Noel Quiles

@EnMod

I make stories for the monitor and page, in the form of interfaces, games, words, and sounds.

15,398 words

https://linktr.ee/enlightenedmodifier @NoelQuiles Thank
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Risen From Its Grave: School Years

April 19, 2018

Part postmortem, part retrospective, in Risen From Its Grave I take an in-depth look at my games to determine Triumphs and Missteps in the development process. I also look at what's "risen from the grave" of the game proper -- that is, what's stuck with me and proceeded to trounce future development challenges.

The unprolific dev has returned!

Been a while, eh? I haven't written a dev post or created a full game since Neci's Nightmare in 2016...new posts and projects have been well-overdue. Come along as we dive into the processes, trials, headaches, and successes of making a game in Godot Engine! I wrote this long after the fact so things are going to look more "complete" than they should.

Back to school: Vacation's over and the work begins!

First day jitters

School Years came out of a sudden urge to make a new game after a year, and make more in the time that followed. I had been perusing various game jams to find one that really stood out, one with a theme I could feasibly complete in a short amount of time. Eventually I came upon CFN Game Jam and its "growing up" theme, sparking a flood of ideas I just knew would be a good fit! However...I became overwhelmed at the sheer amount of work to do to plan the thing out in the three weeks there was until the jam.

There were a few ways I could start the process:

  • Properly plan out what to do with my ideas before doing anything
  • Just jump into GameMaker: Studio and pick up on changes to the software since I made Neci's Nightmare
  • Pick up an engine (one I do more research on) and learn it, top to bottom

Now, the smart answer for developing a game properly is the first, because it shouldn't even matter what engine you pick as long as you have an actual game to make, right? An answer almost as smart for this jam would be the second, because if you do insist on nose-diving into a project it should be with familiar tools. So, which answer did I pick?

Naturally, I chose the most difficult one for me at first: learn Godot Engine from top to bottom. Here's how I got to that choice.

Entirely new subjects

Before I had even considered developing another game, before even thinking about CFN Game Jam, I was following along with tutorials for creating games in Unreal Engine 4 in an attempt to further my gamedev knowledge.

UE4 was very nice-looking, but had way too much for me to understand off-the-bat for simple creation, and an editor UI that made me anxious just looking through my options. Sooo many buttons and configs and tabs...I was overwhelmed quickly despite all the potential at my disposal:

I mean...look at thisssss

I mean...look at that! The file browser's on the bottom of the main viewport, don't know what is going on at the left, then there's the need of some config hack to get the editor to stop flickering its mesh outlines...

I needed something a bit more familiar, so around two weeks before the jam I considered Unity and Godot. Due to a stronger familiarity with Unity after using the engine in a college project from a few years back, I jumped into a Unity series on ARPGs by Naman Jain. I figured that would be a great way to see if I actually liked Unity back then or if I just tolerated it. After about two days I realized I just tolerated it; it seemed just as foreign to me as UE4 did even after having used it with little to no significant UI changes since college.

Soon after that I jumped right into Godot Engine with the Gamefromscratch series on Godot, and I fell head-over-heels for it. The node-based architecture, signals, scripting language, all of it was so much easier for me to grasp, and I went through the tutorial series with a half day to spare before the jam!

This leads me to the first of what I did right with School Years, one of its...

Triumphs

Swift familiarity

It took me until this jam to really think about what I want to use to make games. Why jump on the Unity train if it didn't excite or entice me? Why dive into Unreal if I didn't actually like it all that much? No, I decided this time to forego even thinking about going back to GameMaker: Studio due to similar misgivings, and went all-in on Godot.

The engine has everything I want in just the way I prefer it! Nodes and scenes work with each other in ways very similar to Web Components work in web development: you can declare and lay out nodes of a scene (like HTML elements of a component) as well as include scenes in other scenes (again, component-like), with all the properties of each individual scene scoped to it implicitly. It makes scene structures very easy for me to visualize and implement, usually the two largest hurdles I overcome before jumping in. Here's a glimpse of the main scene in which minigames "spawn":

Godot SceneTree

Note the uh...influence from WarioWare. The game's events, as I had originally named them, are called at least three things in the code in different places (events, Microgames, minigames...). Not the most efficient or best-practices methodology for sure, but it goes to show you how quickly I felt right at home in the editor, hacking away at the game slowly but surely.

Pulling off the right "feel"

I've been fortunate enough to receive a significant amount of feedback for School Years, and a lot of the positive variety centered around how the game felt for players.

Some comments went into detail about how players felt they could relate to the scenarios presented during the game. They remember how it felt to have all the school-time interactions with bullies and naysayers, their outlooks changing as time went on. The way I experienced those interactions was with a sense of bewilderment and a perceived lack of knowledge on how to proceed. I say that with clarity now because hindsight is perfect, but in the moment I was very reactive.

Expressing the jam's "growing up" theme as a minigame marathon was such an easy choice for me due to how I felt back then, making snap decisions and feeling overwhelmed by life. A constant pressure to excel in academia was not helping, something I thought would be evident with a visible, short timer on everything from talking to teachers and students to choosing a school to attend. It does seem that design decision did what I had intended, so definitely a triumph!

Proper workflow

Learning a new engine is always a daunting task, but the real tests come in the form of deadlines. With the jam deadline set in stone and no way to get an extension I had to constantly ask myself, just how efficiently am I working? Am I completing what I wanted to complete according to my originally set goals for this project? The questions surfaced at even greater frequency during the CFN Game Jam, with only seven days to produce a reasonably thought-out game I could feel the pressure.

That pressure led to a very quick need to optimize my workflow, according to both Godot dev best practices and the fastest routes from point A to point B.

My first and most time-consuming optimization was a good layout to put the right files in the right places. I ended up grouping the "events" (or minigames, or microgames...etc.) in folders according to which time period they were a part of. In each folder went the .tscn file, assets sorted by type, scripts in top-level; it all seemed very straightforward. This worked for good bit of time and got me acclimated to the Godot way of project organization, but this was only a half-victory...more on layout in Missteps.

The second optimization was a natural, gradual one: slowly getting used to the architecture and tools in an unguided, self-started environment. As I worked through the game, designing each event and adjusting them for each time frame, I ran into more and more of Godot's idiosyncrasies. Specifically, I came to both love and hate the AnimationPlayer node for its quirks, with its behavior spanning multiple scenes due to its classification as a resource. Eventually though, I was able to bend it to my advantage by using a single animation resource as a store for many:

This is DEFINITELY not a best practice

This is definitely not a best practice, I'm sure, but it worked well to centralize the animations I needed to splash in different text for different events. These are what drive the very short instructions before each event, and due to how I was copy-pasting ad infinitum, Godot kept copy-pasting the reference to the created .tres file that housed the animations. While there are likely good use cases for that, it wasn't an ideal phenomenon. However, the centralization it allowed was an unexpected boon.

Speaking of phenomena that aren't ideal, let's go over some...

Missteps

Swift alienation

The theme of the jam was one I strictly adhered to during development, down to the design of the game's controls for PC. My PC keyboard mapping of choice for games was always meant to mimic a classic controller layout, specifically the 6 button Saturn pad:

  • WASD for the directional pad
  • I/J/K/L for the face buttons
  • F/H for "select" and "start"

It just made sense in my head to lay things out this way, and I thought that, with the theme clearly explained in my readme, others would think the same. Right...?

Nope. Some of the first comments regarding gameplay were how peculiar the button mappings were. Keyboard-using players wondered why the action button was a very unfamiliar "L", and why it couldn't have been the spacebar or similar.

In addition to the controls, the gameplay itself was something players had some difficulty acclimating to, reasonably so. Not many players had experience with WarioWare, at least according to the reports of confusion I was seeing from some of them. Thus, the rapid-fire instructions barely appearing on-screen for more than a second didn't seem to go over too well; they were confusing to those not familiar with the inspiration.

Project layout

There were many ways I considered approaching the game's files and folders, and the layout I chose very quickly collapsed into chaos the more I dove into learning Godot.

