Welcome to the Occult Triangle Lab

You opened the box, he came.

This is the Occult Triangle Lab, a blog about fantasy, trigonometry, and ungodly amounts of milk. New posts are below, but for new visitors, here’s a guide to some of the coolest projects on the Lab so far:

  1. Ergodica: Experimental Literature, Fractals, and Necromancy
  2. The Making of ANATMAN: Origami Books, Zen Buddhism, and Oroboro
  3. The Rats in the Walls: Graffiti, Lovecraft, and an NYC Alternate Reality Game

Other posts cover my fantasy world and short stories, including posts on worldbuilding, magic systems, and sketches from my stacks of notebooks. I also talk about books and articles I’m reading.

If you want to get in contact with me, email me christophmahon [at] gmail [dot] com or Tweet me @DeadmanMu. I’m always happy to talk.

Welcome to the Occult Triangle Lab

Doki Doki Literature Club and the Abyss

This past month, I interviewed for a job at a game company and had a gushing, energetic conversation with four staff members about how much we all loved the game Doki Doki Literature Club, a Japanese dating sim that’s taken the internet (and numerous awards) by storm.

Soon after, however, I had a long Skype conversation with my Ma. My Ma and I always have deep conversations, so to lighten the tone she asked what I was doing for fun. I got excited and told her I was watching a playthrough of DDLC, which was…

I stopped and realized how insane I was going to sound.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a game about madness, suicide, horror, and nihilism. It’s about wiping people from existence. It’s about manipulating people’s deepest, darkest desires. It’s about twisting love into horrifying parodies of itself. It’s about chipping away at reality until doubts begin to gnaw at your soul.

So why did the thought of sharing it with someone fill me with unironic, exuberant joy?

The Genius of Doki Doki Literature Club

DDLC is different from horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Dead Space, where the excitement among gamers comes from the thrill of a good, scary time surrounded by blood and monsters. We know where we stand with those games—we’re the squishy victim in a universe made of razor blades, and the fun comes from surviving.

Dating sims are not that. There are no sharp edges in them, because dating sims are meant to be dollhouses where the player is in control, and all the characters exist only to titillate and excite them. The fun comes from forgetting (for a while) that this is a game and losing ourselves in the fantasy. There have been some fucked-up dating sims (e.g,, the murderous professor in the infamous fever dream called Hatoful Boyfriend), but the vast majority of them play upon the knowledge that the player is here for some light, romantic fun. It’s hard to find a more ephemeral genre than the dating sim.

…which makes it doubly disturbing when you play through DDLC and start watching the game break down all the comfortable walls between you and the game. Then the chilling realization hits you: DDLC isn’t just three steps ahead, it’s gotten so far ahead of you that it’s been patiently waiting for you to catch on from the beginning.

But that kind of detached, cerebral appreciation for a well-crafted story isn’t what I felt. I doubt it’s what anyone felt their first time, because even as the game breaks the fourth wall again (and again [and again]), the emotional core of the game comes from truly caring about the characters, even after you acknowledge (in your mind) that they’re all fictional. I cared about Sayori and genuinely, genuinely wanted to help her, just like I wanted to show Yuri that she could be herself and help Natsuki become more comfortable with the idea that someone could be her friend.

DDLC doesn’t provoke a golf clap from those who play it, even after all the tricks are revealed. It provokes a white-knuckled fear, a creeping anxiety that breaks into wide-eyed, nihilistic emptiness deep down in your soul.

So I return to my original question, and the strange position I found myself in when Skyping with my Ma: if Doki Doki Literature Club is a truly disturbing nightmare of a game, why did I feel so much joy at the prospect of talking about it? Where did this sense of life-affirming exuberance come from?

The Abyss

I think there’s an argument for catharsis, that playing through a game that evokes such strong emotions is sort of like a release valve for all the stress, sadness, and anxiety we have pent up within us. For me, though, I think the answer is different—it has to do with gazing into the abyss.

I think there’s something wonderfully freeing about staring into the abyss, because the ultimate home of the abyss is within ourselves—that deep-rooted emptiness that we try to fill with things like careers, accomplishments, and pleasures. It becomes exhausting to keep fleeing from it and blocking it out, pretending that I really am all the things I present myself to be. When things threaten that image of myself, my instinct is to repair the damage before I lose everything and have to face the abyss, which has always been there. But if I’m being honest with myself, truly honest, I know that image of myself is a fabrication.

