“People do still donate at churches and other places. We literally have ten tonnes of beans. We have a ‘bean room’ at our central storehouse. People for some reason associate a foodbank with beans. But actually what we need is coffee, sugar, UHT milk, tinned fruit, tinned fish. A whole range of things. So we try and get the shopping list to people and ask them to buy from it. But whatever you do, you still get lots of beans.”
The rise and fall of Default Man: “When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.”
Robert Webb on growing up male: ‘Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit. We are people, individuals comprising a variety of sexes, races, shifting sexualities and all the rest of it. Every convention that tries to reinforce this difference is a step back. Notions of gender pointlessly separate men from women, but also mothers from daughters and fathers from sons. The whole thing is – at best – just a stupefying waste of everyone’s time.’
‘The first funeral parlour he went to, in Hoxton, east London, told him they needed £2,500 upfront for the church and the vicar. “I said: ‘I can’t afford that.’ They said: ‘You won’t be able to bury him without that money’,” he says, at his flat. His father’s finch whistles in a cage by the window. Griffin is a former landscape gardener who gave up his job to care for his father when he became unwell. Another firm quoted him costs of around £4,000, asking for £1,000 upfront. “I told the funeral office I would just go to the unemployment office to see what they can give me. They said, ‘Oh no, we need the money upfront’. That’s when I started to get worried.”’
“Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.”
“When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.”
I’m finding myself withdrawing from Twitter a little, at the moment. Some of that is an ongoing process that started when I moved to Australia and left much of my busy timeline behind; friends are living at different times now, and Twitter is different out here. But some is a response to the corrosive atmosphere around games right now, and the way it’s come to a head in the form of the attacks on Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn over the last week.
There are consequences for speaking out. There are always consequences. I’m logging on to Twitter, almost any time of the day or night, and I’m seeing friends frustrated by dealing with people who want to tear them down for supporting a friend, a colleague, someone whose work they admire. The chilling effect here is huge, and not just applicable to those who have already spoken. I am finding myself withdrawing because I can’t face watching this happen again, after watching friends and colleagues and people whose work I admire driven completely out of the industry in the past.
And I’m frustrated with myself, because I have a platform that intersects with the games industry. I have a committed hobbyist relationship with videogames; I play a great deal, write about some, and occasionally create strange little pieces. If I was ever going to have a professional career in videogames, that was scotched long before the women I’m watching being pushed out now, when my all-girls’ school refused me permission to cross over to the boys’ school to study IT and electronics when I was 14. (Institutional sexism: it’s a thing.) So I have a platform as someone with an interest but no financial stake, and a successful career as a non-games journalist, and the ability to stand up and say, as a person and a gamer and a journo: this is not OK.
And yet. The chilling effect is such that I am frightened to do so. I use Twitter for work; turning off my mentions and retreating until an attack dissipates is an option that hurts me professionally. I have a mental illness, and I do not know how that might interact with a coordinated attack. Visibility is power, when it comes to speaking out against this bullshit. Visibility is also a great weakness.
This is how I’m feeling, watching a woman being attacked for daring to be female and make games and remain human. Relatively speaking, I’m both protected and powerful. Now imagine how it must feel to watch without that protection or that power. Imagine how it might feel as a teenager who wants to make games, watching someone who looks like you be punished for doing so. Imagine how it affects your choices, not just about whether or not to withdraw from Twitter but whether or not to take certain classes, or whether or not to release side projects online. Imagine trying to decide whether your future creative happiness is worth risking this level of psychological violence. Imagine doing it anyway, and being attacked for it. Imagine deciding that opposing it is too dangerous, and joining the chorus out of self-preservation, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they won’t attack you next time.
The people involved in these attacks, the hacks themselves but also the vicious teardowns of Quinn’s works and reputation and the harassment of her supporters, just want women to shut up. It’s not about games and it sure as hell isn’t about journalistic ethics; it’s just about keeping girls out of the clubhouse by any means necessary. They don’t like it when we speak, and they really don’t like it when we shout back. But I can’t be pushed out of an industry I’m not in; all I can do is discuss things on the sidelines. If I get attacked for doing so, all it’ll do is prove my point.
