Friday, April 5, 2013

The Only Constant In Life Is Change

My wife and I have news to dust off this blog and announce, although it probably isn't the news that is expected:

We have decided to quit our jobs, sell our condo, throw everything we own into cardboard boxes, pack up our two cats, and head west.

No, this isn't a joke: we are moving to Portland, Oregon.

To rephrase it in a way that actually is a joke: we have decided to take our life and put a bird on it.

**********

Imagine standing at the edge of a cliff.  There's an incredible land down there somewhere, which you know because you've read a lot about it and even visited it once.  There's also a safety net to catch your fall so that you can reach this land instead of plummeting to your death.

But the cliff is so high that nothing is visible below as you look down from the edge--no land, no safety net, nothing.  All you can see through the vertigo is cliff face plunging to bottomless depths, as high altitude winds buffet your body and threaten to send you over.

Are you ready to jump?

**********

Things not mentioned above in the opening list of items to do before we "head west": paint our living room ceiling, get our carpets cleaned, sell my car, process nine years of personal paperwork, deep clean our bathrooms, fix our windows, hire an electrician, assemble various condo association docs, recauk our showers, post various sellable items on craigslist or eBay, purchase new eyeglasses, research movers, book cat-friendly hotels, find a place to live.

Time we have to do all this: about five weeks.

**********

I put in my notice this past Tuesday at my job.  At my most frustrated moments I perhaps imagined quitting to be a satisfying experience in which I finally held up my hand and said "thanks but no thanks."

The problem with this, of course, is the most frustrating moments don't represent a job as a whole, and the company I work for has actually been quite good to me.  I've been able to help make some great products with some great people, and the company hasn't been shy about rewarding employees for hard work.  I've learned a lot of good things and made a lot of good friends.

There is also just something inherently sad about closing a door, no matter how ready you are to close that door.  Doing so may get you closer to where you need to be, but remember what it felt like to have that door open?

You'd damn well better because that memory is all that's left of what was left behind.

**********

Tracy and I visited Portland a year and a half ago to scout it out as a potential relocation option.  Upon arrival we went to a downtown art fair and were immediately overwhelmed.

"I don't know how I feel about Portland," Tracy said.

"I don't know either," I replied.

"I don't think I have enough tattoos and piercings to live in Portland," Tracy.

"Seriously."

But the next day we walked to the "Trendy-Third" district and immediately fell in love with its photogenic assortment of shops and bars.

"I think we've found our Portland," we both agreed.

As such, now that an actual move was looming it only made sense to start looking at the price of rental units in the Trendy-Third vicinity.

As it turns out, we had not found our Portland.

**********

A frequent question that is asked when I say we are relocating to Portland is "do you have a job lined up," and the answer to this question is "yes."

I will be working for a small development company that makes custom applications for clients.  I'll be operating as the sole QA Engineer on a smaller team practicing Agile development, and I'm looking forward to getting my hands dirty and playing a more active role in software development.

Important: the people who work there are an incredibly cool bunch of guys.  By all appearances the company has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere of people nonetheless working hard to make quality software.

Also important: the company is actually located in Portland as opposed to one of the satellite tech towns, so it should be within biking distance of where we want to live.

Of even more importance than any of the above: they were willing to interview a potential hire remotely and then give him a reasonable window to move.

**********

Why Portland?

Because Portland is a city that knows what it wants to be and isn't afraid to invest resources to make this happen.

Because what Portland wants to be is what I want my city to be.

Because Portland has an emphasis on good coffee, good beer, good wine, good music, and local food.

Because Portland has fantastic public transportation.

Because Portland has an impressive network of bike paths.

Because Portland's weather allows year-round access to these bike paths.

Because Portland is one direct flight away from either of our families.

Because Portland has a thriving tech industry which makes me employable.

Because Portland has reciprocity with the school my wife will be attending online.

Because Portland houses some lovely people we already know so we won't be starting from scratch with a social network.

Because Portland has some outdoor farms you can drive to and yank enormous heads of lettuce out of the ground like it isn't totally a thing.

Because Portland has a super cool airport (these details count, people).

Because Portland is surrounded by the gorgeous Pacific northwest.

Because Portland has a clear view of Mt. Hood.

Because Portland has an arboretum that feels like it's on the side of a mountain.

Because Portland has less sun, higher unemployment, and more expensive housing.

Just checking that you're still paying attention with that last one.

**********

So what does Tracy get out of this relocation?

She gets to move to a city that offers many of the things that are important to her (see the above list).

She gets to return to school, which will help her develop her career in the long run.

She gets to live in a city that offers employment that builds off current experience, which will help her have a career in the short run.

She gets a closer proximity to family that makes long weekend trips to and from Arizona possible.

Also of significant note: she gets to never, ever, ever drive in serious snow again.


**********

Of course, all of this glowing Portland talk ignores one thing, and that is the fact that it is not easy to leave Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison has been good to me.  It's small enough to be safe and easily travelled, but it's large enough to contain some big city amenities.  It's within a long but reasonable drive from my family, which is important because I am close to my family and love them dearly.

And, of course, Madison has our friends.

