Pokémon and Crowds: Single-player game, multiplayer experience

This post was originally published on my other blog, Cyborg Stories. It was written as part of a university assignment in 2020. Here’s a link.


Description: White aquarium fish with a large tail. Used under Pixabay License. JoshuaClifford123. Source: Here.

Pokémon is one of those classic games, instantly recognisable to anyone who has anything to do with computer or video games (and even some who don’t). It’s a brilliantly-designed game – complex enough to stand up to very deep analysis, but simple enough that children can learn it.

Or a fish. Turns out, a fish can play Pokémon.

Pokémon is traditionally a single-player experience. The originals, Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red, came out in 1996. The name, for those not familiar with the phenomenon that is this franchise, is a Japanese portmanteau of the phrase “Pocket Monsters”, as the game is about monsters that you carry around in your pocket. Actually, the original Japanese version released as Pocket Monsters: Red and Green, but we’re more familiar with the American name, Pokémon Red and Blue. Not counting spinoffs, director’s cut versions, sequels and phone app games like Pokémon Go, there have been 16 main games, the most recent of which released in 2019.

While there are exceptions, the video games have largely been single-player only. You don’t play Pokémon online, with friends, or against other players, you play it usually on a handheld gaming console (or emulator, for the older games), by yourself. You might talk about it online, compare strategies, discuss the characters and techniques for leveling your Pokémon or beating certain gyms. But the actual playing happens alone.

Enter the fish.

The HackNY hackathon in August 2014 spawned an idea that became an Internet phenomenon. Grayson the fish was livestreamed swimming around his tank, which was divided into a three-by-three grid, and each area of the grid mapped to a button on a Game Boy controller. Up, Down, Left, Right, A, B, Start and Select (no information was available on whether Grayson ever entered the Konami code, but I like to believe he did). A camera tracked Grayson as he swam around the tank, recording whenever he entered a new grid square and pressing that button. And thus, a fish played Pokémon Red.

20,000 people watched this fish play Pokémon Red. Twenty. Thousand. People.

Video: Fish Plays Pokemon: Pallet Town Syndrome (Highlights 8/8-8/9). Originally uploaded by YouTube user Zejayt.

A significant portion of those 20,000 people chose to scream abuse at a fish for more than 100 hours, for not pressing the right buttons on a game that it didn’t know it was playing and probably wouldn’t have understood even if you sat down and explained it. Despite this negative environment, within the first 125 hours, the fish had managed to select a Charmander as its starting Pokémon, and beat the rival’s Squirtle with it.

Grayson, being a fish, has since passed, but gaming enthusiasts, tech experts, and people who are interested in social media experiments talk about Grayson’s accomplishments to this day. The experience is deeply communal, too, in a way that single player games generally aren’t.

However, Grayson’s experiment was preceded by another, perhaps even more famous experiment: Twitch Plays Pokémon, abbreviated generally to TPP. This also took place in 2014, though in February. In this experiment, Twitch chat was set up so that messages that people typed into the chat were converted to instructions for the game.

This experiment is actually still running – just before writing this I spent a very enjoyable five or six minutes watching Twitch chat run a bike repeatedly into a wall in Pokémon Sword/Shield (released 2019). Here’s the stream.

Now, the stream is currently much less of an unmitigated disaster – famously the original, which also played Pokémon Red, had 80,000 people ‘playing’ … and remember how I said that the game is deep enough that strategy discussions are legitimate? Yeah. Playing one of the original games, you get 80,000 Pokémon diehards in the chat all providing contradictory instructions to execute their own personal strategies. Most people have completely different ways to get through the game, from choosing different starter Pokémon, to taking gyms in different orders. There was no filter in the Twitch chat either – it executed the moves in exactly the order they were received. All of the moves. The Internet, never known for its proportional and moderated responses to anything, let alone childhood favourite games, turned the stream, for a short time, into a pit of unmitigated rage.

And, of course, memes and fringe subgroups.

Now, there are significantly fewer people watching the stream at any given time. As of writing this sentence, there are a comparatively modest 152 people watching the stream, and most of the instructions seem to be coming from between 10 and 20 users – not enough to cause such complete chaos, but certainly still enough to run a bike into a wall for several minutes running.

Also as of writing that sentence, I learned for the first time that there is a Pokémon called a Sqwovet, and I’m not sure how to continue my day now that I know this information.

TPP is known now as the event that changed Twitch forever, possibly even the moment when Twitch was put on the trajectory to become what it is today. It has also spawned research discussing what we can learn about social dynamics and even political organisation from watching the original Twitch Plays livestream and examining the players’ behaviour.

All of this begs the question: Why Pokémon? I would answer ‘familiarity’. Pokémon is the most valuable franchise ever created, has millions of fans all across the world, and thanks to its TV and comic adaptations, is even recognisable to people who have never touched a game console in their lives. It’s also just at the nostalgia sweet spot: people who are Twitch watchers these days probably remember growing up playing Pokémon as kids, whether that’s the original Red and Blue, or whether they’re more of the Gold and Silver era. My generation grew up watching the anime on Cheez TV (Or whatever passed for Cheez TV in other countries).

