Bastion

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The Kid of Caelondia

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          I can’t say it enough. I love Bastion. It is short. It is simple. It is efficient. Nothing is wasted in how this world is presented to you.

          Ever since I set it in me that I’m going to make my own game I have looked for ways to get my hands on titles I wouldn’t play otherwise. Xbox Live put free and reduced price games on offer, and I came across Bastion due to the latter. I played through the whole game in a sitting. And it was the first time I felt bad about getting a game on sale. It was such a good game that I didn’t feel as though I had spent enough on it. Since then I have bought it no less than three times in total, once as a present to a friend and again for myself on PC. And, when testing out iTunes, it was one of the first soundtrack purchases I made. What I like about the game feels intangible. But I’ve made it my duty to review, and review I shall.

          The going price for this game is $15, which I think is fair given the length of the game. But, to me, this game is densely packed with a lot of passion. On the one hand, it is a wonderful game I wish there was more of. On the other, I would be afraid that a longer title would dilute what is so great to stretch across the whole of the work.

          Let’s start of with the biggest element: The narration provided by The Stranger. When you start a new game his voice is likely the first thing you’ll notice. The story is revealed via a rolling exposition, rather than intermittent exposition dumps. This lets the story come across in a casual and laid back way. It is still gripping and rich, and pacing is swift. It’s like listening to a friend talk about the wonders of the world organically. The Narrator speaks as you play, filling in details of the world. Individual territories are explained as you explore them in a bit of show and tell. You learn of the people from each area, what they did, how they were important to the world, their history, and their legacies. While there are only so many permutations and scripted instances, it is fun to see where they are. Several times when you pick up a new weapon you get a small backstory on the group of people that used it. Unlike many games that will stop the game with an item and description screen, the play session goes on. And as you use the weapons you’ll often be treated to compliments on using it well. Interacting with the stages in different ways will have the narrator speak differently. He’s EVERYWHERE, and has something to say on just about everything you come across. At the games’ end there is a very clever twist which opens up a New Game Plus. In a way, the story will end when you’re ready for it to.

          The music is worthy of being listened to all on its own. Many of the tracks blend genres and instrumentation into unique set pieces all their own. It is always evocative. Song are rarely reused, so each part of the game has its own feel. They are unique, distinct, and really vivacious. Some segments the track will “run out” and leave you in a bit of silence until you reach the next segment. However, this didn’t happen on my original playthrough, and never happens on my New Game Plus stories. I decided to check EVERY nook and cranny when this occurred, and the silence spurned me on to “get on with it”. In casual play, you’ll likely move well and true with the rhythms of the world. Additionally, there will be a Gramophone that will become available and let you cycle through songs.

          Mechanically, this title is an action RPG, in that order. Most of the game will depend upon your ability to navigate the world, avoid or counter enemies, and defeat bosses and enemies waves as they come along. Due to the nature of the stages, there are seemingly limited opportunities to grind for experience points as you would in other RPGs. However, there are some stages at the Bastion hub that you can repeat to your hearts’ content to level up and earn fragments. Each of the characters has an “artifact” you could say. Interacting with them takes you to “Who Knows Where”, and the narrator will provide some backstory for the related person as you clear the enemy waves. New Game Plus allows you to keep your weapons, with their improvements, and levels The Kid has gained. Additionally, there is a new Hidden Skill only available on a second play through. The challenges can be redone. As you’ll likely have some modifications on each weapon already they can be markedly easier. This can give you access to weapon upgrade materials that may be harder to find otherwise. You will also have access to a score attack mode which will let you revisit all the stages as much as you wish.

          There is much that can be implied of the world via The Bastion, your hub location and the namesake of the game. You are tasked with collecting Cores, vaunted power sources, to ensure the Bastions’ functionality as a refuge. As you collect Cores they will open up Foundations in the Bastion. Upon each Foundation you can build a different structure. Each of the structures not only provides some in game use, but is a storytelling limb all its own.

Distillery: While your character is known simply as “The Kid”, he is old enough for a hard days’ work. It is my understanding that after a shift is done it is standard for workers to go and have a drink at The Sole Regret. In honor of this fallen drinking hall, you build a small Distillery. Each beverage functions as a status buff. Each level you gain allows you to hold an additional buff, up to a maximum of ten. As with much of the game, each drink comes with small blurb from the narrator the first time you equip it.

Arsenal and Weapons: As you travel around the broken world you’ll come across a number of valuable items. Perhaps greatest among them are the vast array of weapons you will find. Many of the working factions in Caelondia had a signature armament. As you pick them up, the narrator will speak on each factions’ history, how the weapons were used in a bit of subtle tutorial, and even critique your own usage as you go along. Back at the Bastion, the Arsenal will let you change your loadout between stages. Every combination of weapons has it’s own unique narration. There are also challenge stages that open up as the game progresses. Concretely you’ll earn materials for weapon upgrades and a second Secret Skill for an adjoined weapon for earning first place. All the while, The Stranger will dole out hints and history about the weapons and how they were used.

Forge: You’ll have to carefully pick your weapons out before each stage. If a challenge stage or the regular game gives you trouble, you can ramp up your damage output. Using Fragments, the in-game currency, and items specific to each weapon you can improve your attack potential. There are five levels with two options each. You can freely change how each individual weapon is fine tuned and, as you guessed, most every option has some form of narration with it.

Lost And Found: One of the elements I consider a drawback in this game is that you can only enter each stage once. There are exceptions. Challenge areas, one for each weapon, can be entered time and again until you take first place. Who Knows Where, areas with waves of enemies can be repeated as many times as you’d like. If you miss something in the main stages such as Mementos or perhaps even weapons (I’ve never tested the latter out myself), they can be purchased here for Fragments. Additionally, the stock of upgrade items for the Forge will build to letting you improve your favorite weapons faster.

Vigil: The Stranger has made some drawings and will reward Fragments and tidbits for completing tasks. Each weapon has a challenge. There are also some easier progress rewards, such as building the structures on the Bastion.

Shrine: Now this is, to me, the most interesting aspect of the world. In the Shrine you can give honor to The Pantheon, a set of deities linked to the world. The funny thing is not one of them is wholly benevolent. Electing to be under the gaze of any one will confer an experience bonus to you. This can stack with the more you choose to activate. However, each Deity will give your enemies some type of boost as well. In this, you trade greater experience for a harder game. While there is no achievement or Vigil for reaching Level 10, the increased health and buffs from the Distillery can be worthwhile in and of themselves.

