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The Secret to Life is Programming

The Secret to Life is Programming published on

(This post created for and first appeared on Samantha Gay’s blog, February 21, 2015.)

source code sneaky vfx

Twenty years ago I was depressed, confused, and out of ideas. Then I discovered programming.

I’m not sure how it started. It helped that the family had a Tandy TRS-80 at one point, and I ran into BASIC and Oregon Trail at school, so a flashing green cursor was never something to fear. But it wasn’t until my second try at college–after flunking out of a fine art program, getting treatment for depression, and realizing my total lack of real-world problem solving skills–that I was desperate enough to pursue the one degree guaranteed to get me employed and out of the house: computer science.

I can’t recommend this strongly enough.

No, I don’t remember the Internet protocol diagram. No, I haven’t written an Access database since 1998. But the thing that stuck was realizing anything you can do on a computer, you can automate.

Need fifty images exported as thumbnails? Automate that.

Want to port a website’s old forum to a new format? Automate that.

Want to find your insurance company’s best-rated primary care provider across four different ratings websites? Automate that.

Some people encounter programming and think, “Oh, no, I’m no good at math.” First, math takes practice, but anyone who practices can be as secure in math as I am in high heels: embarrassing but functional. Second, programming is not math. It’s logic. It’s sudoku. It’s a series of trivia questions you’re allowed to Google.

brain stimulation sneaky vfx

And anyone with interest and Internet can learn. Long-term success comes from research and habits. To do what I do you don’t even need a degree; it’s been handy for me to have one on my resume, but the older I get the less meaningful it is.

Through all my life’s subsequent mistakes, panics, stupidities, and do-overs, programming has been my saving employable grace. When I ended up in Los Angeles in 2008 (a move Sam Gay assisted) with a scheme to be an art director or storyboard artist or anything else that would get me paid, it was my failure to find any of that work that sent me back to the technology listings. Because of programming, I ended up with the best-paying, most flexible, least stressful, least physically demanding, least goes-home-with-you job I’ve ever had.

Working in technology gives me time to create.

I have a healthy freelance career in speculative fiction and illustration. I’m working on the second edition of my Meddling Auntie advice comics for kids, and working on the launch of a web platform for interactive fiction. I hit the gym, see the doctor, and clean the house. I have emergency savings and a retirement fund. I can go to an out-of-town wedding without getting heartburn over the cost.

(I also created Sneaky VFX, a webcomic about converting to the church of code.)

It’s been a really long time since I’ve eaten a potato old enough to take a handprint.

old wrinkled potato

There are other factors, of course, but that’s a subject for another day.

If that sounds like what you want, start searching; I could give you links, but 1) that would look like I was promoting a particular place and 2) Internet searches are 20% of a programming so you might as well practice. If you ever touched HTML, brush up on that. Look into Python. Dip your toe in JavaScript.

There’s never been a better time.

Dragon Age Inquisition: Missing Tarot Cards

Dragon Age Inquisition: Missing Tarot Cards published on

Thanks to inspiration from /u/YouLeaveMeNoChoice and /u/Shady_Intent, here are seven of the missing eight tarot cards from Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’m still working on Josephine’s romance card. I made one, it just turned out goofy. Will fix soon. Stay tuned.

Twine icon

In 2015, You Will Read Interactive Fiction… and Maybe Write It

In 2015, You Will Read Interactive Fiction… and Maybe Write It published on

This post first appeared as a Chick on the Draw Column at Luna Station Quarterly, January 9, 2015.

You may not know it when it happens, because it will sneak up on you in your browser or Kindle or mobile device. You were reading a thing, and then it gave you some kind of choice, and you clicked a link, and BAM: interactive fiction.

There may have been picture. There may have been sound. But mostly there was story that you, the reader, took a role in telling.

It may have already happened. You may have played some Professor Layton or Phoenix Wright… or both. You may have already read Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs or Lydia Neon’s Reset. You may have picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition because Solasmance was all over your Tumblr.

You may be way ahead of me. You may be signed up for Ludum Dare 32 and IndieCade East and taking code binge breaks to check for updates from Porpentine and anna anthropy.

Wherever you’re at or want to be, the party is ready for you.

