So… Horizon Zero Dawn Feels Really Important.

So buckle up, birdies, because this post is going to be a little… all over the place. I don’t quite have my thoughts fully sorted on this matter, nor have I finished the game yet… but the bottom line is that Horizon Zero Dawn feels really important to me and I feel like I need to tell someone.

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As far as video games go, it’s pretty impressive for all the typical reasons games can be impressive. The visuals are beyond beautiful, the soundtrack is great, the battle mechanics are interesting and unique, the enemies are legitimately terror inducing, and even on the easiest difficultly level (because while I love video games, I’m super bad at them) still pose enough of a challenge to keep the fighting exciting… The game is critically acclaimed for all the usual stuff.

And yet it still just feels so much more important than that to me.

The main character Aloy has a lot to do with it. The fact that she is THE scripted main character matters. She’s a fixed element in the story, as opposed to a player character that is chosen and sculpted by the player… and she’s a she.

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As a female who has been into video games for a long time, this still seems pretty revolutionary to me. It shouldn’t, but it does. While I can think of a handful of other games where this has been the case (Tomb Raider, for example), the fact that even now, in 2017, this still feels important is indicative of a much broader issue within the gaming world. Having a female protagonist is still seen as a risk, and as a result, it’s not often done.

This shouldn’t still be a risk. Women make up at least half (according to some numbers, more than half even) of the gaming demographic, and we’ve been playing as and relating to set male characters for years, so I really don’t see why having male players play as and relate to a set female main character should be a risk for the industry. And that’s a problem that goes well beyond gaming and into plenty of other media – starting with children’s books even… But that’s a matter for another post. That I’ll probably never get to.

So anyway…

It’s not just the fact that Aloy is a girl that makes it feel important. It’s the fact that Aloy is female, and yet in the context of the story that doesn’t matter. Her gender is completely irrelevant, and is left as such. Her character design is practical, as are her outfits, and we are not constantly reminded of the fact that “oh shit, Aloy has ladyparts,” whether that be through a sexualized character design (*coughLaraCroftupuntilRiseoftheTombRaidercough*) or constant reminders that she’s filling a role that’s not typically female (e.g. comments from NPCs in surprise over her gender, or deriding her gender). As a gamer who also has lady parts and identifies as female, it’s kind of an awesome experience, to be honest. It’s revolutionary because of the simple fact that it doesn’t present the decision to have a female player character as different or revolutionary. It just simply is. And that fact alone is striking me as unique, and – if I haven’t said it enough yet – important.

Because it’s something even the best, most inclusive games sometimes miss the mark on when writing strong female characters. Even my beloved Bioware occasionally misses the mark in their super-progressive Dragon Age series. Despite culturally existing in a world that has seemingly eliminated most gender norms (and in the places they’ve been kept, they’ve often been flipped – for example the “church” of the world is matriarchal instead of patriarchal) while playing as a female Warden, Hawke, or Inquisitor there are still these moments that crop up where your character’s competence and fitness to lead are questioned on nothing but the basis of being female – bits of dialogue and implications in the way things are voiced that play out very differently when playing as the male counterpart. They’re moments that can feel very out of place in a world as egalitarian with regards to gender as Dragon Age seems to set itself up to be – moments that sometimes feel to me like reality is bleeding in and upsetting the world-building a little.

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In Horizon Zero Dawn, I haven’t yet had one of those moments. Not one. There were a couple moments where an NPC would flirt with Aloy a bit, but everything is written in such a way, and the world is set up in such a way that I’m confident that those moments still would have happened regardless of her gender – because that’s just normal human interaction. And somehow that makes the lack of super set gender roles even cooler?

And all of this is to say nothing about the seemingly effortless diversity of the NPC cast. Which also feels super-duper important to me. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever before encountered a game that is this nonchalantly racially diverse, and I freaking love it. And it really is the nonchalantness of it that gets me. It’s not mentioned, questioned, commented on, or fussed about… it just simply is. And oh my goodness, it’s so amazing.

I could easily go on for several more pages about the things in this game that feel important to me, but I think at this point I’ve gone on long enough for one post that’s basically just a rambling brain-dump. Additionally, I have not finished the game yet – I’m taking my sweet time and being a bit completionist, so I’m only about half way through. It might very well be that the impressions I’ve gotten so far don’t maintain themselves through the rest of the story, but I guess we’ll see. I just needed to gush a little over how awesome this game is.

