Maps Maps Maps

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I’ve had a bit of an obsession with maps lately or, more specifically, video game maps. You can blame Creative Arts Practice for this, making me analyse my interests and consider ways to make my work more multimedia and stuff. How dare it.

Anyway, I’ve always liked them. Especially the maps in Final Fantasy XII, for some reason. There was something about the way they looked and the way every part of the area had its own specific name that helped give every part of the place a specific flavour. Inevitably the names were things like ‘Halls of Ardent Darkness’ and ‘Demesne of the Sand Queen’, but that kind of thing sounds kickass to a certain kind of teenager.

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See? I’m not making this stuff up.

Young writers always get told to ‘write what you like’, and I like to think that imitating my favourite authors got me started down that particular track pretty successfully. But as a teenager playing Zelda, Final Fantasy and Castlevania and liking those, I couldn’t very well apply the same advice quite so literally. Me and high-school IT class did not get on, and even if we had done, I was a teenager, not a fully-equipped games studio.

So, for lack of resources, I drew maps. Don’t have the capacity to create and render a fully-functioning Zelda dungeon on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Well, just draw a map of it. Draw little ‘key’ symbols to show how you’re supposed to unlock the doors. Draw dotted lines so you can tell where the moving platforms are supposed to go. That kind of thing. It doesn’t look nearly as cool as playing the level would feel, but you can use your imagination to fill in that gaps. That’s how maps work.

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What was the plot of this game again? I’d honestly rather know why ‘Field of Fallen Wings’ is called that.

Towards the point – maps have come up a fair bit as part of Creative Arts Practice so far. We spent a whole seminar looking at Google Maps and Google Street View, the way they make you think about and navigate places in a certain way. And, being a hopeless nerd, this got me thinking about video game levels and their maps again. Barheim Passage from Final Fantasy XII. Dracula’s Castle from Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. Blighttown from Dark Souls. Luigi’s Mansion. Even the procedurally generated levels from Darkest Dungeon.

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Sure, this one isn’t quite so cool to look at. But when your party’s food and sanity is dwindling with every step and the next room could contain a horrifying boss monster accompanied by appropriately epic narration and backing music, suddenly you’re paying damn close attention to this thing.

The thing that struck me wasn’t really the maps themselves. Sure, sometimes in-game maps can be pretty. Mostly they’re functional – they help you visualise a space that is already harder than a real place to visualise because it doesn’t really exist at all, its fictional place represented in a game and isn’t any less fictional than the map that goes with it. They’re tools, part of the interface just like health meters, action bars and menus. So why did looking at them bring me right back into the feeling of playing those games? The gameplay, the enemies, the music – it was all vivid again. Why?

It might be a fairly specific kind of nerdy interest. I’ve always loved me a good video game dungeon. I’m also one of those incorrigible nerds who engages in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons (heaven help me) and drawing maps of made-up places was always one of my favourite parts of running a campaign. Probably most people don’t find these maps all that interesting, or at least save that kind of interest for maps of places they can relate to (real or otherwise). But still, I think I’m onto something here.

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I think it has something to do with the way they bring things together. Precisely the fact that you use them to figure out where you are and where you’re going seems to bind them in your head with your experience of navigating the place, sometimes in ways you might not expect. That’s what the confusingly laid-out and probably illegible collage-thing you just scrolled past is about. I made it in the Culture Lab as an attempt to map onto the level all the things I liked and remembered about it.

All this might seem a weird interest for someone who writes rather than draws, paints or does anything all that visual. But ultimately I think it feeds into something I’ve always had a strong interest in as a fan of fantasy (and sci-fi, and horror): world building. A certain kind of story is as much about the setting itself as it is about the people in it and the stuff that they do. Just think how popular maps of Middle Earth, Discworld and Westeros are with fantasy fans.

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I’m sure a lot of people recognise this one.

But Lewis, you say, maps of Middle Earth aren’t what made LotR awesome. That’s true. And it was the music, the level and enemy design, the lore and the gameplay of those games that made their levels the experiences that they were. It wasn’t the maps. Those things aren’t even necessarily represented that well on the maps, some not at all (like music). But still, I think I’m onto something here.

Creative Arts Practice has given me a lot of food for thought regarding the different ways ideas can be represented, and the different media we can use to express them. Wouldn’t it be a kind of cool gallery exhibition that tried to capture a video game level or just a place by combining a map with all those different kinds of media? What if you were looking at the map of a level while listening to its soundtrack? That’s kind of what the idea is with these poorly-photographed collages – a first attempt at bundling some of those things together.

Its at this point that my thinking is much less collected. I have a few ideas of where I want to go with this little pet project of mine, if anywhere. One thing that has my interest is the multimedia nature of these associations.

