Alex J. Eiseman
Mar 28, 2023
It’s been a long eight months.
I never finished polishing that first draft of The Traveling Academy of Astra, and I certainly didn’t make further progress on the other two novels I’d planned to write…. In fact, I’ve written hardly anything in those books since my last blog post in July of 2022.
But I did make a video game.
Now, I know that’s a strange development, but let me start at the beginning, which is, incidentally, right around the time I stopped blogging last year.
Way back in June of 2022, my family and I took a fateful vacation to Ocean City, Maryland. Just prior to that, I had reignited my love for game design. On a whim, I had begun following online tutorials again and started putting together a simple platforming game, and before I knew it, I was enamored with the medium once more. At about the same time, I had decided to put my writing ambitions under a creator-induced coma (for reasons that I outlined in my previous blog post), and there they have rested quietly all this time. It should be noted that these writing ambitions are far from dead; indeed, I may wake them up sometime soon; I still dream, on occasion, of seeing my finished collection of books upon my shelves (and your shelves, too)!
But I start at the Ocean City trip because it is there that my wife and I began discussing things that would have major ramifications for our lives.
While on the beach one day, we started talking about how nice it might be to live near a beach.
“We could do it,” I’d said. And I’d meant it. Due to the nature of my day-job (I work remotely as an accountant), it was (and still is) more than possible for us to pack up and move to a new location.
Months after that vacation ended, I was still plugging away with my platforming game. Meanwhile, my wife and I had begun the process of selecting another state to live in. A southern state, we’d agreed—with nicer weather and beach proximity added in. “And we’d be closer to your Dad, too,” I’d mentioned. We settled on South Carolina. My wife and her mother drove down to meet with a local realtor (we’ll call her Angela)—a woman who’d been recommended to us by a close family friend who was also a realtor. Angela showed Tiffany and my mother-in-law all around Columbia. She was kind and accommodating, even going so far as to put Tiffany and my mother-in-law up in a hotel. While there, Tiffany made it abundantly clear to Angela that we were looking for a home that was “move-in ready,” meaning we didn’t want a place that would need re-painted, thoroughly cleaned up, or the services of a skilled carpenter (which I regretfully am not). Alas, none of the houses were right for us, so Tiffany returned—out of financial necessity—to Ohio without having selected a home.
But Angela was still making rounds, still looking at homes for us, and still sending us videos, photos, and listings. We eventually became enamored with one listing, and Angela went there and showed it to us on video. We moved forward, and again she called us during the home inspection, and again we were able to see some of the home.
We decided to move forward further and purchase the house and simultaneously sell our beautiful home in Orrville. Moving day (as moving days often are) was fraught with woe and hardship and sweat and swearing… but a subtle misery loomed beneath it all like Pennywise in Derry’s sewers. We hadn’t known just how hard it would be to say goodbye to the family we’d taken for granted in Ohio. We hadn’t known how much we would miss the home in Orrville, the community in Orrville, the neighbors in Orrville, the teachers in Orrville, the life we’d had in Orrville.
We managed to pack up most of the home, though due to a combination of restraints on our space, time, and finances, we had to leave a few larger items behind—we left them to our neighbor, who graciously agreed to help clean up the house after we’d left a bit of a mess in our haste to get on the road. The drive was long, unforgiving, and tumultuous. I’d driven moving trucks before… but never had I done it for nearly six hundred miles. After a decidedly depressing and unaccommodating stay in a hotel (in which the staff were notably rude and the water exceptionally cold), we got back on the road the following morning, and we arrived—full of hope—at our new house around six in the evening. We texted Angela—who, strangely, could not be bothered to come and meet us herself—and she sent her assistant to deliver the key. The assistant, whose name we still do not know, dropped off the key and left with nary a smile. He did not stay to see how we felt about the home. All these things—the truck’s limitations, the great misery of saying goodbye, the hassle of our drive, the surprising impoliteness of the hotel staff, the callousness of our realtor now that we’d purchased the home and arrived in the state, the nameless assistant—kept contributing to a growing sense of unease.
We were distinctly nervous as we approached the door.