Have you played Horizon Zero Dawn? Did you notice any of these things? Or do you see them differently than I did? Are there actually plenty of games out there like this already, but I’ve just managed to miss them because I’m picky about gameplay mechanics? Is there something big and glaring that I’m missing in my enthusiasm? (*Since originally writing this post, I’ve read several interesting commentaries by Native American authors on both sides of the “is it cultural appropriation?” debate, which I must admit is not something that would have even occurred to me had I not happened across it on Tumblr.) I still haven’t finished the game (so try to avoid spoilers), and am still formulating my thoughts. I feel like I’ve sort of danced around points here… like they’re on the tip of my tongue but I just can’t find the words to properly convey them – so I would love to hear how other people see it. Maybe it will help clarify this overwhelming bubble of nebulous “this is important” that’s bubbling up in my chest as I play (but please keep it respectful)!

(Clicking on the photos will bring you to their source)

Reassessing for 2017

So any of you who have been around for a while know that my blogging over the last two years has been… sporadic at best. I’ll have a month or two where I’m really consistent, and then go on radio silence for three. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to figure out why I can’t seem to break this cycle, and honestly there are like, a thousand reasons.

I originally had a massively long post typed out listing them all, but I scrapped that because it all just sounded like I was making excuses. And that makes this feel like less of a hobby and more of a job, and goodness knows the last thing I need right now is another job (I currently have four).

So no reasons, no excuses. I’m done looking for them and focusing on them. Instead, I think the time has come for some retooling.

Part of this is to make it work better for me, for my life and schedule, and in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling guilty for not having posted in a while. Part of it is to try to provide more consistent content here.

I do, of course, want to start focusing a little more back on my hobbies – expect more book reviews, hopefully some more project posts… that goes along with some lifestyle changes that I’m trying to make on a more personal level. But I also want to figure out some semi-regular features that can stick around even when I don’t have time to create anything physical.

What form those are going to take, I don’t know. Any suggestions, or well established blog events (things like Blogmus or Throwback Thursday or Friday Favorites) would be welcomed.

So I guess, my question in all this is, beyond project posts, what kind of content do you like? What would you like to see more of from Magpie Making Do? Are there any older posts in particular that you’d like to see more like?

Additionally, I’ve been intending for a long time to switch from wordpress.com to a self-hosted wordpress.org site. I even bought the domain name, and have hosting all set up – but I’ve been holding off until I can be more consistent about content… mainly as an excuse, because switching over seems a little intimidating and scary, and I really don’t want to lose the readers I already have here. Has anyone taken this plunge already, and are there any tips or recommendations you might want to share?

Any and all input (as long as it’s polite!) is welcome in the comments, and I’ll keep mulling over things too!

30 Days of Gratitude and Reflection – Days 6-9

I said at the beginning of this that I’d probably be doing some “catch-up” type posts as I work through this blog challenge, and I was not wrong. The middle of November is always crunch time at work, and my schedule makes posting truly daily pretty much impossible because of the time it takes to photograph, edit, and publish a post. But while I don’t have the time to publish daily, I have been making sure to take a moment of my day, everyday, to think about that day’s prompt.

And so here’s the first catch-up post, with Days 6 – 10.

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Day 6
Something From Childhood: My Dancing Russian Girl

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My grandmother has one of these little dolls that from a very early age I used to love. She’s basically just a little shell on a post, so that when you touch her, she swings back and forth like she’s dancing. A simple little thing, really. Probably didn’t cost more than $10. Me getting her wasn’t any sort of big deal either. We were at the church christmas festival or picnic or something and they had a little table where they were selling Russian themed stuff (I was raised Russian Orthodox), including these little dolls. Whoever I was with at the time (I was really young – I don’t even remember) let me pick one out because I was always staring at my grandmother’s and making it dance. And that’s it. No huge significance, no life changing event. Just an offhanded, “Would you like one?” moment. But she’s been with me ever since, and she makes me smile.

