© 2018 by Tracy Rae Bowling. Proudly created with Wix.com

  • White Instagram Icon
  • White Google+ Icon

Tracy Rae Bowling

Strange Clay

Serial short fiction set in an environmental post-apocalypse. New stories every Thursday.

World of Ruin

After a disaster that devastates their island, Sano and Rin band together to build a new life.
 Views
8Posts

Find Your Way

Hired as a cave surveyor, Sher is content with her work until her lead convinces her to break the rules.
 Views
5Posts

The Returners

Oscar makes a plan to escape prison, but someone waits in the desert to stop him.
 Views
8Posts

The Successor

A clockmaker and his apprentice contend with an invention that threatens to tear them apart.
 Views
7Posts

Eyes on Me

A girl's wish to be prom queen ignites a mysterious connection with the boy she rejected.
 Views
8Posts

Forgotten City

When plant life grows out of control and crushes Liyo's house, she searches out a new home and family.
 Views
9Posts

Overworld

Lured by his love for Gen, Pari breaks into an abandoned mansion and uncovers the strange truth of his isolated town.
 Views
8Posts

Other Stories

Stories unrelated to the Strange Clay arc.
 Views
0Posts

Essays

Writing about animation, music, literature, teaching, and other subjects.
 Views
1Posts

Open Forum

Start a thread. Get in touch.
 Views
0Posts
New Posts
  • Tracy Rae Bowling
    Sep 27

