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Tayler Stokes
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At the corner of wonder and terror.
At the corner of wonder and terror.

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I need to re-vamp the way I do briefings.

I got used to approaching briefings a certain way. But now my thinking has evolved, and my brain just processes information differently than it used to.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. I don't have an answer yet. But it frustrates me because the briefing is so critical, and I used to be so good at it (in my opinion). Recently I've felt scattered and clumsy, and generally not up to par.

While I don't think briefings are a one-size-fits all kind of situation, I think it would help me to have a template which I can adapt. Something that looks like a could checklists that covers content, player support, play summary, and workshops. Something that does my thinking for me so that I can relax in the moment.

One realization I've come to is that we kind of practice a lack of trust in the way we present content and player support. While I think caution is good, I think being over cautious sends the wrong message and actually makes play less safe. That message being: somebody's gonna mess up so be real careful it's not you.

We send this message when support tools place the burden on the injured party. We send this message when we repeat information again and again. We send this message when, as facilitators, we project our worry through hypervigilance. All of these things rehearse a lack of trust in our players, and in ourselves. So, of course, this gets carried into play. And of course, players who are implicitly distrustful play in an implicitly defensive way.

Now, I understand why we do these things, and it comes from a good place of wanting to take care of everything and everyone. And I probably make it sound way worse than it is; I think it's subtle.

Anyway, point is, I think we can incorporate trust more deeply into the way we frame play, and I think our play will be better or it. Since I have to draw up a new briefing strategy as it is, I'm going to experiment with what this might actually look like in practice.
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Well, last night I ran the second playtest of The Wounded King, an in-development scenario loosely inspired by the legend of the Fisher King.

I knew going into it that the scenario was missing something fundamental. This was true of the prior playtest, too, but I wasn't able to clearly isolate the issue. The playtest was very successful in that it helped me isolate that missing piece. But I can't help but feel a little disappointed. This isn't entirely rational.

First of all, The Wounded King went into development at a similar time as Redshift, and it's clear that they are structurally and thematically cut from the same cloth (In fact, at one point I thought that they might be the same game, though this turned out not to be the case.). For some reason, this similarity bothers me, though objectively this isn't really a problem per se. I completed my emotional journey with Redshift months ago though, so, I'm just kinda over it.

Also, I find myself with a conundrum that's new to me. I usually design a scenario from the heart out - that is, with the thematic/emotional core of the game at the forefront, and build everything around that. This time I have an abundance of play procedures that speak to me, but I've lost track of this scenario's heart. Normally I'd say that this is a poor way to go about designing a game. But, well, here we are. I'm currently too interested not to try at this point.

It's interesting to note that my interest in the subject matter is largely intellectual rather than emotional. This seems to betray a truth about my situation - that I need to go back to square one, dig deeper, and see what I find.

I guess I wanted it to be closer, the answers to the biggest questions more clear. That is and isn't the case. I suspect that once I find the heart of the scenario things will fall into place almost effortlessly. Until I find that I'm going to feel as lost as ever though.
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I'm disappointed by how much gamerfolk tend to base their interest in a game based on the person who designed it as opposed to say, the subject matter of the games in question. I think this attitude is unfair to new designers, and I think it's doubly unfair to marginalized designers. Further, I'd bet that many (most?) well-established designers would encourage you to try someone else's game instead, especially if that designer is new or marginalized.

I find this especially irksome when it's tabletopfolk who are hesitant about trying a larp/freeform/whatever the kids are calling it these days, but are willing to do so this one time because it's a name they recognize and trust (I understand and empathize with this line of reasoning even though I disagree with it, for the record). But the thing is, a significant portion of these larps are in my opinion substandard compared to their most successful tabletop work (which is not to say that they aren't good or worth playing on their own, just that comparing a format that they have "mastered" to one in which they are just getting started in isn't quite fair). The take away I see frequently from the predictably luke-warm experience is "what's the point of larp?" and/or "larp just isn't for me" and/or "I don't get it" because they think they played one of the best larps available on account of the designer having made some of the best tabletop rpgs/story games available. And that's often the end of that story.

It breaks my heart a little when I see the larp-curious pass over a super hot larp from an unfamiliar designer in favor of a larp from a familiar designer. Sometimes this works out, sure. But it would work out a hell of a lot more often if the top priority was interest in engaging with the subject matter rather than familiarity with the designer.

This is one reason I like running larps by Scandinavian designers for Americans - the Americans (unless they are deep into larp already) don't know their names well enough to be able to factor in the designer's reputation.

Though this isn't my main point, there is another crummy side effect at play here. This attitude inbreeds the design discourse on account of the overrepresentation of a few "celebrity" designers in a community's collective play experiences. I just find this to be such a shame.