          Why is this interesting? There is a song on the soundtrack that, near as I can tell, is not included in the game. It’s title is “The Pantheon (Ain’t Gonna Catch You)”. In it, it is relayed that the Gods have no interest in helping you. In fact, they are rather cruel. This is conveyed a few different times in the game, but it is blatantly on display in this song. In the real world most deities help humanity. A staple in most religions is that forces beyond our control or understanding have a personification, and those persons care for and watch out for us. Yes, there are malicious being out there. While there are gods of destruction, preternatural things out for blood, and demons that are just sheer malice the gods themselves, even the dark ones, have some interest in humanity. The Pantheon of Bastion cares not a whit. It allows me an interesting meditation. What does a world have to look like that even the deities have no love for the plight of man? There is a cultural divide in the game. A group called Ura have substantially more respect for The Pantheon, at least for Pyth. Perhaps they are more benevolent towards them? Or maybe it is Caelondia’s blatent disrespect of them that causes trouble for The Kid?

          In closing, as it presently stands, I do not know of anyone who has played this game that hasn’t enjoyed it. Even at its normal $15 dollars it is a small price. And while the main campaign is short, I feel there is plenty of replay value to keep you coming back. It goes on sale a few times a year, which may be a wonderful time to grab it. Getting it bundled with the soundtrack at that point wouldn’t be a bad idea I think. All content is available upon purchase, just like when I was growing up. Some extra bits of story that were tacked on were an update rather than being sold separately. There is no DLC, though that is what the soundtrack is sorted into on the Steam store. I was charmed by the simple yet elegant execution of this game. I am happy to review this first in my new capacity, and I am happier still to give this game my highest rating and heartiest recommendation possible. If anyone from over at Supergiant Games ever reads this, I know this comes years after the fact:

Well done. Keep up the stellar work.

Steam Controller

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Steam Controller

          Several months ago I decided to treat myself to some new tech. I had been in the market for a new controller. Instead of going with a controller that I was positive would work, I decided to take a chance on the Steam Controller. Opinions from my friends, and most of the reviews, were polarized. People either loved it, or hated it. Me? I like it. Not love or hate. It works and I readily recommend it. If you’re gaming via Steam, I think you should consider the Steam Controller for yourself. If you have a friend who owns one, try it out. But as the first person in my circles to actually own one, this is not a requirement. Many of the problems I have had personally were due to my lack of experience. Everything you need to truly master this controller is out there. It is a credit to Steam that this is the case.

There can be a bit of a learning curve BUT you aren’t alone.

          In putting both my controller and computer through their paces to see what both could do, I played games that I am familiar with. I strongly recommend you do this too. This lets memory and instinct teach you. You know what each button should do, and you can use that as a guide to teach you mapping. I had ample success with a lot of 2D platforms, 3D third-person RPGs, and third-person hack-and-slash titles. However, I could not get down twin-stick shooting. Which made playing the Saints Row series, one of my favorites, plain impossible. I’d had trouble with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor for the same reason. If it wasn’t for the time slowing mechanic my bow would have been wholly untouched.
          In doing some reading I came across this article from PC Gamer which detailed some finer points of input options that had eluded me. And, changing my right trackpad to “Joystick Move” rather than “Joystick Camera” made so much difference that I got to the end of Gat Out of Hell the same day.

Older games don’t have modern mapping BUT this is true of other controllers.

          Modern games have all recognized the Steam Controller as an Xbox controller, and have displayed hints and button combinations in that format. And, as my last PC controller was a wired Xbox 360 controller I can attest for the functionality of both. For the older games that I have played, I tend to get keyboard mapping no matter what. So during a quick time event I may see “Z > V > M” rather than “B > Y > A”. It can be frustrating trying to remember corresponding button-to-key matches suddenly. Sadly, there is little way around this other than simply knowing which buttons correspond where. I tested this in Final Fantasy VIII. It has an early segment in which you enter a code to decouple train cars. No matter what I did on either controller I had to translate from the keyboard mapping.

Steam Big Picture must be running while in use BUT there is functionality outside of it.

          I found myself pleasantly surprised at one point in which I had changed windows and Steam was merely in the background. I was able to navigate my web browser using the Steam Controller. I haven’t tried playing a non-Steam game just yet. I find the fact that it can go beyond gaming interface as promising. This facet will need more thorough tinkering, so an Addendum may come regarding this.

The shape of the controller breaks convention BUT you’ll likely get used to it.

          Do you remember the first time you held an N64 controller and how strange it felt? Did the original Xbox controllers feel big and clunky compared to other controllers on the market? “I don’t know how I’ll ever get used to this…” I remember echoing with many of my friends. But what happened? We played the games, stopped thinking about the controller, and got used to it.
          Playing with the Steam Controller felt this way at first. Knowing that I spent a thousand hours with The Elder Scrolls alone, I have a lot of muscle memory to overcome. However, at the end of nine different games for the sake of play testing I am accustomed to it. I still have some slight trouble lacking a right stick, but I am overcoming it.

It isn’t always Plug-and-Play BUT it is always completely customizable.

          When I first got my Steam Controller I decided to play games I knew to get the hang of how everything worked. I recommend you do the same. At the time, my computer would handle the PC ports of Final Fantasy VII through X/X-2, and that was about it. I put in some time on VIII. As I said above, I did have some mapping issues since the game itself is so old. And while other users posted templates, I decided to make my own.
          The Final Fantasy remakes of VIII, IX, X, and X-2 all have Game Boosters. These built in boons range from speeding up the game to nigh invulnerability. These were set up to only active with a keyboards’ Function keys (F1, etc.). There was no corresponding button on a controller. With the Steam Controller mapping, you can set these functions onto whatever button you wish. But if all the buttons are spoken for on modern games, where would they go…

There are buttons on the underside of the controller.