There is a certain tightness of friendship that can come with the luxurious aimlessness of youth.  As age advances you collect responsibilities that shape your life but also anchor you down, whereas when young it sometimes felt like there was little else to do but be with your friends.  My twenties were a messy and tumultuous time that claimed its fair share of friendships, but those friendships that survived did so with some serious battled-hardened structural integrity.  There is a lot to say for the people who have seen me at both my best and my worst and still call me a friend.

And, of course, I've been making new incredible friends through my wife, people who have somehow managed to pull in close despite the fact that I haven't known them very long.  If these people went from strangers to valued friends in a mere year or two, just imagine where things could go if given more time.

And then all these friends are having kids, or thinking about having kids, and Tracy and I want to have kids at some point and raise them around these friends and their kids.

But we're moving to Portland.

**********

I was going to write about moving further away from my family, but I'm not sure I can.

**********

Here's the thing, though: as much as I love Madison, it has never felt like I place I was going to be forever.  Even as my social support network deepened and strengthened and formed the foundation to everything I held dear, I never saw myself as calling it a done deal and settling into Madison permanently.

I've long felt a sense of location dissonance, as if I wasn't where I truly belonged in life.  I had a really nice car and a really nice condo with a really nice backyard area, but I'd visit friends in Chicago or New York and suddenly feel a sense of kinship with my surroundings there.  We'd walk down to local restaurants for breakfast and hop on public transportation to whatever it was we were doing.  We'd travel through areas that were actual neighborhoods, with people and things and shops and bars and history, neighborhoods that were more than just a collection of hermetically sealed mini-mansions with really nice yards.

And then I'd return to Madison, hop on the beltline, and feel my spirit collapse through the bottom of my really nice car.  I know that everyone returns from a fun-filled vacation with meaningless relocation plans, but I felt a very real disconnect between the living environments that rang that little bell inside my brain and the living environment I was constantly returning to and calling "home."  There's nothing wrong with suburban or rural living, of course, but I was coming to realize that it wasn't personally for me.

Before I met Tracy I was giving serious thought to selling my condo and moving, either to a neighborhood in Madison that satisfied my centrally-located living desires or to a larger urban environment.  But then I met the love of my life, and she moved in, and we were more or less set.

Except for this: "You know, I've had enough of Wisconsin winters," Tracy said.  "And I'd like to be at least somewhat closer to my family in Arizona."

And so everything came together.

**********

One night recently my wife and I were approaching downtown Madison from John Nolan Drive, and I gazed out at the city skyline: Monona Terrace and its surrounding hotels butted up against the lake, and the capital's illuminated dome was visible through the parting of urban buildings that managed to be tall enough but not too tall.  Street lights and windows glittered in the dark, their flickering counterparts reflected in the water.

I suddenly saw this sight so familiar I had long since stopped seeing it, this city I had moved to and grew to love and then inhabited for well over half my life.

I wondered if leaving this city was a huge mistake.

I'd ultimately say "no," for the record, but if it is we are about to make the hell out of that huge mistake.

Portland, ho!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Atroxity's Progress Meter

The progress meter for chapter 1.2--the next installment of our online graphic novel Atroxity--has been updated to 27%.  Fair enough, but what exactly does this mean?

Our online progress meter.
Way back when snow coated the ground, mammoths roamed the earth, and Team Atroxity was studiously working away on the beginning of chapter one, we made the decision to eschew publishing new material one page at a time in favor of waiting until we had 10-14 page scenes ready to share as a whole.  Weekly single page publishing schemes work well for almost everyone else out there, so why not head in the other direction, eh?

None of us felt that releasing Atroxity in page-sized drips made much sense.  Atroxity was written to be read as a book, and it's paced accordingly.  Reading Atroxity in single-page intervals would place too much emphasis on any one page and disrupt the flow of the story.

Of course, want to know what else disrupts the flow of the story?  A nine month wait between updates.

But, uh, we're working on that. Our page rate is slowly but surely increasing, and each scene has gone more smoothly than the previous one (believe it or not).  We've also starting sharing behind-the-scenes art on our Facebook page in an attempt to tide fans over during the wait.

Behind-the-scenes prologue shot shared
on our Facebook page.
At the center of this all, of course, is the new progress meter on the Atroxity website, which is an attempt to make progress toward the next Atroxity installment more transparent and reduce the feeling of Atroxity being this rash-like thing that rears its head every few months and then fades back away into nothing.  Writing isn't represented in the progress meter because the script has been more or less complete for awhile, but the entire visual process is: roughs, pencils, inks, digital layouts, and colors are all in there somewhere.

The progress meter may not communicate much more beyond a simple percentage amount, but it does kinda sorta allow readers to follow progress and see that Atroxity is very much an active and ongoing project, even if the activity is currently below the surface.  New material might not be available on a weekly basis, but an updated visual representing the ever-closing distance toward new material is.

And let's be honest: nothing quite constitutes gripping entertainment like seeing an online progress meter jump from 20% to 27%.

Well, it'll all pay off once that meter reaches 100%.  I promise.

And until then: more progress information is available on our Twitter feed, and sketches and behind-the-scenes goodies are appearing on our Facebook page.

See you kids there.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Atroxity: the Online Graphic Novel


"Bad things happen to bad people in dark locales."

Sound appealing?

Maybe not, but that's the sorta-joking shorthand description I've adopted for my current creative project.

