The VVitch

The VVitch is a curious artefact. The stylization of its title comes from a Jacobean pamphlet on witchcraft, its costumes (designed by Linda Muir) are thoroughly researched from Stuart Peachey’s Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (2014) and its cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is intended to replicate the formal composition of paintings of the period. That much of the dialogue is lifted from writings and witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century lends a curiously dislocated tone to the whole affair: one which might connote the unsuitability of the European paradigm to the North American locale if not for the fact that the religious fervour turns out to be correct in every particular. Thus The VVitch‘s connection to the traditions of Fantastika – a body of literature that communicates its themes most resonantly when read literally and which seeks to interrogate the Politics of the Western world by comparison with exotic locales or buried truths – is both disrupted and enlivened by its almost-documentary devotion to historical accuracy: it may well have been at the point that the Western world stopped treating the idea of God as incontrovertible that Western discourse began to distinguish fact from the fantastic. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” as a William Shakespeare character says in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623).

As has been mentioned elsewhere [see We Don’t Go Back: A Personal Taxonomy of Folk Horror and Pagan Film #52: The Witch (2015) by Howard Ingham], the Psychology of the way the family reacts to the strain they are under is entirely credible; it is the attachment of a supernatural explanation to realist verisimilitude that makes The VVitch seem conflicted. Three Algonquin tribespeople are glimpsed at the beginning of The VVitch: America’s native population is neither seen nor heard from again. The VVitch, like Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899; rev 1925) is a text about the unconscious vastation of a belief system that reduced entire continents to Slavery and one half of its own population to the status of chattels:

The VVitch entry

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Alien: Covenant

We know what will happen the moment we hear about the “next generation” human embryos aboard the colony ship: a xenomorph will impregnate them. Here though, the marriage of the fine-honed excitement of the Monster-slaying story arcs of ancient Mythology to the richness of existential inferences from the initial run of films – that Evolution occurs along a little-understood plane of immanence, that Life on Other Worlds is likely to be at least as terrifying as life on this, that Aliens allegorize aspects of organic behaviour not yet fully-explained by Scientists, that the xenomorph represents something about species’ will to survive, much, indeed, as did the alien Shapeshifter from John Carpenter‘s remake of The Thing (1982), that there is, in short, something real and meaningful going on – is exchanged for a blood-spattered retelling of the European occupation of North America as the Colonization of Other Worlds:

Alien: Covenant

The OA


Already, during the first episode of The OA, one of the integral tethering points of Fantastika to a logic of sense – that events inside the fictive space should be read as literally happening – is disrupted. Transgression and Equipoise are put to fantastika’s traditional purpose of subjecting the fixity of the world to “fruitful instability” but there is little ontological framework by which to direct The OA’s system of Metaphysics: everything is diegesis and doubt. The fact the viewer does not know The OA’s true origin story means that we cannot properly invest in The OA‘s narrative arc; unless perhaps it is to question the very basis of consensual narrative. A film like Guillermo Del Toro‘s El laberinto del fauno [“Pan’s Labyrinth”] (2006) by contrast begins and ends its tale of a fallen princess oppressed by all-too-real forces in a Secondary World [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], making itself all the more concrete by turning its narrative full-circle. The OA‘s refusal to let its audience know where it stands complicates any attempt at interpretation, a decision accentuated by placing credit sequences at unusual junctures in episodes of unequal lengths, disjunctive pacing and switching between points-of-view and, most tellingly, by alternately supporting The OA’s version of events and throwing them into doubt. We are not showing you the literal truth, the makers of The OA are saying, because a human being literally does not know where she comes from or why she is here.

A science fiction story – even one written by a fabulist – would not play the game in quite the same way. Russell Hoban‘s Fremder (1996) uses a fictionalized version of quantum Physics to assert a subjective understanding of reality:

Centricity of event as perceived by a participant in the event is reciprocal with the observed universe: the universe configures the event and the event configures the universe. Each life is a sequence of event-universes, each sequence having equal reality subjectively and no reality objectively. Objective reality is not possible within the sequence, therefore subjective reality, regardless of consensus, is the only reality.

The OA

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Arrival

Linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is grieving for the death of her teenage daughter from cancer when twelve alien Spaceships appear at twelve locations around present-day planet Earth, engendering globalized military Paranoia. US Army Colonel G T Weber (Whitaker) partners Banks with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) in a bid to establish First Contact with the “heptapods”, who are large, cephalopod-like creatures with seven limbs organized in a circle around a barrel-shaped corpus – a form-factor that influences not only how the creatures move and communicate but also the way in which they use an inverted system of Mathematics to describe the same physical laws of the universe. Two heptapods dubbed “Abbott and Costello” by Banks and Donnelly converse with their military reception party at the Montana landing site by squirting circular Rorschach-reminiscent blots of black ink onto the clear window that separates them and their breathable atmosphere from that of their human interlocutors. Banks’ comprehension of the heptapods’ semasiographic writing system (its ideograms are based on meaning, not sound) and the heptapods’ corresponding insight into human Psychology and Biology is the hinge on which the plot of Arrival swings:-

Arrival

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Palimpsest


Black Dog Dérive is a 32-page collaborative scenario produced as fan material for STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game by Ville Vuorela.

Seven double-page spreads designed to be used as prompts for improvisation, creative inspiration or random tables provide the spine of the story: pre-generated characters, maps and guidance for play form the scenario’s second half.

Right now, the scenario is freely available only as a desktop PDF but other formats may soon become available:-

Black Dog Dérive

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Styles of Play

Black Dog Dérive is a modest affair but one nonetheless that requires some decisions to be made. I come from a dim, dark and mythical past in which players of a roleplaying game were left to make their own choices about how to play but this approach now seems to be regarded as some kind of oversight – and perhaps rightly so.

