The cover art to 'Unpacking'.

Played and enjoyed Unpacking, an interestingly minimalist narrative game released by Witch Beam in 2021. It tracks twenty years in the life of a young woman as she works through various trials and tribulations to land finally at career success and family fulfillment. The genius of it lay in how you experience her story: every level of the game represents one of many successive moves into new homes—starting with her first by-herself bedroom, as a young teenager. You learn about the progression of her life at every stage by unpacking all of her possessions from cardboard boxes, one at a time, and deciding where each one goes. And that’s it! You don’t see anyone, much less talk to anyone—you never even directly see the main character. All you get is her stuff, with every book, toothbrush, and chipped coffee mug rendered in wonderfully chunky pixel art.

The act of putting things away encourages you reflect on every item, and what it means for its owner. You can’t help but track subtle changes in her wardrobe over the years, and you note which silly tchotchkes from her college days she discards quickly and which she carries into her thirties, move after move. You watch as she gradually finds her focus, with more of her possessions bending towards a passion for making art—with a side order of healthy fandom. Just noting things like this makes up ninety percent of the game, and it works, even though there’s no boss-battle challenges where you must apply what you’ve learned about the character’s life in a race against time, or something. You just put more of her socks away, at your own pace.

The other ten percent happens during surprising moments of storytelling that emerge from occasional, carefully orchestrated difficulties encountered in placing objects. Oh, the heartbreak you feel when you realize that the tiny city apartment she’s moved into is too small—and too crowded with its current occupant’s belongings—to let her framed diploma fit anywhere other than under their bed. There are a couple of moments like that in her future, even subtler, and unforgettable.

In fact, it did take me a long time to understand that stuff already on the shelves and tabletops at the the start of a level were things that belonged to people she was moving in with, whether roommates or romantic partners. In every case, I vaguely thought that we joined the unpacking in medias res, for some reason, and that the main character’s interests over the years flitted from dressmaking to electric guitars and then back to drawing again. I mean she’s young, right? One tries out all kinds of stuff at that age. I figured it out in retrospect by the time the game inverts this pattern, with good reason.

Unpacking also helped me reflect on a particular aspect of sexuality shared by many contemporary indie games. As the story proceeded past its low point and promised new beginnings for the unseen hero, I felt positive that she’d end up with another woman, and: ah, wouldn’t you know it. The thing is, if she had ended the story paired with a man, the whole work would seem discordant, though not for any reason explicitly present in the text. Queerness has, I think, become a kind of genre expectation for short, interesting narrative games. The unnamed family that we briefly glimpse in the finale of Unpacking are the latest gay bildungsroman characters I’ve enjoyed accompanying for a few hours, a lineage I can trace back at least as far as the kids in Night in the Woods or Gone Home.

I actually have difficulty thinking of a center-stage heterosexual couple from any recent higher-profile indie game I’ve played in the last several years; the only ones who come to mind are Sam and Lydia from Paradise Killer. (And that’s overlooking the fact that Sam is a skeleton. But if Lydia can live with that, so can I.) I hypothesize that because heterosexuality remains the default in the larger popular culture, small-studio game creators feel encouraged to explore different directions when it comes to representing romance in their work.

Anyway, Unapcking is a great game. I can recommend it to anyone.

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A colorful tumble of Jolly Rancher hard candies.
Remember to remove all the red and purple candies from the pile before you begin!

I want to tell you what happened with the colonoscopy that I philosophized about last year. A lot happened, actually, though it mainly involved the same thing repeated four times. Yes, friends, I traveled through my fiftieth year as a man for every season, and I met every season curled on my side in a hospital gown, unconscious. I still managed to learn a thing or two.

The rest of this post gets a little frank about my bodily and medical experiences; proceed with caution. I’m doing fine! You won’t miss worrying news if you bail out now.

My prep strategy

Before I get into the whys of it, let me say that having my first four colonoscopies all happen within one twelve-month period allowed me to rapidly refine my prep techniques. “Prep”, here, being the common nickname for the nasty stuff you must swallow to thoroughly clean out your guts for a proper examination. I learned that prep takes many forms, today. As a first step, I had to choose one.

My doctor gave me three choices of prep medicine: the old-school method of chugging a full gallon of “GaviLyte-G” solution, a newer technique that involved only two glasses of a different formula, or gulping down a lot of pills. I chose the big bottle twice, and the smaller drink twice. I found significantly more success using the GaviLyte, also known as GoLYTELY. Even though it’s the least pleasant of the options, I intend to continue choosing it in the future.

By my fourth round of prep, I had settled on this step-by-step:

  1. Two days before the procedure, mix the prep according to its instructions, and refrigerate it.

  2. The afternoon before the procedure, place these items on your kitchen counter:

    • A liquid measuring cup.
    • A drinking glass.
    • A little dish. If you have a dish in a fun shape that makes you happy, use that. I used a concrete banana designed by Alabaster Pizzo.
    • Eight coins or other tiny objects you can use as tokens. Do not put them in the dish yet.
    • A handful of hard candies, any color except red or purple. Pick something sweet and fruity. I used an assortment of sugar-free Jolly Ranchers.
    • A timer. I used the “Hey, Siri” voice controls on the various Apple devices I surround myself with.
    • Plenty of drinkable water. I just used tap water.
    • A paper towel or two.
  3. At least eight hours before your usual bedtime, begin drinking the first half of the prep, repeating this procedure until all the tokens are in the dish:

    1. Measure out eight ounces of prep, then put the bottle back into the fridge.

    2. Pour the measured prep into the drinking glass.

    3. Put a hard candy in your mouth.

    4. Drink all of the prep that is in the drinking glass.

      This is the hard part, and you have to do it a lot. Go at a slow and steady pace, alternating sips with sucking on the candy. You don’t need to chug, but you do need to get that whole glass down within a few minutes. If you start feeling sick, take a short break to focus and breathe, without putting the glass down. Then get back to it, sip by sip.

