Terror Aboard the Speedwell, Lights Out, Please, and Her Pound of Flesh

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Javy:

Emily Short on The Terror Aboard The Speedwell, Lights Out, Please, and Her Pound of Flesh.

Originally posted on Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling:

In keeping with the season, three short reviews of horror IF. The review of Her Pound of Flesh gets into some spoilers, but they’re clearly marked; otherwise, these should be safe to check out even if you haven’t played the games in question.

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Making The Terror Aboard The Speedwell

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Conception and Production

I started working on the original version of The Terror Aboard The Speedwell started over a year ago. I had finished writing a novel in grad school and was sending it around to agents and publishers. People seemed to like it, but couldn’t take it because they couldn’t market it, and I wasn’t interested in turning the story into a young adult novel.

I spent around four years writing this book, so I was understandably depressed and frustrated. I wanted to distract myself and, after playing Depression Quest and reading Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, I decided that I’d make a Twine game.  I wanted to make something that was goofy. I opted to create an R-rated version of the Choose your Own Adventure books I read when I was a kid, most of which featured a survival horror concept.

There was no outline. I just started writing about a couple of people in spacesuits exploring a long-dead Earth. What came out of that was a horror story reminiscent of Alien, The Thing, and Dead Space.  I spent about a month writing the rough draft of the main narrative that all the other paths would eventually branch off of. It took two more months to create those paths and edit them.

By this point I was more than a little sick of the game and haphazardly decided that, since no one was going to play it anyway, I would release it into the void of the internet as is. I had another project I wanted to work on anyway, one about love and free will, called You Were Made for Loneliness.  The original version of Speedwell was super buggy and had at least ten endings closed off.  It got some buzz though. People seemed to like what they played of it.

I started asking folks  to write for You Were Made for Loneliness.  Ultimately 17, including an artist contributing a beautiful cover for the project, did so. All in all that project took two months from conception to the end (you can read about the process here if you want), and I’m really proud of that one. I think we made something special.

Anyway, after YWMFL was done my mind kept going back to Speedwell.  I kept thinking about all the mistakes I had made with that project and all the Twiney tricks I had learned while working on YWMFL. In the end, I decided to go back and spend a couple of weeks fixing up the game. I’d release a special edition of it for a buck or two just as an experiment to see if people would be willing to pay for it.

I contacted Elizabeth Simins, who had done the art for YWMFL, and commissioned another piece while I got to work editing.   Two weeks turned into a month; so much of Speedwell was just plain broken or held together with gum and duct tape. A good portion of my summer was dedicated to rooting out broken branches, duplicated text, crossed wires, and poor writing.

The new version was ready to go in August. The price was $2.50. I opted to go with itch.io because the distributor was new, the creator seemed friendly, easy to use, and didn’t charge a service fee.

Promotion and Release 

Before I released the game to the public,  I sent review copies to a number of publications and indie sites. I didn’t expect anyone to bite, but I had already committed myself to reworking this project so what was a couple of hours spent sending emails destined to the spam filter or the trash? Kotaku, Polygon, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Indiegames.com, Indie Haven, and about a dozen smaller sites all received a review copy of the game. Only Indiegames.com posted something about it during that first week. I certainly don’t blame the other sites for not giving it coverage then. If, when I was a Games Editor, I had received an email about some guy who had written a 50,000 word twine game, I probably wouldn’t have run a story on it or told someone to review it.

People shared it a lot on Twitter and Facebook. Sales were decent. I had made back the commission fee for the artwork and then some by the end of the first week. People were enjoying it. Slowly, more people started playing it. I saw a surge of buyers after indiegames.com posted its story. Shortly after that the number of purchasers went down. I had one or two people buying a copy a day.

I was satisfied. I had a made nice profit on the game, decided I’d buy myself something nice, and thought that was the end of it. But then two weeks after release Danielle Riendeau wrote a Polygon piece called “the best Alien game is a text adventure game.”  Beyond making me feel super proud of Speedwell, that piece linked enough people to the game that for three days people were buying copies every ten minutes. After this a couple of other sites, like IndieHaven, asked for review codes and posted pieces as well.

Numbers

As of this writing, The Terror Aboard The Speedwell, with both itch.io and VODO sales taken into account, has sold over 500 copies and continues to sell more copies everyday. The game has made back its development cost nearly eight times.

DLC

As part of Speedwell’s  development and marketing, I decided that I would do a quasi-Kickstarter stretch goal thing with free DLC for the game featuring characters from Speedwell. I promised a single DLC for every 75 dollars the game made up to 8 DLCs.  All DLCs were funded and I’m in the process of working on #3 right now. This initially started out as a joke I made when I was working on You Were Made for Loneliness, but I decided that DLC for a twine might be something people would be genuinely interested in, so I incorporated it.

DLC

Protagonist(s) Creation

One of the interesting questions I’ve been asked since the game’s release is why there’s two playable women protagonists but no man. The easiest, possibly cranky sounding answer is “well, because I wanted to make it that way.”  But to explain: there are games released year after year that star only a dude. Usually muscular, usually white, usually deals with his problems by shooting or stabbing them. If you take away games that allow the player to choose their gender (Bioware games, Diablo, etc), then you have a dearth of games that put women in the starring role. Sure there’s games like Tomb Raider, Remember Me,  The Walking Dead: Season 2, and Portal, but those are exceptions in a medium crowded with brotags. I thought I’d do something different.