Playtests have allowed me to refine the guidance down to three modes: Old School, Story First and New Wave. That I do not see these styles of play as politically opposed or mutually exclusive is half the reason I’ve written the scenario – but, you know, that’s up to the people playing.

It will probably be a booklet of 30 pages or so. I may print it out as a fanzine or I may just make it freely available as a PDF: it’s been a difficult year money-wise and health-wise and I may have to settle for what I can make happen. Really, I just want it out there as an option for those playing Ville Vuorela’s wonderful STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game. I’ll contact Ville when the first draft is done – the end is in sight now – and see what he thinks is appropriate.



 

The Lobster


The moustache of main character David/The Lobster (Farrell) might easily serve as emblem for the film: earnest and yet outrageously out-of-place, trying to fit into a world whose societal constructs and everyday cruelties in fact make no more sense than any other animal endeavour. Absurdist SF is combined with deadpan Satire to disorienting effect.

The laws of “The City” indicate that David and the other single people in The Lobster must be taken to “The Hotel”, a desolate and joyless locale in the style of an English holiday resort wherein those visiting must couple-up within the forty-five day time limit or be sent off to live in “The Woods”: “If you fail to fall in love during your stay here, you will turn into an animal.” David’s brother is rendered as real-life dog on screen because “he was here a couple of years ago but he didn’t make it”. Masturbation is banned, Sex with the Hotel Maid (Labed) is as mandatory as it is joyless, and the hotel is filled with single people unable to talk, dance or connect emotionally with one another except via a bloodless rendition of romantic customs vaguely reminiscent of the transmitted narcissism of Internet dating. “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves,” announces the Hotel Manager (Colman), “you will be assigned children. That usually helps.”

The Lobster

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Infernal Desire Machines: The Real

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What is desire? Something in the unconscious that leads you toward (or away from) a coded version of your family? According to Jacques Lacan, its structure determines your sexuality; or, as Madan Sarup puts it: “Need is satisfiable, desire is insatiable.” Hence fantasy, fetish, image. It’s just a game we play.

The Real invites you to decide what’s been driving your character all this time – and what, if anything, you intend to do about it.

Choose one of two special moves:-

Inrupt allows you to retell one of the scenes already covered from the point of view of your character; you can import systems from other games to facilitate this – initiative systems, wizardry, wild romance, whatever – or just choose a genre or narrative style. There’s one proviso: stick to your own character. If other players want to join you in this, great – but allow them hegemony over their own characters.

Rewrite lets you in on the Epilogue – the part of the game that follows The Real. You get final cut. If more than one player wants a rewrite, they each draw from the larger part of the Tarot deck to decide who rewrites when. Try to identify an over-arching theme, or at least include everyone. We’re in your hands: enjoy it.

In this, the introductory version of Infernal Desire Machines, The Symbolic, The Imaginary and The Real have been segmented into beginning / middle / end. This is to facilitate picking up the principles of the game.

In fact, there will be a lot of flipping around between these states of play. One player will be challenging another symbolically and her opponent will want to respond imaginatively by introducing a narrative element. Or two players will be merrily escalating one another’s imaginary scenes only to find they need to ‘get real’ for a moment in order to discuss the implications for the story.

For the most part, this will happen informally; how much you notice the machinery of the game while playing is a matter of play-style and personal preference. It’s one of the reasons the game has three parts: ‘play through’ and find what suits you.

Where it gets interesting is when different play-styles cross-over or ‘clash’ during play: one person will want to stay ‘in the flow’ of a character arc between symbolic and imaginary while another will want to step back to the threshold between imaginary and real in order to shape the story. Players can fall back on a simple paper-scissors-stone mechanic if they want a quick resolution to any such discussion:-

Imaginary trumps Symbolic trumps Real trumps Imaginary

If you’re running a version of the game led by one person (GMed), call this as needed; you might have one eye on the clock, or think a certain scene has gone on long enough. In an ‘all for one, one for all’ version of the game (GMless), any player can call this when they’ve had enough ‘blah’. Reach an agreement or move on. If the cut-cut-cutting gathers pace, it’s an indication you need to frame a new scene in a new context.


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The Symbolic
Challenge / Phantasm
Conduct numerical challenges
Threshold: Imply deeper meanings

Is superseded by:-

The Imaginary
Augment / Evoke
Frame scenes from the pictures on the cards.
Threshold: Take the story in a new direction

Is superseded by:-

The Real
Inrupt / Rewrite
Import systems or flavour from other games
Threshold: Negotiate outcomes with other players

Is superseded by:-

Epilogue

You’ll have ‘felt’ something during the game. Some foreshadowed possibility, perhaps, or an intimation that the character you’re playing might do something to surprise you or someone else. The epilogue is your chance to express that – or to put it into some sort of context. Maybe – gasp! – you were a bit bored. The story might have gone off at a tangent that didn’t interest you much. This is your chance to fix that – or at least to underline a point you wanted to make.

An idea is a brick – build with it or hurl it through a window.


I was the only man alive who knew time had begun again.

Angela Carter


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Recap

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The Tarot deck is divided into two piles: one containing major arcana, the other containing the suits and minor arcana. Challenges proceed according to the resolution mechanic of Psychosis: Ship of Fools by Charles Ryan and John Fletcher. These are covered in The Symbolic section of the game. Cards are dispensed during play according to a) the preference of a GM, b) the agency of the Ambassador, or c) the general approbation of other players. Anyone who draws an Ace during play may choose to swap it for a draw from the major arcana.

Players narrate scenes using the imagery of the Tarot deck, rules for which are covered in The Imaginary section of the game first playtested at the London Indie RPG Meetup Group.

Players apportion input into the outcome of the game through rules covered here, in The Real.