The Art of not Thinking: Reviewing ‘Alice isn’t Dead – Part 1’

The cards like to say that “Life is a Journey, enjoy the ride.” Advertisements also like to say it. They all simply assume that a ride and a journey are two pleasant things that co-interact into a harmonious synergy. They don’t allow for the idea that these things might not be pleasant at all. They just probably don’t have the experience…

I’ve mentioned being on a journey and one of the things this ride has taught me is that I tend to think too much. I am an expert thinker and with schizophrenic type job that both forces me to spend a lot of time engaging with people and spending vast amounts of time on my own, I have perfected the art of overthinking things, especially because my imagination and the world I used to be able retreat to within it has become a little barren.

Here’s a little life lesson.

People who think a lot aren’t necessarily right in the conclusions that they come to. They are just normally very convinced of them. As I was starting to become…

So, in a desperate attempt to try and find ways to distract my thoughts and simply enjoy all of the rides that I am forced to go on, I’ve tried to find ways to distract myself. For the longest of time, my imagination hasn’t been the key. It was in fact a door with a lock on, one that I’ve only recently started breaking through to. Other means had to be consulted and, seeing as driving under the influence and drugs are simply wrong, I’ve taken to listening to podcasts. Podcasts are a delightful side effect of our ever-expanding technology. In the same way that self publishing has opened up the floor for all sorts of authors, podcasts and the sites hosting them have opened up the floor for all kinds of shows. Some are good, some are bad and some, a very select few, are simply unmissable.

Alice Isn’t Dead is one of them. I can describe it simply as being a little off beat, engaging and unique. Three things that are very hard to achieve in this modern day life. A serial fiction, it follows the story of a truck driver who is searching for her missing wife while crossing the wide span of America.  The format is engaging, with the driver actively communicating to the listener in the moment. Sounds of the truck intermingle with a strangely intimate monologue from a person whom I can relate to. My wife isn’t dead or missing of course – but I am a woman alone, driving endless highways while seeing both wonders and horrors alike.

A woman who understands the frustration of someone cutting her out of her lane and who knows the volume at which such lonely curses can be cast…

Part one of Alice Isn’t Dead spans over ten episodes or “chapters”, if you will, each telling of a unique occurrence that skilfully weaves itself towards the climax of the tale. I’m reminded a little of the thrill I used to get while watching X-Files (the old one before the age of smartphones…) where the mysteries addressed are never fully solved though expertly concluded. I’ve missed those mysteries, of wondering how the writer will bring it all together. I’ve missed engaging into a story that I could not predict. It is what sets this podcast aside from most tales I have come across over the past few months.  And, it has kept me engaged enough that I have not felt the need to think about my own inner spirals to the incorrect conclusions too much.

It is not an audiobook but a strange piece of creative art that somehow works in the medium in which it is set. If this review was about dishing out stars, it would probably have gotten five out of five. As it is, this isn’t to be seen as some sort of rating, simply an insistent buzz in the reader’s ear that should encourage one to listen to it.

Alice Isn’t Dead can be found on online here or on the Podbean app (that can be found in Google Play Store) or iTunes.

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The Critical Role of Critical Role…

It has been… an interesting time since last I’ve decided to put some thoughts to paper. The world, as it does in my life, has turned and changed and shifted – for the better, for the worse but all round for good. When my courage returns to me and I find the space in my head to talk about this journey that I am on, I will do so – but… not today.

Today, I want to talk about something that has occupied quite a significant portion of my time in the past 6 months. Almost 390 hours of it to be exact. Staring at it now, it is actually quite shocking but, still absolutely worth it. The new addiction and drain in which my attention has spiralled down is a web series called Critical Role, a show about – quote, unquote – a bunch of nerdy ass (professional) voice actors who sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons.  It is live streamed on Twitch.tv every Thursday evening at 7pm Los Angeles time or, for those of us living on GMT + 2, 4am on a Friday morning.

And it is very addicting.

I never really thought that I would be interested in something like this. My history with Dungeons and Dragons as a game had been quite shaky, as I had been the odd girl in a group of boys who was unanimously forced to become the cleric. “Because you girls like that sort of thing… Right?”  No, in fact – I did not and I soon abandoned the game, thinking that the RPG world just wasn’t for me. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t play well with others and being the ditz who had to run around and heal other people of their stupid actions, left a lasting dark, granted mistaken, impression of the genre. It was only when a friend of mine, StillDormant, persistently nagged me to look at the episodes on YouTube that I finally caved – if only to tell her I did watch it and I did not enjoy it.

I was proven wrong.

