Quote of the Moment

Maybe you’re just imagining that you have a good imagination.
- from ConceptArt.Org forums

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Story - Chapter 1 Preview (LONG)

Okay, so I finally hit Chapter 5 in the second draft. As promised, I'm going to be sending out beta-review versions. But first, I thought I'd post Chapter 1 (Draft 2) to give you volunteers an idea of what the story is all about (the plot, the characters, the world, the general state of my writing) before I send anything. If, for whatever reason, you don't think you can take any more, do not feel obligated to beta-read just because you blindly agreed to it. The purpose of this post is simply to let you know what you're in for. I would just as soon not force anyone to read anything they just didn't care for, and if it looks like too much trouble, please, let me know now. Once someone starts beta-reading, I'd just as soon they stayed a beta-reader until the potentially bitter end, so bail now if you think you ougtta. (And, yes, in Word it's all nice and double-spaced.)

So, without further ado...

THE STORY - PART 1 of ??

1

The dragon came to Drekketon on a gold-lit twilight, just one of a number of late stragglers hurrying to reach their destinations before sunset. Pausing outside the northern gates, Rhethra looked up to the clouds with a sigh. The breeze smelled of wood smoke and brine, churned earth, filth and grease, the stench of a city. Beneath it all, the faint, honey-sweet scent of gold wafted from the flags snapping fitfully over the city gates, the official badges of office of the guards. She savored that promise of gold, lost in a dragonish dream of distant caverns and long-lost hoards. Her moment of inattention nearly got her run over by a heavily-laden trader’s cart. She stepped aside as the driver goaded his road-weary horses through the city gates, keeping her shoulders hunched beneath her pack and her hood pulled down as the man tossed a tired, half-hearted curse at her; he, too, had been on the road all day, and hardly had the energy of his poor animals. In escaping him, she nearly ran into a burly Northblood guardsman – filthy barbarian, she thought out of reflex – dressed in the shining gold, red, and black livery of the god-king’s capital city. He muttered something under his breath about tourists watching where they were going. In the darkening twilight, she hardly had to concentrate to see the irritation and malice flashing about him like black lightning. One thick hand reached for the short sword on his belt, his thick jaw clenching beneath his ragged brown beard. Rhethra drew herself up and fixed her blue-violet gaze on him, gold flecks flashing through a rainbow of colors in less time than it took to blink. A moment later, the guard turned and walked away, the strange traveler completely forgotten.
Fool! Stay alert! You’re too close now for stupid mistakes like that, she chided herself, resuming her slumped, road-weary walk, made all the more authentic by the very real drain from even that brief burst of power.
Despite the warmth of the day that lingered into evening, she dared not remove her hooded travel cloak, dared not straighten her back-aching posture. Her height was an anachronism in today’s Drekketon; here and now, the women were usually shorter than the men, who themselves rarely stood higher than her chin. Her hair, too, was rarely seen, black with shimmers of deep gold iridescence where the light touched it. The Oldkin race whose form she wore, once rulers when this was the shining Starpraise City, were all but extinct, their blood thinned by time and waves of conquerors come to usurp their glory. Aside from rare tricks of birth, no Oldkin walked their former homeland, their elegant tongue forgotten by short-lived, savage human minds, their great achievements lost forever save for twisted fragments left behind in stories and moldering books. In time, even those would fade, and the Oldkin would be little more than a fairy tale, as they almost were now.
She stopped to rest in a quiet byway, her centuries of life heavy on her shoulders, barely noting the rush of people passing by. Races and tongues from across the land of Eter, united under the rule of Holy Adalius, tamer of Goldenscale the Mighty, son of the gods, proven heir to the southern Sky-Crown and northern Throne of Bears, the eastern Pearl Mantle and western City of Stars… this very city, under an elder name. These and countless other titles and honors, the holiest of holies of every race and nation, belonged now to Adalius or none at all, struck down as false idols and symbols of evil. Even the Oldkin in their might had never done that much; in their time, this shining city wouldn’t have held even a quarter of the nationalities she saw in just a few minutes. Some called the unification a miracle, yet further proof of his divine powers. Some thought otherwise, but few were foolish enough to speak such thoughts aloud. Who in their right mind would speak out against a god who walked the very earth, especially a god with a tame dragon at his beck and call? She shook her head. It would be so much easier, what she meant to do, if the whole of the known world weren’t under his flag, if she had come here fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago.
If I hadn’t had to come here at all, she thought, overcome by a wave of self-pity and hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed by the crush of humanity she saw, heard, smelled, and tasted all around her.
With a quiet growl, Rhethra pulled herself together. However terrible the circumstances, however poor her timing, she was here, virtually on the god-king’s doorstep. It was too late for second thoughts now. Besides, she had had the same arguments with herself countless times before, and not once had it helped her situation.
Thinking of Adalius, her eyes were drawn irresistibly to the castle which loomed over the town, perched on a ragged spur of stone jutting out into Drake Harbor. A great temple had once stood there, a shining place of peace and learning, not a dark monument to oppression and war. Doubtless the Oldkin temple’s bones formed the foundation of that very castle, itself the work of so many subsequent invaders it was impossible to identify any dominant style save the blocky, Boryalis-styled figures on the god-king’s flags flying from every tower. The saints of the god-king’s gospels stared down benevolently from those flags, dominated by the recurrent images of the great dragon Goldenscale bowing in submission and the serene god-king himself. A true blasphemy, those flags, for Rhethra knew more about the god-king Adalius and his dragon than his worshippers would ever know, more than they would ever believe. It seemed, like the rest of Drekketon, a hideous insult to the shining temple city she dimly remembered, an ogre gnawing on the bones of a unicorn. Filled with a renewed sense of righteousness and willpower, Rhethra lifted her pack and set out into the streets again. The sky, a brilliant show of gold and sapphire that the oblivious humans around her hardly noticed, beckoned again with a whisper of warm breeze. It was, she thought wistfully, a perfect night for flying. Her eyes drifted to the castle again, and she wondered if her brother ever thought the same thing.

