The Stopgap Measure and the Inevitable Descent into Maudlin Nostalgia

I haven’t posted in quite a while. What’s up with that?

Lots of personal and professional upheaval in the last six months.  Not just for me, either.  I had to stop myself from shooting my mouth off on more than one occasion.  Now that I’m working full-time again, I have to observe certain protocols.

I never wanted to be one of those people pontificating on events of the day.  More accurately, I don’t mind leaving the door open for that sort of thing, but I would hate feeling obligated to belch out a thousand words every time some politician or pop star says/does something stupid.

To put it in mathematical terms:

Professional obligation to avoid talking about certain issues +
Personal disinterest in many other issues                     +
General upheaval associated with moving and working full time =

————————————————————————————————

Several months of radio silence

I can’t say things will change dramatically, but interested parties may notice a renewed emphasis on posting every once in a while.

As I write this it is still June 1 according to Central Daylight Savings time.  June 1 is the birthday of my friend Peter Marks, who died in 2009.  He would have been 37 years old today.

I think of him often.  Every time I hear the song “Roxanne” by the Police, for example.  Peter enjoyed singing that song with my name in place of the titular prostitute.  Now, every time that song pops up on the radio I can hear him crooning that those days are over and I don’t have to sell my body to the night.

I think of him chuckling at me from beyond the grave and I cannot help but smile.

I have another post about Peter that’s maybe three-quarters complete.  It’s about the sense of loss I felt when he died, and is kind of a downer (go figure).  But it’s his birthday (for another half hour or so — more on the West Coast!) and I’d like to commemorate the occasion with happy thoughts.  So here’s a picture from a whale-watching day trip I took with Peter, his wife, and a bunch of our Bungie pals back in 2002(?). It was the first time I shaved my head; it was also the day I tried licorice ice cream for the first time, and scared people by opening my mouth to reveal my coal-black tongue and teeth.  I also got a brutal sunburn.  Perhaps someday those pictures will surface.  For now, here’s a lousy pic of my good friend Peter staring off into the distance, probably smiling at something only he can see.

The late great Peter Marks, on a boat

A Christmas (Eve) Story

This is an old story, but I’ve only told it to friends and (former) coworkers so it’s probably New To You.  It’s about the time I caught a Crazy Guy doing Bad Stuff on Christmas Eve and some things I thought about afterward.

I spent December 23, 2006 driving around Chicago and environs, buying gifts.  By the end of the day I had a trunk full of goodies.  My living situation at the time did not afford me a lot of clear horizontal space suitable for gift-wrapping.  What to do?  At the time I worked for the pre-Disneyfied Wideload Games, and Wideload’s West Loop office had a long butcher block table — great for serving lunch to the entire company, but also perfect as an impromptu gift-wrapping station.  The hour was late and I had neglected to buy any wrapping paper, so I decided I would haul the goodies up to the office and return the next day armed with festive gift paper. I would spend Christmas Eve wrapping presents and listening to Pandora at the office.  Everything was going to be cool this Christmas.

It took two trips to haul all the stuff from the car to the office.  Heavy bags dangled from each finger — sometimes multiple bags per finger, cutting off circulation at the knuckles.  By the time I got everything inside I was a sweaty cursing mess.  I rubbed my tingling fingers and looked at my watch; it was just past midnight on December 24.  I grabbed a soda from the fridge and drank it.  I used the lavatory.  I shut off the lights, armed the alarm system, and locked the office door behind me as I exited. That’s when I saw it.

There was an office space directly across from Wideload’s, just a few steps down a short hallway.  At the time, oddly enough, that office was occupied by a company that had fulfilled mail orders for Bungie in the early days.  Small world.  If you’re facing the door to their office, directly to the left of it is the door to another office space Wideload had recently annexed to house the Shorts team.  I don’t want to get into a whole digression about the layout of the building, so let’s just call it the Wideload Shorts door.

The thing I had seen was a DHL shipping box, folded flat and dangling from the top of the Wideload Shorts door like a broken limb.

Someone must have wanted to leave a note, I thought, but they didn’t have any paper so they improvised with the shipping box.

(Incidentally, a recurring motif in this story is “wow Matt, you are dumber than a bowl of soup.”  All I can say in my defense is that I’d been running around all day and was very tired.)

I walked down the hall and examined the cardboard mailer.  No writing on it.  Weird, huh?  I glanced to my right at the fulfillment company’s door.  That’s when I noticed the second weird thing.

I stared at that door for a long time.  I had walked past it every day for a couple years. Suddenly something was different and I could not figure out what the hell it was.

