Friday, September 27, 2013

100 Words a Day 397

They heard a branch snap in the darkness. The quiet voices around the fire ceased and they stared into the suddenly menacing night.

Greg quietly doused the fire while Anna and Rachel picked up the spears. They positioned themselves on opposite sides of where the fire had been and scanned the darkness. Greg hunkered low near the pile of wet logs. He clutched a knife in one sweaty hand and strained to hear for movement in the night over the pounding of blood in his ears. His vision swam with fear, making it appear that the shadows were closing in.

100 Words a Day 396

Larry hauled the old mower into the hot sun and dragged it squeaking onto the lawn. He yanked on the starter cord repeatedly, building up a sweat by the time the engine sputtered to life. He engaged the blades, causing an uncomfortable vibration to run up his arms, and trudged through the heat, pushing the heavy mower before him over the bumpy lawn. The grass was hard to cut and he often had to run the dull blades over the same spot more than once. He was panting from the heat and dripping with sweat by the time he finished.

100 Words a Day 395

Her lungs were burning, but she continued running towards the storm drain; it wouldn’t be able to follow her through the small opening. As the black void of safety grew larger before her, the footfalls of the beast chasing her grew louder. Its steps pounded in her ears as she dove for the narrow opening, praying she would get though. She cleared the opening, but felt a lance of pain spike up her leg. She crashed into the side of the tunnel and was stunned for a moment. Looking back, she saw the beast clawing at her through the barrier.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

100 Words a Day 394

Jack and Sara strained their ears, trying to hear the click of the beast’s claws on the tile of the former hospital. It was stalking the hall, pausing sometimes to investigate the deteriorating rooms. They occasionally lost the rhythmic tick of its feet in the rain coming through the broken glass, but refused to move. To do so at the wrong moment meant death; so they crouched behind some rusty equipment and tried to keep from shivering as the rain soaked their backs and the gruesome creature came ever closer.

It stopped outside their room and snuffled at the door.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

100 Words a Day 393

They sat around the crackling fire, sunk deep into a pit so the light wouldn’t give them away, and passed around a few growlers someone had brought.

Frank looked across the fire at Sara, head in his hands, a sigh on his face. She was talking to Rick. She laughed and put her hand on his arm. Frank’s shoulders sagged as the air left his lungs. He wanted to tell her how he felt, but he didn’t want to interrupt her good time. That’s what he told himself anyways. It was easier than facing the fact that he was terrified.

Monday, September 23, 2013

100 Words a Day 392

Dear Boss:

Please accept this letter as my formal notification that I am leaving my position at Acme Corp as of January 1st. I would love to say thank you for the opportunities you provided me during my time at the company. But the truth is, this company is terrible, one of the worse I have ever worked at, and I was only here because I needed the money.

Now however, I have a much better job that pays me enough money that I don’t have to worry about how I will buy groceries nor pay my rent.



100 Words a Day 391

The keys clacked in rapid succession, spelling out the Facebook status:

Well, I thought I was tenacious. I thought I worked hard. I thought I could break my fast on misery and sup on sorrow. I was wrong.

Acme Corp. You’ve broken me. My lease is up and I’m moving home. I’ve put in my two weeks and I hope I never see you again. You’re such a house of anguish. I’d rather spend the next year working in food service and living at home while looking for a better job than spend another moment in your halls of agony.

100 Words a Day 390

“Tickle this motherfucker!” Elmo screamed before piledriving the boy.

Having finished with the most annoying child he turned to the next and kicked her in the face, sending her head over heels, blood exploding from her ruined nose. He reached out with his crimson hands for another of the little bastards, seizing a chubby boy whom he lifted wriggling into his black void of a mouth. He bit off the boy’s head and one arm.

Anyone observing would have noted that the combination of Elmo’s eyes and the boys decapitated, mutilated body were reminiscent of Saturno devorando a su hijo.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

100 Words a Day 389

The credits rolled and that unmistakable 90s JRPG music crackled through the crappy speakers in his laptop. He had finally beaten it.

He felt an almost physical shift inside his chest, leaving him feeling somehow empty. He couldn’t articulate why, except that it was linked to him beating the game.

It was something he had been trying to do for fifteen years, a goal of his since he was little, a project he always intended to complete.

Now that it was done, it was as though a star was gone from the night sky. Things would never be the same.

100 Words a Day 388

I awoke to the smell of burning food. I jumped out of bed and rushed into the kitchen, my feet cold upon the floor.