A hundred episodes later – which equates to over 19 Seasons of a normal television show – my whole opinion of not only Dungeons and Dragons but web series in general has been changed forever. Which is a big thing or me, because I don’t normally like to invest that much time or energy into television. I might be off a little with my math, but I think that the show has taken up more time than both my two favourite television shows (and I’m showing my age here) Stargate and X-Files combined. I think the way it sucked me into complete submission is due to a few reasons.

It might be a television show, but it feels a bit more real.
Despite the fact that it has no graphics, no script and no other visual prompts except for 8 to 9 people sitting at tables and rolling dice, it is engaging. The lure is in the story telling, one of the first things that caught my attention. I started watching Critical Role last year October in a time that I was truly struggling to keep myself together. Work was taking its toll on my energy which in turn drained all off my own creativity. My writing, which had already been struggling for the past two years, had come to a grinding halt in the months before and I often found myself sitting around listlessly in foreign hotel rooms with absolutely no place in my head to escape to. Watching this show, proverbially sitting with them around the table and watching the campaign unfold, gave me something to hold onto in the loneliness that was forced upon me by my work and my own depression.

It is about the story…
This, I should add, has a lot to do with the core mechanic of Dungeons and Dragons. In the RPG game, one person – the Dungeon Master, takes several other players on an adventure with characters that they created. No technology is needed, no high tech graphics or a ton of money (unless you are the Dungeon Master and want to buy ALL the books and ALL the miniatures…). It is simply a game played by people face to face and it is as good, or as bad, as the players and Dungeon Master tell it to each other. With Critical Role you are taken into the world of Exandria – an original concept created by the Dungeon Master, Matthew Mercer. His imagination and dedication to the story is palpable in every scene, every sentence that he speaks. The way he told the story made me remember what it was like to have my own world, my own story and listening to their adventures gave me the energy and the yearning to return to my old writing. And my own vision of completing my own fantasy story. It made me remember why I wrote and that it didn’t matter what I wrote as long as I enjoyed it. And, listening to Matt Mercer unfold his story, seeing the love he had for his characters gave me a sense of security, because I knew that this was a man (along with the other players in the game) who loved the world and what they were doing so much that they weren’t going to let something like popular demand or community opinion or their misshapen idea of art (I’m looking at you Mass Effect 3) destroy the world. They want a happy ending as much as I do.

It has diversity, in a very non-forced kind of way.
Characters of various races, sexuality and shapes appear on and off the scene. Matt’s array of Non Playable Characters (a term used for any person that shows up in the campaign that is governed by the DM) add constant flavour in the most natural way possible: By acting normal. We’ve entered a strange phase in humanity’s development where I almost feel as if we are moving backwards in our sense of self and our place among people. In my own country, sexual diversity is described as ‘un-african’ and on the continent on which I reside, people are still killed for their preference in sexual partners. America, the country of supposed dreams – whose leaders are of global importance – has seen a marked decrease in tolerance towards the LGBT community as well as gender roles (and plain god damned humanity, Donald Trump! Pulling out of the Paris Agreement? You unmentionable word…) It is such a blessing to watch a show that eases the concept in so seamlessly. Women are given equal roles to men without losing what makes them a part of their gender in the beginning. Male characters embrace the range of their own capabilities, from being burly warriors who are constantly seeing houses of ‘lady favours’ to delightfully gay shopkeepers. It links into what I had said at the top – that the story feels real, but perhaps even more so, it feels as if the characters are living in a world that we should aspire to.

For all the drama, the story and actors give themselves the space to act just a little silly sometimes and not worry about how it will affect Ratings…
I think that is part of the charm of it. Thoughts are followed through and sometimes, every human moment appear on screen – not because it was put in there for dramatic effect, but because it was fun. It has made me laugh and cry and yell in frustration. I’ve watched three hours of characters shopping and loved every moment of it and I’ve watched 40 minutes of gut wrenching terror as cities were destroyed and people decimated.  I’ve watched characters I care for die, live and perform deeds I deem to be unforgivable. In a strange way, it has taught me to live again, to see these moments in my own life. To enjoy the moments of the mundane to forget about the moments of disaster.

All of these components have woven itself into a story (and now obsession of mine) that taught me a few lessons about my own life. That you should:

  • Listen to friends when they tell you to watch something.
  • Find joy in the small and simple things in life.
  • Believe in the story that you tell. Do not just write it because you want to become famous or because you want to get it done, but believe in it. It won’t matter if you don’t.
  • Make time. Make time for friends and family. Make time to look at each other.

I want to finish this lengthy post with a comment on my last lesson.
Urged on by what I saw on Critical Role, I started my own home game, Dungeon Mastering for my Other Half and family as well as for a group of friends of mine. In the time that we play our game, we all sit around a table and listen to each other. No phones, no background noise, nothing. We could play this game with no power in the middle of the desert, because we are engaged with each other. That is what Dungeons and Dragons gave to us, because it wasn’t something that happened often. Our lives have become so rushed that I think these opportunities become fewer with each passing day of increasing technology.

