Month: July 2016

Slow Show: for Julian

julian 2

My brother.

Julian is, without a doubt, impossible to read. To use a tired quote, he is a riddle wrapped in  an enigma. When you hang out with him in person, he treats you exactly like he treats everyone else around him. His easygoing attitude seems at odds with his seeming indifference, an unlikely juxtaposition between feeling at peace and friendly while also giving everyone the cold shoulder.

There are very few people with whom this is not the case, and who get to know Julian fully and well. I feel I am not one of these people, but I’d like to try to share what I know.


Even though it’s noon, the basement is dark and somber. Shafts of light from the small windows nearby break through the gloom, floating dust statically staying still as if the beams of day had frozen them in place. A futon lies in the middle of the floor. Someone is curled up in a ball, their head buried in the covers. Julian.

Soft music plays from his computer nearby. I don’t know the band, but I like the sound; it takes a minute for me to register it’s indie rock. Honest, earnest music, like a good friend in a bad time.

I ask him if he’s alright.

He grunts.

I leave. Not much else to do; trying to talk to him right now would be like talking to a stone.


It’s fact that Julian feels quite deeply. Despite this, and I have no idea where he learned how, the man has a poker face that’s hard to beat. Talking to someone he likes and to a person he hates, you would barely be able to tell the difference. Most people would be passive aggressive, sarcastic, something. Julian? Nothing.

Even when you’re alone with him, the most he has to say about anyone in private is that they’re some expletive or another, and that’s that. Thing is, Julian is incredibly good at walls. He’s all the tougher and tenacious for it, sure; but sometimes I wonder what else is going on in that head of his.


My nails are chewed down to a stub, two of them are bleeding. It stings a little, but I don’t care. I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack, but I’ll have no idea that’s what it is until 4 years later.

“Yo.” Julian walks in through the doorway, carrying his laptop. He sets up across the table from me, plugs in Jimmers (his computer), and boots up Heroes of Newerth.

“Hey. You playing HoN?”

He grabs a handful of jelly beans from a Costco sized bag of Jelly Bellies.

“Duh.”

He knows something is up, but as per usual, he doesn’t talk. The voices of strangers blare from his speakers; apparently, someone else had called a character and is calling them a little bitch. Charming.

“Hey man, chill,” Julian says through a mouthful of candy, “it’s just a game. Let’s settle down, take it easy.”

The jerk on the other end calls Julian a couple of colourful words not fit for print, and leaves the game.

“How does this not piss you off?” I ask.

Shaking his head, he tells me that it does piss him off.

“But what the hell am I gonna do about it,” he adds, “It’s not like bitching about it will change much.” He grabs another jelly bean, and tells the rest of his team to get their shit together.

An hour later, he ends up winning.


Julian joined the Navy a couple of years ago now. His practical nature and quick wit made him some easy friends and were instrumental in successfully  passing his officer training; either through study, or through convincing the people training him that their test was hot trash.

I know my own brother half as well as I’d like, but I know the important stuff. He’s kind, brave, and practical. He’ll do anything for someone he cares about, and is quick to defend those he deems worthy. Rolling with the punches comes naturally to the man, and he’s just as quick to dish it out when it does something useful.

More importantly than all that, Julian is a good man. I suppose that’s all that I need to know, and knowing more wouldn’t change a thing.


A chill wind blows past me, a bitter English February evening in London, as I walk down the street towards home.

I’d just lost my teaching position at the primary school I’d been working at for six weeks. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to my class; just a quick meeting with the head teacher and bam. Out on my ass, looking for more supply work.

A gust whips at my face, but through the comfortable numbness of oncoming depression and my very scruffy beard, I barely feel a thing. My iPhone plays away, the music turning from the game remix I’d been listening to for the past few minutes into something I’d forgotten about.

It takes me a minute to realize it’s indie rock. I instantly think of Julian, and I recognize the tune from the basement. It had been at least half a decade since then. Since then, Julian had recovered from a terrible memory. Since then, Julian had become an officer in the Navy. Since then, Julian had started seeing a wonderful girl, and was now happier than I’d ever seen him.

I whisper under my breath, “Slow Show.” It’s a song by the National, a group I know Julian liked a lot. I’ve no idea if he still likes them, or anything, but I know he listened to this song once, when he needed a good friend in a bad time.