What is interactive fiction? Is it a game? Is it a story? Is it the democratized, digital reincarnation of Edward Packard’s Choose Your Own Adventure novels?

Yes, yes, and yes, and it’s poised to explode this year.


The Demand is Massive

Want a main character with the gender, color, or other character traits that interest you? IF lets you choose.

Enjoy cities named Rha’athal? Can’t stand cities named Rha’athal? IF lets you name.

Prefer metric over US customary? Prefer US customary over metric? IF lets you decide.

Want to participate in the characters’ problem-solving? IF lets you solve the mysteries.

Want the The Princess Bride, but with the chance to romance Inigo? IF says “viva España.”

Romance will be a big part of the IF boom, and women will be the driving demographic. According to the International Business Times and The Daily Dot, 22 million women worldwide play otome apps–a dating sim for mobile devices–whose model offers the first chapter for free and the remainder for $5. BioWare’s been incorporating story, game and romance since 1998, with the combined sales of last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition topping 2 million.
Obscurasoft‘s Kickstarter-funded sexy, funny gay dating sim “Coming Out On Top” raised over seven times its $5000 goal and was released to critical and consumer acclaim. Fiction, games, and dating sims on devices are expanding westward, and anyone can play.


The Devices are Ready

If you have a computer or a mobile device, you can read IF. According to the Pew Internet Project, as of this time last year:

  • 58% of American adults have a smartphone, skewing strongly toward young people (83% of those age 18-29 vs. 49% of those age 50-64, moderately toward people of color (61% of Hispanic Americans, 59% African-Americans, 53% white), and slightly toward men (61% of men vs. 57% of women)
  • 32% of American adults own an e-reader
  • 42% of American adults own a tablet computer

Downloading text-based IF takes little bandwidth, and content can easily be stored on the device for offline reading. Fiction can go everywhere the reader does.


Creators Wanted

Interactive fiction combines the efficiency of the written word with the showmanship of film. You can make a big impact on a smaller budget.

If you’re a writer, you may not think of yourself as a programmer. You may see a semicolon or curly braces and run for the hills. Fortunately we’re in a golden age of tools to turn writers into programmers. The lists below are by no means comprehensive.

For text-based games:

  • Twine: Flexible and powerful. Anything you can do in a browser, you can do with Twine. Open source, gratis and libre. No central publisher, but a robust community of creators and supporters.
  • ChoiceScript: Simple and streamlined. Central publisher Choice of Games has interesting royalty- or commission-based payment options. Good choice for writing Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories for pay.
  • Inform 7: Builds story environments via human-readable descriptions. I haven’t tangled with it too much, but Rock, Paper, Shotgun has.
  • Failbetter Games is a studio that occasionally seeks contributors

For picture-based games (e.g. visual novels, the Professor Layton series), there’s Ren’Py.

If you’re feeling energized, you may even enjoy PuzzleScript for making Sokoban-type transportation games–you know, stuff like Rodent’s Revenge (90s PC game alongside Ski Free.) I mention PuzzleScript only because scripting with it is very, very fun.


Find Out More

If you’d like to talk more about the future of IF, reach out on Twitter @toryhoke or through my blog. If you want to see what I’m doing, visit my games on

8 Things Arguing on the Internet Taught Me About People

8 Things Arguing on the Internet Taught Me About People published on 1 Comment on 8 Things Arguing on the Internet Taught Me About People

This article first appeared as a Chick on the Draw column Dec 5, 2014 at Luna Station Quarterly

For the past two years, between watching cartoons and doing other crazy crap, I’ve helped moderate an online support group forum for survivors of family trauma. In that time the community has grown from fewer than a hundred members to tens of thousands. I no longer do the heavy lifting of moderation duties, but I still pinch-hit.

It’s been a hell of an education.

1. On the Internet, humans are meeting artificial intelligence halfway.

As a species, we set the stage for AI when we started writing letters.

Considering that text-based communication strips away vocal inflection, facial expression, and body language–what had been for a million years our only communication mechanisms at all–it’s a miracle we can get across any idea. Considering any online forum throws together total strangers–who have complete access to their own hurt feelings and no access to anyone else’s until they exercise heroic imagination–it’s a miracle anyone can get along.

Those who can get along are in a much better position to make sense of our eventual digital overlords.

