Non-fiction: Alastair Vere Nicoll: Riding the Ice Wind (I.B.Tauris 2010)
By now, books about moderns expeditions to Antarctica are a relatively big genre. Earlier examples on this blog can be found here, here and here. The challenge of this sort of book is that it’s always the same story.
1. Decide to go to Antarctica.
2. Engage in tedious fundraising.
3. Travel through the Antarctic continent, often in an attempt to do something new.
4. Gain important life lessons.
In Alastair Vere Nicoll’s book Riding the Ice Wind, there’s an added human element where Nicoll’s baby is going to be born roughly at the same time as he’s supposed to finish the expedition. Will he make it in time?
Nicoll is frustrating as a writer. He seems very honest and straightforward, and for much of the book, manhauling a sledge of provisions on Antarctica seems like hellish drudgery punctuated by moments of pure wonder. Yet Nicoll doesn’t really transcend the format of this type of a book, and in his more philosophical moments he’s very much on safe ground.
There’s one very interesting detail in the book. The route of Nicoll’s team goes through the South Pole and they stop at the American Amundsen-Scott station. They aren’t much impressed with it, and Nicoll mentions that the staff offhandedly says they’re using their scientific equipment to spy on the Chinese nuclear program by detecting the emissions that travel through the planet.
I’ve never read about this anywhere else, but it flies in the face of so much high-minded Antarctic rhetoric that I would very much like to know more.
Ropecon on tulossa aivan pian, perjantaista 29.7. sunnuntaihin 31.7. Olen mukana kahdella ohjelmanumerolla:
Rakkautta säteilevässä maailmassa: Tšernobyl, rakastettuni -pelin julkaisu
Sali 201, perjantaina 18:00 – 19:00
Juhana Petterssonin uusi roolipeli Tšernobyl, rakastettuni ilmestyy Ropeconissa 2016. Esitelmässä käydään läpi pelin ideaa ja sitä, millaista on rakkaus Tšernobylin radioaktiivisella, suljetulla vyöhykkeellä. Hahmot ovat rikollisia jotka ovat paenneet esivaltaa radioaktiiviselle alueelle. Siellä he joutuvat aloittamaan uuden elämän, ja kenties löytämään uusia ihmisiä joita rakastaa. Samalla käydään läpi pelin taustalla olevia, hahmovetoisen pelaamisen periaatteita.
Blood, Sex and Techno Music: the New Vampire Larp
Sali 208, lauantaina 17:00 – 18:00
One of the designers of the first larp commissioned by the new White Wolf Publishing, explains why the new wave of Vampire: the Masquerade larp started in Helsinki and what’s going to happen in the future. All about End of the Line, the first larp commissioned by the new White Wolf Publishing, Convention of Thorns, the Polish castle game, and Enlightenment in Blood, a massive city game in Berlin 2017.
Children’s book: William Grill: Shackleton’s Journey (2014, Flying Eye Books)
Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt at crossing the Antarctic continent is one of the most famous stories of early Antarctic exploration. His ship was crushed by ice, and he and his crew had to travel vast distances over ice and then on lifeboats to reach safety.
The children’s book Shackleton’s Journey tell the story with beautiful, evocative illustrations. The book is defined by style and grace, and detail that’s fun to peruse. A highlight is a list of names of dogs taken on the expedition.
The book presents the whole expedition as a dangerous journey undertaken by a bunch of hardy chaps. It’s a straight narrative of a story that in other hands, including Shackleton’s own, has acquired spiritual, transformative qualities enforced by the horrifying privation the men experienced on the ice.
Still, the book is a triumph. It’s practically designed to be explored together with a parent and a child, looking at all the things that characterized the Antarctic travel of that era.
Kuva larpista Gertrudes möhippa. Kuva: Urban Wedin
“Olin itse yksi Gertruden hyväntekeväisyysäätiön päättäjistä. Iso osa pelaajista ei ollut larpannut koskaan aikaisemmin, joten polttarit tarjosivat hyvän viitekehyksen: Tiedämme kaikki mitä niissä tapahtuu ja miten niissä käyttäydytään.” lisää
Comic book: Francis Bergése: Mystery in Antarctica (Cinebook, 2015)
Buck Danny is an American ace pilot and the hero of a long-running series of French comic books. Mystery in Antarctica is Buck Danny no. 51. Like with any pop culture phenomenon, once it runs long enough it acquires its own logic, leading to shifts in tone that may seem strange to newcomers. As a character created in the Forties, Buck Danny is a blonde, square-jawed hero type with a funny sidekick. Yet his adventures take place in the modern world. This album was originally published in French in 2005.
