Non-Digital: Itras by – the Menagerie

The Menagerie is a supplement for the Norwegian roleplaying game Itras by, created by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen. However, if you’re familiar with roleplaying game supplements, this is definitely something else. As befits the surreal nature of Itras by, the Menagerie calls into question the very meaning of expanding on a published roleplaying game.

I have a lot of love for Itras by. A highly literate yet light roleplaying game set in the dreamlike city its named after, the original core book played with mood and prose, guidance and suggestions much more than banal game mechanics.

In 2009, I acted as the publisher for the Finnish translation of the game, under the title Itran kaupunki. A key motivation for me to have the game translated was so I could read it myself. It hadn’t appeared in English yet and I didn’t read Norwegian. It proved well worth the effort!

The Menagerie is a feast of contributions from a large variety of different designers, writers and illustrators, all coming together to offer their own take on Itras by. In addition to being material you can use to run games, it’s also a masterclass in game design, peeling back the layers of decision-making that go into making any particular choice.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jason Morningstar’s article Itras by Without Itras by. In it, he goes through the deck of cards the game uses as a tool for inspiration and resolution of events. He demonstrates how it can be used in other contexts and what kind of effects different modifications create.

It’s also a wonderfully heterogenous book. Roleplaying communities have an unfortunate tendency to devolve into depressing little cliques who all hate each other, but the Menagerie boasts contributions from a highly disparate group of people, both geographically and in terms of design style. There are Norwegians and Poles, Americans and New Zealanders, Storygames alumni and OSR aficionados.

The book even includes complete games based on Itras by. An example is Grimasques by Banana Chan, a freeform game demonstrating that good design and focus on a single element of the Itras by world can produce something very clearly defined even in this surreal environment.

For me, two of the most affecting chapters in the book came at the very end. Martin Bull Gudmundsen has a beautiful personal essay reflecting on his own background, Asperger’s syndrome and the particular nature of surreal game design. He also wrote a short fictional text together with Itras by co-designer Ole Peder Giæver as an allegory about making a game like this, a suitable ending to a book full of strange wonders.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 2

I’ve read the second of the Analog Game Studies books in my quest to catch up on the series. You can check out the book here or read the articles here.

After the introductory first book, this second volume is where the series really gets going. It feels like in addition to being collections of articles about non-digital games, the series also engages in trying to define what “analog games” means. Reading this book, the divide into digital and analog games feels arbitrary, yet also necessary to carve out space for all the types of games that often get excluded from discussions of games.

The book starts strong with veteran boardgame designer Bruno Faidutti’s essay Postclonial Catan. In it, he subjects European-style boardgames to a postcolonial analysis, writing from his own perspective as a designer of Eurogames. To me, the interest of the essay lies in not just the analysis, but also on the design perspective on why Eurogames seem so full of national stereotypes, often cringeworthy.

In other articles, reading Anglo-American writers about Eurogames is strange because it reveals such deep cultural fissures. For example, there’s a critique of Eurogames like Settlers of Catan in that they avoid violence as a subject matter. This creates a false representation of history because when you remove violence from colonialism, for example, and reduce it to nothing but trade, you whitewash historical crimes.

This critique is obviously totally sensible! Yet the rule against war and combat is ingrained in me from my own childhood, from how my mother and father and the worldview I learned at home. The idea that family games should be violence-free is something that makes sense to me on a gut level. It feels shocking to read it being talked about so casually, as if it was just some weird European quirk.

Closer to my home field of roleplaying games and larp, there’s the article Out of the Dungeons: Representations of Queer Sexuality in RPG Source Books by Jaakko Stenros and Tanja Sihvonen. I’d seen it years ago at Ropecon in presentation form, but it was interesting to read it properly. Queer sexualities have been dealt with in roleplaying games in a messy, often weird way, and I remember some of the specific examples from my own roleplaying history.

The idea of roleplaying or larping with an audience has kept recurring in different contexts through the years, from art galleries who wanted art larp to be audience friendly to the modern phenomenon of roleplaying as a YouTube spectacle. There’s three excellent articles in the book which expand on this in ways that make me think our previous conceptions of the subject have been simplistic. These articles show that if you really want to do this, roleplay with an audience, there’s a whole art to it.