          Part of me wants to call these “belly buttons”. These two buttons lay on the underside of the grips of the controller. One left, and one right. For my purposes, I tend to set up auxiliary functions to this. Mimicking a hot key for a healing item is a wonderful use. These are also perfect for the above scenario regarding the Final Fantasy series game boosters. For example, Final Fantasy X and X-2 utilized PlayStation controller layouts, all the buttons on other modern controllers are mapped. I put the Fast Forward toggle on one button, and the Recovery+Damage boosters on another.
          This is another boon: Placing multiple functions on a single key.
          I was able to re-acquire DMC: Devil May Cry recently. One major difference from the original series is that the Devil Trigger function requires two buttons simultaneously instead of one. Even in the options menu using Devil Trigger requires “Cycle Target + Center Camera” inputs. If you tend to use it like a panic button this can be problematic. However, you can set one of the underside buttons to use L+R and thus activate Devil Trigger from a single button press. If you played Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor you can have this same mapping for the Ultimate Weapon Techniques.

          In summation this controller comes with my endorsement, with whatever little sway that comes with at this point. It’s solid and sturdy, yet operates smoothly. Problems that you may have with it can be answered potentially by myself and, failing that, the rest of the Steam community at large. For modern games it is plug-and-play with the bonus of being able to edit controls however you see fit. I feel it is indeed worth the standard $50 asking price. It is regularly on sale for $30, which makes it a comparable purchase to a wired controller. I am happier and happier still six months in. If you are considering purchasing it yourself, I personally don’t think you can go wrong with a Steam Controller.

The Coming Year

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          It has been a busy month. Aside from all the social plans and personal tasks, I gathered enough funding to buy the parts to assemble a new computer. It was a year of odd jobs to manage it. And, it being the first gaming device I’ve had all to myself in months, I may have spent just a little more time playing video games than was wholly constructive. That, as it is said, is on me. I have taken a solid look at all I’ve done the past year. Where I was when I started, and where I am now. I consider these things to answer one simply question.

What’s next?

          Last year I just wanted to see what it felt like to write something… anything, consistently. I want to put the same level of time, energy, and passion into completing a single project. As I announced to my friends via social media, by this time next year I will have written a book. In my early twenties I got the idea for a video game story. I will instead stick to a novel. Since my last year was scattered, I will find a balance by being focused this year. I will complete a major project and see what comes of it.

          What then, will happen to this site? Simply, it will be used as a journal. I am happy to have my fiction and poetry in a place where anyone can view them. But when I listen in on the world there are scenarios that I can’t help but think on. My writing has helped me research these topics. It has also given me greater understanding in the nuance of these situations. Continue to look forward to more of the same. While it may not be as well thought out as my past years’ work, it will likely be more frequent.

          Aside from a potential face lift for my site this is what I aim to use the headlining pages for. Yes, I have an affinity for alliteration. Deal with it.

World Wide Web – Anything that is more than a quick rant about events going on will be posted here. I am making an effort to identify how interconnected many of the problems that plague us are. Or perhaps, more positively, how solutions to one problem can help abate or eliminate other problems tangentially.

Games’ Garage (formerly “Game Reviews”)– As I told a friend, “Reviews are the easiest way for the obsessed to legitimize their habits.” I have spent a good deal of my free time gaming and have drawn a lot from it. In the future, as I aim to build on these skills, I’ll put my thoughts and notations here, as cleanly as I can. This isn’t just the games, but also what I observe about them. This may come to include some talk on hardware and software as I use them.

Patrons’ Parlor – As before, those that help me via Patreon will have an inside view of my most pressing projects. There will be a teaser visible, but the rest will continue to be behind a wall.

          At present, I do not get much in the way of feedback regarding the writing I post. But if you find your way to the end of this entry, thank you for your support. I hope and I dream. But in the meantime, I write. And I am happy. If you are as happy as I am, let us continue to do our parts, reader and author alike.

          Here is to the second year, and many more to follow after that.

Anniversary Retrospective

85,000 words, 26 paid posts, 1 Patron. A year in the life of this modern writer.

          I acted on a whim last year. In an attempt to whet my writing appetite, I made a Patreon profile for myself. This crowdfunding service allows people to directly support artists and other creators, helping them to create works as they wish. While it did not pay off as I had wished, it spurned me on enough to write constantly. With that time behind me, I am ready to press ahead and continue to improve in my craft.

          It is hard for people outside of myself to see what I gain from a single Patrons’ backing a month. Most times it has been enough for a bit of car fuel and cheap entertainment, usually in the form of an MMO subscription. It may seem somewhat frivolous, but it has given me a bit of independence to manage my sanity.

          As I said above, it incentivized my writing. Knowing there was a treat at the end of my efforts kept me to my deadlines. Knowing that there were eyes on my work made me a more diligent editor. I have long been told that my writing was good. But seeing even one person willing to put money down on my skill, even though I feel it is unpolished, truly touched my heart and gave me a newfound confidence.

          It also allowed me to begin fulfilling one dream of many that I have and that is supporting other artists. These are small amounts though they represent a noticeable chunk of money that I have coming in. Aside from other creative friends, there are knowledge bases I wish to support. As much as I want to make this a first priority I do need to deepen my well quite a bit. It’s not all about money. If you have more people in your life like me, trying to build a career, help them however you can. Offering encouragement is better than nothing. Driving oneself creatively is full of uncertainty. Often times such roads seem to be going nowhere. But as their craft finds root they will have fruit to share with you. On that note, thanks to everyone who has helped me this past year. I try to say it often, but it begins to sound disingenuous to my ears. I need to do better supporting my friends. It is a goal I have for the coming year.

          This past year gave me the opportunity to dig into my writing style. In researching different topics I’ve identified my own biases, challenged my ideas, and learned alternate viewpoints. It has opened me up to discussions I would have earlier shied away from. It has kept me mindful of my own opinions and constantly testing them against new or contradictory ideas. Through my writing I have grown more as an intellectual person which is development that I value.

          A year ago I was a guy who dreamed of my writing earning me my daily bread. At that point I felt I had little to validate myself. I still feel that way, but I do so with a laugh. I have written every month for the past year. In a solid, unbroken chain, I have set a goal and have met it. In honesty, I have likely exceeded it as there are articles that have not seen the light of even my Patrons’ Parlor. I did not know what the future would bring. I did not know if I would make it to where I am now. In fact, I did not know if I would feel like keeping to writing just for myself.

          But just one person was enough to get me going. Or, more to the point, keep me going.

          Here are some of the entries that I’ve posted over the past year that I am proud of:

Dakota Access Pipeline: This was an odd entry. It began as a simple rant or reaction. I referenced one of my friends who had gone to the Oceti Sakowin camp and she gave it her stamp of approval. My Patron, however, challenged me to take a harder look at the article. So I did. The end result was an article I was confident enough in to put forth when I made professional writing entreaties.

