Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spookymilk Survivor X: Judgement

Last week, I pulled a rather surprising immunity on the final challenge of the game and eliminated the previously untouchable Matt Novak, leaving Beau and I clear to the finals. We each wrote a concept 'plea', as opposed to the standard "you should vote for me because" normalcy. Then we waited.

Last night, with both finalists, both judges, and a number of other players and well-wishers in attendance at Old Chicago in Apple Valley, we concluded Survivor X. A great time was had by all (I hope I'm not going out on a limb in saying that, it seemed like everyone had a pretty awesome time). Spooky read off the results live, and we proceeded to chat about everything Survivor and Werewolf related for the duration of the evening (and beyond, actually, a group of us didn't leave even after the bar closed, opting to stand in the parking lot and continue or conversation).

So... that leaves the results. I won't go over the vote comments themselves, for that you can go to the concluding post on the site proper. I'll just note who voted for which candidate.

Shawn Ashley: Pete Bruzek
Dan Kautz (DK): Pete Bruzek
Matt Novak: Pete Bruzek
Kelly Wells (Spookymilk): Pete Bruzek
Brooks Maki (Daneeka's Ghost): Pete Bruzek
John Wreisner: Pete Bruzek
Colin Woolston (Grey): Pete Bruzek

I'd love to play it all cool, but I was pretty excited to win. I'd been chasing it for four seasons now, and it was thrilling to get to experience it with a lot of the people that make the Casa de Leche the great community that it is.

This was an exhausting season. It seemed as though the 1000-word challenges started right around week three, and continued unabated after that. I burned out pretty seriously right around the merge, and combined with an extreme busyness in general life, it contributed to a few 'meh' entries. I think I caught a second wind about a month ago, though, and it kept me to the finish.

The actual strategies and whatnot of the season itself were talked about in serious depth last night, and I don't really have much to add to that. I'll just say that during this season, the talent level was insane. I was in constant awe at the writing, and everyone in the top 10 had the chops to pull off a win. I just happened to be given a ridiculous team, and circumstances ended up working to my favor through a combination of design and a bit of serendipity.

A sincere thank you to both DK and Spooky for their excellent judging.
A huge thank you to the Vogons. I can't imagine there will ever be another team like this.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spookymilk Survivor X: Final Challenge

Wait, did we skip a week there? I think we did. Let me see if I can remember how it went. I made a loosely biographical story about my dad putting down a cat who had been run over by a car. It stretched the rules to the breaking point, but I felt alright about it, considering the schedule I was on. Then I went to Mexico, not finding out my fate until I returned this past Wednesday. Happily, I made it to the final challenge.

That final challenge was an absolute doozy. A story where every 250 words, everyone forgot the events from the beginning of the story to that point. The final section was 'mercifully' allowed to have 600 words.

The intel was good, Malaracher is definitely here.

I slip away from the party to the basement beneath. It won’t be easy to find him or the bomb down here. It will be far more likely that he finds me. I begin to wish that I hadn’t told Hewitt to stay up with the party guests – I could really use a second pair of eyes watching my back.

The gunshot I hear and the blinding pain I feel in my side let me know that my fears have been well rooted in truth.

Dammit, I’ve been sloppy. He knew someone was trailing him, so he doubled back, and he knows the layout of the tunnels much better than I do. Despite the vest, his bullet manages to find at least one or two vital organs. I rise to my feet and try to give chase, but I slip on my own blood and fall hard to the marble floor. My gun clatters away from me, I scramble in vain to retrieve it, but my limbs suddenly feel so heavy. Malarcher disappears into the darkness and I begin to feel woozy from the blood loss.
I retrieve the cylinder from my jacket pocket and press the button.

Five minutes – not a second more or less.

The synchronization alarm goes off to let me know that the forced loop was activated. That means that the first try must not have gone well. In this situation, I suppose it’s natural to over-analyze what mistakes could have lead to the need to start the loop, but that only leads to situational paralysis, and if I’m going to prevent whatever Malarcher’s got in the basement from going off, I’m going to need to have my wits about me. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t make a mental note to exercise caution.

Reminding myself to stay aware, I make my way to the basement. I need to move with some haste. The clock’s ticking.

