Monday, October 31, 2011

Spookymilk Survivor X: Community Story

I was going to hold off on this one until I had posted the next entry in my video game list, but that one's sort of being annoying to write, and there's about 8 other blogs who have already gotten the jump on me on this one, so I'll be a sheep and follow along.

This week's challenge was actually quite a punch for so early in the game. It was "Community Story". Essentially, you got together with your seven teammates and told a story together, with each member of the team writing a section.

Before I get ahead of myself, here's my little portion (read the whole thing, unedited, with no attributions at the bottom of this post. To figure out who did what and how much the judges loved it, go here).

Roger was going to let down those who had depended on his timely arrival, and he was growing increasingly mindful of the fact that it might all be for nothing. This was a losing battle; he could only hope to delay it just long enough to put Thomas in more capable hands. Any hands that weren’t his would do. He mumbled a hundred prayers to no god in particular as he counted down the mile markers.

“Just a little further now. You can hold on ’til then, can’t you, Thomas?” he said – mostly to himself, his passenger had passed out miles back. Keeping his eyes on the road, Roger leaned over to check on his companion. Thomas’ breathing was shallow and labored. He was running out of time. They both were.

By the time Roger finally saw the harsh fluorescent lights of the hospital parking lot in the distance, the rescue mission had failed. There was nothing to do now but make one final delivery.

Here are the judges' comments:

K: Huh, I thought our climax would seem bigger. I’d take more bombast on Thomas’s death. Nice writing, I was just expecting something more…unexpected. I won’t take that out on the writer, though. 4

DK: And a strong climax, that evolves pretty fluidly from the way the previous action built up. It also, in my opinion, helps the flow because it starts to settle into the resolution (such as it is) even though this section is labeled “climax” solely. 4

From the beginning, our primary concern was to make the story read as straight through as possible. Meaning, we toned down individual styles to a certain extent to speak with as similar a voice as we could manage. Spooky mentioned that he was surprised that my section didn't seem "bigger". I actually tried to keep it as low key as I could without going catatonic on it. The rider just dies... the driver fails the rescue and his goals... neither needs much fanfare to be compelling, besides, Matt's denouement was more interesting if I let my part just sort of sadly conclude.

This was kind of a beast, but the team communicated like pros. Here's the finished product, with limited commercial interruption...

Thomas knew 1-90 would take him all the way to the coast, but any passing motorist noticing him would have been disinclined to believe that he could make it more than another mile. The man wore only one shoe, and his right arm was held against his chest, cradled by the left. A sock, formerly white, flapped in ragged tendrils around an ankle that was scabbed and discolored by road grime, and two black eyes, framed by a mat of hair that was held together in clumps by some viscous residue, looked towards the horizon with a despairing certainty. It was late afternoon on this length of interstate, and the saw grass clanked dumbly together while the sky became the color of bronze in an alchemist’s smelter. No one stopped. Thomas did not, and could not lift a hand with a thumb extended to beg a ride. The apparent injury to his arm prohibited him from doing much more than stagger forth, driven by some internal engine that ran on pain. Overhead, Cooper’s hawks spun in dizzying circles, riding thermals under a flat, dead sky. The shoeless foot made flat, wet slaps against the macadam. He walked on.

Though Roger didn’t consider himself a loner, he did prefer the long hours he spent with the deep growl of his rig to the arduous time he spend listening to the high-pitched barking of human discourse. He avoided banal blabbering as much as he could, selecting instead to continue the conversation he and his machine had been sharing for sixteen years.

Despite his sonic preferences, he justified his apparent loneliness by helping those asking for his help. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he only helped because it satisfied his need to feel above the people that depended on him. If he bothered to give that fact any thought, he’d probably also realize he had begun driving a truck to feel separate yet superior, to those people anxiously awaiting his deliveries. He had never been late for a delivery, nor lost one piece of cargo. Merchants around the country knew him as “Reliable Roger” and he delighted in knowing he was like a god to these people- in fact he felt like a king, perched high above the road, lord of all he surveyed.