As far as the two heroines go (Julia/Zoe), I basically wanted to create two characters that, in terms of the player’s power over shaping a character’s identity, exist somewhere between Commander Shepard and Lee Everett. What I love about Everett, in particular, is that he is very much his own person with his own morals and thoughts that exist outside of the player’s choices. The player has some leeway in choosing what Lee does throughout the course of the story, but they can’t really change his personality on a fundamental level.  He’s just not malleable in that way.

I wanted that kind of characterization, but I also wanted to introduce a twist to that sort of design. Zoe and Julia are very different people. I don’t want to to go into the details of how they’re different (because spoilers) but their personalities and their dialog choices are presented differently from one another even if the story demands that they walk along path, though there are exceptions throughout the game, situations where a dialog option is available to Julia but not Zoe or vice-versa.  I designed it this way because I wanted part of the game to be about discovering who this person is that you’re playing as.

What’s Next?

As fun as designing The Terror Aboard The Speedwell and You Were Made for Loneliness was, I think that I’m about done making games with Twine. I’ve got one more Twine project that’s about to be released (plus the DLC I’ve promised to folks who have bought the game, of course) and after that I think I’m going to start fiddling around some more with Construct 2 or RPG Maker.

I also have two non-game related projects I’m working on that I hope to share details about soon.

 –Javy

On The The Terror Aboard The Speedwell

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Hey everyone,

Just wanted to say some words about The Terror Aboard The Speedwell. I am floored by the success of the game and want to thank everyone who bought a copy of the game, gave it coverage, or just passed along the word that it was a thing that exists. I also wanted to take some time to list some information that will hopefully answer most of the questions I’ve received about the game since its release.

* Some folks were having trouble with saving their game, so I uploaded a version of the game that has a save system that should make things easier. It’s available under the files for the game if you’ve already bought a copy on itch.io.

* All the free DLC for the game has been unlocked. Here’s the release schedule:

1. Lenore Strauss: Released.

2. Jonas Salvucci. Released.

3. Travis “Meat” Barker. Release Date: late October.

4. Markie Daniels. Release Date: early November.

5. Neil Smith. Release Date: mid-November

6. Ryan Benson. Release Date: late November

7. Ben Bowman. Release Date: Early December

9. Naomi. Release Date: mid-December.

* Who drew the cover illustration? That would be Elizabeth Simins! Check out her work here.

* Will there be a Steam release? No idea. I’ve seen how the Greenlight process has affected other developers and that’s just something I don’t want to deal with at all. If there’s a publisher who wants to make a Steam version happen, get in touch!

* Will there be a mobile version of the game? No, but there are plans to make the next game a mobile one.

What was this game made with? A nifty little program called Twine.

* What are some other Twine games I should check out? Me and some really talented folks made a sci-fi anthology called You Were Made For Loneliness that’s set in the same universe as Terror. My friend Kaitlin Tremblay (and company) are about to release a Twine anthology project that looks really cool. Soha Kareem also has several great projects that are worth your time. Anna Anthropy has also made some great twine games (among other cool stuff).

* I have a question. How can I reach you? JgwaltneIV AT Gmail DOT com.

Cheers,

Javy

Making You Were Made for Loneliness

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Hey! Javy here. Some people were curious about the formation of You Were Made For Loneliness, so I thought I’d write a small…mediumish post about how the project was developed from beginning to release. Cheers.

Conception: You Were Made for What?

I have this bad habit–it’s a habit a lot of fiction writers have–where I’ll be chest deep in a project and suddenly become obsessed with some new story that’s been formulating in my head. After writing stories for 15 years or so, I’ve reached the point where I can usually push that obsession to the sideline and get back to work. This wasn’t the case for what would ultimately become You Were Made for Loneliness. I was working on my first twine game Terror Aboard the Speedwell, and this image kept popping into my head: an android maid sitting next to an windowsill. I don’t know why that particular picture kept flashing in my mind, but I couldn’t shake it. I allowed myself to become distracted.  I wanted to do something with this picture and whatever I wanted to do with it I wanted to call it You Were Made for Loneliness. I should have put Speedwell on the back burner, but instead I rushed it and released a nifty but rough Choose Your Own Adventure game that could have been a lot better than it was (which is partially why I’m releasing a new special edition of the game soon!). I spent some days thinking about what story I wanted to tell with YWMFL. It would take place in the future. There would be robots, or at least *a* robot, and it would happen in space. In a post-apocalyptic setting, maybe a more fleshed out version of the same nebulous post-Earth setting I had concocted for Speedwell.

I still didn’t have what story I wanted to tell, though–just components–so I thought on it some more. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to tell a story about love, because love isn’t something you see in games a lot–killing, mutilation, sure, but love?–and I also wanted to tell a story about the value of choice. However, I didn’t want to make a game where the player had a bunch of choices that led down pathways A, B, or C because I had played that game. Many times. Hell, I had just finished making that game. I wanted to create a game that would encourage the player to really think about the importance of making choices and earning the right to make those choices. Memories were the final conceptual element I focused on, specifically the interplay between memories and choices and how those two things largely make up who we are as human beings. The unnamed robot would be service droid mentally assaulted by a never ending cascade of memories that didn’t belong to her. Would those memories make her a human being, and if so, would she be her own person, or just a composite of every person those memories belonged to? At this point, the end of April, I had the basics down: character sketches, a general idea of what I wanted this story to be about, and the mechanics. I started writing.