    5. Place a token in the dish. This is you putting a point on the scoreboard, right? You’re one step closer to finishing.

    6. If there are still tokens outside of the dish, then set your timer for ten minutes.

    7. Take the candy out of your mouth and put it on the paper towel. You’ll use it again for the next glass. (Or just chew it up and eat it if it’s almost gone.)

    8. Fill the drinking glass with water, and drink the water.

    9. If you set the timer earlier, rest until it goes off. When it does, go back to the step “Measure out eight ounces of prep.” Otherwise, continue to the next step.

  4. By this point, the prep should be half gone. You can take a longer break now! Set the timer for up to 60 minutes and relax. You can rest a little longer than that if you need to, but you shouldn’t delay for much more than an hour.

  5. Remove all of the tokens from the dish.

  6. Drink the other half of the solution, eight ounces at a time, following the same steps as before, starting with “Measure out eight ounces of prep.”

  7. If there’s still a little prep left, drink it up using the same pacing and technique.

And that’s it; all the prep’s inside you now, doing its thing. This whole ordeal can take around six hours to complete, but you have to budget further time to handle the consequences. In my case, things don’t start moving until a couple of hours after I finish the prep.

I prefer to start in the afternoon and not the evening in order to avoid the misery of being awake past midnight with more drinking to do. You could start the process even earlier in the day, but since you cannot ingest anything besides water once you have emptied yourself, that just means a longer fast for no benefit. My method, when paired with a morning procedure, tries to balance a shorter fast with getting a good night’s sleep.

As for the the actual business of elimination, I find it untroubling. While the experience does resemble extreme diarrhea, the fact that it’s voluntary and predictable imbues it with a sense of accomplishment, rather than uncontrolled illness. It just happens, in a coldly mechanical way, until it’s finished. You have certainly weathered worse than this.

But now let me tell me why I did this four times.

How not to screw it up

My third colonoscopy happened because the second one revealed an unusually flat and large polyp that the team couldn’t casually snip away with the tools at hand. I needed to return for the services of a specialist-among-specialists to perform some trickier internal surgery. That went fine, but required a fourth visit several months later to confirm that it healed properly. I’m pleased to tell you that it had.

My second colonoscopy happened because I, the patient, utterly botched the preparation for the first one. My colon was flooded with “opaque liquid”, as the medical team put it, and what colon walls they could see were caked with undigested, grainy food. “It looked like birdseed in there,” the team lead told me, as I lay confused in the recovery bed.

Here is why this happened:

  • I ignored the admonition to swallow nothing in the critical hours before the procedure. I somehow thought that water didn’t count—I mean, it’s water, right? Water!—so I chugged a tall glass or two right before leaving for the hospital, on the theory that it is always good to hydrate before a stressful situation. Reader, there are exceptions to everything, it turns out.

  • I am sure that my doctor told me to switch to a low-fiber diet a few days before the procedure. Obviously, I didn’t listen. I love eating seeds and grains and lentils and fibrous roots and vegetables of all sorts, num num num. But, counterintuitively, you want to denude your guts of all these friendly helpers of day-to-day digestion. The doctors can’t see through this stuff while it’s wallpapering your colon, and the prep solution absolutely does not need its help in moving things along.

I adjusted both parameters for my next three colonoscopies, and none of these problems surfaced again. I didn’t need to turn my life upside-down for the diet: I just ate mindfully for the three or four days leading up to the procedure, and then restricted myself to only hot broth on the final day, right up until that first glass of prep goes down the hatch.

I am, as ever, very grateful to be alive now, when the technology and expertise exists to help my middle years stay as healthy as possible—and also lets me share what I’ve learned with you. I hope the year to come brings us both good health and prosperity, inside and out.

For further reading and friendly advice, see the delightful Welcome to Colonoscopy Land by Anne Helen Petersen. Thanks to Fogknife reader Tully H. for sharing this article with me last year.

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The cover of the book.

The prologue of Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors reminded me of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. Here is poor Fetter, a small child with supernatural gifts and uncertain lineage, raised to be a cruel killer. But after a time-jump to meet young-adult Fetter in the big city, it becomes something more like The Tick. Fetter takes breaks from his gray-market job as a community fixer for the immigrant-swollen slums to attend a support group for “unchosen ones”. These are unfortunates born to be world-altering messiahs, but who either ditched the path or got bumped out of it through dumb luck.

In Fetter’s case, he has no shadow, can ignore gravity at will, knows the secret songs that sharpen knives to murderous efficacy—and is fated to slay his father, the beloved and possibly immortal leader of his land’s most prominent religion. But as soon as young Fetter got a taste of city life, he decided to just forget about that last bit. In the world of Bright Doors, this sort of background is common enough to merit a standard designation code on citizen ID cards, alongside race and caste classifications.

Fetter struck me, around this point in the story, as a Philip K. Dick protagonist: a good-hearted nebbish living in a weird world and possessing uncanny powers, but still a nebbish. Of course, you can’t have Fetter’s history and hope to life a peaceful life forever, and soon enough his adversary arrives—who is absolutely a PKD antagonist, straight out of Ubik, someone can edit reality at a continental scale to suit his needs. You need to understand that this is praise from me! I have been thinking lately about how Dick’s fiction fits into these strange days, and was predisposed to see these correspondences. But I am very happy that I did.

Details: I love the way this antagonist doesn’t so much remold time and space as smear it, smushing passes through mountain ranges by speeding up erosion. This requires the wrenching apart of two consecutive moments by millenia, forcing whole histories to swirl in, uncontrolled, to fill the void, like the start of a Dwarf Fortress game. And for all this, the narrative points out that the religion he heads will never become more than the fourth- or fifth-most powerful in its world, if you take everything into account. The world of Bright Doors, like our world, is still a very big place, even for demigods.