Roger took a sip from the cold, bitter coffee. Over the years, he’d come to prefer day-old Folgers. It gave him a shock that fresh coffee could not provide. He slid the cup into its holder and caught a glimpse of someone in the distance, sitting on the road barrier, under a highway light. It was clearly a strategic placement. Roger lifted his foot from the gas pedal. As the truck slowed, he was able to get a better look at the man ahead. He was holding his arm, the way someone having a heart-attack might. He appeared to be in rough shape. His clothes were ripped. He wasn’t wearing shoes. Roger could easily spot a homeless person, and this man did not strike him as such. Something was obviously wrong. He made the decision to stop.

​Thomas noticed the truck slowing down. Using his good arm, he stood himself up and waved. The truck came to a stop just past him. He grabbed the one shoe he had left, and limped his way toward the truck. He called out in desperation, “I’ve been hit. I need a doctor. Nobody will help me.”

As the barefooted wayfarer approached Roger’s truck he peered into her large passenger’s side mirror. Seeing the man slowly shuffling towards the door, Roger felt a tightness in his chest. His would-be passenger clearly needed a lot of assistance; assistance that Roger knew he was unequipped to provide. He reached down to his coffee cup and took a long sip as his mind raced.

Despite the pride he felt from his perfect delivery record, Roger had very little confidence in his ability to do much else. When confronted with a task that was anything but trucking, he was aloof. His estranged family could attest to this. Admitting his shortcomings was below him, so his brain worked to find the most convenient excuse to avoid the failure he felt was inevitable. 

When reaching across the cab to unlock the door, his arm brushed against his truck’s freshly upholstered passenger seat. Roger found his absolution. We wouldn’t want anyone to stain your pretty new seats, would we girl? Roger thought. She responded with her soothing rumble as Roger shifted her back into gear.

Thomas felt that familiar foreboding that accompanied another missed ride. He pictured himself insubstantial, the gravel spit up by the tires of this truck passing straight through him without leaving a mark. If he acknowledged them, even these small impacts would be enough to fell him.

The driver’s eyes shifted between the dashboard clock and his side mirror that showed the unmoving hitcher receding behind him. In the time it took Roger to calculate just how far behind schedule he was, whatever strings had been holding the hitcher upright were snapped and he collapsed forward, splaying his ragged legs over the white line bordering the highway.

“Damn Gipetto,” Roger muttered, as he put his hand on the stick. He stayed on the gas for a quarter mile, but his conscience eventually ran out of plausible excuses for not turning back. He glanced at the clock, sighed, and took the next ramp.

As he approached the wretched man, Roger looked for signs of life but saw nothing obvious. Part of him hoped he would fine none, as much for the man’s sake as his own. But as he nudged the man’s arm with his boot, he heard a faint cough. “Alright, buddy,” Roger whispered, hoisting the man up and into the bed of his truck. “You owe me one.”

Driving faster than even he considered safe, Roger looked down at his new passenger, as well as the fresh blood now staining the seat. His stare was greeted with one from the stranger. “Thank you,” the man said, his voice trembling.

“You got a name?” Roger asked.
“A last name?”
His new friend passed out.

Roger was going to let down those who had depended on his timely arrival, and he was growing increasingly mindful of the fact that it might all be for nothing. This was a losing battle; he could only hope to delay it just long enough to put Thomas in more capable hands. Any hands that weren’t his would do. He mumbled a hundred prayers to no god in particular as he counted down the mile markers.

“Just a little further now. You can hold on ’til then, can’t you, Thomas?” he said – mostly to himself, his passenger had passed out miles back. Keeping his eyes on the road, Roger leaned over to check on his companion. Thomas’ breathing was shallow and labored. He was running out of time. They both were.

By the time Roger finally saw the harsh fluorescent lights of the hospital parking lot in the distance, the rescue mission had failed. There was nothing to do now but make one final delivery.

