Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? … I Know, But I’m Not Telling

So, I’ve been busy lately. In addition to editing Kill Screen Magazine, where we’re about to ship our fourth (and possibly best) issue, I’ve been working on a game writing project. They just announced it yesterday, so I’m pleased to post that I’m one of the writers on Blue Fang Games’ Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, coming to Facebook on February 9. You can read more here. I worked on it with Rob Dubbin and Jay Katsir of The Colbert Report, although you may also know Dubbin as a regular writer at Kill Screen, and a designer of interactive fiction, and a bunch of other stuff. Dude does a little of everything.

I was focused on location clues – e.g., writing the hints that lead you to the next city. If you’ve seen me lately hunched over a stack of Lonely Planet guides at the Portsmouth Library with Atlas Obscura and a Google Doc spreadsheet on my screen, this is why.

It was a great experience overall. I love the folks at Blue Fang – they’re super-talented, super-professional and super-fun. I learned a hell of a lot – about writing, about working on a game, about stress and fatigue. It was a lot of work. Let me rephrase that: it was a lot of work. I always knew that you game industry people were busy, and you had crunch times and late night pizza and whatever. But now I get it. And I was just a part-timer.

So, with that done and a few other projects put to bed, I can take a break. Start working on my next short story (which is going to be a futuristic romantic comedy thing, I’ve already started it, it’s going to be awesome). Work on another game. And start work on the next issue of Kill Screen.

And sleep, and play video games, and read a book, and talk to my wife, and …

We Are Ted Tuscadero For President

Cool news this week: I published my first short story, a sci-fi/politics thing called “We Are Ted Tuscadero For President.” You can read it or listen to Cheyenne Wright’s awesome reading of it over at Escape Pod.

Here’s the intro, and then I have a few notes about the story.

My name is Ted Tuscadero. And I want to be your President.

I say that with a humble heart. I realize that even after eight stellar years in the Senate, some of you are still getting to know me. And I’ll admit, I am not perfect. The other day, when I told a VFW in Littleton I would blast Iran to glass, and at the same exact time I swore off the war at a town hall in Concord? My bad. Or the time that three of me showed up for the big debate in Manchester, and we got in a fistfight over who was going on the air? Yeah, the chattering classes had a few laughs over that one.

And that little incident before the holidays, when I crashed, as lit as a Christmas tree, into a pole and my car exploded, killing me instantly and taking a mailbox, a transformer and a barn cat with me? It looked bad, I know. But that proxy was on the fritz. That’s not me. That’s not who I am. And the more we talk, the better you get to know me, the more you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve been working on the story since last fall, and was pretty far over the moon to sell it to somebody. It’s the first short story I’ve ever published, and the first I’ve written since I was 13 and wrote horrible Douglas Adams-influenced sci-fi on an electric typewriter. While I’ve had the opportunity to publish a lot of stuff in the last decade, this one’s special because, well, it’s useless. It’s not a review of some hot new thing, it’s not a news story, it’s nothing that anyone in the world needed – it’s just a piece of entertainment, and wow, someone wanted to run it.

Here are some notes and links about the story.

  • I’m a political junkie and a New Hampshire resident, and the 2004 Primary season – where I got to see every Democrat running, and some of them several times – was obviously a big influence.
  • You can find a great discussion of the story over at the Escape Pod forums.
  • This is a hairy angler. You can probably figure out why I chose it for the name of this particular character. Kudos to the show The Blue Planet for introducing it to me.
  • There really is – or was – a topless donut shop in Maine.
  • Fairport is Portsmouth, NH. The windmill thing was loosely based on the new library that was built, after some heated debate, around the corner from my house on Parrott Ave. We were involved in the debate, and it taught me that local politics – the least sexy and celebrated sector of our ever-flashier democracy – can be the most important. That was a big inspiration to my idea of a guy who wants to run for President, but who ends up obsessing over one little project in one little town full of people he may never see again.
  • Though I changed his name slightly, Joe the Barber is my barber. He gives me a hell of a haircut.
  • One last shoutout. In a funny coincidence (or maybe it wasn’t), Escape Pod editor Mur Lafferty, the reader Cheyenne Wright, and I are all pals of former made-up games blogger Rachael Webster. In fact, that’s Wright who drew the main portraits on her site. So, shout-out to Rachael in Japan, or wherever she’s gone since then.

So yeah, read the story! Let me know what you think!

The World of Recurring Characters

So after my first run of posts about worldbuilding, I took a break to edit Kill Screen #2—and with that task almost done, I’m ready to write some more, narrowing in on specific topics or problems around creating fictional worlds. Let’s get back to it, with Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Early in the first season of Avatar, we meet a character who plays a minor but memorable part on the show: the Cabbage Merchant. Actually, he’s not so much a character as a running gag. Every so often he shows up with his cartful of cabbages, and he ends up in right in the path of the good guys right when they’re being chased by the bad guys. His cart is smashed and he yells, “My cabbages!” And that’s his entire schtick.