Fetter’s corner of his fantastic place evokes the Indian subcontinent, and perhaps Sri Lanka in particular, in both geography and culture. It melds supernatural intrigues, like Fetter’s “unchosen” crowd and the eponymous bright doors—delightfully weird artifacts scattered around the city, and the object of Fetter’s growing obsession—with social media and crowdfunding campaigns. The city bustles with life and art, and trembles under the growing presence of militarized religious orders led by TV-celebrity monks in saffron robes. Inevitably, the winds rushing from those bright doors sweep readers past breathtaking betrayals and reversals and into a kind of uncertain apocalypse, one that allows Fetter to meet the demands of fate while rejecting the chains that would bind his name.

I loved this novel, and can recommend it to anyone.

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I felt sure this 1984 film would prominently feature the synth-pop hit “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco someplace in it. It didn’t—not even over the closing credits! Wikipedia tells us that the film merely inspired the song, but for most of my life I thought the song was part of this movie.

The official music video, which my cable TV-loving child self absolutely watched many times, features actors in powdered-wig period dress bopping along to the synths. I must have assumed that these visuals were not original to the music video but clips from the movie whose title Falco sings again and again in the chorus. That’s reasonable, right?

Anyway, great movie. Saw the director’s cut from the aughts, which seems to be what you’ll find on streaming services. It clocks in at three hours long, and I was riveted through all of it. Such a well-assembled picture! I loved Tom Hulce’s portrayal of Mozart as nasty little gremlin in a shaggy pink wig who plays unspeakably beautiful music like he’s telling a rambling, filthy joke. The film’s use of Mozart’s music—both diegetic and otherwise—is simply astounding. My favorite: the scenes of Salieri, seething with jealousy, catching a glimpse of Mozart’s original scores and brought to his knees by the soaring magnificence that would roar unbidden in his head from just seeing those scrawled staves.

Two scenes run oddly long: the chaotic farce that Mozart watches in the theater alongside the commoners, and the final-act scene where Salieri helps the dying Mozart transcribe his Requiem. I loved watching every minute of these and also found them wanting abbreviation. I would wager that those and—judging from the PG-to-R rating slide between the two cuts—the nude scene were both left on the floor for the theatrical release. I am too lazy to go confirm this.

Speaking of flights from reality for the sake of a better blog post, the likelihood that I was watching an entertaining fabrication rather than a dramatic historical document didn’t strike me until the film’s last hour, when Frau Mozart castigates her husband for agreeing to score a silly libretto about magic flutes and giant snakes. He shrugs, as if agreeing that it’s hack work, but this absolutely tripped over my understanding that Mozart was totally into co-creating Die Zauberflöte, pouring his personal fascination with Freemasonry into its celestially bizarre imagery.

In the end, the whole movie is a beautiful work of pure fiction that just happens to drop a lot of names, right? Whatever Salieri’s sins in real life, he objectively was not the obsessed villain portrayed here. But boy, what a great villain F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri makes, declaring war with God Himself in his monomaniacal quest to destroy his absurd, giggling rival! One wants to take such a good story as also the most true telling, and one reflects on how often the movie version of a thing just ends up as the truest version, in our culture.

The trailer for Amadeus is astounding! Doesn’t it make you want to see more trailers like this, versus the whun-chun-whun-chun-squeeee kind that’s been the film-trailer industry standard for god knows how many years? But maybe the whun-chun business is like price tags that end in 99 cents instead of a round dollar: it’s a local-minimum neurological hack that folks in the business perfected years and years ago, and nobody likes having to do it, but also the math works against anyone trying something else.

But anyway, they invented two characters just for the trailer, right? These two dudes playing two anonymous but in-period busybodies whispering themselves hoarse over all of the film’s plot points. This is amazing. Could you imagine, like, the trailer for the next Star Wars movie centering on a conversation between two moisture-farming knuckleheads in a cantina, trading the latest rumors about the latest blaster-hot shenanigans happening light-years over their heads? And having neither appear in the film istelf? Oh, I’d love to see that.

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Cover of 'Unnatural Ends' by Christopher Huang.

While planning this post, I remembered that I had, in fact, written about a Christopher Huang work before. Back in 2013, I was invited to review all the nominees for the previous year’s XYZZY award in the “best implementation category. The list included Huang’s delightful parser adventure Sunday Afternoon, about a bored little boy stuck in his family’s stuffy Victorian mansion, unaware of the grown-up drama unfolding around him.

And now, as I actually set about to write this post, I further recall that he interviewed me about a text adventure game I wrote years before that. What’s more, I pull-quote his own review of that same game on my own webpage about it.

All of which is to say that it didn’t come as a complete surprise to me to receive, as a quite unexpected parcel in the mail, a new and handsome copy of the mystery novel Unnatural Ends by Christopher Huang some weeks back.

Look, okay, I just now dove into my email archive, and I find a forgotten thread from years ago where Chris himself told me that he’d started to write this novel, after which I cheerfully pledged my support through the Inkshares platform. This both confirms my educated guess about how I came to receive this book, and makes me feel slightly embarrassed about writing a public post before sending him a private note. Well, I’ve come this far already, so:

I really loved this book! The blurbs decorating its cover praise it for its adherence to the mode of Agatha Christie, but that’s not really an author or genre I have direct experience with. The nearest touchstones for me include the detective films of Rian Johnson—and Aaron Reed’s Subcutanean, another novel by an IF hobbyist-luminary that shows a particular interest around the exploration of interesting buildings with hidden passageways.

Unnatural Ends presents us with the gruesome but puzzling demise of Lord Linwood, cruel master of a Yorkshire estate and draconian father to three adopted children. Now in their early adulthood after the Great War, the children find themselves drawn back to the place of their shared origin by their father’s bizarre death. But the old mansion has generations-old intrigues marbling its stonework, of course, and it rapidly entangles the three protagonists in a twisted mystery which obsesses them all.