It was one of those doors with a large rectangular pane of glass in the middle, framed by six inches of wood on each side.  The company name was stenciled on the glass.

The glass.

That’s what was off about the door: the glass.  And by “off” I mean literally not in the door anymore. Someone had removed it.  Probably with the assistance of a flat-folded shipping box to protect against cuts, just as they’d done when they tried to punch through the glass in the Wideload Shorts door.

I had been standing in front of this door, staring into the darkened office beyond, for quite a while at this point.  I didn’t time myself but it probably took me at least a minute to realize the glass was gone.  Once the penny dropped, other pieces of the puzzle started coming together in my addled brain.  I remembered the email our office manager had sent the week before. Someone had broken into one of the other offices on another floor.  They found him in the morning, sleeping in one of the hallways, a knife on the floor beside him.

Oh shit, it’s another break-in, I thought, and then I saw the guy crouching behind the receptionist’s desk just inside the door, not five feet away from me.

He knew I was there.  I knew he was there.  When this happens in the movies, Bruce Willis leaps into action.  When it happened to me in real life, I was frozen to the spot.  I wondered if I was hallucinating.  Then the crouching guy shifted his weight slightly and nudged the receptionist’s office chair, which rolled slowly toward the center of the room.  Nope, not a hallucination.

I backed away from the door and sidestepped into the stairwell, closing the door behind me and leaning against it in case the guy tried to follow me out.  I dialed 911 on my cell phone and told the operator I had stumbled upon a burglary in progress.  She took the address and said the police would be there shortly.  I wondered what “shortly” really meant on the Saturday night before Christmas in Chicago.

I walked down the stairs and out of the building to await the cops. An unmarked car pulled to the curb moments later.  “Are you the guy who called?” the driver asked.  Startled by the speedy service, I led them into the building and up the stairs.  Soon the two officers were standing in front of that same door, staring into the darkened office beyond.  I cowered in the stairwell and peeked around the corner at them.

I don’t see anything,” they complained. Repeatedly.

He’s right there,” I said. “Behind the desk to the right of the door.”

I don’t see him.”  I could tell the cops thought I was jumping at shadows… until, in the middle of an “I don’t see him,” one of the cops interrupted himself to shout “There! I see him!”

The mood changed immediately.  One cop pulled a nightstick; the other a gun.  Both were shouting at the top of their lungs.

From inside the office I heard a low, miserable groan.  The sound of an animal realizing it is trapped.

Hands where I can see them, motherfucker!” shouted the cop with the gun.

The groan from the office got louder, angrier.

BOTH hands, motherfucker!” shouted the cop.

Why won’t he put his other hand up? I thought. What’s in his other hand?

From my vantage point in the stairwell, I suddenly realized what a great target the cops were.  Two men crowding a door built for one, lit from above and behind by the antiseptic glare of fluorescent lights, staring into a darkness to which their eyes had not adjusted.  What if this guy had a gun?  What if there was more than one guy, and they all had guns?  In my mind’s eye, I saw the cops’ brains erupt from their skulls and spraypaint the wall behind them.  My stomach somersaulted.

The cops pushed into the dark office, weapons drawn, shouting.  I could hear them stumbling into office furniture in the dark.  I heard the moaning person stop moaning and start shouting “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” and I heard the cop with the gun reply “I’LL SHOOT YOU DEAD, MOTHERFUCKER.”

For maybe twenty seconds I heard the cops and the burglar struggling in the dark. Then a few seconds of eerie silence before one of the cops found the office lights and stepped out into the hall to tell me the suspect was in custody and I would need to hang around to make a statement.

An army of cops showed up and I had to tell this story five or six times.  They perp-walked the burglar out of the building while I was doing that, so he got to see my face and where I worked.  One of the cops told me it was the same guy who’d broken in last week, and he’d popped the lock on the front door of the building with a butter knife. (The building in general, and Wideload’s office in particular, upgraded their security measures shortly after this happened.)  By the time it was all over, my 15-minute office visit had turned into a couple hours, and I was equal parts exhausted and exhilarated when I finally got home.

We didn’t find out the most fascinating detail until a few days later. Someone in the other office had a stack of frozen peanut butter sandwiches in their refrigerator.  The burglar found the sandwiches, thawed them in the office microwave, and smeared the peanut butter on the office walls.  Had he not taken the time to do that, he probably would have been long gone before I showed up.

Every time I think about that night, I think about the way I felt peering around the edge of that stairwell door, staring down the hall at that dark office and the violence within.

