Lisa Brunette is an award-winning novelist, journalist, game designer, and longtime blogger. Originally from the Midwest, she spent 20 years in "outer space," otherwise known as Miami and the Pacific Northwest, but now she's returned to her roots... to dig in the soil and define good living for herself.
Last week I wrote about my dramatic transition from professor to CEO over the course of 2018, so by now you've got a sense of how epic the year was. But in addition to working on nine different games for six different clients, the Brunette Games team also managed to bang out a blog post each week. You might be surprised which ones rose to the top. We were! I'm particularly excited to see one of my team members' game reviews rise to the #3 spot, as it shows there's readerly interest in the full range of voices that make up Brunette Games. I look forward to bringing many more posts from Dexter, Elisa, and Tamsen to you in 2019. Now on to the list.
...Drumroll, please... These are the top ten, in reverse order. You know, like a countdown.
This one surprised me, as it seemed hyperlocal on two levels, first because PixelPop is a relatively small (but growing!) game con, and second because of my indulgence in alma mater nostalgia with the SLU bit. But it was gratifying to showcase some up-and-coming developers here, and the popularity of this post is testament to their growing platforms.
During the spring and summer, I created two presentation workshops and presented at four different events. One of the workshops was on the why and how of game storytelling, and I broke that into two posts for the blog, which came in here at #9 as well as #6. I was really glad to find both of these in the top ten, seeing as how designing game storylines is why we even exist.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the top ten list is that two of the posts here are about my side project, Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea whether or not anyone would want to read about this quarter-acre urban farm experiment. But our struggles with privacy fencing and eradicating invasive plants really resonated with readers. To me, the real-world design play we engage in with the farm mirrors the virtual farms and gardens of the games we love to play and design, such as Gardenscapes, Matchington Mansion, My Beauty Spa, FarmVille 2, and more. One inspires the other.
Speaking of which, this post about our deep eradication of a massive overgrowth of honeysuckle vine is actually one of my favorites. I kind of let myself loose on this one, and I think it shows. It was also great to spread the love to both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Horstmann Brothers Landscaping, which helped us so much in planning and pruning.
We're back to my two-part series on game storytelling, with this one on "why" doing a couple of notches better than than the other one on "how." That's interesting, since you'd think the question of why story matters in games would be put to rest by now, BUT APPARENTLY NOT.
One of my favorite classroom activities was inspired by a romance story I wrote for a bingo game. Yep. I believe the quirky fun of this one drew readers in, especially since it's a bit outside genre for me, after focusing for years on mystery games and books (although the Dreamslippers enjoy their share of romance).
In a year of exciting announcements, this one was really up there. While it's fun to hear about a solo creative act, following a TEAM of creative acts is even more fun. I'm glad you agree.
In the intro above, I mentioned that one of the top 3 posts of the year was written by someone else on the team, and that's Dexter Woltman, whose brilliant review of Lifeline: Crisis Line proves that high-quality content will find an audience. I also think that the intersection of mystery novel and game here naturally appeals to an audience many of whom have been with me through the Dreamslippers days. I love Dexter's thoughtful voice, which is part of why I hired him, and I can't wait to see what else he can do.
The first post of 2018 occupies the number two spot on the list, and that surprised me, too. Maybe y'all just like a year-end recap, or maybe the dramatic 'end of the dream' headline made you click. Either way, it's always hard for me to write these more personal reflections on my work life, and I had to fight cringing when I saw this one's ranking. It is really something to read it in light of last week's post on my transition from professor to CEO, though. As a writer, I've weathered some shifting winds, that's for sure.
And NOW... for the top of the top blog post in 2018...
...wait for it...
Yay! I was so psyched to see this get the top spot, as it's pretty much the most exciting collaboration of my game design career. This mystery-themed, interactive, story-driven series takes all of the elements of narrative and game and combines them into one super project. I can't wait to share more.
So... we'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Did anything on this list surprise you? What were your favorites? What would you like to see in 2019?
First, I want to say thanks for your interest in our little farm project. I wasn't sure if this content would gain an audience, so when my last post on the Dragon Flower Farm basically BROKE THE BLOG, I was pretty pleased. Because that means I have a reason to keep writing about it!