Critical Role played a critical role in the journey that I’ve been on in the past few months, in giving me a safe haven for my thoughts but also to remind me what I had wanted from life and what I was missing out on by allowing it and my work to drag me under.

Image Credit: Amanda Oliver Elm  @flyboy_elmImage Credit: Amanda Oliver Elm  @flyboy_elm

The Rebirth of Reading

About a year ago I bought a house and moved in with my Other Half. After having a relationship for six years, we had thought that it was high time – regardless of the challenges that we knew would present itself during the adjustment phase. And, we had anticipated quite a few. We were and still are both two very singular people with our own rhythm and routines. We had also had to adjust from living a life between weekends, to finding the kind of balance that people needed to that saw each other every day.

It’s been a journey worthy of a blog post itself, though admittedly one I’d never write because I feel that there are some things you just don’t talk about in public. Simply because one of the most beautiful things about our relationship is the converstaions that can happen in private…

But, conversations weren’t always all we had. In general, like the exhausted, overworked adults of this century, we found ourselves mostly watching television at night. Over the past few years I had accumulated quite a few series that I wanted to get into and my Other Half was more than willing to share in the viewing experience. Of course, this became a habit and pretty soon – it was all we generally did. This was very new to me, certainly a big adjustment. I’ll be lying if I say that I don’t like watching television, but I’ve always tried to limit myself, especially during the week because I’ve been brought up to believe that it is a tremendous waste of time.

They even preached it to us in school through teaching Roald Dahl’s The Reading Killer.

Yet, because of life and the general rhythm of things, the television suddenly became quite a fixture in our daily routine. And secretly, I think both of us started to resent it.

Having grown up as a reader, having gone through school with three or four books in my bag at a time – I hadn’t loved reading in as much as I had needed it. I had been fiercely protective of my time with my books. Like all reading children, I hid books on my lap in class, snuck them away between the covers of my textbooks and carried them with me always, as one would a weapon of self-defense. The only thing that made inroads into my reading time was my own writing. And in hind sight, even that was a minor sacrilege. Because I now feel that you cannot write if you don’t read enough to make you humble.

And, hypocritically, I’ve been preaching it a lot. During November, my main message to my NaNoers are to read. To broaden their minds. To acknowledge the books that made them want to write. I’ve stood up in front of scores of people, cornered many an unsuspecting sitcom fan and unleased the passion of my thoughts of fiction. Yet, I had abandoned it for television.

Something had to give and it all started with a really bad book. I will not say the title of it because this article isn’t a review in as much as it is a musing but – in January I downloaded a free book from Samsung Kindle and it… repulsed me. There wasn’t a scrap of originality in it, not a wink of creativity. It was loosely put together, slightly silly. Pretty much like every television series after Season Four. I had closed the book, deleted it from my phone and promptly started reading a book from Charles Dickens simply because I knew that it at least had proven its worth.

It had substance. It felt alive.

And it reminded me why I loved reading so much.

The natural progression was to want more. I began digging into my own library again, finding the books that lay on my cupboard, half read, half forgotten. My Other Half began to follow suit and soon we found ourselves sitting in front of the television, staring at the images that were shown to us and realizing that we much preferred out own. The Conversation happened, a confession that we didn’t want to watch as much television anymore. The relief that followed was a release.

We decided to make books a priority again, to feed our minds instead of simply using our eyes. I took to Goodreads and pretty soon, we had a reading list several books long. Sanctions were put on the television. We wouldn’t stop watching completely (because I can’t give up Blacklist…) but we decided to limit how much we watch. An episode a night at most. Two over the weekend.

The result has been enlightening. After The Conversation we spend our Sunday lying in bed together, simply reading with our dog and cat wedged in between us.  Silence drifted through the house but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was the kind of silence that people had when they were content.

When they were being transported into other worlds.

I’ve missed those worlds and my soul has taken to reading like a body to food after a fast. With the act reborn, with the hobby retaken, reclaimed, I look forward to every moment that I can have a moment. Where I can steal a breath to turn a page or two.

And it is enlightening.

And it is a relief.

I will not put my book down easily again.

2016 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge
Alyssa has
read 4 books toward
her goal of
25 books.
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Gamify your life. Join the world of HabitRPG.

