Night in the Woods, Part Two

I started playing Night in the Woods again recently, and I have a lot of feelings about the game. When I get interested in something, my first instinct is to read what other people have written about it. Although I knew it was a mistake, I made a bad decision and clicked on the Polygon review.

This specific line jumped out at me:

Mae also does some platforming in her sleep, and these dream sequences in particular are dull, especially late in the game when the story starts to pick up momentum.

First of all, this game is not a platformer, and evaluating a story-driven exploration game as a platformer because the main character can jump is not useful or interesting.

Second, the dream sequences are amazing. One of my favorite conceits in gaming is a piece of music that has more instruments added as the player makes progress (like the Hateno Village theme in Breath of the Wild), and every single one of the dream sequences handles this conceit perfectly. The songs themselves are weird and fun and creepy – my favorite is Astral Alley.

The fact that a professional game reviewer could look at Night in the Woods and criticize its “platforming” as “dull” boggles my mind to such an extent that I feel like a Lovecraft narrator who can’t describe what he’s seeing and resorts to frenzied and nonsensical muttering.

Here’s another bit of the review that caused me physical pain:

[Mae] is often selfish, cruel, self-absorbed and destructive in ways that may be believable and relatable but rarely ever pleasant. Mae is somewhat redeemed by a childlike joy in simple pleasures, a streak of loyalty to her friends and some late-game realizations about her own failings, but only somewhat.

Mae is a good protagonist because she’s flawed, and she’s a good person because she’s genuinely trying to be sensitive and understanding for the sake of her friends and family. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and the same can be said of the way most of the other characters in the game treat her. Some people lose their tempers with Mae when she accidentally says something stupid, and some people are mean to her for no reason, but she’s good-natured about it and doesn’t get into fights or try to hurt people to get back at them. She goes out of her way to speak to everyone without prejudice, and she’s extremely generous with her time. She’s good-natured and, yes, she’s loyal and cares about other people, even when she’s hurt. This is why people want to be friends with her.

The fact that an adult man would look at this twenty-year-old female character and say that he doesn’t like her because she’s not performing enough emotional labor is really scary to me, to be honest.

It’s also troubling that Polygon wanted someone to review a story game about a twenty-year-old queer woman and couldn’t find anyone except an older man with children. They didn’t know any women? Any queer people? Not even any younger people? This writer openly admits that he didn’t want to review this game. Could the editors at Polygon really not find anyone in even a slightly different demographic? Perhaps someone who had been following the development blog attached to the game’s massively successful Kickstarter campaign?

I wouldn’t usually include the name of the reviewer in a critical response like this, but I think it would be weird not to mention that this review was written by Justin McElroy. I know a lot of people love The Adventure Zone, but I have to admit that I’ve never understood the charm of the McElroy brothers. The fact this writer is something of a celebrity in queer-identified youth cultures is even more troubling in light of his attitude regarding Mae’s mental illness.

In that regard, this part of the review is genuinely frightening:

After a scene where Mae belittles her parents for working for years so they could afford to send her to the college that she had just bailed on, I found it pretty difficult to re-engage with her. But I’m also a parent and feel a lot further from Mae’s side of the kitchen table than I used to. It’s a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character, and it’s an effective way of highlighting the virtues of the supporting cast.

Before anything, it’s important to point out that Night in the Woods is a dialogue-driven game. Except for a handful of very specific instances, the player is always given a choice of what Mae can say and how she can respond to the direction the conversation is taking.

For an adult man who identifies as a parent to choose the dialogue option that belittles Mae’s parents and then blame his own choice on the personality of a twenty-something female character in a video game is hypocritical and unfair.

It’s also important to provide the specific context. What has happened is that Mae’s mom, who is stressed out about money but doesn’t want to talk about it, tries to be “helpful” about her daughter’s illness in an unhelpful way. Mae interprets her mother’s genuine but off-the-mark concern as condescending, and she makes a shitty comment about how she doesn’t want advice from someone who stayed in town and never went to college. Mae’s mom snaps and says she worked hard so that Mae could go to the college that Mae has dropped out for reasons that, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, she’s either not willing or not yet ready to explain.