It was like an army of children had been trying to cook. There were several mixing bowls placed haphazardly throughout, filled with unknown things. The counter was covered with flour, spatterings of some kind of batter, and what looked like chocolate chips.

On the table was a plate piled with pancakes, some were burnt and some looked mostly raw.

Over all of that chaos presided my boyfriend. When he noticed me, he smiled, saying, “Birthday breakfast?”

100 Words a Day 387

The iron bar clanked as it hit the rubber mat. Josh exhaled and flexed in the mirror, looking at his muscles ripple. They moved under his skin, forming into bulky masses. He smiled to himself, changing postures and flexing anew. His body undulated to a form, equally chiseled.

He noticed a few girls form one of the group classes looking at him as he flexed. They looked at each other, put their hands over their mouths and giggled, making Josh puff up even more. Unbeknownst to him, they were laughing about how silly he looked, admiring himself in the mirror.

100 Words a Day 386

The distant rumble warned of the imminent danger. The husband and wife looked up the hill, ski poles in hand, and watched the white wave begin to slide down the mountain. Looking back, the snowboarder saw the avalanche beginning to form and he pointed his board down the hill, hoping to escape. The ski patrol team rushed to their snowmobiles, anticipating the frantic search for survivors they would soon be engaged in. The cook stood at his grill and watched it silently. Over all of it presided the man who started the avalanche, watching from his vantage point with binoculars.

100 Words a Day 385

Suddenly I found a space had opened around me. I was surrounded by men from both armies. They stood and looked at me and the other man in the circle. He was before me as a pillar of iron, so encased in metal was his figure. Hefting his sword, as long as a normal man was tall, he strode towards me. As he neared I saw the details of his armor. All the pieces matched, colored black with bare iron trim. The chest plate was shaped like a strange beast’s head with a mouth covered in gore from previous opponents.

100 Words a Day 384

Jose had grown up poor; his dirty white pants and shirt hung loosely on his slight frame. They were spattered with color from the various houses he had painted. There were fresh splotches, pastel green, from his latest job. The speckles on his face stained his thick moustache and contrasted sharply with his dark skin.

He sat on the sidewalk and ate his lunch. The white bag was stained with grease coming off the contents. There were three tacos in the bag, filled with grilled meats, topped with bright bits of tomato and lettuce, and accented with onion and cilantro.

100 Words a Day 383

“Ladies and gentlemen, from Chicago Illinois: It’s Narrative Imperative!”

The spotlight on the announcer went down and the stage lights went up.

The roar of the crowd was a cacophony, rivaling the volume of the bright, crisp chords that rang out from the amplifiers as the band charged into their first song.

The first verse blazed through the crowd, sending them into a frenzy. When the chorus started, they transformed from a mass of bodies to a singular entity, singing about how Catcher in the Rye wasn’t good.

The song ended on a Five-One, which the band let ring out.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Settler of Catan: A Game in a Rose-Colored Box

“I just played this amazing game that you’ve probably never heard of,” is what I would have said about Settlers of Catan after I first played it, if hipsters had existed in 1997. Like many people, it was my first Euro Game. I remember being enchanted by its complexity compared to games like Sorry or Life. It certainly lacked the convolution of Monopoly, but who really knows how to play that anyway? I rediscovered it in college and it was still a great game. Piles of Euro Games and sixteen years later though, I have come to the conclusion that it is in fact not the amazing game I thought it was.

Settlers has a number of mechanics that the majority of people are already familiar with, making it easy to learn. The most obvious is dice rolling. We are exposed to dice games throughout our lives, whether it be through Monopoly, Craps, or Clue, and everyone understands that when certain combinations come up, specific things happen. Placing towns and road segments down is essentially betting that the given numbers will come up with enough significance to allow you to win, as in gambling. Most are also familiar with the idea of attempting to acquire specific combinations of cards, as in poker, and using probability or trading to get them. Everyone who went to a school with a basketball court is familiar with the scoring system in Catan, first to a given number.

Catan, and Euro Games in general, really shine when it comes to negotiating. Generally speaking, the ability to wheel and deal is essential. If you can make and break alliances effectively, you can stall out other players while advancing your own cause, just like in high school. Negotiating is an activity that everyone has engaged in since they were able to, and as such, doing so in Catan comes naturally.

