Gaming

Love, death, and spaceships: Lee Hutchinson’s Fangs concludes

I’ve never made any secret about my love for (and occasional frustration with) Frontier Development’s space combat/trading/exploration sandbox game Elite: Dangerous. In my 2015 review I called it “the best damn spaceship game I’ve ever played,” and four years later, it’s an opinion I still hold. Although it’s taken literally years for the developers to flesh out some of the game’s mechanics, there’s always been something special about Elite, even going all the way back to the beta when it was barely a game at all.

I love it so much, in fact, that a few years ago I started up an Elite: Dangerous Web comic called Fangs (many of the ships in Elite are named after snakes, so the title seemed appropriate). I can’t actually, you know, draw anything, but a couple of posts on the official subreddit gave me a neat idea: instead of illustrating panels, I could simply take screenshots directly from within the game and run them through a threshold filter to achieve a very distinctive film noir-esque feeling. Couple that with some clever framing and some snappy dialog, and I was in business.

Fangs originally started out as a series of short self-contained vignettes about various aspects of the Elite universe—I did a comic on exploration, on ship names, on smuggling, and a bunch of others.

But after doing ten standalone chapters, the urge to actually tell a cohesive story had become overpowering. So I found an illustrator, worked out a plot, and started Fangs book two. It took a little longer than I was expecting to get it finished—in fact, it took two years—but as of this past Friday, it’s finally done.

Behold my pretensions laid bare

Book two—which you can read right here if you’d like to skip the bloviating—is titled “Every Man’s Wish On Board,” from the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The quote provided the framework around which the story would coalesce:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth.

With book two, I wanted to tell a story about the different ways in which men and women experience love, loss, grief, and memory. The idea was to utilize characters who are basically normal people without overwrought trope-filled backgrounds (so no Mysterious Brooding Ex-Space Marine With a Past, no Super-Smart-Techie-Hacker-Kung-Fu-Girl, and so on), and to have those characters go through something to change them emotionally, and to have them react at least somewhat realistically—again, without falling back on common science fiction storytelling tropes. (I don’t have anything against common science fiction storytelling tropes! But trying to skip as many as possible made for an interesting and challenging storytelling exercise.)

Most importantly, since book two has actual characters, I needed an artist. Here I lucked out: I wound up getting in touch with David Hall, whose work you might already be familiar with because he’s a full-time VFX artist in the video game industry, currently working at Riot Games. David was another Elite player, having found the game at about the same time I had back during Beta II. He even had his own Elite comic (which is sadly no longer online, though I’d like to see it return).

“As much as I love the actual gameplay,” he said when I asked him about his willingness to jump head-first into what quickly turned into a large pile of work, “I was fascinated by the thought of, ‘What’s behind this chair my Commander is sitting in?’ I’ve wanted to explore that area of the world ever since, and with Fangs, I got the chance to take a peek!”

I’m glad he said yes, because David’s stylus and tablet made the world and characters of Fangs real in a way that I never could have done with screenshots alone.

Though I can (and will, in the comments, if you’d like!) talk at excessive length about my writing process and the different layers of meaning and symbolism and stuff, stories are like kids—they must eventually stand on their own merit, without their parent helping. If I could leave you with just one takeaway, though, it’s that more than anything else the message I was going for is that life isn’t a movie and sometimes terrible things happen—but, at the same time, even when life is at its most Hobbesian, there’s beauty and wonder in the mundanity. (Which is also kind of the central point of The Office, but if one is going to steal, one should steal from the best!)

If this sounds like something you might be interested in reading, it would make me terribly happy if you’d give Fangs book two a read. You don’t have to know anything about Elite to enjoy it (though it doesn’t hurt!), and I’m not running ads on the site or making any money on this or anything. It’s been a project filled with frustration and passion, with lots of long nights spent awake talking to my wife about the ways in which men and women see the world, and endless chains of plot and art discussion e-mails between David and me. For a long time, I thought the ending would never see the light of day, but perseverance has paid off in the end.

I made this with my hands and I’m very proud of it. I hope very much that you all enjoy it.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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