First, I thought why not just sort out files as I usually do? Haphazardly with arbitrary structure? Sure! Minigames go in a top-level events folder, non-main-game scripts and Godot's .tscn files go in the top level outside of that--but WAIT! What about utility scripts? Fonts? HUD? Other UI? Umm...whoops. Let's throw all of them into a utils folder! And even keep the primary game script in the top level!

...I'm sure it's as confusing to look at as that was to read. However, that's what the layout morphed into as I attempted to reconcile Godot 2.1's best practices with my own lackluster game project organization habits. Eventually I did settle into a good balance as the deadline loomed, forcing me to move on every time I had the urge to refactor it all.

However, that final layout and file sorting scheme left a lot to be desired. Work would constantly pause for seconds at a time while I looked for a given script or asset. Editing graphics took precious time sifting through my pile of folders and files to find the right images to edit. Frankly, it was an inefficient mess.

School Years: What's Risen From Its Grave?

Gameplay

If your controls/design are out of the ordinary, it's good to carefully make those potentially alienating differences clear to the player. There's little sense in thrusting the player into an unfamiliar environment completely unprepared, if that isn't your intent. They need something to go on so they aren't flailing their arms to and fro, looking for the right buttons to push or the right pressure plate to stumble over. Bonus points if you can work that something into the UI or initial gameplay in a way that makes sense (Mega Man enemies, Zelda dungeons, Dark Souls' intro come to mind).

Also, presenting a game's theme through the gameplay is very effective! No cutscene or FMV, no matter how flashy or cinematic, conveys thematic elements in a game quite like the gameplay itself. Sure, you can elicit profound sadness or joy through beautiful expanses (like the stunning sunset sliding portion of Journey) and tragic scenarios (such as the ending of Transistor), but at least in my experience a player doesn't truly feel it without an interactive component. I'm sure School Years would have felt very different with longer minigame times!

Productivity

Always, always, always have a project layout plan in order before work begins! With so much that could go wrong later on, such as misplaced assets and too-close deadlines, the project's architecture itself should not be anywhere near the top of the list of crunch time responsibilities. I've found since making School Years that it pays to have as little on your plate near the end of projected dev time as possible, and getting the project's file/folder layout handled early on does well to help.

Finally, to stay very productive as development marches on, thoroughly reading the docs of your tools is paramount. Achieving a good workflow in game development is usually a matter of figuring out what works with respect to building one's desired features, but oftentimes that workflow is only really possible after a deep dive into the docs to really understand what's going on under the hood. I recommend either always having a tab of the docs pinned in your favorite browser, or having your engine's in-editor documentation always at the ready.

Thanks for reading!

Glad you made it this far (or just skipped to the end I suppose?)! I hope this tome of a postmortem gave you some good insight into the School Years development process, as well as perhaps a few insights into game development as a whole.

Want to talk about it? Let's chat on Twitter, the game's Itch page, Facebook, or even E-mail if that's your thing. I'd love to hear your feedback!

Forward

May 9, 2017

The world outside turns, churns, burns.

My frustrations mount as I realize my craft has languished, a husk of his former self shambling about the corridors using the walls to prop himself up, stumbling over cracks through the dark toward nothing in particular. My ambition knocks on every door ahead of him, frustrated at its lack of success when it finds that no one will let him in without my craft, who just fell once again. Unamused, my ambition races on, not stopping to help my craft along the corridor. I look back at the both of them in guilt and disappointment.

Right behind my craft, a warrior clad in green sprints past my counterparts; he beckons me me to his side as he passes. He does this with a motivating, confident bellow and a spirited gesture, heading into a door not far in front of me.

Soon after, from far ahead, I'm accosted by light. Bursting from a door dozens of feet away is an angel whose radiance forces me to shield my eyes; my beloved, having just completed her work on the project on the other side of the door, heads my way. Her brilliance lights the corridors behind me, my ambition and craft looking on in awe, finally able to see the way again.

My ambition waits a bit for my craft to reach him, then hoists him on his shoulder. The two exchange reassured looks. A renewed vigor fills me at this sight, the corridors lit even while my beloved has already moved forward and out of sight, certain that I'm not far behind.

I go back to my ambition and craft, standing between them, putting them both on my back.

Guided by her inspiring presence, we stride confidently forward, the labyrinth looking more navigable than it ever has.

Designing Responsive Websites: The Game!

December 20, 2016

This is a game design for the course I mentioned in my piece on Magical Drop III, made as the final project. The goal was to implement what was discussed in a designed-from-scratch gamified learning activity. The course is only a week long (actually more of a workshop) so the design didn't have to actually be implemented, just drafted. This design is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, for those curious about using the design to make something.

The Goal

"You're a worker in a website factory that ships sites in any size the user orders! To get sites to ship they must be designed so they have all the parts they come with and don't have any overlapping elements, while fitting snugly in your reference boxes. Ship your given sites in all your reference box sizes to end your shift, completing the game!"

The main idea for the activity is to learn responsive web design best practices in an environment with explicit visual feedback, guidelines for those practices, and an easy-to-grasp metaphor to better visualize what designing for screens of varying sizes feels like (putting square peg into square hole).

Game Flow

  1. Students will be given a sample site to start with, along with their five reference boxes, each analogous to a typical screen-width breakpoint. The biggest box will be used first for shipment. They will also be given a set of user-ordered restrictions (only use this CSS property, have this many elements in the page, etc.).

  2. Knowing this information, the student submits the site for approval, visually shown as a paper document (their site) being conveyored through a scanner then lowered into their first box.

  3. If it passes the scan and fits the box, the box closes and is stamped "READY!" and goes down the conveyor belt. If it doesn't pass either one, a "foreman" (me) gives a tip to the student about why it didn't work, be it site content overflowing over the boundaries, site content overlapping on the page, whatever the problem might be. After some editing of the site code, the student can try again.

  4. When a box successfully ships, their CSS is cleared before coding for the next box. Once the student ships all five boxes, they are given their next site, with new site content and new user-ordered restrictions, more advanced to implement than the first site.

  5. Their shift (and game) ends after three sites are shipped. The time taken to completely ship each box (and afterward, each site) is recorded for replayability, in case the student wants to go for a faster time. This can also help reinforce the practices learned through prepping the site for shipment.

  6. Once all three sites are shipped the foreman will congratulate them on a job well done, and the game ends.

"Overtime" can be chosen for extra credit, in which the student will be able to work on two additional sites, both more challenging than the first three.

Feedback

When the user begins to ship each box, an animation shows their document going through a scanner (to check for correct site content behind the scenes), then slowly lowering into the box (to check for size). It will stop with red alarm lights for a second or two if the site fails the scanner or is too wide, or it will proceed with green lights if it succeeds. Simple two-color code for "correct" and "needs revision".

If a shipment needs revision, a foreman will come out to point out what the scanner or box wasn't accepting. The foreman will be careful not to give away the solution, but to point students in the right direction so they can apply what they learned during the course for solving responsive web design problems.

Rewards

Correct shipments are rewarded with "Great job!" messages and a green light accompanied by a "Correct!" ding. Correct shipments also show the student that the technique they applied was the right one to go with to solve the problem in front of them.

No need for points as the gameplay and what's learned are supposed to be their own reward, as described in this excellent post on game dynamics by Philip Trippenbach.

Rules

  • The student can't move on to the next box until they ship the one they are on.
  • No copy-pasting from outside sources! As soon as the game gains or loses focus it will clear the clipboard.
  • No elements in ship-ready sites can overlap, unless specified by the user-ordered restrictions.
  • All user-ordered restrictions must be met before the document can go through the scanner without error.
  • Additionally, all site content must be contained within the bounds of each box, otherwise it will be rejected and require further tweaking.

What's the win-state?

Once all three sites are shipped completely, the game is won. The foreman will appear and congratulate the player, showing them the times they got for each one. The play will then be presented with the option to go into Overtime, start again, or quit the game.

Afterword

There's of course a ton more that could be added (specifics of media queries, flexbox, Grid, JS solutions) but I wanted to keep things basic, such that the student can learn and not be overwhelmed.