- + -

Talarne wasn’t sure at first that he had seen it. He had been fooled before, as had others. His magesight, though better than most Oldkin of today, was still far less reliable than it had been in his ancestors, still came when he wasn’t looking for it and vanished almost as soon as he realized it was there, like a shy alley cat startled from street scraps. But he had seen it, of that he was – he must be – certain.
What, exactly, had he seen? It seemed like an ordinary confrontation at first, a tired traveler from the Dolphin Sea Road stumbling into a Drekketon guardsman. Normally, she would be lucky if she only lost her coins to the guard, especially as she was a poor lady traveling alone; the god-king favored security that benefited him, not necessarily his populace, and so long as deaths were kept to a minimum the guards tended to do as they wished to the voiceless lower classes. Had Talarne not been so far away, had he not had his own reasons for avoiding the Drekketon guard, he would have intervened. He was, after all, a sworn Knight-Defender of the Realm, and while the realm he was sworn to defend hadn’t officially belonged to his people for centuries, he nevertheless was fully prepared to uphold its ideals. As it was, he could only watch from the shadows near the gate, frustrated by his inability to act, whispering a prayer of protection to Lord Sky-Bright-Blade in the hopes that his people’s gods would more kindly disposed to the defenseless woman than Adalius. Then… It all happened so fast he almost missed it. The woman turned to the guard and… changed. She seemed in an instant taller, stronger, more than a match for an entire garrison, let alone one lowly guard. Was it his magesight, a trick of reflection, or had there been an actual flash of light in her eyes, a golden glow around her like the rays of the setting sun? Talarne may have doubted his magesight, but there was no doubting that the guardsman walked away as if he had never met her. He never finished his prayer, thunderstruck. Nobody was that lucky, with or without the gods’ help. Nobody, except perhaps…
The blessed shall always know her through the grace of their gifts, for bright and golden as the gods’ own blood is the light within the Lady of the Mountain, Daughter of the Sky Lords… Just as the holy writings described her. Talarne blinked and found that his magesight had again abandoned him; looking to the woman, he saw only another anonymous traveler.
He narrowed his silver-flecked pale green eyes, trying to will his special vision back, but it stayed hidden as it usually did when he tried too hard to summon his inner powers. Holy gifts, his heart-father called them. Elesorne said they were the mark of the divine blessing that had long ago been given to his Oldkin ancestors, a great honor and reason for pride, but it was hard not to be frustrated with such a fickle gift, even if it did come down through his blood from the gods’ own hands. He scowled, fists clenching, then forced himself to regain control, a task that required more effort than he cared to admit to himself. How long had he trained to learn that skill, and how often did it still elude him?
Talarne finally spotted the woman again; in his moment of inattention, she seemed to have vanished into the crowd, and only careful, concentrated searching allowed him to find her. She certainly looked like just another dusty traveler, come to Drekketon as so many did to shop at the harborside markets for exotic wares, board a ship in the harbor to seek her fortune in another part of Eter, or come on pilgrimage to the capital of the holy empire. Maybe she was even an early comer for the annual sacrifices, a savvy tourist who knew how early the inns filled and how high the innkeepers raised their prices.
On further study, Talarne dismissed the easy explanations. She was, for one, unusually tall. It was impossible to judge her true height as it was obscured, deliberately it seemed, by the sack she carried, the patched brown hooded cloak she kept on despite the evening heat (though she was not alone in this oddity – many who came from warmer climates found even summer in Drekketon a touch nippy, so close to the sea), the posture she forced on herself. He guessed that she might even be as tall as he, a good six feet, which was rare enough for men of most races but almost unheard-of for women in this day and age, especially this far north. As she walked, an occasional lock of long, loosely-waved hair slipped free from her hood, but in the evening light it was difficult to see clearly before she hastily hid it again; another cause for notice to him, used as he was to hiding his own dark hair with charcoal powder, lest its peculiar silver iridescence mark him as Oldkin. The fingers that hid the hair were long and slender, like his own. In and of itself, that was hardly noteworthy – the women of several races had long, slender fingers – but added to the rest it made an impressive stack of circumstantial evidence. If only he could see her face, her eyes, her spirit light, described so vividly, if maddeningly poetically, in the Blessed Books of his people… if only his cursed holy gifts would wake again.
His logical side had to admit that, aside from that incident with the guard, there was almost nothing specifically remarkable about her. Even if she was Oldkin, it didn’t mean much on the surface. Though rare, purebloods did turn up now and again, to the terror and suspicion of many an unblessed parent; Talarne himself had unmarked parents, as did most others of the True Clan. Despite that, something in him, some tickling perhaps of his holy gifts, some intuition of his own, told him she was more than just an undiscovered Oldkin traveling incognito. She was the one he and the rest had been waiting for generations. If she was… it would change everything. Not just his own mission, but the world.
He thought immediately of Elesorne. Surely he would want to know. Surely he, with his magesight more reliable than Talarne’s, his grasp of history second to none, his wisdom greater than the holy scribes, would settle things once and for all, whether his long watch had finally paid off or his own impatience had tricked him again. He had half-turned down the alley where he stood before he stopped himself, forced himself to wait. If she was the one he and his kind had been waiting for, he told himself sternly, there would be plenty of time to summon his heart-father later. She wouldn’t be going anywhere he couldn’t follow – she couldn’t go anywhere in Drekketon he didn’t know about, unless she walked to the bottom of Drake Harbor or jumped through a fairy hole into another world – so follow he would. Blending with the city crowds with an ease borne of long practice, Talarne slipped into the streets.