    I have taken a lot of flak for my lifelong obsession with Final Fantasy VIII. I have played the game perhaps seven times (as my husband points out, the "perhaps," that guesswork, already means I've racked up too many playthroughs) and am working on an eighth. I'll admit off the bat that part of my obsession is based in nostalgia. FF8 was my first RPG, and the first game I bought with my own money. It was also very closely associated for me with an online community I was a member of at the time, a group of people I held closer in some ways than my friends in reality. But I think there was, and is, more to FF8 that justifies its appeal to me. I was just starting to write at the time, and as I've studied and practiced writing more, I've come to recognize in FF8 several lessons in good writing. Other gamers are laughing, because they know that this is not a game held up for much of anything--its gameplay, its story, its battle system, its characters--and certainly not its writing. The only thing it ever was really praised for was its design, its animation. It was a pretty impressive-looking game for its time. The opening FMV is, I think, still incredible held up against anything in FF7, and anything else at the time. The character design doesn't age too poorly, either, if only because the characters don't exist in a netherworld between super-deformed hexagon men and leggy outerwear models; you don't have to work too hard to reconcile Squall from the world map with Squall in the battle screen with Squall in a cut scene. 8's characters are basically human, basically proportional, basically functional when they gesture and walk. If you can block out some hallmarks of the time, like Rinoa's stationary hairdo and a few stiff necks and moony eyes, you can still play the game. I'd argue that 7's sharp angles and bulbous shapes, among other things, render it unrewatchable. What endears me to replaying 8, though, is not that its design one-upped 7's so soundly. It's actually the places where the designers seem to have worked harder than the engine could accommodate. 8 is too detailed for its own good. The colors are too nuanced, the shapes are too complicated. The faces are jumpy, overwrought. The movements are shaky. Where is Selphie facing when she stands on top of the junked car in the Galbadian desert? There's so many arid yellows, all competing in a busy background; her shoes, legs, and dress melt into the surroundings. The result of compositions like these is that often in 8 I am not sure quite where I need to be to approach another character, to avoid an ottoman, to mount a stairway, to exit through a door. But how compellingly staged this scene is. Selphie's standing alone on top of a melted car in the middle of a desert, about to watch missiles go by on their way to the school she just left, Trabia Garden. The character design may be too beige, too thin, too pixeled to really register against the background; it doesn't quite work, but the effect of such staging is lovely, and to my mind, so much preferable to 7's bulbous character cartoons against those dark industrial backdrops, or 9's garish colors and over-fanciful environments. Subtlety of style, expression, and setting wasn't in the cards at the time, but 8 tried for it, and the result is often really engaging. The feeling, for me, is that the characters are actually in most of their settings, and not that those settings have been washed or muted to accommodate the characters. What this means from a writing perspective is that the settings don't exist for the characters; they don't compromise their own integrity as pre-existing places to enhance our view of the characters. The characters feel forced to inhabit this inconvenient world, rather than simply being backdropped by it. This creates a conflict between characters and setting. By working at odds with the characters and rendering them less visible, the settings pose a implicit threat: a world that is vaster than they and strangely (for a video game) independent of their story, their needs. In a similar way, the (over)attention to detail in the settings suggests conflict between and among the game's different historical and geographical entities. In this same scene, the car's coloring simulates rust and an ugly, ravaged paint job, which hardly distinguishes it from the boulder behind. Its shape, too, is unclear. Is it the back half? The front? The top? Was it a car or a van? A military vehicle? It's not the same as the military vehicle parked beside it. Nor are the two military vehicles in the scene at all similar to each other. They are both boxy, tanklike, as are most vehicles in the game. But the similarities end here. Are we to assume they're from different branches of the military? Different countries? Different time periods? Is the yellow one fresh off the line while the green is a remainder from Laguna's time? The dissonances between such details create conflict that, again, works in the background--the conflicts of population, history, money, or class that would have to exist within Galbadia (and in fact do--notice how often the Galbadian soldiers worry about having enough money for food, for family, for themselves). Such conflict between details might also show conflict between a seedy city like Galbadia and a seaside village like Balamb. Could physically manifest the political conflicts that we see in towns like Timber. The game does not insist on these details, nor does it narrate them to the player, as many do. I will never comprehend, for instance, the convoluted history that's supposed to underlie Final Fantasy Tactics. FF7 indulges in such reveals, too--and while I have no problem with, say, a secret Vincent backstory hidden in a waterfall cave, the purpose of such information is almost universally to help make the plot make sense where it would otherwise have huge holes. In FF7 you don't understand the whole tangled web of what's going on unless you discover and defeat everything, which wouldn't even be a problem if you weren't made to feel as if it were very important that you do understand. Defeating Sephiroth is a compelling enough story, but that's never all the story is. The story is not only complicated, but intertwined in bizarre and implausible ways. The characters you know about are the only ones that have ever played central parts in the story. They are the only ones who matter. No pathetic Vinzer Delings, who despite being around for only one act, clearly played a role in getting Galbadia to its current point. No Timber Resistance leaders and their children providing refuge in their houses. No Doc Odine, whose fame and fortune proves he exists beyond the present needs of the characters and the present sorceress situation. FF7 is populated only by the characters who matter or have mattered to the immediate plot; everyone else is there to sell you potions, to lament their status in the Midgard underclass, to see a man in a black cape passing this way. Insufficient attention to detail on the level of setting adds up to insufficient attention to character down the road--to the role of supporting characters in building and maintaining a believable and interesting world. The conflicts in FF8 are not limited to (and by) its characters. The conflicts are present in its images, its cities. You know when you see Galbadia's train station what kind of place it is. This impression is not merely confirmed by additional details, as with the Midgard slums--the information given us by the opulent train station is matched in some details (the hotel, reminiscent of the Waldorf Astoria; the city gates, reminiscent of Berlin) and altered, or rather augmented, in others (the seedy neon-lit car rental, the gaudy and club-like Presidential Mansion). The images build the world rather than pinning it down. Galbadia is an amalgamation of four-star class, imparted by an apparently long-standing culture (you don't build a bronze arch overnight), and commercial excess, derived from a relatively recent amassing of power as the world's leading nation. This is all suggested through image, and gains credibility through a thoughtful juxtaposition of related details rather than a heavy-handed accrual of identical details. This is the way to world-build. Such details, in small but potent ways, do with images what too many lesser RPGs do with bad dialogue, menu tutorials, and conveniently placed scholars/monks/tour guides. FF8's images imply histories, cultures, and relationships between people and nations that deepen the overall experience rather than instructing the viewer in how this all fits together. The details run over at the edges while making a coherent and recognizable whole, the way a good world does. It's interesting, for instance, to note how the materials, colors, and patterns on the Presidential Residence echo those of the various Gardens. We don't require a Hojo, a prime mover, to explain these patterns. They just quietly exist as proof that this is one universe, despite the disparate nature of its parts. I don't suggest that these effects were necessarily planned out from start to finish, but I do argue that they are present and that they are an important example of what the game is good at, and of how writers can better create environments--environments that dwarf the problems of the characters rather than simply mirroring them.
  • Tracy Rae Bowling
    Jan 24