What would you add? Would there be specifics of web design you feel should be focused on more in a game like this? If you have any thoughts/critiques/praise, feel free to let me know on Twitter! I always appreciate feedback and chances to improve.

Magical Drop III: Achieving Flow in the Arcade

December 16, 2016

This was my post for a discussion forum in an online course I'm taking, titled: Designing Gamified Learning Environments. The prompt for this discussion was: describe the engaging gameplay elements, experience, and other engaging factors of any game of our choice. Edited a little bit to correct some errors in structure, and separate the ideas a bit better.

What is Magical Drop III?

Magical Drop III is an arcade puzzle video game for the Neo-Geo platform, a proprietary platform created by Neo-Geo for shipping multiple games in one cabinet. Magical Drop III was one of two I played religiously as a child in the local laundromat, the other being a horizontal "bullet hell" called Blazing Star. What always drew me to Magical Drop III over Blazing Star was the intense flow I would achieve while playing, such that I willingly lost many, many quarters to its difficulty.

The core gameplay is as follows:

  • Move left or right
  • Grab orbs of a like color from an ever-lowering ceiling
  • Throw them back upwards such that the orbs form vertical lines of at least three

These matches clear orbs from the board, and any touching orbs of the same color at the time are also removed. Player movement is not automatic when the joystick is held, requiring the player to push the stick in the desired direction each time they want to move one column over. The same principle applies to grabs and throws; each grab takes all orbs of a like color, meaning that in order to grab more orbs the held orbs must be thrown or the player must move.

Of the three modes in the game, my favorite was the Adventure mode, in which the player would advance through a game board space by space to reach a goal. Each time the player lands they must survive 60 seconds of gameplay with varying conditions, and depending on how many fire drops they get they can advance farther on the board. Here's a video of it in action (video by Luna PrincessNinjato):

Magical Flow

Recently at the local NJ GamerCon, I came across the game in their free-to-play arcade! This time the flow was unreal, unbroken by the need to put in more money to continue, or the trip to my mother to borrow some more quarters. What I began to notice as I conversed with my fiancee, who looked on in curiosity as I played, was that I lost the conversation until the stage was over and my brain could pick it back up again...completely (sorry)!

The main elements that pulled me into intense flow during stages were the controls interacting with the conditions and feedback coming from each stage. The sequence of pushing the stick a certain amount of times, quickly pressing "grab", pushing again, then quickly pressing "throw" to organize the pieces was punctuated by the distinctive noise of the cabinet's plastic, creating auditory feedback in sync with the visual feedback of making matches and causing chain reactions. The time limits added an extra element of urgency that pushed my constant checking of the game UI even further, which informed my movements with the controls, resulting in a feedback loop that locked me in and didn't let go until the stage was over.

Aside from the visual cues, the sound effect playing every time one second passed, and the physically involving controls, a major drive in my engagement was the final goal: the space at the end of the board. Even when some stages were tough, even when it seemed impossible to proceed, knowing there was a clear goal to achieve ensured I stayed engaged with the experience, to the point where it was late and I didn't want to leave until the goal was reached. Adding to that was the space counter at the top of the screen between stages, telling you how close you were to the end. I couldn't leave till it hit "0"!

Go find this game!!!

Seriously; if anyone ever gets a chance to play Magical Drop III in an arcade, I HIGHLY recommend it. The game in that form is a truly engaging experience for something so cutesy and seemingly laidback in appearance. Not many games I've played outside of that one (and believe you me, I've played my share) have given me such a feeling of audiovisual-physical engagement...except maybe Child of Eden with camera-tracked motion control. DEFINITELY going to write something on that one.

GBJam: 5. Years Out of Practice: 3.

October 15, 2016

Yeah. It's been that long since I made anything that wasn't work-for-hire. You'd think someone who's as adamantly supportive of indie dev as I am would have something to show for his interest, passion, solidarity? Some small thing or open project he completed in all that time?

Crickets.

The Soul Still (Kinda) Burns

In college I sought to inject game design into any area it could fit. Introduction to Programming using Processing? Music-themed board game with pixel art. Introduction to [Something] Projects? An Ingress-style Android app getting students familiar with the campus, while also encouraging the student body to interact with each other through a social behavior visualizer. Hell, Technical Writing? A post-game guide for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.

My thesis? A study on game interaction through peripherals, (badly) mimicking current VR trends around the time the Leap Motion was a shiny new prototype. At the same time as a senior game development project I took the role of designing, voice acting, composing, and modeling for. Hot on the heels of what that project was supposed to be, before scheduling conflicts dissolved the original team and forced the project onto the backburner. More nearly-all-nighters than I can remember. This was about the time I said my brain and body need breaks from all that output.

A smoldering ember remained as I sought employment through freelance web development, 3D modeling, whatever I could. Other projects were started, and some are still in progress, but the ember never consumed me in a blaze of motivation like that old backburnered project from college, The Origin. I'd say it was an acre or two each and not my entire world.

Eventually, after landing more stable employment I thought to myself: What happened? Where'd the spark go? You made that one thing as a job but what about the games you reeeally want to make? My fiancee concurred, having already started her own passion-fueled project utilizing her wealth of skills. Considering the amount of time/energy a brand new game would take to bring to fruition myself, I thought The Origin needed to come out of retirement. That way I'd have a head start on giving that smoldering ember some oxygen, bringing it to a full flame.

Marching Over Coals

Digging out the old GDD I kept all this time I got right to work, converting the massive body of text into an organized wiki. I went through every area of it, correcting grammar/spelling, spicing up ideas, eliminating placeholder fluff we never intended to keep. I came up with more mechanics to change up our rather basic formula. I revised the script I wrote for it to tie the narrative and gameplay closer together, laying out some areas for expansion. And yet, this was all prep work for a larger project. It wasn't a complete project yet. Once again I sought to stoke the flame, this time with something that was done from beginning to end, for nothing else but my own training.

Along came GBJam 5, showing up in my inbox.

I reviewed the theme and the details; I was ready to dive into it. The timing was too good, I couldn't let the opportunity slide on making something in a style reminiscent of my first game console of any kind. To boot, I could use the protagonist/enemies from The Origin since I already know how I'd create the art for them! Now that I had decided, what would I use to make this happen?

I had the bright idea of using GameMaker: Studio, which I had just bought in a recent Humble Bundle. Before that decision, I had never touched GameMaker in any capacity in my life. But hey, this whole thing is meant to be a learning experience right? So away I went.

Gamedev adages I learned while proceeding through development of Neci's Nightmare, as it came to be called:

  • Don't spend 80% of the allotted time making assets. I did and it cost me the deadline. Sure, the whole thing has its own original flavor, but when you've got a 9-to-5 and limited downtime you must spend it well. Focus on the implementation of mechanics, make art/music a second priority. Reign in your scope, and target trouble areas first so any remaining time is yours to crunch as you require.

  • Use Git or some other source control from start to finish. Even if you use an engine that stores its own copies of your assets when you import them, you still want to be sure that your vital files are checked into source control regardless. I use an encrypted folder via Cryptomator for syncing to the cloud, and it didn't update many of the small changes I was making to assets. If you're paranoid like me please don't make the same mistake; check your work into a private Git repo to ensure no annoying issues like that one. (P.S.: Cryptomator's pretty good outside this use case, recommended.)

  • Get used to the engine/methodology you'll be using well in advance of the project in question. The reason I went over the deadline by two days was unfamiliarity with the engine and the time it took to remedy that. I had to look up how to do basically anything through very informative tutorials that showed me just how much I was in over my head.

  • Don't miss the damn deadline. Don't. Do you want your game to have a chance to be featured by the host at all? Do you want it to be otherwise acknowledged by anyone outside some of your friends (maybe)? If so, complete the whole thing on time, submitting it for consideration before submissions are up. You'll be glad you got the chance to receive very valuable feedback. Without punctuality you'll get views on late topics, but no replies because there's no reason to rate or consider a late submission.