Well, calling it my current creative project is rather misleading, seeing as how it is the creative project in my life right now, the creative project I've been working on for so long that I don't remember what life was like before it began to infect my brain.

The project is a graphic novel.  Hell, the project is a series of graphic novels, because I hate genre fiction's tendency to sprawl and I am a raging hypocrite.  Nothing quite earns an eye roll from me like the words "part one of an epic series," and yet the book we are working on is part one of an epic series.  Sorry, my fault!

The epic series is called Atroxity, and the first book is being unveiled as we speak, piece by labored piece.

And when I say labored, I mean it.  Each and every finished page is a veritable time-sucking black hole, from the writing--which is now more or less done--to the roughs to the pencils to the inks to the digital layouts to the colors.  If "bad things happening to bad people in dark locales" doesn't sound like the most compelling grounds upon which to invest minutes of time reading, imagine spending months upon years on it.

Fortunately, I'm not carrying the load alone.  A team has grown to handle the staggering task of bringing Atroxity to life.  I'm the writer and general project lead, Luke Master is handling pencils and inks, and Mike Barczak is on colors and tones.

I may have started Atroxity but it is no longer entirely mine, and I couldn't be happier about it.  Atroxity is now an equal partnership that is growing and mutating out of my sole control, which gives me that new dad grin as I watch my baby waddle out of my protective embrace and off toward the first day of school.  Atroxity will probably turn out to be a paste-eating troublemaker that pees down the playground slide, but that would be rather fitting for something easily summed up as "bad things happen to bad people in dark locales."

Okay, so it is admittedly more than the whole "bad people" thing, and in fact the story eventually includes a lot of humor and action sequences and scenes where people say important things and cry.  The tale starts dark and gets darker, true, but there will be a lot more places visited along the way than might be immediately obvious.

And so my actual, serious, trying-to-sum-up-Atroxity-so-that-you-might-consider-reading-it-spiel is as follows:

"Atroxity is character-driven urban fantasy noir graphic novel in which one man attempts to unravel the secrets of the dark and dizzying city in which he finds himself."

Does that sound better?  Find out for yourself: over twenty pages are currently live at the Atroxity website with more coming soon.

Check it out, follow us on facebook, climb on board for the ride.

Atroxity: The Online Graphic Novel




Monday, June 25, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman: A Review


On Friday, June 22nd, 2012, my fiancée and I engaged in an activity that we had yet to do in our twenty months together, an activity that most couples knock out within the first few dates.

This activity we did--our first time together ever, my first time in two years--was the following: we went to see a movie in a theater.

What the hell, right?  One of the core perks of dating someone is having a movie partner, so how is it possible that we made it this far without slapping down twenty dollars and sitting in a massive air-conditioned chamber of complete strangers while images flickered across a screen as large as our living room?

It was pretty weird, actually.

**********

Not just a clever title.
The movie was Snow White and the Huntsman, a film that didn't really possess any quality to justify being our first movie together, except that (1) we knew it was time to finally do this going-to-a-movie-thing, and (2) we were both willing to see it.

Besides, a certain perverse part of me kind of liked the idea of ending our cinematic drought with a movie that neither of us quite felt a burning need to see.  Why add the pressure?

Gritty remake of a fairy tale that happens to have mediocre-at-best reviews?

Let's do it.

**********

It isn't as if we haven't seen any movies, of course, we've just watched them in our basement on our big ass television.  As such, home always had the following advantages over theaters: convenience, price, the ability to pause for a whoa-did-I-drink-all-that pee break.

On the other hand, theaters have the advantage of not being directly adjacent to three cat boxes.

**********

I was expecting Snow White and the Huntsman to be watchable but lackluster, both of which the movie is.  I was not expecting it to be a Lord of the Rings knock off, which the movie also is.   Snow White and the Huntsman features a fated hero on a quest to topple an evil and godlike overlord, a journey that transforms the hero from a sheltered babe in the woods to a knife-swinging unlikely warrior.

The Huntsman, i.e. "Strider-on-the-sauce."
Assisting on this journey is a dirty, sweaty ranger-type of initially questionable character, and the party is later joined by a lithe, pretty boy archer and a gang of wisecracking dwarves.  All of this culminates in a climactic battle with armored armies clashing with as much clanging intensity as a PG-13 rating allows.

Add to this a heavy dollop of Guillermo del Toro-ish fairy tale visual detail, a Pan's Labyrinth-like inspired combination of fantasy and horror.

Unfortunately, any movie imagined at the words "Lord of the Rings with Guillermo del Toro" is far better than the one that actually made it to the screen as Snow White and the Huntsman.

**********

As the theater initially dimmed and the first trailer whirred to life in front of us, I had this enormous sense of getting reacquainted with something that once was incredibly familiar.  The entire ritual of watching a movie in a theater was suddenly novel, and the fact that it was novel was also, well, novel.

"I know this," I thought.  "I can do this."

**********

It isn't that Snow White and the Huntsman is a bad movie, of course.  It holds together just fine and delivers a solid three acts.  If I find the concept of a serious and dark retelling of a fairy tale not exactly fresh, well that's just my fault for going to see a movie clearly advertised as such, right?

