Best Games - Choplifter!
The best early 8-bit computer games did a lot with a little. They were written for computers built around MOS 6502 or Zilog Z80 processors. Moderately powerful chips at the time, but still absolutely dwarfed by the comparatively monstrous boards and chips in most arcade machines.
There was never any hope that the graphics of an Apple II would come anywhere near to the graphics of a contemporary arcade machine. The frame rate would never be as smooth. The sound would never be as rich and full. An Apple II computer can do a wide variety of things, but being a match for any arcade machine would never be one of them.
Maybe this is why a lot of the greatest innovations in gameplay arrived on computers first. If you can’t match them on razzle dazzle, you better be able to make the game interesting in other ways.
Choplifter! is a rare breed of game where the main objective is something ancillary to the main verbs the player has available.
If I told you that you are controlling a helicopter that can fly quickly or slowly, pitch up or down, fly backward or forward, rotate to face in one of three directions, and it can shoot in any of them, what would you imagine the main game objective would be? If you picked flying around and shooting, I wouldn’t be surprised. It seems obvious that the player would use those verbs to play the game.
Other than flying, you don’t really need any of them. It would be possible to play, and win Choplifter! never firing a shot and never rotating the helicopter.
The main objective of Choplifter! Is to save as many captured prisoners of war as you possibly can. Not all, not a set amount. As many as you can. Maybe that’s only one. Maybe that’s all of them. Honestly, that’s up to you. The game only demands that you save as many as you can.
You could fly out, land, pick up prisoners, and take them back, while never engaging with any other verb in the game. Never pressing a button on the controller. It wouldn’t be as much fun, but you could do it.
Add to that, all the small interactions in the game. There are tanks, airplanes, and depending on the version you play, ground based cannons, and some sort of drone unit. You can choose to fight them or avoid them, and most of the time it’s best to just avoid them. You can shoot open the prison huts, or get a tank to do it for you. Prisoners can be killed by tank fire, missiles from airplanes, your own shots, or just by landing on them.
The best part about all of this interactivity is, you don’t really need to engage with any of it to play the game. You will, because it’s fun, but you don’t need to. How you play the game is left to you.
This is really what I mean when I say ‘did a lot with a little’. Sure, the processors and memory of those 8-bit computers were laughably small by comparison to today, or even the arcade machines of the time, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Here is a game that is about a single objective. Rescue prisoners. But the way you go about doing that is extremely nuanced. You can shoot every enemy, or never shoot at all. You can pick up as many prisoners as your chopper can hold, or you can make dozens of small trips. The game doesn’t care. There are a lot of tools here, and you can use them however you like.
Choplifter! Lets you decide how you will play it, and that’s almost always a recipe for the best games.
Okay. Three weeks. Three stories under 1000 words.
While I don’t think that it’s getting any easier to write these things, I think, at least the last one, is a bit better than the others.
Just like anything, if you practice a little, you get more comfortable with it.
Gauging the pace of these sub 1000 word stories is tricky, but I think that’s the part I am getting better at. I like to open stories rather slowly. Give the reader lots of time to acclimatize and get into whatever it is I am writing. That’s not really a great way to write a story that only takes a few minutes to read. I still had to trim a little to get under the word count, but not over 200 words like the first week.
So, what do I hope to learn by writing these? In such a tight word count, I can’t be flowery or wander too far. I have to make sure my dialog gets to the point, or if I’m doing my job right, several points. I’m learning to echo concepts, without, I hope, making the text repetitive. I’m learning that I can go from concept to finished story in a handful of hours, and I can do it repeatably. Reliably.
I think that all of these stories will require several passes and probably more than a handful of additional words before they are ready to send out, but they are done. They are self-contained, functional stories.
I think that’s all I really aspire to write.
Best Games Albums - Geddon Dangerous by Doublegeddon
Normally this is the place for games, best games even. I’m just going to drop a link here. If you are going to read this, you should at least have a listen to one of the best albums of last year.
While you could just listen to this music and enjoy the blend of power metal and new wave synths, I don’t know if you would get the whole experience.
There are a lot of concept albums, but there are fewer concept bands, and only a tiny handful that make good music. Only really Ghost and Gorillaz come to mind.
