Wednesday, December 17, 2008

LNHFCOJ Update and Excerpt: Peter Potter Takes a Leak Again

I posted the first half of this chapter before, I went back to rework it and ended up polishing it a bit more, I did a lot of fiddling with the second half of the chapter. This chapter takes place at the scene of Mack's helicopter crash about a day after the fact. It's not one of my favorite chapters because it's mostly functional in the sense that it's meant to introduce Fritter and Adam's other platoon members and expand a bit on their personalities. I wanted to share this chapter in its entirety since I'd already shown part of it before. So once again, Peter Potter Tak


Chapter 6

Evening, Day 13: Peter Potter Takes a Leak


            Cowboy stood squarely with his rugged jeans and tall brown boots, beaming down on the wreckage. The ravaged palm grove stood nestled about his ankles. Soldiers scuttled through battered tree trunks and fallen fronds, diligently scouring the wreckage of the downed black hawk.

            The polished brass of his Texas-sized belt buckle glimmered in the fading touch of daylight. He offered a brisk tip of his hat to the receding sun on the western horizon.

            "Evenin' Miss," he said. With a faint quirk at the corner of his lips, he greeted the faint red star to his left.

            "You’re lookin' mighty fine tonight. Mighty fine." His mellow western charm coated the sky a placid salmon hue, which quickly purpled, and fell into the dark bluish gray tint of early evening. The moon shied away, hiding the pain of going unnoticed by her rustic companion.

            “Howdy Adam,” Cowboy said, peeling his sweat stained hat from the crown of his head. His mottled gray hair clung to the sides of his face. He placed his hat over his heart reverently. “see y’all are still pokin’ ‘round here. Any luck findin’ him?”

            Adam pressed his shoulder against the side of his platoon’s lead vehicle, and with his left hand he yanked the door latch upwards. The smell of stale air tinted with gun lubricants evacuated the interior of the Humvee. Adam moved the starter switch a single click to the right, and then pushed it all the way, electing not to acknowledge the recommended wait time prescribed in the maintenance manual. The engine cranked and turned, rumbling with the roaring hunger of a diesel fed dragon. Adam clicked on the headlights, illuminating the bent helicopter and the fluttering tips of the Union Jack that had intertwined with the rotor mechanisms atop the felled aircraft.

            Adam shook his head.

            “Nope. Not yet. It’s not looking good.” He said, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes. His eyes shot to the rippling waterway, scanning the illuminated areas for the slimy eyes, slippery tails and spiny fins of sea monsters. He didn’t see them.

            “Even if he survived the crash, there’s no way he could have escaped the serpents.” Adam said, reaching blindly for the plastic lighter in his other pocket.

            Adam was grimy from his chest to the toes of his boots with milk chocolate muck. Sweat ran in rivulets down his body, creeping through the fabric of his uniform and ballistic vest to mix with the waste from the irrigation ditches he had been skulking through. The river rose ominously before him in the fading glow of day, brown slowly fading to black as night’s grip tightened on the recovery site.

            “Reckon not.” Cowboy acknowledged, the hope in his face deflated, making the ruddy contours of his face seem flat and pale. He tucked a clump of chew in his mouth and began to work at it.

            “You need to turn the truck this way, Blue.” Specialist Peter Potter yelled from the fringe of the palm grove. Adam ignored him as he plucked a cigarette from the soggy hard pack. He dragged his thumb over the roller of the lighter, sparking a flame. He brought the burning lick of fire to the tip of the cigarette mashed between his lips. He shot out the first mouthful of fumes, ejecting smoke and spent lighter fluid. Then he drew inward, Adam filled himself with smoke as he rested his side against the steel plate bolted to the door of the truck.

            Peter Potter ambled with a practiced nonchalance towards Adam. He held his fore and middle fingers to his lips, using body language to confer his desire to smoke one of Adam’s cigarettes. Peter’s liberal upbringing had taught him to have a sense of entitlement to things which inherently belonged to others. The warmth of Adam’s heart had taught him to give things, which were inherently his, to those in need. In that regard, Adam and Peter got along swimmingly.

            Adam tossed the filthy pack of Camels to Peter.

            Peter pilfered a single length of tobacco, filter and paper. He brought it to his lips and struck his lighter to life. He took a long drag, closing his eyes behind the fashionable frames of his designer glasses. Peter handed the pack back to Adam as he stepped closer.

            “Can we get the lights over there? We need to be able to see where we’re wasting our time.” The conspiracy in Peter’s voice indicated that his vocalization of dissatisfaction was meant only to fill the short space between his face and Adam’s. Peter relished his secret rebellions, the moments he crafted for them were deeply satisfying expressions of his angst and generally characterized by whines thinly disguised with notes of sarcasm. Peter’s rampant disinterest in the mission was fueled by a life long and passionate apathy towards goal oriented activities. Peter was the product of a changing America. The country had become, over time, a place where those who could, often chose not to do. A place where those who wish they could, but couldn’t, believed they could anyway. The American dream had come to foster an environment where the stupid and talentless aspired to greatness, and the facile minority aspired to nothing more than a buzzing social commentary rooted in snobbish criticism. Peter was a lazy intellectual, with a haughty bone to pick with the institution that paid his bills. The government of the United States and every brain-dead soul that worked for it were in the cross-hairs of Peter’s jibes. He also had larger and less immediate issues with God. God didn’t seem to care.

             “Fuck it.” Adam said, trying to sound casual. He had bigger worries than the bellies of the muddy irrigation ditches. The bellies he was worried about had eyes, fangs and scales wrapped around them. For the sake of everyone, Adam would suffer his comrades to fumble in the dark while he kept watch against the unseen evils of the river Tigris.

            “Yeah, fuck it. I think we’re getting out of here soon, anyway.” Peter replied, shooting a jet of smoke from his nostrils. “This is bullshit, they had crew out here a half-hour after the crash and they didn’t find a damn thing. They wait twelve hours, bring us out and have us spend the whole day combing wreckage? What the fuck is that? Retarded.”

            “Fucking retarded.” Adam agreed half-heartedly.

            “Damn ol’ ungracious little pistol startin’ polecat.” Cowboy spat. “Got no respect for the goodness of folks. I’m half a hair off trackin’ down his pa and settin’ him straight for the wrongness he done raisin’ that boy. I’d set him straight by bustin’ his ribs, for one.”

            The moon plugged her ears and held her breath. Foul language and violence had a way of taking a toll on her, and she wanted nothing to do with any of it. She watched Cowboy shadowbox the sprawling emptiness of space, cussing and spitting Peter’s parentage. His spurs spun brightly as he stomped and growled. The moon waxed bright red as her cheeks bulged into the night. When he reached for his flask, she knew it was safe to surrender her guard, so she did.

            Cowboy tipped whiskey into his mouth, gulping twice before relaxing the bottle. He wiped his mustache clean with the sleeve of his checked shirt, and turned his ornery eyes on Peter who, for his part, was still being a prick.

            “I mean, who the hell cares?” Peter asked. He brushed the smoldering end of the cigarette against the side of the humvee, leaving an ashen streak across the armor. Peter cupped his mouth in his hand and pulled it down across his chin, his fingers dragging the sweaty sheen that had gathered around his lips away from his face.

            “I’m gonna go piss.”

Peter walked off. He trucked down the river bank towards a stand of reeds outside of the prying eyes of the humvee headlights. His M4 assault rifle bounced against his legs as it waggled in its sling.

            “If I’m not back in ten minutes… widen the search area.”