    ---Return to Part 7--- For a week the sky hangs gray with smoke. The farmers, the builders, the children, Gen and old Lani, the men, and my mother and me—all of us who can—wander the wreckage with scraps of bedsheet across our mouths and noses to keep out the ash, cleaning up the debris that is cool enough to handle and seeing what can be salvaged or reused. The men put their strength to use where strength can help, lifting fallen tree limbs, tearing down fences too broken to mend, chucking collapsed beams into ever-expanding piles. They teach me to raise a frame and thatch a roof. We build a shelter big enough to fit everyone. It seems like no one talks. The animals too have fallen quiet, panicked by their sudden uprooting and return. For several days the cows hardly give. It is just as well, since Gen is not often there to tend them. She is making things we need, a long list of urgent items: clay bowls for eating and jugs for water, pits for cooking, pallets for sleeping, sewn of ruined clothes and stuffed with sawdust. I visit her with lunch I’ve cooked; sometimes she takes a break with me, and we exchange our limited news. Most days she is all work, and when I get frustrated for wanting to talk to her I try to remember she does what she does for the sake of the village. She does what others can’t. Because some of the men were caught in the blast, and because they have lost their livelihood, we must care for and shelter them, though they have no money, though they never will. They become immediately less rowdy; they do not drink. They play quiet games of cards at night and go to bed as soon as the sun sets. I lay on a pallet between them and my mother, and it seems to me their snores have calmed. As I lay trying to sleep I overhear a few of the men talking about leaving for the city. There is nothing here for them; it doesn't make much sense to stay. They will do their duty to help the village get back on its feet, and then they will be on their way. *** On the morning I leave the village, Gen accompanies me to the end of the road. She does not talk much on the way. I rather expected her to. Perhaps she is all out of asking why. Perhaps she knows I am exhausted with answering. I told Gen first, before my mother—maybe hoping for practice, or for advice. But my mother reacted nothing like Gen. Our last evening together stretched on tearful and long, Mom fighting with me, negotiating, but I would not change my mind, afraid of missing my chance. She was calmer when I met Gen at the door this morning with my bags, up already, busy with cooking. Distracted. I knew she would be, soon enough. Life goes on. I wasn’t able to give either of them an ironclad reason. I told them what there is in the cities. How much culture and opportunity, how many more people. More books than in the library of the mansion. More treasures, too. I am eager for all of these things. Yet it rings hollow, somehow, and if my Mom does not recognize the toothlessness of my defenses, Gen does. It is early enough that all the stars are out still, bright as diamond. A sky so clear like we haven’t seen it in a month. It feels, suddenly, like the town is going to be okay. Like I could stay, if I were determined. Because I guess I have been exaggerating. I guess we were not totally without connection. There is this cart ready to travel, there is the occasional courier, there were the teachers, there are the men. There are options here if all I want is a better life. I could buy or raise a horse and build my own cart; I could deliver mail and goods and medicine, see the world, come back at intervals. I could stay and become a teacher; gather the knowledge from the resources we have; send for books on what I don’t know; perform my own experiments, observations, excavations in this unobserved part of the world. I could do something important right here. Who is saying this place isn’t worth it? One of the men harnesses the horse. Another loads my bags into the cart: one of them tools and medicines, one of them clothes and food. “Coming with us, I hear,” he says, and I confirm yes. “It’s a hard trip. Rain. Heat. Wild dogs. Poison spiders. Bandits. Bad sheriffs. Water sickness. No water.” “I still want to go.” He grins and slaps me on the back so hard I’m reeling. “Well, you’re young,” he says, securing the last of the load. “Sometimes there’s a little luck in that.” He heads to the front to check in with the driver. I settle into the back of the cart next to my bags. “You’ll write sometime, won’t you?” says Gen. Her final question for me. And I feel shocked that she’d ask it, because of course I will. That’s what I say to her: “Of course.” The horse stamps once, ready. The man who isn’t driving unhitches us from the post and climbs into the back beside me. I spin to look up front—we are leaving—and I swallow, hard; I wasn’t expecting us to pull away so soon. I thought it would take longer to leave. My stomach clenches, and I have the thought: There are two ropes, one hitched to the post that marks this town, and another, somewhere away, a place of prospects only, an imagined city, a place verifiable but almost wholly unknown, a half-truth, a stranger behind a door, and in the middle, me, hitched to both, drawn taut in both directions. I have resisted my whole life. I am giving up being an anchor. And maybe after I’m gone a while, this town will win its tug-of-war, and I’ll be back. After some time. I think to give Gen this as my answer, and turn back as if she’ll be there, but we are jittering down the road, the land coursing lazily by. I rise up onto my knees, our coarse, familiar wind nearly stealing my hat, peering back at the hitching post, expecting Gen waiting there, watching after me—finding her gone; she is already turned back. ---END---
  • Tracy Rae Bowling
    Jan 24