- + -

Adalius stood at the tower’s edge, arms folded across his broad, muscular chest, thick brows furrowed, rich golden hair rippling in the evening breeze where it was free of its braids and his jeweled golden helm. He showed the broad, stern warrior’s features of a man from rugged Boryalis mixed with the impressive height of an Allobyrth clansman and the dusky-gold tan of the southern Syrinai, among other, subtler influences, but in truth was none of those races, as his name and deep royal blue eyes betrayed. Even those could be explained; his name came from the fading tongue of the Syrinai’s Great Southern Empire, which itself had held this very city for a paltry few hundred years in ages past, and the peculiar deep blue of his eyes was not unheard of in some eastern races, though to find all these traits embodied in one man was indeed rare. Deliberately so; he had taken great pains to create this image, spent centuries honing it to perfection. Everything a human would think of a hero, a king, a god, no matter their nation or blood, was reflected in his appearance.
The humans knew him as a god-king, and he certainly looked the part, a great towering figure of superhuman strength and magnificence. Who would doubt his divinity, after all? Had he not walked among them for over a thousand years, untouched by time? Did not his holy powers bring peace to the land and smite enemies and rebellion wherever they dared show themselves? Had his divine will not tamed the great Goldenscale the Mighty, the last dragon in the known world, living now in the forbidding mountain that loomed darkly over Drekketon?
Goldenscale the Mighty. He grinned to himself, eyes flashing. Not his real name, of course. He himself was the last living creature who knew that, and more and more lately even he thought of himself as Adalius or Goldenscale instead, with none calling him otherwise save in dreams and memory. The human name was fine enough to suit him. He couldn’t have picked a grander one had he been the one to pen the stories, might in fact have taken vengeance upon any who tried to change it. What names had his brothers and sisters ever earned to compare, in dragon tongue or human lore? His lip quirked in an odd smile, a twinge of memory, perhaps – would he admit it to himself – pain or regret, quickly smothered. Not that it mattered. He was the last of them. With no other dragons to tell him otherwise, he was what he wished to be, and that was what he was now: a god over the world, ruler of rulers. There were none now to challenge him, save the highly unlikely arrival of an opponent from another world, where dragons still lived; the sheer number of worlds, the remoteness of this one, made that possibility laughably negligible. Besides, it took powerful dragon magic to travel the Ways Between, enough to wake his every nerve even if they appeared on the far side of the planet. So what, he wondered, troubled him? Why was he pacing his castle, nostrils stinging with the salt-tinged wind, instead of down in his magnificent chambers, listening to the songs of his eternal glory? Something drew him here, some gut instinct, and the dragon who ignored his instincts rarely lived long enough to regret it. He stared north, thinking, as the torches on the darkening streets below blossomed with feeble flames.
Another rebellion in the making, perhaps? Possible, though he made enough of an example of rebels that few sane humans would dare follow in their footsteps. There were always grumblings, naturally. Humans always grumbled about discontent – they seemed happier when they had something to grumble about than when they actually were content – but few took those words as far as action. Those who did had a hard time rallying enough support to do more than disturb the peaceful grumbling of their fellows. For all their talk, their songs and stories, their passionate speeches and heart-rending poetry, what most humans valued above all else was the familiar, the safe, the path trod by many before. With their brief lives, it was almost pathetically easy to establish such a path, that generations would follow as mindlessly as the cattle they herded to the slaughter shed. No, rebellion wasn’t on the wind tonight.
Enemy attack? Not from this land, and the only other continent he knew of on this planet was primitive and unpleasant even by human standards, riddled with innumerable ways for even a dragon to die, hardly worth the bother to trade with when the seas let his ships reach their shores at all. Adalius knew he would probably have to conquer even that worthless place eventually, if only to give his restless troops something to do, but that time wouldn’t come for at least a hundred years, longer if he could help it. Even if there were foreign enemies approaching, they, like the rebels, were no real worry. His minions practically fell over themselves for the honor of dying in his holy name. It sometimes seemed the harder task to convince them to kill a few enemies before becoming a martyr. Humans. Maybe they thought so little of their lives because they were granted so little of it. Shaking his head, he dismissed the idea of enemies looming on the horizon.
Insurrection by his own priests? Even more unlikely than rebellion. Adalius kept his high clergy firmly in his mind’s talons, using them to in turn keep control of the next level of priests, all the way down to the lowest acolytes, and through them the whole of his empire. The price of his godly touch was often insanity and suicide, their fragile human minds finally cracking as their god-king’s grip tightened, but as he had decreed that self sacrifice was one of the greatest gifts an aging priest could give to show their piety – a stroke of genius, that – it only begged attention when they hesitated to kill themselves. Usually, they were helped along to the Golden Lands by their fellows. He smiled again, pleased by his own cleverness. Mutiny, then, was a virtual impossibility. Adalius dismissed the thought with barely a blink, returned his gaze to his city stretched out beneath him like a trophy animal lashed down for the chief hunter to claim as his own kill.