            “I hope them critters get him.” Cowboy said, his lips working effortlessly around the mouth of his flask. “Serve him right.”

            “What a horrible thing to say, Cowboy.” The moon admonished.

            “Serve him right all the same.” Cowboy snapped, knowing even as he said it, that it wasn’t true. No one deserved the cruel fate that befell anyone unfortunate enough to be eaten by sea monsters.

            “Hey guys! Bring it in!” Lieutenant Oliver Brenard called from the bank of the river. He turned his head to whisper into the handheld radio clasped to his vest. He started his walk up the path of light leading to the humvee.

            “Come on! Hurry the fuck up, people!”

            Soldiers from the company emerged from the palm grove, their gear dangling like Christmas ornaments from steel rings attached to their vests. Their faces were hollow with exhaustion as they formed a circle around the Lieutenant.

            “Alcott, make sure we got everybody. We’re rolling out. They’re bringing in a crane or something to pull that chopper out of the water. They want the area clear.”

            Sergeant Alcott shifted uneasily in his boots, as his ham fingers counted off the soldiers in his platoon.

            “We’re missing one.” He said.

            “Damn it, who? Think quick.” Oliver demanded, purposely not giving Alcott time to think.

            Alcott cringed, scratching at his armpits. His face contorted, causing his eyes to bulge more than usual behind his chunky plastic goggles.

            “Think quicker, you fucking moron.” Oliver said. He was young and in charge, and being of sound competence, he had the liberty of taking no pity on Sergeant Alcott’s struggles with the trappings of leadership.

            “Adam, help him.” The moon begged.

            Adam’s fingers tangled in the sling of his gun, wrestling with the all too intimate burden of his knowledge of Peter Potter’s bladder functions. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Peter tumbled out of the reeds. He was awkwardly shoving buttons through eye-holes to conceal his freshly drained crotch.

            Alcott, having been rescued by circumstances, found his confidence.

            “Potter, get over here!” He bellowed. “You trying to get yourself killed? Go ahead, wander off. See how long it takes you to walk into some shit. See how long it takes Al Qaeda to saw your fucking head off. I’ve got something for you when we get back to the FOB.”

            “It better be a fucking medal, Sergeant. ‘Cuz I’ve got something for you right now.” Peter said, a smug grin running the width between his dimpled cheeks. He held something between his thumb and forefinger, a sparkling something.

            “What? Medal? Shitbags don’t get medals.” Alcott replied, forgetting that he himself had been awarded several medals.

            “I don’t really want a medal you dipshit. Look at this.”

            “Potter, watch it... that dipshit you’re talking to is a Sergeant First Class.” Oliver mumbled.

“Goddamned right I am.” Alcott said, puffing his chest ineffectually within his armor.

            Peter glanced at Oliver, who glanced back at Peter, then they both looked to Alcott. Together, they shared a mutual sense of resignation: the Army was broken, and Alcott was material proof of a failing system. Peter held up his prize, shining in the headlamps, a glittering nugget.

“Shutup, dipshit.” Oliver turned back to Peter. “What’ve you got?”

            “It’s a tooth, a gold capped tooth.”

            “So?” Alcott’s face jerked involuntarily, having been none too subtly exposed as an incompetent, he struggled to lift himself back into a position of authority.

            “It’s Colonel Carrington’s tooth.”


            “I found it over there, on some rocks.” Peter said, pointing to the reeds.

            “The helicopter is over there.” Peter pointed in the opposite direction.


            “Fucking, Christ.” Oliver could take no more. “It means he probably isn’t dead. It means he could’ve walked away.”

            Hope filled Adam’s heart.

            “He did not leave the crash. He was spirited away.” A voice said, slithering into the circle. “He is likely… dead.”

            Lieutenant Colonel Fritter stalked towards the soldiers, his dark eyes dreaming reasons for Mack Carrington to be dead. His heart pumped for control, for mastery over the apparatus of military might just within his reach. He put a hand on Adam’s shoulder, and leaned close to his ear. His bifurcated tongue lashed loudly next to Adam’s face, splitting the atmosphere with the duplicitous lies of terrifying and false revelations.

            “It is evident, that the terrorists who shot down our Colonel have collected him as a trophy of their ill deeds. They are not ignorant of our rank structure. They saw the bird fixed upon his chest, and they stole him away. Colonel Ramirez was submerged, thus obfuscating his rank, which is why he was left behind,” to swell and pop and fester. “So while, indeed, Colonel Carrington may have made it over to yonder rocks, there is little evidence he did so of his own accord. He is,” rotting meat, “somewhere out there in that devil waste and it is our charge to find him. We shall not slack in our duty to return him,” in a box, “to those he loves,” picked clean to the bone by the wild scavengers, ”and the terrorists. What of them? We shall hunt them so long as,” it is required to maintain the air of concern and dignity,” hope exists.” Hope does not exist. “We shall search for him, as we do for all those brave souls gone missing in action.” The search will be in vain, “We shall be a,” false, “ray of hope for his wife and family,” thinking of his wailing widow, the tear dappled faces of his orphans, “in the bleak times to come. Your tenacious optimism is a credit to your high spirits,” but is grossly misplaced. “we will gather that strength and,” bend it to my villainous ends, forgetting all Mack Carrington taught you, “for good, we will endeavor to,” destroy, “a legacy of mercy and justice and,” under the auspices of,  “heroism, we shall encourage the establishment of things which might be called sacred,” in the wickedest way it can be said, ”this is our charge. We bear this burden for Colonel Mack Carrington” and we curse, “his love of country, his pride in fairness and his mentorship.”

Colonel Fritter’s malevolent voice betrayed the delight he took in smashing the hopes of others. When his mouth closed, his fangs still shone brightly between his parted lips, a reminder of the work his maw was meant to do: tear things apart. The circle was silent, helmeted heads, like tombstones, stood still in the warm fetid breeze rising off the Tigris.

            “Don’t believe them lies, Adam. He wants you dead inside, he wants you dead inside so he pull your insides out and look’em over. That sonofabitch is a schemer and schemers ain’t nothin’ if you’re somethin’.” Cowboy said, his hand sliding dangerously close to the ivory handle of the six-shooter strapped to his hip.

            “Mount up.” Oliver saluted Fritter quickly, and his hand springing for the latch of the passenger door.

            “Be safe.” Fritter looked hungrily at Adam Blue’s still hopeful eyes. “Let’s not have another accident.”

            “Roger, sir.” Oliver said, hastening into his position in the humvee.

            Adam scaled the hood, splitting his attention between getting into the gun turret, watching for the lurking serpents in the river and the pearly blades infesting Colonel Fritter’s mouth. He jumped into his fighting position, pulled on his gloves and checked the machine gun. Lastly, he velcroed his headset on. He was wired into the machine.

            Jane’s voice came through the earpieces.

            “Everyone good? Blue, you good up there?”

            “Yeah, I’m good.” Adam replied. He lit a cigarette as the humvee jumped forward.

            “You’re the best Adam. You really are. We love you.” The moon said.

            “Ah shucks, don’t go mistin’ the feller up with your female sensitivities. He needs to be concentratin’ on makin’ war and all.” Cowboy projected manliness across the great black chasm of the cosmos. His testosterone filled words flew freely in the wide reaches of space, bouncing against the effeminate twinkles of far away stars. More delicate celestial bodies pursed their lips and pouted indignantly at the thought of forbidding exclamations of love. Stars of all sorts were a generally romantic bunch, and most cringed at the thought that love of any sort might go unexpressed. Their sentimentality had risen from untold generations of lovelorn humans looking to them for hope.