Inevitably, they discover family secrets about themselves, their true parents, and their monstrous adoptive father—secrets far more terrible than the bloody event than summoned them. Ultimately, each must decide whether to bind together to seek justice for past wrongs—or to succumb to their late father’s will, fighting one another for dominance and power.

How exciting! I will now probably spoil which way things go by confiding in you that I found the three principal characters of Unnatural Ends entirely likable and believable, each already gone through enough trials by the novel’s start that they’ve quite thoroughly shaken off their father’s evil influence, even if they begin the story not knowing the half of his depravity. The job lands on them now to bury their father, literally and figuratively—but 400 pages of complications ensue, testing the childrens’ will and humanity at least as much as their intelligence.

I tore through this delicious novel quite quickly. Listen: I read half the book on a plane. I hate reading on planes, right? Or I thought I did! It may be true I get a little better about flying with every trip I take, but sinking so deeply into a novel at 35,000 feet represents a quantum leap against flight-fear that required a truly captivating read, and that’s what I found here.

I recommend this new novel without reservation, and—as I probably always say about novels I adore—I’d love to see it adapted to film or TV, sometime. A period drama with blood and guts and a delightfully diverse main cast! We love those!

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Chose Black Narcissus from the Criterion Channel’s “All-time favorites” lineup during my free-trial week with the service, grabbed by its evocative title and its stunning marquee artwork of a nun pulling a bell-rope atop a dizzyingly high cliff. That title ends up sitting quite uncomfortably in a film full of discomforts, both intentional and otherwise.

Two things within the movie’s world are called “Black Narcissus”: a perfume worn proudly by “the Young General”, played by the Indian actor Sabu Dastagir—and that character himself, nicknamed slyly by the British nuns inhabiting the Himalayan cloister that he visits. As such, the Young General’s arrival to the troubled nunnery signals that, the setting established, the plot may now get underway.

So it’s all a bit strange when, midway through the picture, he falls in love with a local girl and simply leaves. This elopement occurs off-camera, and lasts for the remainder of the picture. The best explanation I have is that the hesitant, close-up embrace between the lovers—the last time we see either, but for a brief scene at the end—triggers a switch in the movie’s tone from grounded realism to a vertiginous dreaminess, commencing the nightmarish events which eventually dissolve the cloister. All because of… something in the air, I suppose!

That embrace also carries a strangeness not present in the context of 1947: like countless movies of its era, Black Narcissus sees no issues in casting white actors in other-than-white character roles. A modern viewer feels the friction this produces nowhere more keenly in the romantic pairing of the Young General with an Indian commoner played by the not-even-remotely Indian Jean Simmons. The teenaged Simmons—never speaking, layered in swarthening makeup—gets quite a bit of screen time, and I found her performance both pleasingly memorable and deeply embarrassing. I understand that the science of cinematic casting has learned a lot over the last 75 years, but I still find it strange to imagine that audiences were ever okay with such an objectively obvious mismatch.

I much more appreciated the film’s handling of two other unusual characters. I believe we are meant to understand the hunky and fortyish Mr. Dean, the local ruler’s European liaison, as gay. Nobody else in the movie seems to realize this, despite his penchant for extra-short khakis and brightly feathered caps, or—more significantly—his stoically amused detachment from all the nuns and village women who fawn all over him. While he does form an affectionate bond with protagonist Sister Clodagh, he gently brushes aside any naive probes towards romance that she offers. The final shot of the picture has the monsoon rains swallow up her mule-train as she leads the failed convent out of the mountains—while Mr. Dean only watches, eyelashes fluttering under the downpour. We must write our own background for Mr. Dean, based largely on everything unspoken in that last—admiring? regretful? nostalgic?—gaze.

The film’s depiction of Sister Ruth, meanwhile, struck me almost from the start as a surprisingly accurate and even sympathetic portrait of a person suffering with untreated bipolar disorder, though I don’t expect this to be a term in popular circulation at the time this film was made. The poor nun spends the earlier part of the movie lurching between being too sick to get out of bed, and then declaring that she can single-handedly run the convent’s elementary school and manage its gardens. The other nuns have absolutely zero idea what to do with her, driving her even more heartbreakingly off-balance.

The Young General’s sudden departure transforms Sister Ruth’s illness into a more generic sort of Movie Crazy. She starts ambushing nuns around corners with garish lighting and musical stings, while her motivations sink from the tragically misunderstood to the merely murderous. But, even so: she looks so amazingly ghastly in her final scenes that I would have assumed her appearance punched up with subtle CG in a modern movie, and not carried entirely by expert makeup and the actor’s own facial contortions.

On that note: the very modern work that this movie brought to my mind again and again was Immortality, the 2022 filmic video game directed by Sam Barlow. Players of that game spend hours sorting through a jumble of clips from three supposedly “lost films” of the 20th century, the most complete of which is Ambrosio, a lurid drama set in a Spanish convent. It also possessing a title that evokes heady aromas, enough to make the head swim at high altitudes. Black Narcissus did prove to have dangerously lingering scent, didn’t it?

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This arrangement by David W. Youd is the best emeddable copy I could find of the game’s lovely theme music. The score notes that the music’s composer, like the book’s author, is uncredited.

Temple of Apshai Trilogy, a computer game published by Epyx in 1985, came with printed documentation so unusual that it had its own title: The Book of Apshai. You can browse a scanned copy online, courtesy of the Museum of Computer Game History.

Because I obtained my own copy of this game and its manual at age 13, the book plays an outsized role in my overall cultural literacy. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a meme punchline these days, but my first exposure to it came from the pages of this manual. So did the word “sinew”, knowledge of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the very term “RPG”.