Mae knows this, of course, and Mae’s mother knows she knows this. They both realize they’ve gone too far. Again, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, Mae can either apologize or be a brat and walk away. Regardless, Mae and her mother offer each other more meaningful apologies later, and Mae’s father provides a different perspective on the situation when Mae mentions that she wants to start looking for a job. Essentially, he tells her that it’s the responsibility of parents to care for their child; and that, as parents, he and Mae’s mother take that responsibility seriously.

What the player learns toward the end of the game is that Mae was suffering from severe depression, which was co-morbid with executive function disorder (which refers to the state of knowing what you need to do and wanting to do it but being unable to get started) and extreme dissociative episodes. This specific diagnosis is never provided, but I’ve seen it often enough to know what it is. The way college is structured is not healthy for people who are prone to mental illness, which the game has established is true of Mae. It’s not that there’s anything “wrong” with Mae as a person, but being forced to live in a dorm while taking large general education classes that she wasn’t interested in triggered a crisis with a condition that she had previously been able to manage.

Mae was failing all of her classes, sleeping for most of the day, and thinking about death while feeling that she was slipping in and out of reality. No one helped her – which is normal in American universities – so she came home. Mae’s parents are sympathetic, and Mae is, for the most part, grateful.

Mae is in a difficult situation, but she made the right choice.

What exactly did Justin McElroy expect Mae to do? Stay at school until she successfully killed herself? So that she wouldn’t cause trouble for her parents?

A major theme of Night in the Woods is its critique of this specific attitude, namely, that it is the individual who is to blame for the failings of a large and impersonal system. It’s terrifying to me that Justin McElroy could play this game from start to finish and write about it as a staff reviewer for a major gaming news outlet and completely misread this theme, saying instead that it’s “a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character.” What I’m afraid of is the fact that this is the sort of person who’s driving the culture – an older straight man who doesn’t see any problem with condemning a young queer woman for making difficult but healthy choices about her own life.

Night in the Woods, Part One

One of the things I find interesting about Night in the Woods is the relationship Mae has with her parents after she drops out of college and moves back home. There are a few moments of tension, but they’re resolved in a satisfying way; and, on the whole, Mae’s parents are kind and supportive.

I’m not sure how much I want to write about this, but my own situation with my parents and family was so dysfunctional and abusive that I had a lot of trouble understanding the relationship between Mae and her parents as “normal.” I kept waiting for Mae’s parents to show their real faces, but that twist never happened; both of them were kind and supportive for the entire game. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but most of my adult years have been an ongoing process of re-evaluating what “normal” relationships look like. Partially for this reason, I think Night in the Woods is incredible in the way it portrays an extraordinary range of relationships between different people. Even though none of the characters is a perfect model of what a person “should” be, the game contains a number of useful examples for what healthy interactions between different people can look like.

To put this into perspective, here’s an excerpt from a wholesome Tumblr post about good parenting:

And then one day the abusive father was angry at the mom, and tried to take it out on my friend, my friend got a call filled with insults and threats. It was scary and my friend got upset, I tried to comfort them but I really didn’t have good words to say. They later called their mom, and this is what the mother said:

“You are a perfect person, if anyone is talking to you like this, you can walk away.”

I remember just feeling complete awe hearing this, told from a mom, to a child. It even cheered me up. Those are the words we should have been getting from our parents. This is the correct attitude.

Night in the Woods has a cast of characters who are flawed but try to have this sort of “correct attitude” regarding the trouble in their lives. The overall atmosphere of the game is quite dark, but each of the characters shines like a small light. It’s useful to be able to identify signs of abuse, of course, but it’s also important to have access to models for healthy relationships, no matter how old you are or where you are in your life.

Regretsy

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About What’s Wrong With Etsy
https://sydneyschuster.wordpress.com/2018/12/28/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know-about-whats-wrong-with-etsy/

Etsy reported $81.8 million net income in 2017. From 1.9 million sellers. That’s $43 annual net income per seller. Etsy’s profit in 2018: 3.3%. Why build a sprawling, insane Rube Goldberg contraption that ranks 60 million listings by criteria sellers can’t control and then hides most of them from buyers, to get $43?

