Category: Fiction

I WROTED YOU A CHRISTMAS STORY.

(It is of course non-canon. Eternal thanks to Brenda Cooper, Wil Wheaton, Christina Diddle, and Yesenia Cisneros for story notes and feedback. Yes it’s a little blasphemous, if you are sensitive to that, don’t bother reading. You will have no one to blame but yourself.)

 

Teaching Toward Bethlehem

 

 

The air was crisp and cold, and smelled strongly of smoke. To be more clear, it wasn’t the smoke smell of destruction nor the smoke of a pipe of herb. It was hearth fire smoke. Wood smoke. A smell of comfort, and Nathanial Boren inhaled it deeply and held it inside of him for a moment. He exhaled and watched his breath float away into the night sky, imagining for a moment it was smoke itself. It was a childhood play act that even at the ripe old age of fifty-one he indulged in.

His wife was fast asleep in the settlement behind him, his children were grown and had hearth fires of their own. Nights like this he could stand out near the perimeter, see the stars in the winter night air and just be. For a moment he wished he’d poured a dram of the spiced cider on the stove before he went out, then decided that tiny imperfection made the night somehow better.

Sometimes just being meant feeling a slight pang of regret.

The grassy hills that rolled over the landscape were dusted in a bit of light frost and the dark outline of the old city structure could just be made out against the far mountains under the light of the full moon. The perimeter was set up to prevent raids from there, but the grand old Vancouver skyline still stood proud if inert. Nathanial’s reverie was broken by Old Messy goat, the cranky one, who bleated from her position at the center of the flock and that’s when little Rhiannon scared the living shit out of him.

“Caught ya dreaming!” she shouted, slapping him on the backside.

After the shock wore off “Sweet Christ child, you’ll give me a heart attack!”

Rhiannon cocked her head, dark skin and eyes bundled up in her little parka, “You weren’t tending the flock. I get spanked for that.”

All of nine years old, his granddaughter was already a taskmaster at settlement responsibilities, and yes, he had been musing instead of watching the herd. For a moment he was doubly grateful for not having the cider, as she startled him so badly he would have either dashed it on himself or on her.

“Fair point. What are you doing out here? The perimeter isn’t safe at night.”

A shrug, just like her mother would, “Yeah well you guys say that, but no one has come from the city since, you know, I was born.” She put a sarcastic emphasis on the last word and Nathanial’s heart soared because that part, that part was just like his wife.

“All right little one, look and tell me what you see.”

Rhiannon dutifully gazed over the perimeter fence line for a moment. Nathanial could see her mind working on the proper response. She was analytical. Businesslike. It hurt somewhat to realize she was not whimsical, and that this world had by necessity made her that way.

“There’s no tracks in the frost, no one has been in the crossfire zone. Old Messy is cranky because none of the males want to fuck her.” She said plainly.

“Hey! Language!”

Rhiannon rolled her eyes, “Owpaw I know all about fucking. That’s how we get more goats and babies.”

“Language! I should speak to your mother about her teachings.”

Again with the rolled eyes. “You guys tell me how important words are, then spend a lot of time telling me not to say them.”

Nathanial took a deep breath for a blistery comeback and exhaled slowly instead. The air still smelled of burning wood and comfort.

“Yes. Yes, sometimes we do that. We’re not perfect. But while your eyes caught much, you missed my point. Look at the sky.”

She cast her eyes up at the stars then shrugged again like her mother.

“It’s clear. No glowy fog or clouds tonight.”

“But do you see that star?” he pointed.

“The brighter one?”

“Yes, that one.” He said.

This time there wasn’t a shrug. Now, she was listening.

“I see it.”

“That star is Polaris. It is the northern star. It’s one of the brighter stars in the night sky. It is said that Polaris guided the shepherds.”

And yet again with the eye rolling. Nathanial wanted for a moment to chastise her but Rhiannon wasn’t one to be silenced or interrupted.

“Oh not the Christmas story again.”

“It’s winter little one, and the time when we used to mark this time with great celebration.”

She pulled the hood of her winter coat back, her dander up now, which again gave Nathanial great delight. Rhiannon had a sharp mind. He had much hope for this young generation.

“Stupid! Owpaw no one tends flocks in the field in desert winter. And wise men don’t need a star to guide them. The whole story is dumb. Why would a god fuck some woman—“

“Language!”

