Epistle 3 Jam

A week or so ago, Marc Laidlaw– a writer who worked at Valve for years, on HL1 and HL2– published a genderswapped Half Life 3 synposis on his blog. You can read it here. Laidlaw has been out of Valve for the last 18 months. This is probably as good a statement on HL3 as we are ever gonna get from anyone at Valve.

Taken separately, I find the first and last paragraphs of the piece very tragic and emotionally affecting:

And here we are. I spoke of my return to this shore. It has been a circuitous path to lands I once knew, and surprising to see how much the terrain has changed. Enough time has passed that few remember me, or what I was saying when last I spoke, or what precisely we hoped to accomplish. At this point, the resistance will have failed or succeeded, no thanks to me. Old friends have been silenced, or fallen by the wayside. I no longer know or recognize most members of the research team, though I believe the spirit of rebellion still persists. I expect you know better than I the appropriate course of action, and I leave you to it. Expect no further correspondence from me regarding these matters; this is my final epistle.

I do know the appropriate course of action: for us to make Half Life 3 ourselves, as we wish it to be. Half Life 3, it seems, was never really going to be a thing; the realest versions of it are a) this synopsis, and b) whatever version of it exists in the imaginations of us players. Half Life 3 may have never really been anything more than a phantasm in the minds of the people. Whatever we imagine Half Life 3 to be, that version has as much a claim to reality as anything else in the world. Half Life 3 is ours; it belongs to us; it’s up to us to make it.

And it’s better, isn’t there, that there be a hundred competing Half Life 3s, each representing a different facet of that communal hallucination? If Half Life 3’s realest manifestation is in our imaginations, then it’s necessarily an amorphous, many-faceted thing.

So I made this game jam on Itch, the best game jam platform around. There’s currently over 140 participants. I’m very excited to see what everyone makes! The jam has been covered in a couple places, and there have been a few submissions already, so I figured I’d address some of my thoughts on the project here on my blog.

I have very strong opinions on whether you should make a game complaining that Valve never released Half Life 3

You shouldn’t. I feel very strongly that it is a thousand times worse that Laidlaw & Co. never got to make the game they wanted to make than for us to be denied a game we wanted to play. We have played many wonderful games over the last decade. We did not suffer in any real way by missing out on HL3. Reading the blog post, though, it’s very clear that some Valve people did want very badly to make HL3, and that they couldn’t. That’s way sadder.

I’ve worked on a lot of canceled projects– seeing a creative possibility on the horizon and never being able to release it is probably the worst feeling there is. When something seems so real you can almost taste it, when you spend tons and tons of energy on a thing and never get to show it to anyone– that feels like death. It makes you feel like years of your life have been stolen from you. I personally feel like I wasted my early 20s on canceled projects. Those are years of my career I will never get back.

So even though HL3 is a community phantasm we all created together, I will feel somewhat responsible (and very sad) if people make a lot of jam games about how pissed they are at Valve. I hope we make things that make them happy, not sad. It doesn’t feel like they deserve people shitting on them over this.

There is no better way to get involved in game development than by making the real Half Life 3

I think that game jams are one of the best possible ways to get involved in game development.

One of the worst things that young creators do to themselves is take on gigantic projects and then fret forever about whether they are perfect (and then never release them!!). I did this about ten times before I released anything on my own and it’s bad!

Game jams, however, force you to pick a small topic and finish it completely. This is very good. And for people who are getting into game development because they are incredibly excited by great older games like Half Life, maybe picking a limited topic related to a game you like is a great way to get into game development.

Also, you get to put a game called “Half Life 3” as the first game on your itch account, which is pretty great.

Stop telling me we’re gonna get cease-and-desisted

I am not worried about us getting cease-and-desisted.

It’s not a script, it’s a synopsis.

The thing he wrote is not a script. I don’t know why it bugs me so much that outlets keep calling it a “script” when they write about the jam. I don’t want potential jammers thinking like there’s this script asset out there that they have to adapt. It’s more open-ended than that. There’s a lot of freedom for people to make whatever they want.

Also, readers can handle the word “synopsis” just fine, if that’s what you’re worried about.

It’s not a competition.

You can have competitive jams on itch. This isn’t one! I don’t think it would be in the spirit of the situation to run a competitive jam on this topic.

Everyone’s interpretation of this jam idea is super valid.

It’s exactly as cool and good– perhaps even cooler and gooder— for someone to make a dating game for this jam as it is for them to make an FPS. You super don’t have to make an FPS. Whatever you want to imagine HL3 as is exactly as valid as any other kind of thing. It belongs to you now; you can do whatever you want with it.

The synopsis is great and I love it.

I am a giant fan of the synopsis and I think the Breen-grub is the funniest shit. I love how weird the synopsis is; it sounds extremely Half Life-esque.