His reign was absolute, though it had only been absolute over the land for the past two hundred years. Maybe in another few centuries he would be truly secure. His control of his human followers was likewise absolute. If all did not yet truly believe in his divine origins, none were bold enough to dismiss them outright, and with time and successive generations born and raised under his doctrines even that token resistance would vanish. So what bothered him? What was left?
He had but one mystery in his life, he admitted. The other last dragon in the world, the one even humans never took note of. She bothered him not as a serious threat, but as an irritating unknown. Every so often his restless mind would worry at the matter as a scholar might puzzle over an obscure rambling by an ancient prophet, determined to squeeze some Great Answer from it. Rhethra had been the runt of the clutch, the last-hatched female as her shell name declared, fallen from a flawed egg, no less. It always amazed him that his father hadn’t crushed the egg as soon as it was obvious that the surface was cracked, but drakes were rarely left to hatch and rear clutches on their own, and he may well have lacked the instincts to kill even an inferior offspring. Adalius had only vague memories of her, usually fleeing, as befit her lowly status. So far as he knew, she had never taken a crest name; perhaps, coming from a cracked egg, she had never developed a crest, never become a mature drakess, never lain deep in the earth on a dream-nest of silver and quartz to find her true name. Since she clearly hadn’t the ability to gather, let alone hold onto, a strong enough hoard to permit interworld passage, he knew she must still be here, but where?
Maddeningly inaccurate though human stories tended to be concerning his kind – most of the fools called almost any oversized reptile a dragon, even wyverns, an insult which could earn an unwary minstrel death if sung in his royal court – at least they provided some way of tracking his clutchmates’ movements, but she had never merited a single verse in her honor. He had only heard whispers of her passage from his brothers and sisters. Few spoke to her willingly, and the rest sometimes found her lurking at the edges of their land, often in some cowardly animal form, though she rarely stayed once she was discovered. It was only after he had killed his last clutchmate that he realized Rhethra the runt was unaccounted for; so far as he could determine, she had effectively dropped off the surface of the world centuries ago.
Adalius’s favorite theory was that Rhethra had starved to death, living as she had on scraps of land in the unseen corners of her siblings’ territories, allowed to exist so long as she drew no notice and didn’t outstay her welcome. She had probably even died in a false form, which explained why her bones had never drawn notice. Still, his mind couldn’t let go of the possibility, however remote, that she had somehow survived. The idea of her as a threat was utterly ridiculous, but she was still a dragon, if only through accident of hatching, and as such represented probably the closest thing to a threat left in the known world. So long as she was out there, there was always the chance, however slim, that somehow his own deception would be unearthed, his own secrets discovered. It was difficult to believe that she was alive after so long without even a hint of a true dragon sighting among the humans, but he would have felt better had he heard stories of dragon bones found in some forgotten cavern, better still when he held those cold bones in his hands. Not worth adding to his collection, of course; by human standards, it was already complete. That would mean carving a new niche for the bones, human grunt work. Explaining that they had miscounted the dragons inhabiting their world would be an exercise in futility, as humans loved to think of themselves as the wisest of the gods’ creations and couldn’t admit having overlooked something as easy to spot as a dragon. Seeing a fresh pile of dragon bones might make them wonder what they truly knew about dragons, and even in his power Adalius wasn’t foolish enough to stir that line of thought. Rhethra the No-Name would be a bothersome insult to him, first-hatched Shar-Vroth Ahriohn, the great Holy Adalius, the fearsome Goldenscale the Mighty, even dead. Yet in holding her bones he would know she was dead, even as he cast them into the sea, or the fires of Demon Mountain, or wherever else he could dispose of them beyond human eyes. It was the not knowing that troubled him.
He turned abruptly, scowling, as if showing his worries what he thought of them. His crimson-lined black and gold cape swirled as he descended the tower stairs to his royal chambers. Adalius barely paused as he passed the high priests standing guard outside the doors. They, in turn, hardly noticed him, eyes wild with what most thought was their own fanatic devotion to their god-king. The one on the left had shining tears welling in his bloodshot eyes, Adalius noted idly. He would probably make his ultimate sacrifice within the week. Someone else would have to be moved up through the ranks. A petty annoyance; let the humans deal with it. He set the matter as a premonition out through the ties that bound his high clergy to his will and let them deal with it as they would. Perhaps the knowledge that Holy Adalius foresaw a death among their number would speed up the process, he thought with a silent chuckle.
Unclasping his cloak and tossing it aside, he strode to the grand fireplace, through the roaring flames, into the hidden passage beyond, total darkness no hindrance to his eyes as he navigated the familiar paths that led ultimately far beyond the Drekketon city walls, nearly to Gold Mountain itself. He was merely restless, he decided. He needed to work off some energy, clear his head away from this stinking heap that humans called a city. This was a good time to remind the people what their god-king protected them from, why the sacrifices were needed, in the off chance any thought to doubt his divine decrees. It was, he thought with a wicked grin, a perfect night for flying.