To sum up, Doublegeddon is, at least by their descriptions, two 5000 year old Sumerian demigods who have re-emerged from the 7th dimension to play metal music. One lives on the moon and one lives in Antarctica. Since one hates heat and the other hates oxygen, it works out.
I’m a sucker for satirical lore. Doublegeddon has it in spades.
If you would like another link, here is an interview they did with a metal magazine.
All of their songs are similarly silly, but with a narrative consistency that speaks to some real writing talent. The lyrics of Revenge of the Vampire sounds like a bunch of metal tropes laid end to end, but it’s not just nonsense. The song tells a story. It’s a goofy story, but it’s fun, and good, and most important, well told.
None of these songs are just tossed out there. The musical skill is obvious, but there is some real songwriting skill on display as well. Writing almost forty minutes of good music in service of a joke is worthy of applause.
Jokes aside, Geddon Dangerous is just a really listenable album from end to end. I have put it on several times this year, and I will probably listen to is several more.
I look forward to whatever they do next.
I just tried writing my first flash fiction. Flash is a story that is typically under 1000 words, but I have read that some people consider anything under 2500 words flash fiction. A while ago I tried writing a drabble, that’s a story exactly 100 words in length. Here’s something that might seem counterintuitive. Writing short is very hard.
The story I wrote is less than 750 words, but I made sure that it had as many parts of a story as I could cram in there. There are defined characters, a goal, stakes, and a twist ending that seems obvious in retrospect. You know, story stuff.
Packing any of that into 750 words is really tricky. This post is more than 400 words and I am only telling you about the story. I write outlines longer than 750 words.
Flash fiction seems to be a popular format. Easily devoured by readers during a break or on their phone, but still long enough to deliver a compelling tale. I see a lot of other writers selling them. I don’t know if I’m going to be among them. It’s just really hard. I function better with a bit of room to breath. I often find getting under 5000 words to be difficult.
The obvious question would be, if it’s hard and I like writing longer stories, why try writing a flash story. The obvious, and correct answer, would be why not. You don’t learn anything by not trying.
I think I will try a few more in the coming weeks. I will probably find that I need to expand these stories quite a lot before I feel happy with them. On the upside, it seems to only take a day or two to write a 750 word story. That’s a far cry from the weeks or months that I spend on my more than 5000 word stories. To be perfectly clear though, it might be a small word count and a short time, but it does feel much more difficult than writing a longer story.
Unfortunately, like always, I won’t be posting them here, unless I really can’t see any way to sell them. I would like to. I would rather just post up anything that I write, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the publishing world works.
Until it does, I suppose you will just have to be satisfied with these vague descriptions of what I am writing.
Hopefully, in the near future, I can let you know about actual published stories I may or may not have coming out.
Are you supposed to make resolutions for the new year? I don’t really do that. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I don’t really see the point.
To be clear, it’s not the resolutions, or the idea of making a promise to yourself and sticking to it. I love that sort of thing. I just don’t understand the timing.
This blog was a resolution of sorts. I wanted to write. I wanted to get better at writing. I decided that if, at the very least, I wrote one small thing every week, that would be good enough. I have continued to write, at least once a week, for ten years.
Has it made me a better writer? Difficult to say. It has done this though. Now, I can write on demand. I can sit down and start writing. I don’t have any delusions that the muses will work through me, or that I need to wait for inspiration. Writing, like drawing, is a practice of work. It’s a thing you do and a process for doing it. The piece of writing you have at the end of that practice may or may not be good, but making something good instantly, and without revision, isn’t the point. That’s not writing.
Drawing is a process of building up lines, finding the best lines in the noise, and refining those. 3D modeling is a process of building up forms, finding the best shapes in the noise, and refining those. There is a process for these practices that moves from undefined to precise in both of those arts. The only way to know how to select the precise shapes from the noise is by practicing. Moving through the process over and over and over again.
Writing, it would seem, is much the same. You do it over and over and over and you get used to finding forms in the noise. The only way to do that is practice. Moving through the process. You resolve to do it. It’s not a goal. It’s a constant and unending practice.
It doesn’t matter when you start, but there is no end. That’s a resolution, at least for me. So, for this year, I think I will continue to do what I have been doing.
Maybe I will draw a little more.
It’s Boxing Day where I’m at. I hope anyone reading this had, or is having, a great holiday. See you next week.