And with the effortless turning of a doorknob, we opened a doorway that led us toward months and months of severe despair. But the doorknob was only the symbolic beginning. Truly, our life had begun turning topsy turvy as soon as Tiffany came back without buying a home. This monstrous feeling of pallor and morbidity and jadedness took root when we signed those contracts without ever having seen the house. Its first pointed, spot-laden leaf sprouted when we told all our friends and relatives that we would be departing. And this poisonous sapling cast its first notable shadow upon the soil when we paid in advance for a moving truck that would prove to be much too small. If only we’d stopped before things felt so final…. If only we’d given up our dreams of moving to another place earlier…. If only we’d caught ourselves and stopped our descent down that strange, slippery slope.
But we cannot go back, of course.
So, we moved ever onward, through that threshold… and into our new, lovely home.
Surprise! A lovely home did not greet us.
Filth. Disarray. Absolute disbelief. A swelling of fear. We were blindsided. I mentioned Pennywise earlier. Well, Pennywise begins each encounter as some harmless thing… something that’s supposed to be fun and make you laugh, but its victims learn something is wrong only when it bares its teeth and lunges—only when it’s too late. Our trek into that house was like that. Right up until we were walking through those grimy halls, we had expected something joyous. We’d been expecting our children to run giddily through their new home, for us to admire its spaciousness and cleanliness, to let our minds wander with thoughts of where we might hang these pictures and where we might place this furniture. But none of that came. Even the kids knew that this place was derelict.
Cracks in the tiles stared up at us. In one room, nearly all the tiles weren’t even adhered to the floor (though the inspection conveniently had only noted one loose tile). Every surface bore some mark from a child who’d clearly had a jarring absence of one of two things: supervision or boundaries. The walls sported splotchy paint that barely clung to them; the steps had been marred severely by some overzealous dog’s neglected toenails; an entire trash can’s contents fought to emerge from the cracks between the stove and the countertop. Wires had been connected to the stove that might have caused a fire—but apparently checking such a connection fell outside the scope of the home inspection. The backyard’s deck was at least half as small as we’d believed it would be—those fish-eye camera lenses so often used for real estate photos had really done a number on the listing’s picture of the deck.
My father-in-law (the one we would now be closer to), had brought his family to meet us. They looked on, horrified, as our whole reality melted. Tears came. We wept, taking care not to let our children see just how much of a mistake we had made, so as not to scare them more in an already unnerving situation. This was another junction—another turning point—in our lives, much like the time Tiffany and I discovered at the tender ages of eighteen and nineteen that we would become parents. But this moment felt somehow more daunting… because we’d upended everything for this. We’d torn our kids from their home, their schools, and their friends… for this. We’d taken them from a place that was wondrous and placed them into a nightmare.
All because we’d wanted to try moving to a new state. All because of a whim—an errant wind that had grown into a rampant tornado.
It was stupefying. Every, single thing we’d thought we’d known about the house—I mean, one detail after another—was proving itself to be categorically false. We had been tricked. Worse, we had tricked ourselves.
We didn’t even feel comfortable letting our son walk on those floors.
So, we got another hotel—and this one was perhaps, somehow, marginally worse than the one from the prior night—as we faced the new reality we’d foolishly created for ourselves.
A peculiarly fitting episode of Big City Greens greeted us late that night on the hotel’s cable-enabled television: it was the first episode, I think. The one in which the Greens first move to the big city. Just like the Eisemans. And—surprise number two!—nobody in the Big City gave a single care about the Greens. It was too eerie a coincidence not to point out here; it expertly highlighted and underscored our feelings that night.
Because we’d been so stubborn as to pursue this new mortgage when rates were at a historic high, we’d given up more than just a house—we’d given up our financial and familial dynamic. Now, Tiffany was going to have to get a job to help pay for the mortgage on this house that—surprise number three!—we didn’t even want. We’d known that it would be likely that she would have to get a job… we’d known that our mortgage payments would increase due to the historically high interest rates… but we hadn’t suspected we wouldn’t even want the house. No longer would my younger children enjoy their mother’s company during the day. No longer would my older children—or my younger children… or I—feel the cleanliness and order of a home that somebody carefully, consistently dedicated her time and energy to. Maybe that would have been worth it… if the house had been what we wanted.
But it wasn’t.
We wrote an email to Angela that night… an email that attempted lamely to put into words the complex combination of negative feelings we’d been experiencing. Wasn’t there anything she could do to help us?