Thank you to everyone who’s covered the jam. I’m super excited to see what people make! The final versions will all be in on Halloween!

Frog Fractions 2/Glittermitten Grove will be at the Indiecade E3 Showcase

I’m excited to learn that Glittermitten Grove (Frog Fractions 2) will be at E3 this year! Indiecade is hosting a booth again and our game will be at it.

I’ll be at E3 again this year, but I’ll be stuck doing my day job and will only be stopping by the booth randomly. In fact, I’m not sure who will actually be at the booth, but I do know that it will be a fine place to check out the game. (If you can’t wait that long, just check out Youtube.)

I’ve spent the last few weeks helping to submit several games I’ve worked on to a variety of events and festivals and I gotta say: I never realized how expensive it was before! Most of these events have submission fees, and they pile up. It only reminds me how important it is for us to have a lot of indie curators working in public. Stuff like Warp Door is great, and itch.io’s front page, and @moshboy’s work on the massive 1000 gamemakers twitter thread. I miss freeindiegam.es a LOT. I’ve seen some people remark– often, people who have to stop working on curation for whatever reason– that the curation mechanisms of the past (often, the one they’re specifically working on) are obsolete, but I’m pretty sure that’s never been true. More than ever before, there are tons of free, small games to play, and few good ways of finding them.

I hope someday to have enough free time in my own life to run a curation site for small stuff, but right now I’m so busy (with stuff like… festival submissions!!!) that I don’t have time to even play many of those games, much less curate a selection of them.

Check out bitsy

Bitsy is a game creation tool in development by Adam Le Doux. It’s a bare-bones toolset for making small, stark, environment-explory games. I see it following in the tradition of Pico-8: both are game engines with strict limitations designed to encourage creativity within tight constraints.

The limitations in Bitsy are more intense, however. While Pic0-8 limits colors and filesize, Bitsy limits you to a specific category of tile-based game with arrow-key controls and a three-color palette. No sound. Nothing moves around but the avatar; all animations are limited to two frames. Nevertheless, people are able to achieve some really interesting things with this toolset.

Here are some examples of bitsy games I liked:

The Summit High by Sam Wrong

Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding by Cephalopodunk

Dog Walking, Dog Running, and Dog Still by Cephalopodunk

HIS ONLY LOVE by codejill

Modern Living by Night Driver

You’ve got three categories of objects to play with: a player avatar, environment tiles, and “sprites” which can trigger text boxes if the player bumps into them. The background is always a solid color; sprites and environment tiles can be different colors, and the player is always the same color as the sprites. This encourages a particular attitude toward the art which I find quite charming. Check out Dog Walking, Dog Running, and Dog Still above for some really neat ways of using pixel art, colors, and scene layouts.

Bitsy seems perfect for creating extremely short, poemlike games about low-stakes interactions or environment exploration. Unfortunately, I’m a garish asshole and the games I made with Bitsy this week are kind of senseless and berserk:

Don’t Go South, a game about not going south. My first attempt.

Goodfishas, about fish violence.

Reunion, SCI FI BODY HORROR!! focused around a specific visual joke.

The creator is going to add more features eventually, and takes feedback on Bitsy’s itch forum. If you are looking for a toylike gamemaking tool that will encourage you to be as creative as you can within the tightest possible constraints, check this one out. It’s extremely charming and I hope it flourishes.

I am now my own webmaster and my power is immense and mindboggling

I recently learned how to host my own sites through Amazon Web Services, so I’ve been migrating all the sites I own off of my friend’s server/my Namecheap hosting and storing them there. Namecheap is pretty, well, cheap, but I’ve decided I like the AWS hosting experience much better, and it’s honestly cheaper in the long run for a lot of the sites I own.

I’ve taken this opportunity to back up a lot of the Plus Ultra games hosted at plusultra.ninja, and to create more sensible locations for some of the older games and media which were previously only reachable at very specific weird locations on my old site.

New locations for some of my/my friends’ older games

Other cool stuff

I’ve also hosted some other media online for future reference.

Here is the ORIGINAL NORMAN REEDUS DEATH STRANDING TRAILER ZOOMED-IN BLURRY REACTION FACE MEME IMAGE CIRCA GDC 2016

It’s worth saying that I use this face repeatedly on twitter not because it means anything specific to me, but because its blandness achieves, I think, the perfect VOID of emotion. It is a null expression in that it’s a facial expression that communicates ABSOLUTELY NO EXPRESSION WHATSOEVER.

Also, it’s a bad, ugly face; I do not know why anyone is attracted to Norman Reedus. I can understand Kojima’s obsession with Mads, but his obsession with Reedus is totally baffling and suggests to me that Kojima is not a genius human, but, in fact, an ensorcelled victim ridden by some strange demonic spirit whose sexual tastes are totally orthogonal to normal human experience. Perhaps he sold his soul to the devil, and in exchange for giving him game development success, the devil cursed him with an attraction to the face and body of Norman Reedus. Who knows!

