PAX East Day 2: or, on being a fan

PAX East is always awesome; from the demos to the panels, and everything else, it’s just awesome to be a fan of gaming surrounded by thousands of other similarly-minded individuals.  Day 2 of this year’s PAX, however, truly drove home how awesome it is to be a fan who is deeply passionate about something.

First off, today was the day of the BioWare costume contest, so Bard and I donned our matching Jowan and Lily (from the mage origin in Dragon Age Origins) cosplays:

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We wanted to head over to see PopCap as well; they’d just released the mobile Solitaire Blitz app, and it was the one year “splashy-versary” of the game, so we wanted to show off our Otis the worm plushie.

I was initially going to go to a panel about showing off your love of gaming in real life.  But… I already do that.  A lot.  So instead I headed down to the show floor to meet up with MLHawke, who was in line with our friend Amanda for Assassin’s Creed 4. I wasn’t too interested in seeing it, but the booth did have a free photo stage.  Chantry sister plus coffee plus pirate gun equals a little crazy!  Next I was going to hit a panel about geeks and crafting, but since I do a lot of that anyway, I decided I’d go to the BioWare panel about The World of Thedas.

It was a good talk, and makes me even more excited to get the book; Dragon Age has such a deep, richly detailed world that something like this was a long time coming.  I’ve done my share of scouring lore and codex entries and writing my own analytical pieces about it, so having a definitive work from the developers themselves will be an excellent resource.  And it’s only volume 1!  When the panel was over I hung out a little talking with some other fans, and got to meet and speak with Sheila of the cosplay duo Aicosu. Her tutorials on makeup and wigs were extremely helpful, particularly with Day 1’s Serana costume.  She was extremely nice, and after viewing and admiring her cosplays it was awesome to stop and say hello.  Plus, her Dishonored cosplays were incredible.

Bard and I had time to kill, so we headed back to the show floor with Otis.  The PopCap carnival booth was in full swing, but we found a marketing person who loved Otis and actually called out the Solitaire Blitz community manager!  Tara came out to see Otis and absolutely LOVED him!  We explained how we loved how cute he is in all his little outfits, and how we were hoping to have a chance to show him off.  And yes, we’d downloaded the app the previous day!  She took pictures of him to show at the office, then handed us Solitaire Blitz card decks and Energy Eel energy shots.  Later on we found out she’d told people it was the highlight of her weekend.  That made me so happy to hear, because I’d really enjoyed making Otis back in the summer, and being able to bring him by the PopCap station was a lot of fun.

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We headed back to the hotel for some light costume repair, then it was over to the BioWare base for the Dragon Age signings and costume contest! We weren’t too far back in line, but as we were waiting, Chris Priestly, a community manager, spied our DA costumes and invited us to jump the line and go in early.  I love how much BioWare understands its fanbase, and appreciates things like cosplays.  We hung out for a bit; I was able to get a signed postcard from Raphael Sbarge, who voiced Kaiden Alenko in Mass Effect.

When the DA developers came back, I got in line to get my DA2 game signed (got DA:O ultimate edition signed last year) and scored a hard copy of “Asunder”, last year’s DA novel.  They commented on my Chantry outfit, and I was able to explain how, because of DA, Bard and I met.  (Long story short, I played DA, got obsessed, joined a Facebook community, met MLHawke, who then introduced me to Bard).  It was nice to be able to share with them what the game meant, not just as a game, but as something that helped as a catalyst for the most important thing in my life.

The costume contest started a short while later.  Let me tell you, there are some VERY talented people out there!  What they are able to accomplish, and how they are able to bring the game to life, is amazing.  I was and still am impressed by how many people make the Shepard N7 armor from Mass Effect; it’s a difficult costume to pull off, requires a lot of material, and is multipart.  And that’s just the armor; never mind if you want to add on weapons, which most do for accuracy.  LOTS of amazing Shepards were there, as were quite a few Asari!  I’m also an admirer of Asari cosplayers, because not only do you have the armor issue (if you’re going that route) but then you have the headpieces and makeup.