2. If you find yourself in disagreement with someone, and you sincerely want to figure out the solution, prove it by starting with a good-faith restatement of their case (Rogerian-style negotiation.)

I’ve seen nothing soothe bruised feelings like this approach, e.g. “I hear that you think X, and you want Y.” Restating the other person’s position before describing my own has transformed me from being a “power-tripping fascist” to a reasonable human being in no more than three exchanges.

In his 1951 paper, “Communication: Its Blocking and its Facilitation,” [therapist Carl Rogers] proposes that the empathy and feedback model could be used to facilitate communication in emotion-laden situations outside the therapeutic relationship, such as political or labor negotiations. His formula is simple: “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.” In later articles he details Rogerian-style negotiation sessions that have produced astonishing results, including the Camp David negotiations conducted by Jimmy Carter, a conference involving health care providers and impoverished and embittered health care consumers, and even opposing sides in Northern Ireland (Rogers and Ryback 1984).

Rogerian Rhetoric: An Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric, Douglas Brent, University of Calgary

I heard about this approach being used at a Bay Area tech conference debate, I think, and boy howdy does it work.

3. Contrapositively, deliberately mischaracterizing someone’s position is a great way to piss them off

e.g. “Oh, I get it. You’re just doing this because X.” More than name-calling, abusive language, or threats of violence, deliberately mischaracterizing someone’s position is the single most effective way to make someone fly into a rage. So 1) please don’t do this and 2) if someone does it to you, beware it is sanity Kryptonite.

4. The best way to tell a normie from a troll is to push on them a little.

I’ve seen malicious-looking posts from users who turned out to wish help. I’ve seen helpful-looking posts form users who turned out to wish harm. I’ve seen posts with absolutely undistinguishable intent. Fortunately all a mod has to do is say, “We don’t do that here,” and intent readily identifies itself: normies recant and trolls explode. About one in ten will be a normie who is outraged by being pushed on. That’s where lesson #2 applies.

5. Like a defense attorney, a mod most defend every poster.

      • A) The person who posts is more vulnerable than the person who comments. By standing up and speaking, a poster makes themself a target.Commenters can dogpile. Posters can’t. Thus as a mod I always side more with a poster than a commenter, occasionally to a commenter’s outrage. In these cases, lesson #2 works a treat.
      • B) It does more harm for an innocent individual to be falsely accused than for a guilty individual to walk free.It is vital that we take every poster seriously. If we let the community dismiss/belittle/shout down one person expressing–among other things–thoughts of suicide, then others with thoughts of suicide will be less likely to express them. That insecurity is exactly what keeps suffering people silent, and exactly what the community cannot abide.


Yes, this means you’ll see mods supporting and failing to remove content you despise. But the flip-side is that, when someone questions your post, the mods will defend it, too.

Yes, this means no matter how many people decide a poster is faking, exaggerating, or catfishing, we let the poster keep posting. There is a solution for catfish, and it has nothing to do with us mods:

6. Healthy boundaries work in all cases.

If you exercise loving detachment, it doesn’t matter whether you believe what a person is saying or not.

If a stranger says they need money, healthy boundaries will keep you from sending money–or permit you to send money only if you’re completely prepared to see no advantage from it.

Now’s a good time to reiterate how highly I recommend Codependent No More.

7. Giving orders is anti-social.

Even if you’re 100% sure what someone should do to solve all their problems, giving them an order (“leave him,” “get a job,” “you should stop calling her”) is not going to go over well.

I recommend giving life advice the same way one gives a fiction critique:

[N]o should; use “I” statements; phrase things in the context of what worked for you or not, without assuming the stance of every reader; talk about the story, not the author; don’t refer to other authors as any kind of example.

Denver Fiction Writers pretty damn good fiction critique how-to

8. I am pretty OK with being called a power-tripping fascist.

It helps to have other power-tripping fascists around to check in with.

Dead Week

Dead Week

Dead Week published on

Dead Week

I promise this is the scariest interactive horror webtoon about final exams you’ll play today.

Beware of watching while alone at home.

PLAY Dead Week

(Tested on OSX in Chrome and Safari, and on Windows in Chrome and IE. Layered audio does not work on mobile. Sorry about that.)

