28 June 2019

The Stone Leaves Part Three

Previously:

Introduction to Alexi guest-writing The Stone Leaves season of Cryptogram Puzzle Post (Jack Fallows' monthly illustrated puzzle narrative project).

Alexi talks about the first issue, 'Otto & The Thief', and provides some deeper background to the project.

Alexi talks about the second issue, 'Otto & The Little Helper', and theorises about game and puzzle design ideas, rattling on about ludonarrative resonance and dissonance.

Now:

The third and final issue, 'Otto & The Old Friend' is at the printers and Alexi's little story comes to an end. Alexi's going to talk here a little about the issue and about some of the themes of the season as a whole.

As with the prior two issues, it features absolutely stunning cover art by Steve Larder, coloured by Jack Fallows:


(And the fab interior artwork this issue is by Sophie Robin.)

Reflecting back on it all, Alexi is happy with how the puzzles, story and art have fitted together across the season and is really proud to have been part of Cryptogram Puzzle Post. It may only be 24 pages in three envelopes of final product, but planning and writing The Stone Leaves took over a year, a 15,000-word script (that was rewritten myriad times), and an awful lot of time researching, doodling puzzles, and just THINKING, so Alexi is really attached to The Stone Leaves. It's the best thing he's done. He'd like to thank Jack for giving him the opportunity to play with their amazing project, all the guest artists involved (Steve Larder, Jem Milton, Dave Newman, and Sophie Robin), and anyone who has read the issues and tried to solve the puzzles.

As discussed in the previous blog post, this third issue is themed around moving and moving on. The protagonist Otto has to both make a literal journey and move on metaphorically, in several different ways. It ties up many of the narrative threads raised in the first two issues and links it all to the main Cryptogram Puzzle Post story.

The playlist for this issue hopefully reflects the bittersweet nature of the narrative and the sense of travelling in late Spring (and: sun, water, memory, cycles of life and death, friendship, regret): Brave Timbers - First Light; Alela Diane - Take Us Back; Aidan O'Rourke - An Tobar; Mary Hampton - Island; Colour Haze - Remains; Goldfrapp - Eat Yourself. All tracks appear as part of the main 'Cryptophone' playlist on Spotify, or, for convenience, you can find just The Stone Leaves season tracks here.

Hidden secrets? If anyone can spot a particularly obtuse reference to a North-East-based doom rock band, award yourself bonus points.

Otto's journey is about coming to terms with perceived failure. Having aspirations to do good in the world and for one's actions to have value, it's human nature, but reality rarely conforms to the shapes we hope to see. Other people just don't care or don't see things in the same way.

Otto is perhaps a bit older than Alexi, but Alexi thinks he knows something of what it is to feel old,  and tired, and lonely, and that all one's endeavours are ridiculous and for nought. To realise that efforts have been at best unproductive, and sometimes counter-productive, is hard to take. 'First World problems', sure, but sadness is sadness. If Otto's story is about anything, Alexi would say it's about trying to accept that futility and find some kind of peace - that's perhaps the only practical response to the indignities of life. Hopefully, there's solace out there (or, indeed, in there) somewhere, if the route to it can be found.

So, after all his absurd attempts at doing something worthwhile, his journey has finally reached an end, and at least he can rest.

Otto, I mean.

29 May 2019

The Stone Leaves Part Two

As has been established:

Alexi is guest-scripting a three-issue season (called The Stone Leaves) of Jack Fallows' amazing illustrated narrative puzzle project Cryptogram Puzzle Post.

The first issue, 'Otto & The Thief', came out a month back, and Alexi talked a bit about the background to the project and explained what it was, and how his issues fit into the wider Cryptogram Puzzle Post story.

The second issue, 'Otto & The Little Helper' is coming out shortly. Check out the cover (by Steve Larder, coloured by Jack Fallows)...


Is that not TOTALLY EXCELLENT? Alexi assures you that the interior art by Dave Newman is also absolutely belter.

What's going on in the story? Otto visits a run-down town to reclaim an object connected with his past. He meets someone who he'd met long ago, remembers a number of events, and has to confront the results of some mistakes that were made.