Magical Industry: An observation on one element of world building I enjoyed, I created a write up for a term I coined. It was a work that was in the pipeline for awhile.

          Additionally, I set up an portion of my website that is reserved for my Patron’s to view at their leisure. You’ll have to be a patron to have access to the passwords. Those that contribute will have my thanks in being able to read in full about the following:

Superman game skeleton: I watched a video regarding Superman 64, which is commonly panned as one of the worse games ever made. Taking what I had taken in regarding game mechanics as well as my knowledge of DC and Superman lore, I posited a framework for what the ideal Superman experience should be.

Of Creations’ Swell: While not a part of the Patrons’ Parlor, this was my own original work from years ago. It was very hard to read. I had learned a little from writing and posting regularly, and was able to go back and make this entry easier to read. It is likely I would not have had the drive to sit down to this work again without my Patron and my friends. This month, and with greater fervor in the coming year, I aim to make my “passion project” a completed work.

          I look ahead with a similar sense of the Unknown as I did last year. A change is that I can look back and point to what I’ve done. More Patrons will be wonderful and I will do all I can to earn and keep them. But for all the people who have supported me in any capacity, thank you for enriching my path.

May your reading continue to be pleasurable.

zerohourseraphim
a.k.a.
Jasper H.B.

Chrono Cross book

Diversity and the Media: Why It Is Important

          For the past several months I have been researching whitewashing and cultural erasure. There are some conclusions I have reached and observations I have made, but I want to share my solution and the reasoning behind it first. A disclaimer: I am speaking from the perspective of a lifelong American. It’s the only viewpoint I know firsthand.

          Per the title, I think that those that want change will have to make a conscious effort towards inclusion on all fronts for some time to come. What amounts to a cultural subconscious here in the United States will take a long time and a lot of work to undo. Technology gives us the allowance to evoke massive changes. It may seem to some that the Internet, or particular groups, have something new to complain about daily. It is my opinion, based on my experiences, that the problems have been long standing. It is just user friendly technology and literacy of the devices lets more people have their views seen.

          Having diverse casts, both within one work and across the board of media, will allow for nuanced characters and tangential learning of cultures.

          Nuanced characters let us see how minor changes have major impacts in the lives of characters. Netflix’s recent series “Luke Cage” proffers an opportunity to see this play out. You can play them off one another and it says things about the characters and the world they live in. Pop and Cottonmouth were both street toughs in their youth

          Pop reformed after a jail stint and took his understanding of the world to try to give kids a place to escape the streets. Kids that came in learned a passion for sports, could play chess, hear conversations on philosophers and figures in their own culture, and most simply see adults who looked like them doing honest work and doing well by it.

          Cottonmouth conversely took what he had learned to continue a criminal legacy in his family. We see him as being cunning /and/ intelligent, ruthless, and doing all he can to hold onto his power, resources, and to cement his standing in his world. And you can compare him to his family and see how, while they hold similar motivations, their difference in actions speaks to their characters.

          There are, in the present day, many tropes that commonly used. This can be anything from speech, clothing, mannerisms, or archetypal use that quickly explains fragments of who a character is, what they represent, and what their aims are in the world. Having only one Token character does a disservice. Whether they are a person of color, a woman,  someone on the wide range of sexual orientation, or even a cis/het white male, it can be damaging if these characters are portrayed only via stereotypes or for laughs.

          If the examples from Luke Cage were instead token black characters you could say that Pop was a Magical Black Man offering sage advice. Cottonmouth could be seen as just another gangster, though better off than characters like Turk. I suppose, for the sake of argument, this can still be said. However, due to the proliferation of so many different varieties of people of color in this show the piece of the world they show is substantial rather than just a one-and-done gag.

          I remember playing Power Rangers at recess, reenacting scenes with our terrible and untrained attempts at martial arts. During the summers I would bring my collections of the toy line to day care with me. But trying to convince everyone I could be anyone other than the Black Ranger was like pulling teeth. I couldn’t lead the team. I couldn’t control the Dragon or Tiger Zords. Only when I came in with my Tiger Zord could I leverage being put on top, and it came begrudgingly. Even when I shared my toy, which I recall being frequent (it probably wasn’t), I got the sense that the sentiment was ‘You only get to be the White Ranger because you have the toy.’ I was too young to articulate what was at the root of it.

          “I can be a leader.”

          “…I want to be a hero, too…”

          I began to recall all the black and Afro-centric books that I had when I was a child. I had comics, American tall tales, mythologies of those enslaved, and slice of life stories all told from a black perspective. These fostered my love of epics and mythology that I hold today. But when I shared the stories I knew, they were met with empty replies.

          “The Numedian Force sounds sort of like the Justice League to me.”
          “I’ve never heard of John Henry. Do you know about Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan?”
          “Kente cloth represents African royalty? Is that like a coat of arms or a tartan?”

          I often wished to share my history, my culture. But because it was foreign to even to my black peers it was just another strange thing I knew. But now, if Inner Child Jasper wants to be a super hero, he’s got choices. If it’s DC, I can talk about Kid Flash, and have my friends know who I mean. Finally, after years, the wide world knows about Luke Cage. And if I want a tech based gear hero I can go Falcon if we’re sticking to Marvel. And in video games, I’ve got Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan. The King and Queen of Zama, Enzo and Erine respectively, are the protagonists. All this is in the past few years.

          And it feels good.

          I don’t have to compromise. I don’t have to spin “what if” scenarios. I can just say “Dibs on Luke Cage”, and that is that. Of course, it not all about the look and skin color. But I don’t have to suspend reality as much in order to say “They’re a hero… And I can be them when I grow up.” That’s a big deal to me.

          For these reasons, let’s have diverse casts! Let’s do it so everyone, regardless of they or their parents’ tastes, wind up seeing a hero they can aspire to. Let’s do it so that children of all backgrounds can debate which heroes, heroines, and oddly aligned protagonists they like best. And let these figures stand tall so everyone can look to them for the content of their characters, not just their skins’ margin of melanin.

