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In Endless Times

“You know… Most of your species would be on their knees in prayer right about now.” The man said as he took a seat in the bunk across from me.

“They think there is a god to hear them. I know there isn’t.” I replied.

“Hmm, I suppose. Still, even if there weren’t you’d think you’d want to hedge your bets before the end, right?” He asked.

“A god that would allow me to hedge my bets isn’t worth praying to.” I said.

“I see your point.” He said.

I want to ask him why he’s here, what he wants. I don’t. He will either tell me or he doesn’t want me to know. If the former then he simply needs to get around to it, if the latter then I can’t force it out of him.

“He was right. You do have a beautiful mind.” The man observed.

My eyes locked on the man’s face. It was concerning that he’d know that much about my recent life. Even the prosecutors of my trial hadn’t been so well informed. “Was he? I had thought that was merely a manipulation.”

“You let him manipulate you. Why?” He asked.

I shrugged. “I was hurt… Broken. I didn’t mind striking back at those who caused me pain. Besides it was… Amusing to see someone convince themselves that they were in control of me just because I didn’t disagree with them.”

“Did you know that the common theory was that you were scapegoated? It seems people are rather convinced that he must have come up with everything himself and just told people you’d developed it.” He watched, looking for a reaction.

Pride is a difficult thing to swallow. That people would honestly believe my intellect to be lesser than that moron’s galled me. Still, they didn’t exactly matter to me. My work had cut a bloody path across three continents. If I was fine with their deaths I could hardly complain of their idiocy.

“No.” Was all I said out loud.

He didn’t say anything for the next few moments, just watched me. I simply kept my breath even and tried to continue my meditation. Clearing my mind was impossible. I’d learned that long ago. Instead I simply allowed the constant flow of thoughts to wash over me.

“I’d like to give you another chance,” He said. “Another universe, some resources. I’d like to see what you can build.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite an offer.” I mulled it over. Questions like his ability to deliver were immaterial. He had somehow transported into an isolation cell in a high security women’s prison. Resources far beyond what I was used to were a certainty. Lying was also immaterial, he was either telling the truth and I had something to gain or he was not and I had nothing to lose. Instead the more fundamental question was whether or not I should take such a chance at all.

I could hardly argue that my present circumstance and coming execution were anything other than just recompense for my actions. But they were so because I had denied the common order of this world in the first place. Simply lying down to die for the peace of mind of those I hated made no sense.

While I may have been a monster, I was the monster they’d made. The karma of their ignorance and hatred consolidated in a single being that happened across the means of striking back. Would they truly learn if they felt the matter concluded? Would they think, change, and correct themselves if they believed justice had brought the matter to conclusion?

For better or worse I’d walked this road. I would not see it end now if I could help it. Let them hurt, perhaps they will eventually learn.

“I accept,” I told him with a nod.

“Excellent.” He replied. A pad of paper and a pen appeared on the bunk next to me. “I’ll let you leave one last message.”

————————————————————

Cynthia Reynolds sat down to check her email. Covering the recent trials had been tasking. There was something fundamentally draining about dealing with fanatics. They had their beliefs and they stuck to them no matter what and in the face of all evidence. Still, they usually liked to talk. It irked her that her articles had a single noticeable hole in their coverage.

She raised an eyebrow as she realized that one had been forwarded to her from an anonymous drop email. Such things were typically thought impossible, but more than a few cryptography experts had bent their mind to the problem. With enough data points to cross-reference they could still be broken, but her sources were very careful to use it as rarely as possible.

The body of the text said little, simply directing her to the attachment. With her laptop’s out of date capabilities it took a moment to load the image file, but once she did she almost dropped the pen she’d had in her teeth.

It took her almost half an hour to read the entire document. The logic was labyrinthine but followed from one point to the next building its case like the trial lawyers she’d been listening to for the last three weeks. Each point held alone and proven in isolation, then smaller groups brought together and interconnected.

A chill ran up her spine as parts of it had her nodding in agreement. Something written by a woman compared to Himmler shouldn’t make so much sense. But she did… Awful, horrible, bone chilling sense that made her nauseous as a matter of course. She barely noticed when her husband entered the room.

“Cyn? What’s wrong?” He asked as he noticed how pale she was.

The woman took a moment before answering. “I… I’ve been dealing with these fanatics for so long I forgot.”