That kind of name recognition is vital to an experiment like this – to crowd source input with the largest crowd possible – whether that’s gathering 20,000 people to scream at a fish, or 80,000 people to scream at each other. These experiments needed as many people as possible to engage with them in order to teach us something about the way we experience things as a group, not just how we play games like this alone.

The only way these experiments could have worked – and turned out to be the experiences they were – was for the franchise to be popular enough to put 80,000 people in the same Twitch chat who all already knew how to play the game. It needed the name Pokémon on the cover to get people interested and invested. Otherwise the whole thing would have ended up like the TPP stream is now: A couple of hundred people politely running a bike into a wall, largely unnoticed by the rest of the Internet.

Cyborg Stories: A Brief History and some Definitions

This post was originally published at my other blog, Cyborg Stories. It was written as part of a university assignment in 2020. Here’s the link.


Man in half darkness with a wired eyepiece and a USB port on his neck. Used under Creative Commons, some rights reserved. Linus Bohman. Link to source.

Humans have been writing stories for a long time, and we’ve gotten very good at innovating.

Approximately 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote his ‘Poetics’. Aristotle outlined two genres for theatre: tragedy and comedy. Nowadays, the idea of categorising all stories into two genres is laughable.

A little over 1,000 years ago, Murasaki Shikibu wrote what was to be known as the first novel, ‘The Tale of Genji’. She wrote in a very specific style, and was clearly writing specifically for the women at the court, who apparently waited with bated breath for every new chapter. At the time, that style was looked down on, but nowadays, she’s credited with pioneering a whole medium.

I’m not sure I need to list or describe the ways that TV and movies have changed storytelling over the last sixty-odd years.

But that’s nothing compared to the home (or personal) computer.

The most obvious innovation to storytelling that computers brought is the video game. A lot of words have been spent on the internet about how video games’ great strength is their interactivity, and the ways that changes how we need to think about storytelling (for example, this video, which discusses the ‘language’ of game design as separate from other art forms). It’s true that games that play like a movie – gameplay segments taking the player from cutscene to cutscene in a linear storyline – still exist, but they’re increasingly considered ‘old hat’. Now, video games are being used to create stories like ‘Journey’, where part of the experience is playing alongside an anonymous player from the Internet, only barely able to communicate but encouraged to work together.

But the real game-changer that the computer brought was the Internet.

Nowadays, in Sydney, you can go on a guided puzzle tour of local landmarks. It’s a relatively simple premise: You start at a predetermined location, at a predetermined time, and you receive a text message. The text contains a puzzle, something that you can find the answer to by exploring the local area. When you find the answer, you text it back to the same number to receive a new location and a new puzzle. It’s a self-directed guided tour that relies on most people being able to receive and send texts at all times.

But it’s not precisely a story. Nor is the Dan Olsen Discord experiment, a temporary Discord server with seemingly nonsensical rules, but one where the community assigned sense to the environment. For example, rather than avoiding the channel #post-here-get-banned, the community designated it a meaning, and members voluntarily chose to post there, sending poignant final messages that were either screenshotted quickly or lost forever. It wasn’t a narrative, but I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that the experience didn’t tell a story.

‘Perplex City’ by Andrea Phillips is a story, though in a very non-traditional format. It is an ARG or a transmedia story, and thus bears more resemblance to a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) or a live-action role play (LARP). ‘Perplex City’ was played online, with hundreds of people participating. The story was told through fake news websites, videos, social media and forums, and required the players to follow a number of sites to collect all the clues. There were web pages where the players gathered to share knowledge or clues, and to archive the solutions to problems so far. ‘Perplex City’ ran for two “seasons” before being placed on indefinite hold. It was also a transitory experience. It ran only once, and cannot be re-played.

For the other half of the blog title, the Cyborg is, in science fiction, a human or other organic life form that is augmented with technology. Mechanical limbs, implanted eyes with in-built zoom functions, Matrix-style data ports into the human brain. Indeed, some say there are already cyborgs in real life. Does a pacemaker, for example, count as an augment for the human body?

This blog, then, is not intended to discuss stories about cyborgs (though I will neither confirm nor deny whether cyborgs will feature in it eventually). It is about stories that are themselves cyborgs. About stories like ‘Homestuck’, a webcomic that, at least at the start, was heavily driven by fan input. It is about ARGs like Perplex City, discussed above. And it is about fan works – traditional media reinterpreted as other traditional media via social media and online communities.

The Internet has the power to make almost anything interactive, and humans have the ability to make stories fit into any space available. Cyborg stories are fascinating because they are new molds for old stories, new venues for old concepts, and new ways for audiences to connect and interact with stories in ways that haven’t been possible before.

Blog Update January 2021

So

Uh

2020, huh?

Wow.

And call me cynical, but I’m not holding out hope for 2021 to get much less chaotic.

But I am at least holding out hope that I can be … as productive this year as I was last year, if not a little more so.

I never named the year this year, so I’m going to start with that, and then a quick update on the blog, the stories, and some of the extracurriculars.

This year is officially the Year of Backlog. This one’s a bit more of a reference to personal stuff, but it’s relevant to my writing as well. I, like everyone else, put a lot of stuff on hold last year, and I’m going to be working through it this year. I’ve also, due to changing work commitments, had to change my priorities a bit, and put some things on the back burner. So in addition to everything else, I’m going to be trying to work through some of my backlog this year, to catch up on the things that I wanted to do last year or should have organised already but didn’t have time, or that other things got in the way of.