The basement turns out to have a labyrinth of tunnels. I knew this to be the case because of the mission briefings, but there are a great number of tunnels that simply do not show up on the map I was provided. I know the building is large, but this is ridiculous. I try to think of where the premium location for a bomb of this type would be. The briefings said that it would probably be under the conference rooms, but when I go there, all I see are some scuffs in the floor, implying the device may have been here before, but was removed for some reason. A tip off, perhaps?

I’m still mulling this over when the Janus activates – indicating a wasted loop.

The synchronization alarm sounds. I quickly glance down to check the number, and sigh with relief when the display reads only fifteen. You get one hundred and eighty three five minute loops before you and your surroundings get so out of sync with the prime timeline that re-merging is impossible.

I set about sweeping the maze of corridors and rooms in the basement as fast as I dare allow myself to. I practically stumble across Malarcher and the bomb in a secluded area of the basement, in a room situated right beneath the first floor’s main banquet hall. I’ve caught him by surprise, he looks up from the bomb to see me, and he reaches for his weapon. Without hesitation, I put two bullets in his chest.

He slumps to the floor, and I go to investigate the bomb. As I make my way past him, he mumbles something I can’t quite make out. I look at him inquisitively.

He points at his chest twice, then at the bomb – a deadman switch?

That worry is confirmed seconds later when Malarcher’s heart stops. The bomb gives a loud screech and immediately detonates.

My first fifty one trips back have apparently been fruitless. There’s something ominously difficult about this mission. It was supposed to be a fairly standard “prevent the terrorist from blowing up the building with the VIPs” scenario, but I would think that I would’ve lucked into a solution at this point. It’s time to think outside the box. Cell phones won’t work, since we’re currently cut off the prime timeline, and with it the rest of the world, but the walkie talkies that Hewitt and I carry will still function. I radio him and ask him to meet me in the basement.

He has to know that I’ve started the Janus, even if he isn’t any more aware of each passing loopback than I am. He certainly does seem to take his time getting to the basement, though. By the time he does, two and a half precious minutes have elapsed, and we’re left with a worryingly small window to work with.

Having two people sweeping the basement is much faster, and much safer and we get to Malarcher’s lair fairly quickly. He hasn’t seen us yet, but something doesn’t seem right.

Hewitt’s shot is already fired by the time I’m able to voice my concern. Malaracher drops to the floor, his head a gaping mess. I don’t even get to finish my sentence before the blast annihilates us.

The synchro-alarm blares an ugly threatening tone and the little red light indicates I’m nearing to synchronization breaking point. I check the indicator – one hundred eighty.

I only get three more tries at this.

No one really knows what happens when re-merging is unable to occur. The optimists insist that the timeline fractures and all of the events play themselves out in a new timeline. Most theories figure that those who can’t reconnect with the prime timeline get lost in some sort of timeless void. All I know is that the few times it’s happened, the unfortunate people who were unable to re-synch simply disappeared. My uninformed opinions always sided with the latter.

The one time I got even close to the resynch threshold, I was tasked with preventing a member of an eastern extremist group from assassinating a group of middle eastern diplomats. There were more of them then we had expected, and our contact had been found out and killed before we could determine who the assassin was.

It turns out there were two of them. If Hewitt hadn’t been along and helped me piece it together on try one seventy seven, I would’ve had to abort the mission. Aborting was an option that time, this one’s been given red status – I am to prevent this bombing, even if I have to pass the threshold to do it.

On try number one eighty one, I don’t even find Malarcher. One down, two to go.

I don’t recall what I’ve done on any of the previous loops. Only the device itself persists through the loop back, no actions or memories make the trip, so each time I start out, it’s like I’m flying blind. It’s frustrating, the knowledge that any action you take is one that you’ve probably already taken – perhaps dozens of times – to no effect.

This time, I get lucky, catching Malarcher unaware. He never sees me coming, so I’m able to take my time and execute a leg shot. I get to the bomb, and it doesn’t seem as though he had a chance to activate the countdown. I’m about to enter the code to cancel the next loopback, when I feel the bullet penetrate my back.

A second terrorist?

I crumple to the floor. I can’t turn to see my assailant, but he steps into my sight soon enough, anyway.