 

 

 

          P.S. – The trap I have fallen into many times these past few months is wanting to cover EVERYTHING in a single work. Trying to cover Live Action Adaptations, Whitewashing, and everything that goes into it has been maddening. Trying to compress it, but have it be clear, but sussinct enough to read has been utter lunacy. I have been trying to play to controversial topics and click bait subjects. But I am solution oriented, and this article is about a solution, rather than JUST the problem.

          Still… there is one thing I wanted to include which didn’t fit in my main article. As I feel that whitewashing limits representation I thought hard about media I had seen growing up. Once I hit my teens most of my media time was with video games, and role playing games sourced from Japan. I spent hundreds of hours in these worlds at least.

          Some games had no characters that were not the odd anime “maybe they’re Japanese, but could be European I guess” look. Cat people, sentient mutated onions, dragons and the muscled beings that slay them were all normal in one title I played. There were sometimes no people of color, which I chalked up to data limitations. As I aged I was thankful. Barret from Final Fantasy VII was one of the few black characters in gaming, but I found out he was just a Mr. T rip off. I never read him that way until Advent Children. While having positive, nuanced media to export to the rest of the world is VERY important it is not the purpose of this (rather lengthy, geez…) aside.

          This was all about motion media. Television and movies mainly. I had to work hard to come up with a handful of titles from my youth. Their inclusion in this post is important to me so that if you don’t know what it’s like growing up without seeing yourself, you’ll understand more where I am coming from.

          I have a rule: “If I can do it in real life, I don’t sit on the couch and take it in.” No sports games, shooters, or the hyper real. No movies to that effect. Often times, no tie ins either. So all my media was mostly fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. The shows that I can remember are below.

Captain Planet and the Planeteers – This children’s show had a multiethnic cast that worked together for trying to eradicate pollution from the world. The team was led by Kwame in the field. And, while African rather than African American, I still felt a kinship to him. Additionally, a friend had given me an Earth Power Ring.

M.A.N.T.I.S. –  a short lived series on Fox that centered around an entrepenuer who was handicapped. He made an exoskeleton for himself and used it to fight crime. If memory serves that is. It was rarely repeated on air.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Commander, and later Captain, Sisko meant a lot to me. Star Trek had been a favorite series of mine as long as I could remember. Seeing a black captain and a diverse cast, and a new story in a world I loved was wonderful for me. To this day DS9 is one of my favorite science fiction shows.

          These were three instance I could easily, and rather proudly, remember. The next two were more of a stretch, but I was trying to think of everything that had a black protagonist as I grew up.

Steel – Starring Shaquille O’Neal, I was looking forward to this. After “The Death of Superman” a series titled “Reign of the Supermen” spanned the four Superman comics of the time. Each one followed a character trying to take up the mantle of Kal El himself. One of these people was John Henry Irons, who crafted a super suit for himself. While only human he was said to have the heart of Superman above all else. Perhaps it was because he was human.

I am loathe to remember this as this is one of the many 90s superhero movies that was not received well. Admittedly, I only saw it once. I could also bring Shazaam into this but… why…?

Space Jam – Starring another basketball icon, Michael Jordan, this has him saving the Acme-verse(?) with the help of the Looney Toons. And yes, while it is a black protagonist I am wary to count this. As I said I am reaching. Michael Jordan playing basketball is like any movie that has a music start singing. It’s not much of a stretch.

 

          These five examples are the only times up until recent years that I remember there being a black character as the lead. Different types of shows. Different genres. Aimed at different age groups and demographics. No women. Two were successful (Captain Planet and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), but one of them was part of an established series.

          I wager that having what would amount to a new protagonist every two years isn’t bad. But all of these shows ended before the turn of the century. That leaves more than a decade without a lead protagonist that could echo my worldview exactly. And in many cases, black male characters are one of the “tokens”. If, in all my varied media, I can only think of five I can only imagine what it must be like for people who feel lower on the visibility hierarchy than I.

 

          *heavy sigh* However, change has come in the past several years. Many shows across many venues are gaining traction based upon the public outcry. This is phenomenal. One show I want to recommend is “Sense8” on Netflix. It focuses on an ensemble cast from not just many backgrounds, but from many world perspectives. It was thoroughly enjoyable and it is the type of media that I want to see. As such I’ll take my own advice and put forth the types of media that I want to see.
          That’s it for now. I do hope that the whole of that has been happy reading, but failing that please go and watch something that is a fulfilling view.

Gamebreaking

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I have long held a rule: Play a video game as the designers’ intended the first go round, but play it for fun after that.

The first time I wholly circumnavigated a game was Final Fantasy VIII. I had loaned a friend the four disc set. The first disc was returned to me when they got past it, but when we moved apart I didn’t get the rest back. A later roommate had a Game Shark which I had borrowed to use all the Guardian Forces and the like on the first disc. Sure, I could get the Lionheart towards the end of Disc One within the boundaries of the game itself, but as that is all I could play what was the point in that? Plus I had no chance of seeing the majority of summons with the disc I had. As such, I had fun summoning Eden to combat Ifrit.

Years later I hit a dry spell for work. Staying with some friends I had access to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Between bouts of job hunting and around the play habits of others I put in about a hundred hours on a single play through. Winter was proper that year, and having exhausted all avenues I kept playing. It was the first time I tinkered heavily with a system, and I figured out how to make myself completely undetectable (among other system tricks). I found out a lot of odd consistencies about the programming of that game. I got to watch animals and demons alike just roam about with no awareness to my presence. I learned that human, and again demon, enemies would talk to each other if they were not attempting to hunt you down. In this way, they behaved just like townspeople, and gave life to the whole of the world. I had fun just watching this world in all its rhythms. Rather than being The Hero of Kvatch, I got to have some anonymity and just mind my own business.

In recent days I have purchased many of Square-Enix’s PC re-releases of the post-Playstation era Final Fantasies. In them have been what are officially termed “game boosters”. A close friend calls them “slider cheats”. Overall I am scoffed at for even considering their use. “What’s the point of playing the game that way?” Unlike when I played Oblivion I am rather busy these days. When I went through Final Fantasy X and X-2, I turned a few of these on. All Items and Maximum Gil (the game world currency) to avoid the need to bother myself with fighting enemies for resources. I commonly used Random Encounter Rate and turned them off completely. While I sped from boss fight to boss fight, they were always tough because I hadn’t fought enough to gain more power. When the post game rolled around, rather than spending 40+ hours farming for materials to make the armors I needed I had them for every character in under twenty minutes. And you know what? I am looking forward to Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age for similar reasons. It was, and will be, nice to revisit these rich worlds and enjoy the cultures in them with minimal bloodshed.