Thinking about Julian fills me with a sigh, and I start walking with renewed energy. I smile, and think: it’s not like bitching will change much, right?

On Garbage

So I’ve decided to finally finish and edit my novel from NaNoWriMo. Just…

It’s complete garbage.

I didn’t make it 5 words before finding something I disliked, and wanted to vehemently cross out in bright red ink, like slashing a terrible monster or the like. It’s my worst nightmare come true, it’s 87 pages long single spaced, and I would rather print it off to experience the catharsis of burning that piece of $%#^.

10 year old kids can write better than this absolute tripe. It’s like watching a car with a bent wheel try to move, only to have the one side of the car lift and fall like some shambling Igor.

The bonus here is that, at the very least, I can tell it’s garbage.

It’s also telling that writing this abomination took a month, and after having spent months teaching others how to write basic forms of stories in a variety of uninteresting and curriculum mandated ways, I can look back on this thing and tell that it would take much, much longer to edit. Multiple months, to be sure. Five, if I had to guess.

Hulking is not a descriptor I would use for most novellas, but the one I wrote has earned it. Not because of deep, heavy hitting content. It’s also a novella, so not size. No, the hulking bulk comes from the pedantic, terrible pacing and ridiculous attempts at tension by focusing on the wrong parts of the story.

Focus on character would have been much better than focus on environmental factors. I was trying to write a video game, but it’s worse than that because video games present and environment for a player to interpret, and this story rams it down the reader’s throats.

Not to mention all the ‘edgy’ gore, the attempts at horror, action best described as a play by play on a football monitor. Clunky doesn’t begin to cover it, like a blanket for someone who is several inches longer than the motel bed.

There is much work to be done; if it can be salvaged at all. My Dad always could find uses for good quality trash; just the other day, while he was visiting, Dad picked out several doors, hooks, and shelving units that others had thrown out. To him, these items were still useful, helpful.

Some things, though, are just trash.

Response: Boss Fights

Mike Rugnetta of PBS Idea Channel asked in his latest video about Boss Fights what people thought about… well, boss fights. In games, specifically. In reality, he asked two questions:

  1. What are Boss fights (to you?) and what do they do?
  2. What about games without Boss Fights? Or adversity at all?

Before I start drunkenly answering these questions, you might want to go check out the video for yourselves. Click the link to watch it, then come back; I promise this post isn’t going anywhere.


Alright, welcome back. Let’s talk bosses! Or at least let me blow smoke up your respective asses about bosses!

boss

He’s listening…

Boss fights are, popularly, a test of the skills you have learned. Traditionally, boss fights are staged, closed off skill checks that require a certain amount of mastery over skills learned over the course of a game. Some games test recently acquired skills; a perfect example of this can be found in the more recent Legend of Zelda games, where the means to defeating a boss is found within the dungeon preceding it.

In these kinds of games, the boss fight is very much a licensing test, where the dungeon is a training course and defeating the boss is proof enough for the developers that a player has mastered the item, and can be counted on to figure out when and how to use it.

In other games (Enter the Gungeon comes to mind, simply because I’ve played/watched it a lot), Bosses are a pure test of in-game skill. The items you’ve acquired and progress you’ve made during a playthrough will make a boss fight easier, no doubt; but if you’re garbage at dodge rolling, you’re still going to hit the ground hard enough to make a 6 foot deep crater.

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More or less; depends on how you died.

In these games, the skills required to beat the game are typically given right at the start, and each progressive boss simply ramps up the difficulty, either by increasing the number of threatening situations or limiting the room for errors, which forces a player to hone their skill to the point where the boss can be defeated.

Boss fights aren’t necessarily one singular entity, though; in Devil Daggers, for instance, there is one boss in the game, somewhere so far into a run that under 2% of all players have ever seen it. Every other “boss” moment is either the introduction of new enemy types, which quickly become a regular and terrifyingly numerous occurrence, or a suddenly large wave of enemies to combat all at once. Moments like these are still tests, but without all the drama of a big baddy. The idea is that, once these moments are mastered, future parts of the game can be accessed and played better, leading to further boss moments.

