Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Stories in Games (Without Fighting)

A while ago, a listing for a writer caught my eye.  A video game company near me was looking for someone to help with the story for their upcoming games, and put up a job description.  The listing interested me because it asked for an example of a story you could tell in a game that wasn't dependent on combat to move the plot along ("please no references to Journey or The Walking Dead"). 

This is what I sent in:

Dear [Company],

I don't normally apply for work in the games industry, as my writing career (my latest novel: and teaching game design keeps me fulfilled, but your posting was intriguing.

What stories could I tell without combat? All of them! Action is fun but it completely destroys a plot (except for the "who kills whom part"). Here's six I came up with just sitting here filling out this form:

1. The player must dig out people trapped in a burning building while dealing with the collapsing superstructure and his or her own claustrophobia.

2. The player's planet is being consumed by a plague and has to develop a virus to combat the plague. Meanwhile, the player's spouse and children are being held hostage by an extremist group to ensure the cure is never found.

3. The player has fifteen minutes to live (or however long a play-session is) and must discover who poisoned his or her food.

4. The player is a spirit and wants to be reincarnated, but must cause the death of someone else to be reborn.

5. The player applied for a cool job. Just after he sends his resume and cover letter, he realizes he has forgotten to remove all references to Journey or the Walking Dead. He now has to break into the offices of his recruiter and change the file before it is sent on.

6. The player is a sentient pile of goop with only vague memories of being human. As he or she masters forming different shapes, more bits of memories come back (and they're different memories, depending on what shapes are made).

See, much more fun than making a combat-based story:
1. Player must kill bad guy.
2. Player must kill good guy.
3. Player must kill aliens.
4. Player must kill zombies.
5. Player must kill demons.
6. Player must kill ghosts.

Hey, this was fun! Thanks for the diversion.

Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

Friday, September 20, 2013

On Having a Sick Child

I’m not going to tell you what my son came down with or how serious it was.  In this day and age, it’s almost impossible to post something on the internet and not have it come back and bite you in the ass.  My ass turns out to be rather bitable (what can I say, it’s pretty awesome), but I can’t have it bite my son.  His ass is tiny and isn’t as nicely round as mine.  However, vague mentions of a child’s illness tend to engender concerned comments and offers of prayer and good thoughts.  Let’s just say he’s fine and leave it at that.

What follows is a bit scattershot.  However, so was the last month or so of my life.
There are those who believe in evidence-based (western) medicine.  They think that healing comes from trained professionals who either work with the body’s natural systems or apply medicines and surgery whose efficacy has been proven through careful research.  There are those who believe in alternative therapies.  They think that the human body can heal anything with vitamins, homeopathic remedies, and the like.  There are those who believe in spiritual healing.  They believe that only God (or gods or spirits) can heal you.

There is much debate and conflict between these three groups, but we all agree on one thing: when blood comes out of your kid, you get serious. 

Men have trouble crying.  I can’t really explain what it is, but I’m sure some of it is cultural.  Whenever I’m feeling deeply sad, whenever I feel tears starting to form, Something inside me says “Stop that!  What if someone sees you?  Usually The Something wins and the tears go away.  Other times, I sincerely want to cry, but can’t, and I’m left feeling empty.
It’s rare to have an emotion so strong it pushes past The Something.  When my ex-wife told me she was divorcing me, I cried until I fell asleep, woke up and started crying again.  That lasted about a week (when I remembered I’d never have to see my mother-in-law again).
Having a sick child is worse than dealing with The Something.  You want to cry, but can’t in front of your children.  You have to smile, and laugh, and say “Oh, it’s not that bad.  Don’t be scared.”  After you’ve put them to bed, hours after you hear them snoring quietly, you collapse onto the floor next to your dining room table and sob until mucus comes out of your nose.  The Something yells “You’re pathetic.  What are you doing there on the floor?  Get up and deal with it!”  There’s a grim satisfaction in telling The Something to shut the fuck up, but you’re still on the floor with a sick child you can’t help.

He needs a medical procedure.  To those who avoid western medicine: I can understand your reluctance.  Western medicine is weird.  A nurse named Irma calls and asks the oddest questions.  Does he have any loose teeth?  Does he snore?  Is he allergic to seafood?
Seriously?  They’re going to put him under, remove his teeth, and feed him lobster?  At least he'll be prepared for his fraternity initiation when he gets to college.

When we get there, the doctors check and double check everything.  My son gets two arm bands with his information and a red one that warns against giving him penicillin.  Why would they give him penicillin?  No reason.  They just want to be sure.  Each time someone comes over to meet us, he checks my son’s arm bands and asks him his name and birthdate.  It gets a bit repetitive, but I suppose it’s better than doing the procedure on the wrong kid.
When all the doctors are finally together, they do this odd ritual where they talk through the procedure and each confirms every part.  It was like secret agents synchronizing their watches before going out to steal death ray plans from Dr. Impossible.

Then they wheel him away, dressed in the hospital gown, fuzzy red socks, and hair net they provided.  You stare after him, helpless.  It’s a lot like the first time you leave your kid with a babysitter and he cries after you as you walk to your car.  What if your babysitter isn’t who she says she is?  What if she faked her references?  What if she’s going to kidnap him, rape him, kill him, bury him in an abandoned car somewhere?  There’s nothing you can do but go sit at Starbucks with your laptop for a few hours and wait until it’s time to go back.

When my wife and I decided to have children, I went in to get a DNA test.  The doctors asked when my wife was due, and I explained we hadn’t conceived yet.  They were surprised.  Those of us who really plan to have children are a rarity.  Most people got pregnant and then decided to check for horrible congenital diseases.