I also think there’s good potential here for picking apart the way world-building works in games, even the tried-and-tested ‘I wonder what awful shit went down in this dungeon’ kind. Sometimes you it helps to know why this mansion’s full of the living dead, you know? (speaking of which, Extra Credit made a really cool great series of short videos about exactly that kind of world-building and level design in Baldur’s Gate).

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It may not look like much, but it turns out this area is a classic case study of good storytelling & gameplay through level design.

Finally, I’m curious about the way the way maps in video games and real maps relate, and the way we think about them. What would maps of our daily commutes and favourite places look like if we navigated them in the same way as games? I don’t know how well it would work out, but I would quite like to try a mash-up of the some of my favourite real and video game locations, or a ‘gamified’ map of my daily commute.

And… maybe I’ve just got games on the brain, but there are a wealth of associations between games and the world around us. I definitely use coffee shops the way I use save points, and the entrance to Victoria Tunnel near the Hancock Museum definitely looks like a secret dungeon entrance to me. Thoughts?

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Image sources: Final Fantasy XII, Darkest Dungeon, Lord of the Rings, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Baldur’s Gate.

Middle Spirits

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Exciting news – I made a thing! A physical thing that exists, in collaboration with the excellent Elena Purlyte. Its a collection of illustrated poems – my poems, her art – that has been in the works for a good long while now. Check out some preview images below!

The title is in reference to the way people used to understand fairies and household spirits and pagan gods before they got bundled in with everything else that was either satanic or imaginary. I could go on about this idea at length (and maybe I will, in another post), but the gist is that they’re something ‘between’ heaven and hell. Supernatural, but still earthly. The pamphlet is essentially a collection of flights of fancy, some lighthearted, some darker, so the title Middle Spirits seemed like a good fit!

(I realise all this sound a bit pretentious and high flown, but that was pretty much the opposite of the point – I wanted to use poetry to express imagination in a way that *doesn’t* require you to understand metre or have read Wordsworth)

We’re most at the end of what was essentially a ‘trial run’ of printing and selling them, largely on a personal basis, which we did to get an idea of what they would look like and how much it would cost to get them made in that particular way (we used a website called Inky Little Fingers, if you’re interested). There are a few copies left from the first run, but essentially we’d like to figure out more properly how we’re going to sell and promote them before we print any more. If you’d be interested copy, drop me an email at allstar.lewis@gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do – if nothing else it will give me an idea of how much interest there is.

The two of us have a few different ideas for what might come next, potentially accompanying the first ‘proper’ print run. Prints, perhaps. Buttons, maybe. Tote bags, potentially (if only because me and Elena really want our own ones). And maybe even a second, shorter collection with a tighter focus. But in the meantime, it just feels so good to have something I can hold in my hands. Hype!pamphlet-selfie-cropped

 

Matchwight

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The Matchwight – gothic horror by Richard Patridge-Hickes

The Unfamiliar Threshold

“Candle light,

Candle bright,

First candle of the night,

With grace you may,

With grace you might,

Keep away the Matchwight’s bite.”

I heard the previous rhyme in Edinburgh, first from the mouth of a young urchin boy. He was gathered with a small group, watching as the gas lamps were lit and though none of the others spoke all seemed to watch the proceedings with a strange reverence. I was, I believe, somewhere between the area of the Bedlam and the Castle, having arrived earlier that evening, and the city being new to me, I am not confident of exactly where I heard it. Though the scene and rhyme were odd I did not afford them any real importance, it was only later when I heard it again that I had cause to remember them with more interest.

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Edinburgh Horror Festival & Hocus Poets

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Its no secret that I like horror. A lot. Probably too much. Welcome to Night Vale, Coraline, Darkest Dungeon, Until Dawn… Alright, not many of those things are scary in the same sense that Paranormal Activity and the Blair Witch Project are scary. But they have such an unsettling vibe to them. I love it.

That’s why I was pretty hyped when I found out about the existence of the Edinburgh Horror Festival, happening this weekend. There’s film, comedy, cabaret and most importantly (to me, anyway) spoken word – featuring prominently one of my all-time favourite poets – Matthew Macdonald. His standout show Something Wicked This Way Comes is running again, as is a new show in collaboration with Richard Partridge-Hickes. Its called Book of the Jubilation, and promises to include occult horror, hideous truths and sanity-eroding books from beyond the ken of human minds. Sounds right up my street (-:

And not only do I get to soak up the Edinburgh Horror Festival, I’m also performing this weekend! I’m performing this Saturday as part of Loud Poets’ Halloween event Hocus Poets which has to be the best (read: most shameless) pun title they’ve done yet. I’m really looking forward to performing in Edinburgh again, and catching up with the whole scene. Happy Halloween!

Top image: Richard Partridge-Hickes (left), Matthew Macdonald (right)

Creative Arts Practice M.A.

