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Condemned to Life

Condemned to Life

            Richard Wilson sat in his hard, inflexible office chair and shook like a leaf, his shoulders quivering and his teeth clenched. He had never been very good at holding in his emotion for very long, so as a countermeasure he’d simply distanced himself from it as much as possible. The other day he’d thought he’d grown accustomed to it, that it really wasn’t so bad. It was like immortality, in a sense.

            This time around, Richard Wilson choked on his own sobs and hated, hated, hated himself for it.

             Three years ago, Wilson had started working at MercGroup as an entry-level grunt. He didn’t remember much before that, which his coworkers assured him was normal. They’d also said it was perfectly okay to want to know who you were before you were a Merc. Wilson had denied being curious when the subject was raised, and he denied it again after they’d told him what was normal. He’d  taken that bait before, and come out humiliated in front of everyone he’d ever cared about.

            At least, he thought he’d had that experience. He might have just dreamed it. Wilson remembered dreams and experiences in vivid detail, but facts, dates, names from before – impossible to recall. In those days, he’d sometimes wished it was the other way around, that he could teach history in a quiet little middle school and not remember the look on his buddy’s face when he came back for the first time. The way he’d gasped in one huge, rattling breath that never seemed to end. The terror in his eyes of something more than human being dragged back down, like an angel with ruined wings.

            When another coworker quietly admitted to having that very same wish, Wilson had jeered with the rest, and laughed just a little too loudly.

             Two years ago and Wilson could tough it out with the best. Sure, it hurt to see your chest erupt into a stringy mess, but it was a temporary pain. Wilson had learned from his buddy that the best thing to do was just shoot yourself in the head when things looked bad. When the superhuman just flung three grenades and blew your encampment to bits, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that one Merc with an AK would stop him one on one. Better to just get it over with on your own terms. Headshots barely had time to hurt anyway.

            By this time Wilson was just beginning to learn that it didn’t really matter whether you stopped them or not. Some superhumans would get through, some wouldn’t. You got paid just the same. Wilson didn’t know what was going on up there with those tear-jerkers in management, but he sure as shit wasn’t going to complain.

            They seemed to act differently every time, anyway. Nobody can defend properly against an unpredictable enemy. The worst ones were the flamethrowers, who enjoyed the screams. If you tried to headshot yourself and they saw, they’d make your death last twice as long, and hurt three times as much. Ideally, if your squad was going to wipe, it would be at the hands of a pistol surgeon, doling out greased-lightning headshots to you and your mates.

            It really wasn’t so bad once you left your body. It was like falling asleep, and waking up with all your limbs in the right places. The only real difference was that Wilson never remembered what he dreamed about when he was dead.

             One year ago the shakes had started. None of his coworkers said anything, but Wilson could see in the way they glanced at each other what they thought. Wimp. Coward. Quitter. Weak. He said the same things to himself every night before he shot himself. Wilson had tried everything to stop them – electric shocks, hammers, even a steamroller once – but each time, after his buddy had shot him into a brand new body, the shakes stayed with him.

            He never found out who’d recommended him for promotion, but when he heard he was being bumped to middle management he wanted to die. To really, actually die. He’d been a Merc once, spitting napalm and shitting lead with the best of them. Now he was the highest of the high, where people talked about their feelings and shuffled papers and saw each other at the big game on Saturday.            He saw it all then, his Technicolor future sprawling ahead of him. His beautiful brunette wife and his two precocious children and the family dog named something improbable. His powder-blue sedan and his wife’s silver minivan. His job sending his buddies out to the next mission site, where he should be, fighting against the superhuman. A sweaty jungle, a concrete-laced wasteland, a dusty Middle-Eastern village. He’d pay them all the same.

            Most of all, he saw his sympathetic therapist looming impossibly, terrifyingly large over him, asking him how he felt. He knew then that he wouldn’t be able to stop, that the scabs would crack and the infected words would ooze free for the first time he could remember. And his therapist would nod understandingly and tell him that those feelings were perfectly, perfectly, perfectly normal.