Now — the blog. Astute readers (aka any readers at all, if I still have any) will notice that this blog kind of went on hiatus at the end of last year, about the time that I hit university commitments. I mentioned a new secondary blog then, and then proceeded to do nothing with it. The next few posts are going to be cross-posts from there, because I think they’re relevant and that gives me a little extra time to recharge the blog batteries, and then I’m going to be back on new content for this blog as much as I can with the time and energy I’m going to have available. I’ll make a decision in the next few weeks, but it’s possible I’ll decide to drop my posting goal from one blog per week to one a fortnight — or perhaps one short story and one post per month — to keep my commitments down this year.

For the writing, I have been on hiatus with that for the last couple of months. People following my Twitter will know that I’ve been working with Arcanacon recently, and I’ve been running their Game Dunk Online event and helping to run their virtual convention this January, so that ate up a lot of my time and creative energy. I’m still working on the next serial for the blog, and it might be a while before I get it done. It’ll also be a while before I can start working on the sequel to Fire Witch, because I can’t start that til I’m finished with the serial. I haven’t entirely figured out what I’m going to do for creative content in the meantime — I have some short stories lined up that I can post, and I am nearly ready to release the third Ferryman’s Apprentice hard copy/e-book, so there will be a few things coming through. However, if it’s creative content you want, it won’t entirely be mine, but it’s probably Cyborg Stories that you want to be looking at (hint hint).

On a personal note, there are a couple of Big Life Things coming up for me this year. I don’t know how much I’ll talk about them here — I do want to start having more of a personality on this blog, and do more than just talk about my Writing Opinions, but I’m still working out the balance. I’ll talk a little bit more about those as and when it becomes relevant, I suppose. For now, what you mostly need to know is that they’re probably going to throw my productivity for a loop, but I’ll keep everyone posted. I’m also looking forward to working more with Arcanacon this year, and although I can’t talk about any of their projects yet, I’ll be sure to mention on the blog when they happen.

And that’s it from me — keep an eye out here and on Cyborg Stories — there’s going to be cool things happening this year in both places, provided I can manage my time right.

Brainstorming and the Throwaway Idea

Buckle up, kids, I’ve found a topic I’m going to get really intense about again. I’ve been writing a lot of more personal stuff lately, but today we’re gonna dive back into the writing chatter.

I was having a conversation with a friend today – yes, this is one of those posts that I am writing basically immediately after having the idea – about the creative process. The Oatmeal series about creativity, but particularly the one about brainstorming was thrown around, and thus was a blog post topic born. (Fair warning, nothing that would be considered graphic, but the post does involve people without clothes on, and people vomiting).

Let me be clear: I’m not here to disagree with that Oatmeal article. It’s more a jumping-off point for the idea tangent it sent me on. Credit your sources and all that.

The specific point off which I jumped was the phrase “garbage fondue fountain”, and the idea that it’s important, when brainstorming in a group, of having at least one person in the group that comes up with an endless stream of bad ideas that everyone else can build from, and use the pieces of those ideas to create something better. I like that analogy – I’m reminded a little of the old parable (one of those Internet stories that gets passed around in Facebook meme form) of the pottery teacher who assigned each student to one of two groups: one group marked on the quantity of pots they output and the others who were only allowed to submit one pot but they could spend as long on it as they liked. Despite the additional time allowed, the best pots were all created by the group who had been told to focus on quantity over quality.

The moral of both these stories, of course, is that when you’re in a creative pursuit, you’re better off generating a lot of ideas, variously because that’s the way that you generate the individual pieces of a good idea, which you can then assemble later, or because through sheer statistics, you end up more likely to create a good idea. Or, of course, you get more practice at generating ideas, though I would say that ideas and pots are a little different. Not totally different – there’s a skill to generating ideas the same way that there are skills you can learn to make better pots, but there’s also a reason there’s such a ‘mystery’ around the process of coming up with creative ideas, and that’s because it’s much harder to pin down that process than the process of actually turning those ideas into creative product.

Now, I’ll go ahead and admit my biases right here: I’m the sort of person who’s always had more ideas than I’ll ever actually be able to put down into words. I keep a record of ideas in a big notebook – when I say big, I mean I’ve got seventy pages of the accursed things, and they’re just the ones that make it past the cut of “I’ve been thinking about this idea long enough that I should spend the time to go get the book and write it down”. I’ve got a further list of disjointed images and lines and characters that don’t have a plot to call home yet. I’m basically set for life on ideas.

So, I’m always going to have a sort of un-mystical view of generating ideas. I don’t mind forgetting them, usually, and I’m not too worried about other people using my ideas as prompts.

I don’t think there’s really anyone out there anymore who expects a writer to be able to write a perfect first draft on the first try – there’s a reason that we have the editing process. But we do expect that for ideas, in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s not surprising, really – we choose to buy books or watch movies or play games based on the premise a lot of the time (except in cases where we are already familiar with the creator). Even when we receive a recommendation for media, the person recommending it will often give a description of the premise as essential information. One of the most frequently-asked questions for creators is “where do you get your ideas?”.

