Pocket Lint #15: fear and loathing

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Ghosts of the tsunami.

“Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

What can “Leaning In” do for us when once we do succeed by its metrics, unending public abuse awaits us? What happens when we finally establish ourselves on platforms, and then are chased from them? When success means needing security? When we are punished mercilessly for the very representation we are told to seek? When “representation” is what we need, but “visibility” destroys us?”

Prey is an astonishing, brutal, beautiful piece of writing about one woman’s experience of rape, her reactions and the subsequent trials where she was a witness.

No one is coming to take away your shitty toys: “The rise of mature games that don’t feature shitty characters and situations does not diminish your supply of immature shit in any way. It caters to a growing market of consumers who have just as much of a right to play a fucking videogame as you do, and doesn’t harm you at all.”

As flies to wanton boys are we to Facebook.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

This place is not a place of honour: how to keep people away from nuclear waste in 10,000 years’ time.

Tumblr of the week: Postapocalyptia.

Poem of the week: Emptying Town, Nick Flynn, with thanks to Leigh.

Game of the week: The End, a game about philosophy and death.

Ralen Hlaalo is a cupboard

This was written for June-July’s Blogs of the Round Table, on NPCs in video games.

Perhaps you’re meant to have meaningful, deep interactions with characters in games that can actually speak. But they’re all just robots. Interact in a certain way, as a blank avatar, and they will love or hate you regardless of who you are. They are obviously a series of lines responding to inputs.

Or, if my avatar is a specific character, they’re responding in a story that I don’t feel is mine. I don’t have intimate relationships with characters in books either. I might like them, or admire their actions, but I don’t have deep meaningful interactions with them.

Ralen Hlaalo is different, because he is a cupboard.

Balmora, with some pretty textures.

Balmora, with some pretty textures.

Ralen Hlaalo is dead, to begin with. He lived in Balmora, a town on the south-west side of the island of Morrowind, to the north of Vvardenfell, where the Dunmer live. At the beginning of Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls game, you arrive by boat in the tiny township of Seyda Neen. From there, you’re directed to Balmora, which is – if you want it to be – a hub area for at least the first few levels of your game. It has a Mages Guild, a Fighters Guild and a Thieves Guild; it has good transport connections and is conveniently located for exploration.

It’s also the ancestral seat of one of the three families that rule Morrowind: House Hlaalu. They’re into diplomacy and trade and sneaky business. They’re also mega-rich, which makes them targets. Ralen Hlaalo has been murdered, and his body lies face up on the carpet of his luxurious home west of the river. His maid stands in her room, waiting for you to pick the locks or acquire the keys to the house and ask her about what happened here.

Later, when your Sneak gets high enough, you can probably pilfer the contents of her jewellery box and her copies of Vivec’s sermons off her shelf, and then shut the door again, knowing she doesn’t need food or conversation or even the little luxuries the game originally gives her.

The Hlaalo manor is one of the better options for a starting house, once you can get into it. It contains a vast array of containers – crates, barrels, chests - and a bed where you can sleep in peace; it has a wall of excellent shelves you can use, if you’d like, to display the many treasures you’ll acquire over the course of your time in Morrowind; it’s full of stuff you can just take right now and fence to the Khajit down the road, and no one will stop to ask what you’re doing with all those glass bowls and tableware that used to belong to that nice Mr Hlaalo, so recently murdered. You can get a decent start in life from Ralen’s end.

But even after you’ve stripped the clothes from his corpse, his body will remain. It will be there forever. Later on, you will come to realise it is a more powerful asset than almost anything else in the game when it comes to boosting your income. Because Ralen Hlaalo is an infinite cupboard.

I've seen this guy a few times.

I’ve seen this guy a few times.

A few words on how Morrowind’s encumbrance and travel systems work: they are designed to frustrate you. They are designed to be difficult to navigate. Morrowind is a walkable game, made before “walking simulator” became a term of vague disapproval. It wants you to walk between travel points, not bamf around a map with fast travel. It wants you to plan journeys. It wants you to discover familiar paths and shortcuts, to get to know the landscape intimately, to be excited about the first time you travel somewhere. I have walked south from Balmora so many times I could do it in my sleep. Whenever I move house in the real world I start a new game of Morrowind so I can walk from Seyda Neen to Balmora and from Balmora to Hla Oad, just for the familiarity.