DDLC is about tearing away illusions: the characters, the gameplay, the plot are all fabrications, except for Monika (according to her). As Monika strips it all away, I’m forced to examine what was real: my feelings, my desires, my actions. Why did I act the way I did? Why did I feel the way I did? Why did I want to romance one character instead of another? And when it all comes crashing down, what kind of person am I? Everyone in DDLC loved me, even Monika, but only I know my thoughts. And as the game shifted, only I remain the same. Who am I?

Beneath all my desires and actions is the abyss.

I don’t imagine ‘the abyss’ to be an unavoidable force for entropy, lethargy, depression, and self-destruction. If anything, it’s the on part of myself that I think I need to understand better. After I’ve spent enough time gazing into the abyss, I gain a clearer perspective on life: I get a better sense of what’s important to me and what are just distractions or my own illusions (something Yuri deals with). After touching that immovable sense of nothingness at the core of my being, I feel free, even energized. It’s like I’ve let go of all the things that were weighing me down.

The feeling reminds me of two quotes. The first is from Jacob’s Ladder:

“If you’re afraid of dying, and you’re holdin’ on, you’ll see devils tearin’ your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein’ you from the world. It all depends on how you look at it.”

I think undergoing the small ‘death’ that comes from touching upon the abyss does something like that: it frees you of the self-destructive things you’re holding onto and shows you that you don’t need them, and they don’t define you. At the same time, it illuminates the beautiful things in your life…only, you realize that every part of life suddenly seems beautiful. As Franz Kafka put it:

“The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.”

Your Reality

Doki Doki Literature Club is a terrifying, disturbing game. It’s upsetting, sometimes even disgusting. But instead of doing all of that for the sake of shocking people, I feel like the game’s intent, as Yuri says, is to change the way we see the world, if even if it’s only a small change. I think it accomplished that for me. It changed the way I looked at stories, at life, and what is possible with writing.

This is my experience. Maybe other people felt the same way. As to its widespread popularity, I have this to say:

Anime and otaku culture have become synonymous with modern “internet” culture, which seems preoccupied with deconstruction, nihilism, and exploring the darkest depths of the human experience, all while maintaining an ironic, irreverent attitude. I think Doki Doki Literature Club speaks the language of the lonely young men and women who have invested more and more of their lives in an intangible world of video games, websites, and increasingly elaborate memes. These are the same people who embrace meaningless and absurdism while constantly pushing away the acknowledgement that they’re not happy with their lives and are escaping into fantasies rather than dealing with their problems.

DDLC tears down the comfortable, familiar fantasy of a Japanese dating sim and starts crossing over into reality, leaving the player nowhere to escape to or hide. You’re not playing an idealized avatar anymore, you’re you dealing with a situation that has spun out of control and left you heartbroken, frightened, or disturbed. In this sense, DDLC takes a fake experience (dating fictional anime girls) and creates a real one (reflection upon the nature of DDLC’s fantasy, and reflection upon oneself), all while giving a strong enough framework to make sense out of it all.

That unexpected encounter with reality is powerful, and I think it resonated with a lot of gamers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the name of the ending song to the game is “Your Reality.”

Doki Doki Literature Club and the Abyss

Hypnotica: A Short Story Discography

“The Yoshira is a dream city, and there are breeds of magicians here that only exist between sunset and sunrise. The most famous ones, the ones only the Yoshira can make, are the dreamwrights, who play their music for the ghosts and the dreamers, carrying their tools in their bones…”

Almost a year since the first draft was completed, my short story “Hypnotica” is going to be serialized on The Fantasy Hive! It’s one of my crazier, fantastic story, and I’m glad I finally get to share it. Here’s the description:

“Hypnotica” revolves around dreamwrights, mages who use music to shape dreams into surreal raves, and the Yoshira, a ghost-city that exists at the boundaries of waking and sleeping. In “Hypnotica,” two dreamwrights are left picking up the pieces of their lives after one of their shows in the Yoshira turns into a nightmare.

The two main characters, GRIN and NO-FOOT, were based off of different electronic artists, while the Yoshira was based on the Yoshiwara, the famous pleasure district in Japan. I wanted an image that conveyed the wonder, mystery, and danger of the story (as well as incorporate triangles), so one of the editors at the Hive, A.Z. Anthony, created this:

hypnotica chris mahon fantasy hive

Since the story is so heavily rooted in music, I’ve made a list of the songs that inspired it to celebrate!

1. Daft Punk, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”

As I said in my previous post, the idea of the story originally came from the Alive 2007 concert and the 2014 Rolling Stone interview with Daft Punk, the masked electronica artists whose crazy, elaborate light shows turned concerts into dream-like, surround-sound experiences. This was one of my favorite songs in the Alive 2007 set, showing the two of them rocking out atop their pyramid.