“Why?” I weakly gurgle as he rips the Janus out of my jacket. He fiddles with the device for a couple of seconds.

“You changed the synclock…” he waves his gun in my face.

I did. He can’t cancel the return jump. He doesn’t have anything to threaten me with in these last twenty seconds. He seems pissed off about both of those facts.

I need to find a way to warn myself. Shit. I don’t even have access to the Janus. Even if I did, there’s no way to send yourself a message back in time. Maybe if I…

Last try.

Everything has to work this time, or I have to be willing to condemn myself and everyone in the building to timeless oblivion.

I manage to find Malarcher in a room that doesn’t appear on the provided blueprint. I’m about to make a kill shot, but caution stays my hand, and I opt for a non-lethal shot. I detain the terrorist, and have a look at the bomb. It doesn’t appear as though the countdown had been initiated.

Something’s not right. I don’t think I would have failed a hundred and eighty two times if this situation could be taken at face value.

I hear footsteps coming down the hall. Already feeling jumpy, I raise my weapon and sneak a quick peek at the Janus – one minute remaining. I need to figure this situation out immediately.

Suddenly, Hewitt bursts into the room. He sees that I’ve got my gun trained on him and gives me a questioning look. Then he sees Malarcher restrained in the corner. He gives me an approving nod, and I return it. Time to stop the countdown.

Hewitt catches a glimpse of the Janus device as I pull it from my pocket – the blinking ’183′ prominently featuring. “Looks like we almost got desynched. Lucky break, I’d say. Cancel the loopback and let’s clean up” he says.

That catches my attention. I was the only agent notified of this mission’s Red status. To minimize leaks, everyone else, including Agent Hewitt, thought this to be a standard Blue status terrorist hunt. If this were indeed a Blue, there would be nothing to cancel, only critical orders would trigger a loopback past the threshold. Even a standard ordinance bomb wouldn’t be enough to justify a red, so what reason would he have had to think otherwise? A quick look at his face show a man who just admitted to knowing more than he should know. With the clock ticking, I think back.

Hewitt saved me in Paris, but the leaps in logic he made to determine the locations of the assassins never made sense to me, even back then. The mission itself was viewed as an unqualified success, but we later learned that the biological materials that ended up being put to use in this very bomb were stolen that evening, while the agency was out tracking a conspicuously high number of high-risk cases – many of which turned out to be false leads. How did Hewitt track Malarcher – or me, for that matter – to this point? A point which, according to the basement map provided by our contact doesn’t even exist.

I look at my watch – only fifteen seconds left.

Hewitt knows that he’s overstepped his ability to backtrack. “Cancel the countdown and let’s talk this over,” he says “you know what allowing this to reset will mean.”

I do. In ten seconds, an embassy full of dozens of diplomats and dignitaries will blink out of existence, along with two terrorists and one thoroughly defeated agent. It will be a disaster, the public will call for the heads of my entire agency for allowing it – no, causing it – to happen.

“Still better than a biological weapon going off in downtown London.” I reply.

Hewitt gives an angry scowl and draws on me and fires.

Hopefully, the optimists are right. Hopefully, there’s time enough still for me to fix this, no matter where or when that might be.

The last seconds tick off the clock. For better or worse, I guess we’ll find out what’s beyond this timeline soon enough.

Is the bad guy's name Malarcher or Malaracher? What lies beyond the threshold? How did I come up with the name 'Hewitt'? I'll answer two of those questions, but first the judges' comments.

K: This one has some grammatical missteps and the spelling of Malaracher/Malarcher changes an annoying number of times, but this concept was extremely engaging. I feared that we were going to be paid off with “It’s a video game,” but in the end, I supposed that even if that was going to be the case, the story had drawn me in enough that I could’ve dealt with it. The characters don’t show much of themselves here, but otherwise, this is tons of fun, and a nice ending to the season.
Character: 4
Creativity of Reason for Forgettings: 5
Overall Story Effectiveness: 4