There are a few systems for fast travel. There are boats in seaside towns, each one of which visits a limited number of locations; you may have to chain trips together. There are silt striders, tall weird insect buses that visit a few landlocked cities each. There are Mages Guilds, each one of which has a teleporter inside to access all the others. Then there are teleportation spells: Divine Intervention, which will transport you to the nearest Imperial Cult shrine, and Almsivi Intervention, which takes you to the nearest Tribunal temple.

The map that came with the game, which is the only real way to find out about the forts.

The map that came with the game, which is the only real way to find out about the forts.

And there is a network of forts littered around the landscape, not one of which is ever relevant to the story, each one containing one teleport pylon that can take you to two other forts, and one lockstone that opens it up as a destination. Also normally they contain significant numbers of orcs. Opening them up is the sort of quest that matters only because travel is a limited, finite resource. It makes Morrowind feel incredibly dated. It is also one of the reasons why it has stuck with so many people as a game with such a powerful sense of place.

Encumbrance is a problem. A lot of the best loot in Morrowind is heavy – raw ebony, raw glass, Dwemer pots and scrap metal – and the average dungeon is large and contains many shiny things that, if you are a looter like me, you will itch to possess.

You don’t just slow down when you’re carrying too much loot for your character’s stats: you stop completely. You can’t drag yourself out of the dungeon to the teleport. You can’t do anything. You can swing your sword a bit but that’s not much good. You can’t take it all with you. You have to unpack.

But there is one other option. There is a pair of spells that you can use to actually go where you want to go, without needing to walk when you get there. Mark lets you pick one point on the map, just one. Recall lets you transport there instantly. Regardless of how much you’re carrying.

What happens at the other end? You have to unpack immediately into chests or crates or boxes, but those things themselves have a finite limit on how much they can contain. You can’t put all your things in one cupboard, because the cupboard is just not big enough. Unless the cupboard is Ralen Hlaalo.

Ralen can take as much ebony and glass and assorted swords and bandit armour as you can loot. He will even obligingly cover his nakedness – assuming you have stripped him to sell his expensive clothes – with whatever arms and armour you happen to have looted. He does not rot. He does not require gifts or moral decisions or tribute. He will not send you on a quest, beyond avenging his death, which you’re free not to do with no consequences. You can set your Mark spell within reach of his glassy eyes, load him up with your spare things on arrival, then jaunt down to the pawnbroker where you originally sold all his fancy glassware and, in a few trips with some awkward 24-hour rests in the middle, be significantly richer for little extra effort. He is obligingly calm the entire time.

A talking mudcrab.

A talking mudcrab.

In one game, I appreciated his use so much I summoned him a giant talking mudcrab friend – the mudcrab is the richest merchant in the game, and normally lives on an inconveniently distant island to the east of a Dwemer ruin, but you can use the console to position him wherever you’d like.

It is the only time I have ever cheated in Morrowind. I’d like to tell you it was so that Ralen wouldn’t be alone. Honestly: I did it all for the gold.

A cupboard.

A cupboard.

But by that time, I didn’t need the gold. I had more than 300,000 gold. There is nothing in Morrowind that costs even half that much. I had crates of alchemical ingredients and the skill to create any potion I wanted in qualities better than I could buy. I had one of every helmet in the game, carefully displayed on one of the sets of shelves. I had all 36 of Vivec’s sermons, stacked on the long dining table. I had Azura’s Star and Mehrunes’ Razer and the Fork of Horripilation. I had stacks of legendary weapons and the best light, medium and heavy armour in the game. I was the leader of the Mages, Thieves and Fighters Guilds, the head of House Hlaalu, one of the highest ranked members of both the Temple and the Imperial Cult, well on my way to being declared the Nerevarine. I had a giant, talking mudcrab filling half the space in my hallway, occasionally obstructing the door and making weird chittering noises, because I wanted more gold. My best friend was a cupboard.

Ralen Hlaalo didn’t judge me.

Ralen Hlaalo is the only NPC that I can recall having a relationship with that was sustained, reinforced, by the game’s systems. I return to him time and time again, every time I play Morrowind: I loot his house, I steal from his maid, I sleep in his bed, I strip his corpse. He is not a cipher or a character. He is a system. He is a cupboard. He is the most memorable NPC in my twenty-odd years of gaming, because he is the only one that never pretended to be human.

Pocket Lint #14: human machines

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish email on Fridays you can sign up here. Future Pocket Lints may come with more analysis, more chat and/or more personal elements in them, as I carry on experimenting.

Tiny letters are what blogs used to be: “a not-quite public and not-quite private way to share information”.

