April 28, 2010

Colonial Times



            "Come on!" one of the co-creators of Drone Wars entreated the gathering.  "Think!  What would you have wanted to see when you were six years old, what would have thrilled you?"  He was addressing a company of theatrical designers newly recruited from among the pilgrims to take the video game to the next level. 

"How about a chase sequence?  Did you want to see the gravel spray from the wooden spokes of a horse-drawn carriage as it took a hard right, fishtailed and swerved in the loose stones?" he asked the crowd. 

            "These aren't thin-skinned men we are talking about.  These men are pirates.  They are tough guys -- mean -- hard as nails.  Their leader looks like someone put a pile of boulders into a large black overcoat.  His square head under his black three-cornered hat looks like a large brown rock someone painted a five o'clock shadow on," he paced the length of the stage and looked up.  "These men are scary.  They look ghostly, like phantasms.  The second man looks like someone took a distorted photo of a corpse -- its features twisted and out of focus, unnaturally flattened and compressed -- and then, if that wasn't bad enough, they went ahead and animated it so it could walk and talk." 

            The crowd of pilgrim craftspeople stood silently.

            "But why are they running?" he wondered out loud, looked up, and rubbed his chin for dramatic effect.  "Some sort of dark, devilish creature, I would have to suppose," he announced a bit louder, "must be hot on their tail.  Yes, that's the ticket.  They are being chased, chased through our little colonial Virginia town by a terrible monster." 

In the original version it was an LAPD drone that bore down on the three men.  This being the Seventeenth-century and all, he supposed he would have to change things around a bit. 

"I guess," he took a more serious tone, "we should straight away replace the winged robot airplane with some diabolical, hellish, flying creature that better resembles a reptile, gargoyle, or a scaly dragon than a fighter-plane.  Any preference from among the creatures I've mentioned?" he looked up at his audience hopefully. 

            Nothing from the gathered pilgrims but blank stares. 

            "So, let's go with a good old-fashioned dragon," he suggested.  "Now, where was I?  Oh yes.  The cast-iron rims of the carriage wheels clatter over the wet cobblestones of the quay as it rounds another corner in full gallop.  The men aboard are inches from the outstretched talons of the dragon," the speaker looked up from his three-ring binder to gauge the enthusiasm of his audience.  "The environment is fraught with peril and danger.  The kind a kid can understand.  But," he asked, "Who are these three mysterious pirates who are running from the dragon and why is the dragon angry at them?" 

            None of the gathered pilgrims had any answers for him.  It was as if they were expecting another kind of event entirely, like they came to the town square to watch someone get drawn-and-quartered but got this 21st-century inspirational speaker instead. 

Finally, a tall Native American stepped forward.  "What if the three men have stolen something precious from the dragon, like a jewel?" he solemnly proposed.

If the co-creator recalled correctly, in the original version they were LA gang-bangers working as double agents for the Feds.  When the FBI cut them loose, and threw them to the wolves, so to speak, they stole the software that let them compromise the aerial police drones.  The dialogue in that version was pretty straightforward.  He thought back.  Gangsters spoke like gangsters.  There wasn't much subtlety to the main character.  He was pissed all the time -- pissed at the rival gangs -- pissed at the world -- but mostly pissed at the FBI.  The gang-banger couldn't be sure the Bureau put the drone on his ass, but under the circumstances it was nearly impossible to know who was really friend or foe.  More than likely the milk-toast guy he had just teleconferenced with was the guy who called in his assassination.

"A ruby like, or maybe topaz, crystal could work, or how about a sparkling emerald?" the Native American looked up at the man on stage.

"Okay, that's good," the co-creator responded, regaining his focus.  "I like ruby.  For version XXXI, let's go with a ruby.  Now, let's recap.  What do we have?  We've got pirates.  Pirates love rubies.  Kids love pirates.  Perfect.  The pirates have stolen a precious ruby from the dragon's lair, and are on the run.  Kids love adventure.  Picture this," another idea occurred to him.  "The horse drawn carriage skids, swerves to avoid a man on horseback, barely misses another oncoming buggy, and speeds up again just before the fire breathing dragon exhales a searing jet of flame.  The dragon trails white-hot vapor as it sweeps through the air, it's giant wings catch the air like big black sails.  One of the pirates looks around just in time to see a horse and buggy behind them go airborne in a plume of smoke."