A couple of contextual data points.

> Sometimes I'm cynical. This is one of those times.
> Beethoven is one of the most celebrated and influential classical composers in the western canon. Yet, Beethoven sunk more ships in the dark sea of shitty music than any of his peers. Seriously. Beethoven wants you to forget about his tenth symphony, and about a hundred other published works.
> I, personally, am okay at writing larps. I am terrible at writing story games. There is an overlap in interest. The overlap in design practice is nebulous and fickle.
> I'm not complaining about people not playing games that I pitch. This is not a problem that I have, generally speaking.
> There are plenty truly amazing American larpwrites out there who's work I respect and admire. I am not in any way disparaging the American larp scene as a whole, or even anyone individually.
> As much of a larp evangelist as I am these days, most of the time when someone tells me that they "don't like larp," I think we'd agree on what larps we don't like and what we don't like about them. I'd love to show them that there is more to larp than that, but I often don't get the chance once their feelings are rightfully reinforced by that luke-warm experience with a trusted designer.

Rant over. Be curious folks! Give new games and new people a chance! You'll have more opportunities to try out the works of celebrated designers, I promise. You may or may not ever get another chance to play a given unknown work.
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Alright, I’ve got a short one for you today.

Lilja 4-ever (2002, Lucas Moodysson) is actually a film I’ve seen before. After my great disappointment with The Neon Demon I wanted something that was going to be a more satisfying watch.

Much like Come and See, Lilja 4-ever draws most of its power from it’s narrative rather that the cinematic techniques. Lilja 4-ever follows the titular Lilja, an impoverished teenager that gets trafficked and forced into sex slavery. As a result, this film contains pretty much everything you expect from that subject. I don’t want to talk more about the narrative because that’s something you should experience on your own. Oh - this was inspired by a true story, by the way.

This is the only story point I’m going to discuss. Prior to being trafficked, Lilja chokes to engage in prostitution. She hates it at first. But she becomes more comfortable with it - it’s clear that to Lilja it’s preferable to living in squalor. I really appreciate this. There is still a lot of stigma around sex work, and showing Lilja’s choice as rational and preferable to the alternative is a very important inclusion.

Since I’m not going to talk more about the story, here are a couple other things that I enjoyed about the movie.

The acting is incredibly good. Both of the lead actors are incredible; they’re dialog strikes me as very genuine from what they talk about, to what they don’t, to how they talk about it. The actor that plays Volodya - this was his first role.

I think the shaky camera and loud soundtrack are found to be off-putting by many viewers. That was my initial impression as well. Both of these things grew on me. The urgency or calmness of the camera seems to reflect Lilja’s demeanor and after the first ten minutes or so you don’t really notice anymore. Similarly, the pound soundtrack drowns out the world, sometimes inappropriately. I imagine Lilja would prefer it this way.

Scenes in which Lilja is forced to have sextend to focus on the men’s faces. Seeing their consumption of Lilja is deeply unnerving for so many reasons. Some are fully aware of what they are doing to Lilja, and they choose not to care. Some enjoy her trauma. Some hardly seem to notice. Everything Lilja shows them is consumed by them, so she stops showing anything at all.

Finally, seeing Volodya play with his new basketball, even after it was slashed open, I dunno, I just find that so evocative and touching.

This movie is so powerful because it’s so clear. If you can stomach the content I highly recommend it.
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Warning: I have strong opinions about this movie (The Neon Demon) that might influence your own. If you are interested in seeing this movie you might want to skip this one for now.

I am disappoint. The Neon Demon (2016, Nicolas Winding Refn). I knew something was amiss when I saw that Keanu Reeves was in it; I just knew this was almost certainly not the movie I wanted it to be.

This film would like you to believe that it’s a psychological horror about beauty and obsession. It follows a clueless yet innocent teenage model who’s natural beauty is the envy of everyone she meets. I knew very little about this movie going in, and I thought the concept seemed interesting and refreshing. Hopefully, someone actually makes that movie someday.Anyway, let’s start with the good - it won’t take long.

The soundtrack is great. I really enjoyed it. It would have contributed narratively if anything else actually meant anything.

For single moments at a time, the imagery is striking. I say “for moments at a time” because the camera work is so static that it utterly drains the imagery of its potency in seconds. Similarly, use of color is initially engrossing, but overuse of the same tricks eventually renders it boring, then predictable, and finally contrived.