The articles are Moyra Turkington’s A Look Back From the Future: Play and Performance in Biosphere 2013, Sarah Lynne Bowman’s Connecting Stage Acting, Role-Playing and Improvisation and Lisa Quoresimo’s Joy and Meaning in Theater Games. What I especially like about them is the basis in actual experiences with this kind of work.

This is another great collection, well worth your time. The only real issue with it is that the articles were originally posted online, and a few contain references to illustrations or other features not included in the book.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 1

I’ve worked a lot on tabletop games this year because of my involvement with Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, and I developed a yearning for the kind of design writing about tabletop games that we have for larp in the form of the Knutepunkt books.

As sometimes happens, it turns out this already existed, and had for some time. I found the first two Analog Game Studies collections at Gencon, and just finished reading the first one, published in 2016. It collects the articles originally published online in the journal in 2014.

This is good stuff, and I’m happy to know that there’s already a few years worth more out for me to read!

From the perspective of a reader like me who’s interested in roleplaying game design, the highlights from vol. 1 are Jason Morningstar’s article Visual Design as Metaphor: The Evolution of a Character Sheet and Evan Torner’s Uncertainty in Analog Role-Playing Games.

Morningstar’s article takes a classic design question of the character sheet and goes through his own process in developing one for the game Night Witches. Torner writes about uncertainty from many different perspectives, using published games as examples. I especially liked the consideration of uncertainty created by other players, as that’s a design space close to my heart.

Other interesting articles include Nathan Altice’s The Playing Card Platform and Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner’s Post-Larp Depression. Both felt like the kind of baseline articles about a given subject that can now be referenced in a thousand articles in the future.

The last article in the book is Lizzie Stark’s The Curse of Writing Autobiographical Games, in which she writes about designing a game called The Curse. The subject is deeply personal and the essay is a wonderful, clear example of how difficult subject matter becomes design.

Research Blog Antarctica #164 – The Winter Over

Fiction: Matthew Iden: The Winter Over (Thomas & Mercer, 2017)

At first glance, The Winter Over by Matthew Iden falls into the familiar category of Antarctic thrillers where manly men face the travails of human weakness and the unforgiving environment. And indeed, superficially the book seems to have some of the characters and plot elements typical of those stories.

Its protagonist is mechanical engineer Cass Jennings who’s assigned to the fictional Shackleton South Pole Research Facility for the nine month isolation of the Antarctic winter. Soon life at the Facility starts to go wrong as hostile, malicious forces try to use it for their own purposes.

Yet this is not a macho story. By the end, its clear that the creative vision is something else altogether, something more humane and warm than is typical of these novels.

Research Blog Antarctica #163 – Frozen Solid

Fiction: James M. Tabor: Frozen Solid (2013, Ballantine Books)

There’s a lot of thrillers set in Antarctica, but James M. Tabor’s Frozen Solid is better than most, at least within the confines of the genre. Protagonist Hallie Leland arrives at the Amundsen Scott Station at the South Pole only to discover women dying of suspicious causes. She starts to uncover the conspiracy and befriends the gruff station manager, one of those middle-aged hostile men who turn out to have a heart of gold.

The book is elevated by the excellent work of the narrator, Paul Michael. He gives the characters, and especially the hero, a dignity that goes beyond the text.

Björn Wahloos rakastaa kirjaa joka rakastaa Björn Wahlroosia

(Tämä kirjoitus julkaistiin alkujaan Imagen saitilla olleessa Pikseliparatiisi-blogissani 27. 11. 2017.)

Ayn Randin romaani Atlas Shrugged on juuri ilmestynyt kännöksenä nimellä Kun maailma järkkyi. Kauppalehden mukaan Björn “Wahlroos on ollut edistämässä kirjan suomentamista.”

Romaanin tarina kertoo siitä, kuinka rikkaat suurmiehet ja teollisuuspomot saavat tarpeekseen kansan kiittämättömyydestä ja päättävät vetäytyä piiloon pieneen vuoristokylään. Ilman heidän panostaan maailma hiljalleen sortuu.