Sometimes Snow White wears armor.
The acting is pretty solid, if you ignore the parts where people shout real loud.  Kristen Stewart is far more convincing as Snow White than I'd heard, although she lacks the weight to make the third act transition into a warrior general--her attempt at shouting an inspirational speech conveys all the charm of a teen having a tantrum over a confiscated iPhone.

Charlize Theron steals the show as the evil queen, a woman whose facial expression alone conveys fathomless depths of icy menace.  Well, except for the few instances where she unconvincingly shouts and momentarily drag the movie into the territory of Sci Fi Channel originals.

Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, though, can shout pretty well.

**********

Charlize Theron: in no real danger of being upstaged by Kristen Stewart
in this whole "fairest of all" business.
Things my fiancée and I have done together instead of watching movies in theaters:
  • Cooking
  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • Painting
  • Geocaching
  • Hiking
  • Cleaning (unglamorous but sometimes necessary)
  • Travelling
  • Swimming
  • Enjoying a beer outside at a micro brewery
  • Perusing farmer's markets
  • Attending local festivals
  • Going to art fairs
  • Drinking spiked hot chocolate while doing crossword puzzles
  • Purchasing a giant ceramic white deer head
  • Driving to a soapbox derby that was held on the previous day
  • Other things
**********

Snow White and the Huntsman was directed by someone I've never heard of before named Rupert Sanders, and the new kid gets a bit of a mixed grade.

Rupert clearly did his homework studying the Battle of Helm's Deep, but he never quite gets the hang of battlefield choreography in Snow White and the Huntsman.  There is no escalation of tension before the fighting breaks, and the violent mayhem itself lacks rhythm.  Perhaps most odd in a $170 million dollar movie, there is also frequent breaking of the 180 degree rule, rendering the battle a confused mess.  There are still some decent bits, but aping Peter Jackson isn't the best idea if Peter Jackson is a lot better at this sort of thing than you.  Grade: C

An evil witch taking a milk bath is but one of the
splendors Rupert has up his sleeve.
Outside of battles, scenes mostly unfold without truly engaging, remaining entertaining but lacking the structure and timing to really invite us in.  It takes time to establish why we should care about anything that happens on screen, and Rupert doesn't quite have the innate sense yet of when it isn't all coalescing together, even if he's close.  Grade: B

Where Rupert truly excels, however, is in imagining crazy-ass fantasy shit and bringing it to the screen intact. Ravens fly together to form a woman, hands melt like wax, fairies pop out of the feathery chests of birds like benevolent parasites.  Rupert has the skill to visualize a heady blend of magic and nightmare, and he's not afraid to toe the line between awe-inspiring and disturbing.  Even better, most of his CGI creations have presence and weight--I could almost smell the fetid breath of a lumbering and snuffing forest troll.  Grade: A

Final Verdict: the new kid's first film is a bit of a mixed bag but he's definitely got some skill.  Grade: B

**********

When we were driving to dinner before the movie--classic date business, folks--I turned to my fiancée and said, "I hope this movie has dinosaurs in it."

She paused, thinking, and said, "What movie are we seeing again?"

We both laughed at this.

The movie does deliver on fantastic and eye popping visuals.
Two hours later, the forest troll suddenly appeared on screen in all its massive otherworldly glory.

"I thought I was being funny," I thought.  "But this movie could very well actually have dinosaurs in it."

It didn't, but this all underlined just how little we had invested in Snow White and the Huntsman.  But we were long past due to finally see a movie together, and sometimes you just go see one particular film because hey, it's Friday night and why not?

Snow White and the Huntsman most definitely isn't a great movie, but it was an enjoyable enough way to step back into the world of seeing movies in theaters.  Rupert Sanders may not have constructed a masterpiece, but he's talented enough to possibly have one in him.

And you know who just might head out to see it in the theaters?

Me and my fiancée.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 6: All Tales Must End

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

Zed and his intrepid companions were clearly staring down the barrel of the end game, and as such we knew it was time to get any remaining affairs in order--stock up on potions, fill our waterskins, sign each others' yearbooks, that sort of things.

I also decided to take a break and finally reread the backstory that came with the original manual.  I summarized it back in part two, but I figured now was the time to fully get back up to speed so that I was launching into the final battles with a full perspective on what was at stake.  Plus, the story had captivated my imagination as a kid to such a degree that I spent an afternoon drawing a comic book adaptation, complete with "EXCITING FIRST ISSUE" cover art.

Yes, you read that correctly: creating comic book adaptations of video games is what I did instead of actually making progress in said video games.

So I now found the backstory online.  I settled into a comfortable position and opened the first page, ready to be transported to an imaginary world of magic and mystery.

This didn't really happen.  The story wasn't very good.

I lamented the poor choices I made as a kid and reloaded Dungeon Master.

It took me 25 years to see these words firsthand.
Grim with firsthand knowledge of the foe we faced, Zed and company trekked back up to level seven--the Tomb of the Firestaff--and unlocked the last sealed RA door blocking access to the inner chambers. We used our one blue key to gain a fourth pair of boots of speed--thus giving my party a complete set, as the tale of acquiring the other three pairs met the "Returning to Dungeon Master" cutting room floor--and we opened some other doors to meet the guardians of the Firestaff: massive, dead-eyed stone golems.

"Now that's a whole lot of gravel," said Zed.