If you like IF, you might be interested in sub-Q Magazine, launching Spring 2015.

Twine is a platform for making interactive fiction–stories integrated with choice, picture, and sound. Do you make Twine things, too? Enjoy these audio macros with volume controls and seamless loops:

5 Stages of a White Person Trying to Write a Person of Color

5 Stages of a White Person Trying to Write a Person of Color published on

This article first appeared as a Chick on the Draw column Nov 7, 2014 at Luna Station Quarterly

Read the Flippin Manual Sneaky VFX
Sneaky VFX: Read the Flippin’ Manual

I am white. I make drawings and stories. I get some of these published. I take up bandwidth. So I try to make those drawings and stories reflect the people who are stuck looking at them. Continually I discover the areas in which I could be better at this, particularly when it comes to representing people of color.

Drawing a person of color is one thing. If a character doesn’t have solid anatomy, expression, and appeal, it’s a failure of skill, not empathy. Plus, in the cartoony style I tend toward, disbelief is suspended, character conflicts are simplified, and if my comic strip characters express no diversity in their food choices, observed holidays, language, or beliefs, I have a handy “it’s just a cartoon” blanket to hide under (despite all I’ve said about why cartoons matter.)

But in writing every word matters. Every omission matters. Each character makes decisions informed by their experience, or they don’t. There are no big eyes or Dreamworks smiles to smooth rough edges. There’s no blanket.

Continue reading 5 Stages of a White Person Trying to Write a Person of Color


28 Silly Things About Interstellar

28 Silly Things About Interstellar published on 1 Comment on 28 Silly Things About Interstellar
interstellar mackenzie foy matthew mcconaughey
Generations of corn-disrespecters

Oh my.

I don’t always have beefs. I saw Big Hero 6 this weekend and was rendered nearly beefless. But the thing about beefs is once you have one good beef core, more beefs tend to snowball around it, until you are in the middle of the second act taking out your notepad because the beef is so massive it goes supernova.

Not that I hated this movie. There’s some great stuff here–ideas, performances, cinematography, visual effects. Hating this movie would be like hating the guy at the Y who grunts really loud when he lifts. He’s just doing his thing, man. Let him do his thing.

Still, there are many silly things about Interstellar. There are almost too many silly things going on in Interstellar to document, so I am trying to pick only the most amusing or least remarked upon by everyone else’s lists of silly things.

Some heckles contributed by very good-looking co-hecklers. Absolutely uncontrollable amounts of spoilers ahead.

Continue reading 28 Silly Things About Interstellar

SNL Gap Girls

Drawn in Drag: Examining Male Voice Actors Cast in Female Roles

Drawn in Drag: Examining Male Voice Actors Cast in Female Roles published on

This article first appeared October 3, 2014 in my Chick on the Draw column at Luna Station Quarterly.

Sometimes animation is sort of like SNL in the early 90s–it assumes men dressed as women are funnier than actual women.

SNL Gap Girls

I’m not saying Cross-Dressing Voices is always men-as-women. Where would animated boy roles be without June Foray, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Christine Cavanaugh, E. G. Daily, Laura Torres, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer? Not every show dares to let their male kid lead grow up –as Avatar: the Last Airbender and Adventure Time did.

And I’m not saying men posing as women can’t be funny or subversive. Divine as Edna Turnblad, the Kids in the Hall as their lady counterparts, and Jordan Peele as Meegan are all comedy gold. But what’s vital to their success is that the funny comes from the characters and situations, and not simply the drag itself.

And I’m not saying the male performers don’t deserve the part. Many of the cases I’m about to describe are actually male show creators who took on female roles in development and never let go. Who could say a show creator doesn’t know the character?

What fan would single out one not-entirely-satisfying drag performance in an otherwise satisfying movie or show?

Who could ask a show creator to give up their sweetest plum?

Who could suggest the character might take on a new dimension in the hands of, say, a professional female performer with decades of experience?

That person would have to be a bit of a nit-picky dirtbag.

Let this dirtbag say it: unless a man-in-drag voice performance is damn funny or damn subversive, it’s frustrating to see.

Jack and Jill movie theater still
And maybe just a bit tired.

Continue reading Drawn in Drag: Examining Male Voice Actors Cast in Female Roles

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