Ei ole ihme että kirja on monien rikkaiden ja vaikutusvaltaisten ihmisten suosiossa: Sen tarina esittää heidät välttämätöminä hahmoina joita ilman maailma ei toimi. Kirjan merkkihenkilöt käpertyvät mököttämään, ja sen myötä kaikki loppuu. Romaanin englanninkielisen nimen Atlas vertautuu näihin merkkihenkilöihin. Jättiläinen muistuttaa siitä kuinka raskasta on kantaa koko maailman painoa harteillaan.

Kuulostaa varmasti ihanalta varakkaasta ihmisestä joka toivoisi että kansa olisi häntä kohtaan kiitollisempaa. Ilman minua te mitättömyydet ette olisi mitään! Joku päivä minä vielä näytän teille! Ilman minua ette pärjää!

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Ayn Randin romaani on mainettaan helppolukuisempi. Se on pitkä, mutta objektivismin filosofiaa ei voi syyttää turhista krumeluureista. Sen mukaan ihmisten auttaminen on pahasta ja itsekkyys on hyvästä. Suurmiehet (ja yksi nainen) pyörittävät maailmaa ja muiden pitää mukautua siihen.

Filosofiana objektivismi edustaa aatesuuntaa, jossa ajatusrakennelman tarkoitus on sekä palvella rikkaiden materiaalisia etuja että tuottaa heille hyvä mieli.

Oma suosikkihahmoni kirjassa on merirosvo Ragnar Danneskjöld joka upottaa Yhdysvalloista Eurooppaan lähetettyjä hätäapukuljetuksia. Ilman apua eurooppalaiset saattavat vielä joskus nousta jaloilleen, mutta avun myötä heistä tulisi pelkkiä parasiitteja.

Björn Wahlroosin Ayn Rand -ihannoinnissa on jotain perin kiusallista. Rand teki uransa ajattelijana jonka tuotanto hiveli suurmiesten egoja. Siksi suurmiehet pitivät hänestä. Ja miksi ei, kukapa meistä ei tykkäisi kun vähän kehutaan?

Kun Wahlroos tukee Randin romaanin suomentamista, hän ostaa ylistyslaulun itselleen. Rand on rikkaiden hovitrubaduuri jonka rooli on kertoa heille että heidän itsekyytensä ja omahyväisyytensä on perusteltua, jopa moraalinen välttämättömyys. Lisäksi kirja esittää heidät seksuaalisesti haluttavina. Esiintyessään Rand-fanina Wahlroos paljastaa olevansa samanlainen myötäilylle altis toope kuin me muutkin.

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Mutta hetkinen, rakastaako Ayn Rand todella Björn Wahlroosia? Onko kirja sittenkään pankkiirille niin imarteleva?

Millaisia ovat Randin ihannoimat suurmiehet?

Kirjan keskiössä on keksijänero John Galt. Hän kehittää kokonaan uuden tavan tuottaa energiaa, mutta ei halua luovuttaa sitä kollektivistien käsiin. Galtille, kuten muillekin kirjan suurmiehille, kaikenlainen vehtaaminen valtion kanssa on vastenmielistä ja moraalisesti väärin. Vauraus syntyy neron omasta työstä ja näkemyksestä. Muilta ei saa ottaa vastaan mitään ilman asianmukaista korvausta.

Kollektivistit toki edustavat Randin romaanissa kaikkea kurjaa. Näkyvimpinä pahiksina nousee kuitenkin esiin kaksi hahmoa, jotka alleviivaavat sitä että kaikki nerot ja rikkaat eivät ole sankareita. Tiedemies Robert Stadler on nero, mutta haaskaa lahjojaan kollektivismin palveluksessa. Se on romaanissa hirvittävä moraalinen rikos. Mitättömyydet lankeavat valtionpalvontaan silkkaa tyhmyyttään, mutta Stadler olisi voinut olla samanlainen suurmies kuin John Galt.

Wahlroosin hahmon kannalta vielä mielenkiintoisempi hahmo on perijä James Taggart. Hän syntyy rikkaaseen perheeseen, mutta alentuu rautatietä johtaessaan yhteistyöhön valtion kanssa. Koska Taggart ei kykene itse johtamaan yhtiötään menestykseen, hän nojaa viranomaisiin.