There weren’t many Dragon Age cosplayers; maybe only four of us or so.  There was me and Bard of course, but then two Wardens in the blue armor uniform introduced in DA2.  One was my friend Gabby, whose armor is amazing!  The scale work, hand riveting on the shrug, and overall attention to details is great (even down to a leather belt case for her iPhone!) And she even had the rose from Alistair.   She looked like she could have just stepped right out of the game.

When it got to us we got to tell the judges (and a room full of people) that we’d met through a friend I’d only met because of DA, and that we were getting married in four months.  And yes, we’d turn out better than Jowan and Lily did!  We got lots of applause and commentary on our costumes (including a note on the paisley fabric I’d found for Jowan’s sleeves) and then went on our way to see the rest of the cosplay.  We scored N7 jackets from Mass Effect for our participation!  THAT was awesome.  Then came the judging.

In a room full of such excellent, well-crafted costumes made by so many talented people (and I will tell you that most all of them make these things themselves) I didn’t expect to win anything, which was fine.  Being in the contest and having the new jacket was awesome enough.  But BioWare took it a step further.  Before announcing the winners they called up the “Dragon Age couple”.  They gave us the two hardcover comics, a deck of Dragon Age cards, and a Flemeth dragon statue as “an early wedding present from BioWare”!  I was floored!  We went to show our appreciation for their games, and then they turned it around for us.  We got pictures with Chris Priestly at the photobooth, who then tweeted them immediately; when I tweeted a thank you for making our day so special he replied!  They truly know how to treat fans and make us feel appreciated; there are so many things they don’t have to do, but do anyway, so thank you BioWare again for making our day beyond special; Amanda later said that it was “transcendent”.  And to top it all off, there was a four-way tie for the contest, but Gabby’s Warden armor took the grand prize!

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Then it was back to the hotel to get changed; after two days in costume it felt good to kick back in jeans and a t-shirt, and my new jacket of course! Bard was in the Tetris Attack tournament, defending his gold medal from last year.  It was a smaller group, and missing some of the guys from last year, but Ted was there attacking away.  The first few rounds went as expected, but toward the end things got intense.  Ted wound up losing to someone, and Bard lost two matches because his opponent psyched him out.  He got back on track though, and won his match, then went up against Ted’s defeater.  It was intensive, but in the end Bard pulled off another victory and got another gold medal to clank against the one he got last year.

When all was said and done, it was almost a dreamlike day at PAX East.  If a day could be perfect, day 2 may have been it.  It was extremely validating as a crafter, cosplayer, and all around fan.  PopCap and BioWare made my weekend, and I was glad I got to share it with Bard, MLHawke, and Amanda (for whom it was a first PAX experience).  Up next, Day 3, or how everything I know about doing my job is about to change!

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 30, favorite game of all time

Phew!  It took more than 30 days, but I’ve made it and answered every prompt!  I do apologize for things falling apart in the end, but finishing it up was important to me.  And now we come to the end.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about my gaming history and what makes a game enjoyable for me, and why I have the games I have and play the ones I do.  So trying to figure out my favorite game of all time should be easy, right?  Wrong.  Once again I’m torn between the fact that I like some games for story, and some for gameplay style. In some cases I like a game for its nostalgia value.

So I think I have two favorite games of all time: for gaming style, Tetris.  For story, Dragon Age.

Tetris’s premise is simple, and the gaming style is timeless.  Tetris is a game you can pick up anywhere and the controls are the same, the game is the same, the objective is the same.  It can be played on any platform, and it’s extremely portable.  I can get into a zone and get to the point where I’m dreaming in blocks, but I really enjoy playing it.

As far as story goes, it’s definitely Dragon Age.  I love the storyline and how in depth it is.  I once considered answering Metroid for this, but I have a hard time with it because the storyline is so convoluted and inconsistent now.  Dragon Age has a very long, in-depth storyline with very little deviation from the facts that it establishes early on.  Even the outside material such as the novels doesn’t do much to contradict what’s given in the games.  There are some facts that have some contradiction, but it’s nothing huge and major that makes you wonder what they were thinking—or if they were thinking.