Trekking across the wasteland of Bad Habits, seeing the Mountains of your Daily Tasks looming ahead of you, you find yourself wondering why a simple adventure and professional procrastinator like yourself ever hoped to achieve in the land of HabitRPG. Since coming here you have encountered nothing but the woes of missed daily tasks, the ever increasing pressure of the looming ToDo list and you have a lion cub (which hatched from an egg, for heaven’s sake) that is constantly hungry. The urge to give up, to take the potion of Delete Account is strong but… on the horizon you see a beast approaching you. You recognize it well, it comes for you daily so you quickly put the cub down and run to face it, lest it deals damage to your beloved pet…

It is called Dehydration, and it can only be kept at bay by increasing your strength at the office water cooler. You must drink, not one, not two but three glasses of water during the morning, lest it decides to kill you at night… You scramble up from your desk, charge towards the water cooler and…

Drink three glasses of water. The monster is defeated, you are safe for another day.

It plays like an adventure, a world in which you can create yourself to be a rogue, wizard or warrior by completely daily tasks, but it is much more than that. Habit RPG is a stroke of ingenuity created by web designer Tyler Renelle. It is meant to ‘gamify’ your life, to cast you into a role playing game scenario where the only way to level up your character is to completely the daily tasks that you set for yourself. It started off as a kickstarter project and grew into a community of souls seeking simply to get a grip of their life. I was pointed to the site by a friend of mine, and soon became hooked. It spoke to my slightly OCD tendency to create lists and strike out my daily to dos.

It is certainly more satisfying than simply crossing out an achieved objective.

jqnctnricrjbrpho4rjrI have found it to be quite enlightening. The community is support of each other, and there are guilds and parties to suit every person’s need. You find yourself fighting monsters alongside friends who are also simply trying to remember to drink their pills in the morning, or a party of resistors trying to find some way to remember to drink enough water in a day. For a gamer such as myself, it’s livened up the mediocre and the bland and it’s certainly made me focus on a few of the things I am so prone on forgetting.

If you wish to know more, you can explore it’s wikia site here, or simply join the website here.

Enjoy!

Gaming Interlude: The Long Dark.

I can hardly call it a game review yet, because I haven’t gotten that far. But, after playing it again for a few hours today, it’s dawned on me that this game needs to be mentioned. It needs to be discussed, experienced.

It needs to be shared.

I spoke about my recent infatuation with Indie Games and how I’ve begun to look at them with a new pair of eyes. As it came on sale in Steam’s Black Friday dash, I realised that The Long Dark might be worth looking into. One look at the trailer and hearing Jennifer Hale’s voice immediately told me that this game was going to be different. A Guinness world record holding voice actress wouldn’t bother aiding a development that was subpar. Or that was the justification that I used to myself when I pulled out my credit card.

Made by independent studio Hinterland, The Long Dark is still in development and only available on Steam’s Early Access. The game, that only has its Sandbox mode enabled so far, costs about $20, though if one keeps an eye out, you might able to find it on special. I paid about $13 for it, but a mate of mine got it for as cheap as $10. My discussion of the price is hardly relevant though, because even uncompleted, this game is still worth it and I’d have been satisfied with my purchase regardless of whether the developers evolved it further or not.

What pulled me to the game was the tone. Even in the first trailer one could feel the isolation of the protagonist, the vast land and impossible task of surviving dwindling in the distance with the threat of wolves, dehydration, starvation and hypothermia mere moments away at any given point in time. The Sand Box mode has got no story, simply one goal and that is to survive the cold night.

I thought that it would be easy, but I was mistaken.

Even with the graphics not being AAA style, let-me-see-that-blemish-up-close, detailed it comes to life in a way that threatens to overwhelm all of one’s senses. The difference between footsteps on tar and snow, on ice and gravel. The breath that moves before you as temperatures threaten to fall further than your insufficiently clad body can deal with. The wind, the darkness. The silence. It’s summer in my country at the moment and even I can feel the breath of cold air on my neck and the need the shield my face from the snow as I move the character forward. The Long Dark is a fest of immersion.

Still being in development, it is not without its flaws. I find sometimes that attacking wolves would levitate either to the left or right before they attack me. That makes them particularly hard to avoid or shoot. I’ve encountered one or two objects that I can’t pick up and I really want the developers to consider actually putting something worthwhile in a locked storage unit that I risked life and limb to open. I also think that the wolves are glitchy in general and needs to be tweaked because they are damn hard to kill. The mechanics of the wolf attacks just doesn’t work and sadly, guns and ammo are very hard to come by. I’ve spend hours exploring the Coastal Highway without finding one sniff of a rifle. That part can be frustrating because inevitably, the protagonist will have deal with the dark beasties.

But, these complaints are but a bitter drop in the ocean of satisfaction. I love this game, I love the isolation, the loneliness, the sombre tones and realisation that one is the only person in a frozen wasteland that echoes of lives scattered around like frozen corpses. I look forward to seeing what the developers will be doing in the future but even if it is absolutely nothing I will come back face the darkness again and again and again.