Then what would they do?
I need to know all the problems before I commit to anything.  After I agreed to have kids, I thought “You’ve always had that minor medical problem; what if your kid has it even worse?”

And here’s my advice to people considering becoming parents.  Your children are you.  Every fault, every failing, every problem you have gets magnified in your children.  They aren’t some magical beings you made from enchanted beans given to you by an ancient wizard.  They don’t come from God.  Their bodies are made from your blood.  Their minds learn what you show them in your house.  You make them, failings and all.

When you have a child, you are investing it with a bit of yourself.  Sure, you’ll be gratified when they graduate school or succeed in business or start their own family.  It also means you are forging the keys to your own destruction.  When something goes wrong, and it will, it will wreck you forever.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Breaking Bad Finale Revealed

If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad yet, but want to, I’m not going to throw out any big spoilers.  Well, other than that Jessie and Walt have a homoerotic relationship.  Other than that and the fact that Walt’s wife Skyler turns out to be an alien, there aren’t going to be any spoilers in this post.
So, the show [SPOILER ALERT] is ending in a few weeks and those of us who get AMC or go to a hacker website are waiting on tenterhooks wondering how it’s going to end.
[SPOILER ALERT] Marie goes on a purple decoration rampage and kills Walt’s children.
Come to think of it, what are tenterhooks?  Huh. That’s odd.

Anyway, as part of my tenterhook-waiting activities, I checked out this article on Breaking Bad: 5 Questions Breaking Bad Must Answer.  I figured the article would have tantalizing hints and analysis of things I hadn’t thought about.  Instead it essentially said “They have to finish the show!”
Well, duh.  Here’s what the article should have said:

The One Question Breaking Bad Must Answer:
What happened with Gray Matter?

Because that’s the only thing that’s important.  If you aren’t completely up on the show [NOT A SPOILER ALERT] one of the big unanswered mysteries is about a company the main character helped found called Gray Matter.  He quit right before it made him disgustingly wealthy, but we never find out why (except his partners went out to go swimming and, when they came back, Walt had suddenly decided to quit).  Whenever anyone talks about it, they suddenly get interrupted or change the subject.  Seriously, it’s like Breaking Bad stole writers from Lost.  Just a few episodes ago, Walt mentions it and then says “I won’t bore you with the details.”
Bore me!  BORE ME!!!

Fine.  Since they won’t tell us, I’m going to tell you what the reason is right here.  Right now.  On my website.
Here’s what I think happened with Gray Matter.  They were all working on the company, took a break to go swimming, and Walt (who stayed behind) snuck down and eavesdropped on them.  He overheard them talking about him, talking about how he was a little evil, a little bit of a sociopath.
You know, kind of like a drug dealer.

Now that you know the big reveal about Breaking Bad, keep it to yourself.  Don’t go blabbing to your friends that Marie’s going to kill Walt’s kids.  Also, keep the definition of tenterhooks secret, too.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Funniest Landmark

Last week, while they sprayed my front yard with Round Up herbicide, we went to Folsom, California and I saw the funniest historical landmark ever; it restored my faith in public works projects.

I should explain that first sentence, shouldn't I?

When we bought our current house, it was a total mess.  The previous owners had been a little... eccentric.  They owned goats, chickens, and a small horse.  No, seriously, a horse.  The shed has the name "Dancer" on it; the back door had the biggest doggie door you could ever imagine.  Yes, the horse came in the house.

I guess Comet and Cupid were the chickens.
Needless to say, we spent significant amounts of money fixing up the place.  Not that they hadn't put some money into fixing it up themselves, but they did a terrible job.  Cheap Pergo flooring to cover up the horse stains.  Shoddy attempts to hide that the bathrooms didn't work.  Worst of all was the gardening.  Quick note to gardeners: taking a flower bush out of a pot and putting it on the ground does not count as planting a garden.

Anyway, the grass was terrible.  A lot of it had died under the shade of a big tree, so they rolled out new sod, but that died shortly after we bought the place (it wasn't shade-tolerant grass).  A green mat of fungus had taken over, as had a thick layer of pine needles, and weeds of all kinds were springing up all over the lawn.

When we finally broke down and got a gardener, he insisted the only thing to do was to kill the grass, then the weeds, dig it all up, and reseed.  Now, I hate killing things, even plants.  My philosophy is that every living thing shares the desire to live, and we should only kill when we absolutely need to.  I step around snails, carry spiders out of the house, and only eat animals kept in inhumane conditions that yearn to be slaughtered.  Still, my wife and gardener insisted mass grass slaughter was the best way to go.

Of course, the spraying of a toxic chemical was against my deep-seated moral beliefs about the environment.  Ha!  Just kidding.  Fuck the planet.  Still, we wanted to be away while they sprayed it.  I think of herbicides like x-rays: I'm not afraid of them, but I'll run away like Deena Kastor chased by a direwolf when they x-ray my kids' teeth.

We decided to go to Folsom, California.  Why Folsom?  Well, it's close and it has...  A dam, that was closed to visitors.  It also has a prison, but we decided not to visit when we saw the sign that says "BEYOND THIS LINE IS A PRISON WITH SCARY MURDERERS THAT WILL STAB YOU IN THE EYE AND RAPE YOUR AUTOMOBILE!"  There's a zoo, but we decided we were too cheap to pay money to hear our children say "Why are we looking at sleeping animals?  Can we go back to the hotel?"

However, just outside the zoo was this historic marker. 

It says:
Near here was the first and only college ever in Folsom.  It lasted two years (1858-60) then closed for lack of students.  Folks probably figured they were smart enough (?).
It was a noble try - too bad!
Dedicated in honor of the class of '60.
I used to think historical markers were a waste of money.  Now I'm all for tax increases to put stuff like this around the country.