While these features of Catan make it extremely accessible to people new to Euro Games, there are several features that hurt the game’s playability. The random distribution of tiles can create situations where low-probability numbers saturate a given resource, making the game run long. There is a setup in the rules that is balanced. I have never seen, or even heard, of anyone using it though. The die mechanic further exacerbates the randomness, which increases game length and unpredictability. This can increase the playtime dramatically. When I mentioned how I was discussing the flaws of Catan to a friend of mine, the first thing they said was that it takes a million years to play. During a given round of play, there is one player active at a time, except for the trading phase. If each player spends time pondering their moves, which they must since the board changes from turn to turn and there is negotiating to consider, it can cause the game to lag. Finally, in three player games, invariably one will fall behind and have no chance of winning. At that point, whoever they support will win.

Settlers of Catan offers players an introduction to Euro Games that is replete with known mechanics that make gameplay easy to learn. They are familiar to anyone who grew up playing games like Sorry, Go Fish, or Monopoly. Though these mechanics make a wonderful stepping stone into Euro Games, they do not create a gameplay experience that is of the caliber of other such games. The numerous randomizing factors can have a deleterious effect of balance, increasing game length and reducing enjoyment. While Catan is a useful tool for introducing new players to more sophisticated board games, it quickly shows its age.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I was published on the Chicago Suntimes website

100 Words a Day 382

“Miles to go before I sleep.”

“Miles to go before I sleep.”

He ceased his mantra and placed his palm against a tree, hunching over and panting. Recovering his breath, he tried a new strategy. Adopting his best baritone, he began singing Marry Ellen Carter. Invigorated, he began trudging again. He continued on through the cold, snowy night. They found his frozen corpse the next day where he had fallen.

Since then, people walking along the roads on cold nights have claimed to have heard a man’s eerie singing. The voice accompanies them a ways before fading into the night.

100 Words a Day 381

“Yes!” Jack cried, his exuberance sending his keyboard flying.

“No!” Blake screamed, throwing his keyboard to the floor.

A moment later, the realization that the match was ended brought the crowd to their feet, roaring.

The two young men made their way to the main stage where the shoutcaster waited, Jack giddy with elation, Blake folded practically in half.

Wow!” The shoutcaster exclaimed. “Wow! What a finish, huh?” He paused while the audience again came to life for the second time.

“Well, Jack,” the announcer said. “How does it feel to be the first winner of the First Galactic Championship?”

100 Words a Day 380

Dinner was in the oven. He was en route. Her friends had talked up her cooking all week. Her makeup was a little smoky and her outfit was sharp. Her hair smelled great; she was brimming with confidence.

She answered the door, beaming. He complimented her outfit; she glanced away, smiling, before saying he looked great too. She led him to the dining room, bouncing her hair so the smell trailed her. She sat him and went to get dinner.

There was no rush of heat when the door opened and she realized she’d forgotten to turn the oven on.

100 Words a Day 379

“Master, why are we going to the Laughing Dragon? Surely a hero of noble character would never frequent such a place,” the servant whined.

“Good men can be found among rogues,” his master said before opening the shabby door.

The interior of the teahouse was thick with the smell of unwashed bodies and cheap wine. There was a smoky haze that obscured the far wall of the dingy, dark place. The buzz of conversation ceased when the master stepped through the door. The patrons considered him briefly before returning to their drinks. Taking no notice, the master found a table.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tan Tui: A Complete System in 24 Lines

Tan Tui is one of the most famous Chinese martial arts styles that most people have never heard of. Especially popular in China’s Muslim community and immortalized as part of the curriculum of Jing Mo, it has been incorporated into many different systems and has numerous variations. Generally taught to beginners, it consists of eight to twelve rows of single person techniques and eight to twelve rows of two person techniques. Each move has a variety of applications, some more obvious than others.

There are several reasons Tan Tui has proliferated to such a large degree. Unlike many systems, Tan Tui is a series of linear forms or techniques, often called roads. This allows a large number of people to learn them at the same time. When combined with the large number of repetitions of each technique, it makes memorizing them easier than a form with fifty different moves. Even the order of the lines is purposeful; lines that are similar are never practiced back to back to ensure one of the lines isn’t accidentally lost. Despite the varied applications that can be derived from the system, the actual number of gross movements is fairly limited. For example, Tan Tui has only five stances: Horse, Bow, Resting, Empty, and Crouch. These five stances, but primarily Horse and Bow, support all the hand techniques of the system.

There is no wasted space in Tan Tui. Each technique has a variety of applications. Enough of them are obvious that a beginner has a body of techniques they can practice without becoming bored, but as the practitioner invests more sweat equity and spends more time thinking about each move, it pays dividends in new applications. A number of the lines are variations on ones that came before, automatically forcing the practitioner to think about recombining the moves, if for no other reason than to practice the lines correctly.