            Across the countryside, on craggy roads, the convoy bumped and rattled. The city lights grew in the distance; sparse beads of golden light grew larger and whiter as the trucks rocketed toward them. First, the shanty town outskirts: sagging mud homes with rippled sheet-metal roofs, and chicken wire windows. Then there were the proper muhallas, proud neighborhoods with mosque minarets emerging up from the sea of flat-topped structures. The buildings were built of crumbling concrete and warped rails. Low electrical wiring dipped over muddy streets and alleyways. Small communities were separated by fields of garbage. The sweet stink of rotting waste wafted over low rooftops and cloth awnings. Arabic signs advertised mobile phone services, and warned parents of the dangers of letting children play with explosives. The city yawned in the night, engulfing the trucks.

            The flickering bars of fluorescent lights on the sides of the buildings lining Route Werewolf made the whole world seem desperate and clingy. The flash of the bulbs blasted into the gun-barrel darkness, igniting the gaps between the tightly packed hovels. Adam’s eyes shot in and out of the lit spaces, windows and thin corridors. Iraqi men and Iraqi women made lives in front of him, and he snatched precious glimpses into their alien worlds.

            Crouching in his turret, Adam was ready to react to, aim at, and gun down the enemy. The enemy had no name. Sometimes the people Adam worked with called the enemy Al Qaeda, or Jaysh Al-Islam, or Taweed Al-Jihad. No one was really sure who was who, people just looked like people to Adam. People looked unhappy. What Adam didn’t know is that people were the enemy, and at that very moment the enemy had plans. The enemy planned to say goodnight to its mother, smoke a cigarette and go to bed. It was 2300, by military account, and well past the bed time of the meat and potatoes of the insurgency. Young adults, Adam's age and younger, conspired to tuck themselves into warm beds and get cozy. They plotted their surrenders to heavy eyelids. They were all tuckered out from a long day of insurging... for some, visions of virgins danced in their heads. Others slept, but did not dream. Still, there were even more that would relive the nightmares of their lives, the horrible deaths of loved ones and adversaries alike. Adam was wide awake, peering up at the sky through his foggy goggles. He couldn't see to save his life.

            The 240-Bravo machinegun rattled and spun in the steel mount trying to break free of the cotter pin, the slender length of metal that kept death safely pointed in the right direction. Adam slammed a green glove into the top of the pin pounding it back into place, averting a small disaster. Adam wondered who, in the absence of Colonel Carrington, would keep death pointed in the right direction.

            “Nice helmet, you son of a turtle fucker.” A voice shouted from behind the muddy cloud of Adam's goggles. Adam reached a finger past his cheek and wiped the moisture off of his protective glasses. The starry night burst forth, and the shit talking star was exposed, a dishwater gray pinprick sullying the orchestrated grandeur of existence.

            “You look like your mother fucked a turtle!”

            There are over ten thousand stars visible to the human eye,

            “You hear me? Your mother fucked turtle! Your stupid helmet on your stupid head looks like a turtle shell, you get that?”

            "Now hold up a galldarn second there you rascal! The kid’s got a job to do and I'll be hornswaggled if I’m gonna let you get these folks killed with your bullshittin’.” Cowboy drew down on the rascal star. “Don't you reckon now’s a time to shut your galldarn mouth?" Cowboy said, tipping his imaginary hat back and waiting for his good old fashioned commonsense to take hold. He spat a wad of chewing tobacco into a black hole.

            "Well don't you reckon, you sonofabitch?"

            The rascal star had grown quiet, Adam could tell that he was actually reckoning at that very moment. It sounded like a power steering problem, and then the engine died. The truck coasted to the side of the road, and then over the curb and into a shallow ditch.

            "Fucking cunt, piece of shit truck, fuck!" Jane’s voice ripped open the intercom.

            "Fuck!" She yelped, trying to emphasize to no one in particular just how very pissed off she was.

            "That gal’s meaner than a man-eatin’ Injun." Cowboy marveled aloud.

            “Oh that’s not so, and you, you know that’s not true. Native Americans aren’t cannibals. That’s racist.” Said the moon, softly interjecting.

            “I swear I seen’em do it with my own two eyes, darlin’. I swear it, sure as Sunday, them Injuns were dancin’ around a cook fire what had some poor bastard on the spit.” Said Cowboy. His voice was filled with truth, but his memory was sopping wet with booze. He’d seen nothing of the sort.

            “Fuck this!” Jane hopped out of the truck into the ankle deep muck. The slick puddles of black water absorbed her weight and she kicked and splashed and sploshed and swore. The other two trucks in the convoy pulled into defensive positions, the other gunners spinning their turrets to create a fan of protective coverage. Weary soldier extracted themselves from the armored safety of their trucks to augment the hasty perimeter. They kneeled in the dark, rifles at the ready.

Jane stomped and raged, splashing mud as she lifted the hood of the truck. Adam grinned, as she fumed in smoldering acridness rising from the engine.

 “What the fuck are you smiling about Blue? You think it’s funny? Our fucking engine dies in the middle of fucking Baghdad and you want to have a fucking laugh? Is Potter down there tickling your goddamned balls or something?”

            “No, he’s not.” 

Jane growled inarticulately, curling her nose up into her skull as best she could to escape the combined stench of sewage and burnt oil.

            Adam peered over the top of the turret at Jane. 

            “Hey, Sergeant…”

            “What Blue? What the fuck?”

            “You’ve got shit on your face.”

            “I’m in a big fucking muddy ditch, Blue. We’re moving from one muddy fucking ditch to another. That’s all this fucking place is, a bunch of muddy fucking ditches and we’re just jumping in and out of them. Fuck this place.”

            “Yeah, but that’s not mud.”

            The one lesson that every soldier in Baghdad learned was that mud was never mud. Jane had forgotten.

            “Fuck these cocksucking ragheads.” Jane dragged her sleeve across her cheek, smearing the greasy sewage across her face and arm.

            “Now, there, that there’s somethin’ racist for you. Injuns is Injuns… but raghead? That’s just hateful. Arabs invented science and such.” Cowboy sucked at his whiskey, polishing off the bottle.

            The moon shrugged helplessly. She was not in the habit of distinguishing between schools of bigotry.

            “Apples and apples,” whispered the moon, “apples and apples.”

             ‘Raghead’ is what some of the people Adam worked with called Arabs. In fairness, the Arabs called the people Adam worked with some pretty awful things too. Mutual animosity flew wildly on either side of the language barrier. The understanding of misunderstanding prolonged the conflict but also kept its participants from fully understanding the depth of each other’s contempt, in that regard, it was useful in keeping heads from getting blown off.  

            Adam dug into his pocket. He pulled out his Camels, and stole a glance at the gutted carcass of cardboard and foil. Three cigarettes floated aimlessly inside. Adam liked cigarettes because they didn't make plans. They weren't going to college. They weren't going into the work force to do a job at a fair wage. They were tumbling towards oblivion, and Adam was happy to have them along for the ride.