I watched this video by Extra Credits, and it brought some foundation to my feelings. They even talked about the Saints Row series. Built in game is a leveling system. As you level up you can purchase bonuses for your character. Improved ammunition stocks, faster reloading speeds, and greater health and damage resistances. And once you reach the highest levels these shift to unlimited ammunition and clip sizes (negating reloading) as well as invulnerability. When I originally came across these I thought they were wonderful. I had gotten through the main game before hitting these levels, and hunting for achievements was made easy. When I was hunting collectibles sometimes I would see them on the edge of a building. Without the cheats I’d have to remember or mark the location, find a flying machine, then return to the place and carefully land. With them I could just ring up a delivery for such a machine. And if I found another collectible from my vantage point? I could just jump off the building to it. What has been a slog in other games (I’m looking at you Assassins’ Creed: Black Flag) was something of odd bit of theme reinforcement for this series. The second and third Saints Row games are most easily compared to Grand Theft Auto, just a hell of a lot wackier. I tried to figure out the most ridiculous way to do things, and it made the game memorable. Plus, in Saints Row: The Third, I wasn’t entirely invincible. RPGs (rocket propelled grenades in this case), falls from skyscrapers, and crashing, burning helicopters? Not a scratch. If I get punched? I need to watch out. This oversight added to the sheer lunacy of my experience.

As a prospective game designer I have gotten much from the times that I have broken a game, legitimately and not. As a game player I have squeezed out additional hours of genuine enjoyment from messing around with a system, rather than padding in the form of achievements and/or collect-a-thons. Even as an adult, it has helped me keep my hobby enjoyable, keeping a sense of fun in changing the rules.

It’s my own fault…

I should have written my story five or seven some-odd years ago when I originally had it. This has to be short because I am working on my own fictions again. But I poked my head above water for the first time today and saw Ben Carson, in his capacity as department head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), speaking for about two minutes.

I have accepted that the President and his administration do not agree with me. I have except that they will do and say things that I just do not like. When Ben Carson bowed out of the presidential race I probably danced a jig. Literally. I’ve danced with lads in kilts and the bony lasses that love them. I can bust a jig.

I have done rather well to not react to every little thing that is espoused. I am personally annoyed at the portion of Internet culture that seizes onto every little things, whips up into a frenzy, and is too tired for the bigger trials that come along. Suffer me a momentary indulgence in that which I loathe.

Are slaves immigrants? Yes. But it is in a sense that many quadrilaterals in geometry are squares somehow. Somewhat confusing a concept to grasp onto, and even once you do in a passing, bare bones sort of way.

But in combating what I call “idiocy”, I will dole out truth and go about my way.

-If you came here “in the bottoms of slave ships”, you were likely a slave. If you came astride one, you may be an immigrant, but you peddle people as part of the slave trade.

Kuroshi, a Japanese word I recently learned, means “to work oneself to death”. Working harder, in my mind, is not necessiarily a virtue. Working for less is nice only for those who get out of paying more. Working because you and your family are forced to do so upon threat of pain, torture, and death is inhumane. Being unable to rise above your current station in life with the work you produce makes you a slave.

-Trying to evoke Martin Luther King, Jr. by saying that slaves have a dream is terrible. The first generation, doubtlessly, dreamed of being free back in Africa. After a few generations, the scope of the world was limited. The dream that former slaves had after abolition was to live lives as Equals. The dream that People of Color had during the Civil Rights Movement was to live as Equals. And depending upon who you ask, many are still trying to reach that dream.

Grace and Glory… I have to get back to my writing, and other tasks. Thank you for reading.

Meditative Focus: An Introduction

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          In my time I dabbled in divination, better known as fortune telling. Due to my often overly analytical mind I found such methods of limited usefulness. However, I adhere to this adage: Those who seek Truth will find it wherever they look. Many methods were, at worse, able to let me focus on individual and sometimes minute aspects of whatever was roiling around in my mind.

          Probably due much to an affinity for Eastern philosophies, I found a particular joy in the I Ching. Per the rough translation of the kit I owned this means “Book of Changes”. I had a lot of fun with the tool, and managed to help friends many times. Sadly it is lost to me. Another tool was the European Tarot. And while I liked it in concept, it never worked well for me. Whenever I used it the information that was gleaned pertained to the past or the present, holding only details I already knew. In solving quandries this was not helpful, as I required information I lacked in order to problem solve. I thought that getting my own deck would be good for practice. However, there are many Tarot variations and styles out there. It was daunting to select one to gather an affinity for. Additionally, I heard there was a tradition of ones’ first Tarot deck to be a gift.

          I am notoriously difficult to shop for. I tend towards minimalism, but my personal code will not allow me to give away gifts that I do not like or have no use for. I find space of honor for them as I am able. It someone cared enough to buy me something, I can care enough to make use of it. There is only one exception by which I am still ashamed of that I could not hold to this. I have, in fact, kept my birth date a secret even from most of my friends because I don’t want people to get me things. This said, I had mentioned my dilemma to a long time friend about a decade ago. And she managed to surprise me.

          One day she produced for me an Osho Zen Tarot deck. I didn’t delve deeply into Osho, the man behind the meditations, but I took the cards and found them favorable. The ideal behind them was to transcend whatever problem was presented. And in the tradition that is Zen, especially to a Western mind, many of of the concepts spun me around. But it always served me well.

          I never used the cards in a particular layout. Instead I would draw a card off the top of the deck, and keep that concept in mind. Sometimes it was an hour if I was at home, sometimes for days or weeks on end. Not once have I made it through the entirety of the deck, but that is okay. In my social media feeds I would often preface these as I shared them as simply as the title relays: “Meditative Focus”, followed by whatever I held in mind. Since that time I have expanded it to include anything I could sum up in one word.

          It is a funny truth that wildly different journeys can have the same signposts. More important than that, the substance of these paths, no matter how similar, feeds us differently. I find such diversity nourishing.

          Whether we are close or you are just passing by, it is my hope that these much shorter offerings of mine will adjust your head space positively.

Magical Industry

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          “The practical use of supernatural forces for the improvement of the daily lives of the populace.” – Jasper H.B.