The initial scene - a photoshoot - is accidentally meaningful. We see an overdone model covered in blood in a super artsy-for-the-sake-of-artsiness shot. At first, I was like “yup, first thing on the agenda is to have a dead woman, wouldn’t be a story without that.” But then I considered that this scene was a commentary on that very thing; the consumption of women’s pain, suffering, death, bodies. I have no doubt that this commentary is completely accidental, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt in this case. We are one minute in and there is basically nothing good left to say.

Oh wait, the title is cool. Now we’re done with the positives.

So, I’m also a huge fan of bad movies, the kind that twists your brain just trying to make sense of what they were thinking (Neil Breen is my hero!). And I can tell you that the only thing that separates The Neon Demon from these magnum opus disasterpieces is the budget.

The acting was so bad I’m in awe. Were they told to hold two beats of silence between every single sentence? Or to keep their faces rigid and emotionless the entire time? Or to just kind of stand there? Or, in this one moment, to overact as though it’s a parody of Shakespeare? Is all of this a joke?

I initially gave the film the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the lifeless manikins we see on screen is a part of the shtick here. I could almost buy that. There is a thematic connection to be made. I also doubled over backward trying to make sense of it, hypothesizing that the nubile protagonist isn’t even real and is a manifestation of the other characters’ desire for beauty and to be adored and consumed. It would have been clumsy as hell, but that could have almost worked. Upon doing more research - nope. Not at all.

It turns out that the whole concept of the film is nothing more than a vehicle for a cannibalistic horror story that just So Edgy, Bro. Any commentary on beauty, obsession, fame, what have you is completely incidental. In my book that makes this a waste of time. I guess it could have been tolerable for what it is (if hollow and problematic) if the horror story underneath was developed at all, but it is not.

I’m almost not sure how to critique something that doesn’t exist. The characters are so thin, underdeveloped, completely static, and even visually indiscernible from each other to a certain point. There is no deeper meaning whatsoever. What is shows you on the surface is everything that it is.

In an almost satisfying way, this film serves as a symbol for itself. There are long hallucinatory sequences of interesting images with neither context or purpose and seem to be just thrown in because better movies had sequences like that. There is a surprise necrophilia scene in which one of the other characters makes out with a corpse because it kind of resembles the allegedly infinitely desirable protagonist (having looked into that subject recently I can tell you that this portrayal isn’t fair to necrophiliacs - something I never thought I’d have to say). Finally, we have a character we don’t recognize despite having seen her this entire movie, whose name we don’t even know, coughs up an eyeball while sitting in a strange corner couch with blue swastika patterns on the wall (I would ask what they were thinking with this, but I’m guessing they didn’t even notice), and you realize in frustrated disappointment that everything you just watched was supposed to be literal and real. The real horror twist is that the entire movie is just as dumb as you feared the entire time.

Wait, calling it a symbol gives it too much credit - it’s more like a parody of itself.

It mystifies me why some people praised this movie. Critical reception is largely at one extreme or the other. Comparisons to Gaspar Noé are laughable and insulting in my book. If you happen to watch The Neon Demon - which I most certainly do not recommend - and you end up liking it, I would definitely like to hear why.
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G+ isn't saving my edits to a post. Is this a thing right now?
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Next up is Come and See (1985, directed by Elem Klimov), and boy howdy, was it a good one!

Come and see is a Russian film about the German occupation of Belorussia during WWII, told from the perspective of a child. Oddly enough, I don’t have much to say about this film because it’s fairly frank and straightforward about how it does business. That said, I totally understand why many consider this to be among the best war movies ever made, and why it inspired so many other notable war films. This is going to basically be a list of things that I appreciated/noticed about this film because my usual commentary just isn’t really necessary here.

The film captures a surreal beauty of violence. Often times you will see light passing through a cloud of dust and dirt from mortar-fire while the protagonist is in a daze, and it really is a sight to behold.

Near the beginning of the film, our enthusiastic protagonist joins the unit for a picture; he’s excited to be included. The photographer is wearing a Hitler-esque mustache, clearly to make fun of him. A cow is in the picture, with “Eat Me Before the Germans Do” painted on its side. It’s a positive moment for our protagonist. At the end of the film, Nazi commanders hold a loaded gun to his head while they take a picture. They just walk away after while he passes out from terror.

Later, he shoots a framed portrait of Hitler the Nazi’s brought with them, found lying in the mud. This is the only time we see the protagonist fire their weapon. With each shot we see footage from WWII featuring Hitler playing in reverse, going all the way to Hitler as a baby. The protagonist stops shooting and begins to cry. The message seems to be two-fold: the people that did this were human, not monsters (making it even scarier); and that this painful history cannot be erased, it’s a part of us now no matter what.