In a lot of ways Dungeon Master is the perfect stat-based RPG. Use skills and they improve. Use skills and stats go up. Use skills and better attacks and spell powers are unlocked.  Use skills and your party is able to take and deal more damage.  All from using skills.

When I first stumbled across level seven, had I somehow managed get past the locked barriers the stone golems would no doubt have whack-a-moled my party clear through the stone floor, but returning now meant that my party could stand face-to-face with these hulking beasts and emerge victorious.

Well, as long as there was a door handy to slam against them repeatedly and no shortage of healing potions, but the point still stands: Zed and company were getting powerful, and it was very satisfying.

Once all the stone golems were dispatched I liberated the Firestaff from its resting place, pausing first to catch up on the required reading left sitting around that revealed the late game plot twist.  As common knowledge as this twist is--I've known it since my buddy spilled the beans during that fateful aborted playthrough 25 years ago--it's still ridiculously cool.

See, the manual is essentially one big overwritten fake-out, and various notes around the Firestaff chambers drop hints that you might want to think twice before completing the stated goal of the game and returning the Firestaff to the order half of fantasy world Jesus.  Instead, the scattered notes indicate that something called a power gem can be fused to the Firestaff and then used to defeat a being of pure alignment (i.e., Chaos).

It's actually a pretty cool idea, and I can only imagine what is was like to uncover all this back when the game was an unexplored frontier.  As is, Zed was confused, Elija let out a dumbfounded "whoooaaah, mon," and Boris just tossed the Firestaff in his backpack so that we could start the long slog back to level one.

That's right, why miss out on an opportunity to witness some crazy shit?  A journey through Dungeon Master isn't complete until you've returned to the front doors to present the Firestaff to law dude from the overwritten backstory, so return we did.

This is what happens if you play Dungeon Master as
outlined in the manual.
Sure enough, the front doors flew open to reveal Captain Order with his arms spread like a sheet-wearing ghost in a community haunted house, and after a few terse words the asshole incinerated my party and urinated on the ashes.

(the urination part was implied via the words "The End")

"There is no way I'm going out with my last meal being a cross section of dead worm," thought Boris the dead wizard, and so he whipped up a quick Reload Save Game spell and we were back in the Tomb of the Firestaff, everyone shaken but very much alive.

Our party cleared out the remainder of the Tomb of the Firestaff, and Zed snagged the most powerful sword available for his skill set, a gleaming beauty named Inquisitor that ended up never seeing so much as one second of battle.

"I can probably use this to slice grapefruit," Zed said.

Anyway, my four champions were now armed with the Firestaff and, crucially, a key that unlocked level fourteen, the deepest level of the dungeon that contained the power gem needed to convert the Firestaff into a utensil of Chaos defeat.

You can technically avoid fighting the dragon if
you want, but who could walk away from this face?
Level fourteen also contained a dragon.

Dragons are murder on security deposits.
Facing off against the dragon was a somewhat tense skirmish in which the entire party finally used some of the time-freezing magic boxes that they had spent the rest of the game hoarding.  Each champion member tossed poison cloud spells and ven bombs at the dragon, until we finally just said "fuck it" and launched a shitload of cranked fireballs up its wingless reptilian ass. You wouldn't think a monster that launches fire from within would be vulnerable to fire from without, but before long there was nothing more than a smoking crater where once was a giant lizard nursing impossible dreams of flight.

"Dragon steak time, everyone!" Zed shouted, and then everyone ate dragon steak.

After a brief break to crack the window open in my computer room and turn on a fan because Christ it was getting hot in here, I fused the power gem to the Firestaff and headed up the stairs to take on Lord Chaos.

We stood in that familiar hallway again, steeling out nerves.

"This is it, the moment of truth," said Zed.  "Time to find out if we are men.  Or ladies, like Wu Tse."

"I guess I'll take that," said Wu Tse.

 We headed into the chamber for our one final rematch with Chaos.

Pictured: Lord Chaos.  Not pictured: the surrounding
demons, my soiled shorts.
Well, I wouldn't exactly say "one final rematch," as Lord Chaos was one slippery fucker. The climactic battle of Dungeon Master doesn't involve the slow whittling away of hitpoints from some enormous boss like most games, but instead a reflex-heavy attempt to trap the guy via the Firestaff and then "fuse" him once cornered. It's a somewhat inspired design choice, but it played out a bit like Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny, with us most definitely not representing long eared wiseacre.

Remember me calling the dragon battle somewhat tense? Squaring off against Lord Chaos was incredibly tense, and as I loaded and reloaded the battle I found myself wishing my computer room had more windows to open. This was due partially to the fact that this evil-herding end fight was the culmination of fourteen tough levels of dungeon, but the weight of 25 years' worth of gaming baggage also hung hot and heavy as my heart rolled like a machine gun and I pounded on the keyboard. My fiancée yelled upstairs at me to call my mother about our impending wedding, which had FUCK ALL to do with SAVING THE GODDAMN WORLD.

And then, suddenly, me and my four Elmer Fudds apparently did things just right and Chaos unexpectedly exploded in a prism of pride parade fireworks. He wobbled back and forth between various forms before suddenly turning into a beaming white-bearded old man, whom Elija no doubt recognized as a fellow reluctant super-warrior and ganja enthusiast.