It’s hard to verbalize exactly why, but I guess most of it’s because even though I’m mostly Ukrainian, not Russian – she still brings me back to warm memories of holidays surrounded by tradition and heritage. Of pirogies and halupki, of candlelight and hushed praying in Russian, of the deep Bass voices and eight-part harmonies of Orthodox church music. She reminds me that I’m connected to the past in so many rich and varied ways. And for that, I’m grateful.

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Day 7
An Everyday Thing: My Collection of Cozy Blankets

I love blankets. I seriously love them. Nothing makes me feel better after several weeks of scheduled hell than coming home in the winter and curling up under a big floofy blanket. Except maybe doing so with a cup of tea spiked with whiskey, and a good video game or book.

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Day 8
A Favorite Saying/Quote

you are not required

“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm”

I saw this on Reddit once, several years ago, and in the time since it’s made the rounds on Pinterest and several other places. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and I continue to need the reminder of this simple fact. I run myself so ragged sometimes in the effort to keep others happy. Now sometimes, it’s necessary. Doing so is, honestly, sometimes just part of being a teacher. I might be exhausted, and achy, and ready to leave, but if a student comes to my office door with a paper in hand genuinely wanting help – I won’t turn them away.

But it is nice to have the reminder that there’s a limit. Or rather, that there should be. A reminder that I am not failing as a teacher, or significant other, or daughter, or sister, or whatever other role I’m filling that day if I have to stop and say “no” occasionally for my own wellbeing.

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Day 9
Memory: Memories of Our First Dog

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That little nugget there is me, standing with my parent’s first dog – Petrushka – and my paternal grandfather. My aunt posted this photo on Facebook the other day and seeing it flooded me with smiles and memories, not just of my Grandfather, who died back in 1999, but of Petrushka as well.

Now, my grandfather I think of often. He had served in the military in the Pacific during the ending days of WWII, and with that developing as my specialty, he’s on my mind frequently, and as such, so are my memories of him.

Petrushka, however – I quite literally hadn’t thought of in years. See, Petrushka and I had a tumultuous relationship. I was young. And she was quite large. And then there was the fact that she bit me once when I was a toddler. Like, a “directly in the face – needed a lot of stitches and it’s a miracle my face isn’t deformed” kind of bite.

Now, before you start accusing my parents of negligence for not putting her down or giving her away after that – it legitimately wasn’t the dog’s fault. She had been fast asleep in front of the couch and our asshole cat at the time, Arthur, decided it would be a great idea to reach down, hook her ears with his claws, and yank. She snapped reflexively as she woke and I just happened to be in the way as I toddled by. With the exception of that one moment, she was always really great with kids.

She died only a few years after everything happened, at the ripe old age of 12, and I’ve always felt a bit guilty for how I treated her after that. She was a very friendly dog and always tried to be affectionate with me – but I was afraid. I was very young – like toddler young – and I didn’t understand the concept of accident. I didn’t really understand what had happened. And so I spent almost the rest of her life shying away.

I don’t precisely remember this specific moment. But I cherish the memories it brings to the surface of Petrushka. The good, the bad, and the lessons I learned about animals and guilt by looking back on my fear. Rest easy, Petrushka. You were a good dog.

(I do suppose this would have been a better fit on Day 2: A Photo – but I wasn’t aware of its existence at the time.)

30 Days – Day 2: A Photograph

So this one is taking a decidedly unexpected turn. I originally had several cherished family photos in mind when I compiled the challenge list, but ultimately due to questions of whether or not my internet-wary family would appreciate having them posted for all to see I’ve decided to go in a different direction (although the hunt through all our old albums was certainly beneficial for me from a gratitude standpoint – which after all was the point of this project.)

So I’m going in a more professional direction with this and in the process I guess I’m changing the prompt a little.

So here we go.

On day 2 of this challenge, I am grateful for: War Photographers.

Joe Odonnell

A quick warning here: some (all) of the photographs that I will link here are not for the faint of heart. Click through at your own risk.

This probably seems to you like a very strange thing to be grateful for. So let me explain.

See, professionally my research interests are dark. I gravitate towards the history of warfare – particularly the two biggies for the US in the 20th century – WWII and Vietnam. And as someone who routinely and purposefully surrounds herself with some of the worst things humanity has done to itself, the extremes of human suffering and brutality – you sort of develop a distance from the subject. You become jaded and separated from the reality of it, really as a defense mechanism more than anything.