The games are vast without being too huge (cough, Skyrim.  Love it, but…) and the stories and characters have depth.  Even the most minor character adds a lot to the story.  Characters like King Cailan in Origins and Jethann in DA2 have enough personality on their own to be more than just minor side characters.  There are major plots and sub plots, and it all works together very nicely.  Each game sets up for the next without being  a place holder.  They work together as games, and with the peripheral materials such as novels and comics.  It all creates a vast world that’s interesting and has depth of story and character.  I get the feeling that the world is very old, even though the first game was made in 2009.

I also met MLHawke through Dragon Age, and she’s become a wonderful, close friend.  And through her and her husband, I met a larger group of friends.  And through them, I met Bard.  Because of the depth of material DA gives me to work with, I began writing for a DA website.  I started blogging about video games.  It brought me into a whole new world.  And with DA3 on the horizon (but still hypothetical) it’s going to make the world bigger, deeper, and more interesting.  It excites me!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 29, a game I ended up loving

Okay, so I know May is over, but I started this 30 days thing and by golly, I’m going to finish it.  Especially with only two days left to go.  So here goes: this asks for a game I didn’t think I would like, but ended up loving.  Now, I’ve had games that I thought I would love and wound up finding just mediocre, or outright disliking.  But I think for this one I’ll go with Mass Effect.

My cousin had Mass Effect and said it was really good.  My best friend’s husband kept telling me to play Mass Effect.  I kept insisting I didn’t care for RPGs, and I wasn’t huge on space or sci-fi games.  But I was looking for a new game to play, so when my cousin offered to let me borrow and play his copy of ME, I said, why not.  After all, if I didn’t like it, which I thought I probably wouldn’t, at least I didn’t spend any money on it, right?

I started in on it, attempting to put my skepticism aside.  The first thing I noted was that, while it was an RPG, it had many elements of a 3rd person shooter.  I could handle that, having played Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.  I picked up on the controls pretty easily, and while some of them were a little clunky, it was manageable.  I got through the first mission on Eden Prime and picked up Kaiden and Ashley and spoke with them.

By then I started getting into the characters and story, and the more story I learned the more I began to like the game.  It was a case of the story and characters transcending the genre.  I try not to always base my likes and opinions on genre, whether it be music, movies, or games, but most times it can’t be helped.  However, sometimes some things transcend their genres, and found that ME was one such game.

While I didn’t do EVERYthing I could in the game, I really enjoyed it and went on to ME2 (which my cousin gave me for my birthday).  And once things settle down a bit I’ll get to playing ME3 as well.  While there are other games I like more than ME, I definitely think Mass Effect is one game I didn’t think I’d like, but ended up loving.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 28, Favorite Game Developer

Anyone who’s been following this for any amount of time will see that I am clearly a Dragon Age fangirl.  I also love Mass Effect.  What do both have in common?  They’re developed by BioWare.

I never played Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights, or and of the Old Republic Star Wars games.  My introduction to, and experiences with, BioWare have been entirely with ME and DA.  But regardless of that, I love the work they put into their games.  There is such depth of story, character, and setting in every game.  Well-crafted writing immerses us into new and interesting worlds.  Good character development leads us to care about the protagonist (which we’ve usually created ourselves) and his or her party members.

Back in April when I attended PAX East, I had the opportunity to meet several people from BioWare.  I was privileged to meet David Gaider, lead writer for Dragon Age, as well as the artistic director, producer, community manager, and many others.  BioWare had a base in the convention center where it was all BioWare all weekend long.  They were kind to their fans, interested in our feedback and questions, and gracious about our criticisms.

I couldn’t stay for the talk about Mass Effect because I had to go check into the hotel, but everything about the Dragon Age panel was wonderful.  They let fans in costume come in early; talked with us one on one, gave us opportunities to ask questions before the general Q&A during the panel.  We got swag.  Most of all I got the feeling that BioWare was glad we were there with them.

As Dragon Age 3 becomes more of a reality and less than a hypothetical possibility, the more interested I am in BioWare and the more curious I am about what they will do with the story.  I know they’ve come under fire because of DA2’s rushed feeling, and ME’s ending, but they’ll be the first to admit where they’ve made mistakes.  They’ve seen the best of all worlds in their games, and seem to work toward doing more and more to combine the best in their games to make the next game they develop even better.