            Adam lit a cigarette. It tasted like mud, which is to say, it tasted like shit.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fallout 3 - A Reflection On the Writing

“Closure, then, may be regarded as a modification of structure that makes stasis, or the absence of further continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing” –Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, Pg. 34


               We are not dogs. We do not eat kibble. We do not truckle cozily at slippered feet. Yet, the designers of Fallout 3 have created for its audience a vast interactive game of fetch. Retrieval and delivery style events in video games are a widely adopted design convention hailing back to the earliest computerized game artifacts. They are a staple of the video game designer’s repertoire and are especially vital to single player gaming. In most single player experiences the player is pitted against obstacles in a virtual environment in order to achieve a stated goal. Additionally, the acts of going and doing are key facets in maintaining a sense of interactivity within the game environment where even basic tasks need to have an air of importance or at the very least conceal their mundane nature. The use of the delivery and retrieval quest models within Fallout 3 is a direct response to technical and functional consideration of game development and game play; the text within the game is used primarily to camouflage functional structures of the design, complicate play and to compel the player to complete tasks that advance the game to conclusion; in this regard, storytelling elements typically become a tertiary reflection for the designers.

               Most games, including traditionally analog card and board games, include a delivery and retrieval aspect. In chess, a player drives pieces from one end of a board to another in order to trap or capture the opponent’s king. In poker, participants retrieve a series of random cards from the dealer and the player with the best combination of cards wins. Chess consists of a single delivery element: coordinating the movement of pieces to threaten the enemy king; the simplicity of the game is made more appealing by the complexity of strategies involved in placing the opponent in checkmate. In poker, the fetching element involves the retrieval of cards from the deck; play is structured around participants delivering valued tokens, or chips, into a betting pool and providing strategic obstacles for other players with the ultimate goal being to return a winning hand of cards to the deck and retrieve as many chips as possible. In both games, elements of play complicate and conceal rudimentary structural elements. In Fallout 3, character dialogs and supplementary texts serve a similar function: distracting the player from objectives determined by game play and design requirements. Most quests in Fallout 3 consist either of the player traveling to a location (thus delivering the player), or retrieving an object from a location. Both quest types are justified in a variety of ways related to the discovery of in-game landmarks and key non-player characters. The player is given explorative goals through information gleaned from conversations with non-player characters who serve as quest hubs. In this regard, the content of conversations is irrelevant provided it achieves the effect of informing the player of requirements and compelling the player in some way to desire the completion of quests.

               In the post-apocalyptic setting of Fallout 3, the player follows his or her father out of the safety of a massive underground bomb-shelter community known as Vault 101, and emerges in the rubble and wastes of an annihilated Washington D.C.. The irradiated Capital Wastelands are populated by human survivors and a variety of mutants, as well as two military organizations with conflicting goals regarding the fate of the local population. The initial sequences of the game occur within the Vault where the player is educated about Vault life and compelled to perform basic tasks. One of these moments involves the player receiving an air-pump pellet rifle from the father character and his or her education in the use of the weapon. The veneer of the father-child relationship is meant to conceal the fact that game designers are providing instruction to the player in the mechanical elements of game play. Additionally, the writing establishes the importance of this relationship with the intent of quickly resonating with an audience intimately familiar with the commonplace of the father-child dynamic. The convention of establishing familial bonds between the player and non-player characters is found commonly in games containing storytelling elements and helps to create a sense of immersion within the interactive environment in the hopes of assuring player interest in completing the mechanical objectives later introduced in the game. In this regard, the guideposts that Bazerman describes serve not just to facilitate meaningful communication between the writer and reader, but rather to translate functional design requirements into a language or mindset that is compelling or familiar to the player.

               One must also consider the investments made by the design studio in terms time and treasure. In the non-linear sandbox style environment of Fallout 3 it is easy for players to become lost or distracted while weaving between delivery and retrieval quests, locations, and quest or information hubs. In approaching the design of a game environment in which not all content will be explored by all players, the designers are forced to prioritize the investment of their time and resources and allocate the greatest commitment to those assets in the game which will be encountered by the greatest number of players. With this in mind, designers craft a main quest that players are forced to follow in order to advance the game to conclusion. The main quest yields the greatest return on the designer’s investment and is typically the best wrought portion of the game, showcasing the most significant aesthetic and narrative achievements. One of the immersive qualities of the game centers on in-game music that is delivered via radio to the character; Galaxy News Radio provides music and also main quest updates to the player in a long loop of audio. The radio functions as a sort alarm clock for the main plot reminding the player of what has already occurred, and prompting the player to remember his or her commitment to pursuing the game objectives in which the investment was placed. This is additionally, and probably better, evidenced in Fallout 3 by the employment of two prominent voice talents used exclusively in the main quest: Ron Perlman and Liam Neeson. Perlman narrates the prologue and epilogue of the game, as he has in the previous Fallout titles, voicing the overarching moral of the series: “War never changes.” Liam Neeson voices the player’s father, the object of pursuit in the early stages of game play, and later, a quest and information hub. The substantial financial commitment of hiring prominent voice talent means that talent has to be utilized in the most effective way possible, exposing as much of the content as possible to as many players as possible. In some cases, the game even breaks from its immersive player free agency and forces the player to stand still while Neeson’s character speaks, the player has no free agency during Perlman’s narratives. This removal of freedom performs two functions: it ensures that the most costly voice acting is received by the audience, and it reaffirms the importance of story elements meant to maintain player connection with the underlying game structure. The main quest can be seen not as an unraveling story, but rather a mechanical design in which the player retrieves audio snippets of Liam Neeson’s voice inside of the larger task of retrieving Ron Perlman’s vocal contributions. In this sense, the writing performs not just as a system of guideposts to translate the mechanics of the game design, but also illustrates the development of writing conventions in response to design conventions arising from the need for designers to justify their investments.

               The impression left by playing through Fallout 3 is that the writing lacked importance in the design process and was primarily reactive to that process in structure and style. It seems disingenuous considering that the marketing for the game is based on the uniqueness of its setting and the assumption that with that setting the player will be drawn into game propelled by its narrative as with previous Fallout titles. The first two installments of the series designed by Black Isle Studios were very writing centric, and the mechanics of design were largely built as a vessel around that writing. The third Fallout, designed by Bethesda Game Studios, abandons that philosophy and instead works to achieve mechanical efficiency by marrying the writing to design requirements. It is a common method in the game industry to design mechanics first and add story elements later and in that regard Bethesda adheres very tightly to established conventions, working within them to achieve guaranteed financial success with an artistically mediocre game (in terms of story). The legacy Fallout 3 inherits from earlier installments shows the effectiveness of breaking from design conventions in order to achieve an atypical result in the medium, in the case of Black Isle’s works: a compelling story experience inside of a game environment in which most other accepted design conventions remain intact. It was Black Isle’s ability to bend the rules of game design without breaking them that led to the artistic success and critical praise of their Fallout games. The achievements of the first two Fallout games were so significant that five years after the studio responsible for them closed its doors, ten years after the second installment and four years after the final spin-off from the intellectual property was published, the series still had enough credibility to warrant spawning another sequel. In the realm of video game design, that is as close as a game can come to being canonical in so far as Herrnstein-Smith attributes the quality to the endurance of a work. Fallout 3 as a storytelling vessel, on the other hand, does nothing to distinguish itself from established video game writing conventions; in fact, it does a poor job of hiding the architecture of its quest design and frequently fails at maintaining narrative consistency. The fact that there are at least two characters with strong foreign accents living in a populated American wasteland more than 200 years after nuclear holocaust seems improbable and violates the rules of the established setting. Additionally, within the main plot attached to the main quest the main villain actually dies halfway through the game in a cinematic sequence and then reappears later without any explanation of his resurrection, a fact that flatly breaks the flow of the narrative and illustrates the lack of commitment to telling a cohesive story on the part of the designers. At some point in Fallout 3’s design process, the most carefully fashioned portion of the game was left either unfinished or sloppily handled, a fact that does not speak to the care of the designers or their commitment to storytelling within the medium. The end of the game also occurs suddenly, the player is meant to choose the fate of the Capital Wastelands having located both a three-digit code to activate a massive water purification system and a poison to eradicate mutant life. At this point, the player has the choice of whether or not to use the poison and whether or not to enter the irradiated room where the console is located. In all the scenarios available, the game ends, Ron Perlman reads the epilogue and the player is deemed either a hero or a villain, and in most cases dead. The sudden and irreversible end of the game comes without warning.

