books was publishing a new edition of a rare volume–Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe. It was published anonymously in 1801 and has been highly praised by Montague Summers, whose opinion on the gothic I have often put much faith in, and in recent years it has been argued that it could even have been written by Radcliffe herself.

To be fair, there is nothing to really connect Radcliffe with Lusignan and since we do not have any evidence to suggest an author, we may never know with any certainty that she didn’t write it. It’s certainly tempting to think that Radcliffe preferred to published anonymously after the reputation of the gothic had fallen and to protect herself from the harsh, political scrutiny her works were beginning to receive. Indeed, Lusignan does bear some resemblance to Radcliffe’s work, in both style and theme, but it’s superficial at best.
The protagonists talk of virtue, retire to convents, and muse about the scenery but these instances are often short and lack depth. Suspense is rarely sustain for longer than a few pages and the eerie effects the authors employs are poorly executed and confusing. Even at her worst, Radcliffe wrote better than this.

What ultimately convinced me that Radcliffe did not write Lusignan was the sexist tone of the narrator. There are several instances in which the narrator makes misogynistic remarks about women characters.

One passage from Lusignan reads,

Emily had been nurtured in the bosom of virtue, which strengthened her mind, and rendered it capable of exertion, but could not subjugate a keen sensibility, too often fatal to female happiness. (pg. 29)

and another,

He found in her a fund of good sense and information very rare in the sex, and which soon induced him to abandon the trifling observations he had been used to detail to every woman he met, and turn the conversation to subjects less general, but infinitely more interesting to a cultivated mind. (pg. 138)

While it was common for Radcliffe to employ misogynist men as antagonists, her narrators never demean women. As I have argued in a previous post, Radcliffe’s works have a definite feminist tone that is expressed both through the characterization of her female protagonists and the dialogue. In fact, the second passage quoted above directly mirrors something Signor Montoni says to Emily St. Aubert, in an attempt to gain control over her property.

I am not in the habit of flattering, and you will, therefore, receive, as sincere, the praise I bestow, when I say, that you possess an understanding superior to that of your sex; and that you have none of those contemptible foibles, that frequently mark the female character—such as avarice and the love of power, which latter makes women delight to contradict and to tease, when they cannot conquer. (pg. 380)

I was very eager to believe that Radcliffe could have written Lusignan but, considering the blatantly sexist tone of the prose, I find it hard to believe that she could have. It’s a dramatic shift in tone, wholly discordant with her previous works. Frankly, I’m surprised that I seem to be the only one to notice this.

I’m not one to quit a book halfway but I found Lusignan to be so unbearable to read I simply had to put it down and remedy my disappointment by instead reading Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance, which proved to be not only of superior quality to Lusignan but a highly inventive and entertaining novel in and of itself. Plus, we know Radcliffe wrote it.