Thanks, fantasy world Jesus!
Then some text scrolled by slowly--all of which was more succinct than the miserable backstory--and the game reduced my four champions to their final stats before proceeded to hang on this final screen.  Maybe there was a non-obvious way to exit out of it, or maybe the developers just figured winners of the game would want their monitors permanently rendered a Dungeon Master victory trophy, but whatever the case I force closed the program and sat there staring at my desktop, drinking in the adrenaline rush of victory.

Dungeon Master was the big, bad, unbeatable game of my youth, and it now lay sprawled out at my feet in defeat.

I picked up the phone and called my mom to talk about the wedding.


Final party stats:

Zed Duke of Banville
  • << Master Fighter
  • Craftsman Ninja
  • Expert Priest
  • Expert Wizard

Wu Tse Son of Heaven
  • Artisan Fighter
  • Artisan Ninja
  • Expert Priest
  • << Master Wizard

Elija Lion of Yaitopya
  • << Master Fighter
  • Craftsman Ninja
  • Expert Priest
  • Expert Wizard

Boris Wizard of Baldor
  • Artisan Fighter
  • Artisan Ninja
  • Adept Priest
  • Expert Wizard

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 5: Stairway to Hell

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

Look, I'm not even going to try to dress this one up: there is something incredibly cool going on at the center of the lower levels of Dungeon Master, and I am about to spoil it utterly.

That's right, if you've also got unfinished business with this game and you're eyeing up a potential run, you might want to avoid this next bit entirely.

All clear?  Good.

Because that skeleton key Zed found unlocked a secret staircase that plunged right down through the remaining six levels of the dungeon.  Like a stone drainage tube cutting through the meat and heading straight for the bottom.  Along the way was a landing for each descending level, landings that were blocked off but could eventually be unlocked and connected to their respective level as a whole.

See, I kinda sorta knew there was some sort of connecting staircase that minimized backtracking in the lower levels of the dungeon, but for some reason the reality of this skeleton stairway caught me completely surprised.  I expected a useful series of stairs, yeah, but what I didn't expect was the feeling of finding a hidden maintenance door and stumbling into a behind-the-scenes stretch of dungeon.  It felt like I had gained privileged employee access behind the walls and discovered a stairway intended for shift breaks and emergency fire drills.

Question: how cool is this keyhole for the skeleton staircase?
Answer: 80's  hair metal cool.
Add to this the fact that this stairway was always unlocked by sticking a key in a badass grinning skull, and you've got one seriously cool feature blowing my jaded gaming brain a good 25 years after it was implemented.

This skeleton staircase also changed the way the game was played, as the dungeon suddenly went from a fairly linear progression of levels--descend to a new level, find the stairs down to the next one, rinse and repeat--to a series of individual levels that could be opened and revisited.  Dungeon Master was reaching new heights of openness with the discovery of this skeleton staircase, a discovery tellingly made on Dungeon Master's most literally open level.

And as I mentioned before, the skeleton staircase managed to surprise me, which ushered in the third phase of my Dungeon Master playthrough: I was officially off the map of what I had ever known and instead fully immersed in the unfamiliar. I had heard of pain rats and the knight dudes, yeah, and I was aware of the general structure of the last two levels, but I hadn't witnessed any of it firsthand. What had started as a nostalgic romp through the game of my youth had transitioned into a late-game experience that was new and unexpected.  Dungeon Master was turning out to simply be an amazing and fun game, even when detached from childhood baggage.

Home sweet home.
There was one final benefit of the skeleton staircase and it was this: the hidden and locked off series of landings provided a new safe camp spot for my party of wandering nomads left homeless by the abandonment of the screamer room.  We had a new base and it was at a nexus that spanned all of the remaining levels.

Once Zed and company finished unpacking their moving boxes and decorating the walls of their new home--"I've been carrying around that mounted beholder head since "I Hate Cowards," whined Zed--they took in a solid night of sleep, enjoyed a big breakfast, and punched in their time cards at the start of level nine.

Which, for the most part, was uneventful but enjoyable.  There were nasty Orko-looking motherfuckers who launched various spells at Zed and company, spells which mostly functioned as justification for the slaughter of Orko-looking motherfuckers that inevitably followed.  I think there were some rust monsters in there too, but they seemed like a rough idea that the developers never got around to deleting from subsequent drafts.

I forced my party into a small amount of food farming and training with the pain rat in their generating den, only to discover that pain rats are far too aptly named to ever be used for something as mundane as training. Zed and friends emerged battered, bloody, and in strong need of a drink.

Pain rats want to kill you more than you want to kill them.
They also escaped from this skirmish with multiple KFC buckets of drumsticks, which they hauled back to their new camp spot to drop next to three chests full of food, all of which is undoubtedly still rotting on that staircase landing next to discarded flasks, ninja stars, magic boxes, special swords, various necklaces, extra rings, and additional capes.

It was like the world's nerdiest episode of Hoarders.

On we trudged, each level increasingly blending together into one big blur.  Level ten wasn't too difficult, despite Zed repeatedly wandering over a monster trigger that resulted in a veritable army of giant scorpions. The return of beholders was like a reunion with old friends, albeit one in which you kill said friends and raid their corpses.