               The problem with Fallout 3 is that the work its writing does centers on getting the player to swallow the pill of design conventions without offering a spoonful of sugar in the form of good storytelling. In that respect, Fallout 3 has done a fine job of giving me, as the audience, a sense of poetic closure in that I expect absolutely nothing from its designers after having finished the game. I suppose that could be considered a measure of their storytelling success, if the story in question was that of the Fallout series.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Some Assembly Required: Technical Challenges to the Art of Video Game Design

This is the first draft of a paper I wrote for my pop-culture writing class. It's also the first of a series of papers I'm planning to write on video game theory.


In spite of several decades of rapid development in the quality and content of video games, the development community struggles to be considered seriously as an art form. The constant technological evolution of the video game industry has both helped and hindered the artistic maturation of game development. Advancements in graphics rendering, computer processing, and memory storage capacity have increased the artistic potential of the medium by providing designers with ever more powerful tools with which to create virtual environments. However, the rate at which new technologies are integrated into the design process effectively prevents the creation of recognizable masterpieces within the collection of published video games. Without canonical standards against which to judge the final works of designers it is difficult to establish a method for the consistent measure of artistic value within the medium. 

The progression from the monochromatic, two-dimensional interactions of early games to the robust three-dimensional environments of modern games didn’t occur over night; however, when compared to the more lengthy history of better established art forms, the artistry of video game design is very much in its infancy. This is largely perceived as a lack of depth in the craft (or a lack of craft all together) when compared against concretely defined mediums. The relative youth of video game design and its capacity for imitating the functions of other media contributes to the somewhat tepid cultural reaction to the idea that video games can be art. Games often perform in a storytelling capacity similar to literature or film. However, because a video game is neither film nor literature its attempts to perform the same functions in an environment largely limited by technical capabilities rather than artistic vision seem profoundly lacking when compared to the canonical references of these other mediums. In spite of its vast quantity of text and deep story elements (when measured against other examples in the medium) the 2007 science fiction action-RPG Mass Effect pales in comparison to the literary incarnation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Both works are noted within their mediums for their relative length and depth, but when the question of their quality arises, Mass Effect is not seen in the same light as the more familiar incarnation of the science fiction epic. The developer Bioware considers itself the best video game writing company in the business, but when its writing stacks up against the flagship medium for the written form: the novel, its attempts at recreating the depth of a novelized fictional environment through the written word come off as unwieldy.  Popular video game critic Ben Croshaw highlights this in his December 2007 review, “Mass Effect is like an incontinent who just drank six bottles of Mountain Dew, so full to bursting with dialog that it leaks out at every turn” (Crowshaw). Setting aside Croshaw’s snide phrasing, he makes a nod to a much deeper flaw in the current incarnation of video games: the inability of developers to replicate through imitation the successes of other mediums. In this case, Mass Effect achieves immense quantities of text through dialogs and world-fleshing information, but the execution comes off as encyclopedic and forced when compared to the lengthy dalliances of more matured mediums. The inability of Mass Effect to compete with similar genre examples in other mediums can be seen as a failure of the developers as artists, but it is more likely that the relative failure is inherent to the medium. Due to the newness of the technology, there are far fewer cultural examples of successful video game science fiction epics than there are literary ones; therefore, the developers of Mass Effect had a much weaker catalog of experience regarding what is and is not effective within the art form when compared to their book-bound counterparts. 

Game designers thrive in a technologically stagnant environment. That is to say, software can only be developed if there is sufficient hardware capability to run the program. As a result, software development lags behind hardware development. The struggle of software designers to keep up with improvements in hardware capabilities is best evidenced in the game console market where the computing capacity only changes every five to seven years. During the life of a video game console, the quality of games increases as programmers come closer to reaching the maximum potential of the system. Historically speaking, the best examples of a console’s capabilities are generally seen at the end of its life cycle. The striking difference between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 is a result of game designers finding better and more efficient ways of pushing the Nintendo Entertainment System to its hardware limits. Over time, game programmers are able to identify and overcome problems, allowing them to refine both the technical and aesthetic conventions of console-based game design. In his essay Abstraction in the Video Game, video game theorist Mark J.P. Wolf describes an example of creative design used to circumnavigate restrictions imposed by early gaming hardware, “Memory and programming tricks helped game developers overcome limitations; for example, only four color-lum registers were available, meaning that a game character could only be one color. Some games, like Superman(1979) and E.T: The Extraterrestrial(1982) got around this by changing the color luminosity values on a line-by-line basis, which allowed characters to be multiple colors, although any given horizontal line of pixels had to be the same color; a stylistic limitation due to the way the monitor scans the image on the screen. Graphics complexity, then, was often a sign of programming prowess and graphics evolved as programmers tried to outdo each other”(Wolf, 56). This anecdotal account of software innovation demonstrates how the human element of design can achieve a level of artistry not inherently made obvious by the stated capabilities of the gaming platform. Video game consoles are important to the game industry because they provide a brief period of hardware stagnation which allows for artistic stability; the resourcefulness of designers trying to surpass the artistic boundaries set by hardware limitations promotes programming efficiency and imagination in the design process. 

The availability of gaming hardware can also limit the level of artistic expression in the medium. If video games were limited to personal computers the design market would likely be much more volatile given the disparity between the processing powers of machines available to potential players on the market. A chief complaint amongst prospective purchasers of computer games is the variation of system requirements. A company designing a video game for the computer is compelled to make the best possible game with available technology; unfortunately, the technology available to a video game developer is typically more advanced than the technology available to the average gamer. Tim Holman, a senior producer for Relic Entertainment, defined the obvious problems with designing software for a non-existent hardware community in an interview with the online magazine Edge. “If you make a game with such high-end requirements that only people with a $6,000 PC can play it at a decent framerate, of course your sales are going to drop” (Graft). The effect of audience accessibility can create artificial limitations in the design process resulting in a product which is artistically inferior to what the designer is capable of producing. In this regard, traditional video game consoles perform another important function: ensuring technological compatibility between those producing video games and those playing them. The negative to guaranteed hardware and software compatibility is that more powerful software cannot be introduced until the end of a console life cycle. So the industry is often forced to choose between security of product compatibility and technological innovation when choosing a platform on which to release a game. Additionally, the added time of adapting a game to multiple platforms can cause delays which, when anticipated decrease the amount of time devoted to content generation, and when unanticipated, can cause a game release to be postponed. Essentially, the adage about the tree falling in the woods is very relevant to the video game industry, since a game cannot be successful within the medium if there are no players capable or willing to play it and thus able to appreciate its artistry. In this regard, the designer’s choice of specific hardware or software can have a direct impact on how the game is received critically and by the general public, or whether it is received at all.