    ---Return to Part 6--- The fine white facade of the mansion is lit an eerie rose. The smoke tumbles off the mountain overhead, ends curling, evaporating against the smothered sunset. I can hear the fire advancing through the underbrush, unseen—toward the village, away, I do not know. I only know in my gut I shouldn’t stay here. Gen would have known the same. And yet, she came here to find me. I drop gracelessly through the basement window and onto the floor, rubbing my shin where it scraped, and hurry to the library where I am sure I will find Gen. “I’m here,” I call down the bookshelves. “Gen, it’s Pari. I’m here.” Gen stands lightly leaning against the glass case filled with treasures, her back to me, her elbows turned in. She is in her work clothes, fingerprinted apron and plaid dress with the torn hem, one ankle tucked behind, her toes tapping an idle and inconsistent time. Unbothered, almost bored. Like when the teachers used to set an egg timer and have us practice handwriting. “Gen,” I say, beside her. She does not spare me a look, gaze moving steady from one item in the case to another. “Gen.” I put my hand on her shoulder. Her fingers twitch a little before her eyes flick up, questioning. Too long a moment passes before she recognizes me. “Pari,” she says. “Let’s go,” I say. She stands rooted in front of the glass case. “Why,” she asks. I am baffled, fighting panic. “The fire,” I remind her. “We have to leave town.” “That’s right,” she says, and then, taking me by the shoulders, eyes wide: “We have to save everything.” “What?” “The treasures,” she says, rushing to the wall, yanking off her apron, piling trinkets in its center. “You gather the books.” She pulls me over to the shelves, shoves a book directly into my hands. “Hurry.” Many questions rise to my mind, but holding the book she has forced at me, I feel them die on my lips. It is the first book I picked up here—the first one I read in this library. The one that started all my other discoveries. Is it important to her too? Or does she know it’s important to me? These books, these riches—Gen wants them. Did I not promise myself to give her whatever she wanted? Gen returns to her work. The book is heavy, cool, in my hands. The time that felt so limited now expands, fills my chest; I am relaxed, I can breathe. It is good to take the time to save the books, to save the valuables stored up here. They are ours as much as anyone’s. We must consider carefully what we take. They are, maybe, the only thing worth saving. From the mountain comes a wrenching sound as something wooden warps, twists, and finally snaps, the collapse total, resounding. An outpost, maybe. I examine my pile of books on the leather-top desk. There is history, geography, ancient culture, and a few folios of Le Jeune’s own papers that I feel should not be parted with. He has a science section, most likely outdated. Still, for completion’s sake, I should rescue some science books. The good ones. “What are you doing here?” demands a voice very close to my ear. My first thought is it’s the owner of the mansion, come back to find us trespassing, and this should terrify me. Instead I feel a close and focused calm. “I’m gathering the books,” I say, though it should be obvious from the chemistry volume lying open in my hands. The person takes my wrist and jerks me around. It is my mother. My mother is here. “Mom?” I say, trying to process it—how she got in, from where, and when. It does not seem to me that she is supposed to be here. Then I remember: She lived here. This is her house more than anyone’s. “There’s a fire coming,” I tell her. “We need to save the books.” Her face is flushed and her eyes wild. She is out of breath. She has been running. “No,” she says incredulously. “Where’s Gen?” “Gen,” I repeat. Slowly, the memory of Gen forms itself in my mind. “She is doing the same as me,” I say. “Over by the treasures.” “Treasures,” she says. “What is wrong with you?” “They’re valuable,” I say. “I’m going to start another library when this one burns down.” Outside, something else snaps and falls. A tree. It is not an unfamiliar sound. Same as when the men chop down pines for timber. “Cut it out,” my mother says, pulling me away from the stack of books I’ve made. Her fingernails dig into the skin of my wrist. “Your fingernails hurt my skin,” I tell her, trying to focus past it, to not lose my concentration on the noble gases, on the chemical properties of argon. She drags me over to where Gen stands placing