Level eleven's clockwise/turn back circular hallways stumped even our diminutive wizard Boris--"not so short now, are you?" taunted Zed, which Boris pointed out didn't even make sense--but we eventually passed it due to a level of just-fucking-around that I'm not entirely comfortable with when puzzle solving.  It was also good to see Trolins return, especially as it gave me an opportunity to toss the back row up to the front to gain some fighting experience.

At least I think the Trolins were on level eleven.

"As we get older the years just keep passing faster and faster," said Zed.

Giant scorpions, one of the more visually impressive monsters in the game.
I actually had a decent strategy with my party at this point, a solid mix of ranged spellcasting by all four members and toe-to-toe combat with my (sometimes rotated) front row. Each party member would brew their own healing and buffing potions, which meant that for the most part everyone was gaining experience in everything (except for the now-languishing Ninja skill, which seemed like more trouble than it was worth).

One side effect of this even distribution of action was a certain strong willed independent-mindedness of the skills that leveled up, the results of which were often surprising. Wu Tse, our party's ninja, wound up surpassing our designated wizard Boris in the art of magic, and good old Elija Lion of Yaitopya, the game's tribute to Rastafarianism, managed to somehow overcome his pacifism and intended priest role to first achieve the level of &lt;&lt; Master Fighter.

Elija shook his head and sighed, white dreaded beard partially covering his full suit of Darc armor, as he carved a bloody path of destruction with Hardcleave and wondered where, exactly, he had gone wrong.

"I'll catch up soon," Zed said.  "I had a sprained finger that set me back a bit."

Level twelve was a bit more of a challenge, with the magic-impervious knights and the Oitu-generating room that warned that cowards would be "hunted down and killed." Believe me, I had to reload that one a few times to prove those words wrong. Zed and company eventually found the final necessary RA key to unlock the Firestaff from level seven, but opted to clear out the remainder of level twelve before heading back.

For the most part all of this was a blur, but at the end of level twelve my party did have one experience worth mentioning, and that one experience is this:

Elija, reluctant Rastafarian warrior.
Zed and his companions fell through a pit in the floor; a normal enough event in the game of Dungeon Master, and in true normal event fashion we decided to explore the area in which we had landed.

They killed one of those black fire things and found some stairs up, presumably back to the tail end of level twelve. Deciding to explore on, we turned a corner, walked down a hallway, and entered a room large enough to extend into darkness. The entrance was lined with more black fire guys, and Zed and Boris were debating just what to do about them when Wu Tse spotted two giant demon things with arm tentacles lurking in the distance.

Opting for the relative safety of the hallway, we backed out of the room and waited for the demons to approach to attempt fighting them on our terms. We saw a black shape framed against the darkness of the room--"Funny, that doesn't look like a demon," remarked Zed--and then blood drained from my face and fingers when out of the darkness and flanked by black fire stepped the unmistakable form of Lord Chaos, endgame boss and master of the entire dungeon.

"Holy shit, mon!" shouted Elija.

"Well would you look at that," marveled Zed.

I, for my part, released a startled shout of terror that frankly doesn't happen very often when playing video games.  We frantically backed out and ran up the stairs, leaving behind a trail of "OH SHIT"s in our wake.

"Everything okay up there?" my fiancée asked from downstairs.

"Uh, more or less," I replied.

Zed and company returned to our camp spot on the skeleton staircase landings and caught their breath, knowing more than ever that the end was near for our trip through this massive, sprawling dungeon.

It was time to head back up to the Tomb of the Firestaff and free the one and only weapon that could take this fucker on.

Up next:  golems and dragons and prayers, oh my!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 4: To Have and Behold

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Now that I'm leaning back in my study chair while stroking my chin and making deep thought faces, I can see that my Dungeon Master playthrough attempt consisted of three distinct stages.

The first stage is more or less what I've documented so far: the somewhat inept early-game revisiting of the first few levels that carried the most nostalgic baggage from my youth. I was basically a tourist in an aspect of my childhood, an aspect that also happened to contain horrible monsters that wanted nothing more than to rip off my head. This was the section of the game that is Dungeon Master to me.  This is what I talk about when I talk bout Dungeon Master.

Nothing like a room full of teleportation fields to test one's
 policy of avoiding online walkthroughs.
Once Zed and his companions entered level five--another branching level--I entered phase two, which consisted of me somewhat easily knocking out several levels that I still had some familiarity with, due to the map studying I did as a kid and the playthrough to level six that I witnessed back in 1987.  The challenges on these levels weren't exactly well known to me, but they still contained roots that traced back to my youth, however tenuously.

"Oh look, the teleportation room!" I said, as I encountered the teleportation room.

"Oh wow, flying snake things!" I said, as flying snake things killed all four of my champions.

Phase two also featured some backtracking to the screamer room on level four for training and food restocking. Oddly enough, though, once I had easy access to food I no longer found myself needed it, as my party somehow stopped burning through the stuff like a Japanese kid in a hotdog-eating contest.  Not even the enticing prospect of more screamer slices or dungeon floor apples could rouse up the appetite of Zed and company.

Rethinking occupational hazards while fighting a
 flying snake in a room full of pits.
Level five didn't throw up any excessively difficult barriers and my party made reasonably quick work of it. I remembered the pit room from my youth, and I also remembered my buddy fighting flying snakes in the middle of the fucking thing, a memory I was able to revisit multiple times when accidentally triggering a monster spawn point repeatedly.