Therefore, BioWare holds the place of favorite game developer.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 25, a game I plan on playing

As a teacher who games, I often get students who speak with me about what games are coming up and what looks good, what my gaming plans are, and the like.  Often it’s common to hear, “JayRain, you should play this!” and a lot of times I just sort of nod and say I’ll get to it.  Between a full-time job, choir and voice lessons and my time spent with Bard, sometimes gaming has to take a backseat to life.  More blasphemy, I know.  The gaming gods are about to strike me down tonight if I dare go for a third time!

I think the one game I plan on playing is one I’ve beenplanning to play for over two months now.  That would be Mass Effect 3.

I played through ME  and ME2 and loved them.  The music, the depiction of a futuristic society, the fact that humansaren’t the dominant species, and moreover, have to fight for a modicum of respect: all factors really drew me into the games.  So when the Arrival DLC came out last summer I played it on release day and loved the story and how it set us up for ME3.  When the demo went live for ME3 I played it on release day and was super excited to pick up my copy on March 6th.

Well, March 6th came, and that was a month away from PAX East.  I was heavily engaged with work on my costume, plus choir and voice lessons.  I had work to do for my job.  I thought I’d play it that weekend.  No big deal.  Well, that weekend came, and I found myself spending time with friends and family and working on my costume.  Then the following week Bard and I solidified our joint nerdery, and I added spending all spare time that was not costume, voice, or work-related on him.  Even my blog didn’t have any March entries, because I was working my way up to PAX East.

PAX East came and went and I resumed my blogging and thought just maybe I’d have time to start playing ME3, but April was full of other things that precluded my gaming.  Still ME3 sat on my shelf, shrink-wrapped and patiently waiting for me to play it.  I listened to the complaints about the ending, and not much else.  Seems that’s all people really had to say about it, so luckily the rest of the game has remained relatively unspoiled for me.

Last week, May 17th, I finally did manage to open it.  Bard wasn’t over, my housework was done, my blog entries completed, so I decided to just bite the bullet and get going.  I’ve played 1:59 of the game so far, about half of which is in the demo, so it’s not like I’ve seen much of anything new and/or different from what I already knew of the game.  And between then and now I haven’t had much of an opportunity to play it.  Heck, I was three entries behind on my blog because of some craziness at the end of this week!  Today’s the first full day of a long weekend, and I’ve had some time to game, but after all I’ve been writing about Skyrim, I busted that out after a long hiatus.

So I honestly do plan on playing Mass Effect 3, but it may not be for awhile yet.  My next four weekends are pretty filled up.  My weeknights are full, though a bit better since I no longer have choir rehearsals until we start back up in September.  We’ll see.  But I do plan to play and finish it!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 21, Best Story

So if you’ve been reading throughout this month, you’ll have likely noticed my obsession with story.  I like games with good characters and settings and stories beyond graphics and gameplay, though those definitely have a major role in games.  As a medium of culture, the graphics and gameplay are sort of what separate them from movies and novels, after all.

Also if you’ve been reading the 30 Days of Video Games project or any of my blog at all, you’ll see my undying, unwavering, frightening obsession with I mean love of Dragon Age by BioWare.  So it will be no surprise that I choose Dragon Age (as a series) as having the best story.

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 13, a game you’ve played more than once

Okay, okay, you caught me.  I’m back posting.  But May 13th was a bit full, being Mother’s Day and all.  Bard and I spent the first part of the day with his mother, and the second part with mine.  So I’m doing two posts in one day so I don’t get too behind and have to do three… and then get SO behind I just don’t want to keep going.

So.  A game I’ve played more than once.

I like playing and replaying games; I like a game with a high replay value because I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth when I go through it and discover new things again and again.  I’d done several runs on Metroid Prime back in the day, to get various percentages or try sequence breaking, or increase the difficulty.  But in the last year I discovered Dragon Age, and I’m all about playing and replaying that one.

The worst part of it is I don’t want to replay the other origins and try beating it as a mage and warrior as well as a rogue.  I just want to play my Cousland rogue and romance Alistair and live sort of happily ever after.  I’ve played a Fianna-centric story through twice–once to play the game, the other to get dialogue etc. for my fanfic.  And I have a third playthrough on my PC that I’m using to get screenshots for it all.  Obsessed?  Yes.  I admit it and I’m okay with it.