The combination of rapid technological advancement and the limitations imposed by existing hardware capabilities compounds the difficulties of creating art within the virtual environment of the video game. Whether it is a lack of effective design conventions to respond to technical limitations or to meaningfully communicate the artistic vision of the designer, the video game as a medium is not devoid of artistic potential. Two unaffiliated game designers provide remarkably similar answers to the question of whether video games can be considered art. Montgomery Markland, a professional video game designer with Obsidian Entertainment, responded: “The fact that developers can choose to ignore the artistic possibilities of the medium does not impute an impossibility of artistry to the video game any more than the fact that a painter can choose to paint a house rather than a canvas. Video games are art when designed to be art, as is true of any other form of human expression” (Markland). The debate over whether the artistic elements of a video game are a response to a utilitarian need for entertainment or an artistic expression by virtue of the fact that artistic decisions are made in their production is further explored by Jonathan Blow, an independent game designer; in an interview with Game Informer Magazine he likened the creative decisions made during the process of designing a laptop to the creative process of designing a game marketed solely for its ability to respond to functional exigencies (Blow). In both cases, the implication is that the burden of proving the artfulness of a particular game resides in the intentions and capabilities of its creators. Likewise, neither designer discounts the production of games within the medium which do not constitute artful expression.  This speaks to flexibility of the medium in so far that it is understood that the advancement of technology provides tools capable of accomplishing a variety of goals for a multitude of designers with differing philosophies and agendas.  It is therefore necessary to acknowledge genre within the landscape of game design so as to recognize the impetus for the use of technology in the creation of specific digital environments.

With the acceptance that video game design is new relative to other forms of art and the strong influence wielded by a developer’s intentions towards the nature of the final product; one is left to consider the actual nuts and bolts of game design and how these factor into the realization of an artistic vision in an accelerated technological arena. As previously stated, the life of a successful video game console is a fairly brief window of time, and the life of relevant personal computer hardware can be even more fleeting. As a result, game developers are forced to complete their works inside of a short timeframe, mastering skills and applying whatever conventions they have at their disposal towards a final product release. The act of fully realizing a digital world piece by piece is no small task, and as the computing elements surrounding that task grow to accommodate greater amounts of environmental nuance more development time is required to generate the aesthetic elements. Even in many of the most communally lauded games this results in a shifting of design focus towards the production of more polished surface elements in order to maintain the veneer of technical relevance. While increased emphasis on visual art assets does not preclude a game from becoming art; the purpose of those artistic decisions can easily slide from the creative to the utilitarian and can also have detrimental effects on other elements of design as more time and resources are devoted to them. One of the quirks of video game design is that increasing the scope of any one aspect of design can seem simple while exponentially compound the workload associated with another aspect. Within the video game design community this is commonly referred to as “feature creep”; as more ideas and assets are integrated into the game, the focus of the project shifts from accomplishing the original stated goals to accommodating technical or artistic additions. “Feature creep is partly a result of the somewhat evolutionary process of videogame development, and partly a result of the constructivist nature of the product, in which technological features and content can be easily added during the course of development” (Tschang, 123). The expansion of a virtual environment immediately demands that the environment be populated with visual art assets, scripted events, and in many cases non-player character driven dialog. A developer can approach the consistent population of this expanded space within the timeframe of the project in one of two ways: either by reassigning time and resources devoted to the deepening of existing assets, or by increasing the size of the development team to handle the additional workload. Both options have the end result of diminishing the potential artistic depth of a game through diffusion of development resources or the delegation of carrying out an artistic vision to a greater number of people. As technological expectations swell in the video game industry, the paradigm of the auteur developer withers for the sake of a more practical and democratic design philosophy.

Due to technical advancements some design conventions become obsolete, either as a result of changing capabilities or changing user and industry expectations. The shifting morphology of design challenges the formation of assumptions about how games should be made. “In spite of the complexity of game artifacts and player experience, much of the design activity at game companies has traditionally been conducted as an intuitive process” (Knez, Niedenthal). Without a widely held understanding or presumption of how games should be made, the realization and establishment of useful canonical references within the medium becomes difficult. An art community existing in a canonical vacuum suffers from a lack of reference points around which to form sound design philosophies and critical opinions. This can encourage innovation by eliminating dogmatic approaches to design issues; it can also stifle innovation by forcing developers to imitate financial success in lieu of advancing or pioneering potentially superior, but unproven techniques. Until such a point that video game technology plateaus, the architecture of video game design will remain in flux and at the mercy of technical considerations. Artistry, in many cases, will remain a secondary consideration in the design process. The medium of video games is not broken per se, but some additional assembly may be required before it is culturally embraced as an avenue of artistic expression. 

Works Cited

Croshaw, Ben, Zero Punctuation: Mass Effect The Escapist, Web. 19 Dec. 2007, 10 Nov. 2008."  .

Wolf, Mark J.P., and Perron, Bernard, eds. The Video Game Theory Reader Florington, KY.: Routledge, 2003

Graft, Kris, PC Devs “Shoot Themselves In the Foot” Edge, Web. 6 Nov. 2008, 10 Nov. 2008..

Markland, Montgomery. “Re: Video Games as Art Statement” E-mail to the author. 27 Oct. 2008.

Blow, Jonathon, “The Vanguard” Game Informer Nov. 2008: 42-44

Tschang, F. Ted “Videogames as Interactive Experiential Products and Their Manner of Development” International Journal of Innovation Management 9.1 (2005)

Knez, Igor, and Niedenthal, Simon, “Lighting in Digital Game Worlds: Effects on Affect and Play Performance” CyberPsychology and Behavior 11.2 (2008)


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Life in the Valley: Michael Jackson, King of the Undead

Since his 1964 debut as a member of the family R&B act The Jackson Five, Michael Jackson has established himself as a fixture in international popular culture. His solo career, opening with a major success in 1979’s Off the Wall album, has spanned nearly thirty years of music. His fame reached its height from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, during which time he was a significant musical, cultural and economic force. The intensity of his media exposure through tabloid press has, over the last fifteen years, transformed Jackson into a public spectacle. The combination of Michael Jackson’s progressively anti-social behavior, legal problems, obvious eccentricities and hyper-real elements inherent to the genre of tabloid magazines has effectively transformed him into something less than human, an object. This objectification has made it publically permissible to treat him as less than human, stripping him of privacy, consideration, and respect typically seen as inherently deserved by all people. Michael Jackson serves as an excellent example of the dehumanization of celebrities by tabloid magazines given the height of his success and the level of criticism and public scrutiny he has been subjected to over the years.

In the early 1970s a theory was proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to explain why, in many cases, as a robot becomes more human-like in appearance or quality the human reaction to the robot becomes more positive, until such a point that a robot becomes unsettlingly inhuman where positive reaction suddenly drops off and becomes negative until such a point that the robot becomes indistinguishable from a human. When given numeric value, and charted on a graph, that representative space where human similarity is most resented, and given to negative response is called the uncanny valley. (MacDorman, Minato)  The idea of the uncanny valley has been adopted beyond the field of robotics to explain human attachment or aversion to artificial representations of human beings in a virtual environment. Viewed broadly in the context of the hyper-real virtual environment of tabloid magazines it is possible to draw a correlation between the commoditization and objectification of celebrities and the public acceptance of their mistreatment, exploitation and ridicule when examined as a real world manifestation of the uncanny valley.

In a hyper-real environment in which images or symbols achieve a level of importance or cultural tangibility greater than the original subject, it is possible for the actual identity of a person to become subordinate to the characterization presented in images and text. The print medium itself alters the tactile relationship between the humans involved: the ability to open and close a page or to completely abandon an article. It gives the reader the ability to control a representation of another human whose social standing likely outstrips their own. The ability to control and view a celebrity as an uninvited voyeur facilitates the process of objectification and defies normal social barriers. In this regard, the reader is imbued with a sort of omniscience in relation to the life and activities of the celebrity which acts as a limited form of pseudo-deification through the elimination of real class, social and physical threshholds within the liminoid space occupied by both the reader and the representation.