All of this, however, requires “buy in” from the player, and this is where the second question kicks in. Can games without adversity still have boss fights?

My short answer is ‘yes,’ they can, if we look at boss fights from a different point of view.

Broken down to its essentials, a boss fight in most games is a payout for the gradual structured rise in tension brought on from mounting difficulty and more complex game mechanics. The rising difficulty of challenges designed to make players figure out how to use the bow and arrow in Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple climaxes with the shadow Ganon fight at the very end of the ordeal. This moment only feels like a proper boss fight so long as the player understands that this moment, this fight, is the ultimate skill check before the reward the player knows is coming; they’re accustomed to having their reward at the end, damnit. In addition, the boss fight itself, being a spike in difficulty, earns its “boss” status in part because of the incredible difficulty spike.

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Now with 2 times the murder!

In short, change and conflict create the emotional buy-in from the player necessary to give it the oomph required of a boss fight. Good boss fights are tough, but not too tough, and you won’t find them in the middle of a section of gameplay (unless it is a “mini” boss, a fight only significant enough to break up the steady pacing of a dungeon and create a mid-point for the player to reference how far along they’ve come).

In non-adversity games the question becomes “how do you create tension when mechanics and mounting difficulty are non-issues?” Unlike more mechanically focused games, where story telling and narrative can help but are ultimately not necessary for building the tension to create a boss fight moment, narrative games create the tension required of “boss” moments through writing and story.

Journey, for example, creates powerful, beautiful moments where the player is invited to experience the adventures of their pilgrim; sand-surfing, for instance, or the terrifying crossing where you have to avoid the large, mechanical snakes lest they… do something.

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Look, don’t ask questions here, I don’t want to know.

Point is, all of these emotions and thoughts the player brings with them start to stack one atop the other in a big, unstable, tension piled mess. When the player reaches the final moments of the pilgrim’s journey, the payoff is palpable; nerves, hope for survival, and the desperate chanting of “come on, you can make it!..” These feelings are practically the same as a boss fight, where instead of the payoff coming from beating a difficult check of abilities learned, payoff comes from narrative resolution from a character overcoming the issues facing them through story and presentation.

At the heart of both of these ideas is one of conflict, and its resolution. Boss fights are just big conflicts; and if there’s one thing that good stories do to the exclusion of all else, it’s conflict and the resolution of them. Instead of boss “fights” you have boss “moments” but in the end, both kinds of games have bosses to cross, moments of gameplay where a player invested in a game will find the same kind of feeling and weight from either one.

 

Dark

dark hallwayThis is the story of one brave (?) boy and his need to go to the bathroom.

The boy lay in the bed, sleeping soundly. His chest rose. It fell. It rose again. The rhythm of a slow pulse, in and out, the coming and going of waves on the shore. Unexpectedly, a sharp intake of air and his eyes, blurry from sleep, cracked open. He was awake, and dimly aware of  one of the most basic needs; the need to go pee.

The nightlight at the far end of his room shone a comforting light, a sunlike glow across the warm peach painted walls and the soft carpet floor.

First things first, under the bed. The boy carefully got to the side of the bed, and like Spiderman hung his head carefully over the edge of the bed. Unlike Spiderman, he realized he did not have sticky hands and began to slip, causing him to scramble for a handhold anywhere on the loose duvet, which of course he didn’t find. A short tumble later, the boy was secure of two things:

  1. No monster under the bed.
  2. He was very awake.

Carefully picking himself back up to avoid the creaky parts of the floor, the boy snuck across the floor of his room to the door bordering his land, and the land of his brother. He guided the door open slowly. The door made all the noise in the world, much his chagrin, but his little brother slept soundly… for now.

Still, the boy knew what to do. He had a lot of practice with these floorboards, the hardwood a path of solid and creaky places to walk. Imagining himself a dashing adventurer, like Indiana Jones, the boy tip toed across the floor avoiding the noisy spaces like his heroes avoided the trapped squares.

*creaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaak* went the floor.

The boy stood stock still. Halfway to the door on the opposite side of the room, and he made the loudest noise he possibly could have, practically thunderous. His brother would surely wake up.

As luck would have it, the brother slept along, and the boy stood still for a whole minute listening to his brother breathe. Just to make sure. Couldn’t be too careful around sleeping people, he thought. When the coast was clear, the boy made sure to be more careful while stepping around.