But I just can’t seem to stop playing that game that way, and I love it.  I did play all the origin stories to get the achievement, but didn’t connect to any of the others.  Part of it is I attach to a character and work almost exclusively with that character (whether in a game, RP, or original story) for a very long time.  I nearly died in the D&D game I’m playing with MLHawke the other night and I had no inclination to create another character because I was just too used to my half-elf rogue.  To create someone new to play through til the end of the campaign, which should be wrapping up soon, just wasn’t something I wanted to do.  And though I’ve tried different characters in Dragon Age Origins, I just keep going back to Fianna.

I do have a female mage game going sort of… I’m using her as my ‘achievement whore’.  I just want to rack up achievements, so I’m using her to that end.  But in terms of doing much of anything else, or getting interested in the game or attached to the romance or into the story?  Not so much.  But with six different origins, four different romance options, and multitudes of ways the endgame can play out, Dragon Age Origins is full of replay value.

And yes, part of that replay value is shirtless Alistair.  Ahem.

Later on tonight: Day 14, Current or most recent gaming wallpaper.  At least that’s an easy one!

30 Days of Video Games: Day 7, Favorite Couple

Character relationships are an integral part of many games these days. In rare cases the protagonist goes it alone; often he or she meets many people along the way who can help them in their quest. It’s dangerous to go alone, after all.

But when I think about relationships, a huge part of me leaps outside the box. I feel like a romantic relationship is too cliche and sappy, but hey, it’s a relationship and can be very important to the game. When I did this meme a year and a half ago, I chose Cortana and Master Chief. No they’re not romantic, but they’re a fantastic couple who work so well together that they really are greater than the sum of their parts.

But since I’ve gone the platonic route, and since in the last 18 months or so I’ve played Dragon Age, I think I’ll be sappy and romantic and choose The Warden and Alistair.

I preface this by saying that Bard is well aware of my feelings on this, but he’s not threatened by a game character, because he’s awesome and lovable like that 🙂

Oh Alistair: pixelated manflesh at its finest. Alistair could possibly be a perfect man. He’s dutiful, he’s built, he gives you a rose if he likes you, and he’s saved himself for the perfect woman. He’s funny, a little insecure, and endearingly awkward.

My favorite origin in Dragon Age: Origins is the human noble. I played through once, romanced Alistair, and loved it so much I tried it again. Only this time I created a character with a stronger backstory for the world I was in, rather than just put myself in the game. I created Fianna Cousland: pain in the arse youngest daughter of one of Ferelden’s finest and oldest families. She’s a dual-wielding rogue, but I gave her a lot of unconventional personality quirks and behaviors for someone raised as high nobility.

Now, I know Cousland/Alistair, or “Coulistair” fics are a a dime a dozen on fanfiction.net. It’s a great pairing, really, especially once Alistair reveals certain things about himself and his past, and potential future. It seems everyone writes them, and while I like to do some things differently, I really loved Fianna and Alistair’s story.

I think because it’s about more than just falling in love with one another. It’s about two people forced into the worst situation by the worst circumstances, and they have to learn to work together. Through that, they help each other find themselves. Alistair’s sense of duty to the Grey Wardens helps Fianna realize that she has a duty not just as a Warden, but as Fereldan nobility, and she should probably suck it up and do that duty. But her confidence and her refusal to care what anyone thinks inspires him to accept his role in all of this. Where he’s insecure she’s confident; where she’s irresponsible, he’s duty-bound. They complement one another well in those ways.

Plus, my Warden recognizes Alistair’s abilities and talents. So often I see fics where Alistair is what my friend deagh and I have termed, a “Warden!Bitch”. Basically, Alistair fawns all over the Warden (of any origin, but mostly in the Coulistair fics) and lets himself be led on and falls madly in love while she does all the work. In the relationship I cultivated between Fianna and Alistair, she respects him for what he knows and what he’s able to do as a fighter and as a Warden–and later on as a potential king. He understands her position as a noble and how it can advance their goals, but knows she’s not a pawn. And he picks a rose for her, dammit! That counts for something!