And, finally: here is the content of the excerpt of The Dream Journeys of Bram Hessom, as it appears in Frog Fractions 2/Glittermitten Grove.

People often contacted me after GMG came out to ask me where the rest of TDJOBH could be read. Sorry, the story can’t be read in full online!! I’m not done with it! But if you’d like to read the original form the story took when I was trying to write it for the first time in 2013, you can check out the ‘Under the Village’ unfinished demo linked above.

But, backstory: The Dream Journeys currently exists as a 90-page draft manuscript that requires major edits. I put the first 15 pages into Frog Fractions 2 because Jim suggested to me that I could put anything, “even a novel,” into the game– so I took him up on that offer.

I plan on finishing it– doubling its length, probably– and releasing it someday. It’s special to me because it is mostly just a sendup of late 19th/early 20th century adventure fiction like Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Lost World, etc. This genre was very influential to me as a child.

Plot-wise, The Dream Journeys is primarily about what happens to Bram after his biological father chooses not to kill him and instead banishes him to the fish world. While there, meets an anthropomorphic talking fish-man whose civilization was destroyed by his dad’s inter-dimensional crime syndicate. Bram and his new fish buddy, Tahey, parasite themselves onto a religious war in fish-land so that they can gain control over a radio-teleportation device and return to Earth. Instead of returning to Earth, however, they find themselves traveling here and there across an ancient network of worlds filled with many kinds of odd sentient creatures. (I cannot believe that this paragraph makes sense to me, but it does!)

My favorite thing about Jules Verne’s work is that it was, at the time, science fiction– but today it reads like fantasy. I started writing The Dream Journeys because I wanted to write fantasy about characters who believe that they are living in a science fiction story. The story’s title is actually a reference to another influential work I read when I was younger, HPL’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” which has a plot somewhat similar to the Dream Journeys, particularly in its fantastical elements. You can find the Dream Quest here. It’s a bizarre story with an ending that I find incredibly poignant . Nostalgia and homesickness are, it sometimes seems, a kind of constant and incurable curse that modern young adults in my profession are all forced to live under. We spend a lot of time making homes that will never quite match the rosy imagined fantasies of the places we used to live, and building fantasy worlds which blurrily reflect the vanished places and circumstances of our childhoods. I can’t quite tell you whether I fear or long for the moment when I realize my creative journey has really just taken me on a squirrely trip into the back of my own head.

One thing canceled, one thing on hiatus, new (commercial) games in progress

Hey folks, I know I’ve mentioned in the past that I will be releasing a sci-fi story collection called “Other Orbits.” I’ve decided not to do that anymore!

Other Orbits would have been an art overhaul of my already-released story The Hive Abroad, paired with two other stories that were new when I planned this collection: Redundant, and an unreleased story called The Long Slide, about a woman who is dying slowly from damage caused by the nanobots designed to keep her alive.

Anyway, two out of the three of these are now released. And I’m not really interested in finishing edits and polish on The Long Slide, partially because it’s just dark and miserable in a really unproductive way and represents the worst parts of my feelings about my own health issues. I think I’ll eventually replace The Hive Abroad with the new, art-updated version, but that’s it. Other Orbits is toast. Sorry! Nothing lost, really, though. Redundant is real good and you should play it!

I’ve got some other news which is a little more upsetting to me, though: Six Months is basically on hiatus for the first half of 2017.

The reason? I am doing too many other things. I wanted Six Months to be a proof of my writing and narrative design ability– I mean, I wanted to tell a good story, but I also wanted to create an amazing proof of skill. I wanted Six Months to be my resume, and I wanted it to be big and bold enough to cover up all those years when I was working on cancelled and failed games. But it’s been, like, three years now, and people are offering to pay me to make faster things which will be equally as good a proof of my skills, so– yeah. Six Months is going on the back burner while I get that stuff done.

I have every intention of finishing Six Months, because it’s kickass and I think people will buy it. Problem is, it’s literally novel-length. I just gotta ship my other stuff and wave it around in people’s faces and say “LOOK AT ME,  LOOK AT MY ‘SKILL SET,’ I’M GREAT!” And in the process I’m gonna learn Unity, which is going to make shipping Six Months even easier.

