R.I.P. Pete Burns

The sudden death of singer and Dead or Alive front-man Pete Burns struck me hard when I first read about it this morning. Not only has his music brought great joy to my life, his brave defiance of gender norms was a crucial source of inspiration for me when I was a teenager.

tumblr_nh7u1qg9cx1rl00x0o1_500I first discovered Pete Burns and Dead or Alive in 2006, not long after I came out as a gay man and was beginning to struggle with my gender identity. I grew up in the 1990’s with few examples of queer people in the media. Gay men and women were only beginning to creep into our collective comfort zones but representation was still strictly limited. Consequently, gender variant people were practically non-existent in popular media of any kind. Unlike many of my peers, I saw no one like myself in the media, and felt acutely lost when I struggled to make sense of my gender. What I felt I was and wanted to be did not seem to exist outside of myself. Seeing Pete Burns’s androgynous appearance was like a light in the darkness. He set me on a path of self-discovery and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

Over the years I have gotten used to hearing Dead or Alive dismissed as a “one hit wonder” and Pete Burns’s personal appearance ridiculed but I am deeply grateful to see how many people fondly remember him and his music. His music will always have a special place in my heart, not only for the simple aesthetic joy it has brought me, but for the strength he gave me during a period of great personal change.

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The Funny Thing About Productivity

The summer break has passed and so too has most of my free time. Normally, this would upset me but this summer was a bit different than the last three or four.

I have never taken any courses over the summer break, initially because my college had made cuts and consequently did not offer any of the courses I need over the summer semester, and I have kept to this rule even after I transferred to a four-year university. I took the summer breaks, and the free time they afforded me, as an opportunity to focus on personal projects, such as reading books, writing for my blog or other things, and social engagements.

I typically get a lot done over the summer but last summer was a different matter. I wasn’t nearly as productive as I usually am during the summer break and I failed to  complete, or even begin, some of the projects I wanted to work on. I felt very disappointed in myself but, on the other hand, I got plenty of rest and saw friends and family frequently. Sometimes the simple things are enough.

Productivity is a funny thing. I know a lot of it comes down to commitment and perseverance. You can’t just wait for inspiration to motivate you. You have to motivate yourself. I often find this to be a problem for me and a especially difficult problem during the long summer break. The other problem is the illusion of time. Whenever I have lot of time on my hands to do things I tend to put them off, thinking I can always do it later because I have so much time, but in actually, this lends itself to perpetual delay.

Oddly enough, I often feel like I can get more done during the semester, when I have more work to do and much less time for anything else, and I believe this comes done to how I perceive time. Because time is strictly limited and I want to work on personal projects, it is easier to motivated myself because I can’t really procrastinate, and when I need ti put off my personal projects it is typically for very sound reasons. I can be productive even when I’m not working on my personal projects because I have also important work to do for school but during the summer I don’t have this to fall back on.

Next summer may be  a different story. One of the courses required for my major includes a internship, which I suspect (but have as yet not confirmed) may be off-campus, and rather than take it during the Fall or Spring semesters, where the demands on my time and energy are strong, I may take it during the Summer semester. I don’t know whether it will help to improve my productivity but I intend to make it so.

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.

Playing The Sims 4

I have never really played much attention to The Sims games, even though I enjoyed plays the demo for The Sims 2 many years ago and liked concept very much. For whatever reason, it never caught caught my interest enough to inspire m to play it. That is, until EA Games expanded gender customization in The Sims 4 last month.

As an androgynous, genderqueer man, I really appreciate this. I have heard people speak dismissively of this update, arguing that it is nothing special because the same versatility could have been accomplished through modding. I don’ t know if that is true, although I do understand that modding can be tricky and complicated, but the fact that EA Games chose to standardize this versatility is a clear and wonderful acknowledgement of gender-fluid people.

With that said, I was surprised to find that some full-body clothing (such as the female lingerie and bathing suits) are still female only.

Depsite this, however, the expansion is a major reason why I got the game, although the sale price I paid–which was dropped by 60%–made it all the more worthwhile.

After about a month of playing The Sims 4, I find myself really enjoying the game-play overall but most all the architectural design. In some ways, the possibilities are limited. There are no conical roofs, landings for stairs, or enough size variety of windows styles. Nevertheless, I have been capable of creating some lovely houses, mostly in the styles of popular early twentieth-century movements, with what the game gives me and a little modding.

Here are a few of the houses I have created so far and I have made all three available the community gallery, along with a few others as well. My username is dgahl.

Everyday Horror

Some writers of horror begin with something mundane and make it frightening but Shirley Jackson, on the other hand, reveals what is genuinely frightening in the mundane.  This thought has been on my mind for several weeks, as I have been trying to think of a way to describe something that happened to me a month ago.

The short version would go like this:

A man on the bus sexually harassed me and was unusually solicitous about how it made me feel.

The longer version would go like this.

As I was riding home on the bus after a long and tiresome day at school, I noticed a man sitting near the front of the bus occasionally looking back at me.  That happens to be frequently and, while it made me feel uncomfortable, I tried as best as I could to put it out of my mind and focus instead on my reading.  As it just so happened, I was reading a story by Shirley Jackson, entitled Paranoia.  Now you know where things stand.

With every deliberate glance from this man, I began to worry whether he might do or say.   Strange and frightening things have happened to me on the bus before.

I was right.

After a short time, he came over and sat down in the seat beside me.  Not being one to talk to stranger, I tried my best to appear aloof and unreachable but he, almost immediately, spoke to me.  He introduced himself and I followed suite, reluctantly.  Much of what he said after this point was difficult for me to hear over the noise of the crowded bus.  I tried, as difficult as it was, to hear him and nodded politely in recognition.

“I want to show you my cock,” he said, leaning into me.

I couldn’t believe my ears but I had heard him clearly despite all the noise.  I quickly told him I did not want to see it.  He asked me if that had made me comfortable.  I told him it made me feel very uncomfortable and added, proudly, that his behavior was very inappropriate.

Luckily for me, my stop was coming up. I wouldn’t have to put up with this man any longer.  As the bus stopped, I rose to get up and the man got up to let me by but as I passed me, he angrily said, “I’m not your ass! I’m not your mouth.” Not bothering to stop or respond, I stepped of the bus with great relief. For moment I worried whether he might followed me and look back periodically to make certain he had not.

I was right. He hadn’t.

My Life So Far

When I think back upon my twenty-seven years of life two things come to mind.  Oh, dear god, I’m nearly thirty!  and the fact that I have been living openly as a gay and gender-fluid person for a full decade now.  The last ten years have not been easy but I count them among my happiest yet because I was able to live them as myself.