Now, group brainstorming is important, but a lot of writers don’t do their work in groups. The whole point of the garbage fondue fountain is that they spark ideas in other people, right? So how do you do that when you are working alone?

How can you be your own garbage fondue fountain while also being the person who sifts through the mountain of hay to find the needle? Surely the trick to mitigating the garbage is to look from the outside, to see the flaws that the fountain didn’t necessarily see themselves, and in patching those holes come up with new ideas?

There’s a certain balancing act to both uncritically coming up with terrible ideas and also critically picking through them.

I’ll let you in on a secret. That folder full of ideas? I don’t have plans to write all of them. Heck, I expect that I’ll go to my grave without writing even a quarter of those ideas that I’ve written down. I still want to keep them, just in case I can do something with them that I didn’t expect, or combine them in interesting ways with other, later, ideas. But I go back and read through that book occasionally, and I feel like there are probably less than ten out of those seventy ideas where I would be upset if I never got around to writing them. Sure, I still get a bit annoyed if I have a good idea and don’t write it down in the moment. But as for the ideas where they’re already safe? I’m generally OK with just never using them.

Time, then, is the first secret to being a garbage fondue fountain. Be a garbage fountain and then come back in a few weeks or months and see if the ideas still hold up beyond the moment. This, of course, is reliant on there being a few weeks or months in between your projects, so that you can let your ideas percolate. Great for a novelist like me, maybe not so great if your purview is shorter, and you churn through ideas a lot quicker, or if you’re on a deadline.

But I think pretty much everyone knows about that one so let’s move on. Are there any options for both churning out those ideas and critiquing them at the same time?

Well, yes and no. It sort of depends on what type of person you are. Are you a person who vomit-writes your entire first draft and then edits because you can’t both create and critique at the same time? This might be a bit harder, or at least require a shift in gears. But I’m also not the sort of person who believes that it’s impossible to be critical and creative at the same time. Let me know if that’s something you want me to talk about in a later post. I’ll add it to the post list anyway, for a rainy day.

The gist for now is that sometimes you really can’t do anything except wait and get a little perspective. Having just run several edit passes on a very short timeline, that’s an important thing to know. I can be critical and creative at the same time, but it’s hard to be critical of everything all in one swipe, and there’s definitely such a thing as being too close to a project. But there are ways you can be both the idea generator and the idea criticiser.

The first part is to get past the idea that some ideas are “good” and some are “bad”. Sure, there are bad ideas out there. But it’s often about execution as much as the concept itself. So commit some time to it. Even if you’re already sure it’s a bad idea, pretend it’s a good one. Think about how you’d do it. If you break it immediately, it’s probably a bad idea. If you sit with it for five minutes and decide it’s broken, there might be parts worth saving. Record them, discard the rest and try the next idea. If you haven’t broken it after that long, great! Now throw it away. Write it down somewhere, take some notes, but throw it away and get a new one. Just keep going. These aren’t your Great Ideas, they’re your garbage fondue. Take them, mess with them, and throw them away. Later, you’ll piece parts of them together and you’ll have something worth working with. This is quantity over quality. Make all the pots and don’t worry if some of them are wonky. Learn to get real OK with creating something only to throw it away.

But seriously though, if you can? Idea books are super helpful. Get yourself an idea book and read it periodically. Future You will thank you.

Announcing Cyborg Stories

So, just a few comments on this – it’s more of an announcement than a real post, so I won’t take up too much of your time.

So this is about that university degree that I’ve signed up for this year. I’ve had a half a Masters degree hanging over my head for several years now, but ended up deciding to pick a different degree.

Anyway. That’s a story that I’ll save for the eventual autobiography, or a panel sometime. The main point is that for one of my courses, I have been required to create a website and some content for it, relevant to digital media somehow. I’m going to be focusing mine on how stories can be presented differently in digital spaces, and how digital spaces and traditional media spaces can be combined.

So, because I’m never one to waste good content, here is the link to the blog, called Cyborg Stories. I’ll be reposting the content here (with links of course, so that I can be sure I didn’t plagiarise myself), which will consist of at least one essay piece, possibly two, and a couple of recorded ‘podcasts’.

I’m not currently decided on what will happen to Cyborg Stories after the course. After all, I barely keep up with content for this blog as it is – I don’t trust myself to keep up with two. But I do have a couple ideas, and I think the blog will continue to see use. After all, I was blown away that I even managed to get the URL ‘Cyborg Stories’ – I’m not just throwing away that kind of lucky break.

In the meantime, enjoy the content. It won’t be too much of a departure from the normal stuff over here, just a little more … focused. You know, sticking to one theme. And an actual schedule.

Something like that.

Enjoy!

No End Lines

Rambly one today, folks. I thought up this one a while ago, but I had other blog posts in the queue and I didn’t manage to get it written while I was still having Feelings about it, so I’m not sure how compelling it will be to read now, but here we go.

In case you haven’t guessed, this is another personal one, folks. But it is writing-related as well, I promise. Continue reading

August 2020 Update

Have I missed any of these? I think I’ve missed some of these. I’ve honestly had trouble keeping track of these last couple months. But for those still interested, here’s what’s been going on.