After carefully navigating the rest of the room with all the agility of a heavy set sumo wrestler on tip toe, the boy finally made it to the door. This part, however, was tricky. Very tricky.

This part had the Dark.darkness-7

On the other side of this door was a long hallway, where the brother’s room was on one end and the parents on the other, both on the long wall. Next to the bedroom the boy stood in was the washroom, not more than 3 feet distance. One small step for man, but several small steps for the boy. During the day, this wasn’t a problem, but at night… the risk was great.

Down the hall, at the very end, lived the Dark. Again, no issues during the day; the Dark had to hide in the closet hidden in the wall next to the parent’s bedroom. This was fine, the boy thought, except it didn’t stay there. At night, the Dark left the closet and swallowed the end of the hall whole, creating nothing but pitch black emptiness there. The boy gently peeked around the door frame, just his eyes, to see if the coast was clear. It was not.

Even in the briefest second, the boy could tell the Dark saw him, and turned its unknowable being his way. It was aware; not only that, the boy could tell the Dark was famished, too.

The boy hadn’t seen the Dark eat anyone. He didn’t need to, because it was obvious to him what the Dark would do to you. The boy broke into a slight panic. He felt very uncomfortably hot all of a sudden, and his palms began to sweat. Unseen eyes stared at him through the walls, making his skin crawl. It was waiting for him.

With all the care he could muster, the boy pulled the door open again, edging towards the boundaries between where it was safe and where he knew it wasn’t. The moonlight from the window across him lazily illuminated the area in front of him, showing the short-but-altogether-too-long distance between him and the washroom door. Sneaking a peek leftwards again, the boy could see the Dark preparing to move. It already lapped greedily at the moonlight, like a cat licking a bowl of milk. Still, its eyes were set on the boy. and the boy knew that once he’d made his move, he’d have to be fast.

Breathing deeply, skin crawling, the boy counted to three in his head. On one, he locked eyes with the bathroom door. On two, he checked the end of the hall to make sure the Dark was staying still. On three, he made a break for it.

He dared not look back as he practically lept to the washroom, and slammed the door behind him. He wasn’t sure, but the boy thought he heard the silent whisper of shadows slashing at the door. After a few moments, the sounds stopped and the house was deathly quiet again.
With that done, it was a normal routine. A wisp of moonlight peeped into the bathroom through a tiny window high up the far wall. The light bounced around the mirrors that covered almost every surface, allowing him to see many versions of himself in a row. Behind him was another version of him, his face unchanging, and another one behind that until infinite. The boy dared not say a word; in every reflection, the dark of another world hung behind the boy like a shadowy pall. He stared down, away from the disturbing mirrors of other worlds. A quick trip to the sink to wash his hands, and then it was time to go back to bed. scary mirror

He crept to the door and opened it a crack to see the end of the hall. The Dark was still there, waiting for the boy to dare to cross its territory. Little by little, the boy could see the darkness move towards him, and the hallway got darker by the second as the light was swallowed by the nightmarish monster.

Although no one else would hear it, the boy heard the Dark make a hollow growl, a tenebrous noise that chilled his heart. The boy had to move. Now.

He threw the door open and dashed for the bedroom. The Dark pounced, its deep murky threat instantly replaced with sharp, pointed malice as the shadow devoured the moonlight in the hall. Sprinting, the boy ran as fast as he could over the creaky floor of his brother’s room. He felt the cold touch of the Dark on his ankle, a near miss. It chased him still, snarling, swallowing any light in its way.

The boy practically dove into his bed head-first, using his duvet to create a protective dome around him, drawing all the little holes closed and securing any possible weakness. Just in time too; the Dark slammed into duvet, repeatedly. In the dark of the dome, the boy was alone, surrounded, and faintly crying to himself as the assault continued for what felt like hours.

Eventually, the beating at the walls stopped. The boy lay curled in a ball, breathing in his own fear and stress. The lack of oxygen was causing him to feel dizzy, but he dared not lift the duvet. He could still feel where the Dark had touched him, his ankle numb, empty and cold from the experience. The boy would stay like this for a while before finally being forced to surface for air, and eventually start the process of falling asleep again in the glow of his nightlight.