2. Aphex Twin, “Come to Daddy”

Aphex Twin was the inspiration for GRIN, the virtuoso composer partner to NO-FOOT. In the story, GRIN wears something akin to a hannya mask, which mimics Aphex’s famously creepy grin. “Come to Daddy” is one of the songs I have on constant repeat, and the signature scream at 2:36 became the inspiration for a key moment in the story.

3. Deadmau5, “I Remember”

When I needed calming, lullaby-like songs while writing, “I Remember” kept coming up. It lulls me into a trance, and its echoes and synthesizers brought to mind pictures of the dreamscapes and slow-motion dances in the Yoshira.

4. Black Midi, “Pi”

At one point in the story, GRIN composes something called a “death waltz,” a piece of music that’s so complicated it’s considered physically impossible to actually play. The original inspiration was a piece of music called “Fairie’s Aire and Death Waltz,” but the Black Midi series helped me visualize what it would sound like.

5. Me!Me!Me!

Besides being one of the most disturbing, sexually charged videos I’ve ever seen, the song is an ultra-catchy mix of something like Vocaloid singing, J-Pop, hardcore EDM, and glitch music. I wanted to capture the energy, vividness, and pure insanity of it all in the dream sequences of the story, especially the final one.

6. Knife Party, “UKF Birthday Set”

Besides Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 show, the  UKF set Knife Party played a few years ago became one of the main soundtracks I listened to while I was sketching out the mechanics of narcomancy and trying to visualize what NO-FOOT and GRIN’s shows would look and sound like.

7. Cowboy Bebop, “Blue”

I wanted the story to be a bit melancholy, something that touched on both the freedom of dreams and the knowledge that you have to wake up and leave it all behind. At heart, though, this song is about transcendence, and as I went through seven drafts, I found that transcendence was at the heart of the story, too.

8. Paprika Soundtrack, “Parade”

Anyone who’s seen Paprika remembers the insane parade scene. This song seemed to sum up the chaos, madness and bursting imagination of the Yoshiwara.

Hypnotica: A Short Story Discography

I’m Going to Have a New Column on Magic at the Fantasy Hive!

Hey all, I’m back to being a freelance writer, and I’ve signed on to be a staff member for the upcoming fantasy website Fantasy Hive, along with Laura Hughes, A.Z. Anthony, Steven Kelliher, and a bunch more!

I’m going to be writing a column on magic called “Magic and Mayhem,” which will explore building magic systems, magic in fantasy, and magic in history/mythology. I’ll still be doing my column on worldbuilding for Fantasy Faction, too.

The Fantasy Hive launches on January 1st at Fantasy-Hive.co.uk!

 

I’m Going to Have a New Column on Magic at the Fantasy Hive!

My New Post on Magic and Kung-Fu is Up on Fantasy Faction!

After doing a lot of research and resigning myself to the fact that the number of kung fu duels I fight will be increasing exponentially in the next few years, I turned in my article on magic and qi to Fantasy Faction. You can read it here!

The article includes a basic overview of qi (aka chi or ki), its history and relationship to Daoism, its use in the training of the Shaolin monks, and the introduction of the Monk class into D&D, which became an archetype for fantasy martial artists in the Western fantasy genre.

This is the second column I’ve done focusing on a specific type of mage and magic, the first being my column “Old Grey Beards.” If you haven’t read my Worlds Within Worlds columns on Fantasy Faction, here they are:

THE NECRONOMICON TO THE NOKIZI: CREATING TEXTS FOR SECONDARY WORLDS

EXPLORING VVARDENFELL: HOW MORROWIND CREATED AN IMMERSIVE SECONDARY WORLD

WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS – PART TWO: MAGIC WARFARE

WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS – PART THREE: OLD GREY BEARDS

WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS – PART FOUR: QI AND FANTASY

The next spotlight on mages and magic will (hopefully) be necromancers and necromancy!

My New Post on Magic and Kung-Fu is Up on Fantasy Faction!

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Has Accepted My Short Story “Old No-Eyes”!

After seven years and a lot of rejections, I’ve made my first professional short story sale to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, my favorite fantasy magazine!

Two of the major reasons BCS is my favorite is because they focus on worldbuilding and “literary adventure fantasy,” the latter of which encourages strong characters and well-crafted prose. That’s what go for when I write, so BCS has quietly sat at the top of my list of places I’d like to be published for a while.

“Old No-Eyes” tells the story of a hermit-like scholar named Yute, who gets a letter from an old colleague that backstabbed him out of their shared tutelage in the art of immortality years ago. His old colleague needs Yute’s help to decipher a little black book that claims to undermine everything they learned about life, death, and immortality, but Yute has his own plans. The story has some elements of horror and suspense, and gives a good idea of what necromancy looks like in my world.