I don’t think I can speak to the objective quality of the work, due to my deep personal relationship with it. But I did read it again recently, because I wanted to express my fondness for it in public, somehow. I think my best route here is a brief exegesis of its component parts.

Before I begin: I don’t know who wrote The Book of Apshai. It feels like a tiny injustice that its inner front cover contains art credits, but nothing about who produced all the text. My educated guess: Epyx hired out the artistic talent, while its own employees wrote the words, and they simply didn’t deem it necessary to credit the latter. Hey, I don’t get named credit for my day-job technical writing, either…


It says “Temple of Apshai Trilogy™” in the largest type, then “The Book of Apshai” in smaller but still prominent type below Ken Macklin’s illustration, and then “Instruction manual” in still-smaller type below that.

This arrangement is how I arrive at my assertion that the printed manual acknowledges its role as the instructions for the computer game “Temple of Apshai Trilogy”, and yet stands apart as something beyond that, with a tangential but separate name of its own.

Here’s Ken Macklin’s page in a video game art database, and this might be his online portfolio, if we can believe that he transitioned over the years from painting generic dungeon dudes to perky astro-teens, and why shouldn’t we?

Table of contents

This page identifies the book as “The Temple of Apshai Trilogy”—which, I would point out, is one word longer than the actual title of the game. I maintain my position about the book’s actual title, further evidence for which we shall encounter later.

On that note, the table of contents all by itself teases that this is an unusual instruction manual. Okay, we can expect “Introduction” to lay out some prologue material, and I recognize “The One Minute Adventurer” as “quick-start” material, but the rest of this could be anything.

The critter emerging from its hole here is an “antman”, the signature beastie of the Apshai games. Like all of the book’s interior art, it was drawn by Matt Mott. He may be the Matt Mott of You Drew That Creations, but I suspect he’s instead the person behind the Matt Mott Art facebook page.

Package contents

The first of many of the book’s spot-art illustrations by Mott of a scowling dude with a big sword. It strongly evokes the interior artwork from the Dungeons & Dragons manuals from the 1970s and 1980s—an implied connection that, as we shall see, the publishers of this work felt happy to readers to draw.

The page’s bulleted list includes mention of the book itself: The Book of Apshai, well well. It also steps through the book’s own contents, and I note that this includes, in just a few words, the only explanation of the “Scrolls of Apshai” section that takes up the bulk of the manual’s pages. We’ll get to that.

The Oracle of Apshai

I want you to appreciate that this manual for a D&D-style computer game quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as its epigraph. I might have heard of Emerson before I first read this book as a junior-high schooler, but I cannot guarantee it.

There’s the word “sinew” in the first sentence.

This opening essay introduces the entire notion of role-playing games, using remarkably oblique language. The first paragraphs acknowledge that the player character is not a person but a collection of attributes and statistics, but still one that can embark on adventures worthy of such florid prose. “The Trilogy of Apshai, like truth and beauty, cannot be told,” it whispers. “You must experience to know.”

This prologue reaches out to Greek myth and Christian allegory to describe the mystery, danger, and allure of the Apshai games we are about to play. It makes no attempt at the more concrete stage-setting you’d find in most any other fantasy RPG manual. Then it excerpts Shelley’s poem to close things out, alongside a lovely piece by Mott of the crumbled ruins it evokes. To this day, I think of this drawing when I encounter any reference to “Ozymandias”.

A modern wag might read these three pages and snort “TFW you need to write the introduction to a game you haven’t played.” I would counter with the truth that this game had no world-building, or at least none worth delaying the player over. The game comprised 12 levels of “dungeon” and a single, text-only “inkeeper” screen for managing your character sheet and spending your money. The author had nothing to express beyond vibes, here, and pulled in threads from real-world culture and literature to put the reader into the right anticipatory mood.

The one-minute adventurer

This section hits me where I live. Friends, this two-page spread is a marvelous example of efficient technical writing, and I have lessons to learn from this today.

The first page contains bullet-lists to get the game booted up on no fewer than three computer systems of the day, with room left over to reprise the Commodore instructions both with and without the use of the Epyx Fast Load cartridge. The second page has a five-step guide to whipping up a (certainly doomed) character and shoving them into the dungeon, just to sate the hungry reader’s immediate appetite for digital mayhem as quickly as possible.

I feel humbled. The “quickstart guides” that I write in my day job look nothing like this. They should look a lot more like this.

I just noticed that the scowling sword dude on page 7 has had his right leg replaced below the knee with a prosthetic of some kind. The hair and spikes on it imply that it is an appropriated antman leg. Holy cow! This detail absolutely escaped until this very moment.

Thirteen steps to staying healthy

The book pulls a little trick here! The “One Minute” guide might have gotten you into the dungeon door, clutching your dagger and ready for action, but it doesn’t, like, tell you how to actually swing that dagger at anyone. Or, indeed, how to move at all. Those secrets are found in this separate two-page list of basic rules for new players.

The previous section used two pages to get players up and running, putting something on their computer screen. Then, they need turn the page only once more in befuddled exasperation to find enough information to at least toddle around the dungeon a bit, clubbing a rat or two before succumbing to a pit trap.

This continues to be very good technical writing, designed around the contours of the product.

While the tone shifts from the allegorical to the practical for these sections of the manual, the tone stays arch, never taking itself too seriously. The monsters exist to “join you for fun and games”; no frame story about saving the world here. We all know what you’re here for, and we’re gonna meet you there.

The rules of Apshai

Without any further segue, we arrive at the most detailed part of the early manual, laying out the RPG nitty-gritty specific to Apshai. This includes how to read your character sheet, how combat works, and how to navigate both the character-management and dungeon-crawling interfaces.

That description would probably match the manual of most any other CRPG published between 1980 and 2010. It competently knocks through everything that a new player needs to feel like they fully grasp all the mechanics that the game exposes to them. If I feel a special fondness for the text here, that’s because it was, in fact, my very first RPG manual.