Answer: stupidity, cluelessness, incompetence, cruelty, and unreported cash. So Etsy, is you is or is you ain’t a retailer? When you figure it out, let us know.

Punch through all that bullshit and it becomes obvious to even the most tech-challenged crafter or junk dealer that it shouldn’t take years to sell the same widget on Etsy that sold in a week on eBay or Amazon.

This long blog post about Etsy’s many dysfunctions is extremely detailed. Some of the hyperlinks no longer work, presumably because they were taken offline, but everything I followed up on seems to check out. Despite the fact that we’re operating on different scales, the author’s experience as a seller on Etsy reflects my own, and her essay gave me a better understanding of why certain aspects of my experience with buying and selling zines on Etsy have always felt so weird to me.

In essence, the trouble seems to be with the site’s algorithms developing in counterproductive ways due to the deliberate meddling of the site’s administrators and corporate leadership. The author makes a good point at the end of the essay when she asks why anyone would want to create such a hostile environment that doesn’t seem to benefit anyone. Based on what we know about Facebook, I suspect that Etsy may be making its money as a tool for market research and algorithm development, not as a business front or hosting service.

Despite this, I continue to use Etsy, just as I continue to use Amazon and Twitter. I receive tangible benefits from these services, and I also believe that it’s not a meaningless act to engage with these sites in a way that attempts to make good on their utopian potential. At the same time, however, I think it’s good to be aware of the flaws and broader implications of these systems, as well as to seek out and support alternatives. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done, as the alternatives are often just as problematic.

Constant Vigilance

One month after controversial adult-content purge, far-right pages are thriving on Tumblr
https://thinkprogress.org/far-right-content-survived-tumblr-purge-36635e6aba4b/

This subtle far-right creep echoes a 2017 study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue which warned that the far-right had become extremely adapt at using internet platforms to normalize their ideas. “The weaponisation of internet culture is deliberately used by extreme-right influencers to bring about attitude and behavioural change, in particular among the younger generations,” the report warned.

This sort of normalization of white nationalist talking points was what tech companies were supposedly shocked by – and promised to stop – in the wake of Charlottesville, as they provided an easy way of “red-pilling,” or radicalizing and recruiting, new members, most of whom are young, white, disaffected men.

White Supremacist Propaganda
https://closet-keys.tumblr.com/post/160047478578/white-supremacist-propaganda-while-a-lot-of-klan

The intent is to convince racist white people (who don’t think of themselves as racist, but who clearly are, and clearly feel angry when their entitlement isn’t immediately gratified) that the hate group in question is just ‘misunderstood’ and is really about pride and celebrating your own culture, etc.

The intent is that once someone falls for that bait and hook, they can play up on their underlying resentment and entitlement. If you already believe that you should be able to celebrate being white, and they can bring you from that belief to the belief that people of color are preventing you from your right to have pride in that, then they can foster anger against people of color. From there, any time there is a collective societal reaction of disgust towards the hate group or towards the notion of white pride, the recruited whites can be relied upon to feel victimized by society collectively.

Both of these essays accurately reflect my social media experience with mainstream white supremacy and white supremacist messaging, which is worded and coded in such a way that it seems plausible that a decent, reasonable person would agree with it if they didn’t know where it was coming from. “Loving your heritage doesn’t mean being a racist” is representative of this type of entry-level messaging, which is intended to target people who feel socially alienated and are searching for positivity and affirmation.

At the beginning of 2019, I expressed concern about people on Twitter getting upset over chunky otters and Marie Kondo. I understood why people were getting upset, of course, and there were some important discussions on the subject of Marie Kondo in particular. Still, there needs to be a serious and public conversation about covert white supremacist messaging, and I’m not sure that we took advantage of the opportunity to have it.