After the game was complete I finally felt the same fire I used to have three years ago. The smoldering embers were lit ablaze with renewed vigor! I was driven to complete the Jam even after the deadline; if I was to truly learn from the experience the game needed to be complete in some way shape or form. I submitted it for approval on the Jam's discussion board and gave it its own page, finally satisfied and brimming with confidence in myself. I'd finally completed a project under my full control for the first time since college. Sure it's no Crashlands, but it's mine and it's done. Couldn't ask for more.

Motivation Breeds Motivation

Immediately following GBJam I needed another fix. I needed to challenge myself and hone my skills once more, I had to stoke the fires consuming my thinking and vision. What else was coming up soon? Itch pointed me to the Twine/NaNoWriMo jam starting with the first day of the latter. You couldn't measure how fast I clicked "Join".

Downloaded Twine the day of, started diving into documentation/research the next day, began writing a test story shortly after to learn the engine. Today I was working on getting this blog set up, but believe you me the quest continues tomorrow as it has this week.

When you feel like you've lost your touch, your spark, your burning passion for your art, just jump in and make something. Anything! It doesn't have to be good, it just has to get done. Once it is done, you'll have learned something, and have completed the implementation of a planned idea. You'll feel like you can do it again, but not right now. Make it right now! Plan your next project and sleep on it, then start tackling it at the earliest opportunity tomorrow!

Remember, flames need fuel to keep burning strong.

Mighty No. 9: It’s Not That Much “Better Than Nothing”

July 7, 2016

Even after the infamous trailers, the doom and gloom surrounding release, all of it…I wanted so bad for Mighty No. 9 to be an overall good game. So bad.

But as it turned out, anyone with any experience actually designing Mega Man gameplay didn’t work on the same for Mighty No. 9, even Inafune just…wrote it/conceptualized it?! …This is what I get for not following the process. And if any “veteran game creators” they claim to have had working on it actually worked on any gameplay akin to well-thought-out Mega Man, I sure as hell couldn’t tell.

With only the final boss to defeat (an utter chore at this point since I’ve memorized her patterns), I can finally give my thoughts on this thorough disappointment. Each of the pros below has an associated con, in order, along with bonus cons to cover more of the unsavory bits. ALSO SOME MINOR SPOILERS, FOR THOSE WHO CARE ABOUT THE STORY.

Pros

  • ReXelection, the take-weapons-from-bosses system, is a grand idea, a pretty cool take on Axl’s powers from Mega Man X7. Love the ability to switch styles on demand, with a bunch of the powers being classical-style stolen weapons. Harkens back to Battle Network-esque styles where certain abilities are unique and cost nothing, fun.

  • I for one dig “shoot n dash” as an alternative to just “jump n shoot”; it keeps things really fast paced and allows for some fun aerial movement while contributing to the scoring system.

  • Level pacing was pretty decent for the most part. Things slowed down for some encounters naturally, with frantic speedups in other parts that gave a good thrill on progression. Notable is Seismic’s stage and its tunnel sequences, as well as Dyna’s stage with well-timed arenas (even though, narrative-wise, they seemed to make little sense).

  • Boss fights were fun exercises of the mechanics that actually required some critical thinking…to a point.

  • Bosses “cleansed” of their corrupted Xel show up in other stages you attempt to remove some of the hazards for you, which I thought was a nice touch.

  • The art style is vibrant, vivid, works well overall in giving the game a cohesive look and feel.

Cons

  • A lot of the extra combat abilities in each ReXelection are functionally useless, as they either don’t have enough utility or don’t deal enough damage to encourage using them over spamming normal shots. I guess you could say that some ReXelections are specifically for utility while others are focused on attacking, but the Battalion and Brandish ReXelections ended up trivializing around 80% of the combat, to the point where bosses became laughable. Even Brandish’s underwhelming spin-attack was semi-useful in a few encounters.

I suppose this isn’t that much of an issue because you can just use the core weapons like Mega Man games of old, but that begs the question: why have all the extras to begin with then? “Options, Noel!” Objectively inferior options, but sure.

  • “Shoot n dash” would be REALLY amazing if defeated-and-not-yet-absorbed enemies didn’t still damage you on non-dash contact. The way the enemy placement is set up is so counter-productive to the core idea of defeating-then-dashing-forward…there’s pits placed behind enemies at the end of your dash distance, enemies spawning on other enemies you defeat in arena sequences, such that you have to wait to attack the new ones for fear of being damaged…which destroys your combo if you absorb the defeated one before it regenerates since you “took too long to absorb it”…I could go on. Level design contributes to this also, but more on that later.

Asinine enemy/obstacle placement undermines the fullest potential of “shoot n dash”.

  • Level pacing was generally good, but level design got really annoying, really fast. Countershade was the worst offender.

Imagine, if you will, an objective to “Search for the boss!” Cool, all I have to do is find the boss right? Simple. Well, not really. In reality, you have to find him in a looping hallway…with no checkpoints. None. You also have to not just “Search for” him, but actually attack him once you find him, which isn’t evident unless you experiment and hit him enough times to trigger the boss fight; That finally gives you a checkpoint. Yes, that means if you make one false move and hit the death lines that he leaves you on the 1.5-2nd loop through the level, you start from the beginning.

The large amount of enemies you have to contend with as you constantly dodge Countershade’s sniper fire through the vertically cramped hallway, along with the chaos of having to “shoot n dash” through that mess, constantly losing health due to misplaced enemies, makes for a terrible experience. No Inafune, peppering the level with health pickups was not the solution to this level’s design; our health wasn’t the core problem. Making us do the hide and seek was the core problem.

“But Noel! He’s a boss, why didn’t you just attack him on instinct as much as you could?” Well, I did do that but I didn’t think it did anything, because the miniboss meter doesn’t show up when you find him, as it does other mini-boss encounters where you need to damage to progress. I thought it was a matter of finding him, with any “hits” I scored not actually counting, similar countless other games with “find him before you actually fight him” levels. It was only when I FINALLY triggered the boss encounter that I realized I should have been spamming as hard as possible every single time I caught up with him. To be fair, you could call that my folly for relying on an assumption. However, the point stands; the path to progression was obtuse.

Countershade’s blunder aside, the other stages had some good spots in terms of “oh this is cool, good test of the mechanics here” but a lot of it was:

  • “Why would you put those there? I CAN’T SEE THE DEATH SPIKES, YOU KNOW MY FIRST INSTINCT IS TO LAND BELOW ME.”
  • “Are you really going to put an enemy here that, if I dash through it, will put me directly in danger of falling to my death?”
  • “TOO MANY BULLETS, CAN’T KILL HIM OR I GET HIT AFTER THE DASH BECAUSE ENEMY IS THERE, BUT MUST DASH TO GET TO LEDGE OR I DIE”
  • “BRANDISH’S LEVEL’S DESIGN WAS FAR TOO DISJOINTED, WITH ANNOYING ‘ARENA’ SEQUENCES MIXED WITH SCROLLING MIXED WITH FORCED PACING AND GRATING ENEMY PLACEMENT AHHHH” To be fair, the final levels were fun, but it’s too little, too late.

Level design was less a matter of “git gud”, and much more a matter of “git gud at designing levels.”

  • The boss fights promoted some clever tactics to finding their weaknesses and best approaches, but once you figured it out and got a good shot spam/Brandish spam/Battalion spam rhythm going they fell like Dominoes.
    Even the appropriate “weaknesses” we all know and abuse from the Mega Man games didn’t do nearly as well as they could have. Truly disappointing balance issue there, since I had to intentionally use normal Beck for the sort of thrilling fight I’ve come to expect in Mega Man-esque boss battles. It’s like Metal Blade all over again.

  • I was expecting a hell of a lot once I saw old, cleansed bosses come back to help in other levels.
    I was hype for more when they appeared until I saw them help with about 5 seconds worth of gameplay before saying “Welp I’m out, good luck Beck!” I was almost expecting something akin to the friend help sections in Kirby 64, where Dedede and others appear to help and change up the gameplay a bit (well, moreso in Dedede’s case). More of a personal con than an objective one I suppose.