“—to create another version of himself to die but not really die so everyone here could hurt people then feel bad and feel ok about it later because they think they get to live forever?”

Rhiannon’s blood was up he could see, Nathanial changed his mind and wished for a moment he had that cider. He looked back up at the sky.

“I suppose you’re right.”

Rhiannon blinked, unsure of herself. He shifted slightly and put his arm around her.

“I like the story though,” he said, “It reminds me of generosity. It reminds me of sacrifice. It reminds me of the fact even if we worship something, that doesn’t mean it didn’t face struggle too. All we have in the end, are our stories. Isn’t the message of the Christ worth that? Forget the main parts, think about the message. Of love and sharing it. Doing something to help everyone. Yes, the story is a myth but all stories are. We can take the lessons even if we don’t buy the story right?”

Rhiannon hugged her grandfather tightly around his waist. “No. It’s silly. But I think I know what you mean?”

He did. They stood like that, enjoying the cold for a moment.

“There’s a hymn I like,” he said.

“The holy night one?”

“It’s fun to sing isn’t it?”

“I guess,” she said.

“There’s a line about fall on your knees, hear the angel voices.”

“That’s dumb. You can’t fight back on your knees.”

“That’s not entirely true, but also not the point,” Nathanial said. He didn’t feel the need to further it.

There was a moment again with just the two hugging each other in the cold. The goat bleated.

“I think you’re right about Old Messy,” He said.

“Yeah. I am I think,” came the small reply.

“Go to bed little one.”

Rhiannon hugged him tight and breathed in deeply. Nathanial realized for a moment that perhaps he had imparted some wisdom. He also realized that having an impact on her was a life experience few and far between. Rhiannon let him go and trudged off but then turned for a moment.

“Owpaw, what is the point though? Why even bother with these people you made if you’re a god? Make them think they can be bad but feel bad and be forgiven?”

Nathanial smiled. “I don’t know. Maybe people should try harder to avoid being bad.”

Rhiannon frowned. “Wait. This is you telling me again I can’t tease Nat Jr? Owpaw he is so lame.” Again she emphasized the last word with sarcasm.

Mission accomplished, her brother might experience a little less torment.

“Merry Christmas, Rhiannon.” It was an instruction not a wish.

And she rolled her eyes, shuffled back to her cabin. Nathanial took a deep breath of the night air, and watched the flock.

 

50 Word Ghost Story

I did something I’ve not done in too long given life events and work and conventions and sickness: do a writing challenge. I have other obligations I am working on so this one cropped up and was the perfect 15 minute exercise for the creative side of my brain.

The fine folk over at Scottish Book Trust are running a 50 word fiction competition. This month’s theme is a write a ghost story in 50 words. I love ghost stories so I thought, why not? I don’t expect to win, but thinking about this story made me want to write more of it, and I’m actually happy they capped it at 50. Here’s my entry:

The table stands next to an overturned chair. The eyes of the woman in the portrait on the wall seem to gaze directly at it. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn. No one. Looking back, the chair is upright and the woman’s eyes now gaze behind me.

In Which I Wrote in the Alloy of Law Mistborn Universe.

This is going to be the month of shipping long overdue stuff. Let’s start with one that I am enormously honored to have been a part of.

Mistborn Adventure Game: Alloy of Law Cover

Product Information: 320 pages

Print and PDF release
Author(s): Alex Flagg, John Snead, Stephen Toulouse, Rob Vaux, Filamena Young
Artist(s): Ben McSweeney, Isaac Stewart
Crafty Games Product Number: CFG-7004
ISBN: 978-1-940094-91-5
Release Date: 2014-08-07

 

MY NAME IS ON THIS! I am a huge Brandon Sanderson/Mistborn fan. So when I got approached by my good friend Logan Bonner and Crafty Games a couple years ago about writing sections of this I flipped out. Then I calmed down. Then I flipped out. Then I flipped out again. I loved Alloy of Law. I loved finding out how the events of the Mistborn Trilogy changed the world of Scadrial.

Then, they told me the sections I would be writing for. I got to describe the Northern and Southern roughs, and develop the stories for Wax and Wayne and Marasi and holy shit! I got to work with some other amazing writers all in a world I was a fan of. And I got to create a little bit in that world.

It was a great experience writing for an RPG, and my first experience writing in someone else’s universe and trying to be bold and creative yet respectful to the fact this wasn’t my playground.