DK: I love this one. I’ll start by saying the characters aren’t outstanding here, either – I feel for this guy because of his situation but other than a few hints here and there, he doesn’t feel especially complex or anything on his own. The good news is that it doesn’t matter for the way this story is set up – the concept is the star here. There’s great care taken in this idea for the memory aspect that shows in how its mechanics operate, and the buildup of tension is pitched superbly to a payoff that feels surprising and yet inevitable at the same time. And satisfying, above all else.
Character: 4
Creativity of Reason for Forgettings: 5
Overall Story Effectiveness: 5


First question: Malarcher is named for the old Negro League infielder Dave Malarcher who was, for one reason or another one of my favorite Negro League ballplayers growing up. I was going to run the whole document through a find and replace to weed out the various spelling mistakes I was fairly sure that I was making, but alas, it never happened. "Hewitt" came as I was trying to think of a good agent-y name. The copy of Maxim that randomly shows up at my house every month (you think that's a "oh, good one" excuse... it's not, I do not know who decided I need Maxim magazine, but I'm sure they could've done something more interesting with their money) has Jennifer Love Hewitt on the front cover. At that point, Hewitt seemed like a good name.

In the comments at the Casa, Beau mentioned that he was nearly constantly reminded of Source Code. That seems pretty accurate, I suppose. I certainly didn't mean for that to happen, but I could tell it bore a resemblance before too long, and actually made sure that I scrapped a couple of elements to avoid too close a comparison. The 'controlled time travel loop' just seemed an idea worth exploring. Source Code had those elements, but I feel that I took it in a more satisfying direction (though I did end up liking that movie more than I thought I was going to).

He also mentioned that the ending was a bit over explaining. This also had a reason. In the original draft, on try number 182 (one try before the threshold) the protagonist thinks he completes the mission and turns off the automatic loopback, only to have Hewitt gun him down and detonate the bomb.The betrayal reveal was going to happen the jump before. I figured this season had seen enough bleakness, so I let the ending be a little enigmatic, so that there's the hope that even if he hasn't saved himself, he still might redeem himself in whatever capacity he's allowed to.

Okay, so...... did I survive to the finale? Am I one of the final two?

Yes. Yes I am. Against all odds, my 27 just barely beat out Matt's 26 on this final challenge and I won immunity, choosing to eliminate him (sorry again, man) and advance to the final jury vote with Beau (who had a fairly surprising evening of his own, though in a far different way).

On Tuesday, I make my case for why I should win. I think there are plenty of good reasons, but I guess we'll see shortly whether or not the jury will feel the same way. Good times.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 14

I'm not spoilering this, because it doesn't need it.

As I mentioned before, some of my favorites times playing video games were playing Goldeneye with my friends, all huddled around a 19 inch TV. We'd play up in one of the church's upstairs classrooms for hours. I wasn't any good, but it was still a lot of fun.

When Halo first came out, the first thing everyone started noticing was the unparalleled polish that went into the multiplayer segment. There were all sorts of engaging game variants, and on a slightly larger TV (which greatly helped the experience, if I'm allowed to be honest), it supplied all the entertainment we'd need during several Mountain Dew-fueled nights between my friends and I.

One interesting feature of the Xbox was its rarely-used ability to link to up to three other xboxes. This allowed up to sixteen players to play in a single game. Next, we just had to find sixteen players.

We only managed it twice. Both times were honest to God events. Cramming twenty people into a couple rooms, borrowing couches, TVs, and setting up equipment took some time, but once the games started, it was all worth it. Constant carnage, in-jokes that will never die (one girl my brother fancied was dragged along and coerced into playing and given the name 'Grumpy'. It turned out the only people she was any good at killing were teammates, so she ended with a -5 score). My dad - not exactly a video game fan - even got in on things, hopping into a tank a blowing up people left and right, weirdly parlaying it into the top score for one round.

With 90% of the cast of the games having disappeared to every corner of the earth, the odds of ever recreating those games is nearly nil. Besides, Xbox live and its ilk have largely destroyed the idea of getting tons of people to come over for that sort of thing anymore, which is sad, because I have never had even half as much fun playing on Xbox live as I did those couple of days.

Spookymilk Survivor X: Interrogation

Sorry everyone, it's been a crazy last couple of weeks (during half of which, I was not in the country... sorry to those that tried to get in contact with me). Because of my absence and the running around leading up to that absence, I'm behind in.... everything. Let's catch up.