The following day, she called us, and we told her, in a non-combative way, that we were so floored by how different this house was from the photos and videos we’d seen that it felt like we’d been tricked. Angela immediately took this to be some sort of veiled threat and became defensive. “Nobody’s tricked you,” she said coldly. “I don’t like to sell houses without the buyers seeing them, but I do it, and the buyers typically have to deal with it.”
But why hadn’t she listened to our requests for a “move-in ready” home? Why hadn’t she been more diligent in showing us the spots on the walls, the tiles that were peeling easily off the floors, the scratches on the stairs, the trash leaking from the sides of the oven? We asked about all of this, and she only grew more and more withdrawn and self-protective. Though previously she had indicated that she had been at the house while a cleaning crew was there, she offered, at last, to send a cleaning crew. Not “another” cleaning crew, but “a cleaning crew.” Her language told us she had lied before—that she, in fact, hadn’t been at the house when a cleaning crew was there—and the state of the house made it even more evident, for if a cleaning crew had been in that house, they must’ve only used it as a spot for their lunch break, because no cleaning had occurred. Angela had also previously indicated that some of the smaller repairs we had requested had been completed. For example, we’d asked for the locking mechanisms in the sliding glass doors to be made functional. Angela told us that she’d done a final walkthrough and had verified that these repairs had been completed. After returning to the house that day to begin unloading the truck (because we couldn’t keep the truck any longer than we already had), we verified that the repairs had not been completed. How did we discover this? For one thing, the locks didn’t, you know, lock, but on top of that, we also found the replacement locks in a drawer in the house. They’d purchased the parts but had not actually done the repairs.
I’ll never forget the finality in Angela’s voice: “I will send a cleaning crew. That’s what I’m willing to do.” Period. That’s what I’m willing to do. After perhaps a minute of my stunned silence, Angela indicated that, “If we really hated the house that much, she would be willing to run some numbers and help us sell it again while taking no commission.” Okay… we were getting somewhere. That was a very generous offer, and even though, at that point, we were feeling rather cheated and spiteful and could hardly stand the thought of seeing her again, we told her, “Yes, we would be grateful for that, because this house is not at all what we were looking for.” And you should have known that, we would later think we should have added. She indicated she would run some numbers and get back to us.
We never heard from her again, despite multiple attempts to reach out. And she never sent that cleaning crew, either.
While living in that house, Tiffany and I experienced the longest forty-five days of our lives. I know I mentioned months and months of despair earlier (but that’s because months and months of despair awaited us even after we managed to get out of the house in South Carolina).
I’ll attempt to describe what made living there so dreadful, but I’m not sure mere words could ever suffice in such an endeavor. Before I do try to explain it, I feel it necessary to add the caveat that this is one of those “world’s smallest violin” situations, isn’t it? Certainly, there are folks out there who would kill simply to own a home at all, and I am not ignorant of that fact, but I also think that the mere fact that greater plights exist beyond our own has never once consoled anybody or humbled them enough to forget their troubles. And we did do our best to foster gratitude for what we had. Those days in that house reminded me daily of how crucially important my wife and children were to me. I hugged my baby boy every night as he drifted off to sleep. I still read pages and pages to my girls every night. I still cherished the time I spent with Tiffany after putting the kids to bed. And all those quiet moments of love were magnified—because I think we all felt we didn’t have anything—or, indeed, anyone—but each other. But there was something else about those days that eludes any descriptor the English language might contain… and it really was something monstrous. It was like this… persistent gloom, an insatiable darkness that sought only to drive the joy out of everything we might have once found funny or light or enjoyable.
That time in my life will forever be characterized by fleeting memories of mornings spent in that dim living room. Our home in Orrville had such big windows that let in so much sunlight… and we hadn’t even thought to check with Angela whether sunlight came streaming so effortlessly into the new house. We ignored so many small—and big—details in our tenacious efforts to move…. If only we’d truly understood how much we valued that sunlight.
In the following weeks, we cleaned and painted the house ourselves, all the while thinking we might be able to turn it into something like what we left behind. We had spoken with friends and family who were realtors or who knew realtors, and all of them had indicated that Angela’s conduct had been atrocious enough that we should go to the Ethics Board for Realtors and try to get her in trouble… but I think we were so deflated and defeated that we didn’t have any fight left in us, and I certainly didn’t want to add more callousness to this world when there was evidently enough. Besides… pursuing that course meant taking even more time and energy away from ourselves, each other, and our kids, who were desperately struggling with the move.