All that said, a handful of features stand out. Most obviously, one does find several lovely examples of the hand-drawn “screenshots” typical of the era in this section, rendered into frames with bulging edges in order to simulate a convex cathode-ray tube surface.

The first paragraph of page 10 contains the book’s first, completely unshy reference to “published ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ games”, brazenly misspelling D&D’s full name and not even feinting towards a trademark acknowledgment. It rather implies that there is no single game called “Dungeons & Dragons”, but that instead it’s the name of a whole loose genre—which, I suppose, isn’t entirely wrong, but wow! I don’t think the writer was going for cheek here—I truly believe they were trying to use the most clear language available to them. Everyone knew what “a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ game” was, and “fantasy role-playing game” felt like jargon!

And then on page 11, we come to the section “Characters from past adventures”. This explicitly invites you to go ahead and import your favorite D&D characters into Apshai by straight-up typing in their stats and equipment into the game’s character-creation screen, entirely on the honor system, as an alternative to rolling up a first-level dweeb. It is almost certain I abused this feature to create demigods who rolled through the dungeons easily, having a grand old time, and I have no doubt that most other kids playing this game did exactly the same. As an advocate for player-managed difficulty, I applaud this design decision, even if it was made for entirely different reasons in the mid 1980s, and wish more games published today advertised mutations like this as core features so proudly.

The section heading “The body and soul: on death and dying” is another of those common idioms that strikes me as so remarkably unusual to find in a computer game manual.

The Apshai Scrolls

The book subtitles this thick section “A master reference guide”, and I think this was meant to suggest to the player to treat it something like the Dungeon Master’s Guide in D&D: Not really for players to casually read through, but accepting that most will probably do it anyway.

And in what really seems like a slip, nothing else on the section’s sole introduction page describes what you’re meant to do with the following fifty-odd pages. As such, I remember having to puzzle it out myself, and I still feel every bit as impressed today as I felt enchanted way back then.

The “Scrolls” section is divided into thirds, one for each of the three Apshai dungeons in the collection. Each of these subsections is further subdivided like this:

  • An alphabetical list of the monsters found in that dungeon, each with a short, flavorful paragraph attached for description.
  • Four more subsections, one for each dungeon level, containing:
    • A numbered list of rooms, each with a description attached, anywhere from a couple of brief sentences to half-page-long paragraphs.
    • A list of traps one might encounter in the level, arranged by name, and again each with an evocative description.
    • A list of treasures one can loot from the level, sorted by index numbers.
  • A concluding “Master treasure key” tabulating all the loot one can find in the level, including their sell-value to the innkeeper or their magical properties, if any.

This section isn’t easy to read cover-to-cover, coming across as a jumble of disconnected fragments. Yet, one can still see the care that went into their authorship: none of the room descriptions repeat themselves, even when talking about bare hallways. The author always spinkles in little details, when applicable: “A cleanly picked skeleton reclines against the west wall halfway down the passage”, or “The corridor smells strongly of vanilla.”

The graphics of Temple of Apshai Trilogy are quite sparse: all the rooms on a given level are rectangles of different dimensions, each completely bare except for your character, any monsters, and treasure-chest icons that symbolize things you can take a closer look at.

The game tells you the number of each room as you enter it, and announces the name of each monster as you encounter it, and prints an index number of every trap you trigger or treasure you find. The idea, then, is that while you tool your guy around this extremely basic looking computer-dungeon, you continuously flip around those fifty pages in the middle of the manual, receiving a much richer description of your immediate environment.

The room descriptions, especially, feel in conversation with the map layout. Quite often, those little details in the text become represented on the map with treasure icons, inviting a closer look, leading to a multi-step pointer-chase between book and screen. This leads to some surprises that I still remember and admire to this day.

For example, page 58 includes this sentence: “In the center of the court there is an immense, beautifully carved statue of a bearded man; he is smiling beatifically and appears to be offering you something in his outstretched hand.” In the game, a treasure icon does indeed appear in the middle of the large area, signaling an interesting goodie of some kind. If you move your dude up to it and type G for “get”, the icon vanishes and the game displays T17: EMPTY HAND in the status window. Turning back to the printed treasure table on pages 60 and 61, we find: “T17—An empty hand, that’s what you are offered.”

I also note that, with a couple of exceptions, none of these room descriptions mention the presence of any monsters—a bit strange for dungeon levels crawling with hostile baddies! But that’s the thing, you see: rendering colorful pixel-critters, printing OH NO! ANGRY BEES, and playing uh oh here comes trouble music are all things that the digital portion of Apshai performs passably well. Its partner, the printed manual, describes everything else aside from the fact that a rabid hyena is lunging at your throat, adding a layer of subtlety to what is otherwise a rather blunt experience of hacking through digital cellars.

When read as intended, printed details such as paw-prints in the dust or the faint smell of vanilla in the air serve as tension-setting warnings to the player about encounters they can expect in adjoining rooms. You’d never know it by simply reading through the book, but antmen—the game’s signature monsters—smell like vanilla. Passages mentioning a whiff of vanilla mean that antmen lurk nearby, while ones the describing the air as cloyingly thick with the scent are attached to rooms filled with chitinous enemies to fight or flee from. Nothing in Apshai states this connection explicitly, and making it for oneself feels quite magical, especially for a younger player.

The Legend of Apshai

Two pages of entirely fictional “lore” that any more recent game’s manual would put at the very beginning, not on page 77, tucked behind acres of reference material.

Again, I can only hypothesize as to the intent here: the writers approached The Book of Apshai as a work of technical writing first, and a fantasy game-book second. The chosen introduction only sets a tone with light strokes, rather than weighing the new player down with all this heavy syrup about priests and prophecies and ancient curses. This allows the manual to get the new player where they really want to be—actually playing the damn game—all the faster.