The specter of a fire-breathing dragon actually seemed to agitate the gathering a little.

"Behind them," the co-creator further elaborated how he imagined the scene could play out, "the dragon almost instantly stutters in mid-flight, loses air, and performs a couple of indescribably odd maneuvers to keep from wiping out.  The pirate captain, the one with the stone jaw, pulls hard on the reigns just as the belly of the low-flying serpent passes them overhead.  Hard wheels scrape across the road, frightened horses neigh and rear up at the sky, and everyone in the carriage lurches forward.  Only a few yards in front of them the dragon slams into the street snout first.  The pirates duck down just before the flying lizard explodes.  Even with their heads hidden below the sideboard of the carriage they can see the horrific fireball ignite in front of them." 

"Maybe we should change the name of the game?" the Native American raised his hand to try and regain the co-creator's attention.  "In all seriousness, I was talking to these SS officers who stumbled into my quaint Indian village the other day (talk about lost, they had never even seen a tepee before).  I learned, subsequently, they were left over from the ill-fated, never released 'Second World War Nazi German Soldiers vs. Zombies' version of the game -- anyway..." the tall shirtless man with the feather in his cap sensed the co-creator's lack of enthusiasm and looked down at his toes when he relayed their suggestion, "what they came up with was: Dragonkrieg.  What do you think?  It does have a ring to it."

"First thing's first," the man up on stage absent-mindedly brushed the Native American's anecdote aside.  "Let's first flesh out the storyline a bit more before we go and do anything too radical, like change the name of the game, shall we?" he leafed through the pages of his binder, like he was trying to find a note he had left for himself, but couldn't remember where he had written it down. 

"Why does the dragon fall out of the sky?  Ah," he said.  "Here you are," he adjusted his spectacles and read from the page.  "The dragon falls out of the sky because the jewel has some power over it.  Not unlike the software in the original version that could intercept and swap out the live video feed from a drone, the jewel can cause the dragons to see only what it's owner wishes the winged monsters to see," he snapped his binder shut and looked out over the room triumphantly. 

"Come on, now... let's get cracking, then!"

The huddled pilgrims stared around at each other with fear and uncertainty.

"So -- what I need you all to do," he began to wave his arms over his head in all different directions, and jumped off the stage to physically move people where he wanted them to go, "is to divide yourselves up into groups.  We need pirate costumes.  Costume designers, did you hear me?  We need old-world ambiance... and plenty of it!  Set decorators over here.  And we need one group to construct the dragons.  As lightweight as possible!  Not to mention aerodynamic.  These kites have to effortlessly glide through the sky, and they need to look menacing."


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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April 19, 2010

Smile Extractor



            "Eljin!" he shouted when he saw her across the street.  They hugged and kissed like old friends. 

            She was surprisingly affectionate, and seemed genuinely happy to see him -- at least as happy as he was to see her. 

            There was only one little problem. 

She didn't exist. 

            He had made her up out of whole cloth.  The fact was she had never existed, not before, not ever.  The woman was a lie he had told himself, a figment of his imagination he had contrived early one A.M. to get his lowbrow friend off his back, to get the guy to stop riding him so hard about being a bachelor, about never getting laid and living all alone in his little dingy Eleventh Street dorm. 

But there was more to it.  The aim was to shut his friend up.  He wanted to turn the table on the cocky bastard, so he laid it on thick.  No excess was spared.  Eljin was stacked.  Not just drop-dead beautiful like a Parisian whore.  She was smart too, math-wiz smart. What he was after wasn't just a victory over his friend.  He wanted an unconditional surrender.  It wasn't enough just to say he had a girlfriend.  Oh no, that would have been far too easy.  He wanted the poor guy to shudder with envy when he pictured the two of them together on her unmade bed. 