Tämä onkin itselleni ollut yksi suurimmista Randin teokseen liittyvistä mysteereistä. Randia lukevat Wahlroosin kaltaiset vaikuttajat eivät karsasta valtion tukia liiketoiminnalleen tai pyri välttelemään yhteistyötä valtionyhtiöiden kanssa. Jos vertaa Randin romaania ja Wahlroosin elämänkertaa, on selvää että Wahlroos itse on lähempänä James Taggartia kuin John Galtia.

Ellei Wahlroosilla itsellään sitten ole kellarissaan nerokasta uutta energialähdettä jota hän on haluton jakamaan kiittämättömän kansan kanssa.

Uusi romaani Tuhannen viillon kuolema ilmestyy 15.9.!

Uusin romaanini Tuhannen viillon kuolema ilmestyy 15.9.2017!

Trilogia maailmasta jossa ilmastonmuutos on väistämätön tosiasia

Aino on siivooja, jolta varakas asiakas pimittää viisi euroa. Aino saa tarpeekseen, joten jonkun on kuoltava. Cessi on töissä New Life Oy:ssä, joka auttaa äveriäitä ihmisiä varautumaan ilmastokatastrofiin. Hän unelmoi pääsystä osaksi yhteiskunnallista eliittiä. Jari on rikkaan perheen poika, joka haluaisi olla köyhä ja uskottava. Jokainen heistä yrittää elää elämäänsä ilmastonmuutoksen ja luokkasodan ristipaineessa.

Tuhannen viillon kuolema aloittaa Rikkaiden unelmat -trilogian, jossa merenpinta nousee, rikas varautuu ja köyhä elää elämäänsä miten parhaiten taitaa. Tuhannen viillon kuolema on yhteiskunnallinen romaani, jossa kukaan ei ole turvassa muuttuvalta maailmalta. Rikkaalla ihmisellä on varaa ostaa lahjoituksilla itselleen hyväntekijän status samalla kun hän ajaa kurjistavaa politiikkaa. Väkivalta ei ala poliittisena liikkeenä vaan tavallisen ihmisen tuskastumisena. Lopulta köyhälle ei jää käteen muuta kuin puukko.

Research Blog Antarctica #158 – Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Non-fiction: Alfred Lansing: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959)

Written by the American journalist Alfred Lansing and published in 1959, Endurance is an account of one of the most famous stories in the history of Antarctic exploration, the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. Shackleton attempted to traverse the Antarctic continent, but his ship was locked in ice before he got to shore, and was crushed. This forced him and his crew to move heavy small boats to the edge of the sea ice and then attempt to escape to safety in the stormiest seas in the world.

It’s a story told many times, but Lansing tells it very well, straightforwardly and simply, as if you were watching a movie of the events. Some of the quirkier details of the trip are missing, but Lansing has a good understanding of the minutiae and mistakes of daily expedition life. He interviewed surviving members of the expedition, giving his story a lot of human detail.

If you want to read an approachable and exciting account of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this is a good choice.

Research Blog Antarctica #157 – Quick, Before It Melts (the novel)

Fiction: Philip Benjamin: Quick, Before It Melts (Random House, 1964)

Philip Benjamin was a New York Times reporter who had been to Antarctica twice when he published the novel Quick, Before It Melts, later made into a movie. The title is a joke based on the idea that the Antarctic is eternal, and that being worried about it melting is funny. In this regard, the world has changed.

It’s a comedy novel about a reporter who goes to the Antarctic as a guest of the U.S. operation there. In factual terms, it’s very faithful, with a lot of fun little detail. The story follows the broad pattern of many non-fiction Antarctic books, with the stop in New Zealand, arriving in the Antarctic, adventures there, and ending when the protagonist leaves.

The reporter and his friend contrive to get their girlfriends visit Antarctica, at that point pretty much a men-only continent. A Soviet scientist defects to New Zealand. The story is a product of its time and the tone of the book is laddish, but sometimes it’s still clever in a lighthearted way.

Research Blog Antarctica #154 – Riding the Ice Wind

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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.

Research Blog Antarctica #152 – Shackleton’s Journey

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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.

2015 in works that made me feel something

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Larp: The Zeigarnik Effect (Brody Condon)

I played a lot of larp in 2015, but the most interesting and personally affecting was Brody Condon’s The 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 wrote more about it here.

Concert: K-X-P

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-ryhmäteatteri-foto-ilkka-saastamoinen-672x372Eduskunta 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.