Community: Building the Team

It was pretty early on when I decided that You Were Made for Loneliness would be better suited as a project undertaken by multiple people. The memories that the maid would experience would be about love, memories that would present themselves as hyperlinks in the game’s main story. I had some stories planned out for these memories: a Southern man falling in love with a robber, two star-crossed kids fighting a futile battle against the gentrification of New York,  a rich man following his estranged wife to a foreign country to try and win her back. I soon noticed that these stories contained similar elements throughout. Protagonists were mostly men. They were dealing with desire and regret–themes explored in the stories of Carver, Cheever,  Roth, and Updike. I’ve always liked fiction that’s served as a resentful celebration of our brokenness as human beings, so that’s what I tend to write.  There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, except that I wasn’t writing about love in the way that I needed to.  I was writing about one kind of painful love in a world filled with many kinds of that particular human experience.If I wanted to tell the kind of story I set out to tell, I would need more people to create pieces based on their own experiences. The first few emails went out to folks I knew, to test the waters. A talented editor I had worked with named Kaitlin Tremblay. Indie developer Tony Perriello. Insightful critic Jon Hamlin.

I told them I wanted to write a story about an android named Naomi reliving the memories of dead lovers while working for a rich, lonely woman. I told them that it was a story about love and figuring out who you are. I told them I couldn’t pay them anything beyond what we could make off a tipjar paypal link since I was already paying for art and music. I asked them to submit memories: stories, poems, even non-fiction that I could use in the game.

Look at the game in twine

A look at the game in Twine. The descending passages in the middle are the frame story. The passages to the right are memories submitted by the writers. The ones on the left are passages concerning the AIs in Naomi’s head. That spider web? Zoya’s incredible labyrinth.

They all agreed to submit pieces. Fueled by those responses, I was ecstatic and confident in the story concept, so I sent more emails to people. I tweeted about a mystery twine game that I needed writers for.  Soon I had folks I knew (and didn’t know) asking for details. A lot of them. Marc Price. Kitty Horrorshow. Richard Goodness. Lilian Cohen-Moore. Bryant Francis. There was also a large number of folks who didn’t join the project and I couldn’t blame them, really.  I was, after all, essentially asking these people to write for little more than (possible) tips. There were also writers who just plain weren’t interested in the concept, or were uncomfortable with writing about love, which was (again) totally understandable.

I emailed artist Elizabeth Simins and asked if she would be interested in drawing an illustration to be used as a title screen and promo image for the game. We agreed on a price and delivery estimate. I did the same with a composer who had been recommended to me. By the end of April I had 14 people–what I thought would be the final number of members on a team we hadn’t even given a name to yet.

Tsukareta : Work Work Work

Creating the frame story for You Were Made for Loneliness was one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences I’ve had. I’m particularly proud of how the frame story works as a solid house for the memories submitted by other people on the team. I also think it’s one of the better stories I’ve written. The drama is understated but slowly builds up to a tense showdown. The world-building is done subtlety. Naomi’s lack of free will is shown via choices that are crossed out whenever a cursor scrolls over them, the gist being that Naomi is aware of her surroundings and interactions with people (and even has feelings and thoughts about those interactions) but she herself cannot interact with anyone or anything outside of carrying out an order given to her. It’s a nice little trick I stole paid homage to borrowed from Depression Quest and re-purposed for our narrative.

That lack of choice finally ends when the tension reaches its peak and Naomi, by becoming self-aware, has earned her right to have a choice, something most games grant their players right from the start. I drafted the story several times while I waited for my writers to submit their pieces. It took a while for it to reach its current state. I suffered writer’s block at several points, mostly because I didn’t understand Naomi. I knew who she was as a concept (a socially-imprisoned, depressed individual struggling to create an identity for herself) but I didn’t know who she was a person, as someone I could write. I wrote entire sections only to delete them in frustration. They were too overwrought, clashing with Naomi’s characterization as someone withdrawn from the world. Sometimes they were just too fucking boring.

I reached the point where I didn’t want to work on the story. I avoided my computer. I played Dark Souls and rewatched The Wire instead, anything to avoid sitting in front of my laptop and staring at Twine. And then Elizabeth sent me the illustration: a beautiful, colored illustration of Naomi as an eyeless mannequin with a serial number stamped on her neck. The image jump-started my desire to get back to writing. The last half of the story didn’t come easy, but it came. Slowly. Key by key. (Lesson here: artists are wonderful and can pull your ass out of the frying pan. Give them their due respect.) Around the end of May I finished the rough draft of the frame story and started to edit it. The majority of submitted pieces began to come in, and they were good. A tale about a woman slowly  poisoning  her lover. A story about two would-be lovers sending each other disturbing videos over the internet. A heart-breaking confession.  A bit about a husband and wife separately recalling their relationship. An incredible hyperlink labyrinth made by Zoya Street that centered around some translated poems of Izumi Shikibu.  And, by god, there were even a couple of happy love stories!  I implemented the submissions into my story, choosing to hyperlink certain words in the frame story to these memories (example: “nude” would lead to the aforementioned confession).

YWMFL

Elizabeth’s illustration

All was going pretty well, except that my music person had mysteriously disappeared. In the end, I decided that it was probably for the best and chose to spend the music money I had budgeted on someone to edit the frame story.  Patrick Lindsey turned out to be that editor. I sent a couple of other emails as well to see if folks were interested in joining the project.  Nina White joined the team, agreeing to submit some pieces. Sidney Fussell joined up as well, submitting a cool story based around music genres. After a rather silly voting process done via email, we chose Tsukareta (“The weary” in Japanese) as our team name. I continued to edit YWMFL as the days marched on.  I sent Patrick a draft of the frame story while I waited for more submissions to implement. He sent me the draft back a week later and, after some confusion on my end involving  Microsoft Word’s aggravating Track Changes feature, we had a version ready to go a day before launch. I prepared the release annoucment for my blog and emailed the team thanking them for their participation and telling them that I would launch the game in a couple of hours. I encouraged them to share the links to the game on their blogs and, if they wanted, to share the pieces they wrote for YWMFL outside of the game itself.