He’s easily the least important of the supporting characters we meet on Avatar, and yet he’s one of the first characters who makes Avatar feel like a world, and not just a story. Why? Because he’s one of the first recurring characters we meet. Read more…

Just Another World: The World to End All Worlds

We live in the middle of some mighty imaginary worlds. In one corner, you’ve got Star Wars, turning out toys and videogames; over there, Marvel is taking over Hollywood and churning out half a dozen Avengers books a month. Lego seems to launch a new property every week, and while J. R. R. Tolkien’s been dead for decades, his name plus an “-esque” still seems to define half the fantasy properties that ship to this day. And then you’ve got Japan. Don’t even get me started on Japan; I’m too old to catch up and I know it.

You have your pick of alternate realities to dwell on, all of them creative powerhouses that spin a simple idea into multiple multi-million dollar channels of product. But I wanted to pick one. I figured if I could single out one transmedia world as somehow greater than the others, it would serve as an example for all the ideas we’ve been talking about. And luckily, it wasn’t that hard. In fact, I had absolutely no trouble settling on the one property that most dominates our culture and all of our media. And I will name it after the jump. Read more…

Just Another World: Avatar – The Last Airbender and The Wire

When it opens, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a very simple show. The opening titles tell the whole tale: the world’s at war, and the Fire Nation (the bad guys) want to conquer everyone else (the good guys). Only one person, the Avatar (the hero) can stop them, and as luck would have it, he just showed up and he’s ready to fight. Of course, he has challenges: he’s been gone for a hundred years, he hasn’t mastered his powers, and he’s an immature little kid. But that’s okay; that’s interesting. Watching him make his Hero’s Journey sounds like a hoot. Read more…

Boston GameLoop 2010: We’re New England, and We’re Coming For You

(The official GameLoop 2010 t-shirt. Pictured: organizers Darius Kazemi (left) and Scott Macmillan. For event pics, go here. And hey, who’s that guy?)

This Saturday I went to my first Boston GameLoop, and I was one of 200 game nerds from Boston and beyond who spent all day at the Microsoft NERD Building, talking about games. I’ve been remiss about hanging out in the Boston scene – living in Portsmouth only puts me an hour away, but sometimes that’s enough. GameLoop made me realize just how incredible that scene is.

The big area companies like Irrational, Harmonix, and Demiurge were well represented – and so were hot indies like Dejobaan and Fire Hose. (Not to mention out of towners from No Fun Games, Shadegrown, and Haunted Temple.) I saw some folks from MIT’s Gambit program, and Boston’s storied history in text adventures (“INTERACTIVE FICTION!”) was well represented by Jason McIntosh and Andrew Plotkin, who led an impromptu training session in Inform7, a natural language authoring tool. And I met or ran into a bunch of awesome game journos and bloggers, including – and I’m really sorry to whoever I missed – Rob Zacny, J. P. Grant, Maddy Myers, Dan Bruno, Nicole Kline, and David Bolton. We had 200 really smart people, and all of them were up to something.

I’ll share a few notes on unconferences for anyone who’s never been to one. I knew that it’s an informal way to run a conference: people throw ideas on a whiteboard, and then you wheel out a second whiteboard where people vote on those ideas, and finally you move to a third, grid-lined whiteboard where you schedule the most popular sessions. Somebody steps up to moderate, and you’ve got a talk.

The sessions were usually either discussions or tutorials. I signed up to moderate a session on game journalism and game crit, but “moderate” is a loose word: I asked a few questions and tried to make sure people got a chance to speak, but generally, once the conversation gets rolling, it can go wherever the attendees want to take it.

We had a great, lively discussion, and I took away some takeaways to inform the loose community of “brainy” game bloggers – aka the brainysphere, and boy did that term get old as the hour went on. People agreed that there was smart writing about games on the ‘Net, but I heard from several people that it was hard to find. This is especially a problem for reviews: the classic format review is broken, because the write-up that appears the day the game launches is usually a simple consumer guide (“The graphics rate a 7, the gameplay rates an 8,” etc.) – but the terrific writing that comes afterwards, and that can show up a month after launch, has a harder time finding an audience. (For example, Michael Abbott’s terrific “I’m Your Huckleberry” post, which is a fascinating take on Red Dead Redemption but is not a review.) At the same time, I agree with Dan Bruno – it’s never been a better time to write about games, and nobody reported having a difficult time getting their work out there. Getting paid, of course, is another matter completely.