This past week, I sold one story and received a request for edits on another.
While that is pretty cool, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk vaguely about editing.
There is no guarantee that I will sell that second story, but they seemed to like most of it. They had some problems with the flow of the story and how it would work for their particular venue. I agree with them. I hadn’t written it with them in mind, but for the way they work, there is a better configuration for this story.
I don’t know how other writers approach editing words, but I have done a lot of video and image editing, so it may come as no surprise, I work in a similar way with text. I like to take big chunks of story and reposition them on the page as if it were an editing timeline. Then I might pick individual words, phrases, or lines from one spot and move them to another, just to see how they would fit. I float paragraphs into gaps I have made and polish over the seams. That’s just the way my brain works now. It has spent far too much time dealing with the visual side of storytelling and if I can provide it with a metaphor it understands, dealing with language goes much smoother.
It was very heavily implied in the request for edits that some writers might not want to change anything about their stories. I get that, but my brain is also extremely used to making changes and revisions based on client requests. It’s practically my default state. Making the first thing is difficult, but making changes is conceptually so much simpler for me. Again, this is absolutely from the point of view of someone who has been a commercial artist for decades at this point.
Just like anyone, there are things I value in my stories, places where I won’t compromise, but I don’t think it’s out of some sort of quest for artistic purity. I always want to make whatever I’m working on better. If the suggestion or criticism could make the image or animation or story I’m working on better, I will almost always want to do that. If it breaks something core to the story, or changes it in a way that isn’t making it better, I think I would be more inclined to dig my heels in.
I don’t think that ‘going back to the drawing board’ is a thing that exists. People have too many internal biases and preconceptions. Once they see one version of a thing, erasing that and starting over truly fresh is not possible. That first experience will continue through the entire process. As will the second and third. Even if the final result doesn’t resemble the initial idea, there is no escaping it. The only real way to edit anything is by moving forward through the process. Every change and revision, even deleting something, is forward movement. Not because that sounds like good motivational poster fodder, but because the past impacts the future. What you did before, what you saw before, what you wrote or read before, will change the ultimate result of your work.
All of this is the long way of saying, I sort of like editing. It’s like having a lot of clay to work with and only during the editing process do you start to define forms and clarify details. And it works with my brain better than coming up with the initial ideas.
I’ll stop writing this and go back to editing.
Let's talk about stealing. Stealing ideas. It’s what I do. If you write or code or make art or create anything, you probably steal too.
I have written here several times about stealing game ideas from past games I have played. Writing is no different.
When I write, I steal.
I have probably read several hundred comic books, honestly, it could be thousands. Comic books, movies, and TV shows. More than anything else, these are the ideas I mine to fill my stories. Usually not the good stories either. I’m not going to write my version of that one amazing Twilight Zone episode. I excavate the mine of the ones that could have been. The attempts that were partially successful. The seeds of ideas that never were.
Almost every story I have written starts out with me trying to finish a story that never was. Some bit of a comic that I thought was interesting, but never explored. Some part of an anime that would have gone in a totally different direction had the creators tried to adhere to some sort of realism. I mean, I’m glad they didn’t. I watched whatever anime it happened to be so that I could see giant robots or punch wizards battle, but what a story it would be if they had just followed that other interesting thread.
This is what I like to steal. Those ideas barely motioned toward and abandoned. What would happen if those stories were told fully.
By the time I finish a story, that original seed of an idea is barely recognizable. Sometimes it has been excised completely. Maybe there would be a few other people who know where the original idea came from, but most of them are so thoroughly modified by the end that it would be pretty difficult to puzzle it out.
I have a suspicion that this is how a lot of writers work. There have been a solid handful of excellent stories I have read recently that I could pretty easily point to what inspired them. That I could identify what they stole from didn’t make the stories worse. In fact, sometimes it made them better. More relatable. More grounded.
Everyone does the armchair quarterback routine when they see or read something that doesn’t quite live up to the seed idea. Something that could have been a little better if the creator had only done that one thing that you thought of.
While that probably isn’t entirely true, I think this is the place that a lot of writers come from. What would I do if this was my story. The difference between writers and non-writers is only that the first group actually try it out. They write their version. They tell the story they way they would, even if the core idea is stolen from something else.