David Sedaris gets a Fitbit. Contains cows giving birth, kidney stones, litter-picking, and a stream-of-consciousness antidote to the anodyne vision of the quantified self.

If this toaster doesn’t like you, it will leave you for somebody else.

“Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history… our era has disruption.”

An interview with the creators of ClickHole: “We believe every piece of content that goes up on the Internet deserves to be clicked upon, skimmed, shared, and rashly commented upon by millions of users.”

The internet comment apocalypse inspired by a recipe for rainbow cake.

Shaka, when the walls fell: how one episode of Star Trek traced the limits of human communication and suggested an alternative. “If we pretend that ‘Shaka, when the walls fell’ is a signifier, then its signified is not the fictional mythological character Shaka, nor the myth that contains whatever calamity caused the walls to fall, but the logic by which the situation itself came about. Tamarian language isn’t really language at all, but machinery.”

Tumblr of the week: White men wearing Google Glass, and its counterpart.

Poem of the week: Having a Coke with you, Frank O’Hara.
“and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank”

Game of the week: Arpeggio. Play it with your eyes closed.

Games journalism is a broken business

There’s been a huge, intricate, messy, interesting conversation on Twitter over the last few days among games writers. It’s been sparked in part* by Maddy Myers’ superb excoriation of the games journalism industry, and the place that freelancers and those peripheral to the few big outlets now occupy, especially minority writers.

I have no idea how anybody else survives in games journalism. Well, actually, I do know now. It’s that other people just get day jobs. They do what I’ve done. If they’re lucky enough to find one that they can do in addition to journalism without wanting to die all the time. Maybe they just give up and get a full-time job that has nothing to do with journalism at all.

It’s a great piece. Go read it. And then go read Jenn Frank, talking about why she writes:

I am answering this question at a strange juncture in my life, you know. I am almost 32, I hope to start a family, I live in a city of 15000 people, and it has become impossible for me to imagine a life where games writing, or any writing, is a real possibility anymore. So now I’ve arrived at a stage in my life where, instead of waking up each morning and picturing what I’ll write, I try to picture *not* writing. Instead, I try to think of, literally, anything else I could be capable of doing.

These are brilliant women, writing about how writing has become impossible for them because it does not sustain them as a career. The conversations on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere are all about the money: there’s not enough to go around. Publishers don’t pay enough for writers to actually do the work, especially for freelancers; staff jobs tend to go to the people who can produce a lot of words for very little cash consistently, and those people don’t tend to be established games critics. They certainly don’t tend to be minority critics whose public work intersects with social justice issues.

Most of these people don’t believe, on any level, that they’re owed work. But they do believe – with justification - that they’re owed a fair price for the value of their work, which is specialised and difficult and time-consuming. They don’t need to pitch more, they need to be paid properly for the pitches they land. They don’t need bootstraps, they need a fair system.

There isn’t enough money. But that construction elides the fact that publishers aren’t making enough money, which elides the fact that journalism’s business model on the internet is completely broken and games outlets are struggling just as hard as everyone else when it comes to actually making money from the online economy.

It’s hard, as a business, to admit that your commercial team isn’t operating well with the realities of the internet. But for many journalism businesses it’s the truth: newspapers and magazines alike are struggling, and specialist and enthusiast subject publishing as much as generalist. It’s not just that print revenues are falling, for those businesses with a print arm; it’s also that the link between increased online readership and increased revenue is incredibly tenuous if you’re relying on traditional banner ads, particularly if they’re all served through Google.

It’s possible to make money online, even in the middle of all this disruption. But the sad fact is that most games publishers are not very good at it, and they pass on their commercial failures to their writers, because that’s the part of the business that can be squeezed the most without squealing.

There isn’t a simple solution, because it’s a systemic problem, and because if there was a simple solution then the problem would already be solved. The low pay and precarious situations of games freelancers mirrors freelance journalists in most consumer-driven niches, all trying to tackle the biggest upheaval in publishing since publishing became a thing. No one in publishing has the answers, here. Games journalism doesn’t even seem to be able to articulate the problem: the race to the bottom for writers is driven by lack of revenue and lack of innovative commercial approaches, at least as much as it’s driven by writers willing to write for free.

One truth remains: if you can’t afford to pay writers what they’re worth, then you’re not making enough money; that problem lies with you, not with the writers.

* Edit: @RowanKaiser points out on Twitter that @KrisLigman’s tweets and his own blog post announcing his Patreon came ahead of @samusclone’s piece, saying “I think what happened was that several simmering pots boiled over concurrently”.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

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This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice - and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

Pocket Lint #10: wrapped in plastic

A pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Gunshot victims to be kept in suspended animation, to buy time for doctors to fix their wounds.