Dazed, Roger continued towards the hospital, a rudderless ship drifting into port, and, arriving, made his way to the attendant.
“Can I help you sir?”
“There’s a dead man in my truck.”
He turned, answering all of her questions with an absent wave of his hand, and headed back to the truck. Opening the door, as a blue-scrubbed doctor rushed towards him, Roger saw that the cab was empty.
There was no body.
“He died right here,” Roger stammered, “His blood…”
There was no blood on the seat.
“Thomas?” The doctor asked knowingly.
“Yeah.” Roger sat, stunned, on the blacktop.
“Yeah. You’d best move on.”
Thomas started slowly, shuffling through the grey dust that had settled over the years. Sighing, he flexed against the ethereal tether. He was still bound to the road. Dutifully, head down, grabbing at his injured side, he moved along the margins, seeking out a ride.
Perhaps tonight he would find his release.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Spookymilk Survivor X: Challenge 1 (Fiction 59)

Welcome back to a new season of Spookymilk Survivor! This is my fourth season, so I'm finally starting to get the hang of all the backstabery and malfeasance. This season is back to a more writing-based challenge structure, which is cool with me, because that's what drew me to the game in the first place.

My team is the embarrassingly named "Nibbish and His Vogons". I don't quite know what to think of that, but I suppose it'll teach me to be called away when Beau wants to discuss naming the team. Speaking of the team, the rest of the Vogons certainly seem like a formidable bunch, we've got a former winner, a former two-time winner, and a slug of people who seem to generally be awesome at this whole thing. I hope I'm not in over my head.

The first challenge was, as always, the Fiction 59. Basically, the point is, make a self-contained story using exactly 59 words. Here is my entry:

He started tiring six miles into the trip. The directions were clear, but the journey seemed impossible. He only wanted to see the louvre, eat Flamiche, and maybe flirt with some pretty girls. Instead, he was going to drown in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Fucking Google Maps” was all he could think as his head dipped underwater that final time.

Here's what Spooky and the new judge, DK,responded with:

Spooky: Don’t hate me, but this is totally what I want out of this challenge. There’s a hell of a stinger, and the more I think about it, the funnier it is (and the harder it is to believe that it was delivered in 59 words). This sounds like something only I would do, what with my rotten sense of direction. 5
DK: Stories where people die because of bad luck or circumstance, if the pathos is there, are kind of a sweet spot for me (cause I’m a sick, sick dude) and the unfolding of the situation is great. 5

In the past, my issues with this challenge have rarely stemmed from the word count, I just can't seem to find a story I want to tell with those 59 words. For most of this week, it was no different. I toyed with the idea of a machine (or a lovecraftian beast) that craved human sacrifice, a novice porn star paired up with his second grade teacher, and a bunch of different scenarios that had two things in common.

a) they sort of sucked
b) I had no reasonable way to tell the story I wanted to tell in 59 words.

I finally came up with the idea of a guy who wants to go to France, but is confounded by the directions Google Maps gives him (side note: the swimming idea came from the fact that a couple of years ago, getting directions to an overseas destination would result in a step that required the inquirer to swim across the ocean that separated them from their goal. This was hilarious, but unfortunately seems to have been taken out of the software). I wrote the rough draft and word counted it - it was 84 words. I didn't really have any entire sentences that I could rip out without crippling everything, so I went to work on slimming it. Phrases like "eat some foreign food" became "eat Flamiche". Next, I cut out as many adverbs as I could without making things confusing or bland (adverbs tend to be a serious problem with my writing, anyway... I like to put lots of them in). After a ton of rewording and hacking, I was left with the magic 59, and I hit 'send'. Simple as that.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 30

Moment number 30 comes to us from the game Tony LaRussa's Ultimate Baseball II (which I recently proclaimed my 42nd favorite game, along with a minor spoiler for this very moment). I don't have the proper version of this game for this particular moment to work, anymore (it's sort of a bug, which has since been fixed), so it's really not a spoiler of any type - and certainly nothing you're likely to encounter.

However, I've done the whole page jump thing on every one of these so far, so I may as well press on.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top 50 Video Games: Number 30

Stats of Import

Platform: Originally played a demo in a store on the Dreamcast, but the bulk of it was played via Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Absurdly Specific Genre: Bullet Hell
Difficulty: 10. I suppose that could come down to a 8 or 9 if you devoted your life to playing it, but I've never played a more difficult game for any length of time*
Beaten: Nope**, I'm about halfway. I devote about a day a month to trying to beat whatever level is next, but I'm quite stuck on the 3rd level boss.

* (cue the "but... Battletoads!!" crowd. To those of you, I say, Battletoads really wasn't that fun after about twenty minutes. If they had made a full game based off of the delirious fun that the first couple of levels had to offer without succumbing to "ha, you die!" gameplay, it would've been one of the great games of the NES console. As it stands... No.)