I thank Logan for his patience in helping me navigate some of the elements of writing for an RPG that make it different from pure fiction. The process was fun. I hope players enjoy it!

Why Bioshock Infinite Probably Isn’t As Good As We Think It Is

My mind’s bouncing a bit around the Buddy shaped hole in our lives. But I wanted to say this about Bioshock Infinite since I finished it last week.

Let me state right off the bat, Bioshock Infinite is a must play game. It’s worth your money and you should play it. No, really I’m dead serious. Stop reading this and go play it then come back so we can talk about it. I’ll wait.

Second point, this post is going to be more spoilery than that sandwich the creepy eye transplant doctor fooled Tom Cruise into eating in Minority Report.

I mean it, I am going to spoil the living hell out of Bioshock Infinite if you keep reading.

Ok?

Ok.

I’m serious though.

Ok.

Endings are tough. As a writer they are incredibly daunting. Sometimes you get lucky and you come up with an ending before you even have a story. That’s the best scenario from a work perspective because you already understand how things turn out. Working backwards is just a matter of giving your ending some justice.

Then sometimes you come up with an ending in the middle of the story, which is harder but also a bit of a relief.

The absolute worst is starting off without an ending. Because holy shit, where is this all going?

And yet the best stories, at least in my mind, are the latter ones. Sometimes when you start off with an ending, you often can’t do it justice because in the working backwards you concentrate too much on that wonderful ending.

Bioshock Infinite has, in my opinion, a bad ending. One that it feels like someone thought was a wonderful ending.

Now, I don’t mean that the ending is cheap, or that it didn’t involve a lot of thought, or that it’s a cop out or anything.

If anything, it’s just a bridge too far. The story builds up to it backwards in a way.

Let me explain, and here is where I will TOTALLY GO INTO SPOILERS.

During the third act of the game it’s beating you over the head that all this time you are Father Comstock. They even mix Dewitt’s voice into Comstock’s voice at a couple of intervals. The Voxaphone extras are equally blunt. As I was playing, I actually said out loud once “Ok I get it I’m Comstock. Jesus, stop already.”

Then at the end, Elizabeth takes your hand and shows you the lighthouses. I was a bit annoyed because at this point I was waiting for her to just go “SURPRISE YOU’RE COMSTOCK!”

But that didn’t happen. That didn’t happen at all. Instead I spent the next few minutes gobsmacked as the game walked me through the alternate worlds and the fact that Elizabeth was my daughter, a daughter I had sold to Comstock years ago to erase my debt. What debt? Well it could have been my debt of guilt over Dewitt’s participation at Wounded Knee, or a financial debt, or perhaps even a dimensional debt required to balance the alternate universes.

I was floored, here I thought it was just going to be this cheap twist ending that I was the bad guy the whole time (which didn’t make sense that Dewitt was Comstock given his guilt over Wounded Knee but ok whatever) and instead I was offered this amazing tantalizing ending that would leave me with philosophical questions and something to ponder. What debt was I paying? The emotional payoff of Elizabeth losing her finger was deep and satisfying. The idea of the amorphous debt, the twins’ manipulations, the baptism metaphor, Dewitt killing Comstock in a rage, and the thrilling final battle sequence before the game’s end reveal left me reeling and thinking I had just played one of the best games ever written.

They had head faked me into thinking I was Comstock with the obvious voice tricks and dialogue and the baptism metaphor etc etc. I mentally congratulated the writers in their ingenuity at giving me a much more satisfying ending than just making me the villain all along and fooling me into thinking they were taking the easy way out.

Then the game continued and NOPE! SUPER DOUBLE TWIST YOU WERE COMSTOCK ALL ALONG!

I don’t think I’ve ever been more let down in a game in a long time in just a few minutes, which is a testament by the way to how good the vast vast majority of the game is.

It just makes no sense that Dewitt is Comstock, even in the multi-universe sense. It’s deeply unsatisfying. Guilt ridden Dewitt over his massacre of innocent Indians at Wounded Knee is, in an alternate universe (or maybe even the same one), racist Hitler-esque Comstock? Comstock who in at least one universe is sterile yet still Elizabeth’s father? Or bounces around dimensions made him sterile but Dewitt isn’t, so what’s the point of that except to make you think you’re not Comstock? I….there’s so much…what? Yes the baptism created a different person yet the drowning at the end…makes Comstock? Or not?