The “little black book” in the story is The Nokizi, which I actually wrote up in five parts (the full text is up on Medium, starting here). It’s a necromantic manifesto that draws on Zen, mathematics, and the occult, and fleshes out my world almost as much as the story.

For those keeping track at home, all of my stories take place in the same world, meaning that references to characters, places, and events in past or future stories will pop up.

It’s really exciting to finally get a story of mine published. I don’t do this for the cash, money, or fame. I write stories so I can share them with people. On that note, thanks to all the people that read early drafts of Old No-Eyes (including the folks at Brooklyn Science Fiction Writers), thanks to Scott Andrews for working with me on revisions, and thanks to everyone who gave me encouragement over the years.

Old No-Eyes does not have an official release date yet, but BCS is tentatively shooting for next summer.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Has Accepted My Short Story “Old No-Eyes”!

Worldbuilding: Martial Arts, Magic, and ‘An Account of the Dyer’

I’m working on a new story about a character I’ve had in mind for several years, called ‘the Dyer’. He’s meant to be a mage who mixes martial arts with magic, and he gets his name from the bruising he leaves behind on his opponents, which is actually subcutaneous bleeding. The bleeding is so dark and persistent that it ends up ‘dyeing’ the skin black.

I wanted to write a non-fiction piece about the Dyer, sort of like Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, but told from the point of view of another martial arts master. I came up with the character of Ryu-Ito, who interacts with the Dyer and writes down observations about him.

Here’s what I have so for her book, An Account of the Dyer:

Introduction by RyU-Ito

I write an account of a figure who has no need for words, whose style transcends description, and whose genius demands firsthand experience, not ink on pages. He has read this tract with bemusement and forgotten it as quickly as he was told of it. He never learned his movements from books, and regards scholarship with bewilderment; why would one write about a style, instead of practicing it?
When putting this account to pen, I was faced with these questions and more. But I am committed to the belief that while words cannot bring us to the summation of understanding, they can help us take the first steps. Where words’ usefulness end, experience takes us by the hand and leads us on down the path, which I have learned has no end.

The hand that can break bones moves with strength and speed; the hand that can split the sky does not move at all.

Chapter 1

The first time I met the Dyer, I was taken aback. I had heard of his strange appearance, but I was not prepared to find a man like a scarecrow in the meeting-room. What struck me were his long fingers, wrapped in bandages, and his white porcelain mask, which is unsettling to anyone who is not familiar with his gentle nature.

The Dyer is notoriously shy, but it is well-known that he has a special discomfort for being alone with women. In our meeting, he kept his gaze rooted firmly on the floor, only raising his head when one of the students knelt to fill our cups. It was at that point that I decided to dispense with all the trappings of a formal meeting and challenge the Dyer to a duel.
The cups were cleared away and I shed my outer robes, leaving only my gi. I took my stance and waited. The Dyer stood up abruptly and stood awkwardly for a moment or two, then bowed. I practiced the breathing my masters had taught me and prepared to advance. A thousand subconscious thoughts ran through my head like fish below the surface of the water, gauging his reach, his inertia, his movements. I led with my right hand, leaving my left to block in the wu position, and moved into his range.

And then I stopped. The Dyer, at some point that I had not noticed, had completely relaxed. He was leaving himself completely open to attack from any angle, but seemed absolutely untroubled by it. Gazing at his mask, I searched for a trace of his eyes to give me insight into his thoughts or emotions, but I found myself hypnotized. The harder I tried to look past his mask, the more I saw myself through his eyes. I found myself cycling through a thousand different potential mindsets to explain his serenity, a thousand different images of the Dyer behind the mask, but all of them fell away in the face of him. Suddenly, his great height seemed to grow even taller, and his presence filled my world. He was simultaneously everything I could imagine and none of it, at once peaceful and overwhelming. I knew in that moment, while I stared into the twin eyes of his mask, that I could never defeat this man.

And then he did something surprising: he raised his right arm and held it in the same position I had mine, so that our wrists crossed. He mirrored my stance, and he gently pushed his wrist against mine, so that my arm rotated a little. I instinctively pushed back, and his arm gave way, at which point I ceased applying pressure. He repeated the gesture, and we went back and forth like that for a long time. Slowly, he brought his other arm around, and I met it with mine. We began pushing with both our hands, and I began taking steps forward, which he mirrored, until we were dancing.

It was then that I understood the heart of the Dyer’s style and the secret to his invincibility: no one fights the Dyer himself—his opponents only fight themselves.

Worldbuilding: Martial Arts, Magic, and ‘An Account of the Dyer’