The King’s City went up, with a book launch (online, of course) organised with help from my mate Paddy, who is a truly amazing human. E-books went live a while back, for those who like their books more digital and portable, Smashwords sells them. Continue reading

Creator

The First Day

When I awoke, the world was perfect.

Not my perfect, not made-for-me perfect, but perfect like a picture book, a child’s drawing of Heaven, the guided meditation, think-of-a-perfect-peaceful-place sort of perfect. The sky was blue, dotted with small, perfectly-white clouds without any breeze to move them. I was lying on the grass, which was long and untouched but nevertheless smelled fresh-mown, and there were no bugs or insects in it, not even a harmless ant or ladybug. The wind felt like summer, but spring flowers were in bloom all around me.

Having nothing else to do, I began to walk.

 

The Third Day

The nights were as perfect as the daytime. I was expecting, as the night fell, to be beseiged by insects – grass is usually full of them – but I have found that there is no animal life of any kind. The ground feels like soft moss, and no matter how far I walk, my feet never become dirty.

I would have expected an ideal night to contain the mournful noises of far-off owls and other nighttime birds. But this is not an ideal place, only perfect. The night here is silent.

The meadow was enormous.

 

The Sixth Day

The days passed.

There was only grass, spotted with the same flowers over and over.

Yesterday, I passed a single tree, far too tall and straight. This is an open plain. Any tree growing alone, without companions to buffer it, should have been bent and twisted by the winds. It should have been a short and stubby thing. But it was tall enough that I would have been nervous to climb it, branches wide and thick and leaves lush.

Perhaps it made sense. After all, there was no wind here. Not even a breeze.

I wasn’t tired or hungry, though I had been walking for days without rest. The shade didn’t feel cool, and the sun didn’t feel warming. The air was a pleasant temperature for the clothes I was wearing – not ones I remembered buying or owning, just trousers and shirt and no shoes, a timeless outfit that was never quite in nor quite out of fashion – and it made no difference whether I was out in the open or under the foliage.

I sat a while under the tree anyway.

Then I continued walking.

 

The Eighth Day

I missed speech. I missed words, and their sounds, and the way that they build on each other to make new meanings. I start to speak to myself, but quickly found I had nothing to say that I did not already know. So instead, I made sounds, feeling how the movements in my lips and tongue changed the noises that came from my mouth, exploring new sounds and new expressions.

I am alone.

I

Am alone.

I am lone.

Lonealone.

Lone wolf, lone ranger, lone calling owl, lone star lone stair lone stare lone pair.

Alone in company alone with myself alone, alone, alone.

After I had finally stopped, I wondered why I did it.

Answer: I had grown bored.

The tree seemed to be the only one of its kind. I hadn’t seen another one since I left it behind, nor anything else to break up the monotony. The grass is green, the flowers are plentiful. The world is empty.

Nonsense words buzzed through my head, because I had nothing else to think.

 

The Ninth Day

Finally, I found something new. I found the edge of the world, where green grass met blue sky.

It was hard to be afraid of the edge. Nothing seemed real in this world, after all. I left no footprints, I never got dirty or hungry or tired. Night fell the same way every day, at the same time, turning the horizon the same colours in the same patterns. I had tried to dig into the dirt, but though I could push my fingers into the grass, I couldn’t pry any of it up or get at the dirt beneath it. If the world weren’t so solid, I would compare it to a mirage.

The edge was the same blue as the sky, perfect summer blue. I hadn’t given that colour a second thought while I was walking, but now that I had seen it at the edge, I couldn’t help but think of the whole sky as some kind of bluescreen crash. The universe’s 404 error.

I put my hand out into the blue, and the result made my eyes water. It joined to the green grass seamlessly, no dirt, no cliff edge, nothing to indicate drop or distance. But no matter how far I stretched my hand out, it never disappeared. Even downwards, past where I could see the grass, my hand was always in front of the blue, never behind it, never disappearing into it.

I moved away from the edge, but couldn’t bring myself to leave it behind entirely. It both drew me and repulsed me. After all, it was the end of this world. I had reached the limit of where I could go.

But at the same time, there seemed to be nothing stopping me from going over that edge. This world was monotone, uniform. I hadn’t been to every part of it, but I had certainly explored all it had to offer.

I sat, and I thought, and I looked into the pale, sky-egg blue.

As the sunset began to encroach, I made my decision. It was hard to be afraid of the edge, after all. Nothing in this world seemed real. I extended my foot over the edge, and took a breath.

 

The Ninth Day, Part Two

As I stepped into water, I sank like a pin.

The change was like exiting the screen on an old video game. One one image, grassy fields. The character walks off the screen and then in the other, blue oceans.

I let myself descend for a while as the world shifted around me, my internal map and compass spinning as they try to keep up. I fell for quite a distance before I realised, first, that I could breathe, and second, that I had already hit the ocean floor.

My hair floated around my face, and when I went to brush it away, I only created eddies, separating the strands and making it harder to see. But through the curtain of my hair, I saw animals for the first time.

