Author: Ben

Ending the year with a bang!

I’m coming to the end of my time writing a videogame with Tin Man Games; it’s not yet been officially announced, so I can’t talk about it in specifics, but it’s been a great project to work on. My experience with branching narratives and game design has been super useful, but I’ve also learned a lot about scripting dialogue for games, and particularly some of the considerations of working in VR. I’m hoping to talk about it a lot more in future, once the word is out!

But the end of that project means space for new ones, and there are lots! I’ll soon be launching the Terry Pratchett book club podcast Pratchat with Elizabeth Flux. We’ve been talking about this for ages so it’s great to finally be making it happen! Watch out for a special announcement in the next week on that score.

I’m also getting back on the stage after too long away from performance. First up, you can catch me in a reunion show with my old sketch group, the Anarchist Guild Social Committee, on Sunday, October 15, to help farewell the Bella Union bar at Melbourne Trades Hall.

The Bella Union has been home to so many of my shows and events over the years – including Dungeon Crawl, Splendid Chaps, the launch of both seasons of Night Terrace, and many more – and like the rest of Melbourne’s artists I’ll miss it terribly. But if we can’t hang on to it, we can at least send it off in style! So join us for a collection of classic sketches, plus a few new ones – including some written by yours truly – in a few weeks’ time.

Speaking of Dungeon Crawl…the official PAX Australia schedule hasn’t yet been finalised, but I can announce that the classic improvised Dungeons & Dragons comedy show will return for a one-off performance at the expo on the Friday evening (October 27)!

I’ve seen the amazing community that has developed among PAX attendees and volunteers with the support of the local organising team over the last few years, and I am excited to bring them an evening of ridiculous, dice-fuelled improvised comedy. We have a stellar line-up of players, with Elly Squires, Bri Williams and Jordan Raskopoulos forming our adventuring party, and some very exciting potential special guests currently in negotiation. Watch this space for more news!

To finish off the year, also returning after a long absence…it’s The Terminativity! Yes, the much-talked-about comedy musical returns, and once again you can experience the Christmas joy of an unstoppable killing machine from the future going back in time to kill Mary before Jesus is born. I’m super excited to be part of this revival of a cult hit, and to be joining an amazing cast of returning and new performers. Tickets are on sale now, and if the original seasons are anything to judge by, I wouldn’t wait to book your tickets if you want to come along…

There’s more I want to tell you, but for various reasons, I can’t – not just yet! But let’s just say there’s more in store for 2018. But let’s finish off 2017 on a high first, shall we?

Trying to play more games

I spend a lot of time around games, but I seldom get to play them – except for ones I have installed on my phone. (On that score I’ve enjoyed The Guild of Dungeoneering, Futurama: Game of Drones and I still really dig Imbroglio.) Recently though I saved up and bought myself an XBox One, and I’ve tried to make some time to enjoy it.

I’ve only bought a few games for it so far, and to my surprise two are online shooters – not the kind of thing I’ve ever enjoyed before. The first was one of two games I bought with the console: Star Wars Battlefront. I’d played some local co-op with one of my best friends and his enthusiasm for how well it throws you into various Star Wars scenarios was pretty infectious, I have to admit. I’m still not a great fan of online military FPS, but I have really started to love the starfighter battles. At school I loved combat flight-sims; I bought a secondhand Flightstick Pro from a kid at school. But while I played a bit of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, really I mostly used it to play X-Wing and especially TIE Fighter. Getting back in that cockpit and shooting at X-Wings (or from an A-Wing) has been great fun – and I’m way better at it than I am at running around on the ground with a blaster rifle (though playing co-op with friends is good fun).

Overwatch got my attention and I have friends with whom I’d like to play, so I’m starting to get into it and learn how it all works. I like the individual character selections, rather than having faceless classes, and so far my faves are Hanzo, Ana (who I didn’t realise was the first post-release character; she’s great!) and Winston, but I’m planning to try everyone.

The other game I bought with the console was Fallout 4. I really loved Fallout 3, and spent a lot of time on six years ago; so far 4 doesn’t quite feel like it has the same magic, but it has lots going for it. I got a bit distracted by the settlement building and crafting, derailing both the main quest (which should feel much more urgent than it does) and my usual excitement of exploring a game with such a big world. It also reminded me that I never finished Fallout: New Vegas, though since it’s one of the growing number of backwards compatible titles I have installed it to continue on after a dear friend told me they liked it better than 3. After picking up from where I left off (at around level 14, and approximately halfway through the main storyline I think?) I realised one of my frustrations with the game: I didn’t want any of the perks. In Fallout 3 I could avoid the combat perks and focussed as much as possible on the ones that offered new dialogue and interaction options, or aided in exploration. In New Vegas, it feels like all my options are just about new ways to kill people. Still, the story is pretty good, so I think I’ll finish it too.

