I don’t pray anymore
except for when I do—
and when I do, I pray for you.
Not on my knees
with head bowed and hands clasped,
no our fathers or false promises.
I pray for you
with two pence pieces
turned over and over
between thumb and forefinger
and flung into fountain wells;
with cracks in the pavement
and counted steps at bedtime;
with childish superstition
I refuse to outgrow for your sake.
I don’t pray anymore
except for when I do—
and when I do, I pray for you.
I pray you’ll grow up a diamond
so when the world
comes to your doorstep
with cutting tools in hand,
you’ll shine brighter
just to spite them.
she starts growing fur and fangs,
watches hair poke through skin
like new-grown grass;
lets her spine bend to breaking point
and hides herself under baggy jumpers.
she keeps jagged glass and sewing pins
in the back of her underwear drawer
and waits until she’s alone to shed her skin.
While nerve endings scream their protests,
it still feels like coming home.
she prides herself on hunger pangs,
rakes new-grown claws over a stomach
that’s always empty or overflowing,
teaches herself to love the taste of bile
behind her teeth.
she learns how to bite,
how to draw blood;
how to silence a scream.
She sees the world in shades of crimson
and counts her scars at the end of the day.
she forgets what it’s like to walk on two legs.
She carves out a home
in the small hours of morning,
licks her wounds behind back-garden fences
and digs claws into dewy earth.
she learns to love the animal under her skin.
She steps over the threshold,
lets tendons stretch, lungs expand,
and howls at street lamps
when she can’t see the moon.
[The original title of this poem was “I Was A Mentally Ill Teenage Werewolf But I’m All Right Noooooooooooooow”. Figured that wasn’t quite the vibe I was going for, though.]
[Note: if you are planning to play Undertale or are partway through it, never fear! No spoilers here.]
Some context, before we begin: as I write this it’s two in the morning, and I’ve just finished watching jacksepticeye’s run-through of Undertale. Having sent the near-obligatory “I HAVE BEEN EMOTIONALLY COMPROMISED” messages to fellow fans of the game, and considering the fact that I tend to get very introspective and rambly in the small hours of the morning anyway, I feel like this is a good time to bring up some thoughts of my own on the topic of video games that have been brewing for a little while now.
For those of you that don’t know, Undertale is an indie game that came out earlier this year and quickly took the internet by storm, having been nominated for several categories (including Best Independent Game, Games for Impact and Best Role Playing Game) at the 2015 Game Awards. Despite sadly losing out on all fronts to bigger-budget productions, it’s still received praise from all angles… and deservedly so.
The soundtrack, composed by creator Toby Fox, is incredibly catchy – in fact as I write this, I’m listening to a playlist of my favourite themes, and (as I often do with songs stuck in my head) I’ve started teaching myself some of them and transcribing sheet music (download links HERE or in the “Music” tab up top). The artwork for the game, too, is very creative and quirky and never feels particularly limited by the game’s 8-bit design — rather, the simplistic format is embraced wholeheartedly, in something of a love letter to “retro” games of decades past.
As a writer, however, the thing that really impressed me about Undertale was the strength and diversity of the storytelling.
I’ve already raved to many of my friends, fans of the game or otherwise, about the cast of characters. Undertale perhaps benefits from being an indie game with more creator freedom than a larger-scale developer would allow, as the supporting cast that the protagonist encounters is very diverse and progressive compared to a lot of other recent games. This includes multiple well-written female characters, two of which occupy traditionally male-dominated roles, multiple queer couples and a character who suffers from social anxiety. Another is very feminine-appearing but uses male pronouns and seems to have been widely accepted by the fandom as a transgender man (his origin story certainly validates this idea, but unfortunately I can’t mention that without running into spoilers). Even the protagonist (pictured above, far right) is outside the gender binary— while many roleplaying games would require the player to choose a gender alongside a name, the other characters in the game refer only to the protagonist with gender neutral “they/them” pronouns. This seems to have been accepted by the majority of the fandom without question – I have never once seen anyone refer to the protagonist as “he” or “she”, only as “they”.
The narrative, too, consistently impressed me throughout. In Undertale, there are three main narrative arcs that the player can potentially take based on whether you choose to fight the characters you encounter or befriend them… and only by trying all three can the player discover the whole story. Within those three arcs, too, there are other choices you can make that affect the game, easily out-performing this year’s “choice-based” Triple A release, “Until Dawn” which lauds itself as a multi-faceted exploration of the butterfly effect, when in fact your choices have disappointingly little effect the over-arching narrative. (I may have a separate ramble about Until Dawn in another post, actually. It let me down a lot.)