The following morning, the boy’s father would get up and walk to the bathroom. He would look at the door, and with an exasperated sigh make a mental note to grab a can of white paint for the three gashes in the door.5jr64

A Confession

surprise-catDragging his feet, the teacher clambered aboard the bus and shuffled his way into a seat, collapsing like a loosely packed rubbish sack. What a nightmare of a day. He stared with glazed eyes out the window, not entirely paying attention to anything that passed by. It all seemed a blur; pubs, grocers, students, stores, trees, apartments… none of it stuck out and none of it really seemed to matter. To the teacher, it was all noise to the thoughts tumbling about his head like numbers in a raffle, only to be picked out like some terrible lottery where none of the tickets won.


Counting down was about as serious a commitment to discipline as he could muster.

“5… 4… 3… 2… 1…”

“Sir’s counting, shut up!” chorused several students, their hearts in the right place but their execution somewhere between a match and an actively burning fire next to a dry tinder. The teacher sighed as the pupils proceeded to begin an open discourse on the benefits of telling one another to shut up at the top of their lungs. Mostly by telling everyone else to shut up, or that they started it, and that they should consequently shut up first.

“I’m waiting.” Hand raised, the lone adult in the room glanced at the clock. It had taken 15 minutes to complete the register. Just to make sure that every child had, in fact, attended school and had not been misplaced en route, it had taken a quarter of the hour. School proper hadn’t even started yet.

Some students, to their everlasting credit, raised their hands and waited patiently. How nice, thought the teacher. But then he thought about how they were mostly expecting to receive a bronze or something for behaviour that the teacher simply expected students to exhibit, and slumped into the chair behind him as he waited for order that would not come.

In fact, over the course of the day, he would spend approximately an hour waiting for his charges to listen to him and learn… something, he supposed. Anything, he hoped.


The teacher stumbled off the bus, clutching a grocery bag he had absentmindedly paid for and somehow had the presence of mind to not leave at his seat. Cars passed by as he waited for an opportunity to cross the street.

Waiting. He had done so much of it. He had been so patient, so prepared to simply let bygones be bygones, move forward in his lessons… well, not his lessons, but it was his task to teach them. He was a supply. No planning, no report cards, no parents, no expectations, no real respect. Supply? Stop-gap teacher made more sense.

“I’m not even a real teacher,” he moped inwardly. A passing magpie squorked indignantly at him before flying off.


The classroom was silent as the last of the teacher’s words echoed in the class,. Moments passed where student and teacher alike just stared at each other, a dare to see who would break first in this game of chicken; the teacher, who had just waited 15 minutes and then had enough of waiting and had shouted in anger, or the students, who clearly could see the teacher was not capable of handling them.

Moments after the children would apologize, the talking, throwing of erasers, and sword fighting of rulers would start again. This time, the teacher would not move. He would spend the rest of the day hoping the time would go by faster.

It didn’t.

Later, he sat at the desk filling out a report for the class teacher, a woman who must have been far more capable or steadfast in her determination as a teacher. Everyone in the profession, especially those who held full time positions, had the teacher’s undying and unilateral respect. He had tried that once; after a month and a half, he was fired for not being able to control his class.

Great topic knowledge, he’d been told, but behaviour management was an issue. In fact, this had fired him from another full time teaching position about 5 months prior. It had also cost him most of his sanity, as his mounting anxiety levels could attest to.


The teacher stared upwards, his eyes unwilling to stay shut and let his brain go to blasted sleep. 2 more weeks until summer holidays, and then another year of the same routine in order to deal with debt that, if one wanted to be precise and verbose, could be best described as another really long and stressful year of kind-of-teaching to help make sure the debt vanished. If he didn’t collapse in a nervous pile first, he sagely added.

He had a confession to make to himself. After another year of this, he thought, it might be best if he distanced himself from being a teacher and just stick to being… something. He wasn’t sure what. After spending well over 7 years to get the accreditation he needed to teach in schools without being considered a security risk, it was with great reluctance that the sort-of-teacher admitted he didn’t have any other immediately marketable skills.

With great discomfort, he resigned himself to teaching tomorrow. One day. One day he’d figure out what he wanted to do. That could wait for another night.