Dunjonquest™: Dragons on a Chip

The manual closes on a ramblingly high-spirited three-page apologia for fantasy role-playing games in general, and the Dunjonquest brand of their digital adaptations in particular.

Confusingly, other than a few passing mentions early on, nothing else in the manual mentions “Dunjonquest”, the underlying system that Epyx used for Apshai and several other games. This feels like it was initially written for some other publication, or perhaps was intended for reuse across several titles’ manuals? Either way, it opens with a rambling litany that once again evokes a wide range of classic literature and ancient epics, turning it into graceful bookend to the manual’s highly unusual introduction, whether or not that was intentional.

Of all the sections in the book, this one feels the most like it was written by the game system’s creator. It speaks so passionately about RPGs—still an obscure and misunderstood cultural novelty at the time—that it sold me on them. Some digging in the Internet Archive reveals a review of Temple of Apshai Trilogy in a 1987 issue of Antic magazine*, one that I recall reading shortly before I bought the game. This means I probably played the game that summer, right before my freshman year of high school, where began two things: an obsession with D&D and its surrounding culture that would last for many years, and a love for expository writing which continues to drive and define me.

It all started here, with this anonymous author doing their best to express and share the joy that both facets of this work gives them.

* I found it in the Archive by keywording on “Mr. Bill”, remembering the reviewer’s snark over the game’s penchant for printing OH NO! every time a monster appeared.

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For some months, I’ve wanted to write a program that would let me page through the list of my list of Mastodon followers whom I don’t myself follow, showing me their bio and a sampling of their recent posts, and giving me an easy interface for following them back. Hmm, I just expressed my desire in one sentence, and it’s 2023. That means it’s time to ask an AI to code it for me!

An AI did not code it for me. However, one did get me over the hump of simply starting the project, and gave me the confidence to drive it the rest of the way myself.

I could probably have banged something together rapidly with familiar Perl, using a Mastodon library readily available on CPAN. But that library has seen a few years pass since its most recent update, a fact that helped this project feel like the perfect opportunity to get more comfortable with Python, writing my first such program to solve a real-world problem. This made my next action clear—and it also gave it much higher startup costs. And so, I did nothing at all with this idea for a long time.

But my first day back at work after a week off gave me some new perspective, as well as the idea to ask Bard, my employer’s LLM, how it would attack this problem.

It wrote up a script in an eyeblink, of course. The program that Bard showed me would import a library called Mastodon, with a pleasantly simple-looking API. It would proceed to log me into a Mastodon server, grab lists of my followers and the accounts I follow, and create the list of the first minus the second. When I asked Bard how to install this Mastodon library, it pointed me to by Lorenz Diener—which has a completely different API than the one it demonstrated. Then it gave me the incorrect pip command to install it.

It seems that Bard had, at first, made up a reasonable-seeming Mastodon library, in the way that today’s LLMs are rather famously wont to do. But in this case, that was good enough for me! I was able to treat its bogus script like a template, an initial bit of ground to stand on that gave me a much more solid starting space than a totally empty text editing window would have.

Bard also seemed to have some half-baked notions about how to register my app with my Mastodon instance and then authenticate with it, but here too it succeeded in getting me to look in the right places.

Between Bard’s confidently semi-correct answers and the real Python library’s documentation, I had realized my initial goal within an hour. I doubt that I would have gotten there so quickly had I started from nothing. More to the point, I got started at all. Even if Bard couldn’t give me an instantly accurate cut-and-paste answer, it still gave me a customized and wholly applicable framework for finding my own way to a solution, helping me understand my problem better by breaking it into smaller goals and refining the questions I put to it.

I spent another hour or two improving the program, exploring the actual library’s API and adding the features that would let me see user summaries, and choose whether to follow any back. With more specific questions, like “What are valid values for booleans in Python?” and “How do you strip HTML from text in Python?”, Bard answered with bang-on accuracy. And this was the other half of my discovery about coding with LLMs: I found this kind of interaction far more pleasant than putting basic programming questions to a traditional search engine. As I observed last winter, the top search results for any questions about popular languages like Python are an unreadable mess. Getting results from a tool like Bard feels like a refreshing reset.

I notice that Google’s own marketing around Bard, including the way that the LLM introduces itself, describes it as more of an an assistant or a collaborator than an expert or consultant. This humbler framing of an LLM’s utility seems more correct to me than the highly skeptical and even fearful reactions to LLMs that presently prevail in my slice of social-media culture. I feel cautiously open-minded about this technology, and willing to continue actively experimenting with its use as a talking, knowledgable, but essentially inert rubber ducky.

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Photo of a shiny new Yale deadbolt keypad installed in a old and somewhat shabby-looking door.
A featureless black lozenge jammed into a century-old door is a very Upper West Side look.

We bought a Yale Assure Lock SL deadbolt a few months ago, replacing the keypad lock that our apartment’s previous owner had installed into its single exit door. The old lock worked fine, but I really wanted something that could tie into HomeKit. The Yale is the only model the Apple Store sold at the time, and the internet seemed to think it was okay, and that was that.

I’m happy to report that it does feel like a solid little upgrade to our tiny urban apartment. Amy and I came to fully appreciate the new lock within hours of installing it, setting a code for a catsitting friend to use, letting us leave on vacation without needing to perform a physical key-trading dance. We’ve used it for this precise purpose with multiple catsitters and housecleaners since, and it works splendidly. It feels wonderful to have one fewer key in my life, and no need to ever duplicate it.

(The old lock had both a keypad and a keyhole, but we never learned its codes. By the time I realized I could reset them, I had already made up my mind to replace the lock entirely.)