In Undertale, however, not only do your choices lead to a vast range of possible storylines and character interactions, but the game factors many of its own mechanics into the story. Things bleed through into multiple playthroughs, the protagonist restarting from a save point is explicitly talked about in dialogue, choices linger after the game is finished. It’s a prime example of the unique nature of video games as a storytelling medium– there is so much potential there that is not available to other media like film or prose, but so often it goes untapped.
I feel I should point out here, just for the sake of clarity, that I haven’t actually played the game for myself (though I plan to give it a bash at some point in the future) – I’ve only experienced it through multiple Let’s Plays. I am not a gamer, just someone who enjoys video games, and the two certainly aren’t mutually inclusive. I’m hopeless at anything beyond Tetris and lack the skill to actually complete any of the games I’ve seen played online– but I still enjoy them, I still find it very easy (given the right game) to become immersed in the narrative as a spectator.
For quite a while, I thought about video games the way they tend to be viewed by the general public – mindless entertainment that mostly involved loud noises, shooting things, and raging at other players over the internet. I never thought about games from a writing perspective, never even considered that one could be invested in the narrative of a video game the same way I had been all my life with books or films.
However, since I discovered my love of gaming channels on YouTube a few years ago and watched run-throughs of story-centric games like Amnesia, Soma or the Bioshock and Portal series, my whole outlook has changed. I started to see the narrative potential there, and also to realise why I’d so enjoyed “choose your own adventure” books like Goosebumps when I was younger, and the film “Lola Rennt” in my mid-teens (which is definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it). It was the idea of multiple versions of a narrative, starting from the same square one, that fascinated me. I often find myself frustrated when reading a book or watching a film, either because I want more of that universe and characters or because I find the ending dissatisfying (as do many others, which I assume is why fanfiction exists). The idea of going back to the start and trying again, seeing what else that world and its characters had to offer, is something I really enjoyed as a reader… and, increasingly, want to try to explore as a writer.
Having seen three different runs of Undertale by three different gamers, and seeing their genuine emotional investment in a little group of pixely characters, has really cemented in my mind that writing for videogames is something I’d really like to try my hand at.
As it turns out, this was a sort of minor epiphany for me.
For the last few years I’ve felt like I don’t really know what I want to do with my writing. I’m not sure where my niche is, what I’m good at, where I want it to take me. Despite the fact that I’ve wanted to write for a living since I was five years old, I’ve never particularly had a lot of faith in my own work and, on several occasions, have seriously questioned whether it’s what I should be spending my life pursuing. Besides my delusional fangirl dream of one day taking over Doctor Who, I’ve never really had an end goal in mind and it’s been frustrating me more and more as the end of my Creative Writing degree inches ever nearer.
The more I think about writing for video games, however, the more the idea excites and inspires me, which I’ll admit is a feeling that is rather rare for me these days. Seeing gamers like Markiplier and Jacksepticeye get so involved in the narrative of whatever they’re playing, seeing them talking through their choices and ranting or raving about plot twists, really makes me want to create something that has the same effect.
I want to write games that really immerse players in the narrative, make them put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, think about their choices and what the in-game consequences might be before they make them.
I want to write games that lend themselves to multiple iterations, that make the player want to revisit it and always have a little more of the story to offer.
I want to write games with diverse characters, so that every potential player has the chance to see themselves represented.
I want to write games that make people reconsider how they look at video games, and not just write them off as something mindless and unsophisticated.
I want to write games that make other people want to write games.
I want to write, full stop, and with a level of enthusiasm that I haven’t felt in quite a while… and I have Undertale and its creative team to thank for that.
[ Bit of context: I’ve been working on a longer-term writing project over the last few months, and in a bid to expand that particular universe and keep the muse going I’ve written a few bits of flash fiction focusing on the minor characters. This is the first of them. ]
In the house on the end of Newton Avenue, a community of wanderers and left-behinds arose practically overnight. Families formed wherever there was space: blood pacts and brotherhoods, sisters and mothers and cousins.