            Normally he would have avoided the popular, loud and boisterous bar she picked for their date like it was the plague.  House music thumped through the sound-system.  Bottles and glasses clinked.  If it were a work environment, he was about to tell her, the schizophrenic federal government intelligence men would surely have shut it down and fined the place out of business years ago.  But even though the decibel level was through the roof, anything approximating a civil conversational tone was out of the question, and there was one way and one way only to communicate -- and that was to yell, he put his complaint aside. 

Up to that point in his life, the idea that anyone would go out of their way to willfully choose to spend any of their hard won leisure time in such an awful establishment had totally eluded him, but leaning in closely to try and hear what it was Eljin was talking about, he realized how happy he was for the noise.  It meant his face was only a fraction of an inch from hers.  If he turned just slightly in one direction, he could feel her warm, wet breath on his ear and cheek, and if he turned the other way just a little, which he promptly did, he could practically inhale her perfumed words. 

Pressed up so closely to her in the crowded restaurant, no words could relate how self-satisfied he was with the story he had made up to impress his friend.  Eljin was truly incredible.  No words could convey how happy he was he had made her out to be so absolutely stunning, almost perfect in every respect. 

Anyone would have appreciated his level of enthusiasm.  After all she was his unique creation.  He wanted to know everything about her.  Beaming with pride, he asked her all sorts of questions. 

"And, what is it you do for a living?" he finally asked.

"Don't know if there is a technical term for it," she said.  "But I suppose the best way to describe what I do is to say I extract smiles." 

"A smile extractor," he repeated.

The potential for a new and previously undiscovered job title amused him.  But the euphoria didn't last for long.  As much as he didn't want to, he had to admit to himself there was also something pretty creepy about the idea of a "smile extractor", like it was some weird surgical implement that clamped over ones mouth. 

He sat back a little to study her features better.  While she was talking about herself an unsettling idea had occurred to him: what if his friend was playing a trick on him?  What if the man kept meticulous records of the florid descriptions he had provided of her, and somehow based on them, the dastardly son-of-a-bitch had commissioned an exact, if not life-like, replica of his wet dream girlfriend from some Italian master of the dark arts, an alchemist technician who could turn almost any inanimate material you could think of into supple flesh?  Maybe the whole thing was nothing more than a torment his friend had devised to once more gain the upper hand, and drive his ego further into the ground?  He looked at Eljin carefully.  At the very least, he reluctantly conceded as he studied the lines around her mouth, it was a sobering scenario that required his serious consideration. 

He looked around.  What if the pedestrians outside the window weren't really pedestrians?  What if the jogger that ran past the window wasn't really a jogger?  He wondered.  What if the cabby wasn't really a cabby?  What if the bus driver wasn't really a bus driver?  What about the waiter?  What if the waiter wasn't really a waiter?  What if the couple that sat next to them wasn't really a couple?  What if they were only masquerading as a couple, but in reality they were something quite different, like undercover narco-cops, and he was in the midst of an elaborate sting operation, or some other conspiracy?  He desperately wanted to somehow voice his concerns to Eljin, somehow share them with her, but he realized it didn't really matter much if she was his own invention come to life, or whether her presence was a joke his friend was playing on him.  Either way she was not really there.  She couldn't be.  He had made her up.

In version XXX the creators decided to share some of the basic aesthetic code with their fan base.  "We don't think it's so self-indulgent if we get other people to act out our fantasy," they told Michael Michaels on the Sunday night broadcast.  "Our videogame designers are more often than not brilliant.  We have watched them as the coals have burned brightly.  We have watched them when the embers grew dark.  We have nothing except the highest regard for our engineers, but you have to remember Drone Wars is a publicly traded company.  Our shareholders have the last say, and let's not forget that the Federal Government is one of the biggest stakeholders in this whole goddam venture.  They have a lot of weight to throw around, and you have to keep in mind no one on Capitol Hill wants the game to get dull.  Heaven forbid.  And what the government wants, the government gets.  Imagine how many folks would be out on their asses if the Feds didn't get their way!  Not only does the game account for the lion's share of the nation's GDP, it is basically single-handedly bankrolling big government.  When they said it was high time to get some fresh blood into the mix, it was high time to get some fresh blood into the mix, and what better way than to allow gamers to redesign and tailor the aesthetic parameters to their own specifications?  DOOMWAD went 'open source', and remember how successful it was for them.  When a number of the gamers noticed the similarity between the fortress interiors and the tight, claustrophobic space of an interstellar cargo freighter, they were allowed to convert the scenery to look the way they wanted it to, and the rest, as they say, was history."