Anyway, here’s the stuff I’ve worked on/am working on right now, both in and out of games:

  • I wrote for Frog Fractions 2, and the stuff I wrote is hilarious, so when that comes out I’m gonna wave it hard as hell in your faces
  • I wrote for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which is also super cool. Beautiful weird stuff going on in that game! I’m very excited for people to someday see it.
  • I am doing story consulting and writing for a AAA game being developed in the LA area! But that’s a secret still.
  • I am going to be doing some amount of story consulting for an additional indie game!
  • My friend Nate Ruegger and I are writing a screenplay version of Redundant! We finished the first draft extremely fast and I am incredibly stoked about it. This will be the first thing I finish in 2017. It turns out that when two people who are eager to impress one another write a screenplay together, shit gets done! Fast!!
  • My friends Kent Sutherland and Brody Brooks and I are working on a new version of Words Must Die! We are making a whole new game with a slightly different linking mechanic and a whole lot more polish. We’re gonna sell it for money.

And I’m also working my day job! For years I’ve been working on side projects all night long after getting home from work, but the hours don’t match up in a way that leaves space for Six Months anymore.

And, to be honest, I have not worked on it in a month. It’s better to recognize that and make a plan to put it down (and take it back up again, eventually) so that I don’t wear myself out worrying about the fact I’m not working on it!

About story consulting: at my old job I worked with a creative partner who taught me a very specific iterative story-pitch process that I’ve now started using elsewhere. It’s good for early-stage story planning stuff and it’s great at helping non-writer team members understand the process and the possibilities involved in coming up with a story for their game. It’s also good for helping the writer understand exactly what the other parties’ critiques are about. I hope I get to use it at more places in the future because I like this process a lot and it’s produced really great results every time I use it!

Anyway, no fear: you will eventually be able to help a sweaty sad duke investigate his dead brother’s horrific grenade murder. Just not yet.

Ambient Mixtape 16 thoughts

Ambient Mixtape 16 is a collection of itch-hosted games that were all built in Unity, all use the same first-person camera controller, and were all themed around the concept of “After Hours.” The site says:

AM16 intends to showcase a diverse spectrum of independent developers and how their process interacts within shared constraints.

I played all the games in the collection and I pretty much liked them all. You should definitely check out as many of them as you can manage. Here’s my short thoughts on each of them:

Screenshot 2016-11-21 19.58.50.png

The Migration – Connor Sherlock

Connor Sherlock is a Very Good Developer whose work I have played and enjoyed before, and The Migration is pretty much More Good Connor Sherlock Stuff. This is a long atmospheric walk through a cold desert night. The colors are swell. There are pillars and monoliths all over the damn place, and eventually you reach a booming catharsis with some good-ass music. Please play this one. Please play all his stuff, actually.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD – Lycaon

This one lets you know right off the bat that it’s about the creator’s depression. I’ve played kind of a lot of games about depression over the last six or seven years, and this is certainly the one that has made me feel most physically anxious and uncomfortable– which is, like, a serious achievement! If you’re sensitive to flashing or flickering lights you might want to skip this game, but the rest of you should check it out. Really effective use of sound and disruptive visual effects. Short and strong, like a punch to the chest.

Screenshot 2016-11-21 20.07.56.png

t- e ni hтm-are of·`a c ty – Pol Clarissou

This game is evocative of a place and a feeling– being in a rainy city at night, feeling and hearing the cars pass by with violent speed in the dark. There’s no story content, but there’s some very cool disorienting effects. You can probably get a good feel of it in only two or three minutes. I am honestly not sure if there’s anything else here– I got quite turned around and lost, which is the point of the experience, i think.

Rotting Crescendo – René Rother

A cool puzzle and some atmospheric boat environment work. Beyond the mood, I am not sure that I “got” it– it ends with a an image-heavy but context-light poem that I am not sure is there to be “got”– but I did enjoy figuring out the puzzle.

touch me2 –  animal phase

There’s a cool gag here involving a FPS hand that I really enjoyed. Short as hell, but the gag is pretty sound, and it’s well-centered in the game. I feel like the creator could do a lot more with it– but regardless of whether or not they plan on that, this is Funny and Good and I liked it.

Panoptique – emptyfortress

A short walk through increasingly static-y hallways while dudes in shirts and ties shirts with computers for heads tell you how fucked society is. A little rough, compared to the others in the collection. I think I completed it in less than a minute.

Screenshot 2016-11-21 20.35.47.png

Exit 19 – Jack Squires

This one uses a neat noise effect on near landscapes and structures. Right away, this establishes a really interesting, coherent mood. Lighting and colors help a lot, too. There’s a huge environment to explore, though, and the signposting is not great, so I almost quit a few times before I suddenly stumbled upon the ending. The game will return you to the correct path if you wander away from it too much, but that brute-force method doesn’t feel great and there are a few environments where you can wander in circles again and again without figuring out where you should go. The scenes dotted around the desert are really damn spooky-good, though, and the music and sound design are great, and the weirdly Lovecraftian text snippets are fun. Worth checking out.