Miss Terezhkova sat on a battered sofa surrounded by the littluns, who within just a few hours had taken to calling her “Ma”; she sang a lilting nursery rhyme in her mother’s native language, idly bouncing the youngest of them on one knee. The toddler cooed and grinned toothlessly, pulling at her necklace with pudgy fingers. In the far corner the Novak twins (only just clear of their teenage years, all bruised cheekbones and male bravado) sat watching Mr Perkowski’s weather-beaten hands as he whittled a crude model of a wolf out of the remains of a broken chair leg.
Nina and Yara were already walking everywhere arm in arm and calling each other “sister”– and for all anyone under that roof knew, they might have been. The fact that the two of them had been total strangers only the previous day, huddled together behind a crate at the Hainsley docks and hardly daring to breathe lest they be caught, was unthinkable to anyone.
It seemed the stars had aligned to bring them all together to their own crowded little corner of the universe, and they gravitated towards each other, comfortable – for now – in their orbit.
[I have a tiny notebook that I take with me on all my train journeys– and since I’ve been on a lot of trains recently it’s starting to fill up, so…. here you go, internet.]
Time For Tea
Polka dot girl dresses
like a fifties tea party;
smiles the way mother taught her,
evenly spaced like cutlery.
She twists her hair
into tight little rolls round her finger,
twists her fingers round themselves,
knuckles turning white
under the table.
It takes a lot of work to look this happy.
[These three I did by putting my ipod on different random settings, skipping to the middle of a song and just writing down the first few words of each.]
#1 (Arctic Monkeys)
I’m an exception.
It seems as though I need a partner:
the thrill of the chase, the proof we’re onto a win.
It wasn’t real, just a memory,
but I don’t care.
I dreamed about you, darlin, pretending to dance
to all the smirking faces on the dancefloor
to shelter from reality;
I play it on repeat and then hit the road
when winter’s in full swing.
#2 (KT Tunstall)
Can you be hot and cold,
find yourself walking the world
in the middle of nowhere?
If you’re miles away,
can you let me go?
Just like the sea I was silent
until I turned around.
Let me tell the truth:
underneath this big old sky
we’re one and the same.
#3 (completely random)
Airborne brothers and sisters, welcome;
don’t wish this town’s past away,
bow down to the old country.
I’m not as shy as another wordsmith:
pen full of hymns,
a heart on my windowsill.
Can’t you see it’s madness,
a fever dream, death by custom–
I don’t make the plan.
Everyone will be a little beautiful in defeat–
that heart is somewhere darker,
in time, you’ll find your way in.
Teach your children
to sail the Indian Ocean in a thimble,
to turn bathtime
into a voyage to the depths.
Teach them to balance, tip-toed,
on the pinpoint of a new idea –
sometimes they’ll fall off, and when they do,
teach them to number their bruises
like notches in a door frame,
count them with their achievements
like trophies and medals
in the living room cabinet.
Teach them that while bodies can be temples,
they are the gods to whom they’re devoted
and only they decide who kneels at their altar.
Teach them not to say maybe when they mean to say no.
Teach them that, like bodies,
sexuality and gender
come in a myriad of shapes and sizes
each as valid as the next;
that they can be who they want to be,
love who they want to love,
be it male, female, both, in between, or none of the above.
Teach them that the concept of beauty and brains
is not a dichotomy, and that there are
a hundred thousand ways to have both;
that they don’t have to smile with their lips closed,
and that not even the girls in the magazines
look like the girls in the magazines.
Teach them to embrace the gaps that can’t be filled,
that it’s okay not to know everything,
because learning as we go is the whole point.
Teach them that nobody is always right.
Even you. Especially you.
Besides being true, it’ll keep you humble.
Teach them to make up their own constellations,
to hop zig-zag from star to star
like traversing cracks in a pavement;
and when the heavens start to bend
and come crashing around their ears,
teach them to wear their good days like armour
so they can stand their ground.
Above all, remind them that they are not Atlas:
that their shoulders, however broad,
don’t have to hold up the world alone.
“Remember—squeeze the trigger gently. Like I showed you.” Henry’s grip on the rifle faltered as he felt his father’s looming presence over his shoulder. The animal in front of him made an attempt to stand, but faltered as blood – thick, black, arterial – oozed from an existing bullet wound in its thigh and it crumpled to the ground again with a howl of pain.
The animal reached out towards him, silently pleading, and Henry swallowed against the bile at the back of his throat as he aimed between its eyes.
The gunshot echoed through the trees – the animal let out a whimper, and fell still.
To find out more about In For A Penny, or for further entries, click here.