However, what makes this “feature” even more pointless is the fact that, if you approach an obstacle that would have a cleansed boss appear without the boss having been defeated yet, that area builds up to nothing. Nothing. The “threats” they “helped” were never actually a threat at all, just placeholders for eye candy. Very sloppy.

  • Really liked the art style and art direction, really didn’t like the lack of polish.
    I have some choice screenshots (as does the internet) of instances of reeeeally amateur modeling and texturing…which I wouldn’t expect from a game directed by the art designer of Mega Man. Or from a game with a $3,845,170 Kickstarter fund. Going to include the tragically mediocre voiceovers here as well, since for that kind of money they REALLY could have done better. Then again, might be the script that made me think the VO was as bad as it seemed. Speaking of…

  • The writing/story…why have it?
    The script read like an average Saturday morning cartoon, riddled with cliches and dripping with lame, overused idioms (“Don’t count your atoms before they’re smashed!”). The antagonist’s motives for activating the eventual final boss were vague at best, and the personalities of everyone were archetypal, if not bland (Dyna replaces all her “s”s with “z”s…Get it? Because she’s an electricity themed bot with a bee pattern?! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA aaaaand that’s her only defining trait). Yawn. Really enjoyed Avi’s puns for Beck though, he seemed to be the best-characterized out of all of them. But really, look at mainline, non-Sonic Boom writing for the Sonic games, starting with Sonic Colors. It’s fun, has the good old Saturday-morning feel, and doesn’t rely completely on cliches and overused writing tropes to get the point of the narrative and humor across.

Really could have done with less banter during the levels too, didn’t add anything to the feel of the game aside from some of the corrupted bosses’ lines. Everything else started grating after a while.

Team Mighty No. 9, if your target audience was people nostalgic for Mega Man, raise the depth/maturity of the writing juuuust a bit. The theme near the end of robots evolving past death machines was pretty good to me, a theme I think was also tackled in Mega Man Zero. But man, they did not pull it off here. Hell, add conversations with each of the Numbers about their experiences as Xel-possessed agents of Trinity’s will after each fight. Replace most of the banter during the level with that talk at the end and I’d be somewhat happier with the story, and would feel that it has some sort of overarching narrative, given its sudden increase in narrative weight near the end. Instead, there’s this strange sack of ideas we have to wade through.

  • The music I heard was forgettable, I really don’t remember any of the tracks in the game. As someone who listens to game soundtracks on the regular, that’s a bad sign. Probably was the rest of the disappointment in the game that kept me from even listening to the music that intently in the first place.

In Conclusion

Mighty No. 9 was a total nightmare. Its few shining moments of good design or good aspects of presentation were buried in an avalanche of bad decisions and terrible writing. As the Kickstarter project that opened the floodgates for comeback projects (I mean, seemed that way with all the others coming out of the woodwork afterward), Mighty No. 9 isn’t setting a great precedent for the platform. Let’s hope Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove, Yooka-Laylee, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night live up to the hype.

Relativity

December 28, 2012

Flowers bloom, seasons pass. The world’s changes.
Sunlight crumbles, night visits. Shifting days.
Their contiguous presence keeps things brief,
Entropy quickening to a brisk stride.

Morning air warms at a peregrine’s pace.
Evening skies glimmer swiftly with stars.
While they share space, time leaves them far behind.
And apart they rush past it, speed fivefold.

Never are they truly on the mark, instead
Time remains always in flux around them.
All they can do is comment and observe it,
While they enjoy what bounties time leaves them.

An Invitation

February 15, 2013

How to compare, to our universe of grandeur?
Is there hope for our eternal home to stack up?

Never.

It needs first reach your lustrous beauty; it can not.
Its wonder should then surpass your own? It does not.
It must surely intrigue to a finer degree? Nay,
Its sheer seniority should give it top value?

No, in this mortal coil exists not one body,
Not one object that can claim itself superior.

Gravitational collapse, systemic reboot,
Those are all the vast cosmos can do to compete.

Quite lesser it may be, far and wide it may stretch,
Our grand universe is worth sharing only with you.

Let’s traverse as much as we can from this planet,
Touring the depths with our minds, hearts, and quintessence.

Overload

July 31, 2013

While his circuits are built tough, his motherboard screams.
Another Joule added would ensure he explodes.
His CPU, overclocked. Fan, maximum speed,
Heatsink spilling temperature on all his nodes.

His processes and services hang, beeps blaring,
Letting him know how much his parts are in tatters.
His capacitors empty, his power draw zeroes.
He wanted more time, but now that hardly matters.

In the last milliseconds before his dying spark,
He tries a gambit; a long-deprecated setting.
It is dangerous, a pure enthusiast’s tool,
Whose misuse can cause a virtual bloodletting.

He cranks it high, fighting for his dwindling life.
This ultimate act completes his remaining task:
A calculation of the war’s final outcome.
In fulfillment and due rest he can now bask.

The signal, sent. Every bomb, halted. Every city, spared.
A deceased, metal statistician lay, spent.
The first and last actions of the world’s only AI,
Remain etched in the minds at his U.S. Army tent.

A Little Something

September 19, 2013

Some piece I put together to describe a character that would serve as a nexus for other novellas I had floating around. When the idea to tie those stories together was scrapped, so was this.

Tap tap tap went Cro’s fingers on the window sill, the sounds ringing in its ears. Its infinite space was a prison. It felt like hell to even breathe its home’s lack of air. What was it even doing here, anyway? It could break out in a moment’s notice…it could surely escape. It could roam the space between everywhere else to its heart’s content, not a hindrance in sight. Then what was Cro still doing here? Testing the sill’s integrity? Or still gazing at what lied outside its little slice of heaven?

Not much to see out the window, really; just a mess of realities all going about their business as it was. So Cro always argued: Why leave? Why should I go out there when I have everything I need right here? No use.

That was it, though. Cro didn’t have everything. It was missing a connection to this bubble or, for that matter, any other. It was just some debris who’d become sentient, much like all the other little things out there. All having fun in their cells. That was what Cro came to find lacking…all the LIFE there was in the existence around it.

It’s not that Cro was bored, on the contrary. It had gone on for these last epochs alone and in its space, and so would it continue, for that kept it sane. Kept it from reliving its first outing. But now? It almost yearned to string together all the other bubbles of existence in its own personal daisy chain. A far cry from the sheer terror that sent it to its space in the first place.

Cro knew that a good experience out there was asking too much, yet that didn’t stop the thought. After all, it had nothing to lose once it tried.

Entry Level

October 10, 2013

Spend dozens of thousands, get your degree.
Blanket the world in apps, calmly kick back.
Refresh your tabs nervously. Don’t let up.
Opportunity is always knocking.

Then, stop. Resist your urge to bombard them.
Reach to the sides, the past. Reach, find patrons.
You know them; you meet them, ev’ry day, too.
Opportunity is always knocking.

Then…realize your true predicament.
There’s much to see, much to write, much to make.
Recall how long your world takes to spin once.
Opportunity is always knocking.

Then – only then – reek the Entry Levels.
Festering, putrid, welcoming and fresh.
In colossal numbers they request your skill.
Opportunity is always knocking.

You can fight them. You can stun them, maim them.
But when you’re spent you must still humor them.
Alas, they reject you, others close behind.
Opportunity is always knocking.

Then you reach out for them, patrons be damned,
Be it fear, panic, or will guiding you.
You miss one? You pursue the next with haste.
Opportunity is always knocking.

Industrial Epidemic

December 5, 2012

Zombies! Steampunk! Guns! A short idea I once wanted to develop into a full novel or companion piece, that might see some use in the future.