Now, many other DA players and fans, including some who read and comment on this blog, will have different views of Alistair and the romance with the Warden. Bearonthecouch has written some very lovely pieces featuring Alistair along with a human mage Warden (that made me cry they were so beautiful), for example. And there are other great Coulistair fics out there. The beauty of Dragon Age is in all the options for character creation and interaction and eventual outcomes. But for me? I think I have to go with Alistair and Fianna as my favorite couple for the above-stated reasons… and also because I’ve put in about a year at this point of fanfic that builds and develops their relationship. But I really do have a life. No, really, I do!

Tomorrow: Day 8, Favorite Soundtrack. I quit right now. Okay, not really. But I want to. So… much… to choose… from…

The Shame Game

I really hope this doesn’t turn into a tl;dr for some people.  This is something that really hit me hard after the high of PAX and I felt I really needed to get out.

As a female gamer I’m constantly aware of the way women are presented in games.  One of my favorite panels at PAX East 2011 was about the portrayal of women in games, whether it’s as the helpless damsel in distress or the kickass heroine; the taut and toned adventure-seeker or the super-sexy femme fatale.  It was interesting, and brought up a whole lot of food for thought.  The year passed, and then this year’s PAX East got me thinking more, particularly with the aftermath of some photos posted by BioWare.  So many comments came up about how many “fatties” were at the convention, and how all the “fat gamers” needed to get off their asses or at least get a Wii Fit or something.  And it got me thinking more.

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Screw Your Arrow!

I would start this out by saying “In the gaming world…” but the fact is the “Arrow to the Knee” phrase has fast become a cliche even among non-gamers.  In Skyrim, just about every other NPC guard or soldier you pass by tells you, “I used to be an adventurer like you.  Then I took an arrow to the knee.”  It’s become a joke, but with my recent disappointment in the Dragon Age fanfiction contest, I realized that the arrow to the knee is a pathetic excuse.

It started when I publicly announced my disappointment on my facebook, and friends were super-encouraging and told me to keep going; write for its own sake, follow my dreams, that sort of thing.  The fact that I have such friends makes me feel truly blessed, and I know that they don’t just say those things because it’s the ‘nice’ thing to say.  I replied to one, “Oh, I’ll keep writing, no doubt about that. This isn’t an arrow to my knee by any means. Right now it just kind of stings because I’d had such hopes for this.”  I confess that on my way home from work I had a fair share of sniffles in the car.  I moped about my apartment until now, and I’m still not feeling all that great.  Even though I worked hard to write a well-crafted story, I felt almost ashamed of it for not making it.  I briefly entertained thoughts of deleting my Dragon Age fanfiction and crawling into a black hole of shame and self-loathing and whiny blogging.

And then I realized that’s what the Skyrim soldiers did.

As an adventurer throughout the land of Skyrim I’ve been burned, frozen, and shocked, and those are just the magic attacks.  I’ve been skewered with swords and hacked with axes and nommed by dragons.  I’ve taken arrows to my FACE.  And I keep adventuring.  I keep fulfilling Dark Brotherhood contracts and doing numbers jobs for the Thieves’ Guild.  I keep seeking out dragons to kill and words of power to learn.  I chug healing potions and hide from enemies and sneak for miles after targets.  If I gave up after one arrow to the knee, things would be boring, nothing would get done, and the world wouldn’t get saved.

Okay, so my writing, fan or otherwise, isn’t world-changing or on the level of saving the world.  If I don’t write again, it’s not like the world’s doing to collapse.  But my world might.  Another friend who’d entered and fared the same as me said she was trying to remember that she wrote for the sake of writing, which is what I’m trying to remember.  Who am I?  I am a writer, pure and simple.  Writing is an art, and appreciation of art is subjective in the end, even if there are objective aspects to what makes it ‘good’ or ‘contest winning worthy’.  If I were to let one lost contest cripple me and take me down for the count, what sort of writer would I be? 

So Skyrim soldiers?  Screw your arrow.  If one arrow to the knee is going to make you complain about how you can’t be an adventurer anymore, maybe you never deserved to be an adventurer in the first place.