The pointlessness of unplugging: “We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.”

The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous, which only has a 15% success rate, and the problems with “Cadillac” rehab.

The overprotected kid, the junkyard playground, and the importance of risk-taking play. ‘The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”’

Silicon Valley’s brutal ageism: “an extra burden of proof on the middle-aged to show they can hack it, on a scale very few workers of their vintage must deal with anywhere else.”

What happens as children grow up a little: “Like characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the little ones—with their distinct clothing and high dexterity—can’t carry heavy weaponry, but they can be dispatched to pick locks and fetch magical rings from small places. Sometimes they can heal during combat.”

Australia’s Guantanamo problem: the asylum seekers indefinitely detained on secret evidence without hope of release.

How to use game preorders as a bank.

Women don’t want to work in games, and other myths: perhaps the first piece I’ve read about women in the industry that’s actually, unapologetically, aimed at a female reader.

How we won the war on Dungeons and Dragons.

Tumblr of the week: Shit Private Eye Says

Poem of the week: Louis MacNeice, Snow

Free game of the week: Sleep

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Pocket Lint #9: outsiders

Back after a short break: here’s a pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Nate Silver and the diversity problem
“What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””

Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy?
“Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”

Why personal change does not equal political change
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space.

5 myths about how we use the internet

An illustrated book of bad arguments

A preliminary phenomenology of the self-checkout

Frog Fractions 2 has a Kickstarter, which promises not to give you the game until someone works out what it’s called.

Tumblr of the week: Animals Sucking At Jumping

Poem of the week: Shrinking Women

Free game of the week: 2048, which is essentially Threes, only more so.

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Spirits Walk

masked person with caption 'spirits walk'
It’s been a busy few weeks. This coming weekend Grant and I are headed to Melbourne to run Spirits Walk with Pop Up Playground. We’re headlining at the Fresh Air Festival, a yearly extravaganza of interesting live games, street games and creative play, and I’m hugely excited about it.

Spirits Walk is going to be a strange game. It’s a game about transgression, about crossing lines in public, about deliberate strangeness and feeling uncomfortable and doing interesting things anyway, because you want to know what happens next. There are spirits hidden in plain sight around the city, and each of them wants something from you: each has a task, and if you complete it you get a token of their esteem, or approval, or even affection. Your tokens open doors to another world, hidden just behind the real one: a place of symbolism and pageantry and a little bit of magic.

It breaks some new ground for us as designers and game makers, and we’re relying a lot on Pop Up Playground’s resources: craft and art and costuming, and the awesome actors who’ll be bringing our spirits to life. The game’s also very much Grant’s baby, in the same way The Trial was mine: he’s taken the lead in crafting and creating it, working with Rob and Sayra at Pop Up to make the whole thing happen. There are lots of moving parts, lots of elements working together, and it’s going to be an interesting challenge to make it all cohere. It’s also going to be a great deal of fun. It’s free to take part, and if you’re in Melbourne and you’d like to come along, you can reserve a space here.

After that, we’re going to try and be on holiday for a few days. It’s been a busy few weeks, after all.

Pocket Lint #8: things that live under bridges

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Where have all the workers gone?
“Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought… With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.”

Netrunner as life hacking for perfectionism
“It was Netrunner that crystallized for me the uncomfortable fact that in real life I’ve always run away from any space I couldn’t see completely, from any challenge I might not be able to win, and from any situation where I struggled to succeed.”

The Blood Harvest
“Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive to create an unparalleled biomedical technology.”

Do invertebrates feel pain?
“We know next to nothing about whether or not these animals – or invertebrates in general – actually suffer. In Elwood’s experience, researchers are either certain they feel pain or certain they don’t. “Very few people say we need to know,” he says.”

The internet is fucked (but we can fix it)
Forensic look at what’s wrong with the internet in the US.

Partners as patrons
“I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.”

This machine kills trolls
Anti-vandalism bots on Wikipedia: complex tech solutions to complex human problems.

Remember the human
“Try to be courteous to others. See someone having a bad day? Give them a compliment or ask them a thoughtful question, and it might make their day better. Did someone reply to your comment with valuable insights or something that cheered you up? Send them a quick thanks letting them know you appreciate their comment.”

Tumblr of the week: Things Called Jazz That Are Not Jazz

Free game of the week: Into The Box

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