Monday, May 22, 2006

It Was 1980-Somethin'...

I'm in a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, so I thought I'd bring all none of you readers along, kicking and screaming, for another trip down the cracked pavement and poorly-marked, weed-choked byways of Memory Lane.

My sister actually started this one by searching for old Commodore games on the Internet. We grew up Commodore kids. It was, by all reports, the computer with the most games made for it ever (barring game consoles.) Many a person my age grew up with a C64 joystick in their hands. Perhaps it was our age, perhaps it's the mist of nostalgia, but the old games seemed to have more imagination than most of today's dime-a-dozen titles. Unfortunately, we had terrible luck keeping magnetic media working for long, so several of our favorites went belly-up before we finished them. That didn't diminish our devotion, and over the years we've never totally shaken our love for the games that got us hooked on computers to begin with. Anyway, my sister's search that led her to a large community of gamers. There are even user-made emulators enabling one to play Commodore games on PCs. Most of our favorites were listed on the sites, and my sister likes tinkering with files anyway... long story short, I now have a C64 emulator and most of my favorite oldies on my computer. Some run better than others; the main problem is people who couldn't leave well enough alone and had to hack to things to heck and gone. I've still got to work out creating "save disks" (the emulator refers to a directory for its "disks," and creating "save disk" files can be tricky for some games) and a few other quirks, but so far I'm liking it. I'm surprised how much I remembered of the old games, down to the theme song and control quirks. That said, I thought I'd mention my old favorites here, with some memories.

Adventure Construction Set (EA Games) - EA Games has been my hero since my earliest gaming days. ACS is one of the chief reasons why. With a simple navigation tree and object/monster classes, one could use this program to custom-build an RPG, or play one of its premade adventures. It could also build one for you, a process that took 55 minutes by my recollection (my sister and I spent many an hour watching the onscreen countdown.) You got some weird results from the computer logic - tables in the middle of "meadows," the chance to play as a chair - and we usually cheated by going in and tweaking stats (gold always weighed 0, and by a strange coincidence we managed to boost our stats to the max early on with a few item-tweaks), but we loved it. I went through at least two disks of it as they wore out and died from use. Somewhere in the back of my mind, ACS forms the basis for most of my current creative endeavors; I still visualize the ACS menu trees when I work on Skyhaven. I downloaded it for the emulator not only because of my fond memories, but because it included a game that I never got to play before the disk died, and I've been wondering about it ever since. I've always hoped that someone would revive ACS or something similar for the PC; with today's processors and graphics capabilities, there's no telling what it could create. Sadly, such creation-based games - indeed, construction modules themselves, once fairly common in games - seem to have gone the way of the Commodore itself.