DLC

Free “DLC” for the game.

I released the game in the early hours of June 25th and dragged myself to bed. When I woke up around 9:00 AM, some folks had already started to tweet links to the game. I joined in and anxiously awaited player response. I spent the next couple of days with my eyes glued to the stats screen, watching as thousands of people played our game. It’s been about a month since we released the game, and over 7,000 people have played it. Some have left nice comments, a pleasant mixture of constructive criticism and praise. A couple of sites began to post links to the game. A positive review or two. A nice analytical piece. Some folks have even thrown a little money our way. Overall, I’m rather pleased with the game we made. It isn’t for everyone, but I put a lot of work into creating the kind of game I wanted to see exist, and I had a lot of help making it that way. So if you’ve played You Were Made for Loneliness and liked it, consider searching for the works of the writers, artists, and editors who helped me put it together and support those folks. They are incredible people:

Rollin Bishop 

Lillian Cohen-Moore

Cameron Cook

Bryant Francis

Olivia Frank

Sidney Fussell 

Richard Goodness

Jon Hamlin

Kitty Horrorshow

Patrick Lindsey 

Tony Perriello

Marc Price

  Elizabeth Simins

Zoya Street

Kaitlin Tremblay

Stephen Wilds

Nina White

Thanks for reading (and hopefully playing)!

–Javy

Those who want you dead…

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Javy:

This is worth a read.

Originally posted on Deeper in the Game:

 I heard an accusation. But what she and my Dad were trying to make me hear was their question:Why do you love a thing that won’t even let you exist within their made up worlds?

Pam Noles -Shame

The issue for marginalized folks in any geekdom is navigating this issue, all the time, every time: how much of my money do I want to give to people who literally want me dead?

Your options come down to three choices, all of which are terrible:

Speak no evil

Participate, enjoy to what you can, try to endure or avoid and say nothing.  You avoid some drama, but you’re always subject to microaggressions, and nothing changes.  Enjoy feeling like you contribute to people prospering who want you to die.

Disengage completely

Walk away.  You do not give money or fame to the people who hate you.  You’ve been driven out of…

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You Were Made For Loneliness

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Games
YWMFL

It’s the future. The remnants of humanity, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event known only as The Fall, have fled a dying homeworld to seek refuge among the colonies of the solar system.

Twenty years later in a small pawnshop on Callisto, an android is waking up from a deep slumber. Within her, long faded memories shine to life once more.

You Were Made for Loneliness is a love story created by Tsukareta, a small team of writers and artists.

You can play the most recent version here.

[The game has been updated. You can find the older versions here (1.0) and here (2.0).]

You can download a copy here.

[Update: A semi-sequel to You Were Made for Loneliness can be purchased here.]

If you like this twine, please consider giving us some money for our work via this paypal link:

Donate Button

We hope you enjoy our little game.

–Tsukareta

Trigger Warning: suicide, depression, and psychological abuse are themes explored in YWMFL.

What folks have been saying about You Were Made for Loneliness:

You Were Made For Loneliness, you see, is definitely not for everyone, but, for those who can brave disturbing scenes in their texty Twine games, it does offer both food for thought and some great, wild prose by Tsukareta. You Were Made For Loneliness tells a sad, sweet, philosophical and deeply touching science fiction story mainly revolving around robots, artificial intelligence, love and ethics.” — Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

You Were Made For Loneliness…a Twine narrative adventure by the Tsukareta writing collective, starts with an old lady purchasing a robotic maid from a pawn shop on Callisto, and from there weaves a tale of memory, the post-apocalypse, regret, murder, psychosis, and in its own skewed way, love. It’s a work that heavy in subject, heavy on experimentation and it’s very well done indeed. Players should be warned that the narrative deals with everything from suicide to depression and psychological abuse, making this a less-than-lighthearted tale, but one that will stay with you for a long time.” –JayisGames

You Were Made For Loneliness is, basically, a love story. It’s a lot of love stories. The kind of love that you wish you had, or the kind you wish you still had; the love that puts the fear of god into you, or the other way around; it might be every love story. It’s small in its scope, but ambitious and rather long. It will probably take you a touch over an hour to complete. ” — Edmund Chu, Solitonic

“You Were Made For Loneliness is a lovely, interesting, sad, disturbing and hopeful game.” Mike Joffe, Video Games of the Oppressed.

Tsukareta is:

Rollin Bishop (writer) is a doodler of words living in Austin, TX. He currently serves as Contributing Editor at Laughing Squid, and often posts inane ramblings on Twitter.

Lillian Cohen-Moore (writer) is a tiny spooky wizard who writes, plays, reviews, and breaks games. She is also a writer, editor and journalist. Website: www.lilliancohenmoore.com

Cameron Cook (writer) is a writer, filmmaker, and teacher from South Carolina. He releases a new short film every other month, along with a new short story in the months between.  You can find him on Twitter.

Bryant Francis (writer) is a writer and madman who was once ordered to gaze into the eye of the internet and behold its majesty. He’s never been quite the same since. Obsessed with giant robots, he has a tendency to cackle to himself while he works and was honestly a little shocked to find himself helping to write a game about love. You can read and watch more of his work here, and you can chat with him on Twitter as well.