Second parts of trilogies often seem to share certain characteristics, and 'Otto & The Little Helper' does fulfil several of those: We get much of the substance of the plot.  If the first part establishes the character in the world, the second reveals much of the plot and backstory, and the third will focus on resolving everything that's been set up and making the theme resonate. Tonally, the second part of three is often also the darkest, and that's probably true here too.

Alexi would also like talk about ludonarrative dissonance/resonance. If those terms aren't familiar, they refer (as Alexi understands it) to the extent to which a game's gameplay is incongruous or congruous with the narrative elements, i.e. to what extent does the game successfully replicate or evoke what it purports to be about.

It's a tough challenge to be ludonarratively resonant. Games (of all types) are usually a representation of something else, and it's rarely possible for the game mechanics to be the same as whatever the game seeks to represent - and often, even in games that are enjoyable, this dissonance can be noticeable (in many ways).

Examples! Alexi has recently played one of the Hitman games. It's ridiculous. Your baldy barcoded assassin protagonist rocks up to wherever the 'hit' is in his distinctive suit - without exception. "Agent 47, we need you to do a job at a clown convention..." - maybe prepare by getting a clown costume? NO. Arrive in the suit then mug a clown to steal a costume - which you change into in seconds, fits perfectly and no one questions the fact you look different. AND you magically knows where everyone is in the level. AND success often depends on learning where characters are going to walk, and with what timings, by repeating the level multiple times. None of which realistically chimes with the theme (thankfully), but it does make quite a fun puzzle game in an entirely-divorced-from-reality way.

How about boardgames? Ticket To Ride always springs to mind here. Great game, very enjoyable, but what are you actually meant to be doing? "Claiming" routes - being the first to travel them? But there's no real sense of travelling - you can pop up wherever you like on the map, so it ends up feeling more like you're some kind of rail tycoon, purchasing sections of railways. Dissonance!

Finally: D&D: just what do hit points represent??


Cryptogram Puzzle Post has both puzzle and narrative elements, and the theory is that they work in harmony. However, as Alexi has discovered, this is tricky to structure (the fact that Jack has managed to do this during the past two years' issues is just another part of what Alexi finds astounding about what they've achieved with this project).

If you have your protagonist needing to, let's say, get through a door, and there's some kind of elaborate mechanism, the puzzle could be to work out which lever to pull that will release the door lock. This is fairly ludonarratively resonant - it may not be the same as being stood in front of the mechanism yourself, but it replicates some essential aspects of it.

However! Part of the great beauty of CPP is the fact that part of the puzzle is often working out what the puzzle is. And for that to work, the puzzle often has to be tangential to the narrative, or at least only loosely causally connected to it. If the protagonist stands in front of a door they need to be through and there's a mechanism that releases the lock with multiple choices of lever to pull, working out which lever it is is highly intuitive. If all the puzzles were like that, it would leave little abstract problem-solving for the reader.

Consider the converse: let's say the character must open a door, but there's no obvious mechanism, and the choice of lever is between a metal one, a wooden one and a ceramic one, based on a clue on the previous page where the reader may notice the word 'wood' hidden in a painting (that the character only glances at); plus the wooden lever has a symbol on it, and that's what is of significance in the puzzle on the next page! The mechanism is irrelevant, and the character is acting in an almost Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency way, relying on the mysterious interconnectedness of all things to guide choices, often with the reader acting independently of what the character is doing.

This is ludonarratively dissonant, but Alexi feels it is unavoidable if the mystery of the puzzles is to be maintained. To counter this dissonance, Alexi has tried to theme the types of puzzles in each issue to enhance the more general narrative concepts.

In the first issue, several of the puzzles are about CONNECTION - connecting one thing to another to create a link. Hopefully this has some resonance with the fact that Otto is just starting to connect what happens to his half-forgotten memories.

In this second issue, several of the puzzles are about MAKING SENSE of things - hidden meanings, ciphers, and the like. Hopefully this has some resonance with the fact that Otto is making sense of what he's finding out about his past.

In the final issue, several of the puzzles are about MOVING - changing positions, finding routes. Hopefully this will have resonance with the fact that Otto is moving on and changing his position, literally and metaphorically.

Does it work? If you have thoughts, please let Alexi know. All of this is an experiment.