I Have Been There Twice – RoboCicero

A mysterious walk through a rainy brown city. You leave a track of glowing polygons behind you in the dark as you pass mothy orange lights and sealed-off doorways up the hill toward a glowing pillar of light. Another example of a really efficiently-captured and spooky mood. I ended the game by doing SOMETHING weird, and I’m not sure if I really saw the whole thing, but it was chill nevertheless.

Screenshot 2016-11-22 00.56.14.png

Media is dead, you are alive – MrTedders

Perhaps the most explicitly gamey of all the games in this collection. It has puzzles with rules and a learning curve. It has an appealingly noisy pixelly aesthetic. It has calm robot-y voices that chant quotes from games studies texts at you in environments made of throbbing polygons. I am not sure that I actually completed it– got to a pulsating greyish screen at one point and just figured I was done. I am a big fan of weird throbbing polygon environments, though, and these were some good ones.

About the collection in general: the site seems to say that the collection is meant to show people making diverse works within a shared set of constraints– perhaps to show a lot of very different takes on a simple idea, the way a game jam does. The restraints were pretty loose, too: just a shared camera controller and a vague-as-hell theme.

However, these games were pretty damn similar across the board. That’s not bad, really! All of these were pretty much the kind of thing I like to play in a single-session environment-explorer. But these creators did demonstrate a common fascination with rainy city nights, giant (Lovecraftian?) edifices, and a kind of blurry-edged cosmic-horror-slash-existential-despair. I was glad to see touch me2 explore some different ground, tonally.

Similarities aside, though, these creators are really really talented at capturing that kind of vague dread. I was particularly impressed by The Migration, Exit 19’s art and audio aesthetic, the rainy distortion in t- e ni hтm-are of·`a c ty, and the repetitive thudding despair of The House that Dripped Blood.

I hope the organizers do another one of these in the future!

The Brigand’s Story

This Halloween, I released a kind of interactive short story/game based on a cyclical story-chant kind of a thing that my friends and I used to tell in grade school. The story goes like this:

It was a dark and stormy night, and around the campfire burning bright sat brigands large and brigands small. And the captain, turning to his lieutenant, said: Antonio! Tell us one of your most famous stories! And Antonio began: it was a dark and stormy night, and around the campfire burning bright sat brigands large and brigands small…

The story repeats endlessly– or until you get tired of telling it. I looked it up in October out of curiosity and found this livejournal post and comments section, which together contain so many alternate versions of the story that I was honestly blown away. I’d thought I was telling the rhyme in some standard form, but it turns out that there’s so many different versions of it that there isn’t even really an obvious “official version” of it to pin down. (There is, however, an “Antonio” in most of them.)

I immediately had the idea for an interactive short story or game where you live through several versions of some fantastical, time-looping bandit-and-Antonio-related event. I cracked it out as fast as possible and released it Halloween morning.

You can find it on itch here. You can find it online here.

I am very proud of this story– I am genuinely pleased with the results and I wrote it in three weeks flat while I was also busy doing a hundred other things, displaying, I suppose, a discipline and efficiency with story-writing that I strive for but rarely actually reach? Anyway, I hope you take some time to play it! It’s got only one significant choice and only one firm ending, but it does have two alternate ending-paths which you can explore, and a few “environments” where you can read things out of order and draw your own conclusions about what’s going on in the tale.

Words Must Die – Pippin Barr Game Idea Jam

I am a huge fan of Pippin Barr and his enigmatic “game idea” tweets, so when I saw that they were running a jam based on those tweets– like, a better Molyjam– was all over that shit absolutely instantly. My friends and I wrangled up a gigantic team (for a jam, anyway) and we made a game called Words Must Die.

You can find Words Must Die here.

It’s the first jam game I’ve made in Unity. Well, I didn’t do any of the coding or touch Unity very much, but my friends Brody, Rosstin, and Brian did, and they did a phenomenal job. Here’s the full list of participants:

This was a thrill to work on, and it makes a really excellent stupid idea that Kent, Rosstin and I had over a year ago into a real, good thing. And we worked with a lot of new people and that was super great!

Definitely check out the rest of the Game Idea Jam entries, because this was an extremely good jam idea.

Update! We’ve been covered on the following sites:

Rock Paper Shotgun: “It’s certainly the best western-themed FPSIF I can think of.”

Kotaku: “Words Must Die is what happens when a first person shooter and visual novel have a beautiful baby.”

Some Hungarian site: “Üdvözlet a vadnyugaton, ahol rosszarcú cowboyok és levegőben lebegő szövegrészek állják majd az utadat.”

And a bunch of YouTubers!