I’m the sort of person a concerned parent might call a “bad example.”  I have done all the stuff I’m not supposed to do.  Read all the mind-warping books, listened to all the anarchist punk rock and Satanic heavy metal and gangsta rap, watched all the ultraviolent films, played all the ultraviolent video games.  Made some of ‘em too.  Picked up a morbid sense of humor and a healthy disrespect for authority figures, including cops.

But all I could think of as I stared into that dark room was how much I wanted all those people to walk out of there unscathed.  I didn’t know the two lunkhead cops, and their bellowed death threats didn’t sit well with me, but I didn’t want to see them die.  The pathetic thief growling like a trapped animal in an office he’d painted with peanut butter was no friend of mine either, but he didn’t deserve the lethal brutality that Chicago cops have been known to dish out.

I could end this by saying, “Balls to all that talk about violent media turning decent people into sadists and sociopaths, because that’s not what happened to me.”  But that’s cheap, slick sentiment, and not exactly scientific.

If the burglar had been a pro, he could have killed me two or three dozen times while I was standing there trying to figure out what was wrong with the door.  Even as he was, with just a butter knife and the element of surprise, he could have seriously fucked me up.  Might have done the same to the cops.  What he didn’t have was the willingness to go that far.

Likewise, the cops who stormed a dark office with no real idea of what they were up against had the means, opportunity, and motive to shoot that guy dead.  They brought him in alive and unharmed.  Their bluster notwithstanding, they didn’t want to kill anybody.

Choices were made by people capable of terrible things. They chose to do something else.

There is a casual vindictiveness that infects our conversations. You don’t need to go looking for it in a video game or a CD. It’s all around you, in every newspaper, every venomous talk radio show, every anonymous internet tough guy running his mouth about all the people who oughta be taken out back and shot in the face.

None of us are immune to this kind of thinking.  I’ve wallowed in it myself from time to time.  And I can easily imagine it applied to this situation.

The people who would say the cops should have wasted the burglar and ended his criminal career.

The people who would say the cops were bloodthirsty assholes who deserved a bullet to the head.

The people who would say I was clearly too soft to go on living in the Big City if I couldn’t recognize a crime scene when I saw one.

It’s the sort of thinking that makes for great Nike ad slogans and Bruce Willis movie dialog.  Makes it easier to write people off instead of seeing them as people.

But at the risk of sounding pedantic: embracing compassion and mercy is still an option.

It’s the option that burglar chose when he decided to hide instead of attacking me.

It’s the option the cops chose when they decided to take the burglar alive instead of blowing him away.

In a world where we are constantly reminded that Something Drastic Should Be Done about Those Other People who are Ruining Things for Decent Normal Folks Like Us, it’s good to remember that we have options.

You never know when exercising that option could keep you out of a body bag on Christmas Eve.

And if this has devolved into glib sentiment… well, fucking sue me.  It’s Christmas.

Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

On Halloween, my morbid thoughts turn to my old pal Stubbs.  For someone who keeps such a low profile, he’s surprisingly popular; the Escapist recently ranked his debut the #1 Underrated Zombie Game. (Of course, the Escapist has shown him some love before.)  Stubbs acquired a certain cult cachet over the last decade — not from any marketing or exploitation, pure word-of-mouth from fans.  Because there wasn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes press for the game (barring an interview I did with Rue Morgue magazine, and a post-mortem at Gamasutra), there are a lot of people who know about Stubbs but don’t know anything about how he came to be.  I thought it might be worthwhile to write about the genesis of Stubbs from the POV of someone who actually had something to do with it.

So check this out this fancy time machine that will take us all ten years into the past:

Notebook closed

Okay, I lied.  It’s not a time machine, it’s an old notebook.  A crappy notebook at that.  But it was in the right place at the right time.  That place was the desk in my apartment, and the time was 2003.  Wideload was a brand-new company, and we were trying to figure out what our first game would be.

At the time, Wideload consisted of Alexander Seropian, Mark Bernal, and me.  We expanded quickly, but in those early days it was just the three of us, tossing our goofy ideas back and forth.  We had all worked together at Bungie for years, so we shared certain standards — and none of our ideas were measuring up.  We wrote a bunch of one-page pitch docs and tried to sell our ideas to each other via conference call.  Every pitch elicited a tepid “…eh, what else ya got?”  It was starting to get to me.  No one actually said, “Make with the clever, Writer Boy” but I felt a keen pressure to deliver something that would at least get us moving.