I also bought Batman: Arkham Knight. I wasn’t sure about this one; the Arkham series seems to be a case of diminishing returns, with the original Arkham Asylum still by far my favourite of the series. But I liked it a lot and now I can try the newest iteration.

But perhaps the game I’ve played most since getting the XBox One is Doublefine’s Massive Chalice. A turned-based strategy game with a long-term tactical element, it’s a bit like X-COM crossed with Game of Thrones, only without all the awfulness and a tremendously fun sense of humour. I love the classes, the dialogue, the system by which you can marry off your heroes (in any combination of genders, by the way) and raise new generations, all while you sit chained to your immortal throne trying to hold the kingdom together for 300 years when the titular chalice can finally cleanse the land of the evil Cadence. I backed the game on Kickstarter so I get to play with my own house: House Kenzie, whose emblem is a green Kraken on a black field and whose motto is “worse things happen at sea”. (I usually start with them and House Duffy.)

Next time on the blog: tabletop games! I want to play more of them too, and there are a couple of new releases I’m particularly interested in…

Fighting back against arts cuts

I wrote an original version of this post on Facebook, then decided it should live here instead. So I cut and pasted it.

Or at least, I cut it.

Oh the irony. Here’s version two.

So I’m pretty angry about the recent Australian federal budget. There are plenty of things to be angry about, but mostly I’m pissed about the slashes to arts funding. They’re big, they target independent artists and small to medium companies, and they have taken effect very quickly.

Independent artists get a tiny fraction of government spending – indeed, only a fraction of government arts spending – in order to pay not for salaries or comfortable lifestyles but breathing room. I’ve spend nearly my entire arts career struggling to balance the time my art needs with jobs that will pay me to get by; I only quit the “day jobs” when it became clear I couldn’t get anywhere without devoting all my time to those arts. Now that I am lucky enough to work on funded projects, it means I can get away with only doing three or four other things to get by with rent and bills, instead of the six or seven it used to take. That’s the difference low- and mid-level arts funding makes. Most of the money goes on the project – which means it doesn’t disappear, it flows on to businesses selling the materials and services we need to make our art.

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#RPGaDAY 1, 2 & 3: Catching up

There’s a lovely initiative during August (the month of GenCon, the big tabletop games convention in the US) to write about an RPG each day, according to a schedule of prompts. My schedule being what it is, I’ve not managed to get a start until day three, so I’m gonna play catch up. If you want to join in, check out the original #RPGaDAY intro from its instigator, David F. Chapman.

#RPGaDAY 1: First RPG Played

Without spoiling day two, I didn’t get to actually play an RPG until I got to university, where I’m pretty sure my first proper RPG experience was a game of Vampire: The Dark Ages, using the Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP rules. I wasn’t familiar with Vampire but my friends talked me through it. I was playing, suitably, a very young, newly Embraced (i.e. recently transformed) vampire, and I remember being offered shelter by a character who gave a few of us communion blood. I drank it, not knowing any better. I think I played a vampire of the Brujah clan, but since I only played the one session and was still learning the ropes that didn’t really matter. I recall it was exciting and new and it felt just like the World of Darkness books described it: a game of personal horror. I was a vampire and on a sort of adventure, but I was still cursed and lost and afraid in the night. It was great.

#RPGaDAY 2: First RPG Gamemastered

I started out as a GM, mainly because when I discovered roleplaying games in early high school, I didn’t know anyone else who was into them – or so I thought. I somehow found Dungeoneer!, aka Advanced Fighting Fantasy, an extension of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Fighting Fantasy books, like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, are like a cross between an RPG and a choose-you-own-adventure book and were hugely popular, but as far as I can remember I never owned any of them. And that was a bit weird – Advanced Fighting Fantasy more or less assumes you’ve played them, and builds on your knowledge of how they work. It’s pretty simple as RPGs go, but even after reading through it around twenty times and still wasn’t sure I understood how it worked. I managed to persuade my brother and a couple of his friends to play, but I don’t think their hearts were really in it and we didn’t get very far.