To give an example of what I mean by “covert white supremacist messaging,” back in 2016 or so I followed a few people who occasionally reblogged lovely nature photography. Tumblr’s algorithm then began to recommend all manner of weird gender essentialist and white supremacist posts. What I was eventually able to figure out is that the nature photography was of scenery in Germany specifically, and that the blogs posting it had tagged these posts as “featherwood,” a term that may have once been associated with female prison gangs but has since spread to people who have embraced a Quiverfull-style ideology concerning race and gender (namely, that it is the duty of white Christian women to have as many white Christian children as possible). As soon as I blocked the word “featherwood” on Tumblr, the problem was mostly fixed. I also had to unfollow three or four people who reblogged these posts, often alongside Steven Universe photosets and radical leftist “are the cishets okay” memes.

What I’m trying to demonstrate with this example is that there are in fact codewords and ideological patterns that are strong indicators of veiled white supremacist leanings. Because it’s entirely possible for intelligent people in progressive communities to spread alt-right memes without understanding what they are, I wish the huge public conversations about race and representation happening on social media would touch on this sort of thing.

Another example is the expression “the coastal elites,” which has been a white supremacist codeword for “the Jewish global conspiracy” since I was in college (and long before that, I’m sure). When people associated with the American left wing started talking about “coastal elites” during the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, that was a huge red flag for me. There were people on Tumblr reblogging all sorts of authoritarian craziness in the name of social justice, and I had no idea how to tell them that the ideological purity they were advocating was using the language of hardcore white supremacy. When I tried to explain my understanding of what was going on to a few people close to me, the response was inevitably something along the lines of “well you’re a racist for not understanding that Hillary is just as evil as Trump.”

It’s 2019, and you’d think we’d have figured this mess out by now, but that’s not the case. To give yet another example, I’ve recently seen a few of my friends and professional contacts on Twitter retweet things coming from people who advocate #humanscience and #humanbiodiversity. What the people who use these hashtags are specifically referring to is “race science” (here’s an archived webcapture of a widely circulated “human biodiversity reading list” for reference), whose main guiding principle seems to be the “scientifically proven” assertion that melanin is a chemical that causes violent and antisocial behavior. The message that these people (many of whom are writers whose work has been published in respected tech journals) are advocating is that, if we accept that science tells us that climate change is real and that we need to vaccinate our children, then we must also accept it when science tells us [insert whatever racist bullshit is currently trending here].

During the past month or so, when I’ve messaged a few people whom I know personally and have been friends with for years with a gentle note of caution, the responses have been along the lines of “So you’re an antivaxxer then” or “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a climate change denier.” It’s like, “Hang on there friend, I was just trying to give you a heads-up that the person you’ve been retweeting constantly for the past week is a secret white supremacist!” Except it’s not even a secret, because all the codewords are right there in their Twitter profiles.

What I’m trying to explain with these examples is that some people are indeed “secret racists,” and the reason that most decent people don’t see them for what they are is because most of us (thankfully) don’t have much exposure to white supremacist vocabulary or alt-right online spaces. The only reason I know a tiny fraction of what’s going on is because I grew up in the rural Deep South (where people tend to feel more comfortable with being openly racist) and now spend time on gaming forums where MRA-style misogyny can often serve as a gateway to more radical belief systems. My first instinct is to block and avoid this sort of thing when I encounter it, so I’m not an expert, and I still experience the occasional unpleasant surprise when I realize that something I thought was silly and harmless is, in fact, deeply disturbing. (I actually just reblogged something that turned out to be propaganda for the Church of Scientology, and I was mortified when someone told me what it was.)

This is why I wish the conversations people engage in on Twitter and other social media platforms about covert white supremacist messaging would focus more on identifying and explaining codewords and exposing and calling out creepy individuals. If we had more of a collective awareness that this sort of hidden messaging exists and is carefully designed to spread throughout mainstream social networks, it might be easier to identify and quarantine it. After all, the reason that cult-like belief systems are so fringe is because most people find them uncomfortable and strange and don’t want anything to do with them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t real danger in inadvertently spreading this type of messaging.