So one Saturday morning I hung up the phone after yet another unsatisfactory pitch conference and started pacing around my apartment.  Our continued inability to find an idea that excited all three of us was getting on my nerves.  We knew we wanted an action game, and we wanted it to be funny, but as soon as we stepped beyond those descriptors we seemed to go astray.  I stopped trying to move beyond them.

What is action?” I said. “What is funny action?”  At moments like these I was glad no one lived adjacent to my apartment.  I began rattling off disparate images and descriptions of comic action, and any nosy neighbors would have thought I was reading an incantation from the Necronomicon designed to call forth an army of chthonic beasts for an apocalyptic pie fight.  “Panic in the streets…man against wife, father against son…explosions…people flying through the air as a direct result of explosions…the dead rising from their graves to consume the living…”

Hey, wait a minute, I thought.

It was also around this point that I decided to take a shower.  Partly because I have had great ideas in the shower (often when I wasn’t even looking for them) and partly because I needed one. Two birds, one stone.

Within thirty seconds of hopping into the shower I had hopped back out.  Not because I am super-efficient at showering but because the idea had bloomed in my brain like a mushroom cloud, and I knew I had to capture something of that first blinding flash or risk losing it all.

I sprinted from the bathroom to my office, where that diminutive notebook sat atop a stack of much larger notebooks.  I flipped it open to the first page, grabbed a pen, and scribbled a single sentence.

Notebook open

Temporarily satisfied, I returned to the shower, my mind still alight with the idea.  You have to remember that in 2003, the world was not filled to bursting with zombie games.  Stubbs was a bit ahead of the curve.

When I’d finished the shower and gotten dressed, I went back to my desk and opened up my laptop to write a one-sheet titled The As-Yet-Untitled Zombie Game.  I thought I’d found a golden ticket, but problems cropped up almost immediately.  Why wouldn’t the cops just blow this zombie away with an AK-47?  A zombie could take a beating, but he couldn’t fight back unless he had that kind of firepower himself — but giving guns to the zombie took away everything that was cool about being a zombie in the first place.

What if this zombie fights with his body? I thought. That’s his whole thing.  He’s got the stamina of the undead, and the ability to zombify others by biting them or infecting them in other ways, but he never picks up a gun himself. He makes other people pick up the guns for him.

How would he do that?  After a moment’s thought it came to me: his hand.  He would rip his hand off and send it scuttling into places he could not go himself.  The hand would scurry over walls, under gates, and onto the heads of the unassuming mortals.  Once the zombie’s hand clamped onto someone’s head,  that person would do the zombie’s bidding — opening locked doors, silencing alarms, or just opening fire on their human compatriots.  It would give the game some strategic and stealth elements, and make a nice change of pace from eating brains.

And what about those cops with their AK-47s?  The simplest solution was to set the story at a time when small-town police departments didn’t have that kind of firepower.  So I set the game during the Eisenhower administration.  (The idea of making it an EPCOT-esque City of the Future came later.)

Because I didn’t have a name for the game yet, I figured I should at least name the protagonist.  What to call a zombie who tears off his own limbs, leaving him standing there with nothing but…stubs?  Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the tastiest.  It rolled off the tongue, as they say.

There were a few ideas in the one-sheet that never made it into the game — like the level set in a football stadium, or Sylvester the lunatic postmaster. (Based on Sylvestre Matuschka and originally envisioned as the primary antagonist of the game, elements of his personality survived in the mad militiaman Otis Monday.)  And as Wideload started to grow and development began in earnest, many other people contributed great ideas and hard work to make Stubbs the best brain-eating revenant he could be.  I summed up the initial pitch thusly: “Essentially you have an undead anti-hero causing chaos in suburbia while the town nutjob takes up arms against him.  By game’s end, everything should be going to hell in entertaining ways.”  Stubbs wasn’t perfect, but we came pretty close to the mark. And it all started with one sentence scrawled in a tiny notebook.

You might be wondering about the other note on that page: “Poet: Arther Clagh.”  I should have written “Arthur Clough” — but as I do know the correct spelling of “Arthur” I suspect the name was mangled in whatever book or web page I copied it from.  One of his poems is “The Latest Decalogue” and contains the couplet:

False witness, not to bear be strict;
And cautious, ere you contradict.

Poor blighted Edward Stubblefield is still dear to my heart, and it’s nice to know other people still care too.  Perhaps some of those people will find their way to this snapshot of his birth.  One of these days I’ll write more about Stubbs — maybe about some of the impossible level ideas we had, or the characters/scenes/barbershop quartet songs left on the cutting room floor.  Tonight I just wanted to remember that first moment of creation.  It was important for me. 