I’ve now played the ending two or three times over again and tried to make sense of it and sorry, it doesn’t work. And what’s worse is that it’s constructed in such a way that it’s somehow proud of its insights. And what are we to make of the coda at the end of the game’s credits? Dewitt is alive? Elizabeth is in the crib? I…what?

Dewitt being Comstock robs the game of some emotion and, I think, is a bridge too far. The coda at the end of the game’s credits compounds the issue.

I hate the ending of the movie Wall-E. It’s one of the best films I think I have ever seen but its ending is a cop out. When Wall-E suddenly for no reason regains his memory it negates the emotional impact of his previous sacrifice for Eve. What would have been a better ending? He loses his memory and then during the credits sequence (which features the story of humanity reclaiming the Earth), we see Wall-E slowly becoming who he was again over time and with Eve’s help. Wall-E is probably the best example I have of a movie that faltered fatally in its ending, for the payoff of not wanting to make the audience work too much. It’s almost like Bioshock Infinite failed in the same way, because the writers felt like the dimensions, the lighthouses, and how Elizabeth lost her finger just wasn’t enough twist.

I’m no expert on ending stories. I have taken that tone here I know. But at the end sequence of Bioshock Infinite when the multiple versions of Elizabeth kill Dewitt through the baptism metaphor I rolled my eyes and put my controller down.

So let me stop and remind you that if you made it this far and yet have not played the game GO PLAY IT. I might hate the ending, but I love the care that went into the game and it is, above all else, fun and beautiful and a piece of art that deserves support.

But having talked to a number of friends who have played it and were blown away by the ending I just wanted to express I think it would have been cleaner and more satisfying to stick solely with the Elizabeth emotional payoff. It feels very much that since Bioshock had a wonderful twist, they needed to one up themselves. Like a third movie from M. Night Shyamalan.

I’m saying all this only because I care about it. For sure if you hate the endings of my own stories please feel free to tell me how I don’t actually get endings at all.  Open-mouthed smile

Oh and one more time, yeah buy this game. I do want to see more like it.

The TellTale Tale

So a month ago I applied for a game writer position at TellTale games.

I would KILL to write for Telltale. I’ve already written about why I think their take on The Walking Dead was game of the year for 2012 and the writing talent they have already is incredible. I can maybe think of only one or two other places (Bungie or 343 etc) where I would want to be a part of creating stories.

They wanted screenwriting samples which is perfectly reasonable. However their disclaimer (which I’m sure is industry standard) indemnified them should they ever create something completely identical to my writing samples. Meaning if I gave them something original but unpublished, it was essentially theirs in perpetuity.

Again, this is in a lot of ways a completely industry standard thing for writers. The companies you want to write for have to know you can write. In return should they ever in the history of ever make something slightly similar to what you provide them as a sample, if they don’t hire you they certainly don’t want to get sued. That’s not unreasonable. But it does represent a dilemma for writers who have a published body of work but not in the specific format they are demanding.

My problem, as a writer, was with their particular use of the word “Identical” in their writing sample agreement. To wit from the actual public job application site:

“By applying for the position and submitting any writing sample (the “Sample”) to Telltale, Inc. (“Telltale”), you understand and acknowledge that Telltale is constantly developing in-house ideas, formats, stories, concepts, artwork and the like (collectively, “Creative Elements”), and that many such Creative Elements developed by Telltale now or in the future may be similar to or identical to those contained in your Sample.  You agree that Telltale will not be held liable for any such similarities and that Telltale’s use or development of Creative Elements similar to or identical with any material or elements (including Creative Elements) contained in the Sample shall not obligate Telltale to you in any manner.  In connection with your agreement to these terms, you expressly waive any claims you may have against Telltale arising from or relating to your submission of the Sample.”

Emphasis mine.  Again perfectly standard disclaimer. But I have several unpublished scripts and things in development that I would not want to have put under this disclaimer, but that represent my best work. What to do?

Well it’s been a month, and I’ve not heard a peep from them so I assume it didn’t work out. So I thought I would share with you how I handled the situation. I created two short screenplays that both addressed what I thought was a good representation of my abilities, without the content being something that would ever be a thing that they would make a game out of. Perhaps it was too clever by half, but I sure had fun writing it. I thought readers and other writers might want to see my solution to the “identical” problem. Please to enjoy, The TellTale Tales.

 

Part 1 (PDF)

 

Part 2 (PDF)