Forbidden Forest/Beyond The Forbidden Forest (Cosmi) - BTFF was the first game we ever purchased for our Commodore. How old was it? When we bought it, it came with a disk and a cassette tape. I played that sucker into the ground. Later, we found a cheap copy of FF, which was fun but never quite as absorbing. Not that long ago, I found a 3D version by the original creators, which kept the feel of the originals but was too intense for my limited 3D gaming skills (I would've fared better with Sidewinder or a joystick, I believe.) I remember the thrill of finally getting to the underworld in the second part, the frustration of fighting monsters that popped up randomly out of the ground, the increasing challenge as the forest grew darker and darker as the game progressed, the heart-pounding intensity of facing the final challenges against a four-headed, fire-breathing hydra and the great Demogorgon who spat acidic goo from his eyes. I remember laughing when the little guy did his victory dance in FF. Today, BTFF continues to challenge me, though I just played FF through the "Innocent" level in about 5 minutes flat. But they're still fun, and I'm glad to be able to revisit them.

Windham Classics titles (?) - We had all but one of these (Treasure Island), and we loved them. WC based their games on classic books. Some were essentially retellings (though never exact), and some were sequels, some text-based and some joystick, but all were fascinating, displaying a level of imagination and ingenuity rarely seen in today's games. It didn't even matter if you'd read or liked the books they were based on.
My sister loved Below the Root, based on a trilogy of sci-fantasy books about a "lost colony" of humans on a world where half the people lived in giant trees and the other half lived belowground. It was a very early RPG, allowing you to play the game through as different characters, male or female, from the tree-dwelling "Kindar" or underground "Erdling" races, with pros and cons to everyone. Even today, it has many devoted followers who remember it fondly. Her disk gave up the ghost when she was on the very verge of victory, but via her emulator she hopes to have a second chance.
I played Alice in Wonderland more times than I can count. As Alice, you wandered through Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land, trying to become a Queen so you could escape before the Red King woke up and everything - including, presumably, you - disappeared. You had different dialog options to interact with the many creatures and people you encountered, provoking responses positive and negative, and the game was very reliant on in-game clocks for gameplay. There were always several things that puzzled me about the game, especially one area in particular that always made my computer crash out (but which wasn't necessary to victory.) So, once again, I'm exploring Wonderland, enjoying it more for having actually read the books.
Swiss Family Robinson was the only game I remember Mom playing with any consistency on the Commodore. A text-based game with primitive pictures (every time you killed something - and, like the book, you killed a lot of things - it just flipped the graphic upside-down, which was the height of hilarity for my sister and I), it recounted a version of the shipwrecked family's survival. Mom found a few different ways to be rescued, but there were things about the game that always eluded her explorations, and eventually she gave up. I can still remember the huge sheet of paper she mapped out the island on, and how the whole family would gather around to offer advice and help her navigate.
DragonWorld and The Wizard of Oz were "my " games, played countless times. I never finished DragonWorld before the disks died, but I was enchanted with the wonderful world it created, a world of jewelled trees and magic and dragons. (I wasn't nearly so enchanted when I read the book many years later, and am just as glad that my memories of the game were never tainted by having read it.) TWoO was fun, too, and I found a few different happy endings in it as well - one time, I partied with the Munchkins and decided to live there, and another time I stayed behind instead of going back to Kansas with my ruby slippers, triggering a new section of the game that I never got to explore before its disks, too, up and died on us. It fascinated me then, and still does now, that the programmers hid so many quirks in the system. How many people would think to join in the party with the Munchkins? How many would go against Hollywood and L. Frank Baum and have Dorothy live on in Oz? If ever I had a game based on anything I wrote, I'd want that much thought to go into it, regardless of whether anyone found out about it or not.

Demon Stalkers (EA Games) - One of my favorite games, it is also one I never finished. Not for the disk dying, but for my own lack of nerves. I was so wrapped up in the intensity that I just couldn't bring myself to finish the last of the 100 levels; my pulse rose every time I thought about it. Yes, I know - I fought my way through 99 levels and chickened out at the very end, with victory in my very grasp. So sue me - I'm an utter coward. I also remember enjoying the construction aspect of the game. Never mind that I had nobody to play the things I built; I just loved building dungeons.