As I mentioned above, though, I only thought I didn’t know anyone else in RPGs. It turned out another high school friend owned a couple of very different games: the fourth edition of Champions, the Hero System superhero game from I.C.E., and the third edition box set of Paranoia, both of which ended up in my hands (and are still part of my collection). I loved both of these games, but it was Paranoia we eventually played, in a session that devolved rapidly into the players accusing each other of treason and mutation, and eventually throwing the dice at each other. (We were convinced the d20 left an upside down “18” on someone’s forehead, and tried to take a photo as evidence, but viewing it now – we’ve reconnected nearly twenty years later over Facebook – the evidence is disappointingly unclear.) It wasn’t a full campaign, arguably we barely got through a whole session, but it was so much fun! I never played with those guys again, but I knew roleplaying was gonna be one of my things.

#RPGaDAY 3: First RPG Purchased

I’m going to assume I didn’t buy Dungeoneer! for myself, and as explained above I kind of inherited/stole Champions and Paranoia. I played a lot of World of Darkness stuff at uni, and the student university library had a pretty great collection of all the second edition stuff, but then the revised editions started to come out in 1998 and it seemed like a good time to start an RPG library of my own. So I suspect – though I can’t be sure – that the first RPG I purchased was Vampire: the Masquerade Revised. There were lots of other games I was playing or buying to read (I have always read way more games than I’ve had a chance to play) around that time, but I think that was first.

Shipping it like FedEx (and the consequences)

I’m currently watching Adventure Time series three (I’ve been waiting for the full seasons to come out on Blu-Ray), and really dug the episode “What Was Missing”. It kind of brings some closure to the unrequited love thing they set up between Finn and Princess Bubblegum (known to Finn and fans as PB), while introducing some interesting texture to Bubblegum’s relationship with Marceline, the Vampire Queen. (Yes, I just typed that.) It made me think about “shipping”, the fannish term for pairing up fictional characters in shows, and how it often has almost nothing to do with the intent of the writers or anything that actually happens on screen. It’s often labelled derogatorily as a fangirl activity, but that’s nonsense; we all do it. My first proper serious ship was for President Roslin and Admiral Adama during my recent first-time watch of Battlestar Galactica, but I realise in hindsight I have plenty of others: Hawkeye and Black Widow (in the Avengers films), Aiden and Annie in Being Human… Where I’ve resisted it, I think it’s mostly been because I also think it’s important that not all relationships we care about should be romantic or sexual. I resist Holmes/Watson for this reason (and also because it’s clearly nonsense), but I think mixed-gender friendships are even more important to depict on screen. This is partly why, for the record, I don’t ship Finn and PB (though oddly I do kind of ship Fionna and Prince Gumball, where the text is that she doesn’t need him or any man to feel confident and happy).

Back to “What Was Missing”, though, which was the first time anything on screen seemed to suggest the possibility of one of the most enduring and popular fan pairings in Adventure Time: PB and Marceline. I thought I’d see what the community had to say about it, and read up about it on the wiki – where I discovered something I never expected. During season three there was an official recap/analysis video series called “Mathematical!”, produced by Frederator, the Adventure Time production company. The episode for “What Was Missing” talked openly about a possible relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, even showing some fan art of the two canoodling (nothing too racy, but certainly going further than the very chaste schoolyard kissing seen in the show), and asking viewers to call in and let them know if they thought it was a good idea. And it caused a massive stink, resulting in the whole series of videos being cancelled and taken offline, and the producer being fired! (It started of course with just that episode being taken offline, but equally of course it’s been re-uploaded to YouTube.)

Putting aside the issue of discussing a potentially sexual relationship in a show whose primary audience seems to be aged between 6 and 11, it seems sadly predictably that the heat that came down on the show was all about same sex relationships. Though that’s not reflected in the official statements, which focus on the former. “In trying to get the show’s audience involved we got wrapped up by both fan conjecture and spicy fanart and went a little too far,” said Fred Seibert in the apology when it was taken down, but more enlightening I think is Adam Muto, who said a fan video saying those things would be fine, but an official video couldn’t do the same. “The video took something that was a possible subtext and declared it, in effect, text and made it seem like the production was actively seeking out input on plot development.” As much as I wish the company had stood its ground and told the anti-lesbian complainers where they could stick it, I think this last point is kind of important. Probably could have just fixed it with an apology rather than cancellation and firing, though.

It’s really weird finding all this out three years after the fact. Weirder, even, than discovering the huge list of all the stuff Cartoon Network Australia edited out of Adventure Time – it’s like the ABC cuts to The Goodies all over again. Are we really this reserved and uptight in Australia?

PS – for the record, I don’t ship PB and Marceline, because I don’t think Marceline is good enough for PB (in both the usual and D&D-alignment senses of “good”).