About excavating old projects

I have nearly all of my writing saved from about 7th grade onward. From 7th grade, I’ve got a single essay about Of Mice and Men; after that, I have nearly every essay or story I ever wrote saved in whatever file format I wrote it in. It’s incredible. I’ve got every typed Latin translation I did in 8th grade. I’ve got the application I wrote to my school’s yearbook committee in 9th grade:

yearbook9thgrade

From 10th grade I have an incredibly insulting poem I wrote in rhyming couplets about my English teacher, who was notorious for sloppy grading and passing out in her office on Robitussin. I actually distributed this one to my classmates, who never revealed me as the (extremely obvious, in retrospect) writer:

rageofgillis

From 11th grade I have another poem, untitled, in a document called “hmm.doc”, which, among other things, claims that we’re going to be graded poorly at the end of the world by god if we eat too much salad:

11thgradepoem

From 12th grade I have an incredibly elaborate script I wrote for my partners in a history class mock trial. We did an extremely large number of mock trials in 12th grade AP Euro, and for several of them I wrote all the prep materials for my partners and tried to get them to memorize various arguments. I once made a classmate cry in a mock trial:

12thgradepug

I have most of my notes from college; a few years were lost to broken hard drives. The most impressive schoolwork I’ve found so far is a folder full of notes and drafts I made of a paper about plays about Robespierre. I took 43 pages of preparatory notes from the various papers and plays I read in prep for this piece:

robespierrepaper

The result of all this was a paper titled “Why Robespierre has no ‘personal life'” which was so good and so much fun to write that I physically shook and cried when I finished writing it. My history professor liked it so much that she offered to submit it to a competition for me; unfortunately, she sent the email after the end of the term, and I did not read it until the next year, when the deadline had passed. I just reread the paper now and I love that I got to write something so bizarre and interesting. It includes stuff like this:

robespierrepaperexcerpt

It’s fun to look back at my old schoolwork; I really truly and deeply loved being a student, and I had some fun successes, and the research work I produced as an undergrad is still entertaining for me to read today.

The fiction I wrote as a child and a teenager, however, is physically painful for me to read!!

Some background information: when I was in 6th grade, my close friend Liz approached me in the after-school program and handed me a floppy disk containing a 30-40 page fantasy story she had written. She asked me to read it and tell her what I thought. I remember that I said quite nice things to her– nicer than I really felt, because it was a romance story and I did not like or understand romances. It took place in a world highly similar to the Stock Fantasy World we all read about in Lord of the Rings and Lord of the Rings ripoffs, but the horses had six legs, and that really bothered me, for some reason.

I had an astonishing number of uncharitable private thoughts about her story, actually. I remember sitting in the after-school program room and giving her suggestions and suddenly clamming up when I became aware of the sheer number and crankiness of the suggestions I had stored up in my head. I’d written my own “books” in composition journals before– lots of talking-animal tales– and after seeing Liz’s work I was suddenly consumed by the desire to write an entire novel on a computer. My own novel, following the suggestions I’d been telling her before I suddenly recognized them for my own taste.

So I basically started writing fiction because I wanted to privately show up one of my best friends. This doesn’t reflect well on me. But right there, that very day, at that exact computer, with Liz’s story open on a window in the background, full of indignation that her horses had six fucking legs, I began writing a fantasy novel in 10-point Arial font.

It ballooned to over 300 pages by the end of 8th grade, when I finished it. It absolutely consumed my free time. Throughout those years I kept various version-controlled copies of the story burned to CDs and hidden in jewel cases taped to the back of my dresser and the underside of my desk drawer. I still have all those copies, saved on various external hard drives:

chronicle-version-control

This means I can go back in time to the earliest version of this story and read it. It’s the one down at the bottom in .rtf format, and it is the actual file that I typed and saved on that school computer where I read Liz’s story. (I actually kept it saved there at school for months until my dad mentioned at dinner that it was possible for hard drives to fail.) Anyway, here are the first two paragraphs:

chronicle-first-version

That, right there, is my 6th-grade storytelling. I absolutely love my strict dedication to sticking the exclamation point after the parentheses.

I hate absolutely everything else about this story. Not only is it silly young-person writing, but it embodies some life attitudes and political sensibilities that I no longer agree with, and it makes me very uncomfortable to see my child self proselytizing them in a book about wizards who wear color-coded clothes like karate masters and spend a lot of time arguing about the semantics of the word “werewolf”.

was-wolf

The biggest reason these stories make me uncomfortable, though. is that I am still subconsciously excavating them for writing material today.

Between 6th and 12th grade, I wrote four different novel-length stories. Three of them were rehashes or recyclings of the story I started writing when Liz showed me her six-legged-horse romance in the after-school room. The first version, above, started out as some kind of weird action story political thriller thing with wizard politicians sentencing one another to imprisonment before racing to kill an evil wizard at the north pole who lived with t-rexes in a cave. (It’s deeply uncomfortable to read now, but I have to recognize that it was badass.)