             Richard Wilson sat in his hard, inflexible office chair and wept at the truth he saw that day, when his entire life had come apart at the seams, and death could no longer repair him. The office wasn’t quite empty – there was a janitor that came by every so often – but Richard didn’t have the strength to stop himself anymore.

            He had killed himself two hundred and thirty-nine times in the past year, each time knowing that he’d wake up with a fully-loaded weapon in his hand and pearly-white teeth under his lips. The days when he’d dreamed of teaching history were little more than an unpleasant memory to him now, one which might just have been a dream.

            Richard did it again when he got home from work, once before he slept and once after. He dreamed about holding the gun in his mouth outside that little Normandy beach bunker, hearing his buddies scream in agony inside, and quietly pulling the trigger. It was the most beautiful thing he’d dreamed about in years.

            So when the elevator doors opened at work the next day, and a stubble-chinned white guy stepped out carrying every weapon known to man, it was the best day of Richard Wilson’s new life. His coworkers screamed, or fled, or hid, but Richard stood up with a pistol in his hand and a smile on his face. He shot the superhuman a few times to get its attention, then spread his arms wide in a beatific embrace, the smoking shell casings tinkling a victory theme at his feet.

            “Kill me however you like, you magnificent son of a whore.”

– 2014 Houston Noble

The Unappreciated Game Janitor

The Unappreciated Game Janitor

Great. Here I go again. Off to clean another battlefield; it never stops. Whenever I’m done with one battlefield, I get teleported to the next. Don’t worry, I’ll be thrown back when it’s been blown to bits again. When I clean a battlefield, it’s as if I can manipulate time itself. I can slow it, stop it, but I can’t reverse it. At least I can recreate what was destroyed. It should be a cool job, right?

Nope.

*sweeps spent minigun shells into their dustpan*

It’s duller than cutting an egg with a baseball bat. Every single time, I clean the environments around me, using my broom and dustpan and that spawning tool. And it always takes ages to do.

*trips on a piece of rubble, gets slightly flustered*

God dammit. I don’t get paid for this. I don’t know if I get a cool outfit or not. I can’t even see myself most of the time. A lot of my battlefields that need cleaning up aren’t mirrored. There are no benefits for this job. But I’m not sure I need them. I understand the concept of hunger and thirst and sleep, and I can choose to experience them when I want to eat food, but there’s no need. It’s like breathing manually versus automatically, only for hunger and fatigue.

*part of a building falls off above them*

Oh great. Here we go again.

*building chunk crashes down on them, covering their body*

*building chunk vanishes, they are unharmed*

I want something different to happen. I want to do something different than cleaning up wrecked scenery after wrecked scenery. Chest-high rubble walls aren’t exactly exciting, let alone innovative. I think the colors are starting to dull a bit. More greys and dark greens and browns and ugh. I’m almost sick of looking at it. I want the world to change. Wait, scratch that. I want to bring change to the world. I’m not sure how, though. Not much I can do with my broom and dustpan and recreative tool…

*patches up the floor underneath them, gets shoved out of the chunk, flying into the air for a brief moment*

*they think for a bit*

And who’s to say that I have to keep cleaning?

Hearthstone Open Beta: Almost Fun

Hearthstone Open Beta: Almost Fun

Blizzard has recently released Hearthstone into open beta, inviting every hooligan with a Blizzard account, to run roughshod over its tender interfaces. I am one of those hooligans and after months of waiting I finally managed to make it into that hallowed tavern in which the game is set.

That was nearly two weeks ago. Just today, I decided to uninstall it. Here’s why.

Back when I was younger, I was obsessed with the Harry Potter Trading Card Game. Essentially a repainted Magic: The Gathering, the HPTCG was nevertheless quite entertaining to play, and I remember spending hours playing against my brother, gloating and griping in equal shares as the wheel of fortune turned. Hearthstone is a paler imitation, one that enjoys making cards flash and glow but doesn’t seem overly concerned with strategy.