Buck Danny is all about flying airplanes, so his enemies need jets too. Thus in Mystery in Antarctica, common pirates are somewhat implausibly equipped with serious military hardware. It’s especially funny because Buck Danny is all about realism in its depiction of fighter jets and US Navy protocols.
The story itself features a couple of classic Antarctic subjects. Nazi expeditions to the south and a Sea Shepards style environmental organization appear. The main focus is still on what I suspect is the central theme of all Buck Danny stories: Modern fighter airplanes and how cool they are.
This is a collection of two Anibal 5 albums, published in English by Humanoids. I read the first one in Finnish translation as a child, and its mix of softcore sex and scifi weirdness made a big impression on me. I was at an age where stories don’t really leave lasting impressions, but the scenes and images do. Now that I read it again, I recognized much of it, but the context was new.
Anibal 5 is a sex-addicted super-agent cyborg who fights and fucks and complains his way through various predicaments. The first album is definitely the better one. The second follows Anibal to Antarctica, where crazed feminists have created the Republic of Clitoria and must be stopped.
So no, this won’t win any prizes for progressive values.
The fist half of the comic has that Jodorowsky energy, but the second half is running on empty. Cringe-worthy stereotypes of man-hating feminists are not its only problem. Still, the idea of an Antarctic republic of women is not without peer. Ursula Le Guin’s short story Sur imagines an early all-women Antarctic expedition, and books such as the novel The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and DJ Spooky’sThe Book of Ice have explored similar territory.
I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.
Larp is a Polish short film directed by Kordian Kadziela and released in 2014. It’s the story of a larper guy who lives in the shadow of his boxer brother. He goes to larps, and in one of them, he confronts a bully in-game. The event proves transformative, but the rest of the story is handled surprisingly deftly for a movie based on such broad ideas.
This is definitely a gem among movies about larp. I realize this will set the bar pretty low, but it’s made by people who understand both filmmaking and larp. That’s not always the case…
I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.
Treasure Trapped is a documentary film about larp in the U.K. and the Nordic countries. First we get to learn about U.K. larps, and the filmmaking seems amateurish and meandering. As the movies goes on, it becomes more proficient in storytelling terms and the focus shifts to games like The Monitor Celestra.
I feel bad about being negative about this movie because it shows my larp scene in such favorable light. The segment about Panopticorp is excellent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sustain this level of quality.
Still, if you just look at the material they have in the movie, and if you’re curious about Nordic games especially, this can be an interesting movie to watch.
Whale Wars is a documentary tv series following the anti-whaling campaigns of the environmental group The Sea Shepherds. Season one to three were pretty amazing stuff, with dangerous confrontations in the Antarctic Sea.
In season four, it feels as if the series is starting to lose steam. The Sea Shepherds seem equipped better than ever, with three ships and seemingly more competent personnel. However, it’s hard to make things exciting when the whaling fleet eludes their grasp for so long.
Up until this point, Whale Wars has been a wonderful series, but this season can safely be skipped.
In retrospect, one of the best things about being fifteen or sixteen was the way you’d see a movie and your mind would be blown by the sheer awesomeness of it all. You hadn’t seen so many things, so everything appeared new. It was wonderful to experience all these ideas and aesthetics for the first time. I still remember when I saw movies like Lost Highway or Tetsuo II: the Body Hammer at Elokuva-arkisto as a high-school student, and how it felt to emerge onto the street after the movie, full of slack-jawed wonder.
Sometimes it feels like these powerful experiences are a thing of the past, that nowadays intellectual appreciation and being entertained are the best we can hope for.
I went through some of the movies I’d seen and games I’d played in 2015, and I was happy to be reminded of plenty of things that put the lie to that feeling of never seeing anything new.
Videogame: Zombi (Ubisoft Montpellier)
ZombiU was one of Wii U’s launch games, originally published in 2012 and republished on the Xbox One this fall as Zombi. In technical terms, it’s a pretty rough game, but there’s something in the atmosphere that suddenly makes the tired zombie genre feel relevant again. Zombi is a difficult, uncompromising game where a single mistake can result in a death as a victim of a zombie swarm. Every time you die, you continue with a new character, and at the end, you only get a single try to get to safety. If you fail, you die and the game ends. I failed.
I wrote a review for Tilt, available here in Finnish.