Sidney Fussell (writer) is a writer, warlock and recovering misanthropist exploring race and identity in games. He mostly tweets about food. Mostly.

Richard Goodness (coder/writer) is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. In addition to writing the Twines “Sam And Leo Go To The Bodega”, “The Richard Goodness Trilogy”, and “TWEEZER”, he curated the 2014 Fear of Twine Exhibition. His current project, Zest, is a management simulator. (@richardgoodness, richardgoodness.wordpress.com)

Javy Gwaltney (designer/editor/writer) devotes his time to writing about these video game things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter.

Jon Hamlin (writer) is a writer of words, former student of history, politics, and language, and compulsive player of video games. He writes poetry, play sketches, short fiction, and video game and cultural criticism regularly. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his partner. @WordsmithJon

Kitty Horrorshow (writer) is a genderfluid birdwitch whose passions are writing, horror, curses, bones, houses, and nonphysical spaces.  http://kittyhorrorshow.wordpress.com / @kittyhorrorshow / http://kittyhorrorshow.tumblr.com

Patrick Lindsey (editor) is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer-type person. He co-hosts the Indie MEGAcast podcast and won’t shut up about DOOM or Far Cry 2. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you’ll find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.

Tony Perriello (writer) and Olivia Frank (writer) live in Pittsburgh, where they spoil their cat baby and rewatch The Wire a lot. Tony makes games sometimes and blogs never, you can find both of them at http://tonyperriello.com.

Marc Price (writer) is glad the NBA playoffs are over so he can sleep again. He writes about basketball videogames for Goodgamebro.com. You can find his tweets about food and games here.

Elizabeth Simins (illustrator) is an artist & illustrator living in New York. She makes comics primarily about games, but also sometimes about other things. Her work appears regularly on Kotaku, irregularly elsewhere, and unceasingly on her twitter.

Zoya Street (writer) is a game design historian and critic. He runs ezine Memory Insufficient, co-organised Critical Proximity conference, and is the author of Dreamcast Worlds.

Kaitlin Tremblay (writer) is an editor, a writer, and a fledgling game-maker. Kaitlin makes horror games focused on feminism and mental health. She has a Master’s in English and Film, Specialization in Gender and Genre, and can be found on Twitter ranting about Godzilla.

Stephen Wilds (writer) can be found somewhere in the shade down in the dirty South, writing about video games, comics, wrestling, and he even finds time for some fiction in between tacos. His work is located at www.CultureMass.com, www.BlankManInc.com, and hidden on one hundred and one different USB drives cleverly scattered across the state of Georgia.

Nina White (writing as Ashton Raze) is a co-founder of Owl Cave Games, creators of Richard & Alice and Sepulchre. She used to work as a journalist for The Telegraph, GameSpot and others. Now she can be found writing various adventure games for Owl Cave, as well as the hugely successful universe sandbox game, Starbound. Nina is also a novelist, with 2012’s Bright Lights & Glass Houses being her first release. New books are in the works! Which is good.

 

Me and Dark Souls

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I step into the chamber. It’s large, but not massive. There’s a row of pillars on each side, but what’s more interesting are the two creatures wearing golden armor at the other end of the hall. Ornstein and Smough. Dragonslayer. Executioner.

I ready my flame sword and my shield, and myself with the understanding I will probably perish almost immediately. This time and many other times. I utter my little mantra (“May this death teach me something new”) and charge into battle.

Ornstein, thin and agile, zooms across the floor and skewers me with his spear.  I recover and slash at him with my sword, but he jumps away. Smough twirls into us like a giant hammer-wielding hurricane. I block the blow with my shield, but Ornstein’s already at my back, impaling me with his spear.

The lights go out, but worst of all, I don’t think I learned anything about their pattern.

*

I stare at the calendar on my phone. May 5th. Another day gone, another day closer to post-graduate school life. Another day in which I will fill out an application for a job I might not get. Another day to tweak a small twine project I’m putting together with some writers I know. Another day to look at my Damn Good Novel that needs to be edited and know that I’m not brave enough to do it yet.

May 5th.

Ten days until the online literary journal I’m the editor-in-chief of needs to go live.

Eight days until graduation and greeting my parents after their love drive and nice warm chats  with my brother about his upcoming freshman year of college–at the same school I went to, no less.

May 5th. The Day of the Battle of Puebla. The local Tex-Mex places are offering deals on margaritas and tequila, but I don’t drink either of those so I’m just shit out of luck, I guess.

May 5th. A strange, stagnant time to be alive.

*

They rush into battle in that  now old familiar way: Ornstein flying across the floor with Smough shuffling along with his mallet o’ death.

By now I understand their movements. I’ve died at least five times now and made the long trek back to this hall each time, but I have both their attacks memorized. However, the fact that the two might occupy a single space and unleash a random combination of attacks sets me on edge, makes me play it safe. I  keep my back pointed toward the wall and my front facing the pair of them. But they move in formation, Ornstein orbiting Smough. They know I want to play it safe–like I did with Capra Demon, with Gaping Dragon–but they won’t let me.

In the end, my defensive play doesn’t work. Ornstein zaps me from afar with his lightning bolt, which bypasses my shield. Sometimes he zooms in and I get a small stab in, but it’s a ploy to make me think my tactic is working, to make me think I can break him down slowly.

It works. I live out a series of moments all of which involve Ornstein slaughtering me. I learn nothing. I am nothing. Right before my last death, I kneel down to read another player’s message etched in the floor hoping it gives me some hint, some key that will help me emerge victorious in the 11th hour.

“I did it!” the message says.