In case you're all like "What is this business about a farm?," feel free to catch up by reading about our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, the aforementioned fence saga, or this inaugural post, just for funsies.
So last time we walked you through stage one, which was to remove an eyesore of a zig-zag fence, as well as some truly noxious weeds. I mean, invasive plants. That winter creeper was on the list of "thug plants" identified by the St. Louis Audubon during their site assessment this summer, and we don't miss it. I wish I could say that was the last of the invasives, but no...
Wait. Maybe I should back up and explain what I mean by "invasives" and why we would label some plants "thugs," as if they're getting all tatted up (not that tattoos are naturally a sign of thug life) and hiding unregistered firearms under their mattresses (if you're doing this, I have no defense for you). There is literally a whole class of plants that don't play by the rules at all. They don't take turns, they don't share space, and they hoard all the food, light, air, and water for themselves. On top of that, they spread through any means necessary, proliferating more like a virus or a parasite than a plant.
I know this is going to sound bad in a really un-PC way, but this invasion thing happens most often with exotic ornamental plants that aren't from here. Because they've been uprooted and set down in a foreign environment, they are no longer subject to their natural predators or other growth-stabilizing factors, such as climate. And they go insane, crowding out native plants, taking over whole forests, and becoming a general nuisance.
Yes, even the pretty ones.
Perhaps you were drawn in by the delicate, orchid-like petals of the flower in the photo at the top of this post: Japanese honeysuckle, AKA Lonicera japonica. It's quite lovely, this plant. In its native environment, I'm sure it makes for a wonderful garden vine. Its dark green, ovate leaves foreground the vanilla cream-to-pale yellow flowers that appear in May. The scent they give off is intoxicating, a heady, thick sweetness you can practically taste. In fact, you can taste it; pull the pistil out and touch its end to your tongue, and it's like a dab of sugar. In fall, the flowers give way to bright red berries.
But here in the Midwest, its beauty is a betrayal. It takes up valuable real estate, covering whole forests in dense vine, while offering very little to native butterflies and other pollinators in return.
In our back forty, or, um, quarter acre, it covered most of the remaining chain link fence, which means it spanned about 2/3rds of the property line. That's a lot of vine, and it ALL HAD TO GO.
I'd had my suspicions about honeysuckle--but they were accompanied by fond memories of sipping that dab of sugar from the pulled pistils. I had associated honeysuckle WITH the Midwest. Yeah, that's how invasive it is. So when the reps from the Audubon Society recommended removing it, that was a lot to absorb.
Initially, we tabled its removal. But then we found out that the best time to rid yourself of honeysuckle is in the fall, once the native plants around it have gone dormant.
Still. That's a LOT of vine to remove. We'd go out there and stare at it, scratching our heads...
...and come up with no gumption whatsoever. And if there's one thing I've learned over four separate bouts of home ownership, it's that one must have gumption for this kind of task.
Lacking it ourselves, we decided to call in reinforcements.
Horstmann Brothers came to the rescue, with plenty of gumption to spare. I realize we're lucky not to have to deal with the dreaded vine ourselves and that not everyone can hire help like this. For us, it was worth it, as we didn't have any of the tools they had, and while we could have rented them, we believe there's a time and place to let an expert in to do the job better than you can, and this was definitely one of those times, and one of the most obvious places.
That vine WAS A MO. And I'm not talking about Missouri here. It had apparently been planted back when Lonicera japonica had first been introduced to the Midwest in 1806 and had been given free rein to spread itself, unimpeded, ever since.
But it was no match for the awesome two-man crew from Horstmann. These guys had the tools, and they had the talent (yes, that was totally a Ghostbusters ref). I can't say enough good things about them, and I'm getting nothing in exchange for this praise. We'd tried out a different company (that will go nameless) prior to this one and WERE NOT IMPRESSED. These guys did twice the amount of work with half the staff. Seriously.