Bumper bonus issue two stuff!
In this issue, Alexi makes a subtle nod in the text to a classic illustrated puzzle book that one of the puzzles references. Can anyone spot it? One of the puzzles is loosely inspired by the idea of chaos magic sigils, and the two sigils that matter are both based on letters based on words. It's a big stretch, but they might be guessable? There's also a massive quantity of false-answer paths through the whole issue, to the extent that only one location on the map doesn't actually feature in any of the other puzzles - can you work it out?

For the playlist, with this being the more brooding and dramatic part of the season, Alexi has permitted himself a dive into some atmospheric psych-rock, along with some classic unsettling folk oddness. This issue's playlist:
Graveyard - Longing; Tunng - String; Comets On Fire - Blue Tomb; High Priest of Saturn - Ages Move The Earth; Trees - Murdoch; The Budos Band - Turn And Burn. Check it out (currently at the bottom) in the Cryptophone mega-playlist here.

Order the Stone Leaves three-issue season here.

Subscribe via Jack's Patreon for ongoing issues and extra bonus puzzles.

Still unsure about the whole thing? Try the very first issue of Year 0 for free.

Next: Part Three and season themes.

4 April 2019

The Stone Leaves Part One

As explained previously, Alexi is guest-scripting three issues of Cryptogram Puzzle Post, Jack Fallows' glorious occult-themed monthly illustrated puzzle narrative project.


The three-issue season is called The Stone Leaves - the first issue of which, 'Otto & The Thief' should be ready very soon!

Here's the cover by Steve Larder (with colours by Jack), and a preview of the interior illustrations by Jem Milton.


HOW AWESOME IS THAT LOOKING, EH? Alexi has been delighted to work on a project with such talented guest artists.

Alexi has been a massive fan of Cryptogram since the start, so when Jack raised the idea of some guest issues at the start of the third year, Alexi was both tremendously excited, but more than a little intimidated at the prospect of trying to match such ingenuity and such a distinctive tone that Jack had created.

The first two years of Cryptogram have followed protagonist Anna as she finds and joins a coven, then goes on a perilous epic quest. The start of the third year seemed a suitable point for a brief change, so The Stone Leaves switches to follow a new character, Otto. He's old and tired, and, whilst perhaps formerly skilled, his memory is not what it was - so he can face challenges approximately similar to Anna (who's young and has grown in skill and confidence through the series), but from quite a different perspective. It also seemed like a good opportunity to try and fill in a little of the backstory to the main narrative.

Using Otto took a bit of the pressure off from trying to seamlessly match the other issues, and Alexi has enjoyed tweaking the tone a little. However, it still left the challenge of establishing a new character, developing a narrative arc, illuminating themes, working in backstory elements, and connecting to the main plot. Oh - and constructing a series of totally ingenious original puzzles, themed around witchcraft, that delight and confound the reader. All in the space of seven pages per issue (plus intro page and illustrated envelope)!

All creative endeavour is a puzzle of sorts, but the intricacies of interaction between character / plot / references to magic and folklore / puzzles whose outcomes are the key to solving the next page's puzzle, and which structure over three issues into something vaguely coherent? One of the biggest challenges was working out where to start building from. What was essential and would could be changed? (But if it was changed, how did that affect the next element, and the next, and the next!?)

How does Jack do it (and doing all the art and business side) every month? It is a mystery. Alexi knows they are a ridiculously talented creator (and general good 'un), but it just doesn't seem humanly possible. (Aha, "not humanly possible", EH, READERS?*)

Anyway. It has been slow progress, with much rumination, but with 'Otto & The Thief' now at the printers, Alexi is tentatively thoroughly excited about the whole business.

Secret insider bonus blather!
Otto's name is not a reference to Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis ('Otto' is just another four letter palindromic name like 'Anna' which seemed a nice symmetry). At an early point in the script development, the crow was going to be called 'Hotfoot Crowlie', but that was more as a reference to Sybil Leek's jackdaw 'Hotfoot Jackson'. The herbs mentioned in the potion for memory all were associated with memory in Culpeper's The English Physitian / The Complete Herbal.