If you asked me which aspect of this move hurt my heart more, I would be decidedly torn between the way the move had affected my wife and the way the move had affected my children. My wife desperately missed her mother—with whom she is extremely close. Her heart longed for her friends—with whom she had recently rekindled a crucial friendship that had been sleeping since we’d first become parents nearly a decade prior. And, of course, as I’ve mentioned, Tiffany was facing the prospect of going to work to help pay for a home she didn’t even want. We both knew that she didn’t mind working. No, the problem was not her having to work but her having to surrender the time during the workday that she used to cherish with our younger kids, and all this says nothing of the toll her absence would take on our home itself.
My kids responded differently. They settled into their new schools well enough. Well, two of them did. We struggled to find a preschool for our youngest daughter, and so she was relegated to mornings and afternoons in that dim living room while I worked in the appended office where the tiles were peeling off the floor. After school, the kids came home to a neighborhood that didn’t have any other kids to play with. This, too, was an aspect that Angela had incorrectly informed us about. Our yard was slanted and crooked and riddled with holes, so the kids did not enjoy playing outside in it… and, most significantly, our house was at the bottom of a hill that obscured oncoming cars, so it was commonplace for speeding vehicles to nearly lift off the ground as they crested the hill and emerged into view in front of our home. In other words, it wasn’t an ideal place for the kids to ride their bikes.
Despite now living in significantly nicer weather, we were all inside more than we’d ever been before.
We did make the house notably nicer—or at least notably more like the sort of house we would enjoy living in—but it never came close to our home in Orrville.
During our embarrassingly (and, indeed, there was an embarrassment to the way we’d left and now so quickly wanted nothing more than to return) brief stay in Columbia, I tried to retain some feeble spark of imagination, but life took so many shots at me during this time that I struggled immensely to spare energy or time for my game… much less those novels I’d said I’d write. I made marginal progress on the platforming game, but after some talks with my close friend, Aaron Kosik (who is the other half of my budding game development studio, which I will talk about at the end of this post), I decided to simply count those six months spent working on that platformer as needed refresher time: it was time I’d spent re-learning the game development ropes. The project I had put together was—and still is—viable, but I also viewed it, after six months, with the eyes of a programmer who had learned so, so much, and so I could see all the places that the project fell short, all the ways it could have been made significantly better if I’d planned for this or that contingency from the beginning. Thus, I decided to take just one more step away from my novels, bury the platformer, and try to do a “simple” game.
Meanwhile, we were searching for salvation from our meddlesome, wearisome housing situation. Tiffany took some of our very limited funds and flew back to Ohio, where yet another family friend (a woman whom Tiffany’s mother cleaned for) had a home that she was considering selling. Through her amazing grace (and I use that phrase intentionally—with all its glorious, spiritual connotations—here), she decided to work out an arrangement so that we could stay in her home while we sold our house in South Carolina. Tiffany’s trip to Ohio served two purposes: first, to check out this prospective house so we didn’t end up in yet another place we’d never seen before; second, to see her mom and replenish her hope that life’s rewards were worth suffering through the slog that we’d been trudging through.
Tiffany loved the house, and I loved it, too, from what I’d seen. There was little question, and with some more support from yet others who wish to remain anonymous, we managed to come up with a plan to fulfill our end of the arrangement with Tiffany’s mother’s friend, and we set our plan in motion to return again to Ohio. Just forty-five days after we’d arrived in Columbia, we were, yet again, loading a moving truck, but this time, moving day was fraught with feelings of hope and salvation (but, hey, there was still a lot of sweat and probably just a little swearing). It felt, honestly, like our family friend had plunged her arm into the depths of the ocean to yank my family and I out of the roaring waters. It felt like we had been nearing drowning, like another week or so in Columbia might’ve ended us.
That drive was nothing short of spiritual.