Ultimate Wizard (EA Games) - Aside from the fun, relatively stress-free premise (a wizard runs around screen-sized dungeons collecting treasure, triggering traps, and finding the Key to fit the Lock that let him escape), what I loved about this one was the surprisingly complex construction mode. The ability to set up "matrixes" to trigger events - floors disappearing, ladders appearing, treasure vanishing or multiplying -, stumbling across secret ways to add bizarre sprite item, coming up with new, ingenious ways to torture the nonexistent players... I spent hours fooling with those things, again knowing that nobody would actually play them. If I could harness half that power for something to build puzzles with for Skyhaven, I'd never leave my room again.

Mail-Order Monsters (EA Games) - A precursor to many of today's battle games, MOM let you build up a stable of "morphs," custom-built animals based on one of several body types. You could spend points on extras like photosynthesis (to regenerate electricity), hands (to handle various weapons), and gills (to enable it to move/breathe underwater), boost stats, gather weapons, and send it into various world-maps for various fights: battles to the death, battles to surrender, battles against a computer-operated "horde", and capture-the-flag games. My sister and I loved it, taking turns as the "winner" and "loser" to build up our morph stats before heading out against the horde. What was so great about it was not just the versatility of the game, to play as anything from a humanoid to an ameoba, but the fact that it wasn't just about beating up the other guy. You could play as a team, or just to capture a flag. No blood, no guts, no need to be an insecure adolescent male with violent tendencies. Just a stable of improbable creatures to tweak at will.

Maniac Mansion (Lucasfilm Games) - A classic multicharacter game, where the character combos affected gameplay, with three teenagers investigating the obligatory haunted mansion with its spooky inabitants (including a mad scientist, his weird son and nurse-uniformed wife, and of course some disembodied talking tentacles), trying to keep the world from blowing up. Using a combination of joystick controls and character action prompts, there were so many things to do and ways to play it was impossible to explore them all. We eventually broke down and ordered the game cheat book, and even then we could never get certain solutions to take, though we did win it once or twice. I've always kinda wanted to try it again, to see if I could ever get any of the alternate methods of victory to work.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (?) - My mom bought this one for unknown reasons, and for equally unknown reasons I was the only one who played it. It was only about a PG-rated game (unlike the movie), but still... The player - either Brad or Janet - ran around trying to find the pieces for the machine that would de-petrify their companion (the character not being played) so you could escape. The characters from the movie wandered about aimlessly, and if you ran into them they would either kill you or simply quote lines from the movie's songs and steal your clothes (causing you to run around covering up yourself, unable to collect any more machine parts until you found your clothes again.) I actually won it a few times, though what I most remember is the incessant loop of "Time Warp" in the background.

Movie Monsters (?) - Godzilla, Mothra, and other movie monsters - even the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man - get their due in a game that's all about the monster. You choose the monster, the famous city, and the mission, from finding your lost child to escaping to simply grabbing lunch. Unfortunately, our disk suffered an accident fairly early on, so most of the combos wouldn't play right. Those that did play were very fun. I've searched in vain for a similar concept among PC games, but can't seem to find anything comparable.

Equestrian Showjumper and World Games (?) - My sister, the horse nut, had ES, and we often played together; I'd take 3 horses, she'd take three horses. It's almost ridiculously simplistic on the surface. All you do is ride your horse around the marked course (following the map at the bottom of the screen) and jump. You can even design your own courses. Actually doing well at it was another thing altogether. WG was another one we usually played together. Our favorite was the diving competition; if you sprung too far, your diver flew off the screen and you heard an ominous dull thump instead of a splash, though often you got good marks anyway.

Railroad Works (?) - This was the first game I remember playing for 3+ hours straight. It's just a model-train type situation. You build tracks. You build stations to load and unload various cargo, along with background stuff. If you actually wanted to play, you operated your train, hooking up various cars and loading/unloading cargo in a timely manner for points. We rarely played for points, preferring just to lay track and play with the trains.

Frightmare and Starquake - These I played not necessarily to win, but just because they were kinda fun to run around in. The first one is about a nightmare, essentially - you go through rooms full of various monsters, some (temporarily) killable and some not, gathering points and treasures and ammo in an attempt to make it through the night until morning. The second features a little blob who runs around collecting pieces to a fragmented star core. They were timekillers, to the Commodore what Spider Solitaire is to the PC.

Master of Magic (?) - You are pulled into a cavern by a dying king of the underworld and can't go home until you find his orb of immortality. So, with nothing but a little magic and your bare hands, you fight your way through caverns of things trying to kill you. Aside from the impossibly catchy soundtrack, which has haunted me at various times for nearly 15 years since I first heard it, I remember getting my tail whipped by the awkward gameplay. I had hoped that, since I've become competent at far more advanced games on the PC, I'd be able to get my own back if I downloaded it to play again. No such luck - so far, I just keep getting my tail whipped. And I've got the soundtrack stuck in my head again.

