Hi, welcome to the joy of painting trees

After many years, I decided to take another shot at digital painting. Often the most striking inspirations and impressions on my creativity are visuals, particulary involving colorful lighting and stark shadows. To the point that I don’t just want to describe the world of my imagination but to actually show it. Since I love colors but don’t really like handling paint, digital painting seems like just the medium for me.

Working with a graphics tablet again for the first time in ages was a bit weird at first, but I quickly got back on that horse. Though my new tab certainly seems much better than the cheap one I had back then. Since I don’t really know anything of what I am doing, I looked up some guides for the very basics, and my first attempt in GIMP was this.

Not Half Bad Tower

I think it’s not half bad. It’s not great, but not bad. Certainly looks like a good start.

Today I also tried comparing Krita to GIMP, and it immediately blew my mind away. I got all giddy just from drawing squiggly lines with the various preset brushes.

This pressure sensitivity is just amazing. The sharpness of the lines also surprised me, and somehow they don’t just look like but also feel like ink when drawing them. I’m really looking forward to practicing with this over my winter break.

You’ve taken your first step into a larger world

Twenty years ago, on this day, Baldur’s Gate was released for the first time. It was an immediate success and the first in a series of roleplaying games that made BioWare one of the biggest success stories in videogames for the next 15 years.

One saturday in the summer of 1999, I was absolutely, soul-crushingly bored. In my apathetic desperation, I got out my then small stack of game magazines to look for anything that looked halfway promising and that would get me through the weekend. The magazines all had one full page list of  all the reviews from the past 12 months, listed by rating. And they all had this game called Baldur’s Gate near the very top. I had one of the issues that was referenced and so for the first time I didn’t flip past the section that was labed “Rollenspiele”. At first, I was quite doubtful.

Up to that point, fantasy didn’t really exist in my life. I had encountered a good number of childrens’ stories that could reasonably be called fantasy, and I had read The Lord of the Rings a few years before. I thought it was neat, but it didn’t really stick with me after having finished it. My world consisted of Star Trek and Star Wars – which at that point I still considered science fiction becuase space – and my collection of games was mostly made up of space combat and strategy games, and just recently Half-Life. Fantasy held no interest to me and even though the game magazines at the time always had a dedicated section for it, I didn’t even know what an RPG is.

However, at the end of the review was a little box giving the game something like an 89% or 93%, which was what had first gotten my attention. And next to it were little one- or two-sentence statements from the two reviewers who praised the game as the most amazing thing ever. That was enough to make me read the whole 5 page review (which for such magazines was huge), and the more I read the more I got intrigued. So I grabbed my money, got on my bike, and went off to the department store in town where I always bought my games.

And the game really didn’t disappoint. I was hooked right from the start and since then I never wanted anything else. From there on, fantasy was it! I got lots  of other fantasy games over the following years, read piles of books, and got into tabletop games a year later. Baldur’s Gate was without any doubt the most important game in my entire life. At 15, I was probably highly susceptible to it, but there was more than that. I had already been getting into shoters and RTSs, but those never became a big part of my life. And I had been quite into science fiction, but that also faded away soon after.

But fantasy, that stayed with me. I can’t even imagine what person I would be today without my love for the fantastic. What would I be doing with all my creative energies? So I think it’s safe to say that encountering Baldur’s Gate was one of the most important events in my whole life. It was a turning point that set me on a completely different path from anything else I could have imagined.

Something I often wonder is whether this game is actually still that great? Of course it is for me, and always will be. But I have not played it in ages, and getting it running again these days can run into infuriating difficulties. And for anyone who doesn’t already love it, would it really be as fun as it was for us those decades ago? I don’t know. To anyone who has been wondering if the game is worth giving a try, I fully recommend doing so. But would I recommend it to people who aren’t already interested in it? Probably not.

But I am determined to give this game one more go. Quite possibly the last one. If it goes well, expect a proper any lengthy review of the game some point in the future. But don’t hold your breath, it’s a really long game.

Synthwave

I’m not dead! I think I’m getting better.

I’ve been somewhat busy with my RPG stuff and also now fast approaching my final exams of my training as a gardener, and so this site has fallen somewhat to the side. But there’s a good couple of topics regarding fantasy and fiction I really want to write longer pieces about. Just don’t expect them in the next couple of days.

In the meantime, I want to share my love for Synthwave. The music genre that has its own color scheme. I’m usually not into electronic music, but there are some exceptions. Even though I was born in the 80s and just young enough to not have memories of Daft Punk not yet being around, I only really started listening to it three or four years ago after Random Access Memories came out. I’m one of those heretics who thinks Human After All was their best CD to that point, but also really liked their soundtrack for Tron 2. I heard it’s not a good movie, but a great super long Daft Punk music video. I think it was that soundtrack that made me run into the soundtracks for Hotline Miami and Drive on youtube. I thought those three were neat, but that was it.

However a good time later, I don’t know what we were talking about, someone on a fantasy writing forum gave me a link to something by Pertubator, thinking I might like it. And it was then that I realized that there’s a whole genre of this music. It’s great stuff, with Pertubator and Trevor Something now being my favorite musicians.