"You ever met my friend?" he bit the bullet and asked Eljin.  It was bothering him too much to ignore, as much as his uncomfortable starched canvas breeches.  It seemed to him like one moment they were having dinner in a post-apocalyptic science fiction future where winged robots flown by infant gamers terrorized innocent civilians, and the next they were sitting alongside the muddy main drag of some ugly and squalid version of the U.S. colonial past. 

When he asked, his fantasy girlfriend sounded genuinely unfamiliar with the other man's name.  She pulled back the veil from her hat and removed her fine satin gloves one finger at a time.  "Who?" she sighed innocently enough when he mentioned the other man's name. 

"Never mind," he assured her and tried to loosen the collar of his own ruffled shirt.  "Don't worry your pretty head about it," his mind wandered as he pulled the timepiece out from his vest pocket. 

"Just some jerk I called a friend," he patted her on the hand and stared past the curled platinum locks of her oversized, powdered wig at the horse and buggy that was newly hitched to the post in front of the eatery.

"Forget it," he told the strange woman who sat across from him with the beauty mark at the corner of her full red lips.  He leaned his newly acquired ball-shot musket rifle and saber against the wall beside the fireplace, stretched his arms behind his head, and asked a passing server for some tobacco for his pipe.  There was nothing to do but play the game out to the next level, so that's exactly what he decided he would do.


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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April 01, 2010

Suicide Party



            Two androids were locked in combat on the street below.  "Look at 'em go," the host, a junior narcotics salesman by day, called out to his friend.  "They've gone at each other like that for over an hour now." 

After the warring sides pulled their respective troops outside of city limits in Version XXIX, lots of hardware was left behind, including government landmines, weapons of mass destruction, rebel trip-wired and command-detonated bombs, assorted booby traps, as well as a wide variety of drones and robots deployed by both forces -- some of which like these two, much to his delight, had no idea the fight had moved on down the road months ago. 

Overhead, the moon hung low in the black sky.  Sparks flew with the hollow clank of every new blow the two machines landed on one another.  Both of the young men cheered on the metal warriors.

"My money's on the skeletal chrome android with the red satanic eyes," his friend baited him through the blare of music from the stereo.  Behind them, the party secretary passed out noisemakers and other celebratory treats.  "I'll take that bet," he yelled back, clearly dead-set on enjoying himself no matter what, like it was the last chance he would ever have. 

            Buddy Guy was the first member to suicide.  He put a gun to his head, yelled at the top of his lungs, and pulled the trigger.  The party was officially underway!  The junior narcotics salesmen and his friend carried the limp body of the young man to the bathroom, dumped it into the tub, and pulled down the space-age plastic shower curtain to cover the deceased's upper body and face. 

            Some of the other kids took pills to overdose, or injected drugs into their veins.  Summer Cooper notably stuck her head in the oven.  She asphyxiated on natural gas the old-fashioned way.  Geronimo Pratt was next.  It wasn't pretty.  The boy slashed his wrists.  By the end of the night there wasn't a square foot of the apartment without at least one dead body hunched against a wall, or prone on the shag rug.  Gore covered the place.  They had long since run out of enough sheets, towels, and tablecloths necessary to cover everyone.  The host sidestepped a young girl's half-naked body and turned up the music even louder, not that anyone was dancing.

            Several members including himself and his friend did not kill themselves.  They had set themselves different tasks.  By the time the schizophrenic government intelligence men showed up at the front door of their secret hideout (in the wee hours of the morning, no doubt, like they usually did) the remaining associates would be long gone.  It would take the psychotic lawmen a while to realize some Suicide Party members were unaccounted for and missing.  They would have plenty enough trouble simply sorting through and identifying all the dead bodies they found at party headquarters. 