valuables into careful stacks by size and shape. “I need a box,” she says, looking at her collection. “Come on,” says my mother, and grabs Gen’s arm too. “She needs a box,” I remind my mother. “They’re too fragile. I can’t carry them out the way I came,” Gen laments. “How did you two get in here?” says my mom. Gen points vaguely to where the basement window would be through the walls. “I just have to figure out how to get the ones in the case,” she says. She slips herself free of my mother’s grip, and seeing her, I realize I can do the same. Gen goes businesslike to the glass case; I stand aside, flipping to the next page in my book. My mother snatches the heavy book from my hands, lifts it over her head and throws it down in the center of the glass, which shatters over the treasures, over Gen’s hands, which she snaps up to her ears in sudden, visceral distress. Fragments of glass sparkle on the carpet. I feel my fear rise in me, remembering where we are, what is happening. I feel the strange and ominous heat, my scalp dripping sweat. “Pari’s mom?” Gen barely has time to stammer, before my mother grabs her hand, grabs mine, and marches us out of the library, down the hallway, up the spiral stairs. There is hardly room for us all on the narrow stairs; a wrong step and we would trip on each other’s heels. Yet we move in concert because my mother wills us to. I can hear us growing tired, out of breath, the heat pressing in as we climb higher and the lightbulbs overhead more scarce, the dark more total. I can just make out, at the top of the stairs, a crack of light beneath a familiar, heavy door. Mom roots through her pocket. “I have the key,” she says, checking her blouse, her cuffs, the floor. “I got in here,” she says, “I had it,” but all her searching turns up nothing, and she delivers a closed fist to the door. Gen rushes forward, slams her palms to the door as well, screams: Help. Help . Her voice resounding in the stairwell. “Stuck,” I say, the memory of dream flooding over me. This awful house of his, treacherous and inescapable as a dream. The door doesn’t budge. Gen’s voice grows hoarse and desperate. I am paralyzed, hearing it. The knowledge that we will be gone soon, she will be gone, and I can’t help her. Whack . An answer. Gen gives the door one more smack, yells through with all she’s got: “Help.” Stand back , comes a voice through the door. Mom ushers us behind her. In moments, the door splinters, buckles, is wrenched away piece by piece, and a small group awaits us, reaching out their hands for ours. It is three of the men. They pull us free through the broken door, my mother, then Gen, then me, delivering us forward into the half gloom of a massive room, high ceiling, spare furnishings, musty and still. For a moment, all of us stand there in the open, uncomfortable, feeling how much nobody lives here, how much we don’t belong. Beyond the big front windows, the mountain is in full view. It glows with a crown of fire. Black smoke streams down the slope. One of the men picks up the axe, set aside when they pulled down the door, and we take it as a cue to go. Out of the mansion, across the grounds, we are heads down, moving fast, shirts drawn up to cover our nostrils. Tired as we are and frightened, we keep our feet. We do not stop until we reach the edge of town. When we arrive, only a few are left awake. The children and most elders are asleep in carts, huddled close beneath big blankets, loose bundles of clothing for pillows. The people keeping watch take care of us quickly and quietly, bringing water, dried meat. They don’t ask us questions, and for the first time in a while, I feel like I am getting just what I need. Gen falls asleep not long after eating. Her body sinks in the barrow. Her eyes draw closed. “I know I was rash,” she says. “I thought you would be there.” I tuck a blanket over her. “You don’t have to worry about me.” It is three mornings the people of our village wake to see the mountain still on fire. We spend them digging a fire break. The wind is quiet now, but no one is sure the fire won’t still carry. When the smoke stops climbing, when it hangs still over the mountain like a veil, we venture back to town. Everything is wrecked, blown apart. It is hard to tell which house stood where. There is no reason to go—we know what we will find—but Gen and I do it anyway. The mansion is a stone pit burnt clean. Everything it held inside it is gone. ---Continue to Part 8---

A picky person's anime recommendations.