“Liar” is my last thought before Smough crushes my bones with his hammer.

*

The worst bit of moving around? Losing friends. We all lose friends, in the end. They leave us or we leave them in one way or another.  However, there’s little doubt in my mind that my reluctance to become close friends with people is at least tied to the number of a good people I knew for and cared about before moving away from college and the bout of depression that occurred after the move.

Down here I’ve made friends, but not many. I am not opposed to the notion, and I do not find people disgusting or disappointing. Quite the opposite: I am incredibly anxious person who lives in constant fear of disappointing those he respects.  The less I have to deal with that anxiety, which can be a boon to my work or be cripple it for large periods of times, the better.

This isn’t something I have to worry about so much with other writers I’ve met through the games writing community. There’s obviously a distance there, a bubble of sorts provided by digital communication but there’s also the sense that these people experience the same set of anxieties, or their own separate kinds of anxieties, that make them much easier to talk to, though you may never bring up those anxieties in conversation.

Still, there exists a yearning for those meetings with old, familiar faces. The meetings in person. The conversations at cafes into the late hours of the evening about Joyce and DuBois and  Woolf and Pynchon. The golden old days that are gone gone gone.

*

I run past the towering guards in front of the hall, dodging their  blows.  I am angry, and tired, and ready for this fight to be over. I enter the arena, say my mantra, and charge directly at Ornstein. No more playing it safe. I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care about living or dying, I just have to know that I can kill one of them. I have to know they can fall, that they are mortal.

I have to know.

I need this and I have to do it on my own.  I don’t know why I need this, but I need this. Badly.

I circle him, not bothering to put up my shield, and slash at him again and again and again. He gets me good but he weakens quickly as well. Smough swoops in with his hammer, but I put up my shield just in time, trading blows only with Ornstein.

I drink up all estus flasks and dash in one last time to stab the dragonslayer. I watch him fall to the ground dead just as Smough swings his hammer into me, but I’m not even upset.

“It can be done,” I tell myself. It can be done.

*

The commute to work is almost two hours.  This is a pain in the ass, especially since I often head straight back after teaching two back to back classes.

But sometimes it isn’t so bad. When I was younger, I would go see my girlfriend every other weekend, often making the three and a half hour journey in the early hours of the morning. I would prepare for each trip, creating music playlists, storing small coffee packets into my glovebox so that I could use to make coffee in the bathrooms of gas stations on the interstate. I didn’t have much money then and saving every cent so I could see her. I would navigate the labyrinth of South Carolina’s dirty back roads to the interstate. I would watch the sun come up over the interstate. I would plan my novels and short stories. I would drink ungodly amounts of coffee and pull over to the side of the road for emergency bathroom breaks. When the coffee didn’t work, I’d reluctantly smoke a cigarette because it was the only thing that would keep me awake.

But getting to see Lily after such a long journey was bliss. Long distance relationships are, for a very large part of them, hell and I don’t wish them on anyone. However, nothing quite beats being together with someone you deeply care about after not seeing them for weeks on end. It makes up for all the fights about stupid shit, for all the weary conversations because you’re both just tired and have had bad days.

Sometimes I get fleeting sensations of those long night journeys and the weekends with her when I’m coming home from work. A brief taste of old rewards for surviving a difficult era.

Soft times are nice enough and safe, but goddamn the hard times can you make feel alive.

*

Ornstein isn’t a problem anymore. I have found the balance between being aggressive and defensive. I can respond to his movements more quickly. He thrusts his spear. In another version of this moment, a past one, I am leaning into the spear and taking a fatal blow, but in this one I’m skillfully dodging the hit and counterattacking with a slash aimed at his back.

Ornstein dies. Smough absorbs his  companion’s lightning powers into his hammer. As it turns out, I have grossly underestimated how difficult the behemoth would be. He is easy to outrun, to dodge even, but I can’t get close enough to land a hit and guarantee that I’ll move away in time to avoid a nasty, crippling attack.

And yet, I still try. Losing chunks of health with nothing to show for my efforts until, at last, as I cower behind the rubble of a pillar, I realize what I have to do to win.

I rush out to meet Smough and smile as he lifts the hammer.

The poor son of a bitch doesn’t even know I’ve won.

He brings the hammer down and I die one last time.

*

Lily is downstairs trying to work on her law school homework but apparently our cat keeps sitting on her textbooks. Today, I’m writing this. And I have to grade some papers. And chat with our department’s nice webhost. And check, double check, triple check my students’ grades before submitting them. I will also work on that twine project.

At some point, I’m sure an urge will drift into my mind encouraging me to sit down and edit the aforementioned novel, but it won’t happen today. Instead, I’ll likely spend the late hours of the evening submitting more job applications, hoping to get a bite.

And yet in spite of all of these busy happenings, I feel the stagnation creeping over me and nothing to distract me from it. Exercise is a slight slap to ward off that feeling, as is writing small pieces like this.  I need a new project, something challenging and audacious.

Until then, I have Lordran.

*

I step into the hall once more. I do not utter my mantra. I know I will be victorious this time. It is a fact. Across the seventeen versions of this moment that I have lived and died, this will be the one where I triumph.

I sprint toward them. We meet in the center of the room and begin, not a battle, but a dance, weaving between the pillars and slashing at one another. I have not merely memorized their movements, I know them, can identify the slightest twitch in Ornstein’s hands.

In a way, I feel bad for the pair of them. They’ve given me a gift after all, forcing me to master all the skills I’ve learned throughout my journey in this one intimate battle. We’re almost friends, you could say.