            At their last conference a massive show of force was deemed necessary.  "None of you will die in vain," they promised the rank-and-file.  A number of the party faithful would suicide-bomb key subway stations in the nation's capitol, while the junior narcotics salesman and his friend were dispatched to find and kidnap a government intelligence person who could get them past the front desk of the "doughnut building", so called due in large part to it's glazed pink roundness and what looked like sprinkles on the roof.  It was the location where the game show Drone War Idol was filmed.  The ultimate goal of the mission was to gain access to the "doughnut hole" at the heart of the building and destroy the electronic brain housed there.  Suicide Party faithful believed it was the location of the supercomputer that contained the master-code to Drone Wars, the theory being that once disabled the videogame's tyranny of cruelty and insanity would finally and for all time come to an end. 

Both the junior narcotics salesman and his friend were caught a bit off guard by how quickly they spotted the police van parked around the corner in the Exxon gas station.  They couldn't have circled the block more than three times before they were sure there was only one officer in the paddy wagon parked inconspicuously in a dark corner of the lot.  "Of all the dumb luck," his friend applauded their good fortune.  As the two of them crept up alongside the vehicle they were pretty sure there was no one else inside but the driver, and by the look of his partly eaten junk food meal, the officer was obviously on his dinner break. 

            Mindful of the electric eye of the law, the junior narcotics salesman scanned the street lamps and nearby buildings for cameras.  Several were visible, but he was a little surprised at how randomly they were deployed, and wondered what the odds were they would ever record a crime.  Chances were pretty low by the look of it.  You had to be hard on your luck to get spotted.  If the van were located six yards to either side, say, there was a camera trained on that particular plot of dirt or half-acre of blacktop, but as things stood, the vehicle was actually parked in the gaping maw of a blind spot.  There was, it struck him, something strangely arbitrary about the modern-day, high-tech Police State.

            "If you're going to try and get people to stop eating so much junk food," a pop-up advertisement on the police officer's dashboard blotter announced during the brief scuffle in which the two of them overpowered the driver, bound him, and locked him in the trunk of their car, "there are many ways to choose from.  The way our company executives have chosen to promote good eating habits is through 'reverse psychology'.  We say eat as much fast food as you want.  The way to get people to cut down on all those empty calories, our company policy says, is to exhort them to gorge themselves on as much of our junk food as humanly possible.  Eat up, America!"

            By first light, the crime scenes were swarming with schizophrenic intelligence men and women.  Two of the lunatics stood in the parking lot of the Exxon gas station where the police officer had been taken a few hours earlier.  They carefully read through his electronic blotter to no avail.  After a thorough search of the vehicle, they interviewed the local law enforcement officer who was the initial responder at the scene. 

"There is no bounty, is there?" the man grumbled resignedly after a while and spit on the ground.  "This is all some kind of weird science-fiction trip, isn't it?"  He looked around at the empty police van with disgust.  "So how can I help?"

            "We can only infer the proximity of these insurgent dissidents," one of the psychotic government intelligence madmen came back with an answer.  "To us the enemy is like super-symmetric dark matter.  You know what I mean?  You have to understand it from our point of view.  To us they are invisible," he continued offhandedly as he scribbled some numeric figures on a pad and made some quick cursory calculations.  "We know they are everywhere, but we can't actually see them like you can, so we require the use of supercomputers and sometimes even the help of average citizens, such as yourself, so we can start to recognize their patterns, break their encrypted codes, and better track their nefarious activities."

            Across the street at the entrance to the metro station a third psychotic intelligence man interviewed two young girls who were in the subway when the suicide bomber detonated her explosives, killing thirty nine people and injuring countless dozen others. 

"We live in DC," one of the eyewitnesses told the schizophrenic agent as she shouldered her rifle.  "It's like living on a powder-keg.  Even in the best of times this is a violent city.  Some of the bloodshed has to do with greed and corruption.  Some of it is about religion.  Some of it is about socioeconomic conditions.  The Federal Government has a long list of enemies.  These two bombings were no fluke.  They were carefully planned and strategic.  The Pentagon Station explosion was obviously targeting military employees, and its pretty darn clear the McPherson Square bombing over here was aimed at government officials."


-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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