The two person lines build on the skills learned in the single person lines, while adding in things like timing and spacing. Of particular note though, is the frequency with which forearm conditioning is evinced. The forearm is a major striking point within the system, as it can cause greater damage when used in lieu of a hand chop or similar technique. The large, sweeping movements of many of the forearm conditioning techniques also teach the practitioner to connect the upper and lower body and generate a crushing blow. The two person lines also enhance the practitioner’s understanding of the system by elucidating particular applications from the single person form or presenting the techniques with a new twist.

The fundamental skills included in Tan Tui are universally applicable to all Chinese martial arts and mindful time invested in it is never wasted. Each technique has numerous applications that can be discovered through training, giving it value even for the experienced practitioner. While the system lacks some of the advanced techniques, or even stances, of other martial arts, it is a gateway system that is used to give students a strong set of fundamentals. Training Tan Tui, especially for the beginner, may not seem that glamorous, much in the same way that doing fundamentals drills in sports is generally considered boring. Just as those drills improve your overall game in sports though, Tan Tui improves your overall martial arts skill.

100 Words a Day 378

It had been an innocent remark, nothing more than jest. But its impact was tremendous, sending him spiraling into a deep melancholy.

A man’s ego can be a fragile thing, but it is as the most delicate glass figurine in the hands of a woman he respects. Her power to hold it up and make it sparkle in the light or smash it at her feet is perhaps greater than she knows.

This was the case with Sara, who had no idea the number of pieces Zack was trying to pick up off the floor, with hands slippery from tears.

100 Words a Day 377

Biff laughed as he ran off, leaving Carter in a puddle. His books had spilled out of his hands and into the water and were soaking.

Having long ago resigned himself to such a fate, Carter didn’t even sigh, merely searched for his glasses. They appeared before him. Putting them on, he saw a hand. Following it up the attached arm, he realized it was Veronica’s hand.

“Thanks, Veronica!” he said, beaming.

She pulled him to his feet, smiling when their hands touched. As she helped him pick up his books, he thought it was like a dream come true.

100 Words a Day 376

“Ugh,” Ross thought, “Chad.”

Chad was the one person in Ross’ circle of friends that he could not stand. Ross wasn’t friends with him; Chad always tagged along with Max whenever they all went somewhere.

“Guys,” Chad said. “We should play this new board game I found. It’s so new you’ve probably never heard of it.” He twirled his moustache as he spoke the last sentence.

“It’s called,” he paused for dramatic effect, “Settlers of Catan.”

That was all Ross could take: “Motherfucker” he exclaimed. “I’ve been playing that game for fifteen fucking years. Haven’t heard of it my ass!”

100 Words a Day 375

Jessica glided through the kitchen, her feet floating across the cool tiles as she danced from task to task. She hummed her mood as she chopped the broccoli. Finishing, she dropped it in the pot on the stove. The water boiled cheerfully, and she knew it would turn out great.

She plopped down on the couch and waited for dinner to finish. She had timed it so each dish would finish at the same time.

After draining the broccoli, she selected a spice shaker, giving the tender greens several generous shakes before she realized she had picked up the cinnamon.

100 Words a Day 374

The furious impact jarred the sword from his cold, stiff fingers and nearly made him lose his footing on the narrow ice-bridge. The blade sailed silently through the ether before plummeting into the still abyss beneath the two fighters.

The other man smiled and stalked towards his unarmed opponent, eager to finish the young challenger and return to the fire crackling in his tent.

The young man looked around. Finding nothing of value, the bridge was free of anything that could be used as a weapon, he began retreating from the doom that awaited him in the old man’s hands.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

100 Words a Day 373

The realtor opened the door to the apartment.

Her heels echoed on the hardwood floors as she entered behind him. When they had passed into the living room he rattled off the features of the place: “It’s two bedrooms, two baths, and a balcony.”

“I like the flooring,” she said, drifting around the room, peeking into the kitchen and living room.

“Can I see the balcony?”

“Of course. I think it’s through here,” he said, leading the way towards the back of the apartment, through the master bedroom and onto the large balcony.

“The view is something else,” she said.

100 Words a Day 372

“Let me tell you how I really feel,” he said, pointing a finger at the man behind the large desk of Brazilian wood. “If this whole building was a smoldering crater when I got to work in the morning, I’d be happy. I wouldn’t care who’d been in it. The building could be a smoldering ruin that had been full of babies destined to bring World Peace, end Hunger, cure cancer, and other good things, but I’d still be happy I didn’t have to work. I’d just be sad I’d gotten all the way down her before I found out.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Spoiling Chrono Trigger without Chrono

My friend and I recently beat Chrono Trigger without Chrono, and it is quite nearly the best ending of any video game I have played, marred only by what I would call a generational genre convention and the need to keep little kids from crying.