Anyway, that was one takeaway I can remember – if I find other write-ups I’ll link them here. And good news, I sold a bunch of copies of Kill Screen #1, and got some extremely kind feedback from people who had already seen it. K. Adam White even wore his KS t-shirt (and looked super-natty in it)!

The discussions were fascinating, even the ones I didn’t spend much time in. You’re expected to “vote with your feet,” and noone takes offense if you decide that a passionate discussion about prototyping in Unity isn’t your thing. Niche sessions were usually balanced out by more general ones, and there were a number of great tutorials: Jeff Ward gave a great introduction to XNA and the AngelXNA prototyping framework, and like I said, the Inform7 tutorial was fantastic. Even though Jason and Andrew said it was thrown together last minute (nobody really prepares their talks – it’s part of the genius of the thing), they did a great job of introducing the tool and walking us through a simple example, and Jason followed up later on Twitter with more links. An hour of that was just enough to get the gist of how the tool works and whether I’d want to learn more, and I’ve been to better-organized talks that weren’t as persuasive (or nearly as much fun).

I don’t know if the model would scale to a thousand participants; the scrum around the whiteboards might get a little intense. But for a small, superb crowd like this one, and under Darius’ and Scott’s impeccable and passionate leadership, it was perfect. GameLoop was a hit, and just as important, it was a great day for Boston – a town that’s been on-and-off as a games biz leader, but that’s proving itself a scene to be reckoned with.

Just Another World: The Phantom Menace

Is any dad really ready for the day that he lets his kid watch The Phantom Menace? I should include the moms too, but I’m blinkered here: my wife has no horse in this race. She didn’t grow up with the Star Wars movies, while I watched the first one when it came out, when I was four. I grew up playing with Star Wars toys and cobbling them together into whole new universes; she was into horses. From the day my son was born I was waiting for the chance to show him the movies, and the plan was to raise him “original trilogy”: no clone troopers. No Jar-Jar. No l’il Anakin. Just the first three movies the way God intended them.

The thing is, kids hear things. They meet a kid at Flatbread Pizza who’s holding a Dorling Kindersely book filled with images of strange-looking space ships and Jedi. Who is this Darth Maul? Who’s that little blond kid flying a space ship? Wait, C3-PO looks weird. Dad, what’s going on here?

I probably don’t have to walk you through my position on the old movies versus the new. Red Letter Media took apart The Phantom Menace more painfully than I could. I’ve watched his YouTube review of that film a couple dozen times. I just like listening to the truth of it. Plus, it’s a fantastic course in the principals of storytelling. I honestly think he’s our era’s Syd Fields.

But I digress. I couldn’t show my kid the Red Letter Media review, on account of all the cussing. And to my opinion – my hard-won judgment – doesn’t matter to my son. So about a month ago, I just gave in and let him watch The Phantom Menace. I didn’t tell him much about it, except that it totally, completely sucked. Aside from that, I was ready to let him make up his own mind.

I don’t think it’s bad to feel possessive of the world of Star Wars, because more than any other great world I can think of, it depends on the imagination of the viewer. That’s why we love it so much. When I was four and saw that movie, it lit up my make-believe center. This was space and this was adventure and this was everything you could dream of. The three movies were not enough to hold our imaginations, and that was the point. The less you know about this world, the better. The stories and the effects and the vehicles and the weird alien bounty hunters that you see for three seconds are all a starting point. And then you buy a toy, and you make up the backstories, and then you make up your own stories. Or you just sit and dream about it all.

And so my complaint about The Phantom Menace, in one sentence or less, and excluding the fact that it totally sucks, is simply that they tried to tell us too much about that world without giving us anything new to dream about. Trade treaties? Senates? Come on – nobody cares about the plumbing in this place. We don’t need to know how anything works.

So I watched it with my kid. He realized, all on his own, that Jar-Jar was a mistake. He also thought Darth Maul was badass. He agreed that the scenes in the Senate were “like Meet the Press,” which is our family standard for dull. But he liked the droids and the vehicles and the shootouts.

And there’s one part he really, really liked, and that cemented in his mind that The Phantom Menace was his new favorite film: he loved the part where Anakin Skywalker jumps in a space ship, and just happens to take off, and just happens to fly to the droid control space station, and just happens to make a lucky shot and blow the whole thing up from the inside.

To an adult, the whole sequence is disgustingly dumb. Why did they leave Anakin in a space ship? Why didn’t anyone hide the keys? How did he make the lucky shot that turned the tide of the war? And who leaves a reactor sitting in their hangar, anyway?

But my kid loved it. Because a little blond kid just like him was flying around in a space ship and blowing the hell out of everything.

So, I get it. We’re not so far apart. He saw in that movie exactly what I saw in the first ones, when I was his age. And unlike me, he didn’t let the chaff – the backstory, the distractions, all that boring extraneous info – ruin the dream.

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