“Forgot what?” He asked resting a comforting arm around her shoulder.

“Fanatics make it so easy to spot it. So easy to sit down and say this is us and that’s them. We’re good, they’re evil.” She said.

“Well, from what you’ve been telling me it is pretty clear that these wackos are evil.” He replied.

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I forgot. It was so easy to forget… Evil doesn’t have to be obvious, doesn’t have to be insane.” She shook her head. “Sometimes evil people make themselves sound so reasonable. Like it was all so obvious and the rest of us just haven’t figured it out yet.”

“This.” She said pointing to the document on her screen. “This is evil.”

He nodded and held her tighter. “Well, it’s not much but it’s not like she can hide forever. They’ll catch her eventually and when they do she’ll burn with the rest of the heretics.”

She gave him a slight smile. “Yeah… Yeah you’re right. Someday she’ll burn.”

“Great, now what do you say we go catch a movie? Something to cheer you up.” He smiles and gently drags her towards the door.

“Sounds great.” She answered and followed along with a light chuckle.

I’ve noticed there are some major differences in the careers of designers based on what kind of game they started with. It mostly seems to manifest itself as a difference in what tools they tend to dust off first in their design toolkit, and where they really work on expanding. I’m not sure I want to go into where I see this in anyone else’s work, wouldn’t want people to take it the wrong way, but I’m more than happy to talk about how this has effected mine.

This may surprise some people, but the first few games that I worked on were all interactive fiction. A few attempts went into straight up, room by room, interactive fiction that lightly mixed in some of my favorite crpg standards. This all culminated in my final C++ project, which was the last code I’d touch for about a year afterwards, Birth. It was an unconventional, to say the least, mix of fiction and simulation, using a full 3d simulation with a text based interface. I’d gotten the overall project fairly far along, I no longer remember why I didn’t go ahead and follow through on it. In any case, one of the major points I focused on in Birth was the introduction and early story telling, it was here that I developed my love of self explanatory backgrounds. (In Birth the player was an AI that had just been “born”, neatly putting player and character on the same page.)

Anyways, the point of it all is that my early exposure to design was not “design in absence of narrative” rather it was “design as narrative”. To me working out the story elements of a game is not something to done once I’ve discovered stable fun gameplay, it’s a starting point which I work from to discover possible design elements. Those elements may then be worked into the story making them two parts of an inseparable whole. This isn’t that odd, art direction is used similarly all the time, it’s just the kind of thing that you don’t see done as much with story due to the tendency of story to come later in a development cycle.

One of the things this allows is the use of much more diverse storytelling elements. For instance it’s easier to include a first act and not have to just reach for in medias res because I’m not having to fight a bunch of design decisions that won’t allow me to show the protagonist’s earlier states. Unfortunately, I can’t go into Officer’s story too deeply, for a few reasons. In large part because I’ve found it’s a terrible idea to write a whole bunch of stuff about a game that’s still in a very malleable stage.

What I can talk about, though, is Officer’s approach to The Call. Most first acts, even if you break things down in 4 acts or 9 acts (where we would really be talking about the first 2-3 acts), are basically introduction, the call, and acceptance or a reversal. In games we usually start the second act at The Call, the acceptance may be given, but it’s almost always assumed, i.e. packaged in the call itself, since it’s usually before the player can even act. Sometimes the ground between call and acceptance is covered as a tutorial segment. In Officers, we have the basic call that comes AFTER the tutorial intro, Foira’s parents are killed and she has to take over one of the most elite military forces inside the empire to prevent her cousin from taking her inheritance from her. The game gives you a fairly aimless time period for a while, your strategist will give you advice and there are some things you can’t do, but otherwise your free to mess around in the nearby area. After a while we get what looks like second call, the emperor is dead with succession in doubt, but this is actually the moment where we finally get to the acceptance. Before now Foira hasn’t taken on the responsibility of being the head of one of the main factions of internal politics, only taking care of her own fief and direct vassals. The sudden change in circumstances forces the issue, she cannot surrender without a very close friend being executed, and literally all routes that might lead out of the country would be guarded. Cornered and holding many lives in the balance, she accepts the call to be more than just a gentry, but to be an actual hero.