There were fish all around me! Not just fish – colourful tropical fish, bodies in all different shapes. Gigantic, fan-like tails drifted past me, beaked mouths, circular and triangular bodies, or snout-like faces like cartoon characters expecting to be kissed.

A shadow fell over me, and I look up. Like a cloud made entirely of silver linings, a peaceful school of fish was drifting past. It undulated as it went, each individual fish weaving through the school like thread through a loom.

I reached up, and my body moved automatically, my desire to touch them translating into upward movement. Then …

Then I noticed. I was so overjoyed to finally see another living creature for the first time that at first it had escaped me, but as my body lifts towards the school above me, the fish around me get caught up in my eddies, dragged up along with me. When I touched a silvery flank in the great school, the fish flutters like a piece of paper trying to right itself. The school rippled, but didn’t change its movement, didn’t respond to my presence, and the fish was too smooth. I could see scales but not feel them.

These fish didn’t move like fish. Their bodies didn’t ripple as their muscles tensed, their fins didn’t flex to propel them through the water.

I slowly floated back to the bottom of the ocean, the sand flexing a little under my feet.

I decided not to touch the fish again. I don’t want to break the illusion again. I just wanted to believe, for a little while, that there were living things around me again.

 

The Tenth Day

Once I had seen it, though, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t. I can’t help but see the fish as a paper mobile above a child’s bed now.

But at least in this ocean, there was change, new things to see. This wasn’t the same grassy field and the same flowers over and over. I walked through coral towers several times taller than me, and found the hidden wriggling things inside their holes. I waded through beds of seaweed so thick I nearly feared I’d lose my way – if I could bring myself to fear anything here. When I felt overwhelmed, I just thought my way upwards, and marveled at how long it took me to rise above the great, fleshy pillars. When I wanted to rest, I sat on a cliff and watched the currents slowly shift a great expanse of silty dunes underneath me.

I learned, soon, how to move so that my hair floated either behind or above me, not in my way. I probably looked strange as I watched those dunes, sitting on an undersea cliff with my hair floating directly upwards from my scalp. But who cared? Who was there to care?

I loved this place, but the lifeless fish only made me feel lonely.

 

The Eighteenth Day

I found the border of this world, too.

Again, I stepped back from that expanse of plain blue to decide what I would do. But not, this time, because I was afraid of danger. It was because I was afraid I would miss something. The ocean seemed much smaller than the field, but there were so many sights to see. I was sure I hadn’t yet explored anything. If I left now, what might I miss?

But at the same time, I was so curious about what kind of world would be there next.

In the end, it was the fish that made my decision for me. The landscapes were beautiful, but I wanted to find a world where the animals weren’t paper cutouts.

I stepped through the border again.

 

The Twenty-Fifth Day

It was about day twenty-five that I started to suspect that these worlds were created by someone.

I had walked through a jungle, deep and lush and thick. In the centre, I found a mighty crystal, translucent green or translucent blue depending on the angle of the light, larger than a house, and gleaming in the sunlight.

I climbed the crystal – there were ample footholds, provided I was careful to use the larger and flatter outcroppings – and sat on top of it. My view didn’t change. The trees were far taller than the crystal, still, so I could only see the sky directly above me, not the horizon or the treetops. But as I sat there, I felt like I had achieved something, and learned something.

It wasn’t the first time I had seen something improbable in one of those worlds, but it was the first one that made me feel like I was in a fantasy story, where I might have come across the magical crystal that will start my great quest.

But there is nowhere else to go. I can even see the pale blue of the border glinting through the trees in some directions. This world feels like it has a purpose, and that purpose is to house the crystal. There is just enough jungle to hold it, and no more.

Perhaps the realisation that all these worlds had a single creator should have changed the way I thought about them. But I don’t think, at the time, that the full implications had really hit me.

I watched the sky above me go dark, and then the moon passing overhead. I know I have time. Somewhere in the last five days or so, I lost all sense that I must hurry. I don’t need to eat, or sleep, or find shelter. There is nothing to do but wander.

Sitting on this giant crystal, I decided that this realisation gave me a purpose. I would search these worlds for evidence of their creator. If I cannot find the creator, then I will at least learn a little about who they are.

 

The Fortieth Day

I walked through every inch of the worlds I entered.

I walked through forests and dunes and plains and tundra and through night and day, through caves full of crystals and full of sleeping bats that would not wake and full of little caverns tucked away and full of secrets.

In dunes, I found caves and explored them thoroughly – ancient tombs modelled after who-knows-what people. I spent hours examining every inch of the walls for interesting treasures, and any clues that might lead me closer to understanding the creator.

I have seen stands of trees that hid secret moss between their roots. I have seen rivers that I could walk into as if the water were air.

I was still no closer to really finding answers. But I felt like I was learning.

 

The Fifty-Third Day

Then I arrived at a world that seemed … half done.

It was no larger than a ballroom, and everything in it seemed sketched. None of the edges were quite smooth. There were a few trees, most of them ending halfway up the trunk. Some had grass tufts against the roots, but there was no grass covering the ground. I would look at the ground to see if it was green, or perhaps brown, or some other colour, but though I was sure there was a colour, I could never remember what it was when I looked away again.

My bare feet tingled against the solid-colour ground, as though my body isn’t quite sure where the ground is and where it isn’t.