In the Poker Game of the Blind, the One-Eyed Jack is King

It’s been a weird month.  Not the good kind of weird.

Surprises, even unpleasant ones, are not necessarily ruinous to my workflow.  Some of my best stuff happens when something blows up and I’m forced to improvise.  When the horse throws me, I do my best to get back on the horse.  But when the horse throws me, kicks me in the nuts, makes cruel comments about my appearance, has fifty pizzas delivered to my house at 4 AM and elopes with my dog, I start to wonder what was so fucking important about riding the horse in the first place.  Especially since I own a car.

Pure bullheadedness goes a long way.  I will not clean the Augean Stables in a day — in fact, having scooped more than my share of poop for minimum wage in my teens, I will postpone that gig as long as possible — but I will get around to it.  And when stubbornness fails me, my cheerful willingness to throw propriety out the window usually takes me to interesting places.  A nice cleansing fire will take care of those Augean Stables lickety-split.  No one said I couldn’t.

I don’t worry about Getting Things Done, because there are always Things To Do and the time to do them is always Whenever You’re Ready, which is a wordy euphemism for Now.

I was chatting with someone recently about vision — specifically, the kind of vision people tether to technology when attempting to sound Important.  “Technology has finally caught up with my vision,” these preening windbags announce, presumably with a straight face.  Or “I have a great idea for a sequel to Metacritic Quest, but the technology to realize my vision doesn’t exist yet.”  It’s the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” and I can’t believe anyone takes it seriously anymore.  People have realized all manner of compelling visions using crude and imperfect technologies.  Vladimir Nabokov did some impressive work with a pencil.  Conversely, how many times have you seen some World-Changing Technological Breakthrough used not to advance the art of storytelling, but to coat tired old clichés with a thin layer of shiny chrome?  How many times can you sell people the same rusty Econoline van with a shiny new dragon airbrushed on the side?  Where is the artistry in that — apart from con artistry?

Plenty of people have pointed out that in any creative endeavor — writing, game development, filmmaking, you name it — execution trumps inspiration. Having a great idea means nothing; what counts is the ability to turn an idea (great or otherwise) into something tangible and therefore valuable.  Part of that value derives from how well one uses the available tools and materials, however primitive they may be, to create something unique.  If you’re waiting for someone — or worse, for something — to do the heavy lifting for you, you’re blowing it.  Ideas circle you all the time like hordes of the undead; the only question that matters is how many of them you can take out before one of them finally gets to you.  You won’t nail all of them with perfect headshots, but even a sloppy kill is a point in your column.  And a little unpredictability keeps things interesting.

With that in mind, I bid farewell to the wreckage of March 2013 and cast my eyes to the grandeur that is April, now just minutes away.  It’s going to be interesting.  I hope it will be the good kind of weird.  I’ll do what I can.

Boring Website Maintenance Update

Wanted to wrap up the week with a couple minor additions to the site.

To sew a button on my whole Transparency rant (which attracted a lot more attention than I expected), I’ve updated the Things I’m Doing page with elliptical stock-photo references to some of my current projects.  There will be more info in the future, but right now it mostly exists as a way to tell myself to get back to work.

I’ve also added a Blurbs tab. Wish I had a better name for it. Basically, this is a bunch of quotes from incredibly talented people I have worked with over the years. Would you like to know how brilliant CEOs. game designers, voice actors and others feel about working with me?  Here’s your chance.  (If you’ve worked with me at some point and would like to voice your opinion, get in touch.)

Finally, I’ve added a Consulting tab, which simply confirms that I am available for that sort of thing if that’s the sort of thing you’re interested in.

That is all.  Have a lovely weekend.

It’s Too Late

When I was a kid, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King was all over the radio.

Being in the single-digit age range, I interpreted the lyrics to all songs literally, and within a very limited frame of reference. When Ernie sang “Rubber Ducky, I’m awfully fond of you” on Sesame Street, he meant that he liked his rubber ducky. There were no alternate interpretations, no subtle metaphors. I didn’t even know what a metaphor was.

So when the lady on the radio sang

It’s too late, baby

I imagined she was singing to an actual baby. Presumably her own. And what did she sing to that baby?  The worst possible news:

Now it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it

Despite their best efforts — and they really did try — they had not arrived in time.  I was too young to know all the possible meanings of “make it,” but I was old enough to know that tardiness could cause real problems, and this woman seemed especially dispirited by the situation.  I tried to imagine circumstances where a belated arrival could have such traumatic consequences. Because I knew it was late, my mind’s eye pictured an ominous night scene: a big house with no lights on, standing alone on a windswept road, tucked away behind an unkempt lawn. The lady singing the song had just pulled her big old gas-guzzler of a car (it was the 1970s) into the darkened driveway, and had turned around to address the child in the back seat.