In looking back, and in playing some of these titles today, enjoying them as much as I did when I was younger, what strikes me is that a good game isn't about graphics or soundtracks or expansion packs or any of the other things that today's makers seem so hung up on. A good game is about a fun and versatile concept, easy-to-learn controls, engaging the mind and evoking the imagination. When all that happens, the other stuff is just a happy bonus. It is roughly on that philosophy that I've based my websites, keeping things low-tech while attempting to engage the imagination, not relying on overblown gimmicks or graphics to make things come alive. So, if you want to know why I don't have Java applet menus or animated backgrounds or 3D real-time critters in Skyhaven, blame the Commodore. It's as good a thing to blame as anything else... ;-)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Second Time Through...

Well, it's been a couple weeks, so I probably ought to post again. Not that I have much to say...

After a week or so spent on world creation, I've started work on the second draft of that story. So far, it feels a little more solid. I've mostly got Chapter 1 where I like it and am now working on Chapter 2, which may actually end up being Chapters 2 and 3 by the time I'm done. I'm trying something a little different, which I hope will ultimately pay off. I'm beefing up characterization as I go, too, which probably means I'm going off on way too many tangents, but my theory is it'll be easier to cut out stuff that doesn't work than it will be to shoehorn in new stuff. My beta readers will probably think differently, but I'm waiting until I'm up to about Chapter 5 to bother them with it.

I'm working on new Skyhaven templates, though I've been thrown by the disappearance of my favorite mammal drawing book (Jack Hamm's How To Draw Animals). I have a vague memory of having loaned it to my sister at one point, but I thought I got it back. I've torn apart the only areas it could possibly be, but the black hole has hidden it well. Theoretically I should be able to go from a few reference pics and my imagination, but, dang it, I want my book back! In addition to the new creatures (which I'm not naming lest I jinx the templates), I'm considering a complete revamp on the chirolupes (wolf/bat hybrids, along the lines of a griffin) and the sea dragons. The latter creature has been bothering me no end since almost the time I cleaned up the template. I've also been watching too many Flash movies and playing too many Flash games, which, combined with my ever-expanding website and the trial version of Flash software sitting in that Flash instruction book I was given some time ago, can lead to some very dangerous ideas.

Of course, I'm still unemployed. A number of places are hiring, but I've already determined that I cannot work for certain retail outfits. Well, I could, but I would become someone I don't like. I've seen what taking a job like that can do to a person. It's not pretty. I've already had the Universe try to kill me once to steer me clear of a job, so I'm probably being a little over-cautious in the job hunt in the off chance the Universe decides to get my attention the hard way again. I know I'm not going to open the paper and find a classified reading: "HELP WANTED: PerfectCo is now hiring people with the online name of DreamLurker for the perfect job. Take as long as you want to reply, because we won't be hiring anyone else while you think." It would be nice, however, to find something that didn't require faking people skills I simply don't have. One of the few nice things about my last job was having the option to tell people that you just stocked for the vendors and didn't actually work for the store. (Actually, I usually helped people, but in every store there are customers beyond helping, and I was just as glad my job almost never required me to deal with them.)

A while back, my sister gave me her old Zoo Tycoon discs. She has a way of addicting me to computer games. First it was Arcanum. Then the city-building games. Then Roller Coaster Tycoon, and The Sims, and Black & White. Now, it's Zoo Tycoon. An oldie, some might argue, but for me the oldies are still the goodies. I don't like first-person shooters, I don't like games where I have to play as a white man, I don't like games that are just about how much gore one can slosh about the screen. I also can't afford a game system or a new computer. These days, that pretty much leaves me with the older games, which are plenty interesting enough for me. So far, I haven't succumbed to the urge to download user-made Zoo Tycoon additions, but it's one more addiction I don't need. There was a debate on an art forum not long ago about people losing time to computer games (the one in question was World of Warcraft, but the principle applies to most games), some even losing jobs or spouses for addiction. Why play anything at all, some argued, when you could be doing Something Productive, like working on your sketchbook or cleaning the house or something? I had to side with the people who said that, hey, everyone needs some unwinding time, and it's up to each person to learn to set limits. A little play now and again can be much more stimulating than endless Something Productive's. Usually, while playing, my mind's still daydreaming, coming up with ideas for that story or modifications for Skyhaven. So I suppose I need that unwinding time to keep the creative juices flowing. At least, that's how I justify it to myself...

I suppose there's more I could ramble about, but I probably ought to call it a night (or morning, rather) and head off.