I placed a hand on one of the half-trees. It felt wrong, and my hand blurred as I pressed my palm against it, as though the world couldn’t decide where my hand ended and the tree began.

I looked down at my feet, and immediately averted my eyes. The sight of my toes sinking into grass that wasn’t there sickened me, just like that first border had made my eyes water.

I left the world quickly, feeling like I had seen something I shouldn’t.

 

The Sixty-First Day

I sat on a sand dune all in beautiful colours, rust reds in the sun and indigos in the shadows. As the wind blew across the dunes, it created a haunting, howling, empty tune. I sat atop one of the highest points and watched the wind blowing the sand, trying to put my finger on what felt wrong. Was it something about the way the wind lifted the sand that was wrong? Was the sound subtly offkey? I didn’t know what it was, but I felt like there was something unfinished, something left undone.

I had now visited two worlds that I felt, were offcuts. The creator had, for some reason, chosen not to finish them. Something about how the trees looked in their stand, something about the half-hearted grass around the tree roots, something about the tune that the wind created or the colours in the sand hadn’t sat quite right. They were too boring, or too simple, or simply didn’t match the original intention. In the end, the creator had decided to abandon them, rather than fixing them.

In a life that seemed far away now, I once read something about dunes that sang in the wind. Was this … a recreation? An experiment with sound? Did the creator get lonely, and try to recreate birdsong without birds?

If I wasn’t certain before, then I would have been now: I was not alone here.

I decided to listen for a while to the music of the dunes, sure now that it was made to be listened to, but that it had gone unheard for a very, very long time.

 

The Eighty-Ninth Day

If one could call it that. Days lost meaning some time ago.

I have begun to suspect that houses and buildings gave the creator the most trouble.

Sometimes, the creator got them right. I found a world that consisted only of a lovely village, pies cooling in kitchens next to windowboxes of thyme and mint, smoke wafting from chimneys and the smell of bread. I was disappointed to find that, despite the delicious smell, the pies could not be cut and there was no bread an any of the ovens.

There was a whole city, too, a few worlds later. The cars were all parked on the roadsides, and the streets were, of course, empty, but the neon signs outside corner stores blinked on and off, reading “OPEN” as if there were people in the streets to see them, or anyone inside them to make a sale.

There was a district of florists and tailors; a district of food-vendors and restaurants; a district full of department stores reaching to the sky as though competing with each other.

If this had been the first world I saw, it would have been beyond eerie. But by now, I was used to being alone, and I had started to approach these worlds like an art critic approaches an exhibition. I felt that I was starting to put together a timeline of these worlds. The pie on the windowsill in the village smelled divine, but was not edible. However, the food on sticks or in bags sitting steaming on vendors’ carts in this city could be taken and consumed as I walked. They tasted of nothing, but also delicious and familiar, eternally fresh off the coals. I felt like I was seeing the creator learn as I walked through these worlds, seeing all their experiments, failed and successful, laid out before me.

I had started to get an impression of this creator. Buildings and cities gave them more trouble than nature scenes. They liked to create sounds, but they rarely got them exactly right. They had probably given up on animals not long after creating the paper-mobile fish.

I am sure that they loved to explore, to try new things, and to learn. No two worlds were ever the same, not even two forests, or two cities, or two rivers. I felt like every world had an idea behind it, something new or interesting that the creator wanted to try.

Even though so many of these worlds were clearly abandoned, I couldn’t think of the creator as capricious, either. I couldn’t believe that the creator had given up on any of the worlds lightly. It seemed like every world had so much painstaking detail put into it, I just couldn’t believe that the creator would give up on project on a whim. Perhaps the creator had intended, one day, to come back and finish those unfinished worlds.

I wondered if they might have jumped back and forth as they created, fixing and finishing old creations as they learned new techniques. How many additions and changes were made to that first field? The cities? The underwater world? Those singing dunes?

How much longer, I wondered, until those fish might have been perfect?

It suddenly strikes me as sad. One person can’t have worked for infinite time, and can only have so many ideas. When will I have seen everything?

When there is nothing left to see, will I still be no closer to meeting the creator than I am now?

 

Hundreds of days later

No matter how far I wandered, there was still more to see. I never stopped looking through every crevice and crack for clues about the creator, but everything I found only confirmed what I already knew.

And then I found the final border, and through it, one more world.

This one was not big. It was not an open field, not a whole village or city. It was only a single house, and by walking through the border, I stepped through the front door.

It was the most detailed world I had seen so far. There were shadows under every decoration on the walls, and I could see each grain in the wooden walls. The kitchen looked like a little cottage kitchen, with herbs hanging up in it, but there were modern appliances on the table. Clothes were hung up on a little rack in the loungeroom to dry.

In the bedroom, I finally saw the creator.

She was dead.

She was younger than I thought. It looked like she had only been dead for minutes. Her skin still had its healthy colour, and she still looked limp. Nevertheless, I felt certain that she had already died by the time I arrived in that field.

Her hand rested on the bed next to her, a book under her fingers. A sketchbook. I lifted her hand gently – it was still warm, but only just – and eased the book out from under her fingers.

In it, I could see everything.