He cranked away at the valve, the squeaking never ceasing to echo, the steam condensing up and down his arms, the wrench in his hands nearly slipping out with each pull. Only minutes until they’d be breathing down his neck…he shook off those thoughts as he shook the sweat that built up in his unkempt hair. Another lurch, another blast of steam, and another step closer to the exit…but suddenly something blocked the light coming from the hallway! He looked over his shoulder…

Shambling, rotted effigies of humanity were hobbling toward him at a pace that sent chills down his entire body. His synapses shook with fear; he had expected this valve to agree with him just this once but it didn’t budge. “Come on!” he cried, giving it one last burst of torque–KKRRRRSSSSSSHHHHHHHH!!! Columns of steam shot out from all directions in the hallway. The horrors stumbled and collapsed from the gaseous heat bombarding them. He smirked, satisfied with this small victory, and dashed eagerly to the exit.

He splashed through pools of condensation, crashed through double doors, and dashed around the wreckage of the factory. Glancing upward he noticed the intricate machinations of the facility were breaking down. Some gears stopped turning while others turned much too fast, causing other machinery to malfunction and plummet to the ground. He adapted quickly and moved efficiently, his suspenders digging into his shoulders like the claws he so desperately sought to evade. The exit was but thirty feet away. His eyes lit up for the first time in months as sunlight graced his battered, drenched skin. Once again, however, those creatures had other plans. The intelligent ones shut the door in front of him, that light fading as quickly as his hope. A few small groups caught up, and the lot of them surrounded him. He clenched his fist around his wrench, chuckled, and bellowed, “Well? Who’s first?!”

They all lunged at him at once, as if in response. He evaded them and broke from the crowd, much to his surprise, but–

“GAAHH, dammit! Shit shit shit…” – the group behind the first got close enough to graze his arm with their teeth. He used his portable vacuum to remove the infected bodily fluids from the wound, causing him to stumble and hit the floor rolling. As he looked up at the next group of three just inches from his face, he took a mighty swing of his wrench, downing two and giving him room to shift around the last. Now he was less than a yard away from the door, all he needed to do was jump–

His outstretched hand landed on something soft, human. Luckily this was a firmer patch of skin, it couldn’t be the rotting flesh of his pursuers. “Watch out!” she shouted, alerting a nearby, feeding pack.

He had grabbed the shoulder of a mysterious woman who was worse for wear. She was of similar build to him, but much better equipped for this hellish scene. The woman threw his arm to the side and bid him follow her out the door, and he naturally complied. With cover fire raining down from the woman’s bayoneted rifle the duo made it out, closing the doors of the building behind them. They turned their backs on the collapsing facility, leaving the shuffling masses to their fate.

The sunlight bathed his skin in long lost rays, the fresh air stinging his tired lungs. He and the woman didn’t stop to take in all the sights, setting course for the city in the distance. She called back to him, “So how long has it been?”

“Since what?”

“Since you started fighting them! It looked as if you’ve been at this for weeks!”

“Well…” he trailed. He debated whether to respond with the truth, that he just got off of a half-year shift of work and today happened upon the horde, or that he’s had much experience and would be a valuable asset.

“I’ve been in there for quite a while, I couldn’t really say–”

She nodded, but quickly pressed her bayonet against his throat. Her eyes darted between his face and his shoulder as she demanded, “Tell me what that is!! Were you bitten?!”

“Yes, but–WAIT I’M CLEAR I’M CLEAR!!!”

“How the hell are you clear?! Look at yourself!”

“I have this!” He cried, producing his portable vacuum. She continued to heft her weapon single-handedly as she grabbed the vacuum.

“Wait is this one of those…are you a mechanic?” she queried, her weapon not budging.

“Yes yes, I’ve been working on the pipes most of my life! Dammit could you get that thing out of my face?!”

She hesitated before lowering her weapon, her eyes still locked on his. He was still shaken, but appeared less so every second she moved her weapon away. He let out a sigh and asked her what he had been meaning to since his rescue. “Before we get going, could you at least tell me your name?”

“Well if you must know,” —she stopped and turned to face him— “It’s Victoria.”

“Huh. Well I’m–”

“Save it. I don’t want to hear it till you at least survive the night, no point otherwise.”

He was immediately struck with anxiety. Was this going to get worse during the night? How likely was he to see daylight again? Victoria read his face quickly. “Look, just don’t go wandering off. Stick close to where I’m at, I’ll do the same for you and we just might make it.”

He looked away, surveying the field in front of them. “Wait, make it where?”

“To tomorrow morning.” She said, glancing in his direction before beginning to clean her rifle

He took a seat and looked at the stars. They seemed much clearer tonight than they’ve ever been, even more so than when he’d go to the roof on those night shift breaks. Then it hit him. “Victoria?”

“Yeah?”

“How wide has it spread?”

“Pretty far, I’d say half the country.”

Silence was all he could muster as he nodded in response. He had been extremely lucky that day, for the factory is a rural one, detached from civilization. He meditated on his isolation briefly, but what became more important was the clarity of the sky. He appeared pale as he finally asked, “You look like you’ve been around, what’s the city looking like?”

Victoria overshot the tip of her rifle with her cleaning rag. “…I don’t think you want to know.”

“Look, I can already guess what happened to the city…I need to know how bad it is.”

She closed her eyes, drawing a long breath as she turned to face him. “The city’s been taken. All of it. There were no survivors.”

He put his hand to his mouth, his eyes wide open, staring at the ground. “How are you sur–”

“I’m part of the evacuation team! We scoured the whole city and found no one, me and my partner were the only ones who made it out! I had heard from dispatch that there might be someone still alive in the boonies, so I went to investigate. That’s how you and I met up.”

He couldn’t believe it. His entire family, dead? No, they’re a hardy bunch, there’s no way they’d let a few shambling husks take them down. He looked up and then at Victoria. “Where are we headed in the morning?”

“To Valeton, why?”

“That’s it! Should’ve known…”

“What are you driving at?” Victoria quipped.

“My family’s hiding out there, we have a panic bunker set up in the middle of town. We’ll just need to make it there and we can hide out, resupply–”

“Well tell me more tomorrow. Good night.”

“…Good night, Victoria.”

He lay awake, counting the stars as he would on those lonely nights when he had the roof of the factory to himself.

Enigma

December 4, 2012

I love writing in the tone of film noir, and for this I wanted to mix that tone with more modernized elements. Definitely doing something with this, although it needs a lot of editing to make it more coherent.

I straightened my tie, expecting that dame to waltz on in unannounced, as per the usual. She’d always show after a case like she was tracking me. She was part of why I hadn’t gone insane over that past few weeks; she gave me a break from the macabre that dropped on my desk every morning. Still, my logical side figured there’s more to her visits than just wanting company.

The seconds crawled by, then the minutes, then the hours. I spent them half in my case files, half awaiting the coming break in the day’s routine. Then in came Nelson. “Hey, boss. Got your photos here.”

Nelson was a reliable guy, kept out of trouble, did what he was told. What he didn’t do was keep his mouth shut. “Thanks…you didn’t report these to the commissioner this time?”

He started sweating like a pig. Poor guy can’t lie to save his life. “No sir, went straight here after getting ‘em from the darkroom, honest.”

“Well good then, I’ll put ‘em in the review pile.” I said, making Nelson hear every syllable. “Now to make a quick call to Murphy…” Commissioner Murphy and I go way back, all the way to the Ryder Massacre of ‘88. To each other we’re the most open books around.

“Uh hold on, boss…” Nelson stammered, collapsing like an old bridge.

“Yeah?”

“I…sorta ran ‘em by him…”

I buried my face in my hands. I wasn’t going to call Murphy, he’s in a meeting for the next two hours. This was a test, and Nelson failed.

So I scolded him. “You just can’t do that with every photo we get! Some of those aren’t too…work-friendly.”

“But boss, you and the commish are like brothers right? He wouldn’t mind what you brought him, they’re ju–”

Oh yes he would. “Wouldn’t mind? Wouldn’t mind, Nelson?! What if Carmen died and you saw nothin but dead broads for hours every day?! Wouldn’t that drive you crazy?! Wouldn’t you want to throttle the asshole who made you look at those photos?!”

Stone-cold silence came over the office, my blood pumping and Nelson’s face sinking. “Uh boss…did something happen to the commissioner’s wife…?”