As we traversed every mile, my mind raced relentlessly with attempts to understand how all this made sense. The pragmatic, practical, empirical viewpoint simply contended that we were fortunate that Tiffany’s mom had known—and had frequently helped—such an altruistic woman, a woman who happened to have a vacant, beautiful home suitable for a family of six. Another viewpoint said that all these carefully proceeding and interlocking sequences had occurred because they were part of God’s plan. I’m always musing about God’s plan… and I was deep in thought about it on that drive. Perhaps, I’d begun to think, the cause-and-effect nature of our lives was something exactly like a Rube Goldberg machine. Perhaps, at the beginning of time, God set it all in motion, and even now He is standing back and watching as His work serves its purpose. But that notion also indicates that God does not offer intervention into our lives—at least not in real-time. It does offer the assuring idea that God—with infinite wisdom and power and knowledge—carefully, lovingly, meticulously built the mechanisms through which we move, and that He set things in motion with holy expectations that the resulting machinations would culminate in whichever outcome only God could know is best. But I struggle to believe that God doesn’t intervene in real-time. I believe God is powerful enough to love all of us and care deeply about all of us. It’s not that I think my problems are more important than anyone else’s, or that I’m somehow more worthy of God’s love than others, but rather that God serves us all because He deeply, fully loves all of us. I thought intensely about God’s machinations, and, moreover, I reflected on matters of virtue, sin, and faith, and on how these currencies must have some bearing on the shifting forces in God’s great machine.
These thoughts all blended with another concept I’d been ruminating on since the earliest days of writing The Illness of the Isle: the Weaver’s Tapestry. This concept is a parallel to these real-life thoughts, and it exists as a hidden nexus for all the faith systems across all my different creative outlets. The characters in The Tales of the Gatherers are influenced by the Weaver, and they and their world exist as but one thread in its Tapestry. Even though most of these characters frame their faith within the context of the Isle Dweller, the Weaver’s forces are what truly move them; the Dweller is merely a distraction—or, for some, a conduit. The Aereo, which the Dweller wields and communicates with expertly, are likewise agents of the Weaver. The same thing is true for the characters in The Ether Mists Compendium, where the titular Ether Mists—and their parental Eternal Mists—serve as spiritual beacons for the people of Astra and the Elselands. Similarly, these Mists are all representatives of the Weaver.
We got one more hotel on the way back, and, though this one was half the price of the others we’d gotten a month and a half before, it wasn’t so bad. In the hotel’s bed that night, I cuddled with two of my kiddos and dreamt about the future and what it held now that we were moving onward and out of that deep fog. And those dreams took me back and back and back to cherishing my family and indulging once again in my creative endeavors. In thinking about that latter piece, my mind kept returning—almost as if directed—to that simple concept of a game, and I kept wondering how I could honor God, for I believe He saved us from that darkness.
We returned to Ohio and moved into our new home on December 30, 2022, though we ended up staying at Tiffany’s mom’s that night. On our first night sleeping in our new house, we celebrated amidst boxes and bins and disarray as the New Year began, our television sitting atop two small end tables so we could stream the live New Year’s event in Times Square.
From this whole experience, Soar was born. It’s my first complete video game.
Since arriving home in Ohio, we’ve suffered some brutal challenges, despite living comfortably once again. We went under contract with our South Carolina house a whopping four times. Three of those sales fell through. Why? Well… the first of our prospective buyers discovered a major foundation issue.
Surprise number… oh, I lost count….
In fact, we ended up having to pay $5,000 because our general home inspector (we’ll call him Bob) simply missed it. When we talked to Bob, he told us he was confident we could only pursue legal action up to the cost of the inspection itself ($500), and he insisted the damage must have occurred in the one/two month span since he last looked at it. He was confident he never would have missed such a thing, but it should be noted that he took photos of every place in the home aside from the crawl space where this foundation issue resided. Tiffany and I wonder to this day whether Bob even went into the crawl space. In response to this alarming discovery of foundational damage, our new realtor—the woman we’d hired to help us sell this house—had an expert come out to assess the condition of the foundation, and he assured us that the age of the damage was too old for it to have occurred after our home inspector did our inspection. In other words, this structural engineer confirmed that Bob must have simply overlooked the damage. Further, the structural engineer noticed mortar had been slathered across the damage, indicating that somebody had attempted to cover it. Though we’d managed to go all this time without seeking legal help, after all these revelations, we felt we needed to consult an attorney. When we reluctantly did so, his legal advice to us was simple: “If you can’t afford $5,000 to fix the foundation, you can’t afford to sue the sellers for knowing about the damage or the home inspector for missing it.” So, we tacked another $5k onto the gargantuan loss that this entire ordeal had caused us.