          If someone else has coined this term, or a similar concept I do apologize. But to date while I have seen it many times I haven’t heard a specific term go along with it. As such, I’ll take this opportunity to insert myself into the fiction writers’ lexicon if I can. Magical Industry is important in how I tell and relate to stories because, to me, it is a parallel science. Humans in our “real world” have learned to fly, cure diseases, and of our own history by way of sciences. If we lived in a world in which magic was prevalent then we would scientifically use magic. To me, it just makes sense.
          We use “magic” colloquially to explain away small oddities. But one element I love about science is that so often “science fiction becomes science fact”. Pick a point in the past, and bring someone from that age into a room that is closed off. Now tell them about our modern world. Things that are simple and everyday to us. It will sound like fiction, lunacy, or an act of God. And in another hundred years time there will be advancements we haven’t even thought of. They will be so commonplace that our descendants will look on us and be happy they weren’t us. Then again, maybe we’ll be there too in brain jars or synthetic bodies.
          Science is our basis for the fantastic. As such, it is difficult for me to delve into a world in which magic or superhuman abilities are natural wonders yet shunned and secreted away. I grew up on a solid X-Men cartoon, and I loved it. I understood the need for conflict in stories even then, but I loved to imagine “What If?” Cyclops would be awesome at welding. The stellar advancements Forge could make just inventing and improving other tech boggles my mind. Wolverine could be the cure for all the worlds’ ills due to his healing factor. Pardon the puns, but in the current climate Storm would be awesome at redirecting rain from areas that are flooding to areas that experience drought.
          If there is one thing we humans are good at, it is utilizing every resource we can get our hands on. ‘Humans fear what they do not understand,’ so it is oft relayed, but in these worlds the people do not aim to understand what is beyond their inborn scope, which is simply not realistic In any parallel world, I posit that natural human inclination would lead us to use magic as we would electricity.
          When in casual conversation I tend to use the words “Low” and “High.” For instance, I feel we live in a High Science, Low Magic world. All manners of machinery work, from nanomachines to aircraft carriers. Magic, conversely, is more a part of ancient myth than widely accepted fact. Science and Magic are typically exclusive in fiction, and in a High Magic world you will find low to no Science as the magic saturation interferes with scientific advancement as we acknowledge it. Conversely, High Science tends to develop because magic does not exist anymore, or never did in the first place. In my experience, you typically do not see crafted worlds in which High Science and High Magic exist at the same time. Often times when both exist on equal footing, Science is the tool of the non-magical and the story tends to revolve in part around the unease between two cultures.
          Since you have a framework, let me compare some other worlds.

          One you may not know of is a series of novels called “The Codex Alera.” When it comes to Magical Industry, I am always pleased with the works author Jim Butcher produces. The titular land, Alera, is wrought richly. In this world most to all Alerans have access to beings called Furies. An Element given life, these independent entities work in tandem with the more human populace. This keeps the Furies from ravaging the lands and leaves the people more empowered even while lacking our conventional technology. As such, I consider this to be a High Magic, Low~Mid Technology world.
          Outside of just the technology, there are cultural differences in the perception of Furies. Those living out in smaller communities often give a name to their Furies, whereas the Highborn living in the central cities scoff at this superstitious practice. This links to the Industry in that it is reflected in how Furies are used.
          Here is a very abridged rundown of the types of Furies:
          Flora, Wood – Drawing upon trees and plant life, Wood Furies allow their partners to adjust the wilds to their advantage, often to track others or conceal themselves. Additionally, with a manipulation over wood, bows of sturdier woods are practical to use as they can be ‘convinced’ to bend.
          Terra, Earth – Resonating with the ground and rocks, it becomes possible to move the ground itself. All from building solid walls, tracking someone from their movements along the ground, and on favorable terrain hastening movement. Earthcrafters are also able to draw from the strength and solidarity of the world beneath their feet, making them formidable heavy hitters.
          Aeris, Air – Manipulating the space around them flight is made possible. Visibility can be augmented to make one invisible or to fashion a telescopic ‘viewing lens’. It is possible to accelerate perception and movement with these Furies.
          Ferrous, Metal – Functioning similarly to Earthcrafting, the ability to attune to metal allows it to be reshaped dynamically. In most cases the strongest sword wielders in the are notable Metalcrafters. They can not only strengthen their blades but can wield them with inhuman precision, rivaling Windcrafters movement when it comes to combat speed. Additionally, attuning with the solidarity of Metal itself can allow the user to ignore large amounts of pain.
          Ignus, Fire – Able to commune with spirits of pure fire, these Crafters tend to be used in a mostly offensive capacity. However, there are unique uses for this crafting which I’ll mention below.
          Water – Using subtler techniques, those in tune with Water Furies tend to be prized for their utility rather than all out combat effectiveness. Able to discern the emotions of others, close up wounds rapidly, and communicate across vast distances.

          As you can see, there is a robust usage of Furies even in this brief telling.
          The social elite wield an array of Furies to terrifying effect. Being able to fly with Wind Furies while launching an assault with Fire and following up with a Wind-and-Metal hastened melee attack while pulling up from the Earth’s strength is not unheard of. If the High Lords and Ladies do not have this level of diversity it is often a bane to them. Of course, you can imagine what politics may be like if many of those in power are strongly empathic.
          Aside from the rich and powerful, there are unique applications. Furies inundate the world, large and small. It is possible to capture a small Fire Fury and, by trapping it in a stone and starving it, it will pull in heat voraciously. Oddly, this make the stone and the surrounding area cold. This counter intuitive process means that this world has refrigeration for many goods. Many swords for the military are crafted with Fury assistance, if they don’t outright have Furies imbued within them. One of the more impressive workings were sand tables that, when activated, would form terrain and movements. In essence, these were holographic or satellite maps. These could even be seen in command tents in the field, so they were well known and widely used.
          In the steadholts, the name for the further out communities, the people have a very practical efficiency with their furies. Often times they have one or perhaps two, though there are cases of more. But their abilities often give pause to those from the cities. A group of steadholt engineers, gifted in Earthcrafting, can construct a solid wall in no time. They can keep at this work for hours, and perform this for days on end. Only the Lords, Ladies, and above are able to rival this and only because of their raw power. The practiced might of the people was never something to snuff at.
          All of this, and more, worked together to make a very rich world. The magic was integrated rather than just some strange happenstance of some people. It helped that it was an oddity when someone didn’t have Furies, so their use was common amongst the protagonist culture.