The characterization of the subject, whether viewed positively or negatively in light of the media coverage can determine which way the subject is moved along the slope of the uncanny valley. Assuming that all humans start off being considered human, the negative or positive elements of media coverage can make them seem either less than human or more human than humanly possible. In both circumstances, the subject is no longer considered a participant in the human experience. The end product of the tabloid magazine is designed to make it easy for the reader to forget the chain of events and production decisions that change a flesh and blood human being into an ink and paper publication on a supermarket rack. The process is not subtle, in fact Us Weekly magazine acknowledges this transformation when it reminds its readers every issue of the humanity of its subjects with its segment Just Like Us, featuring pictures of notable persons taking out the garbage or carrying groceries. In a sense, the public chooses to forget that soylent green is people… as advertised.

Placing the rise and fall of Michael Jackson’s career and persona on the slope of the uncanny valley, one can visually represent the process of dehumanization that occurs in tabloid press and the media at large. During the height of his career in the 1980s, he was propelled to superhuman status, complete with personal theme park. During that period his persona was virtually unassailable. With the rise of his legal troubles relating to child-molestation and financial problems, coupled with his apparent obsession with plastic-surgery, he was easily pushed backwards along the slope of the uncanny valley into the realm of sub-humanity. Because of negative tabloid coverage and his obvious physical changes, it is easy to imagine Michael Jackson as a freak of modern medicine, prowling for virginal young boys in his personal hunting reserve of roller-coasters, exotic animals and cotton candy. It is easier still to forget that he is a troubled human being. Putting aside Jackon’s celebrity status and the allegations of child-abuse, the tabloid’s exploitative media coverage of his changing physical appearance, whether due to vitiligo or cosmetic surgery addiction or what have you, it would be disgusting outside of the permissive environment of celebrity gossip. The ability to unrepentantly attack Jackson’s strange appearance facilitates the tabloid process of separating him from the human experience.

Tabloid magazines are ultimately propelled by their profit margins, the level of sensationalism or degree of personal violation is irrelevant in the face of the raw economics. The tabloids are selling their magazines, their ad space, the distorted representations of celebrities, but most importantly they are selling their own tabloid culture. This, naturally, brings us back to Us Weekly’s Just Like Us Feature, the implication being that if they are just like us, then we are just like them and therefore it is possible transcend our social origins and join the ranks of the supposedly revered. In his book Hello I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity author Hal Niedzviecki describes the mass desire to become famous, “More and more people want to be special and noticed, and we want to create bigger, and better narratives, but our approach is to imitate established practices.”(Niedzviecki, 8) When the corporate entities responsible for this recognition of celebrity humanity publish Just Like Us they are not reminding us of how these representations are human; they are baiting a snare to snatch away our humanity. The dishonesty is found in the misdirection, “they” are just like “us”, so if “we” act like “them” then we can be famous too. The tabloid pitch is not a complete lie; inevitably new celebrities do rise from the masses, and that’s just fresh meat for the media grinder. Chuck Klosterman documents the intense personal toll of “living like a rock star” over a period of just 21 days in his book Killing Yourself to Live. He ruined entire portions of his life emulating the tabloid caricatures, and he didn’t even have the paparazzi egging him on and documenting his shortcomings. Even those who don’t become celebrities will strive to be like them, act like them and consume like them. Clothing, cars, makeup, haircuts these are the things the tabloids tell the public that separate “us” from “them” because it is certainly not taking out the garbage, everyone takes out the garbage. In that regard, celebrities are not the only victims of the tabloid magazines industry’s dehumanizing tactics, the general population suffers too. Celebrities are just bait in a trap at the bottom of the uncanny valley, tempting us to teeter on the precipice of what it means to be human and what it means to be humane to one another.

In the public eye, Michael Jackson has become a macabre curiosity. I find it ironic that the music video that propelled Michael Jackson to superstar status, Thriller, ultimately served as an omen of his fate. He has effectively, over the years, through poor personal choices and rabidly aggressive tabloid coverage become an inhuman creature, singing and dancing at the forefront of a pack of hopeful young celebrities and would-be celebrities falling to pieces under the pressure of popular culture’s most vicious manifestation: waiting room reading fodder. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Seeing Red

Like every great noir mystery my story starts in a smoky hotel room, the sheets are rumpled and a single lamp lights the space from a cluttered desk. Only the room isn’t smoky, and the lamp isn’t on. There is no red-lipped seductress. It’s just that, for the sake of a good mystery, you really should include things like that: noir things. It wasn’t raining, I’m not even sure if it was cloudy. To say that it started in a dark hotel room on a clear autumn night would be okay, but lying in bed with a beautiful woman is more scintillating a start than lying in bed with itchy feet. Oh how they itched, taunting me. I’m a natural born hypochondriac, so my first thought is that I’ve somehow contracted athlete’s foot from walking around barefoot in my discount hotel room. I lie there, rubbing the heel of one foot over the toes of the other, scratching, wondering, building a case for flesh eating bacteria, for leprosy. The muscle relaxers kick in and I fall asleep.


The next morning I wake up, prepared to pee on my feet. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you have athlete’s foot, you’re supposed to pee on yourself. I have no idea if it cures leprosy, but I’m in the business of not taking chances, so I attack with the tools at hand. Years of conditioning fly out the window and I’m angling a stream of hot urine at my little piggies. I’m standing there, trying to get the angle right when I notice the spots on top of my feet, it isn’t athlete’s foot. I’ve peed all over myself for nothing. I rinse the piss off and step out of the shower, standing in front of the mirror I can see the rash, running across my shoulders in pink speckles and climbing the sides of my neck. My cheeks are flushed, and I know the rash is there too. At least I didn’t pee on my face.


Ideally, I’d have recognized the symptoms of an allergic reaction the night before, when I was in bed cycling through my overdeveloped mental medical dictionary trying to diagnose my ailment. Ideally, I would have brought the allergy medication with me that the doctor had prescribed when I got hives three weeks before. Instead, my allergic reaction has had a full night to spread and I’m almost three hours away from my Benadryl caplets. So I pack up and head out, wave goodbye to Hagerstown Maryland, a town which can only be described as a strip mall with gray human landfill growing out of its ass-end. I get as far as Harrisburg before I realize that I need instantaneous medication, the rash has spread over my whole face and its bright red and burning. Not quite noir lipstick red, but definitely sunburn red. I pulled into a gas station and made haste to the medical rack, purchased an antihistamine, filled the tank, and pondered the lotto. Fuck the lotto.


I got home, took another pill, ate lunch, drank a beer and went to sleep.


So what am I allergic to? I’m not sure yet, but that soft-shell crab is a likely culprit. Apples are also in the mix. I can probably live without shellfish, but what if its regular fish too? Tuna? There goes the neighborhood. My first hive breakout came at the tail-end of an anti-biotic regimen. Honestly, I preferred the idea of being allergic to the lifesaving medicine.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Thanks to Monica and Alejandra for their contributions to the evening.

My debate live-blogging buddy. She showed up late, but she demanded beer. I understood.

My not-watching-the-debate live-blogging the buddy

Live Blogging the Vice Presidential Debate

Alright, for those of you who don't know... as if anyone typically reads this... I'm going to be live blogging the Vice Presidential debate tonight. If you want to comment, chat or get a hold of me, then here are the approved methods of communication...