It is easy to stop seeing the people you read about as real. It is easy to begin reading it almost as if it was fiction – to get that same sense of detached disgust that comes with watching a particularly gory battle scene in a movie, or a fictional bad-guy order some sort of horrible fate for the hero. You know it’s awful. You know it’s horrifying. But it doesn’t really pack quite as much of a punch as it should.

You become desensitized. You stop seeing who you’re reading about as people, and more as a subject or a case study.

And as far as I’m concerned, nothing is more dangerous than that.

So today, I am grateful for all the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to record the horrors we’ve precipitated. The photographs they produced are the things that keep me grounded in reality more than anything – by recording the moments when we as a species have lost sight of our humanity, they’ve allowed me to maintain mine as I study it all.

I can read several thousand first hand accounts of the human suffering caused by the firebombing in Japan, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nothing connects me to the reality of that more than photos of it. Nothing reminds me that these were real people who lived through this horror – not some fictional retelling – than the photos that let me see the suffering with my own two eyes. I can read hundreds of historians telling me about the civilian toll of the napalming and “search and destroy” techniques utilized in the Vietnamese countryside, but nothing drives it home quite like seeing the pain in the flesh – in the cries of a little girl in pain, or the fear in an older woman’s eyes. I can read Holocaust memoir after Holocaust memoir, but nothing hammers in the true horror of it like seeing the bodies, seeing the graves, seeing the condition of the survivors.

Seeing, after all, is believing.

And on a far less personal level – nothing forces us (as a society) to confront the reality of our past quite like photography – specifically because it forces us to admit that the pain was real. The suffering was real. That these were actual things that humans did to other humans – purposefully, no less. There’s a realness in the pain behind these photographs that even the best actor couldn’t reproduce, and nothing can remind us of the real human toll of war quite as effectively.

And that reminder is invaluable.

It is horrible that these things happened. But they did. And we cannot let that fact be forgotten. Remembering the human toll of war is what will be most effective in helping us prevent these things from happening again.

You know the old saying, that a picture is worth a thousand words? There is nowhere that this is more true than in photography of war. One photograph can be more effective in arguing for peace than a million words spilled by a million people on the subject. And today, I am grateful for that.

 

[Photo of Joe O’Donnell – US Marine and Photojournalist known for his photos of post-surrender Japan, including the aftermath of the atomic bombs. Clicking the image will take you to the source.]

Music and Memory

So, I had a bizarre moment the other day. I was sitting in rehearsal for the church choir I work for as the soprano soloist and as we started singing, I choked up. Like, throat thickening, nose starting to run, tears starting to well kind of choked up.

Now before I get to why, let me explain a little bit about my relationship with music. The act of making music is not something that makes me choke up often. It is, in most cases, just another day at work for me. Why? Well, I’ve been active in music since basically the day I was born. My mom is a professional musician, and so I’ve been embedded in the industry for as long as I can remember. I started official violin lessons at age 2, switched to cello at 10, and by the time I was fifteen I too was considered a professional – meaning I was getting paid regularly for gigs.

So, long story short, I’ve been at this game a long time. It’s a job for me. A job I mostly enjoy, yes… but a job. And just like with any job you’ve been doing for nearing 30 years, it’s easy to sort of disengage. Which is something that, admittedly, I do more often than I should.

And was definitely something I was doing in this particular rehearsal. It was just any other day, and I was exhausted – as always. The day we rehearse my schedule has me going from 7 am until 10 at night not only that day, but the three days prior to it as well. So I was, admittedly, totally on autopilot. And the rehearsal was nothing out of the ordinary.

That is, until our director passed out the music for this:

 

And we started to sing.

And that’s when it happened. Even with my brain shut off.

I was baffled at first. It took me completely by surprise. My body had betrayed me – why was I starting to cry? There was no reason. It’s not like the experience of singing it was particularly moving – we were sight-reading, and quite frankly we weren’t doing it particularly well… So, what the hell? What was happening?

But then I realized that this particular song was one of the pieces we had been doing in the concert choir I’m in right around the time when my family member got their cancer diagnosis a year and a half ago. We were lucky, because it looks like the cancer was taken care of quickly, but the months that followed that initial news were easily some of the most terrifying, difficult, and trying months of my life. And through it all, we were rehearsing and performing this piece.