Horstmann removed the vine entirely, along with a lot of other sad-face-making plant situations, such as a diseased, dysfunctional willow tree that had been poorly placed directly under a power line and then aggressively cut back every year (please, for the love of God, site your plants appropriately, people). We treated the honeysuckle roots/stumps ourselves (i.e., my husband did it) with glyphosate, as recommended by everyone and their cousin in the plant business. My personal feeling, especially as someone who struggles with allergy/autoimmune issues, is that there are already more than enough chemicals in the world, but since we couldn't very well conduct a controlled burn here in the suburbs, where they won't even let us build a fence over 6 feet tall, we had to settle for chemical means. Even though Horstmann cut the vine down to the roots, it will of course spring back with vengeance if it's not killed. We will probably be fighting this foe the rest of our farming lives, even with the chemical intervention.
While we had Horstmann on hand, we also asked them to create a drainage swale to move water from between our house and a neighboring building and out into the farmyard, where we'll plant a rain garden. This should hopefully solve a leaky basement problem. I like this approach, solving drainage issues using ecological solutions that are also cost-effective, as we didn't have to spring for an expensive sump-pump or basement remediation.
Here's where the water now drains, into a cache of rocks. My niece, who's on the spectrum and has a delightfully unique way of viewing most things, sees this as a "rock nest." Last time she was over, she laid out a perfect pattern of twigs along the perimeter. Now I can't not think of this as a rock nest.
We found Horstmann on a list of landscapers recommended by the St. Louis Audubon Society. I know I keep mentioning this group, but they've really been helpful in getting the right plan in place for the DRAGON FLOWER FARM; I'm really impressed with their Bring Conservation Home program and want to shout it to the rooftops until every MO citizen participates. I feel frustrated much of the time about the loss of ecosystem and bird habitat and not just out of a love for birds, though how could you not love birds, but because we NEED birds and other pollinators to ensure our own food supply. I often feel powerless over climate change and environmental degradation, but here is something I can do in my own backyard. It's that simple.
I realize I've been busy showing you nothing but REMEDIATION and INFRASTRUCTURE, and that you might be wondering when I'm going to get to the fun part, where we plant things. That's exactly what I've been wondering, too. But don't worry... fall's actually a good time to plant, so I'll have deets about that soon(ish). Thanks again for your interest in our farm!
By the way, you might notice I dropped "mini" from the name DRAGON FLOWER FARM. It was too cumbersome, and who's to say what's mini, anyway? This is our mighty farm!
Other farm stories you might like:
When Anthony and I bought our St. Louis home last fall, we were well aware of its flaws. After all, those flaws gave us a below-market price for a near-pristine World's Fair-era home with loads of period charm. It's the kind of house that makes you swoon and want to break into song like Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis." For my West Coast friends, let me list some of these drool-worthy details of which you might not be familiar, since I know you have less exposure to homes built during the turn of the last century: tall ceilings and oversized windows, character mouldings, original wainscoting, copper (!) doorknobs, transoms on both outside and inside doorways, original hardwood floors, a carved bannister, and finally, a dramatic fireplace graced by a wooden shield adornment. Yeah, that's right. A shield.
The house is also in a very walkable neighborhood full of funky shops and restaurants and more yoga studios per capita than any neighborhood I encountered in the Pacific Northwest (so take that). Side note, gamers: we can walk to not one but two places to buy comic books and games--plus there's a pinball bar. I like the 'hood better than Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, where I lived for a decade, and I was a super-loyal Ballardite who thought I'd never leave. Maplewood has all the good parts of Ballard, in my opinion, and none of the bad, as it's still working class, affordable, and somehow retaining its original Route 66 vibe even though we've got an entire shop devoted to bespoke knives and a restaurant that serves "shaved kale salad."
So those are the USPs, or unique selling points, for ye who aren't addicted to HGTV. But back to the flaws. I'm sure when you weren't distracted by the 60s vintage table set (I've had that beauty for 20 years) and lovingly rehabilitated rose bush in the photo above, you undoubtedly noticed the apartment building.
Hmm... yeah, the apartment building. It's a doozy of a flaw, for sure. Here's another shot so you can get the full effect.
A lot of people would run screaming from this, and a lot did. The house had sat on the market for nine months before we bought it.