A Hellscape of Unsavory Experiences

The bogus “Momo challenge” internet hoax, explained
https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

A flurry of TV reports, along with both local and national news, began breathlessly advising parents on ways to “protect kids from a disturbing internet game.” Lost in any coverage, however, were any examples of the authenticated versions of the Momo challenge, including screenshots of “threatening messages” or confirmed videos promoting violence.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that a viral urban legend (and likely hoax) targeting kids would be able to sweep the globe. The internet can be a hellscape of unsavory experiences for anyone; parents face the added challenge of wrestling with how to adequately protect their kids without being overbearing. Indeed, inappropriate content often does make it past automated platform security and monitors — just look at YouTube’s persistent struggle with combating child exploitation, online bullying, or extremist conspiracies.

I taught a class called “Demonic Women in Japanese Fiction” last semester, and some of my students were obsessed with the Momo Challenge. I have vague memories of the Blue Whale Challenge from an old group conversation on WhatsApp, but I didn’t pay any attention to it then, so it was interesting to watch this urban legend spread and develop in real time this past spring. I wonder, will the Momo Challenge be a bit of internet ephemera that people will forget ever existed, or will it eventually resurface and take on a life of its own?

By the way, maybe this is just me being weird, but I think Momo is actually kind of cute.

1,000 Words at a Time

How I turned an idea into an outline
https://bookishdiplodocus.tumblr.com/post/178570150561/how-i-turned-an-idea-into-an-outline

Then I calculated how many scenes I need in which part of the story. My WIP is a YA or 12+ book, so I want it to contain about 75,000 words in total. I want my scenes to be around 1,000 words long to keep it snappy, so I need 75 scenes.

This is an interesting and useful post about how to plot a novel, and I appreciate that it succinctly cuts through the bullshit of so many mainstream writing guides that are often treated as one-size-fits-all industry standards. I tend to structure my plots a bit differently than the method suggested in this essay, but it’s still helpful to think of a huge project like writing a novel as “75 chunks of 1,000 words, give or take.” What this set of numbers means is that, if I can write a thousand words in a week, which is absolutely doable for me, then I can have the first draft of a novel finished in about a year and a half. Nice!

As an aside, I’m going to have to admit that I find the obsession with wordcounts a bit ridiculous. I understand that wordcounts help writers keep track of the progress they’re making, but it bothers me when it’s taken for granted that wordcount defines genre. What I love about literary fiction, as well as fiction published outside the United States, is that it defies the unwritten rule that something needs to be a certain number of words or pages in order to have market value. I actually really enjoy novellas and longer stories and essays that don’t fit into neat American categories! I resent the expectation that a manuscript needs to weigh in at 130,000 words in order to be taken seriously, but I can start evaluating the market once I have something to sell. Until then, I might as well enjoy myself without worrying too much.

It Was Fun While It Lasted

“The Linux of social media” — How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging
https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2019/01/the-linux-of-social-media-how-livejournal-pioneered-then-lost-web-blogging/

But perhaps there’s no better microcosm for LiveJournal’s epic journey than the blog that belonged to the man behind Game of Thrones. Even though George R.R. Martin managed to hang out for a decade after the site’s initial downfall, nothing in particular seemed to trigger his 2018 move to a personal site. No fanfare accompanied it, just a brief message from one of the fantasist’s “minions.” Such is the nature of the erosion of our once-beloved digital spaces: there’s none of the collapsed majesty of a physical space like an abandoned castle, ivy threading its way through the crumbling latticework. Instead, LiveJournal moves forward as an aging pile of code, one day potentially rendered obsolete by something newer and better and remembered by those who lost countless hours to rigging it up in the first place.

The passage I quoted above is the conclusion to a wonderful essay about the rise and fall of LiveJournal and the creation of Dreamwidth. This is a bit narcissistic, but it always makes me happy to see people writing substantial articles about things that actually mean something to me personally. LiveJournal used to be a big deal to a lot of people, but I often get the impression that not even that many professional Media Studies scholars know what it was or how it nourished and enabled online cultures that have since become mainstream. Then again, the platform died almost ten years ago, and perhaps there are always going to cultural black holes like LiveJournal that exert a huge gravitational influence even though most people can’t see or measure them.