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.