Videogame: Soma (Frictional Games)
The premise of the Swedish game Soma is very traditional: You’re an average dude who finds himself stranded in a ruined underwater research base. You have to solve simple puzzles and avoid monsters to proceed. The real genius of the game is in its progression of revelations that slowly but steadily increase the existential horror of what’s happening. The action is very concrete, but the questions are philosophical: What’s a human? What does it mean to be an individual? Who am I?
I reviewed the game for Tilt and also selected it as Tilt’s Game of the Year. The review is here in Finnish.
Movie: Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
Beyond the Hills is a Romanian film from 2012, directed by Cristian Mungiu. Its a based-on-a-true-story movie about a small religious community struggling to deal with Alina, a troubled girl who follows her childhood friend there. Considering that this is a story featuring an excorcism, lesbian lovers and brutal convent life, everything is handled with a keen eye to everyday detail and psychological complexity. Alina’s story doesn’t end well, but she’s too good a character to simply fall into the role of a victim. She demands something more than that.
Movie: The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
The World’s End is a science fiction movie from 2013, but the scifi stuff is almost incidental. It’s really the story of Gary King, who wants to gather together all of his old friends to do a pub crawl like they used to when they were young. All of the friends have moved on in their lives, but Gary hasn’t. Watching this movie felt like one long moment of recognition: I know this guy and I know what he represents. The real kicker comes in the end, where all of Gary’s fantasies come true. Ostensibly, the movie ends on a high note, but the implications of the ending are pretty harsh to contemplate.
Movie: What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
I played and organized a lot of Vampire: the Masquerade larp in my teens and early twenties. What We Do in the Shadows (2012) is a fake documentary about vampires living in New Zealand, and it’s a very funny movie. However, it also manages to depict something that’s very, very true when it comes to Vampire larp, whether intentionally or not. It captures the way those larps used to be at the turn on the millennium, goofy and cool at the same time.
Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
The Hollywood media machine seems designed to mold the entertaintment products we consume into bland goo. Seeing the new Mad Max movie Fury Road was a bracing experience: It’s a big-budget action movie but it also has a singular vision. It has power. It has a sense of transgression that makes us feel alive.
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a movie about two women playing sadomasochistic games. It has a solid claim on being the best BDSM movie of all time. It looks gorgeous, but most of all, it captures the small dynamics and details of fantasy and reality, desire and everyday life, very well. Its characters are driven by desire and necessity in a way that avoids simple judgements and pointless moral homilies.
He ovat paenneet (J.-P. Valkeapää)
He ovat paenneet is a Finnish movie about two teenagers who decide to run away. One of them works at a home for delinquents, the other is confined there. Somehow, the movie goes from traditional Finnish kitchen sink realism into subjective fantasy in a way that accurately captures the power and horror of being young. It’s also gorgeously shot, with a jarring style that eschews the more conventional style of most Finnish cinema.
Dance: Kleine Monster (Jenni Kivelä)
I’ve been a lapsed fan of Jenni Kivelä’s performances: I’ve always liked them, but it’s been years since I saw one. Early this year, I saw an ad for Kleine Monster and remembered how much I liked her work, so I went to see it. And it was very good. It’s a performance about grotesque women, made from the inside: The characters may be monsters, but so are we all.
Larp: The Zeigarnik Effect (Brody Condon)
I played a lot of larp in 2015, but the most interesting and personally affecting was Brody Condon’sThe Zeigarnik Effect. Based on Gestalt therapy, the larp was one part of a work that also included a video art piece that used material shot during the larp. From a technical point of view, the larp was very interesting because of its minimal characters and setting, its present-based interaction and workshopped sense of a very tight ensemble. It’s been one of the larps that I can say changed me.
I was at the music festival Flow, and a friend told me I should go to see K-X-P. I knew nothing about the band, but the recommendation was solid. It was the best gig I saw the whole year. The ritual aesthetics and the relentless wall of sound created a transcendental experience. The band is fine on YouTube or listened from the album, but the music really comes to its own through the sheer power of live amplification.
Eduskunta III (Susanna Kuparinen)
Politically, this has been a miserable year. Racism is on the rise, fascist ideas are normalized and austerity politics drive us deeper into despair, seemingly for no reason at all. Eduskunta III, a play about the Finnish parliament directed by Susanna Kuparinen, is a funny broadside aimed at the rot afflicting all of us. It’s alienating to sit at home and read depressing news, but by the same token, it feels great to laugh at the terrible things going on with hundreds of other people in the theatre.
In the Nineties, there was a time when radical ecological activism was an entirely suitable subject for American children’s entertainment. The best example of this is the cartoon series Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The spirit of the planet, Gaia, assembles a team who can combine into a superhero called Captain Planet who then stops”eco-villains” such as Verminous Skum and Dr. Blight.