** Technically, I suppose I beat it. On easy. With infinite continues. With a friend. That is not beating a video game.

In most games that seek to test your skills, there comes a point where you die for the hundredth time in a row, toss the controller lightly to the side, stare at the screen, and wonder just how the the hell do I beat this? Whether it's a particularly hard boss, a grouping of a particularly difficult enemies, or simply a puzzle that breaks your brain, these sections of video games frustrate and infuriate until finally, they relent, and for a couple beautiful moments, everything becomes reflex.

Ikaruga is that devilish section over and over again.

This part took an embarrassing number of tries. Now I could do it in my sleep.

Almost every segment of the game stands in stone faced opposition of you. There is no slopping your way through the game, either the waves upon waves upon waves of bullets slowly seep into your muscle memory, or you simply die. Most games of that nature become old for me after... about ten minutes (I Wanna Be the Guy stands out in particular in this matter - I'm not aware of a more masochistically difficult game in existence, but I simply cannot play it). Ikaruga has near infinite play value for me.

For me, the most interesting part of the game is the polarity switch gimmick. Your ship absorbs bullets as long as they are the same color as the ship itself. If you're white, you absorb white and vice versa. Enemies will fire shots that are the same color as they are, but will be damaged twice as much by the opposite color. Utilizing that white/black switching becomes critical to your survival.

Determining which color you need to be at a particular moment can get... difficult.

The graphics are absolutely gorgeous. Everything is shiny and smooth, the dichotomy of the game splits all the enemy vehicles into white and black (actually sort of a dark red, at least as fair as the bullets are concerned), but within that palette, the design team made a game full of vivid and unique looking machines. The bosses range from almost insectoid in nature, to large and wheel-like, and are each distinctive.

The difficulty is extreme, though, and every time I play Ikaruga, I'm left with one overarching thought: I'm probably never going to beat this game - not the way it's meant to be beaten.

I guess I'm okay with that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 31

Great video game moment number 31 comes to us from the cowboy epic Red Dead Redemption. If you haven't played this game yet, then shame on you - the game itself is going to appear on the other list in the future. Buy it, or give it to a friend and then immediately borrow it for a few months like I did. Don't let the western theme throw you, this is a great game. If you have played Red Dead Redemption, you still might not have figured out which moment I've chosen, so find out after the jump.

Top 50 Video Games: Number 31

Stats of Import

Platform: XBox 360
Absurdly Specific Genre: Metroidvania
Difficulty: It was pretty easy, I'd give it a 4 or 5
Beaten: Yes, I'm actually closing in on 100% completion, which I've only ever done with one other game.

In Christmas of 2009, my brother-in-law's gift to me consisted of a sheet of paper with this image printed on it, along with a download code. I had heard of the game Shadow Complex, but downloadable content still seemed an odd gift. My brother-in-law sensed my questioning and simply gave me a little smirk and said "trust me".

Several dozen hours later, I would say my trust in him was well placed.

The story of Shadow Complex has a bit of interest to it, but most of it is manual fodder, and the overarching themes that are presented in game boil down to the standard "bad guy wants to conquer the world, power up over the course of several gameplay hours and stop him". It's an old formula, but the second half of that formula is what makes this game so glorious. At the beginning of the game, you're essentially a hiker who has a handgun, what you become... is a bit more badass.

This image does a good job of describing how shiny you become, but a poor job of describing badassitude.
Indeed, the powering up is half the fun of the game, and like Metroid before it, each new powerup allows further exploration of what is actually a pretty huge world. The gameplay morphs from the player sneaking around, using the terrain to his advantage to fearlessly walking up and punching a bad guy into oblivion. Some players found that to dull the beauty of the game...  I found it to be liberating and cathartic.

Yeah, we're dancing right now. If you would have met me in 15 hours, I would've rocket punched you TO THE MOON.
Factor in the actually kind of awesome speedrun training missions and the massive replayability (trust me, you want to complete the armor suit... make sure you do this), and Shadow Complex easily stands on its own as a pinacle of its already excellent genre.

Not bad for a downloadable arcade title.