But Anthony and I fell in love with it... and we smelled an opportunity. The lot is 1/4th of an acre, walking distance to the St. Louis city limit. Within a 10-minute drive is the world-famous St. Louis Zoo, Art Museum, and Science Center, all flanking Forest Park, which is not only hands-down the loveliest city park I've ever seen, it's larger than New York's Central Park, a fact that seems to shock even St. Louisans. The only thing that would make the home's location better would be a view of the Arch, which you can get a short walk away.
Anthony loved the property's quiet, farm-like feel. A quarter acre is a lot of land to play with, the biggest plot either of us has had across the span of adult lives spent in ten different cities, six different houses, and more apartments than we can count. Besides, we'd outgrown our last garden, a tiny in-town plot in Chehalis, Wash., in pretty short order, filling it within two years and wishing we had more room.
We discussed the matter and decided that the house's main flaw (and its smaller ones, too) could be fixed, with a little hard work and patience. And that brings me to the big reveal.
This summer, we initiated STEP ONE of our master plan, which was to remove the eyesore chainlink fence zigzagging across the left side of the yard and replace it with a 6-foot tall wooden one. We actually wanted an 8-footer, but the city of Maplewood would only permit to a max height of 6 feet. So much for property rights. Here you can see an orange broom my husband is holding up, showing where the 8-foot fence would have reached. Ah, well.
Once the powers-that-be nixed the 8-foot option, we knew we wouldn't get the first-tier-balcony coverage we wanted, but the fence was necessary anyway to block off the wall of cars that is the apartment building parking lot, which butts right up against our property line. Not to mention an eyesore of a Dumpster that was all-too-visible from the house. And yeah, the zigzagging... which was weird and bad feng shui for sure and probably a holdover from when there was a garage at the back of the house, as the fence once skirted a gravel drive that is now buried under a layer of turf. Good times.
I hate chainlink fence. Just hate it. We were worried we'd have to remove it ourselves, but the fence company we hired removed it for us--along with a metric ton of vegetation that had to go as well.
We got bids from 3 different companies, and Just Wooden Fences was the best fit for us. I can't say enough good things about this company. The owner, Walt Thorngren, came over to measure for the bid himself, was very helpful in going over the options, and even provided us with a list of recommended contractors and providers for other home improvement services. Walt was super-responsive throughout the process, and his crew worked quickly and efficiently, to a high level of quality.
We were particularly impressed that the Just Wooden Fences crew tackled a tricky situation: A very mature plant meant to be a ground cover that had grown around and through the chainlink. At first I felt guilty because removing the chainlink would definitely mean removing the plant, but during our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, we found out that the plant was none other than wintercreeper--also known as Euonymous fortunei--which is considered an invasive "thug" here in Missouri. They recommended eradicating it, so we did.
Later, we treated the exposed stumps with an herbicide, which normally, I'm opposed to, but this plant unfairly competes with and displaces native plants and is particularly noxious in the way it spreads. After doing a lot of research, we made the tough call to treat the stumps. There's wintercreeper EVERYWHERE, so I'm sure we haven't seen the last of this little villain.
On to happier topics... I don't know if you've ever had a fence installed, but this is my first one. So you can imagine the emotion I felt when that pile of lumber the crew brought started to look like, you know, a fence!
If I'd known getting a new fence was this easy, I'd have been getting new fences all my life. Of course, what made it easy for us is that we hired a company to do the work, one that specializes in fences--JUST wooden fences! My brother installed his own fence, with my other brother's help, but they are mechanics and guy-guys who are good at that stuff. (And younger. I'm the oldest of four.) Anthony and I knew ourselves well enough to know that actually building a fence was outside our limits. As recently as this past spring, we both hurt our backs, like a couple of typically middle-aged people with desk jobs.
The fence installation only took two days: one to remove the old fence, and another to put up the new. Just Wooden Fences cleared out the chainlink entirely, gave us a referral for someone to haul away the vegetation debris, and left us with a gorgeous, brand-new fence.