Of course, you can craft complex gambits once you lay your hands on some high-tier rare or epic cards, but for the average newbie who isn’t sure if they want to spend money on Hearthstone yet, that doesn’t really apply. They, and I, must contend with class-specific cards and a selection of standard cards, available to everyone from the get-go. As far as I can tell, the only really effective strategy is to load your side with minions and beat your opponent to death with them. Without high-tier cards, any other strategy gets overrun quickly, and even with them there’s no guarantee you won’t get rushed down before you get a chance to set your plans into action.

Take the Priest, for example. Priests are all about healing and buffing the health of their minions until they have great fat tanks sitting around that are nigh impossible to defeat by conventional means. It’s rare that I lose a game to a Priest while playing as almost any other class, because their strategy just takes too many turns and too many cards to implement. If I have to wait an average of five turns to get my strategy rolling, what do I do against a Hunter or a Paladin that spams the board with low-cost minions and starts pecking at my health?

Or what about the Shaman? A typical Shaman strategy is to lay down a few Taunt cards (which force your opponent and their minions to only attack them) and summon totems that heal all your minions, give them each +1 attack, and other beneficial buffs. However, since most totems are relatively weak, and some cannot attack at all, an aggressive enemy player can pick off your totems as soon as you summon them, leaving your grand strategy in tatters. This is compounded by the fact that you cannot customize your deck after you realize who your opponent is, or even switch to a different one. You must lock in the single deck and the single champion you will use before you even step into matchmaking. This oversimplification forces every deck to be “one size fits all,” and shuts down niche strategies before they even begin.

The most confounding part about this system is that the core game of Hearthstone seems well-suited to niche strategies. One mana crystal is doled out to each player at the start of their turn, and all previously emptied crystals are filled. This is also a simplification from the rules of Magic: The Gathering, but in this case it should work out well: the player knows how much mana they will have next turn no matter what cards they draw. This can allow for interesting delayed-action starts, where a player saves up cards until they have enough mana for the big reveal of their strategy. But if barefaced aggression is just as effective as (or more effective than) a slow-cooking gambit, there’s no tactical reason to favor the latter.

At first, Hearthstone seems to make up for these deficiencies with its graphical appeal. Buttons chunk and click satisfyingly, and the backdrops that make up the battlefield are fully interactive – you can splash pools of water, pry out the jewelled eye from the jungle totem, and smash the windows of a church while waiting for your opponent to finish their turn already. Even the matchmaking wait, a typical lull in entertainment value for most games, manages to make itself interesting, representing itself as a slot machine through which you “win” a Worthy Opponent.

However, as in all games, the graphics quickly lose their appeal once you buckle down and start playing, and once again the core issues of the game start to bubble to the surface.

It can be enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, and while writing this review I’ve considered reinstalling it several times. Ultimately, though, the game suffers from its lack of strategic depth. Perhaps once it struggles out of the murky swamps of Open Beta, I’ll reinstall it. But for now, Hearthstone is almost – but not quite – fun.

Rating: Give It Time

A Rebuttal to Several Arguments Made Against Female Gamers Seeking Equality

A Rebuttal to Several Arguments Made Against Female Gamers Seeking Equality

Ed – The following is a rebuttal to postings on the League of Legends forum where participants put forth a range of misogynistic opinions on the treatment of females in gaming.

 

Posted by Houston Noble on Facebook – December 7, 2013 at 6:01pm

#1 “Why do you feel compelled to inform people of your gender in a video game? I’ve been gaming online since the early 90s and I can’t remember a single time where I said “btw I’m a guy”.”

That’s because it’s automatically assumed you’re a guy, and therefore, one of “them.” You had a male user name, or a gender-neutral one, like “Inyc.” Nobody knows what the fuck that means. However, with a user name like “May Kitsune,” it’s very easy to assume that the person behind the name is a girl, and therefore a target for ire.

The point here is that not many girls actually tell people outright that they’re a girl. It’s really very rare that I ever see someone declare themselves a girl for any reason. It’s usually after a round of heavy questioning that the truth finally slips out, and the girl is subjected to ridicule, disgust, and neolithic remarks like “get back in the kitchen.” It’s like coming out to a homophobic family – do you really want to reveal this chunk of personal information to people that you know are going to despise you? It’s not even ever necessary to come out as a girl while gaming, either, since in a lot of games you get matched with completely different people.