          If you need a more well known set of examples consider Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. I would call this world a Middle World. Bending was powerful and prevalent, but not available to everyone. As such, there were more technology in use by non-Benders, especially in the latter series.
          Each of the nations have a focused used for each of their Bendings which lends a reality to their world from our perspective. The first time the Fire Nation is introduced you can see that their sea-faring vessels are all made out of metal. Knowing that fire is key for smithing processes this makes a good deal of sense. Additionally, with them liable to do a lot of fighting on deck this prevents their ships from burning down during practice, let alone in an all out battle.
          Water Bending tribes resided primarily at the poles and, in an extension of their abilities, are able to manipulate ice. While the climate is rather harsh, the ability to will a palace out of the terrain of the tundra was not seen by me since probably Superman. Plus, the maintenance of such structures would give young and old alike to fine tune their ability. Earth Benders primarily lived in Ba Sing Se, and the walls and and transport mechanisms in the city relied on their powers. Air Benders had a number of interesting transit methods which were unique to them as they relied on their mostly lighter bodies and manipulation of the winds.
          The Legend of Korra continued this, showing practical application of Metal and Lightning Bending. Additionally, they had several varieties of “Hybrid Bending” as well as “Advanced Bending” showing development and unique oddities among practitioners. This is a world in which the abilities were embraced. And yes, perhaps this was forced somewhat as there is also a prevalent part of the populace that cannot Bend at all. This still shows all the potential for how abilities can be properly made use of in a world, rather than squirreled away. And then, to counter potential tyranny, there were those who learned how to block bending if only temporarily. Advancements in transportation technology and weaponry allowed the non-Benders to stand on equal footing with some Benders. This is why this world is so remarkable, I think. We can more easily see our non-Bending selves in it, and that we would have a place.

          While I cannot speak to Dungeons and Dragons as I have never played a version of it myself, a close relative of mine has made his own tabletop system. One of the things that I have admired about it is the fact that he has rules drawn up for non-combat Areas as extensive as players would use. This may seem superfluous to some, but to me it is a part of building a deeper world. For example, in a magical world what would the analogue be to the printing press? If we, as humans, do not enjoy books themselves we tend to value to more rapid exchange and storage of knowledge. Magic like this would be used to copy books and make notes.
          To further diminish my Nerd Cred, not only did I never get into D&D, but Harry Potter is also a series that I did not put myself into. I only recently finished watching the movies last summer. Because I do not know the regular works I do not know all the rules, ins, and outs of how magic works in that world. But I can conclude that magic only works with wands. Well… except for this guy.

Manual Mage

Perfecting the Craft?

          I know, I know… this has made the rounds on the internet and I am sure a Potter-faithful can set me straight on this point. However, I am going to enjoy being on the outside looking in for once. As stated above, there have been a lot of shows I have seen where magic was not to be frivolously used or flouted. No using it to clean house or remove stains and the like. Which… I accepted as a child, but the older I have gotten the more confusing that is. If you can open pickle jars with just your hands, and don’t need a towel or device, why use one if your natural talent allows otherwise? If the nature of magic in a given world is corrupting that is one thing. But if it is an extension of yourself that you can train, why not use it freely?
          I digress, why no wandless magic? What was the choice there? Perhaps, scientifically, that is just the way it works in the world of Harry Potter. Even in our worlds’ magical practices Tools are used. There is a caveat there. They are meant to focus energy and intent. This said, a practitioner does not need to be reliant upon them. I would have assumed that there would at least be a spell to summon at minimum an attuned wand to your hand, but that was never the case from what I remember. And if wandless magic were doable, just a dangerous and unfocused mess I would have assumed Voldemort or one of the Death Dealers to try it once. Namely Bellatrix. But I never saw that.
          Additionally, I never saw any variations to the practice, or any history lessons of people who tried. No warrior monks who had some awareness or even training who put a wand or two into bracers and used magic that way. No one with devices that would help limit a wand being removed via an… Expeliamus? I recall the elder Malfoy male having a cane-wand akin to a cane-sword. And due to wands seeming to be semi-sentient, I can let slide not carrying more than one.
          The whole series were magicians, with wands in hand, doing magical stuff. There wasn’t the one Muggle who, in spite of having no magic in them, just studied ZEALOUSLY and earned respect of the magic world, or at least lessened contempt. In the face of a war there were no magical weapons, especially with the Death Dealers? Hagrid had his flying motorcycle, but why no other magical flying devices?
          …am I pushing for some type of Magical Iron Man? No. (Maybe yes.) But, for as long as magic has been around, running concurrently alongside a non-magical population why are there not innovations for magical warfare? Outside of fun pranks, where is the growth in the world? I think that I would have enjoyed the world enough to dive into the books if I saw more outside of the hands of kids at school. Granted, many of the magic traditions are based from Europe, which explains much to me.
          Addendum: Somewhat curious, I did delve into a wiki a bit. Even in the movies, there were some instances of wandless magic use. However, these were minor, so they didn’t come come to my mind. Additionally, it seems they were not canon to the books, which I would have heard about from my Potter loving friends. And not being canon, I chalked it up to creative license.

          As I write my own works in the near future, and as you go about enjoying the worlds of fiction as they are presented to you, I hope you can see the details that go into world building. Often times the things that seem the simplest and most mundane took a great deal of work to get right. When an element seems so smooth that it is effortless, it is oft by design. Hopefully this gives you some insight into the fiction writers’ mind and will help you savor more fully those of us who put our madness onto paper.

‘Til Next Time. Happy Reading.

January Showcase

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Part of what I want to do with the Unorthodox platform I am creating is to show off the artistic talents of those in my life. For this month, allow me to introduce Knot Your World. What began as a pair of tattoos grew into a coloring book. And now, there are a host of them, ranging from the mundane to the mythical. Every work is an original design which makes use of Celtic knotting. To call this an “intricate art” is an understatement. If you are like me, and had only seen knot work on grave markers, you will enjoy the modernity of their application. As of the turn of the New Year, they have begun work on a Steampunk themed book. This will be their 18th complete work. During the remainder of the month I will highlight some of their works I particularly enjoy on the Unorthodox Facebook page with a certainty. I will also try it here and see how smooth it goes.