Here was the field where I first awoke. It took pages and pages in the front of the book. Here was the forest with the crystal where I sat for nearly a full day. I can almost see it glowing on the page. Here was the unfinished forest, the page full of eraser marks. In one or two places, she had rubbed so hard that the paper was crumpled, the fibers a little torn by the force. Here was the underwater world and the sketches of those lifeless fish. Curiously, they had barely any eraser marks on them.

As I read the book, the images zoomed in and out, like they were drawn on a computer, not a paper sketchbook. I could enter doors in buildings through that page, or look either at the detail of the bark on a tree, or the whole sweep of the forest.

I tore my eyes away from the page to look at the corpse next to me. How long had she been here, to create so much?

I turned back several pages and ran my fingers over the drawing of the city, ready to examine the streets again in detail, and then I realise with horror that under my fingers, the marks disappear and the page turns plain and white.

I closed the book quickly, hoping that I could leave the rest of the drawings just the way they were, but it is too late. Though I wasn’t touching any more of the pages, I saw the sketchbook thin, the crumpled pages straightening themselves. I had started something and it couldn’t be stopped. Under my hands, the sketchbook erased itself.

A drop of water fell onto the cover, and I realised that I was crying for these creations. I spent so many days in these worlds! Each one that disappears takes memories with it. I had thought, when I picked up the sketchbook, that even if the creator was dead, I could connect with her, finish those half-finished scenes, add and build on her worlds, as well as creating my own. I could make a memorial for her on the page. I could do something to feel like we were working together, not apart.

Outside the room, I heard a soft whisper, and through the bedroom door, I saw the whiteness encroaching. I realised that I couldn’t smell the herbs anymore. The sketchbook rustled as the last pages straightened, turned flat and blank.

I grabbed the creator as the bed disappeared, too, leaving us suspended in nothing, still sitting as though the bed is there. I hope, for just a moment, that she might stay, but then she disappeared too, losing her colour, becoming a sketch, and then becoming nothing at all.

A pen fell from her hand.

I was, once again, alone.

 

Later

I have finally stopped crying.

 

Later

I mourn for the places that I lost, and that I never got to talk to the creator like I wanted. I wanted to share ideas. I wanted to talk about the things I saw. I wanted to ask if I was right about all those assumptions I had made while I walked. Even when I found her dead, I thought perhaps I could have carried on her work, expanded on her scenes. I wanted to create houses within her villages, trees in her forests, fish in her ocean. I felt like, even separate, we could have created something together.

 

Later

I mourn for her passing, though I hadn’t so much as had a conversation with her. She showed me so many things. I felt like I both knew her and didn’t know her at all.

 

Later

Everything is so white and empty that it hurts my eyes.

 

Later

I cannot do nothing forever. But I also cannot bring myself to do anything. If I move, it feels like I will begin the process of forgetting, and I am not ready to do that yet.

 

Later

I have cried myself out. I have mourned so long that I am now both full and empty.

I am still holding the sketchbook.

Finally, I pick up the pen. I open the book, and I begin to draw.

The King’s City Update

The King’s City appears to have finally gotten through its technical difficulties!

Thanks to all of you who came to the launch, it was great fun and it was lovely to interact with folks a bit!

As those of you who were at the launch may have been shown, I am putting together a list of people who are interested in a copy of the print book. As a thank-you for waiting and being so patient with me, I’m sending out copies of the print book with free bookmarks!

If you are interested, please drop a name and e-mail address in this form, where you can also let me know if you are interested in the book being signed or personalised, and I’ll be getting in touch with everyone to organise those ASAP!

And just so everyone knows, I won’t keep the names and e-mail addresses after people have received their books and bookmarks. I’m not keeping them for marketing, and I’m only sending e-mails about getting you a copy of The King’s City and a bookmark.

I’ll be collecting e-mails until this time next week, so if you want your copy and bookmark, make sure you sign up before 26 August 2020.

If you drop your e-mail in the form, I’ll get back to you about copies soon. If you want to just wait for the regular release, links are now imminent.

Final Twitch Update

Hey all!

Just a final reminder that there’s going to be a Twitch stream on this weekend!

The day is Sunday 16 August, the time is 1pm AEST. The channel is my Twitch channel. The occasion is the release of The King’s City!

I’ll be streaming for about 30-45 minutes, talking about the book, doing a quick reading, and then answering some questions both pre-organised by a friend who I bribed to MC for me and taken from the audience!

You can either bring questions on the day or send them to me in advance at @whimsy_metaphor on Twitter, or in the comments here.

E-books are already available, if you want to grab your copy before the stream, you can do so at Smashwords.

Print books are still coming shortly — we had some Unexpected Setbacks getting the cover uploaded to specifications. I’m really hoping to be able to either put those links up before the stream or announce them on stream. Thanks everyone for being so patient with me — as for me, I’ll just be chalking this one up to experience and telling the story at dinner parties and around the campfire to scare other writers.

But seriously though, it’s entirely my fault and I do thank you all for being patient like this. As soon as I can give a concrete date for when those will be available, I’ll let you know — I just don’t have a date I can point to yet with 100% certainty.

But hopefully I will see you all at the stream (if you’re not asleep, I understand, time zones are weird), and I look forward to interacting with you all!