Two challenges ago, I was tasked with creating an interrogation in which there was a clear advantage to one of the characters. At some point during the story, the advantage was to swing dramatically to the other character.

This is what I came up with.

God, my head is pounding. I suppose a concussion will do that to a guy.

There’s not much light in the back of the transport vehicle, but I think I can make out the shape of two or three armed guards. They’re all wearing the helmets, but I could still give them a shove if I wanted. Then again, that’s how I came by the concussion in the first. Maybe I should rein it in a bit.

I don’t have to tap their thoughts to know they’re terrified of me. They should be. If it would prove anything, I’d kill them all in a heartbeat. They and their phobic kind have hunted me since I was fourteen. All I want to do now is even the score a bit.

The transport finally stops. They very carefully lead me out of the vehicle. It might appear that there’s nothing here but a shack at the end of a dirt road, but I know better. Sure enough, the head guard hits a few buttons in the shack and a door whooshes open, leading to a staircase to the underground detention facility.

The antiseptic sheen of the building is truly unnerving. The place looks like an iPod, shiny, soulless nothingness everywhere – and they say I’m a threat to the soul of humanity. They lead me down a seemingly infinite hallway, past dozens of rooms. I can’t tap into anything in any of them. This place was made to make people like me disappear.

They sit me in a room with a shiny and very securely bolted metal table and two very securely bolted metal chairs. The table has hand restraints built into it, which I find darkly amusing. If I were to try something, I could certainly do it without lifting a finger. The tall one motions for me to put my wrists into the restraints. I grudgingly comply. Then I wait.

He comes into my room after about two hours. He’s not wearing a helmet. I should have figured they’d send in a Shroud. My usual tricks will be worthless. He takes a seat at the table and spends the next ten minutes acting as if he doesn’t know I’m in the room. Finally, he speaks.

“Edjis Simonovski, you have been found guilty of the following crimes…”
“I don’t recall ever attending any trial.” I interject.
“You have been found guilty of the following crimes.” He continues without comment or delay.
“Meeting with and participating in illegal activities with the terrorist group Broken Birch.”
“We weren’t terrorists, we were activists.”
“They are a group who advocates the continuance of activities deemed criminal by the court of San…”
“It’s who we are. Why should it be illegal to be superhuman?”
“’Who you are’ is an affront to God and nature and a crime in this country. You were given multiple opportunities to submit to rehabilitation.”
“I don’t believe compulsive lobotomies count as rehabilitation.”
“That is not your choice to make.”
“Surely you didn’t just bring me down here to debate Superhuman rights.”
“Where did you place the other explosive devices, Simonovski?”
“I told them. We didn’t plant any bombs. We picketed. We held protests which were marred by arrest and rioting by the intolerant fucksticks that people like yourself have spoonfed your lies to. I tell you what, though. If I would have known then what they really did to people like me in that facility, I would have blown the place to hell where it belonged.”

I see the man grimace for a second, and for an imperceptibly short bit of time, I glimpse… something. I wouldn’t be able to do that to a Shroud, but the only other possibility is…that he’s a clairvoyant. That bastard’s been hunting his own and sending them to face every manner of atrocity, while he live sin comfort. He probably sleeps like a baby. He’s going to send me to my doom, and by all rights, he should be sitting right alongside me.

It is now my life’s goal to take this son of a bitch down.

He looks me dead in the eyes. He knows I know. This won’t be easy, I tell myself. He’s surely had others accuse him of clairvoyance, and if he’s made it this far, simple accusations aren’t going to stick. I’ll need to get his guard down somehow – get him to slip up.

“You don’t mind if I call you ‘Judas’, do you?” I ask, making sure that the guards and the recording devices hear me.
“Whatever you want to call me is fine. Just tell me where you placed the other devices.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re connected to this in a way you’re not letting on?”
“Don’t try to cloud the issue, Ed…”
“You haven’t told them, have you…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Guards prepare the prisoner for transfer…”
The restraints release my wrists, and one of the guards steps toward me to usher me out. I’ve hit a sore spot, but I have to cut to the chase, and I have to do it quickly. In another couple of minutes, he’ll have me out of the cell, and I’ll have lost the chance to out him. I have to get him to drop his guard.
“Whoever it was, they deserved it.”
That gets his attention. “Maria never did anything to you freaks.”