Other examples are the G.I.Joe spin-off Eco-Warriors and togic sludge themed things like the Turtles and Toxic Avenger. The lesson of Captain Planet and Eco-Warriors is that it’s entirely acceptable to fight against polluters and ecological criminals with force.
That lesson seems to have faded from children’s tv shows as the global environmental situation has become worse. One of the ironies of pop culture is that now in the age of global warming when we really need him, Captain Planet is nowhere to be found.
A Ron Spencer illustration from the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf the Apocalypse showing a reasoned debate with the employees of the polluting corporation Pentex
In the Nineties, there was one place where the fight against pollution was taken to its logical extreme, and that was the gloriously insane roleplaying game Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Reading the game now, it seems incredible that this was actually published, and that it was a mainstream roleplaying game.
In Werewolf, using force to stop polluters was not only moral, but a holy mission.
In the core book, limiting yourself to standard character options, you can make a werewolf Neo-Nazi killing machine who’s goal in life is to mutilate as many fast food employees and oil company workers as possible. You see, in the world of Werewolf, people who work at environmentally damaging or irresponsible companies are often possessed by evil spirits serving a mythical force of corruption called the Wyrm. This way, the enemies have been conveniently dehumanized and can be subjected to ultraviolence without any moral problems.
The Neo-Nazis are one of Werewolf’s tribes. They are called Get of Fenris, and come from the Nordic countries.
Werewolf: the Apocalypse is a roleplaying game that combines ideas of eco-fascism and eco-terrorism into an action-oriented package all about the rage we should all feel at the destruction of our planet in the hands of greedy corporations. In Werewolf, your character will burst into the boardroom and tear the people responsible in half.
Eco-fascism is built into the very structure of Werewolf. It’s protagonists live in a spirit-guided world where evil is an absolute force and the tribal societies of the werewolves are essentially paramilitary groups organized in an apocalyptic war. Dehumanized enemies can be murdered at will, since the world is always better when they’re gone. Eco-terrorism is the practical implementation of this idea.
The characters are not going to chain themselves to trees to stop logging. They will murder the loggers to the last man. The loggers are possessed by evil spirits, so it’s fine.
In my experience, when people play Werewolf, it gets watered down. The characters are humanized. The skinhead qualities of the Get of Fenris get toned down. In a lot of the books as well as games I’ve seen, there’s a strong focus on the Umbra and the cosmological, spiritual ideas of the game. They’re cool too, but often end up overshadowing the essential core mission of the werewolf: To murder the despoilers of the land.
I think this does a tremendous disservice to a game that’s at its most singular when it’s at its most extreme. When it really is a game about eco-fascist werewolves perpetually on the verge of homicidal rage.
After all, the subject matter has only become more relevant with age. We can play Werewolf while we wait for Captain Planet to come back.
I started roleplaying with the Finnish edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and graduated to playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition as soon as I learned enough English to read the books.
While there’s been good and interesting stuff done in the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions of the game, for me the one true D&D will always be the 2nd edition. Not because of the rules, but because of the world.
TSR published a number of campaign settings in which the game could be played. Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Birthright, and so on. However, they were not content with just creating different fantasy worlds. They also created a unified superstructure into which all those worlds fit.
A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.
In addition to the normal campaign settings published for AD&D 2nd Edition, TSR published two “meta-settings”. The first was Spelljammer, and the second Planescape.
Spelljammer is D&D in space. It presents a universe where solar systems are held in vast crystal spheres floating in a combustible substance called Phlogiston. Ships (I mean wooden sailing ships) could be fitted with a magical device called “The Spelljamming Helm” and used to travel to other planets as well as between the crystal spheres.
Best of all, all the normal campaign worlds were seen as parts of this overarching vision: You could fly your spaceship from the world of Forgotten Realms to the world of Dragonlance.
From this perspective, all the worlds of D&D were in fact the same world, sort of like the Marvel Universe of D&D. From the perspective of an individual campaign, it didn’t matter too much, but for a D&D geek like me, it was heady stuff.
A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.
Other planes of existence had been a part of D&D from a pretty early stage, but they didn’t really come into their own until the introduction of Planescape. Like Spelljammer, Planescape connected existing worlds, this time through a structure of infinite planes composed of various moral or physical ideas.
The planar cosmology was pretty complicated. The crystal spheres composed a Prime Material Plane, which contained normal worlds. It was connected to the Inner Planes through the Ethereal Plane and the Outer Planes through the Astral Plane. The Inner Planes were organized around elemental ideas: fire, water, earth, air, life and death, as well as connecting planes, such as radiance or ash. The Outer Planes were moral, with Lawful Evil Baator and the Chaotic Neutral Limbo. The Outer Planes naturally had sublevels, which were also infinite.