Class A blunder, that outburst. I gave away the precinct’s best kept secret, a twenty-year case that just went cold. Murphy and I would get a ticket to the chair if anyone knew. To this day I couldn’t tell you what made me let it out. I begged Nelson, “You tell no one what I said. Not a DAMN SOUL.”

“Oh of course not, boss, never!” he told me, audibly unsure he was keeping a secret. I didn’t give him any details of course, those would flow out of his mouth like spilled champagne, smoothly and pitifully. Nah, I knew that when the time came all he had was his own rumor. And no one believed Nelson’s rumors.

“Well alright then. Go take a break Nelson, you look like hell. Be back in an hour though, I need your help on the Deborah case.”

“Sure thing, boss!” He waltzed out the door, that pre-break spring in his step. And who else but that oh-so-friendly dame squeezed by him and into my office.

“He seemed happy, you give him a raise?”

Saucy. Like homemade pasta. “Gave him a break. Poor sap overworks himself every day, he needs it. What is it today, huh?”

She moved forward, shutting the door. This time it was important. “Well it’s about the Deborah case.”

I sank in my seat. No one outside of the department knew about that case, just me, Nelson and Murphy. My office is soundproof, she couldn’t have heard it standing outside. I gave her a once over to check for any signs she was lying. She came up negative. “Who told you? Who do you work for?”

She shook her head, wearing that sly smirk she had when she was hiding something. “Need-to-know basis, hon. The details are mighty sensitive, gotta treat them with care.”

I couldn’t read her with a polygraph if I wanted. “…Tell me what it is you’re here for already.”

“You’re not going to like this…”

“Just say it.”

“Well alright…we need you to call off the investigation.”

“‘We’? ‘We’ who?”

“My employer and I.”

The nerve! Who’d she think she was, top brass?! “Of all the…what kinda guy is this employer that he thinks I’ll just stop working at his command?!”

That smirk again. It taunted me like a bully taunts his victims. “Need-to-know, Clive, need-to-know.”

This time her teasing was too much. The smirk faded; a pained, repressed look of shock took its place. “Look, I don’t care how you know it, but if you’ll be using my name now at least tell me yours.”

Not once, not ONCE in the time we’ve known each other did we tell each other our names. That was the unwritten rule we agreed on…she’d never forget that. She sighed heavily, closing her eyes and letting her shock take over. Soon I would know why. “It’s…i-it’s Celeste-”

“Celeste? Did you say-” She was out the door before I got out another word. Celeste was the commissioner’s wife. Was. She’d been dead for a month. The woman I’ve associated with for the longest time, it was her all along and I couldn’t tell! At least, not until she said her name. Then it all came back. Her walk, her slight accent, her mannerisms…this new Celeste hid it all damn well. I was floored. Murphy couldn’t know, Nelson couldn’t know, this was between me, her, and her employer. What did this all mean? Right then and there I couldn’t say, but for the moment it looked like I owed the records office a visit.

Friday night. The detectives and custodians were the only ones dedicated (or lonely) enough to still be here. That’s why I banked on Hershel still tending to the records. “Hello?” I called after knocking, “You there, Hershey?” I saw a silhouette on the other side dart over to the next room faster than I could run. Hershel was 72.

I rammed the door hard, but the damn thing wouldn’t budge. Again and again, nothing. Must have been barred from the other side. Breaking the window was my best bet, until I heard something outside. I ran up to a window, someone just got in a car and was driving down 47th with a lead foot. I left a note on my desk, bolted out the door, hopped in my car and put Nelson on the horn. “Follow me down 47th, we’re chasing a Royce!”

“Boss I just got in the car! How did you–”

“Hit the gas already, Nelson!”

We raced down 47th, tailing our little thief all the way to the Rogers Bus Depot, a good 10 miles. All the buses were gone. Looks like someone knew we were coming. Nelson and I parked and followed the thief through the front gate. We both knew this was a trap, but hell, we didn’t come all this way to quit.

“Boss!” Nelson whispered, like a kid playing Spy. “Let’s stay back here, see where the guy’s going!”

“Got a feeling that isn’t a guy, Nelson.” I muttered. We pressed on, sweating bullets that soaked our clothes, the humidity lending a hand. Inching down the asphalt we kept a close eye on our thief as she headed toward the central office building. She’d lead us to either her employer or some answers. Both roads would lead to trouble.

I turned back to Nelson, “Better have your sidekick ready.” Good old Lady Luck kept Death at bay more times than Nelson could count, he didn’t leave home without it. Too bad he tended to leave home without her guts.

“Boss I’m out of ammo…you have any?”

“Do I look like a store? Besides, no one but you carries a damn magnum as a sidearm.”

“Carmen gave it to me on our anniversary, come on–”

“Shhh.”

We were yards from the thief. All she had to do was open the door to the office, then we’d have her! And who but Nelson stepped on a piece of glass on his way up. We made like paper, hitting the ground hard. She took a walk over to our position, I made sure to welcome her. Pointed my pistol in the thief’s face and she returned the gesture, but had another fixed on Nelson. Looked like he was meeting Celeste again after all, even if only I could tell it was her.

“Don’t wave that thing at me! I-I’ll blow you away!”

“You’re empty.” Celeste cocked her pistol with a voice colder than Christmas morning. Needless to say, Nelson got the picture. She did it while keeping her eyes locked on me, she was mad I caught her.

“So Clive…what brings you here?” That voice of hers stayed icy.

“I could ask you the same.” Our eyes didn’t budge, didn’t blink.

“I’m making a delivery.”

“That ‘delivery’ has your name on it. Looks more like you’re making a disposal, but then again, why come all the way here to do it?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Like I said, it’s a delivery. Look, if you two insist on following me you’ll both end up dead. This is bigger than my husband or his precinct. Turn around, walk away. You’ll be better off.”

Celeste was nice enough to warn us, I’ll give her that. She was a hard read, though. All this secrecy, then the threats, then offering a chance to escape? Her old self was coming through again, she couldn’t kill us even if this new Celeste wanted to. I knew that…Nelson didn’t.

“I-I’m heading back to the precinct, I’ll catch you there, boss!”

Eyes still trained on Celeste, I yelled to him, “You better be back soon, and dammit remember to bring your guts this time!”

“…S-sure th-th-thing, boss.” He dashed back to his car with the speed of Jesse Owens, Celeste’s arm following him. I lowered my weapon, she didn’t. Hers were the eyes of a British guard.

“Come on, Celeste. Put it away.” She was frozen in place. “We both know you won’t do it–”

BANG. The edge of my ear was seared like good steak. Smelled like it too. “Leave.” She uttered.

“Celeste, expla–”

BANG, grazed my cheek. She meant business. I went for her pistol and grabbed hold, prompting her to shove the other one in my gut. Luckily I felt it in time and fastened my free hand around her wrist, pulling it away before she pulled the trigger. We stood there, staring each other down. “Dammit, explain yourself! The hell are you even doing here?! The three of us saw your damn face get rearranged, not to mention all the blood…you couldn’t have survived that!”

“Where do you get off, interrogating?! You let me die! All of you just sat back and let him have his way with me!”

Celeste worked her right hand out of my grip, bringing it up for a quick whip. I stopped it dead and folded her arms across her own chest; no more interruptions.

“We were bound and gagged! Just because we were in the same room didn’t mean we had our hands free! But you couldn’t see that, could you! You still believed every word he had to say, even to your dying breath!” I sighed, breathing out that rage I kept in since then. Taking it out on her wouldn’t get me anywhere. I wanted answers, not another victim. “It’s been too long, you’ve gotta fill me in.”

Celeste glanced left, craned her neck a little. I followed her eyes and noticed the office door was cracked, this was it! She looked back at me before I had a chance to move, locked me down with those eyes and told me, “No, I don’t. Not yet.” Her left hand pulled the trigger, she knew how good my hearing was. I recoiled enough that she could break from my hold. She bolted for that door at a cheetah’s pace. I thought about shooting her foot or leg to slow her down, but I knew better than that. Once I brought her to her senses I’d need her in top form. The door shut and locked, from the sound of it I wasn’t getting in without heavy firepower…which just showed up in its car.