The second story I wrote was a super-confused sequel. (It had no t-rexes.) The third story, though, was a complete remix of the original premise. I saved the city names and two of the character ideas and completely redid everything else while keeping generally to the same themes. But one of the characters I saved was a wizard– and then he got recycled again when I started rewriting the story as an adult, and guess the fuck what– he’s been recycled a couple more times and now he’s in Six Months. He’s your research assistant in that story. He’s completely different and I no longer write like an 11-year-old, but the bones are still visible to me, and Jesus Christ, guys, this is terrible! This is terrifying! I’m trying to write a novel-length game which I now completely and fully realize is based on recycled material I created in the sixth fucking grade!

The cool thing about writing is that your time spent doing it is never wasted. Even if you write something that is never published, you are getting better every moment you spend toiling away. I once wrote well over a hundred quests for a cancelled game, and freaked the fuck out when I learned we were ceasing development. The next day, though, I woke with some kind of spooky icy calm and told myself that I’d learned so much doing it that it wasn’t actually a waste. Spooky-me was right. Writing is the hard work we do to communicate with other people, but even if other people never get to see it, you’re getting better at the communicating, so it’s fine. It’s fine! It’s okay.

It seems however that I’ve been subconsciously saving a lot more from my middle school works than I thought I was. I wasn’t just taking new skills with me when I moved on. I wasn’t just recycling place-names. My work is built on some really old fucking bones and I had no idea how old and how obvious those bones were until I read all this shit today.

Everyone tends to have their own private-but-obvious themes that they gravitate to in their writing– even their most commercial and crass writing. In 2014, I wrote like three different versions of the same relationship in three different failed writing projects, and in December of that year, I suddenly laid all those stories out next to one another and nearly shat myself.

When it comes to stories about wizards who live in renaissance-era cities, I have been writing for like fourteen or fifteen fucking years about, apparently, the same couple people, doing the same couple things off and on as they skip between stories and contexts and shitty fucking magic systems. Soller in Six Months combines the ignorance and cunning I gave various of his older selves in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2012. Simon Villano is actually this humble old regent dude from the 2006 story, which I wrote in high school:

villano

Later in that story he is so nervous about fighting a battle that he barfs in a closet. I knew I was recycling those themes, but I had no idea how closely I was sticking to them!

A lot of people keep elaborate moleskins of notes so that they can refer to them later and mine their passing thoughts for good creative work. I used to do this in college. These days, though, I am almost never more than two feet away from something with Google Docs on it, so I actually try writing out a couple paragraphs of any idea I have to see if it feels good or not. I have hundreds of page-long moments saved in my Drive where I tried an idea out and realized it sucked, actually.

But the very first idea I ever had is still haunting me, apparently. Does that make it shitty? Sure feels that way to me, even though I know that feeling’s wrong. Maybe recycling these ideas over and over again for fifteen years has made them extra good. Maybe I tumbled the sediment out and only the gems are left.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. Who knows? We’ll find out, eventually.

My old Imaginary Games Jam prompts

I mentioned a while ago that I might upload the prompts I wrote for the Imaginary Games Jam, the jam I created OBAWCATRVOS for. For this jam, we were asked to review games which either did not exist or could never exist. I invented a few impossible hardware platforms (augury, interactive bathroom mirrors), genres that never existed (Japanese cowboy games, games where you lie completely still and pretend to be a corpse), and a prompt even I cannot completely understand now (what the hell was I thinking the editing game would play like?)

Someone picked Sub Way to inspire their work for the jam; the rest were passed over. Anyway, here they are:

Sub Way (Sam Guss) (Resultant game here)

Heads up: this is not an entry-level augury. Guss has provided the setting details and code necessary to get the game started, but you’ll need to provide your own sheep and duck. All told, the start-up costs for this title ran me over $400, in addition to the game itself. Of course, Sub Way also requires a certain familiarity with standard oracular procedure– die-casting, leaf-reading, livers, cards, and dream-interpretation all make an appearance. Anyone with at least a high-school-level of forecasting skill should be able to get to the end of the game.

Because, let’s be honest: Sub Way isn’t doing anything exciting with the form. The actual augury gameplay is pretty routine, and if you’re looking for some really tricky and thrilling predictions to execute, you’ll be disappointed. As a mood piece, though, this is sublime. Guss eschews a “realistic” fictional future in favor of a highly-stylized one where everything seems to exist barely outside the realm of the possible– a really weird feeling to have in a genuine augury. Everything’s a little too dark, a little too apocalyptic. Prussia doesn’t exist. People use buttonless cellphones. New York has below-ground tramlines. Divining such a profoundly false future feels really, really odd. I’d love to know more about how Guss pulled it off.

If you’re looking for a chance to play, Guss will be releasing a patch that updates the game for next month’s lunar calendar. Though the forecasts are a little boring, the story is great, and anyone with the luxury of eight free nights in March (and some extra budget for livestock) should give it a shot.