A girlfriend? A wife?

“Did she even know about you? Did she know that the the bastard she was fucking had less in common with her than the ‘freaks’ she was putting down like dogs?”

The expression is “if looks could kill”, Judas just shot me one that actually could, if he had just a little less constraint, and a little more intent. I feel a quick wave of energy pass over me, like a barely perceptible breeze. I can tell that the guard standing by me felt it, too, but it wasn’t enough to lead anyone to where I need them to look. I’m going to have to rile him a bit more.

“Maybe she did know…”
“Stop it.”
“Yeah, maybe she had a thing for freaks like us…”
His pupils are dilating. I’ve almost got him. This ought to be good.
“Maybe if someone hadn’t blown her to smithereens, I could’ve had a shot at her, myself. Hell, if you believe what the know-nothings say about clairvoyants and their necromantic abilities maybe I still could.”
“I will kill you.”
“Where did they bury her again?”

I feel like an asshole, and for a moment I wonder if it’s worth mocking Judas’ dead wife in front of him. Then I think of the legion of my kind he’s sent off to be sterilized, lobotomized, and worse and I know.
It turns out that my concern was unnecessary, he’s been pushed past the edge. The shock wave pins me against the wall. The guards look shocked; rightfully so, considering their prized interrogator has been sending his own kind to their doom for god knows how long.

“Maria was a good woman, and I will not have filth like you speaking ill of her.”
His mental power far exceeds my own. I should probably stand down, but it’s too late for that. I continue to needle him.

“Cat’s out of the bag, Judas. You’re a freak, and your dearly departed was a whore with a mentalist fetish.”
I don’t know if that’s true – I suspect it probably isn’t – but it did the trick. His guard has completely dropped, giving me a look into his mind. I see a devoted husband and father – then I see hundreds and hundreds of my compatriots shuffled in and out of rooms like this over the years. Judas had tremendous power, and he used it to extinguish his clairvoyant kin. I don’t even need to say anything more, he already knows my take on what I’ve seen by the mocking smirk and my quick glance up at the rolling surveillance camera.

He’s totally lost it. One of the guards tries to settle him down, but he won’t be stopped. He breaks the guard’s neck and continues after me. There’s no way I can hold up. Another wave knocks me against the wall. I can feel that my ribcage is broken in a dozen spots, and that my internal injuries are going to do me in even if he stops now, but he isn’t going to stop. The other guard is huddled against the wall in the fetal position, waiting for the others to come clear this mess out. Judas is going to get the lobotomy and maximum security detention center that they had meant for me. He takes a couple of steps towards me, clearly coming in for the kill.

I’m coughing up a lot of blood now, but I can’t stop laughing…

Next, we have Spooky and DK's critiques.

K: I have a similar love-hate relationship with this one as with the last, as it too has a couple of single-minded characters who have little in the way of surprises (even the twist didn’t shock me much). We’re in a comic book world here, but I’d still like to see characters who aren’t so obviously good and evil.

DK: Like a lot of great (and some not great) science fiction, there’s an undercurrent of potential allegory I detected here, although it’s not necessary to consider that to enjoy the buildup and the action. I love the concept, and the rise as Simonovski draws his interrogator into the open is really strong.

I've had a while to go over this one, and I still don't really know what to think of it. I like the concept (I've liked most of mine this time around), and there are parts that come together the way that I was hoping they would, but parts of it feel flat. It feels like the worlds I've been creating are interesting, and the framework of the stories I've been writing have been strong, but the little details that would give them any lift have been lacking lately. Intricacies, when I've been giving them, have been sort of vague, and it's resulted in pieces that don't "pop" like the should. Next writing season, I need to spend less time perfecting the concept, and more time fleshing that concept into an actual world with three dimensional characters and attractions.

Bonus trivia: Edjis Simonovski is an approximation of my uncle's birth name. He changed it shortly before the birth of my cousin to give his kids an easier time of things in grade school. To my knowledge, he is not a psychic.