 

#2 “Guys get sexually harassed too! People call us “gay,” “faggots,” and “queer” if they don’t like us!”

Yes, but nobody says “you’re a man, get back in the factory” or “make me an income bitch.”
This is indicative of an different issue, namely homophobia. This one (thankfully) is finally starting to loosen its twisted grip on the hearts of asshole teenagers everywhere. It’s not dead yet, but it’s going away. The difference is, these insults aren’t slung at you for the crime of being a man, they’re slung at you for the crime of being a GAY man – again, the crime of not being one of “them.”

“They” are assumed to be straight white teenaged males. “White” isn’t so hotly contested anymore, and “straight” is getting worked on. “Teenaged” hasn’t ever really been an issue, since ageism never really took off. “Male” is the real problem.

 

#3 “I assume people are PEOPLE on the internet! I don’t care if you’re a guy or a girl! You need to stop focusing on gender differences, that’s the source of the problems, right?”

I’m glad that you aren’t concerned with slinging sexist remarks (or at least claim you aren’t – this one was proposed by the previously mentioned “Inyc” back in #1). I’m also glad that you claim not to be concerned about differences in gender online.

That really doesn’t mean anything, though. Sitting on the fence is fine for you, but you can’t say that everyone needs to sit on the fence with you, because some people don’t have the luxury of stepping back from the issue like you.
Women, for example! I’m sure that many women playing games would like NOTHING MORE than to play the god damn game without people being assholes to them. The problem is, the assholes are dragging them off the fence and involving them whether they want to be involved or not. They’re the ones focusing on gender differences – and being hateful about it, no less – but the women are the ones you blame for getting involved.

That hardly seems fair, right?

And you know, I hate to call them out for doing what they want without hurting others, but they’re not helping the situation by remaining neutral. You can’t stop a crowd by standing there with a riot shield… you have to push back. Maybe a bad example though. Whatever.

 

#4 “There’s a mute button, just ignore them.”
Again, this doesn’t help solve the problem. It’s a great feature, but it must get old having to use it every time someone is being an asshole. Sitting on fences, etc. Just see the above response, really. The mute button is a great system, but it shouldn’t be the go-to response for this kind of behavior.

 

#5 “Change your user name!” or “Don’t type in chat!” or “Leave the server if you don’t like it!” or thousands of variants

Victim blaming. It’s not okay to do this. It’s certainly easier to tell one individual to do something than to tell an entire group of howling imbeciles to do something, but that doesn’t make it right.
This isn’t a good sign. Already I’m getting tired of wading through pages and pages of rancid misogynistic horseshit.

 

#6 “Grow a thick skin! Don’t let the assholes get to you!”

Again, shouldn’t be necessary, and again, is victim-blaming. “It’s your fault if you get offended by these assholes, because you don’t have a thick skin. Grow one and deal with it.”

Look, we’re not talking about the fucking water cycle here. We’re not growing crops. These assholes aren’t a natural weather system, and women shouldn’t be asked to put on their “bullshit suit” every time a shitstorm rolls around. We can change this behavior. We should change it! And the first step of that is to acknowledge that it can be changed.

The trickiest part of this argument is that sometimes women advance this one as well, the ones who have grown those thick skins. They’ve adapted to this insane psychotic environment, and that’s great for them, but it doesn’t help solve the problem. It’s a coping mechanism, not a strategy . It’s defensive instead of offensive. Start offending some people.

 

#7 “Women are naturally submissive. It’s their role in life.”
If you believe this statement then it’s going to take more than a hastily-written post on gender equality in gaming to change your mind. I hope people advancing this argument one day open their minds a little bit and pay attention to things like societal conditioning and social roles and other things that have “social” in the title. They’re important!