“Hey boss!” his call echoed. You’d swear he was trying to wake up the block. I motioned to Nelson to simmer down, his feet competing with his voice box.

“Shhh! Get down!” I said, crouching behind the car along with him. I thought we’d be dropped on the spot, but there we were. I threw my hat behind me, toward the door and BAM BAM BAM BAM! A swarm of high-caliber bullets shredded it. I could hear the sniper rifles cocking back again, they were dying for an excuse. Just one reason to make us Grade-A Swiss, and going back would be it. I wanted her to tell me everything…but we’d have to wait.

“Nelson, get in the car.”

“But boss–”

“Now! You saw my hat, you want it to be your head instead?!”

Nelson shut his trap, shook his head and stumbled into his seat. We still kept our heads down, just in case, but I was sure they only wanted us off the property. When we started leaving, I looked back. I heard them all, breathing easily and packing their weapons away. I got back out and decided to take a little stroll.

“Boss…what–”

I stopped. Seemed like their hearing was as good as mine. I signaled to Nelson, telling him to stay quiet and keep the engine running. They were still antsy, wherever they were. I decided the best course of action was to get outta Dodge and back to the precinct. If we were going to crack this nut we’d need a plan.

We rode with the top down for a while, the crisp, rotten city breeze hitting us hard. Through the wind I heard familiar parts clicking together, the same ones from the depot. They were set up on every street in town. Just what the hell did Celeste get herself into? Her employer would lock the city down for what he, or she, was after…this was big. But I still had to keep Murphy in the dark. He’d run our resources dry if he knew she was still alive.

Nelson slinked out with his feet dragging. His face was sunken, tilted down, eyes wide. A machine like her never had the opportunity to put a barrel in his face. Nelson took this new Celeste’s cold soul head-on, and it threw him off, made him feel weak. He was shaken, but he’d get over it. He’d seen worse. He’d seen her die. But today he thought it was our partner Rose, the former precinct superstar, come back after all these years. The coroner reported her dead the same month Celeste was reported missing. Somehow Murphy didn’t suspect a thing back then, that is, until I told him Celeste was Rose.

If only he knew what was coming.

Lost It All

December 4, 2012

A man runs to the side of a dying queen…a man who needs her pardon. Would’ve been a game with Dishonored’s aesthetic, but they beat me to it. Book maybe? Or maybe I change the aesthetic...decisions decisions.

He pumped his legs harder than any man his age ever should. No one was getting there before him - no one. Not the queen’s suitors, not her subjects, not her fucking butler. He was going to burst through those double doors and demand his life back.

“MOVE!” he bellowed at a gathering of concerned guards crowding the entrance. He tossed them aside in his haste, their contemptuous roars ringing in his ears. He had enough, he could care less what petty sentence he got for that (which was his third strike, coincidentally). With a mighty kick the doors flew open and he charged through–

“No…”

And there she was…the queen, bleeding from her hip. His chances drained like that precious life from her body: quickly and beyond recovery. He rushed over to her side, not even Death himself was getting to her first. He could hear the guards calling for backup and some of them follow him in.

She eked out, “Closer, Norm…” and he leaned in. The queen noticed the guards and halted them with a movement. “I know…you’re innocent. You’re–” She coughed up blood as she struggled to speak. “You’re the only…one I trust with this…” She placed a small chain in Norm’s hand, closing it over with hers. “Keep it safe…I need you to kee–”

A slow slip into unconsciousness, a serene smile, and a blank, sincere stare. Those are what the queen left her kingdom.

Elation

August 11, 2012

In your absence, I wait, but with bated, heavy breath.
The memories float restlessly, dancing all around.
I hang on to the most recent ones we shared, held close,
their quintessence flowing out thick, they mentally resound.

With my heart and mind buzzing and bathed in these thoughts,
I attempt to communicate, the words infused, brief.
They are enough, as more are sent in both directions,
Expressing elation beyond scale, depth, or belief.

Labyrinth

July 23, 2012

Volume decreases, the world’s cacophony besets me.
I stare ahead, unsure of my departure time.
These are my mornings when that gingerbread house calls,
Beckoning me to serve faithfully within its walls.

I know not whether this will last for weeks or months,
But my plan is to break free by the summer’s end.
For these duties leave my mind to its own devices,
Its thirst masked with all manner of disguises.

When that temporal landlord comes to collect,
It gets harder every week to pay my dues.
Yet I harness what focus I have left, and lo,
Progress is made, however miniscule and slow.

Such are my days, fraught with lost time and lost motion.
Alas, conversely much has been gained and been enjoyed.
This labyrinth has been dreary, desolate, dank.
But even so, brightly lit, and I have you to thank.

The Tides of Battle

July 18, 2012

Imagine, if you would, the euphoria coursing, racing fast,
Through your veins and body at the peak of a eureka moment.
Imagine the self-assurance that your standpoint can’t be wrong,
That this disappearance of fear is all you need to prove yourself.

Then, imagine you’re wrong.

Imagine your confidence is shattered, your solution faulty,
Your precious opinion faltering like a sapling in a storm.
Imagine the self-doubt striking down your every position,
This assault of indecision breaking your rhythm, your perfect pace.

You have but two choices.

Give in to your lost will, let your inner demons achieve victory,
Allowing them to take root, germinate en masse and smother you.
Or wield valorous thought, cutting a swath through those foul vermin,
Forcing them to wither, to warn their kin of your courageous feats.

Choose wisely, warrior.

Crisis

July 17, 2012

Blasts raged throughout the boroughs, there was no time.
Sentinels of the law saved society’s slime,
The destitute guarded the well-off,
All at the bottom of this vast, man-made trough.

Statues and plaques of glory and memorial fell,
Their foundations liquified by this unnatural hell.
Each and every blast tore the land asunder,
Bathing survivors and the dying alike in morbid wonder.

Communities were dispersed and forever disbanded.
The plates themselves proved to be heavy-handed,
Showing no mercy to any of their squatters,
Burying them in their own excess and polluted waters.

Officials in bunkers weren’t safe, nor were the masses.
Status was doomed to obscurity, as were classes.
The mistakes of leaders with poisoned welcome mats unfurled
Transformed the very structure of the world.

The food chain had been reformed like the continents,
From top to bottom, to the elders it made no sense.
Borders across the globe had all but vanished,
The stewards had their fill of conquest, no longer famished.

Now they rebuild from their self-mutilation,
their destruction, their folly and their humiliation.
It’s inevitable for this event to be repeated,
Given their lust for power remains undefeated.

An Unusual Suspect

July 15, 2012

“We get stiffs like him all the time,” Clive mused.
The detective briefed Nelson on their man,
Barely audible over their window fan.
The poor rookie was thoroughly confused.

“H-he’s dead, boss? That’s what you’re tellin’ me?”
Nelson busied himself less with the case,
More with this apparent corpse, making space.
“Well yeah Nelson, information ain’t free.”

The duo combed through the cadaver, quickly,
Their analysis rivaling their haste.
With time to spare the deed was done, sans waste,
However, it left Nelson feeling sickly.

“We’re not doin’ that again, boss…not soon.”
Clive let Nelson think it over for now,
Deftly concealing his own furrowed brow.
“You’ll live, there’s another suspect at noon.”

Unfortunate

July 14, 2012

Ghastly, malformed, those words did it justice.
The wretch stared back, its eyes transfixed on him.
He could only continue his long gaze,
Thoughts pushing his tolerance to the brim.

They stayed locked in position, unaware.
Their surroundings collapsed, the truth left bare.
All they knew was this moment, this solace.
Devoid of interest in what would pass.

Soon, their bindings were finally severed.
Earth itself sought to end their mental exchange.
Fissures spread, seeming also to cut their ties
As the land put them violently at range.

His thoughts now mirrored those tense vibrations.
Its mind cycled through myriad migrations.
They struggled to get the better of it,
But their fates were tragic…unfortunate.