And each issue has a soundtrack! The compiled mega-playlist for the whole of Cryptogram is on Spotify here. Scroll to the bottom of the list and you'll find what Alexi selected after digging through his mountain of CDs whilst writing the issue:
Bert Jansch - The Waggoner's Lad; Mr Scruff - Valley Of The Sausages; Nostalgia 77 – Green Blades Of Grass; Bill Fay – Garden Song [demo version]; Elle Osborne - The Way Through The Woods; Gila - This Morning.

Alexi wanted to mix some nature-oriented psych-folk with some slightly wonky jazz antics to reflect the themes of the issue: confusion (and a slightly absurd chase), nature (and the start of spring), and making connections (between experience and memory, and in the puzzle functions).

Enough of that for now! There'll be more talk about puzzles and themes when the second issue comes out (warning: this may refer to "ludo-narrative dissonance/resonance", so if your pretentiousness alerts go off, you've been warned.)

The Stone Leaves season of Cryptogram Puzzle Post runs in March, April and May 2019. You can order the season here (along with various options for individual issues and bundles), but why not consider subscribing to the Cryptogram Puzzle Post Patreon - you'll not only get the issues but also a load of bonus content including behind-the-scenes process posts and exclusive puzzle challenges! (If you know Alexi in person, he may have a few copies too, but going via the official channels are the most reliable methods.)

(If you think "sounds pretty interesting, but eight quid maybe seems a little pricey for just a few pages", Alexi gets where you're coming from, but you clearly haven't comprehended what Alexi has been trying to explain about the sheer volume of planning, design, writing and art that goes into these issues! Plus: this is almost totally unique. If the idea of enigmatic interlinked puzzles in an intriguing story with lovely art appeals at all, then an issue of Cryptogram Puzzle Post represents amazing value for you. Give it a go!)

Next: Part Two and ludonarrative resonance and dissonance.


* Alexi would like to make it clear he is not officially suggesting that Jack is a supernatural being, he leaves any such supposition to the judgement of you the reader.

28 February 2019

Unexpectedly Positive Outcomes Are Possible In Stories

Alexi has a little story called 'The Future Is Actually Pretty Great' in FutureQuake 2019, the latest quality sci-fi comic anthology from those titans of small press comics publishing, FutureQuake Press.




Art is by Scott Twells, with colours by Owen Watts and letters by Bolt-01. It is just a one-pager but Alexi thinks it turned out lovely and it puts a grin on his face when he reads it.


FutureQuake 2019 is another 90+ page bumper bargain bonanza of twist-ending-heavy speculative fiction comics and you can purchase it from the FQP store here.



14 February 2019

Posting About Postal Puzzles

Puzzles. Life is full of them. Frustration and confusion abound, but then, hopefully: solution, coherence, progress, joy?



Cryptogram Puzzle Post is, frankly, probably the most interesting ongoing art project that Alexi has come across in years: an engaging narrative, based around themes of witchcraft, alchemy, occultism, combined with ingeniously interlinked brain-melting puzzle sequences (of the variety where working out what the puzzles actually are are the core of the puzzles), replete with evocative illustration and design. It's the work of Jack Fallows, who has, absurdly, kept the monthly schedule up for two years of befuddling delight.


Alexi has been a huge fan of the project since the first issue, so was thrilled to be given an opportunity to script a guest season (of three issues). THIS IS HAPPENING, starting in March! The issues will feature guest artists (including Steve Larder) along with Jack's own prodigious talents, and Alexi is understandably wildly excited about how it'll turn out.

This season takes a diversion from the main story (and its protagonist, Anna) to focus on new character, Otto. Otto used to be a magic user of some substantial skill, but is now old and tired and alone. However, the past is not done with him, and an unexpected visitor sets him on a journey that will at times be confusing, ridiculous, perilous, and occasionally, hopefully, comforting. Also: it will involve numerous brain-melting puzzles.

Alexi finds almost all his creative endeavours to be anguished experiences of exasperatingly incremental progress, but trying to plan these issues has been the hardest creative challenge he's worked through - but also the most interesting. More blather about all this soon.

The Stone Leaves season of Cryptogram Puzzle Post runs in March, April and May 2019. You can order the season here (along with various options for individual issues and bundles), but why not consider subscribing to the Cryptogram Puzzle Post Patreon - you'll not only get the issues but also a load of bonus content including behind-the-scenes process posts and exclusive puzzle challenges!

Next: Part One and some further information about the project.