I open myself up to attack, baiting a crippled Ornstein (just as he baited me) and allowing him to take away a slight chunk of my health. Too greedy. I land a blow and send the Dragonslayer to his final grave.

Smough absorbs his powers. I drink an estsus and trade my sword for a bow. He chases me around the destroyed pillar while I fire arrows at his gargantuan belly. An age passes. I wear him down slowly, like a grunt bringing down a war elephant by chucking sharpened pencils at him.

I do the math in my head. Always firing from the right distance to do the most damage I can without opening myself up to his hammer.

I use at least a 100 arrows, maybe 120.  I know when I have the final arrow lined up to fire. I let him get close, stomping toward me, ready to lift up that hammer and smear me all over the floor. To put everything back in place. To bring his companion back from the dead.

To do this all over again.

But this is not his moment. It is mine.

I let loose the arrow. It soars over cracked pillars, over the body of the dragonslayer, over the moments of past lives, of my failures, until it embeds itself in the right eyeball of the giant. He drops his beloved, bloody hammer. He topples headfirst to the floor and explodes into white dust.

I stand and look at the space where he was. I look around at the destroyed room and out into the cathedral where those two stone guardians I dodged are and in front of me where two elevators are now active to lead me onward and upward and I look at the shield and sword in my hand and then my inventory and at long last I look at my hands, my real hands holding a real, tangible controller.

What now?

Dead Kings: The Henriad in The Wire

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[[Major spoilers for The Wire]]

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d….

Richard II

I have strong feelings for The Wire. As in “let’s run away to Europe and live happily ever after” feelings. It was a bold, ambitious show that managed to  survive long enough to deliver a satisfying story for its huge cast of characters–despite the show never drawing a huge viewership.

It did not pander to any demographic. There were never any cliffhangers. The Wire‘s crew was fiercely dedicated to telling the story they had to tell, an honest and epic saga dedicated to the city of Baltimore and all of its failings.

Since the show since finished its run back in 2008, many critics have called it “the greatest TV show ever made,” there have been articles and in-depth analyses written about the show’s portrayal of urban poverty and its roots in Greek tragedy, and there have even been some classes at Harvard dedicated to its study.

However, in spite of all the critical and scholarly attention given to the show, I’ve noticed a lack of Shakespeare readings. Critics do acknowledge Shakespeare’s influence in the show, but those acknowledgments are often a bit too brief for my liking. Two of the most common comparisons are that the show’s language (steeped in Baltimore street slang) mimic the complexity of Shakespeare’s language, and that Stringer Bell is basically MacBeth.

I think that writers forgo analyzing the Shakespeareian elements of the show because there are elements taken from other  literary works that are far more obvious, such as Greek tragedies and the works of Dickens. These particular critical works (“‘The Game is Rigged':  Dickens, The Wire, and Money “by Jasper Schelstraete and Gert Buelens; “Greek Gods in Baltimore: Greek Tragedy and The Wire” by Chris Love) examine how the institutions in Baltimore–the police department, city hall, powerful forces of commerce that exist outside the city–serve as a postmodern take on the Olympian Gods, who constantly meddle in the lives of people trying to do their jobs and seek to destroy those who oppose their bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on the gang war storyline of the show, which is in many ways a postmodern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Henriad. The Henriadis the name given by critics to a tetralogy of history plays written by Shakespeare concerning Henry V’s rise to power: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. The Henriad is a long saga that features a lot of bloodshed, philosophical rambling about divine right, and displays of ruthless pragmatism.

The first play, Richard II, is about how Henry IV overthrows Richard II when Richard robs Henry of his inheritance. The crux of the play is about whether or not Henry has a right to the crown after he’s returned and locked up Richard II. Technically he doesn’t, and a monologue delivered by the Bishop warns everyone of the catastrophic consequences of him ascending to a throne not given to him by God:

My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!

In The Wire, specifically in later seasons, there are characters who spend a good deal talking about how The Game is getting worse all the time, that “young’uns” don’t know the meaning of honor and respect. The most eloquent, powerful articulation of this occurs when Bunk goes to meet Omar about a shootout/murder he’s investigating. When Omar refuses to cooperate and tell Bunk what he knows about the shooting (going so far as to mock him about robbing him of his one eyeball witness), Bunk delivers a passionate speech about the neighborhood he grew up in and how badly the situation has deteriorated since then:

I was a few years ahead of you at Edmondson, but I know you remember the neighborhood, how it was. We had some bad boys, for real. Wasn’t about guns so much as knowing what to do with your hands. Those boys could really rack. My father had me on the straight, but like any young man, I wanted to be hard too, so I’d turn up at all the house parties where the tough boys hung. Shit, they knew I wasn’t one of them. Them hard cases would come up to me and say, “Go home, schoolboy, you don’t belong here.” Didn’t realize at the time what they were doing for me. As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you. And out where that girl fell, I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.

Things become even more dire when Stringer betrays Avon to take over the Barksdale operation (the crown of this particular storyline in the show) while Avon is arranging to have Stringer murdered by a hitman. Of course, neither of them take over: Stringer is killed, Avon is locked away in prison. Instead, Marlo, the young upstart on the corner, rises up and takes over. If the character of the Greek, as David Simon says, is the manifestation of pure Capitalism, then Marlo is the manifestation of power, or more accurately, the pursuit of it (“My name is my  name,” he shouts at his underlings when he finds out that Omar has badmouthed him in the very streets that he thinks he rules). It is Marlo who brings about The Wire‘s version of the Bishop’s speech, laying waste to the streets and killing off characters left and right in order to strengthen his reputation.