So this is my direct endorsement for anyone reading this to go out and steal. Was there a bit of an old Star Trek or Columbo episode that you wish they had fleshed out? Write that story. Is there a bit of a comic or game or radio play that you can’t shake, but no one else ever seems to care about it? Write that story. Run down that thread.
If you don’t make the thing that you want to see, it’s unlikely anyone else will. They are too busy stealing from some little bit of story they can’t let go. Go out and steal something for yourself.
Best Games - Pitfall II : Lost Caverns
1984 was a weird year for video games in North America. Atari was the dominant player in the industry by an extremely wide margin, and they were absolutely failing. Arcades were still popular, but some of the shine was coming off. Games were changing, becoming more complex. The hobby wasn’t for everyone anymore. It was less accessible. Less inviting. Pong was a distant memory, and even Pac-Man had fallen out of fashion. Nintendo had already sold millions of Famicom consoles, and they hadn’t even released outside of Japan. Home computers had never been more popular. The industry was simultaneously dead, dying, or poised to become the most lucrative entertainment industry in the world, depending on who you asked.
As it turns out, it was the last one.
Game developers never stopped. For all the talk of a market crash around this time, the innovation and creation of new video game experiences just kept rolling.
Pitfall! Had been a real technical and artistic achievement. The Atari VCS wasn’t exactly known for beautiful games. If a few blocks could move their way around a TV screen, that was achievement enough. If you went looking for legitimately pretty Atari VCS games, it might just be Pitfall! and River Raid.
Pitfall! was a fairly simple game. Almost a proof of concept. A little stick man could be made to run across the screen in either direction dodging traps and jumping over obstacles. It was an adventure, in as far as it contained all the trappings of adventures. Dangerous pits, deadly creatures, swinging on a vine. Ultimately, though, there is no real adventure in the game. Just a series of procedurally generated screens for you to move through.
Pitfall II is astounding for the time and a technical marvel for the platform. A year before Super Mario Bros. Pitfall II presented a true adventure. A game that reveals itself over many attempts and failures. The opening few screens of Pitfall II are unlike anything else on the Atari VCS. It teaches you how to play. How to explore. How the game will unfold. You will have to take risks. You will have setbacks, but those will teach you what to do on the next run.
There are checkpoints that you will return to over and over. Reaching a new checkpoint is extremely satisfying. It’s similar to finding a bonfire in a souls game. You now have an anchor, but you know that the next leg of the adventure will only grow more difficult.
Pitfall II is an adventure game. Maybe one of the first. As you play through the game, attempting to retrieve some lost treasure while rescuing your niece and pet mountain lion, you will engage in an amazing variety of adventurey type activities. Every time you come across a new mechanic or a clever new environmental puzzle, it will be surprising and ingenious. All of this on a tiny Atari VCS cartridge.
Because of when it was released, during the decline of Atari and right before the rise of Nintendo, Pitfall II is a game that was destined to be lost. It was ported to other machines, but never with the same magic. Something about the stark block color images and clean, precise gameplay make Pitfall II rise above almost all other games of it’s era.
If you haven’t played it, and you probably haven’t, you should give Pitfall II a try. It’s one of the best games.
It won’t happen right away, but sometime soon, this blog will change. I’ve been undertaking the slow process of moving it to a new home for a while. It will look different, because, well, everything needs a change sometime. It will work in a slightly different way. If anyone is subscribed through rss I will try to make it seamless, or at least provide some forewarning before everything changes.
There is one other change that will be the biggest one, at least for me. This blog may not post every Monday like it has in the past. Usually it will. I am moving from a web based hosting wysiwyg editor to a markdown based system. That in itself isn’t a big problem. I can deal with writing a few markdown tags. The problem might be that if I happen to not have a usable dev environment available on any given Monday, or I haven’t managed to schedule my post beforehand, they might not get posted up until I get back to my pc.
I know that not many people read this blog. Most likely, no one will notice if a post goes up on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m not too worried about it. I think I like the idea that I will have more freedom with how I create posts. Sometimes I might have to be okay with them not getting posted at the same time every week.
Regardless of when posts go up, I still plan on posting once a week until further notice. This post marks 526 weeks. That’s over 10 years. If I was going to quit writing, I would have done it a long time ago.