But after all those hits, we finally sold that place. I believe the young couple who is moving into it must love it (they have stepped foot in it and seen it, after all, which is more than anyone could have said about us before we’d purchased it), and I’m hopeful they will be able to repair/clean it with resources that we simply didn’t have. When you have four children, that’s when a “move-in ready” home is beneficial. The reason we struggled so much with this house is not because we were lazy, but because we had (and still have) so little time, money, and energy to pour into a house. It’s hard enough with four kids to maintain a house that starts out in good condition, but it’s nearly impossible to rejuvenate a dilapidated house, or even a house that is just a few notches below that “move-in ready” mark.
So, now that I’ve managed to get this far and tell this whole story, you, my readers, are all caught up. You understand what I’ve been doing these last eight months. As I mentioned above, I plan for the Weaver to play an integral part in all my creative works, and that includes my video games. The Weaver’s Tapestry will remain this central thread connecting all my works to one another. I do this because I do not want to forget the other works…. At the end of this decade (or perhaps the next two… or three… or four decades), I want to be able to say I wrote ten novels and made two or three video games.
I believe these very concrete distillations of who I am and what I value are good things for my children to see and have, and of course I dream that my creations will resonate with other readers and players the world over. I’m cognizant, always, of the exchange here, the way that every second I invest in writing a novel or coding a video game is a second that I am not creating quality memories with my wife or babies…. These creative endeavors are a labor of love, and they cost me more than effort and thought; they cost me real, tangible time (my most precious and finite resource) that I could be spending with the people I love more than anything else in this world. Mark Twain said of his wife, “Wherever she was, there was Eden,” and I feel just the same about my wife and children. They are my paradise. Thinking of this exchange has been enough to reduce me to tears on numerous occasions…. Am I spending too much time and energy on this video game? Am I spending too much time and energy on this novel? Should I put it away now? Should I turn around and go home instead of going to this event/meeting? My greatest fear is that my kids will grow up and be able to read these novels and play these games, but that, simultaneously, their memories of their father will be limited to an image of me sitting on my laptop, working to create those very things. Because of this, I must temper and limit and reign in my creative ethics. I don’t know why, but I am singularly focused, and I would very likely work relentlessly to finish all these creative projects without stopping… if not for my awareness of what my kids and wife are seeing and how they’re feeling… and if not for my fear that I’m wasting precious seconds on something so temporary and transient as a game or a book with my name on it. I sometimes wonder whether my wife and kids feel as cherished and loved as they are, because I know I spend myriad hours working on these creative projects.
But I am nevertheless driven to do it, driven to create these things all the same, and game design is such a marvelous medium to express oneself. It combines storytelling, graphic design, and sound design all in one immersive creation. So, here I present to you Soar, my first video game. Check out more about it—and the video game development company that Aaron Kosik and I have started—here.
Our experience with the house, on a very basic level, taught us a simple truth of life: never purchase a home without first setting foot in it, no matter how nice the pictures and videos look. On a much deeper level, this experience challenged us; it carved us, cutting us down to our deepest cores. It made us question why we spent a decade building a life for us and our children only for such a significant piece of that life to become tainted and upended simply because of a lackluster—potentially criminal—realtor and a shifty inspector who cared more about making money than serving others. It threatened to consume the joy in our lives, to veil the light and leave us forever trapped in that gloomy living room. It tried to make us jaded, cold, and callous, to make us like Angela and Bob, to make us begin to care only about ourselves instead of anybody else, because wasn’t that was everybody else was doing anyway?
But then there were those who helped us. Those who were not at all like Angela and Bob. Those who gave generously and helped us in our time of plight. And that reinforced to us this notion that anybody can be one of two types of person: somebody who cares only for themselves, or somebody who acts as a beacon for others. Despite the hits we took, I hope to be in a position one day where I can be a beacon for others, where I can use some resource (whether it’s time, money, or knowledge) to aid somebody else in need, where I can be a guiding light, a beacon calling somebody home.