While it’s easy to demonize Marlo, I think there’s more validity in recognizing that in many ways he is a product of the environment he was brought up in, where concepts like friendship and honor are weaknesses that can compromise your strength or are weaknesses you can exploit in others. Of course, things go south for Marlo after he usurps Prop Joe of his throne as well (“I wasn’t made to play the son,” he says, like an impatient prince slaying his father).  The care and attention that the writers give to Marlo and Joe’s relationship is one of the best bits of the show.  Joe, perhaps unintentionally, develops an almost familial fondness for Marlo while trying to “civilize this motherfucker.”  The relationship is doomed since Joe sees everything in terms of money and family while  Marlo just hungers for power. He bids his time, learning how to run Joe’s operation until it’s time usurp him. It’s a storyline that’s perfectly encapsulated and foretold in ten seconds during the Season 4 closer where Marlo watches Joe meet with his business contacts (0:44):

The invisible line (seen only by the eyes of the camera and the viewer) that goes from the table, over the parking lot, and into Marlo sitting in his SUV watching is a visual representation of the lineage of kingpins in the Wire, where nepotism doesn’t play much of a role in determining one’s role in this culture (see Namond and Wee-bey) but instead strength and fierceness. Each new kingpin has to be more savage than the last, which  feeds into David Simon’s criticism of the ruthless competitiveness bred by capitalism.

I find that the ending of The Wire is actually more hopeful than people give it credit for being because, among other things, the storyline follows The Henriad structure to a tee. Henry V, after his father’s death, ascends the throne and becomes something of a paragon for the people, restoring England to its pre-Richard II state. Things are not ideal, but they are peaceful again…for the time being. After Marlo gives up the life of being a kingpin in order to live out an existence that’s value is foreign to him (trading power for money), a group of kingpins take over the drug operations in Baltimore; among them is Slim Charles, who rejects the idea that the drug trade must discard honor and respect by shooting Cheese, the nephew who offered Joe to Marlo on a silver platter. The cycle continues, sure, but we find people with morals in the positions of the people who came before them and failed in their duties. Pearlman is a judge. Daniels is a lawyer. Carver, who undergoes the most powerful transformation in the show, becomes a Lieutenant and will probably serve as a composite of Bunny Colvin and Daniels. Prez, a respected, confident teacher. McNulty, who became just as destructive as the bureaucracy and corruption he railed against, is banished, replaced by the more responsible Kima.

The Wire’s Baltimore is still a broken city, but perhaps it’s not as broken by the end.

On House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Southerness

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I was slow in getting to House of Cards. I’ve never cared for political shows, mostly because Sorkin’s are considered to be the cream of the crop and he doesn’t write characters as much as he writes walking microphones that screech his rants.

What got me interested in House of Cards was not only the show’s strong critical response but also the fact that Kevin Spacey’s character (Frank Underwood) was from Gaffney, South Carolina, which is near where I spent most of my life.

Spacey does a pretty good job, all things considered. His accent isn’t authentic, Southern accents rarely are in media; someone from Gaffney is likely going to sound a little different than someone from Columbia or Charleston or Greenville or Myrtle Beach. However, whatever slight disappointment with his accent I have is offset by the  unique and (to a degree) realistic portrayal of someone from South Carolina that both Spacey and the show’s writer, Beau Willimon, create.

When I was a kid, I really didn’t have any fictional role models that were from the South.  Growing up, the portrayals of the culture made by people who existed outside of it taught me that  Southerners were yokels with drinking problems who fell in love with family members while making sure to attend church every Wednesday and Sunday. Oh, the women could cook great food too.

I’ve always wanted to be intelligent and also be seen as being intelligent. In response to some these stereotypes, I spent a great deal of my childhood (as did several of my friends) trying to cover my accent. I avoided hunting not because of any ideological quandaries, but because it was something that hicks who were never going to leave the small towns they were born in did. My parents didn’t fill the typical Southern gender/familial roles either. My father cooked for us mostly while mom was away, driving back and forth to Columbia to get her nursing degree. Until I went to college, I was always felt like a kid sandwiched between two cultures–neither of which particularly wanted him.

In many ways I wish that Frank Underwood was on television when I was younger. Not because he’s a moral inspiration or virtuous character, but god, it’s so good to have a Southern character so divorced from that set of stereotypes (or using those stereotypes for their own ends) who still remains interesting and uniquely Southern. He’s vicious, yes, malicious, cold, cruel, manipulative, but the comfort that would have arisen out of having someone who represents my place in culture not be one of those aforementioned yokels would have been a Very Big Deal for teenage Javy.

Interestingly enough, the scariest part of the show to me is that Underwood is a product of South Carolinian culture just as much as he’s a product of the manipulative, ambitious Macbeth/Richard III archetype.

I’ve seen several generations of men, mostly white, wearing polos and Sperrys, who were either learning or teaching the lessons of  Machiavelli. I went to school with some of them; some of them taught me, others took me on field trips. Most of them are into business, not politics These aren’t naturally malicious people. They are instead people born into a culture, one that I would argue is particularly intense in this state, where everything in life is a zero-sum game and ruthless pragmatic decisions are often made behind  almost genuine smiles.

Underwood is an extreme, exaggerated product of this culture, sure, but the aspect of the South (and particularly South Carolina) that he embodies is one that we don’t see much in popular fiction. And while it’s not a portrayal that I really care to see mimicked, I would love for that same sort of unique characterization to occur for other Southern characters and character types that have their potential maimed by stereotypes and cliches.