 

#8 “All of society does this, why bother trying to change it here?”
If you’re making this argument, I want you to look through some history books and read about the Women’s Rights Movement, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the Gay Rights Movement. They’re not all called by those names, but you know what I mean. The Women’s Rights Movement is still going on today, and I’m not really surprised – it’s fighting with thousands of fucking years of human history. It’s gonna take a while. Racial equality is still going too, and homosexual equality is at the tipping point, where people start growing up feeling like gay people have the same rights as straight ones do.

My point is, at one point all of these divisions were as integral to our society as sexism is now. For hundreds of years we enslaved or looked down upon African-Americans, or anyone with darker skin, and now we’re past a good chunk of that. And do you know how these things are defeated? By analyzing each and every facet of our society and seeing if it still fits with our ideas of equality. If it doesn’t, we throw stuff out until it does.

Sexism in video games is one of those facets, and we need to analyze it and try to throw out the bits that don’t work. Nobody ever claimed that this would solve sexism forever, or even solve sexism in video games entirely, but it’s a necessary part.

No single human being can hope to take on an entire issue and expect to win promptly. It takes time, and lots of people chipping away at the little stuff until the larger structure can no longer support its own weight.

 

Now, because I command it, nobody will make these arguments again. This is my decree as Lord of the Internet. Violators will be IP banned.

Cyan Worlds

Whenever I feel like being melancholy, I cast my mind over to Cyan Worlds, the once-successful studio that created Myst and Riven, then began to die from a thousand cuts. Myst was fairly well-received by the gaming community, though the release of DOOM three months later caused most people to forget Myst even existed. It was a decently fun game, if you like writing stuff down and figuring it out piecemeal(I very much do). Its sequel fared much better, with mind-boggling puzzles and FMV that still looks good today, surprisingly enough.
Cyan Worlds then decided to make an MMO based on Myst. It was a gamble, to be sure, but they were making money and had enough employees, and who knows? Maybe some people are interested in a Myst MMO. The game released in 2003 under the name of Uru. Content would be episodically released, and players could explore new worlds together.
There were many problems with Uru. It had no real draw for multiplayer. The Myst series had been about quiet, furtive puzzle-solving… not exactly something that transitions well into an MMO. There was no real advantage to having multiple people trying to do the same thing. Additionally, once someone was interested enough to pay the subscription fee, there was nothing to do after all the main content had been exhausted. There was no “endgame,” no raids to grind or loot to collect. You could not pimp out your character with armor made of ultra-diamond and a sword that could kill God Himself.
The biggest problem was World of Warcraft. As DOOM eclipsed Myst, so did WoW eclipse Uru. Eclipse isn’t really the right word, because an eclipse doesn’t last very long – WoW annihilated Uru Live. It came out a year after Uru did, but the year’s head start didn’t do much for the little MMO. Cyan poured money into this little project, designed to be the Next Big Thing, and all it did was quietly bleed to death. It was revived again and again, each time to less and less success.
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was released at the same time as Uru Live. ABM was the single-player component to the game, and it sold significantly better than Uru Live. This is the game I played when we lived in the Airstream trailer and a tiny room. This game has integrated itself into my way of thought. It is a shame, then, that one of my favorite games of all time was not enough to keep Cyan Worlds solvent. Three more Myst games were released, the fourth of which was actually quite good, but there was no fanfare at all; the games were out in stores, and that was that.
During this time Cyan Worlds was shuffled from company to company. Broderbund, Mattel, Ubisoft, Gamecock (what an awful name). The rights to the Myst series were bandied about by Ubisoft, given to Presto Studios in 2001 to make Myst III and kept by Ubisoft to make Myst IV. Cyan Worlds didn’t develop the two sequels to the franchise that was theirs. With one final effort Cyan Worlds made Myst V: End of Ages, and ended the series – and their solvency.
Cyan Worlds laid off a monumental amount of employees. Either seven or two employees remained after the layoffs were done. Most of them were rehired after Cyan Worlds made a deal to Turner Broadcasting (likely involving the transaction of one (1) human soul, kept by the Turner Broadcasting gremlins from now until perpetuity). However, you can imagine that many of these employees were looking for other work after they witnessed their job security go up in smoke.
Today, they are in a sad state. They stay alive through ports of games to iOS devices, and crappy little apps that somehow manage to keep them afloat. In a June 2012 interview, Rand Miller said “We’re a very small shop at this point. We’re trying hard to pay the bills, and that involves balancing our ports and re-releases with our new IP. We’ve done a couple smaller mobile apps that we’re really proud of, but new IP has to get traction up against all the competition.” [http://www.modojo.com/features/realmyst_interview_with_cyan_worlds/] How the mighty have fallen, or at the very least how the decently well-off have fallen. “We’re trying hard to pay the bills.” I can only imagine the emails from their parent companies, quietly informing them that their support will be cut off if they don’t deliver on a new game.
Cyan Worlds as I knew it is dead. The company that produced pure fantasy, packed into the guise of a game, died when Uru Live went under for good. I remember playing Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, exploring the dead cities of the D’ni. Ironic that the city that once housed an incredible civilization also housed travelers like myself, and dreams of Cyan Worlds to create something that would change the world. Now… dust and echoes. A thousand-year-old searchlight crawling around the cavern, searching for life. Open books, a tiny window on the page whirling, never to know the touch of a hand again.
Goodbye, old friend. May Releeshahn ever keep you.
– Houston