Controlling the lock with our phones took us a little getting used to. You can code yourself in, of course, but unlocking via iPhone becomes a breeze once you get the hang of it. Putting the Home app on the first page of your phone’s home screen helps, but setting up a detect-when-I-come-near-my-home-again automation is the real key step. This sends a notification to your phone—and your watch, and your AirPods, if you have those—prompting you to pull out your phone, find the “Run the coming-home automation?” notification, and tap “Run”. It feels a bit stilted at first, but Apple is very interested in not unlocking your home without your highly specific consent.

If you have AirPods in, your phone phrases it as a question for you to verbally answer, but it does not actually listen for a reply—because, again, Apple does not want the responsibility of accidentally unlocking your home after your phone thought you might have said something like “Yup”. You gotta pull the phone out and tap. You get used to it, anyway, and it still feels nice to just march on in.

If you have an Apple Watch, the notification sometimes comes up there as well, letting you unlock with a wrist-tap. Sometimes it does not. As with all undependable Watch notifications, I have no idea what criteria the system uses to decide whether to display it or not, and treat it as a coin-flip in my favor when it does happen.

Since the lock is just another HomeKit accessory, you can add your door to other automations—our “Good night” one now turns off the lights, turns on the white noise machine, and locks the door—and you can ask Siri to lock and unlock the door.

Let this amuse you: I actually have no idea if you can verbally ask Siri to unlock your door when you’re not home. I’m going to run down the block right now and try it. Okay, turns out you can! How about that. If you don’t seem to be home when you ask, Siri follows up with “Just to make sure: You want me to unlock your door?” And for this it listens for your “Yes”, since you’re the one who presumably started the conversation.

Installation was a bit of a bear, but much of that leaned on the particulars of our situation—which is to say, our door. Disassembling the old lock revealed that it had been seated in a very roughly-hewn hole, too small to fit the new lock. I had to hire a locksmith to smooth out and enlarge the bore. To Apple’s backhanded credit, the locksmith was quite familiar with this particular model of Yale lock—it being, again, the only flavor that New York’s many Apple Stores sell—and knew exactly how to fit it into the door snugly.

After that, getting the thing to start talking to HomeKit took some further wrestling. I accomplished this within an afternoon using my laptop and a willingness to try that Google Search trick where you begin your query with the word reddit. Regretfully, I don’t seem to have written down my notes. I can report that I did get the lock onto my HomeKit network after taking its inside plate apart, removing its batteries, and starting over from the top with the correct Reddit thread in hand. It has stayed connected since, with no hiccups. Siri and the Home app take it from there, though I have had to use Yale’s official app to add and remove codes.

An unexpected nit, more amusing than annoying: because its keypad presents itself as a featureless black lozenge until you touch it, people visiting us for the first time often have no idea what this thing is, and experimentally poke at it, wondering whether it’s some kind of chunky doorbell. This triggers its “one-touch lock” feature, intended as an easy way to lock up behind you as you leave. So, a new visitor will announce themselves with a knock, followed immediately by the sound of the door locking. It’s no bother now, but those first few visits were a little confusing to both of us, when it seemed like the person living in the apartment immediately locked the door on the knocking visitor, and then tried unsuccessfully to open the door anyway.

If your home is as awash with HomeKit as ours, and you want this monopolistic magic to extend to your doors, then this is a fine way to get there. Otherwise, if you just want the joy of keyless entry and shared codes without need to tie into an an Apple-based home-device network, then I imagine you’d do just as well with a less expensive solution—such as the Kwikset-branded deadbolt that our predecessor had installed.

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I read Jordan Ellenberg’s 2003 novel The Grasshopper King and enjoyed it, even though it literally wasn’t the book I thought it was when I first set out with it. In fact, I didn’t even know the author was familiar Ellenberg, who wrote the masterful popular-statistics work How Not to Be Wrong, until I was nearly done. Ebooks can be weird like this.

The Grasshopper King presents a tale of academic follies, framed as a memoir by a retired professor, looking back at his graduate school job of recording a silent and housebound linguist for 16 hours a day. The professors of his university’s department of Gravinics—a preternaturally obscure (and entirely fictional) language known for inspiring self-destructive obsession among its scattering of scholars—hope that their elderly colleague’s obvious catatonia is actually a profoundly deep meditation. They salivate over the surety that he will emerge from it at any moment, burbling with new, invaluable, and deliciously publishable insights. With no other path to a doctorate, the hapless young protagonist relocates his studies onto a card table in the linguist’s basement, swapping out silence-filled tapes as the hours pass, and breaking the monotony with the occasional game of checkers—the sole social stimulus that the immobile scholar responds to. Shenanigans ensue.

I probably started reading this book because one of my ebook apps, knowing that I had read How Not to Be Wrong years ago, suggested it. However, though some mental slip, I thought that I started reading The Grasshopper King after learning about Tithonus, a minor figure of Greek myth cursed to age eternally. In some tellings, the gods take pity on him and transform him into a cicada. I could have sworn that I saw this book listed as a modern retelling of that myth. I mean, grasshoppers are close enough to cicadas, right? With that mistaken impression in mind, the introduction seemed so far afield from ancient legends that I felt sold—wow, how would this charmingly written but entirely mundane setting wind its way into the realm of the fantastic! Well, it didn’t, but I kept reading anyway.

The story is short and swift and engaging, for the small world it moves within, and it plays a very lovely trick. The reader is invited, for much of the story, to side with the absurdly selfish and self-deceptive Gravinics department, treating the possibility of the old linguist’s awakening as a cliffhanger with an inevitable resolution. Gradually, it dawns on the reader that this will never happen, that the linguist’s absent utterance is not merely a macguffin, but entirely irrelevant: something to just let go of entirely. There is no moment when this realization snaps into place, but it grows at-pace with the protagonist’s own growth. I found myself having made this transition from amused anticipation to graceful acceptance slightly before any other characters did, and it felt pretty great.

Of the story’s several themes, the one I like the most: Sometimes, one just has nothing at all left to say.

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