The film shows you basically everything but the violence in many scenes. You don’t see someone actually on fire, you see their horrendous burns afterward. I mean, there is plenty of violence here, but visually speaking it’s not any worse than other war movies - it’s just handled to much greater effect. Unless the topic, in general, is something you aren’t interested in seeing in a film, there really isn’t that much more than a viewer needs to be prepared to handle. Exception to what I just said: actual footage and pictures from the holocaust are shown, though this is probably under two minutes in length total.

The grief, trauma, and sadism exhibited by the cast seemed very genuine. That’s part of why it’s so chilling.

Reading about the film is almost as interesting as the film itself. The performance of the protagonist (a child) is outstanding - the expressions on his face are unforgettable. Apparently, he was hypnotized for some of it and underwent a self-imposed sparse diet to embody the distress of his character. The film was shot in chronological sequence, and his hair actually went gray like that during filming. Many of the scenes were using live ammo, too. I hope all of this info is actually true, because, damn.

This film wears it’s just-under two-and-a-half hour length very well. I was surprised when I paused and say I was three-quarters of the way through.

I’m not sure what is with the birds, but there is some kind of a bird-thing going on. Birds show up at many significant and ominous moments, some in prominent dream-like sequences.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many women in this movie and the roles they play are rather gendered. I suppose, yes, this was a film that followed a military unit composed of men, and that this is probably historically accurate and all that, but this is still disappointing.

So there you have it. It’s powerful. It’s clear. I really enjoyed it.
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Hard Candy (2005, directed by David Slade) is not quite what you think at first glance. This film is much more accessible than most of the weird movies I watch, and I think many people could enjoy and appreciate this one. Wikipedia sums it up nicely: Hard Candy focuses on a 14-year-old female vigilante's trapping and torture of a man whom she suspects of being a sexual predator. The man in question is a pedophile, and pedophilia is mentioned, it is not shown on film. There is also much less violence than you might think. Consider this your content advisory. You may also find this a rather spoilery, so if this sounds like a good time, maybe go watch it first!

The movie begins by playing on your expectations: it appears as though a 32-year-old man is trying to pick up a 14-year-old girl and take complete advantage of her. But a short way in, that proves not to be the case - she has duped him, and she traps him with ease. What follows is a long torture sequence as she digs through his home to find hard evidence. But what’s central here is that she doesn’t physically or sexually torture him - her methods are almost exclusively psychological, and framed around amplifying his guilt.

I appreciate this because I think it’s important that she doesn’t just “replicate” his crimes as a form of punishment. And the parts that do are strictly psychological; proving that just the idea of what he had done to the other girls is agonizing and that he knows it. His guilt is a necessary component of her methods. The few times she does inflict significant physical violence on him it’s always in self-defense.

As these scenes carry on, you can’t help but notice the vibrant coloring of his home (not to mention the generally excellent cinematography). This is just a working theory, but I suspect the bright colors of the walls are a representation of his emotional states: the pink of the bedroom, almost the color of his skin, is a faux vulnerability; the steely blue walls of the kitchen/studio are shown off when he is begging, pleading, a feigning remorse; the red of the hallway - used as a kind of “fade to red” as the camera passes from viewing through one door to another - is shown when he believes he is about to experience intense pain. I’d have to watch the film again to confirm this theory of mine, but it seems to fit reasonably well.

Backing up a bit, one thing that initially perplexed me was the opening credits. The credits are shown to geometric images. Summarized most simply, we see squares that turn out to be transparent cubes when the perspective shifts. On the surface I think this is a metaphor for our predator - sure, he seems nice, smart, and charming, but that’s not all he is. He’s just showing you one side of himself, the one he wants you to see.

But I think this goes a lot deeper. He keeps a box with a gun under his bed. He keeps the videos and pictures of his victims in a safe-box. These boxes contain things. Secrets, weapons. He is also a professional photographer. He has pictures of “teenage nymphs” all over his house. The pictures - square - are girls in boxes, as are the photos in the safe. When he brings the girls home, the whole house is a box, and the girls are in it. The house is his box. He defends himself against her allegations of pedophilia by citing his environmental conservatism efforts - the frame around the image of him that he wants you to see, but it’s just one face of the cube (the same applies to the girls - there is more to each of them than their exploitation).

Late in the movie, a neighbor knocks on the door to deliver girl scout cookies (more girls in boxes). The neighbor, a woman, clearly doesn’t recognize the girl when she answers (he is restrained inside). The neighbor has a curious comment: “I saw you on the roof earlier.” She probes a little bit more. I think this is telling us that she - the 14-year-old vigilante - is not in his box. And of course, it is another woman who would notice this.