Whatever this house was, whatever they had hoped to accomplish here… it wasn’t going to happen. There was one message the mother had for her infant child, and it was: abandon all hope.

She lowered the boom by singing

Something inside has died

And though she didn’t spell it out, I knew what was responsible: monsters.

Perhaps if they had arrived in a more timely fashion, they could have gotten to the house before sundown and turned on the lights before the goddamn monsters came out, and the whole crisis could have been averted. But no, they showed up late, and now the whole place was crawling with infernal horrors, and the mother and child had seconds to live.  (Where was the father in all of this?  He was probably the “something” that died inside.)

She further acknowledged the hopelessness of their situation by saying

And I can’t hide

Which was a tacit admission that all her strength and intelligence and protective maternal instincts would prove worthless when pitted against the ravenous jaws of the Beast. The only reason she didn’t sing

And they’ll dine on my guts
While you sit there in your car seat
Shitting yourself in abject terror
And once they’re finished with me
They’ll rip you to pieces

is because that didn’t scan.

But perhaps she was saying something even worse.  When she lamented her inability to hide, was she was tacitly admitting that given the opportunity, she would save herself, sprinting back down the road while the air filled with the shrieks of her own helpless infant?  Was this the ultimate declaration of parental failure; an admission that she was the real monster?  It’s hard to think of a more unlikeable song protagonist than a mother who abandons her baby and scurries to safety while her own child becomes chupacabra chow.  To me it seemed the most ethically and morally ambitious song on the radio, Sophie’s Choice condensed into a four-minute singalong.  Even as a child I knew this was leagues beyond Simon and Garfunkel. (Although, now that I think about it, “Mother and Child Reunion” fits in nicely with this narrative — once you realize they’re being reunited in death.)

She wrapped up the chorus with

And I just can’t fake it
Oh no!

Just in case the child thought all this talk of impending slaughter might be some sort of hilarious practical joke.

Years passed and I gradually realized that this song is about something much more banal and commonplace than I originally thought.  I can also see that I had a fucked-up outlook on life from a very early age.  But I think Carole King should have explored the whole monsters-eating-people angle. It makes for a more compelling narrative.

Transparency is Overrated

Seventeen years in the game industry could turn anyone into a jaded, bitter, cynical bastard.  Imagine how much worse things get if you started out that way.

I suppose I should preface this by noting that I haven’t spoken on Bungie’s behalf in an official capacity for almost ten years (gulp!) so all of this is my own opinion and you should feel free to write it off as the bloviating claptrap it probably is.

When I see articles in the video game press complaining that Bungie’s reveal of their upcoming title Destiny was frustratingly light on details, I wonder why they care. If I had a quarter for every time the game press mangled quotes, described nonexistent product features, and confused internet speculation with fact-checked confirmation, I could melt all those quarters down and put in a new driveway made of solid copper.  People who write about games (not all of them, but more than enough) are light on details quite regularly. And that’s for the games they care about, the ones they write about themselves instead of just cutting-and-pasting from a press release.  Now Bungie throws a party and the game press can’t fill in all the blanks in their Mad Libs Game Journalism booklet right away, and you’d think some of them had been slapped.

Maybe they were — but not in the way they think.

In 1999, Bungie did a little teaser for Halo called The Cortana Letters.  I don’t remember, but I’d be shocked to see even one example of the mainstream gaming press who took notice of it at the time.  It wasn’t meant for them anyway.  It was for people who had played Bungie’s Marathon trilogy and might be interested to know that, after a few years of working on the Myth games, Bungie would be returning to stories about massive ships in outer space with helpful AIs guiding you around.  Bungie thought people who enjoyed their previous work in that vein might be interested.

Much of the stuff in The Cortana Letters ended up being not especially germane to the story of Halo as people experienced it in the final game.  That didn’t matter because the ultimate job of The Cortana Letters was not to carve important story elements in stone, but to reach out to Bungie fans and get them excited.  These were people who’d demonstrated they could root out any obscure reference and conjure up pages of thoughtful discussion about the subtlest of nuances.  The Cortana Letters were a message from Bungie to their fans, saying: We know you guys are smart, and we hope you’ll dig this new thing we’re making.

It wasn’t a purely cynical marketing exercise, and it damn sure wasn’t an ARG.  It was, in a sense, a mischievous bit of slap-and-tickle with the fans who had the sensibility to savor that sort of thing.