“We study white people. We are taught this as a tool of survival. We know when there is unrest in the souls of white folks. We know that unrest, if not assuaged quickly, will lead to black death. Our suspicions, unlike those of white people, are proven right time and time again.”
Adderall’s technology problem: “Tech should to be a viable career path, not an investment market for a wealthy select few who aren’t on the ground floor. And it should be an inclusive industry that doesn’t favor the young, able, and self-destructive. But if we maintain this idolization of high-producing individuals, the rat race will persist. As long as there is an economic incentive to harm oneself in hopes of performing the superhuman, those who will not — or, for those of us with ADHD, cannot — will remain subhuman.”
The American Room: “But for most of us life happens against a backdrop of intersecting off-white walls. Those are our homes, plain and a little grim. Our fantasy homes are busy with bright things yet old. Our pins and dreams are not beige. When we sleep we leave the computer behind and step out onto the widow’s walk, to wait for our sailors to come home from the sea.”
We are Sansa: “A Song of Ice and Fire is, in part, a series of books devoted to examining what happens when systems break down. Arya, who was never comfortable with the Westeros status quo to begin with, is slightly better set up to deal with immediate consequences of Ned’s execution and everything that follows. Sansa, on the other hand, becomes a prisoner of the chaos that develops around her. She has no coping mechanisms and no fallback position because she’s been raised to trust the system that is failing her.”
“If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are.”
First night in Kyiv: “This was the third country in which I’d cried in a shower and checked my body for bruises as a by-product of trying to become a journalist.”
He’s still alive: Jenn Frank’s Game Journalism Prize-winning essay on That Dragon, Cancer.
“We are still at a point that emoji semiotics are extremely malleable and where meaning can be actively created. This is especially true where the gaps between Japanese and Western culture have created a vacuum between original intent and subsequent interpretation, leading to a corral of seldom-used emojis, ready to have new meaning assigned to them.”
NOW THEN: an extraordinary piece by Adam Curtis on the history of surveillance, computing, AI, crime prediction and a great deal else. I’ve read it three times looking for a key quote and it’s too enmeshed to produce one. You should read it.
“The reason sickness is undesirable is not that it causes distress or discomfort but that it results in what is often called “lost productivity”. This is a sinister and absurd notion, predicated on the greedy fallacy of counting chickens before they have hatched. “Workplace absence through sickness was reported to cost British business £32bn a year,” the researcher claimed in Metro: a normal way of phrasing things today, but one with curious implications. The idea seems to be that business already has that money even though it hasn’t earned it yet and employees who fail to maintain “productivity” as a result of sickness or other reasons are, in effect, stealing this as yet entirely notional sum from their employers.”
Law of unintended consequences: Key-copying apps, designed to help you out by storing backups of your keys in case you get locked out, are also a potential boon for burglars.
“what tech-focused people often see of the games industry is the ugly side — for example, the rampant misogyny of mainstreams game developers, thoroughly illustrated by Anita Sarkeesian’s series Feminist Frequency. In response, there are frequent calls for better representation (of women, people of color, queer people, etc) in games — but what we often miss is that these people are, themselves, making games, which usually do include such representations — but which all too often go ignored or financially unsupported” – the missed connections between tech feminism and videogame zinesters
Form and its Usurpers: “If like Hegel we are interested in tracing the lineage of ideas we would be remiss to describe the newspaper as the first Rogue-like; we should say instead that Rogue and Spelunky are contemporary examples of the newspaper-like.”
“6:57 p.m. I am still being ignored. I don’t care. This is a standoff. I don’t even WANT mozzarella sticks.”
“One day at work I fall into brine and they close the lid above me by mistake. Much time passes; it feels like long sleep. When the lid is finally opened, everybody is dressed strange, in colorful, shiny clothes. I do not recognize them. They tell me they are “conceptual artists” and are “reclaiming the abandoned pickle factory for a performance space.” I realize something bad has happened in Brooklyn.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.