Finally, at the end of the movie, he kills himself by stepping off of the roof. He’s outside of the box now, exposed. His house was not a box for containing his victims, it was for containing him, his secret self, that he hides from the entire world. Just like before, she didn’t kill him, she amplified his guilt to the point that he decided to kill himself.

“Hard Candy” is an interesting choice of title, though a very fitting one. The film focuses so much more on him: his guilt, his excuses, his justifications, his obsessions, his rage, his predation. The camera focuses on his face while he is enduring the psychological torture, and not on her carrying it out. She savors every last moment of it because she knows that he’s the sucker this time (credit to +Rosalie Davis for catching the wordplay!).
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I recently watched two movies about necrophilia. Consider this a content warning for some graphic descriptions of necrophilia, bodily mutilation, and sexual activity.

Nekromantic (1987, directed by Jörg Buttgereit) has a cult classic-like following, and to that extent, I understand why. Ultimately I was a bit underwhelmed. Though I suspect there is an intended subtext about the intersection between classism, pleasure, and what is perceived as desirable/acceptable, my impression is that the shock value of the necrophilia scenes steers the film away from the exploration of a topic to something that's almost like a comedy (when the protagonist's girlfriend leaves him for the corpse in a Dear John letter I was genuinely amused; I think it's hilarious). The special effects are actually pretty good for a film of this age even if it's a little overdone. The only moment of the film that made a connection for me was the very end when the protagonist mutilates himself and pleasures himself to his own entrails, though his orgasm is ridiculous. I think this was a shallow examination of necrophilia at most and a shocking gross-out comedy at worst.

Following my disappointment with Necromantic, I stumbled upon Aftermath (1994, directed by Nacho Cerdà), and holy smokes this could not have been more different. Aftermath is a short film without dialogue and is the second part of Nacho Cerdà's "Trilogy of Death" (the others being The Awakening and Genesis, each of which explore different experiences of death). Aftermath is inspired; every shot is very carefully composed, and the end result is very effective.

Long story short: Aftermath follows a mortician performing an autopsy, providing a full view of the entire process. You only see the central characters eyes and eyebrows, and even though there is no spoken dialogue, there is something very uncomfortable in the non-verbal dialogue shared between the mortician, his co-worker, and an orderly. By the time a woman's corpse is wheeled in, it's clear that the discomfort stems from a carefully, yet forcefully concealed excitement.

The mortician performs the autopsy alone, and gets "sensual" with the woman's dead body. But it's not just a recreation of a "typical" sexual encounter as it was in Nekromantic. The mortician seems to savor it a bit more, and at points appears to be almost reluctant before giving into his impulses. He fondles her breasts and innards while he masturbates, and stabs into her vagina with a large knife. He eventually sets up a camera and penetrates her abdominal cavity. Afterwards he removes her heart, steals it, and takes it home where he blends it and feeds it to his dog. This is the only time we see his face, and this is the only time we see him acting casual.

I find this to be a much more honest portrayal of necrophilia. First of all, there is clearly a misogynistic/domination motivation here, going so far as to dominate her past death not just through mutilation, nor sexual violence, but to the point of feeding her to his dog like she's nothing. According to some cursory research, the most common reported motivation for the commission of necrophilia is the desire "to possess non-resisting and non-rejecting partner." Mere sexual attraction to corpses is uncommon by comparison.

Further, we see the mortician go through what can be viewed as a segment of a catathymic crisis loop (one theoretical explanation of the behavior of serial killers; the vast majority of known incidents of necrophilia were committed by serial killers): at first, we see the mortician speculate about the commission of necrophilia, then the mounting emotional tension that "forces" the act, followed by a superficial calmness and return to normal activity. This is most visible in the judging glances between the mortician and his co-workers, his suppressed excitement, his reluctant and then violent indulgence, his almost contradictory use of the camera, and finally feeding his dog. This reminds me of some comments regarding serial killer Ted Bundy, how he had to get drunk to quiet his "dominant personality" so that nothing would interfere with the impulses of his "inner entity."

I think that this internal conflict between revulsion and fascination in combination with the will to dominate is central to many incidents of necrophilia. It's not just about sex, and it certainly isn't just about fucking. This is where Aftermath surpasses Nekromantic hands down. I can't really recommend Nekromantic, but Aftermath was truly exceptional (as is Nacho Cerdà's "Trilogy of Death" for that matter, and neither of the other films are about necrophilia nor do they contain visually distubing content).
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Finally have a second draft of Redshift ready (albeit, mostly unedited) just in time for the second full playtest this weekend. A lot of things came together this draft, and I am much more excited for this scenario. It's nice to be almost done!
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