You like that, don’t you?

Sure you do, if you can appreciate the invitation to let your own imagination and emotions become part of the experience.

For years now, even before Destiny was a rumor, people have been calling for more transparency and less hype from Bungie.  If a few pieces of concept art and a YouTube video are “hype,” it’s only because Bungie’s process has made less feel like more.  They do not deluge the press or their fans in an antiseptic wash of tedious data.  Anyone can do that.  Bungie wants your entry into this world to be an experience unto itself. 

It’s the difference between the restaurant where you relax in a well-appointed dining room, talking with friends, basking in the ambiance and the aromas drifting in from the kitchen before anyone even arrives to take your order… and the lingering stink of melting plastic in your kitchen after you spend three minutes microwaving a frozen TV dinner and eating it over the sink.

It’s the difference between the jiggle-and-tease burlesque show and the pixelated GIF of porn stars fucking.

It’s showbiz.  It’s part of the experience.  This is the entertainment software industry and we are, whether or not we look the part, entertainers.  The men and women of Bungie follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, who had the unmitigated audacity to introduce Psycho with a trailer that featured nothing but empty environments and lots of him talking.  No clips from the actual film, no major plot revelations…and that lady in the shower wasn’t even Janet Leigh!  (It was Vera Miles, who plays Leigh’s sister in the film.)  What a rip-off!  What a waste of his fans’ time!

What a surprise that it’s remembered fondly, decades later, as one of the greatest movie trailers ever.  It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he was doing.

People demanding all the details right now for a game with a projected 10-year life cycle are like people showing up at a concert and shouting for “Freebird” while the opening act is still setting up their gear.

When Chris Butcher, a man not given to hyperbole or delusions of grandeur, talks about what games in the future will be like, I pay attention.  When Jason Jones crawls out of his techno-Gollum cave to address the press at all, I pay attention.  How much hard data I come away with is almost immaterial.  What I know is that they are handing out invitations to the dance.  This time, they’re even handing them out to the press.  Not just the hardcore fanatics who went nuts over the Cortana letters nearly 15 years ago.

So the official reveal left you wanting more?

You’re waiting for your dinner in that fancy restaurant and you’re still hungry?

The striptease at the burlesque theater is over and you’re still horny?

The press event is over and you’re still looking for information about Destiny, even though all you got for your initial efforts was a flirtatious slap?

Sounds like someone knows what they’re doing.

And if all this “hype” is too much for you, you can always tune it out and do something else.  The freezer aisle in the grocery store is full of TV dinners.  This, right now, is not for you.  There will be other things for you later.

This is for the people who like to dance.

Neither Dead Nor Resting

After unloading/unleashing that last rant, I feel compelled to mention that I’m not just sitting around the house getting mad at trivial things.  I do other stuff as well.

I’ve been sitting on that last post for a while.  In fact I have a number of posts for this site in various states of disarray and unfinished-ness.  Some just need a bit of spit and polish; others require many more words if they are to make any sense at all.  Only one or two are as vituperative as the last one.  Seriously.  Smiley face.

So what else have I been doing, apart from writing things I’m not ready to post?

  • Began a collaboration with the artisté nonpareil M. R. Bernal.
  • Talked to some people about some game-related stuff.
  • Talked to some other people about some non-game-related stuff.
  • Wrote a script for a feature film.

The first and last items on this list have been the most satisfying ones so far — though there are definitely interesting things afoot in the middle there.

I’m planning to put up a “What I’m Doing” page that will list current projects with (one hopes) a bit more detail, as well as a “What I’ve Done” page to talk about old stuff.  There might be some fun things in the archives…

Anyway.  Work In Progress.  You know not the day nor the hour when it’ll show up.  Neither do I, honestly.  But it’s coming.

Get Out of My Way

It has come to my attention that some of you do not know how or when to get out of my way.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even the fake-ass Da Vinci Code.  It’s common sense and basic human decency.

I’m going to point fingers and name names because clear and unequivocal communication is key if you’re to understand the situation and move forward. Or at least step to one side.

Tall Guy with Big Hair at the Concert: I don’t begrudge you for being tall. I don’t even begrudge your silly hair.  (Trust me, I’m in no position to mock anyone for silly hair.) But if putting your goddamn white-boy dreadlocks in a samurai topknot destroys your equilibrium, maybe it’s time to get a haircut. Or at least get out of my way so you can hop and sway like a drunk fighting to hold in three gallons of urine without forcing me to do it too. I came to see the show, not to dance the flamenco with the back of your goddamn skull.