"Do you men ever feel like we're slogging through the same fight over and over?"  Zed asked.

"I'm not a man," Wu Tse said.  "My character pic clearly has breasts."

"Sorry," Zed said.

"And fighting poisonous flying snakes is my favorite thing."

They reached level six, which contained beholders and skeletons, both of which were enjoyable monsters to fight (especially as neither poisons the party, a welcome relief after the party-poisoning poison party that was level five). Level six also held some personal nostalgic weight, as it was the last level I personally saw any of as a kid, as my buddy's playthrough was abandoned when we suffered a total party wipeout on level six and were then called to come upstairs and wash up for dinner.

My friend went on to eventually beat the game on his own, whereas I went on to keep playing the first couple levels over and over.

Until now.

It's odd revisiting a game nestled a good 25 years deep in my past. A child's developing brain tends to blow things cartoonishly out of proportion, and then the passing of time distorts things even further.

Taking on beholders in the odd-shaped pillared room.  The beholder's
open eye means something bad is about to happen.
A few years ago I visited San Francisco for the first time since my youth and it was a constant stream of uncovering memories long dormant and then finding reality smaller and more normal in comparison (although not exactly in a bad way). Oddly enough, returning to Dungeon Master as an adult provided a similar experience--this massive challenge from my youth was incredible and playable, but at the end of the day it was just a game. In much the same way that Chinatown is an (awesome) thin sliver of streets as opposed to the vast empire I perceived it to be as a kid, the open, odd-shaped pillared room on level six that killed my buddy's party proved to be just an (awesome) open, odd-shaped pillared room, as opposed to the mystery-shrouded chamber of genocide that I pored over on those BBS maps.

Now the room was an (awesome) open, odd-shaped pillared room that Zed and friends used as beholder target practice.  16 bit high-fives all around!

I really love what the dead skeletons have done with the place.
Anyway, we beat level six and quickly tracked back to the level four screamer room for a training session, at which point I discovered that training at the level four screamer room was no longer a worthwhile endeavor. My party had outgrown any real benefits the room granted, and so we said one final farewell to our first safe camping spot.

"There were too many screamer slices on the floor to find a good place to sleep, anyway," said Zed.

Level seven was mostly closed off, due to being the motherfukkin TOMB OF THE FIRESTAFF. I winked it a saucy "see you later" and descended to level eight, i.e. "The Arena."

Or, at least, it was called "The Arena" on those maps I studied as a kid, although the nickname doesn't seem to have survived the passage of time. Level eight originally held a lot of fascination for me due to its vast, open nature, despite (or due to) the fact that I never actually saw any of it firsthand. When flipping through the level maps as a kid it immediately jumped out at me, a massive, cavernous odd-level-out in a dungeon that otherwise seemed to be all snaking hallways and chambers.

"How can anyone even play this?" I wondered as a kid. "You're open on all sides!"

Party at the Arena, everyone is invited!
Well, as it turned out I can play this, and being open on all sides isn't that big a deal. The Arena was another Chinatown, with the staggeringly huge stadium of stone from my youth replaced with just one damn big room. The ghosts that wandered the level were dispatched easily enough with Zed and Elija's two vorpal blades, and the one giggler we encountered didn't steal a damn thing before death (which meant that I didn't yet really understand what an annoying plague they would soon come to be).

It was also on level eight that I noticed that monsters appear to scale up a bit, as we encountered some mummies--remember those?--that could take a fully juiced fireball and still shamble on toward us.

"Oh look at you!" Zed said. "All grown up and tough!"

"Not that tough," the mummies replied as they died.

It was also on level eight that I began to realize just what a monster Dungeon Master actually is, as opposed to the monster I perceived it to be as a kid.  The more I saw of the dungeon, the more I was impressed with the sheer size of the gauntlet that was thrown down when this game came out in 1987.

Dungeon Master was surprisingly well-realized for a first game in a series.  Often times it takes a sequel or two for developers to really figure out how far they can take things (e.g. Baldur's Gate), but Dungeon Master knocked it out of the park from the start. If you look at the other games that were current in 1987, DM could easily have cranked out a five hour experience and coasted by on the graphics and quasi-3D engine alone, and yet they crafted a deep, challenging dungeon that got increasingly weirder and less linear with each deeper floor.

Damage from the left, giggler in the front.
Despite a childhood spent poring over maps and an adulthood that featured no small amount of reminiscing online over a game that has been in discussion for 25 years, my current playthrough attempt still surprised me from time to time with moments of discovery.  It's pretty rare to revisit a thing loved in childhood and have it stand up, it's even more rare to go back and discover that the damn thing was even better than ever suspected.

Back in the heart of the dungeon, Zed and company made short work of level eight and found the stairs down. More importantly, though, they found a certain special key.

"My god," Zed said.  "It's--it's shaped like a skull."

"Maybe it goes in the skull carving over there with the keyhole in it," volunteered Boris, our diminutive, hobbit-like wizard..

"Oh gross," Zed replied.

Little did we know that this unassuming skeleton key would launch me into the third and final phase of my Dungeon Master playthrough attempt while simultaneously forever changing the game.

Up next: when Chaos drops by.