Grilled Cheese

Grilled Cheese

William shouldn't have trusted that herring.

“I'm a magic fish! I can grant you three wishes! Hurr bur bur burr! What a load of bollocks.”

William knew he was being unfair. The fish had been dying, after all. It had somehow managed to get itself fifty feet up a pebbly beach, and would probably have said anything to get back into the water. The transformation had been rather unnecessary, though. William flapped his door open and closed irritably, or what he believed to be irritably. In reality there were very few people able to read the moods of a toaster oven with any reliability, unless it actually toasts something.

William did toast something, every day. Occasionally up to five times a day. He had been found on the beach and transported to the home of one overweight trailer-bound creature he personally liked calling Cletus. Cletus made a lot of toast, that's all William could say. Every morning, toast. Every evening, grilled cheese. Sometimes grilled cheese in the afternoon, and toasted tuna sandwiches for dinner. William knew the smell of burnt tuna would haunt him till the end of his days.

Still, William took a strange sort of pride in his job. If he had only one duty in this new life, then by God he would perform that duty to the best of his abilities. His toast was golden brown, evenly, on both sides. He melted the cheese just right, so that it melded with the bread in perfect harmony. If Cletus ever dipped it in tomato soup, William would have made sure the soup was warm, but the bowl wasn't too hot to carry. His goal was to last as long as he could without being replaced – he did not look forward to a life spent thirty feet deep into a landfill.

His other goal was to be recognized as human, or at the very least sentient. He enjoyed doing his job well, of course, but he was a god damn toaster oven. So he tried to communicate in the only way he knew how. He burned toast.

One morning Cletus took his toast out of the oven and found a skinny black mark across it. “Goddam tost'r ovn takin a shit all over my food,” Cletus said. “Worthless.” He threw the slice in the trash and looked at the other one. The letter A was clearly burned into its face. Cletus threw that one away as well and had a bowl of Lucky Charms, scowling at William and muttering throughout.

The next day, William made an M and managed, through desperate effort, to get H and U on the same side. Cletus threw these away as well, not showing any signs of recognition. William wondered with horror if the man was even literate. Cletus made no more grilled cheese.

William managed M and AN the next day but the effort was futile. Cletus actually struck him today, and William was proud to leave a burn on his hand. He only had once chance left, he knew, before Cletus threw him away. He glowed faintly all night, thinking.

The next morning, Cletus removed his toast to find both the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ burned into the surface. He got very excited about it, calling his neighbors in to have a look, who also got very excited. The local news reported on this incident, and William eagerly replicated the feat to anyone who put bread inside him. This was his chance.

Surprisingly enough, national news covered it as well. William became a roadside tourist attraction, and Cletus became rich selling all manner of saintly toast memorabilia. “Maybe that fish was onto something,” William grudgingly admitted.

(Note:  This story was created in response to an open request for 'something to write'.  The idea of man turned toaster oven was one of the odder suggestions.)