Overly Cautious Driver: Nice long stretch of road we’re on. It’s what you might call a major artery. That’s why there aren’t stop signs at every intersection; it’s understood that the people on those side streets will need to wait for an opening before they merge with the flow of traffic. Sucks to be them. But not us! We can just put the pedal to the metal and keep on truckin’. So why do you come to a. full. stop. every. single. block. WHEN THERE ARE NO STOP SIGNS? This is the 21st century. Roads intersect now. You’re going to have to get used to it. If you can’t do that, get out of my way or let someone else drive.

OCD Purse Lady at the 7–11: You bought your cigarettes and Lotto tickets. Your transaction ended a while ago. The cashier is waiting for me to put my stuff on the counter so he can ring it up. But I can’t, because you’re still standing there, arranging the contents of your purse just so. You can’t just slap everything into your pocketbook and deal with it later, on your own time, when you’re not in my way. No, that would be too considerate. You need to put that change in the coin pocket on the outside of the wallet right now, except for the two pennies with gunk on them, those go in the separate coin purse for dirty coins that lives somewhere at the bottom of the bag, and the Lotto tickets need to go in the inside pocket on the other side of the wallet with the cancelled checks and the receipts from the last six years of gas station visits, and then the wallet goes inside the purse next to the hairbrush and hand sanitizer and hair gel and moisturizing lotion, while the cigarettes need to be in the outside pocket of the purse underneath the newspaper but above the keys and the lipstick and the maxi-pads and the sunglasses, and the iPhone goes on top of all that, and there’s really no way of fitting it all in there properly without taking it all out and reloading the bag one item at a time FUCK YOU FUCK YOU GET OUT OF MY WAY. Go deal with your pack rat issues anywhere else. NB: Lest anyone think I am unfairly castigating one gender here — guys do this too, and it’s just as annoying. But the ubiquitous purse acts as an enabler in a way that most men’s wallets cannot.

The Consumer Patriarch: I don’t mind that you brought your wife and all six of your kids and your corpulent in-laws and their matching Rascal scooters to the store with you. But when you’re standing statue-still in front of the one exit door with the whole herd of them milling slowly around you like dazed goldfish, yawning and chatting and checking your goddamn email on your goddamn cell phones as you wait for the one straggler in your party, I BEGIN TO MIND VERY FUCKING MUCH. I also mind when you pull this shit in front of the bathroom, or the escalator, or the fire escape. What the fuck is wrong with you people that you find the one choke point in the whole goddamn place and form a human blockade? Well, perhaps “human” is a stretch. More like lowing cattle just begging to be culled.

Neighbors Catching Up in the Grocery Store: I thought this was the Cereal aisle, not the Tableau-Vivant-of-Two-Assholes-Talking-About-Their-Tedious-Lives aisle. If the store isn’t paying you morons to set up random shopping cart roadblocks so other customers have to endure the agonizing tales of your son’s Little League team, and the transmission on the Ford going out again, and you thought Maurice was gonna be different but he’s just like all the rest, then get out of my way. I have my own problems. Whatever bullshit you’re dealing with right now is meaningless compared to my household’s utter lack of Puffed Wheat. Yeah, that’s right. All the trials and tribulations in your world don’t matter as much as a three-dollar box of Quisp does in mine.  Why can’t you head over to the liquor aisle and self-medicate like everybody else?

He Who Gradually Expands To Fill The Entire Warehouse: There you are in the warehouse club, buying socks and crab legs and snow tires in bulk.  Never know when you’re going to need a 5-gallon tub of pencil erasers, right?  You’re staring at a four-pack of toasters — at last, your family can make toast in the kitchen, both bathrooms, and your garage simultaneously!  Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t get any easier!  There’s a pallet of them on the ground in front of you. Another pallet of them on the shelf above.  And on the shelf above that, pallets of identical boxes stacked to the rafters. And you stand there in the middle of the aisle, one hand pushing your extra-large shopping cart just far enough to block the whole aisle for the duration of your extended stay.  Did I mention you are staring at pallets of the same item as though you are using X-ray vision to figure out which one has the Golden Ticket inside? When in reality they are all exactly alike, and you should just grab one, put it in your cart, and get the goddamn shitting fuck out of the fucking way for fuck’s sake you imbecile. It’s a good thing they only stock one model of toaster or we’d be here all week.

This post is titled “Get Out of My Way” and if I could summarize it in a single sentence, that sentence would be: GET OUT OF MY WAY.

At some point I’m going to stop being so nice about it.