Shaving (dreamblind)

This mirror install is one of the better ones I’ve played over the last year. It runs on Samsung and Google bathrooms (sorry, Apple die-hards) and any model from those brands with eye-tracking should do the trick. You don’t need to actually be capable of growing a beard to play.

Told over the course of fourteen mornings in St Petersburg in 1998, Shaving swaps your reflection for that of Ivan, a 14-year-old whose father has been threatened by the mob. Each session lasts about 15 minutes, which is about how long it takes Ivan to shave. You could technically play it all the way through at once, if you can bear to stand up in your bathroom for that long, but I spaced it out over two weeks.

Did I love it? Well– I loved what it was trying to be. It’s probably the buggiest game I’ve played this year! The razor-tracking was horrible– the blades kept clipping into Ivan’s skull, and I had to restart one day after this caused Ivan to cut his ear off. I encountered another bug on Day 8 that made it impossible for me to actually get the hairs to come off his face, and on Day 11 the game failed to load Ivan’s model and made me play with just his voice in an empty bathroom– which made shaving extremely difficult. The story, though, is gripping– some of the tensest shit I’ve seen in a while. If you ever wanted to play a thriller in your bathroom, this is probably the best (only?) one that currently exists.

Slick Willy (Taharbrand)

Okay, okay: it’s another corpser. The usual critics are calling Slick Willy totally tasteless, but I’m an apologist; there’s honestly more going on here than most people are willing to acknowledge. Yes, ‘Willy’ has no skin. Yes, you’ll spend most of the game in a morgue refrigerator. But this time, the focus is on what’s outside the refrigerator, not what’s in it.

Slick Willy is really more like Jane Eyre than last year’s Dead Jane. Taharbrand have crafted a bizarre and extremely fraught, melodramatic love-triangle romance catastrophe between the three young lab techs who admit Willy’s corpse and take care of the morgue. At normal volume levels, their conversations will be dimly audible just outside the refrigerator. Players must lie very still and quietly in the real world in order to hear the things Clarissa, Bryan, and Robin are saying to one another in the game. These listening sections are interspersed with more traditional corpser content on the dissection-table, but the real guts of the tale– ha, ha, ha– are the refrigerator sections.

I think this probably deserves to be the game that brings corpsers to the mainstream, but given the outraged backlash this title got even before it was released, I don’t think it will be. But if you’ve got an extra ten bucks, a pair of really good headphones, and an open mind, you should give Slick Willy a shot.

The Life and Times of Virginia Stennig (Diane Crisp)

Virginia Stennig’s been billed as a ‘interactive editing experience,’ but let’s be honest: it’s a bad shooter. You’ll be spending most of your time shooting. Crisp released the game alongside an ebook explaining that we are only supposed to be shooting the parts of the text we don’t like, but I’m worried that so many people will be shooting so many sentences that she’ll assume we’re all trolling her. But really: no sentence in the story is good enough to spare a bullet.

I usually enjoy games which allow me to play at shooting things I don’t like, but the shooting in Virginia Stennig is awkward, buggy, and unsatisfying. When you shoot a sentence it only turns a slightly lighter shade of grey. The shots lag considerably after each click, and the gunshot sounds are canned and unrealistic.

And worst of all, of course, is the book itself. It’s one of those sprawling alternate-history family epics that are absolutely swamping the market right now. Look: I am totally done with  bildungsromans where the hero travels abroad to find their lost Soviet rocket-engineer grandmothers. I am so done with them. And now that I’ve had to edit a bad one with a gun, I’m done-r than I’ve ever been.

Laredo Tale (Choice Choice)

I assumed that this modern sequel to 1995’s Dodge City Tale would suck, but god, was I wrong. If anything can be called a true revival of the classic Japanese cowboy game, this is it. This has gotta be it.

You’ll be spending most of your time out on horseback on the prairie with the cows and the other cowboys, but there are plenty of town sections, and a few action sequences both in-town and in dramatic natural environments. The game can’t properly be said to be ‘open world,’ but the environments are big enough to disguise this. The game certainly benefits from a largely linear focus.

It also benefits from major changes to the character-customization system. The game no longer limits you to playing a straight white man: you can now play a cowboy of any race or gender you please, and dude cowboys can romance the other dude cowboys on the trail. It seems like series creator Tetsuya Highsmith has been reading the fanfiction.

Finally, fans of the classic cow-organization gameplay will be absolutely thrilled with Laredo Trail. Pasture simulation is better than it’s ever been, and the game makes use of the same ‘MASSIVE’ software used to simulate battles in Lord of the Rings to simulate cow movement and clashes between rival cow herds. All in All, Laredo Tale is an absolute triumph, and possibly heralds new life for the entire genre.