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It probably hasn’t escape your attention that I’ve been posting a lot more recently. Why the sudden burst of activity? Well, part of the reason is that that I’ve finally got my English Language & Lit degree from Edinburgh. It was a great four years – I really enjoyed my studies and made a lot of friends – but I also spent a lot more time writing essays than I did anything else, and even though the essays were mostly cool ones, I still felt the lack of variety quiet a lot. Now that I’ve graduated, the possibilities are wider, to say the least.

That leads on the main reason – my new course! Just under a month ago I began an MA in Creative Arts Practice at Newcastle, my home city, and boy has it gotten off to a good start. For my purposes its similar to a creative writing course, but there are people on it doing photography, film, music, visual design and allsorts, and it also gives me the chance to learn a lot more about digital media and take modules from other courses. So there’s a lot more scope for collaboration and interesting multimedia projects!

The department building is also one of the highlights – its based in the Culture Lab, which has IT equipment and studio space coming out of the woodwork. Its a really lovely building, and we have our own generous bit of space all to ourselves, which is already beginning to feel like home. As well as hosting course activities, there are a lot of cool events on right in the main building, and I’ve been to a few already.

All-in-all, I’m really excited for this year. With any luck it give me the chance to develop some vocational skills and work on some cool creative projects. Poetry, copy editing and writing for video games are my current holy trinity of aspirations, so fingers-crossed!

Visiting the NewBridge Project/Hidden Civil War

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Its been a busy week! This Thursday,  as part of my new course (which I swear I would have gotten around to writing about by now if great stuff like this didn’t keep cropping up), we visited The NewBridge Project. The NewBridge Project is a community of artists that has set up temporary shop in an empty building awaiting development in Newcastle city centre, which now plays host to galleries, studios, event space and a shop.

I’m only just beginning to find out about all the potential opportunities and support the project offers to new artists, but even just a quick visit gave me the chance to make some new contacts and find out about new events. And I’m already seeing some of the great projects they’ve helped facilitate all around Newcastle. I was wandering down Northumberland Street the week before and I ran into Pocket Money Loans, a terrifyingly realistic satire of Wonga, the Money Shop and all the other loan companies that collect debt in the form of souls and first-born children. It was orchestrated by Darren Cullen of Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives, and it was hilarious and terrifying in equal measures.

Not half a week later, in the same place, was a stand promoting the upcoming Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake, a film that aims to critique and raise awareness of the dehumanisation currently going on in the UK welfare system. Both of these events are part of Hidden Civil War, a month long festival of art and social activism hosted by the NewBridge Project. By working with events like these, Hidden Civil War aims to open up dialogue about the divides and hidden conflicts going on in modern day Britain. Its well worth checking out.

 

 

Spoken Word Adventures

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This’ll be old news to some people, but it happened during a time when I was snowed under with coursework and all sorts of other nonsense so I haven’t had a chance to write about it until now. Long story short – Edinburgh University won Unislam 2016! Unislam is a nationwide student poetry slam (i.e. uni-slam, rather than un-Islam as google search suggestions keeps insisting). I went down to Leicester with the amazingly talented Doug GarryCatherine WilsonJyothis Padmanabhan and Rachel Rankin to represent our university, and we won!

It was a brilliant night, with the highlights being feature set from Hollie McNish and the wealth of great student contributions Manchester Metropolitan and Goldsmiths University of London especially. Every time I think back to the quality and excitement of that final, I find it harder to remind myself that we won. But we had a great team, and we pulled it off! What’s more, Edinburgh as won Unislam for the third year in a row now, which I think stands as a testament to the quality and life of the Scottish spoken word scene at the minute.

But wait, there’s more! Not only did Edinburgh get to keep the shiny trophy for another year, but we as a team got the chance to represent our university at the 2016 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational in Austin, Texas! This turned out to be both a great opportunity and no small undertaking, and the next few months were spent frantically fundraising. In the end we managed it, with the kind help of the university, the City Cafe, the Writing Squad, the Widdrington Trust and many more people.

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So we headed out again, this time with the inspirational Toby Campion as our coach and quite a lot further to travel. But we arrived in Texas, and spent the best part of a week getting to know the city and the university. It really was something to immerse ourselves in a totally different kind of poetry scene – a different culture altogether, really – and see some wonderful performers too. Other highlights included the Nerd Slam (Pokemon + Steven Universe + Poetry = so much yes) and getting to hang out with Jesse Parent. It was a lot of fun.

We didn’t make it past our first heat, but we did have the pleasure of supporting the University of California, Los Angeles team in the subsequent heats (they were robbed!). And we didn’t go home empty handed – we won Spirit of the Slam award! So, through it all, despite the nerves and the deadlines and the jet-lag and the distinctly un-Scottish sweltering heat, we survived. And it was incredible.

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