In the center of the Outer Planes stood an infinitely tall mountain, and on top of the mountain floated the donut-shaped Sigil, City of Doors.
So by this point you could safely say that the world of D&D had grown pretty complicated.
A small sample of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.
Back to Earth
In the Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D there’s been a clear shift away from all this towards a more grounded vision of the game. Published books have been more about stuff you can use in a normal fantasy campaign. Other planes of existence have been stunted and sheared into something like a spice or a topping you can use to flavor a game. They’re no longer the place where it all happens.
I understand why. All that stuff was crazy complicated, and appealed mostly to hardcore fans, at least if the sales numbers for Spelljammer and Planescape are anything to go by. The world had floated far beyond anything resembling the basic fantasy roots of D&D.
Still, I’ve never lost my love for the various infinities of the planes. When I first read Planescape, I thought it was the coolest thing ever published. Now, years later, I still appreciate the worldbuilding vision the designers of the 2nd edition had, where every place, from the Asteroid Belt to the City of Brass on the Plane of Fire, was a possible place of adventure.
An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen
Recently, me, Jaakko Stenros and Tuomas Puikkonen did a larp called Täydellinen ihminen (The Perfect Human). The idea was to delve deep into the clean, bright world of office stock photos. For a few hours, our participants would become these happy, smiling, efficient and joyful people. They would embody a certain type of corporate dream.
Me and Jaakko did the design, and Tuomas handled the photography. It was an unusual larp project in the sense that the photos were an integral part of the experience, instead of just documentation. After being a perfect human, the participants could then see themselves in actual photos, permanently part of that world.
The game was played in Helsinki on the 20th of September, 2015. Jaakko wrote a few personal reflections about the game here, and the full set of Tuomas’s wonderful photos is here.
That’s me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen
The game was about an ordinary Monday at the consulting firm Creative Solutions. The characters all worked there, and were thrilled to be back at work after the weekend. During the day, they met three clients (one about bottled water, the city of Salo and the Guggenheim) and had several internal meetings. That was it: No twist, no surprises, no drama.
One of the ideas behind the game was the concept of “the Soviet man”, the perfect communist citizen. A popular idea in the Soviet Union, this ideal also revealed the problems inherent in the system. The ideal human is not what we have. We just have ordinary humans.
For Täydellinen ihminen, corporate stock photos replace the paintings and statues of Socialist Realism. Instead of the noble, strong factory worker, we have the happy, innovative consultant. The perfect human of the larp is just one of the ideals we live with in today’s society. Another ideal of capitalism is a super-competitive individualist motivated by greed, but we chose to focus on creating the world as it appears in the photos. A place where teamwork and positivity are the most important qualities. This meant that in the workplace of Creative Solutions, everyone collaborated on everything, and always gave positive feedback. Meetings made the characters happy. The team was everything.
This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen
I understood the idea of using larp to generate a certain kind of visual surface after I participated in the Brody Condon larp and video project The Zeigarnik Effect in June 2015. In this, as well as earlier pieces by the same artist, larp and video have complemented each other. A larp has certain qualities that are hard to achieve otherwise, and those qualities can be captured on video, or in photos. I knew the idea, but really only realized the potential after having experienced it myself.
In Täydellinen ihminen, game design and visual design came together in the physical play style we workshopped together before the start of the game. In office stock photos, people are happy. They smile. They stand very close to each other. They touch.
In stock photos, people are close, and they’re physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen
The idea was that practising these modes of being beforehand would produce the right kind of images, but also generate a certain atmosphere for the game. We forbade all subtext, hidden agendas, sex, and other distractions to focus on the game’s dream of happy, corporate efficiency and teamwork. This also made it easier for the participants to be casually physical.
Tuomas didn’t play a character and the participants were instructed to ignore the photographer, but it’s clear his presence had an impact on the in-game dynamics. When I was in the game playing a supportive character, I noticed myself and others behaving as if they were on camera even when Tuomas was not in the room. It became part of the physical, bodily language of the game.
The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen
So what does it mean to play a larp and become one of the perfect humans? I played a few supporting roles, so I’m perhaps the wrong person to explain what the experience was all about. That’s best left to actual participants.
At one point, I played a normal, non-perfect municipal representative, and it felt overwhelming to be subjected to the team’s energy. I felt like a hick who had come to the big town.