My first complaint about the ending stems from its place in the, if I may wax academic for a moment, historical context in which it was created. Chrono Trigger is an SNES JRPG, and like most iconic games that can be classified in such a fashion, there are moments designed to make the player chuckle. Normally this adds a nice bit of flavor to the story. In this case it dilutes the impact of the ending, in which the main character of the story is dead.

The sudden reappearance of the entire cast on a quest to revive Chrono when a gate opens, after Gasper had just explained that the gates were going to close forever, undermines the definitiveness of Chrono’s death, as established at the End of Time. I have heard two possible explanations for such a scene in the ending. The first was that the designers wanted to establish that there was a way to bring Chrono back, if the player had not already figured it out. The emphasis placed on the Time Egg earlier, it seems to me, did a nice job of that. The second explanation was that they wanted to keep kids from being sad that Chrono died.

Accounting for the preceding design decisions, the ending presents us with one of, if not the, saddest ending I have ever seen in an RPG. After defeating Lavos, the characters are returned to the End of Time. At the moment of their elation, their greatest triumph, the saving of everything on the planet that ever was or will be, they are informed that the gates are closing. The magnitude of their success is forgotten in a mad rush to return to their appropriate times, and various commitments, like Kino and Queen Leene. Marle pleads with her friends to help her save Chrono, but her words fall on callous ears. As the gates slowly close, even she must bow her head and return to her own time as Lucca provides her with the cold comfort of science, informing her that everyone dies eventually. We are left with the Guru of Time, alone, about to be stranded in the End of Time, when he discovers the C. Trigger, abandoned in everyone’s frenzied haste to return to the correct era.

When Marle returns to Guardia, the Millennium Fair is in full swing. This scene is familiar, though notable for its lack of any of the other characters. The standard fanfare and dialogues are present, until you find Chrono’s mom. She has the same sort of line as when you visit her in her house after Chrono dies; she wants to know where Chrono is. It’s fairly mundane, until the moment in which you realize that, after the curtain closes, someone will have to tell her that her only son, and only child, is not only dead, but was obliterated, making her a woman who has lost not only the father of her only child, but has outlived the child in question. After the credits, the game leaves us with Marle, sitting under a tree with the silhouette of Chrono walking endlessly within the moon, a mere shade and living on only in memory.

The final image of the ending leaves us with a singular emotion that sums up the previous scenes, loneliness. After saving the world, the party is shattered; torn apart by the compulsion to return to their own times. Not even Lucca, who shares an era with Marle, has any comfort to offer the princess. Even the celebratory atmosphere of the Millennium Fair is spoiled by our knowledge that Marle is doomed to tell Chrono’s mom of his destruction. The closing of the game, Marle sitting under the tree, is actually the moment when she is closer to Chrono than she has been during the entire ending. Sadly, she is sharing the screen with Chrono’s shadow, showing us that despite this moment of proximity, Marle is still alone. As the ending finishes, we too are left with that same loneliness of Marle, acutely feeling Chrono’s absence.

100 Words a Day 371

“You only YOLO once, after all,” he said to himself, gripping the microphone nervously. The eight bar intro started and he swallowed. It did a poor job of moistening his throat.

“I should have had another drink,” he thought. “Actually, I guess it was the drink that got me into this in the first place.”

The words came on the screen and he opened his mouth to sing, but his throat issued only a rasp. He tried to summon up enough saliva to swallow again, but his mouth was stone dry.

It made him think of that George Thorogood song.

100 Words a Day 370

That hand. His gaze was inexorably drawn to it; so close was it to his own. He was at once pulled to and repulsed by it, that lovely, alien thing. His fingers inched towards it of their own accord even as his heart raced with anxiety at what would happen if he touched it. His eyes darted back and forth between her hand and her face, desperate to see if she had noticed what was going on. Her eyes were on the movie and she appeared oblivious to the titanic, epic struggle going on between his hand and his brain.

100 Words of Day 369

I started awake when I felt a jolt. I was on a bed in an unfamiliar place. Wandering, and seeing no evidence of another member of humanity, I eventually found the exterior deck of what I realized was a ship. The jolt must have been caused when we struck the land that extended out as far as the eye could see in either direction. The land, like the ship, was lifeless as far as I could tell. An eerie silence pervaded the air, broken only by the lapping of the waves on the queer shore, but I was strangely calm.