An interesting counter-example to the gaming norms are the Bethesda games Oblivion and Fallout 3. In those cases, the player is given the call during the introduction, but the acceptance is actually the point where the player arrives at the first main quest location. If the player decides to ignore the main quest at that point, it’s the same as refusing the call. There are two examples that immediately come to mind of it being played straight. In the Magicka demo, the player is dropped down a shaft, literally dropping them in medias res into the game play and adventure. It can be debated, though, that the true call isn’t until after the tutorial level when you find the village being raided by goblins, but I assumed my character’s motivation was to get back to the party, which would make that first drop the call. My second though is actually the Vanilla WoW starting areas. By and large they tend to start things off with only a short introduction to who you may have been, then explicitly give you a call, by completing the quests in the zone you wind up accepting the call and then from there head out into the world.

As you can tell from the examples above, it’s not necessarily bad to have only a short first act. To be honest my aversion to the short first act is more my *stubbornness in relation to the role of “in medias res” in the writing, than a noble agenda for the improvement of games. Still, having a feel for how to make a good, playable first act is something that I feel will set me apart in the long run. In all honesty, if somebody really wanted to make me giddy, they’d show me an example of a good third act that includes a playable resolution. I have an idea off the top of my head, it roughly comes out to go around giving away all the things that made you powerful until you return to the power level you began the game with. Still if anyone has actually done it at all, I’d be interested to see.

One thing that just came to my mind is it’s interesting to see how completely focused on that acceptance to defeating the big bad story segment games tend to be. There is plenty of room for game mechanics in character introductions, especially a lot of room for game mechanics in those moments just after the big bad has been defeated but the end of the world not yet averted. Nonetheless, most games pick up after our hero is definitely our hero, and end as soon as the big bad has met his final end. Imagine, for instance, that SW: The Force Unleashed ended with a mission about destroying a rebel base and killing Luke if you turned Sith, or playing Luke saving the same rebel base if you stayed light side.

* I once read that it was advised that all beginning authors make their first few projects in medias res, at which point I decided that for the next few years I would absolutely not start in medias res.

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Kedy

Kedy was a teddy bear, a plain brown teddy bear. Her stitching was a little gilded, and her edges were looking worn. She loved a little girl named Karoline, who hugged her every night and told her what a good teddy bear she was. For five long years she kept by Karoline’s side, through laughter, tears, and many hugs.

One day Karoline asked Kedy a question. It was an odd question to be sure, who else would have thought to ask but a young girl who loved her teddy bear. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Kedy thought long and hard, hard and long, before it finally occurred, “I want to be a little girl, and laugh and sing and play with Karoline!”

“But teddy bears can’t grow up to be little girls,” Karoline told her. “But I want to do it anyway!” Kedy replied. “You can’t do it, Kedy!” Karoline scolded. “I just want to be a little girl and laugh and sing and play with you! Don’t you want that too!?”

And Karoline was quiet for a while, then stood and left the room. Kedy could only wait, wondering if she had hurt the best little girl she’d ever known. Karoline came back, with something hidden behind her back, “now Kedy, tell me really, no games, and nothing impossible, what do you want to be when you grow up!?”

“A little girl, is all. It’s all I’ll ever want!” But Kedy’s answer made Karoline angry, and she pulled out what she’d been hiding. With one swift stroke her first stab landed, the knife cutting brown and gold. “I’m sorry” cried the little bear, as her only love attacked. “Sorry!?” Karoline called with manic glee as she ripped the bear to shreds. “How dare you say such awful things to me, stupid bear, stupid useless bear!”

The police arrived the following day, but called others on there way. It wasn’t there’s to take her, despite the gruesome scene. The men in white would come for one who holds her little girl and screams, “What a bad little teddy bear you’ve been! You should have listened to me!”

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(Untitled)

I just keep playing it back in my mind. Over and over the images spin up to speed then slow down as I examine every agonizing frame. Somewhere part of me is raging, angrily fighting the truth that my memory stubbornly replays. Most of me is in too much pain to care though.

She stepped left when she should have stepped right, rushed in when she should have held back. These are observations, I know eventually I’ll attach blame or find some sort of meaning in them, but for now it’s just the simple facts before me. Then time slows down and the blade whistling through the air seems to be moving effortlessly. It’s strange how the moment just before seems to take forever, but once it hits everything happens so fast. The blood spraying everywhere and the people around me yelling, all at once and yet all separated as if everyone were on their own layer of time.