One interesting thing I noticed was that some parts really reminded me very strongly about the music from the Mass Effect games, especially Mass Effect 2, which I think is one of the very best games of all time and my clear favorite. And also some lesser but still clear similarities with the music from Mirror’s Edge, another of my top favorite games. And then it came all together:

Synthwave is the music of Neo-Noir!

The two go together as well as they did back in Blade Runner. It’s a shared aesthetic that picks up right where Blade Runner had already been 30 years earlier. I did some looking around, and you find a lot of people saying that Synthwave really took of with Drive, perhaps the quintessential neo-noir movie of the current generation. And then Hotline Miami cemented its foothold the following year. Though that was still after Mass Effect 2, so the actual roots have to go even further back .

Lightweight plots and weird tales

Let me tell you something. Trying to write stories that stray from established conventions is hard.

The standard for fantasy adventure stories in the 21st century so far seems to be complex plots with multiple character arcs revolving around mysteries and escalating series of unexpected twists and reveals. I think Marvel movies and Game of Thrones are certainly not without blame in this, but I think you find it also in the other big stories of our age like Lost, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, or the Star Wars reboot. Shocking surprises are the name of the game and these tend to rely on multiple competing factions with unclear plans. Which isn’t a bad thing in any way, but not something that I care much for personally.

But when you set out to create your own work with an ambition for depth, strong themes, and cerebral content, it can be very difficult to not instinctively fall into this pattern that we encounter everywhere in contemporary media discussions.

As a critic, and when discussing writing with others, I have pretty clear ideas of what I consider high quality stories. Plots should be simple and effortless to follow. The core of a story really is the relationships between main characters. Twists and surprises are vastly overrated and generally only obscure the aspects that really matter. And as a reader I also know what I am really looking for. Evocative and wondrous places and creatures. Mythical encounters and situation. Abstract and surreal magic. And characters who display an insightful awareness of themselves and the situations around them. (Yeah, I think Princess Mononoke gets the full score here.)

But then I look at my current outline and it does not do any of these things. It’s just been three weeks since I wrote about how my appreciation of Sword & Sorcery with it’s short and simple plots has been a weight at me feet for years now, misleading me to try to make my ideas fit into a structure that is very much unsuited for them. You’d think putting my thoughts into writing this way would cement them into my brain, but apparently it didn’t. Not sure if I consider that particular outline to be still salvagable.

But all is not lost. Instead I see this as an opportunity to once more take a good look at my earliest ideas for what I really would want to write. Plot has always been my great bane while I see my greatest strengths in setting, locations, and creatures. Over the past half year, I had frequently been investigating the idea of writing stories that are not really about plot. But this very notion goes straight against conventional wisdom what story is. And it would be the complete opposite from the kind of storytelling that is currently dominating.

However, this weekend I did remember one very highly regarded, though today somewhat obscure writer, who did just that. Clark Ashton Smith wrote a sizable number of stories set in different strange worlds, like Hyperborea and Zothique, that consistently lacked anything worth mentioning regarding to plot. You can sum up almost all of them as a character walking through a strange place and then suddenly getting eaten by a grotesque monster. I like Hyperborea much more than Zothique (and have to admit never read anything about Averoigne) but they are all without a doubt some of the most imaginative and fascinating things you’ll ever come across. It doesn’t really matter that there isn’t any real point to any of it when the sights alone cause wonder and amazement.

While Smith was one of a kind, there is another important one of a quite similar type. Lovecraft also wrote lots of stories that only have the barest excuse of a plot and instead rely entirely on the unique and unsettling strangeness of the places, events, and entities that the main characters behold. They do all end in a big twist, but over 80 years later the same ideas have been repeated thousands of time and when you read them now you know exactly what kind of story you are reading and can spot the reveal at the end  from miles away. But even without the twists having any impact left, they are still really entertaining and compelling stories to read. Simply by experiencing the places and events the protagonists are encountering.

Like Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are the quintessential writers of Sword & Sorcery, Lovecraft and Smith are really the core of what they called the Weird Tales (which also was the name of the most famous magazine that published them, as well as Sword & Sorcery).  While Lovecraft is today more usually described as Cosmic Horror, the horror label is much less fitting for Smith, though his stories were also usually gloomy and grotesque, but also much less serious. Many of them are genuinely funny, and not just in a macabre way.

It makes me wonder if perhaps the genre of the weird tales might be a better guideline for a way to put the ideas from my mind into a story form. Plot is not the be all end all to a story. Relying on revelation of setting seems to be a viable way of writing a readable story, though the question remains open whether this also works for settings outside of the general horor sphere. I am also interested in the reveal of character through actions and I think the two should combine very well into Man Against Nature narratives. The biggest challenge I see with this form is how to get to a propper resolution at the end. Both Smith and Lovecraft never really figured that out either. Their stories simply just end at some point with nothing really having been resolved.

Is there even an audience for it? I guess to get people interested in such types of stories in this time they would have to be really good. But then, if they are good, when you write it, they will come. But what it really makes it a very inviting idea to me is that it should help me getting out of the outline hole and maybe finally getting some actual story written. Even if it just ends up practice, it would still totally be worth the time and effort.