AIM: Renaissance Oz

Let that blogging begin.


8:46pm: We are t-minus fifteen minutes and I'm running to the store to score some antacids. I'm foregoing the prescription muscle relaxers tonight on account of the fact that I'm planning to provide top-notch political commentary... or crack jokes. Either way, I want to be on my game as I slide toward the blurry abyss of inebriation. Of course, maybe when you look into the blurry abyss, the blurry abyss looks into you. Ask John McCain.


9:02pm: Turned to WHYY Philadelphia public television. They're still working the pregame. Now they're introducing, and I could give a crap.


9:13pm: "Can I call you Joe?" she asks... can I call you Joe? 

Economic crisis

Joe opens with typical thanks to venue, all that shit. Appeals to the middle class, doesn't threaten to shoot his running mate. Good start.

Sarah is a little weaker, she talks a little bit about children's soccer games. Kisses John McCains ass and talks up McCains approach to the economic crisis... which, aside from suspending his campaign, is exactly the same as Barack Obama's.

Joe goes on the attack and points out McCain's inconsistent response to the crisis.

Sara rebukes him pretty soundly, but left herself open to some pretty obvious slap downs. Her attack of Obama's record of voting 96% on party lines begs to be countered with McCain's record of voting 95% with George Bush. Her analysis of the economic crisis is over simplified and she does a lot of sweetly put rebuking of the financial fat cats. She's not really offering any sort of solution or insight.


9:15pm: Joe had a swift counter of Sara's attack on Obama's tax raising record by claiming that McCain raised taxes in the same vote.  

Sara touted her mayoral record of cutting and killing taxes. Who the hell cares? She followed with her record as Governor, but honestly she's in her first term so how much could she REALLY have done?

Joe plays to the middle class again.

Sara calls him out, uses the term "redistribution of wealth" smart move. America hates a Commie. On that note, let's nuke China. We can practice on Cuba.

9:20pm: Joe attacks the redistribution of wealth comment, but doesn't deny it. Not smart, Joe. He almost accused John McCain of being Barack Obama. That could make for a confusing election. If Obama's running mate can't figure out which ticket he's on


9:28pm: New drinking rules posted. Look above. My poison is Victory Brewing Company's Golden Monkey, a Belgian style tripel, wonderful taste and 9.5% alcohol by volume. It's a strong brew, and delicious too.


Global Warming

9:30pm: Sara skirts around it, she can't say that she doesn't believe in Global Warming. Grow some balls. What I want to know is if she believes in dinosaurs. Let's address the important issues. She has a strong history of fighting climate change, blah blah. Other countries did it.

Joe believes in man-made Global Warming, the polar icecap is melting, but the cookie dough icecream is doing dandy. China did it! Joe Biden wants to send the Chinese clean coal technology. You know, whenever someone sends government funded energy technology to China we throw their asses in jail. Joe, don't go that road.

Sara responds, "drill, baby, drill!" that's mature. I like how she quoted Biden there, her use of his use of the word "rape" was a nice follow on to "drill, baby, drill!"


9:35pm: Joe says "John supports everything" there has been no truer statement in this campaign.


Same Sex Marriage

9:36pm: Joe likes gay marriage, implies that he might be hot for Obama.

Sara likes gay marriage unless it means that gay people get married. She uses the word tolerant a lot, nice cover Valerie Plame.

Joe DOES NOT support gay marriage, but thinks they should be able have sex in hospital waiting rooms. He said it.




Iraq, Pakistan and Iran

9:42pm: Joe says no free rides for iraqi asshats. We're giving them a bunch of money, and they're making a bunch of money. Time to cut them off.

Sara points out Bidens own big mouth. Promoted from Captain to Major Obvious.


9:47pm: EVERYBODY DRINK TWICE! Ahmedenijibab!

Sara Palin nucular. Let the legacy of mispronunciation continue.


9:50pm: Sara pounces on the Obama no preconditions policy. I'm actually for it. I don't think sanctions are making anyone warm to us. She brings up the wiping Israel off the face of the Earth quote. I'll find the NPR interview with the official American translator of Ahmedinejabberwocky that correctly translates that statement as "Israel will fade from the pages of history." Big F'ing difference.

Joe brings the pain.  He just schooled Saracuda on the Iranian command structure.


9:55pm: Sara promises that the Republican ticket isn't George Bush. Change is coming, buzz word.

Joe attacks McCain's foreign policy similarities with GW. He wants America to be respected. Machiavelli wants America to be feared. Barack Obama wants a cigarette.


10:00pm: Sara says that counterinsurgency can work in Afghanistan... then why isn't it?


10:02pm: I'd love to set a rule that makes Bosniak a drinkable word... but I don't think it's worth even typing.


10:03pm: SLAM A BEER!

The format for this debate is killing the excitement. I'd like to see these two kids go at eachother's throats.


10:06pm: Monica just got here, a little late.

Joe says that Obama knew from the start but that he was an idiot.


Whatcha gonna do if John McCain keels or some racist blows Obama's brains out?

I don't understand why Biden's administration should be that much different than Obama's.  Joe slips off topic and starts talking about 1932. McCain remembers 1932, he disagrees with Joe's tangent.


10:13pm: Everyone gets extra-credit tonight. I'm emailing my professors.

Sara: "Of course we know what a Vice President does!"

Thank goodness.


10:15pm: Joe Biden has a history of getting things done. He also has a history of staying stupid shit.


Tell me your weakness!

10:18pm: I can answer this for both candidates. "I don't have any weakness." 

Sara has a special needs child? Bullshit. She just had that baby. What special needs does he have? Changing diapers? Boob milk? Come on... babies eat and shit, that's it. Tell me about your special needs child in 10 years.


10:18pm:Joe Biden talks about the death of his wife and daughter. Gets choked up, holds it in. Man rules abided by. I approve.

Drinking game abandoned. This system moves too slow.

For some reason when Sara was talking about how many shots John McCain takes in Washington... I couldn't help but think of porn.

10:27pm: Fuck it, muscle relaxers down the hatch. 

Joe Biden just said the most profoundly compelling thing of the evening I think. He talked about the good intentions of most people who choose to serve their country in congress. I agree whole heartedly.

Sara echoes bipartisanship, and quickly changes topic. It just seemed like a thin response in the wake of that.


Closing statements

10:29pm: I like you Joe. I hate being picked apart by the main stream media. Quote Ronald Reagan... is she running for class President? Wow, that was terrible.

Joe opens up with some excellent weight, speaks to the American people directly and somberly. Amazing, all the way up to the shout out to the troops. 


1035pm: New York Times columnist David Brooks has a very low threshhold of entertainment.

I'm sure on Fox News Sean Hannity is acting like a douche bag. Somewhere, somehow.

The debate was boring, it was safe.

10:55pm: My final conclusion? The first half of the debate was pretty tame, but Biden broke out in the second half and out human-being'd Palin. He hit all the marks with solemness and gravity. A lot of people will say that Sarah Palin won by not getting smeared into the turf, but that's not good enough. I walked into this expecting her to get spanked barring a massive fumble by Biden. So, good job VP candidates for not screwing the pooch tonight. Sara, you didn't ramble incoherently, Joe... you didn't threaten to counter-invade Mexico.

I felt like tonight really just checked some boxes, with the exception of a few standout moments  where Biden broke ahead of the two person pack. The debate format ultimately reigned both candidates in and created a safe zone where neither of them could scuttle their ticket. Yay?