I don’t really remember anything after that. A general feeling of things being hectic, maybe, but nothing concrete. I guess it’s shock. Maybe it still is, I mean this person is trying to speak to me but I honestly can’t seem to focus in on what they are saying. Oh well, they just left.

It’s dark now.

So dark.

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The New Night Dawns.

Jen held her wife close, resting her head on the womans shoulder. The room around them was dark, and silent but for the sound of their breathing.

“Jen?” The silence broke.
“Yeah?” She replied, wishing she didn’t have to. She didn’t like that tone.
“Will you promise me something…?”
“No.” Jen replied automatically.
“What!?” Her wife looked at her incredulously.
“You were going to ask me to do something after… I won’t promise anything.”
“…I just want you to be happy.”
“I will be, because you’ll still be here. You aren’t going to… die.” She’d had to pause, it might as well have been a physical impact for all the pain it caused her to say it.
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just am.”
“But.. just in case…”
“In case nothing. It’s not going to happen.”
“But if it does… I want to know you’ll be happy.”
“Then you’ll just have to live and make sure.”

Her wife pulled away a little, Jenn just held her closer. She wasn’t letting go that easily. But then the connection was cut, and the room around her faded back into the more familiar setting of their bedroom in Pennsylvania, and she was alone. ‘Damn that woman.’

She had just settled back in to go to sleep when the doorbell rang. She brought up her mesh overlay to check the identity of her visitor. Three visitors, all with government quick tags, could be a lab, but she didn’t recognize the numbers as being inside the normal researcher range. She took a few moments to get some semblence of dressed then answered the door.

“Mrs. Cruise?” A man in a formal Air Force uniform asked her politely. He probably didn’t have to ask, her civilian quick tag would have shown him all the information he needed.

“Yes? May I help you?” She asked, trying to keep some guard to her expression.

“We have immediate need of your expertise. You are an expert in evolutional mutations in microbiology, correct.” It wasn’t really a question. “Rest assured you will be well compensated for your trouble, and we believe you will find the situation very… interesting.”

She paused for a moment, “How well compensated?”

He smiled slightly, “I’m glad you asked. You’ll be given a working salary of four hundred thousand a year, and have a stake in whatever products or research evolve from this project. It’s difficult to estimate what those could be worth, but if I were to hazard a guess, the amount coming back to you would be upwards of a hundred million.”

Jen felt her knees go slightly weak. The salary alone was enough, but everything else sealed the deal. “I’ll take it.”

“Good, if you’ll follow me to the car, ma’am. I’ll explain the situation during the drive and we’ll get you set up with a military nanite injection.”

-

It was a couple hours of driving before they let her out in front of the currently grounded airplane. Something had torn a hole above the wing, and she could only assume the red streaks in the paint around it were blood. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, it wasn’t like she hadn’t worked around dead bodies before… it was just that the last time had been in med school.

The stairs up into the plane creaked every other step, and once inside the smell was over powering. A major broke away from a couple forensic investigators and walked up to her. “It’s good to meet you Mrs. Cruise, or is it doctor?”

“It is doctor, though I try not to shove it other people’s faces.”

“Well, Dr. Cruise, there isn’t much I can tell you about what happened here. We were kind of hoping you would be able to tell us. What I can tell you is, it’s a biological life form, and has very long, very sharp claws.”

“Have you collected any samples of foreign tissue or bodily fluids?” She asked, easily slipping back into her field research days.

“We did manage to collect some of a black substance from behind one of the chairs. Other than that, we haven’t got much to go on. There is an eye witness back at the terminal, but she doesn’t seem to be talking.” As he mentioned that they stopped in front a latrine with a ragged hole in the door. Inside a woman lay slumped over a sink, half naked.

“This is where you found her?”

“yes, ma’am.”

“I think I have an idea…” She picked up a coat off the floor, and opened the dead woman’s purse pulling out a bottle of perfume. “Let’s go see this witness…” She pulled the coat on, it was a bit bloody, but the sleeves were still unstained and it fit almost perfectly.

————————————–

Just tying the thread into some of my other writing. Can’t say I was really planning this when sat down to write it yesterday, but it seemed like a logical enough progression.