OK, so we opted to get the raw cedar, which is stunning, as you can see. But in a couple years' time, that will turn drab grey, so we needed to stain/seal it ourselves, to preserve both the color and the integrity and lifespan of the fence. That was a harder job than we'd thought, mainly because it required using an oil-based stain (yes, we realize there are latex options, but all the research says it won't last). The fumes were as noxious as that durn wintercreeper, and since I can barely stand perfume, let alone oily paint fumes, it was more than I could take. Next time, we hire someone with spray equipment to get the job done lickety-split.
Here's the view from the dining room before and after...
Now you see the Dumpster...
And now you don't...
What a difference a fence makes, people. If you don't have a fence, I highly recommend getting one. If you're in the St. Louis area, seriously, just call Walt at Just Wooden Fences.
I know, I know... you're like, wait! What about the balconies! They can still look down on you! But don't worry. We have a fix in store... stay tuned.
What do you think of the project so far? Any tips, from those of you who've been down this road? What sayest thou? Don't you want to come over now and plant some carrots????
Previous mini-farm updates:
Those of you who follow me on Instagram probably noticed a recent obsession with insects. One of the great things about being back in the Midwest is that there seem to be more of them here. It was actually something my husband Anthony and I thought about when we contemplated moving to St. Louis in 2017: The bugs. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we certainly didn't miss mosquitoes. Or chiggers.
But butterflies are something else. Not that there aren't any in the PNW; there just aren't as many, or at least it seems that way to me (it's probably all the rain and cool weather). Above all, I missed that most royal of lepidoptera: the monarch. Missouri is prime monarch breeding territory, where new caterpillars gorge themselves until they turn into the gorgeous, black-vein-and-orange butterflies recognized everywhere. After that, they fly to one small forest in Mexico, a 2,000-mile journey, to overwinter, a feat made even more amazing by the fact that they've never been there before. The trip the previous year was made by their kin five generations ago.
I have fond memories of hiking at the Shaw Nature Reserve and getting dive-bombed by swarms of monarchs, and their lookalikes, viceroys. While twenty years later I have yet to experience that again, the butterflies I'm seeing while hiking and just hanging out in my yard are a truly happy sight.
There's a Butterfly House here in Missouri, a colorful museum/info center/tribute to the lepidoptera, and perhaps more importantly, there are huge campaigns to bring back their waning food sources, the vast prairies lost to agriculture and development. Prairies here used to cover a territory the size of California, but they've been reduced by 96%. Which means that the very beings we rely on for our own food source - without pollinators, our crops won't grow - are getting starved out.
Sorry to be a downer... But now you see why the Dragon Flower Mini-Farm is so important (don't know what this mini-farm biz is? See here.) We're working up a plan to remove invasives that do little to help the ecosystem butterflies and other pollinators thrive in. We also want to include native plants in our revamp of this overgrown lot of boring, ecologically suspect grass and outdated ornamentals.
That's why Anthony and I spent a recent Sunday afternoon with two people from the St. Louis Audubon Society, who answered our questions and shared their expertise with us. Through a totally awesome program called "Bring Conservation Home," they are giving our yard an assessment, with recommendations to make it more friendly to pollinators and other critters.
When we nerd out on something, WE REALLY NERD OUT ON IT. So when our Audubon folks showed up, we met them with a list of questions and a paper copy of our property survey with some of the preliminary design sketched out. (I know, right? Overachieving even in the hobbies.)
It's a good thing I took notes, because some of what I thought about the yard turned out to be totally wrong. I'd been pulling out native milkweed, which monarchs LOVE, and tenderly making room for a white clematis that while lovely, acts like an invasive thug here in Missouri. It's not entirely my fault; some of the misinformation actually came from fence and landscaping contractors who bid on projects.
But one of the things our Audubon experts talked about was that insects should be welcome in a yard, not just pollinators, but other beneficials as well, from spiders to lacewings. A diverse crop of such insects is a sign of health.
When we moved in last fall, there were ladybugs everywhere. And this spring, when I saw the first firefly wink on at dusk, I knew I was home.
Want to read more on the butterfly theme? Check out my poem published by Town Creek Poetry, "Requiem for Lepidoptera."
All photos/video mine. Sources for some of the above knowledge bombs that I read and got stuck in my head: pamphlets/web sites/exhibits published and curated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, St. Louis Audubon Society, and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.