Once I put two and two together, it dawned on me that the mere act of reading through the piece again was enough to bring back the flood of stress and emotion from those months. Even as my brain was somewhere miles away thinking about my lecture plans for the Revolutionary War and a nap.

The realization left me dumbfounded. Blindsided, even. Because even as someone who is literally surrounded by and involved in the act of making music nearly every day of my life, it had been so easy to forget exactly how powerful music can be. How the music around us at a particular time and place can stay with us for years – if not a lifetime.

You know how they say that your sense of smell is one of the most powerful triggers of memory that exists? This odd experience reminded me that music has got to be up there in the ranks with it. I’m just not sure there’s anything else in my life that can bring back memory the way that music can. Particularly in times of great change.

Because as I sat down to reflect on this experience (shocking as it was), I realized that there were literally dozens of songs and pieces that had that type of power for me. The power to transport me back in time to a specific experience or place.

 

Because anytime I hear the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, I’m 21 and sitting on stage in an old bank building turned concert hall, cello between my legs and the smell of rosin mingling with the salt from the stray tears that had managed to escape down my cheeks. The sheer joy at being able to play with a symphony orchestra for the first time since leaving for college, on top of being able to perform something I never thought in my life I’d get the opportunity to play simply too overwhelming to fully keep control of.

 

 

Because every time I hear the opening drum beats of Steady As The Beating Drum from Disney’s Pocahontas, I’m 8 years old again, dancing across my grandparent’s porch singing at the top of my lungs. I can smell the cigar my grandfather is finishing as he carefully tries to suggest that I maybe try singing along to something else, barely able to hide the annoyance in his voice after hearing it 96 times in a row. I can see the twitch in his arm ripple through his military tattoo as my grandmother’s voice wafts in from the kitchen chiding him gently to be a little more patient.

 

 

Because every time I hear Yeah! by Usher, I’m 17 and sitting in my high school boyfriend’s (surprisingly reliable) tin can of a Suzuki Sidekick that smelled like a combination of baseball equipment and Ivory soap, assuring him that nothing is wrong as I quietly try to push down the nagging feeling that staying together when we left for college was not going to be the right thing. (Surprise: It wasn’t).

 

 

Because every time I hear anything by the Shins, I’m 18 and laying on the dusty carpeted floor of a stuffy Russian classroom turned temporary practice room for the high school music camp I attended for 6 summers, decidedly not practicing. Instead I’m discussing with three friends the fact that our tenure as students there was coming to a close for real this time – as rising college freshmen there would be no next summer. We’re all just weeks away from moving here there and everywhere across the country for our college orientations, a prospect that both frightens and excites us. I can feel the nerves in the pit of my stomach, and the thrumming urge at the back of my brain to somehow try to freeze time as it is, so that the massive change would never come.

 

 

Because every time I hear anything by the Spice Girls, I’m back in 5th grade, eagerly waiting alongside my cousins to be let in to my very first real “rock” concert. I can see the homemade tee my cousin was wearing, and smell the funnel cakes being cooked higher up on the mountain in preparation for the opening of the gates and the flood of tween girls that was sure to follow. My heart is pounding in anticipation and I can hear the high pitched scream that ripples through the crowd any time a stage employee would even look like they were moving towards the gates.

 

 

And because every time I hear Heartbeats by Jose Gonzalez, I’m 23 and sitting in the passenger seat of a purple saturn in the parking lot of taco bell at 11 at night as the rain torrents down on us so hard that the windshield wipers can’t keep up. The rain has made it impossible to make our way home, and so Jim and I are sitting listening to quiet music and watching the rain hammer the poor little car’s sunroof – drawing tiny pictures in the fog on the windows and just enjoying being removed from the world. Isolated from tomorrow’s responsibilities and yesterday’s pressures by a downpour, alone with just ourselves and each other for a rare and fleeting moment in our relatively young relationship. I can feel the peacefulness settle in the back of my brain as everything just feels so… right.

As is obvious, for me, music and memory are two very intertwined things – theirs is an inescapable association. And it both baffles and delights me.

Does anyone else have these same types of experiences with songs? Please do share in the comments – I’m eager to hear other’s tales of the power of music and memory.