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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Voice Acting and DMing - or - Why Dreams Don't Come True



When I first started this blog, for some reason I thought it would be fun to make an entire feature of this blog about complaining. My very first post even established a name for it, "Complainin' Hour," complete with stupid made-up quotes about why complaining is awesome. Well, as dumb as that was, I'm gonna have to do it in this post. A part of me regrets referring my WarCraft III Easter Egg video fans to this blog, but first and foremost, this is a personal blog, so by golly, I'm gonna let this frustration out whether you imaginary readers like it or not. Today's topic: DMing and voice acting.

My Elusive Dream


Fact #1: I've always wanted to be a voice actor. When I was a kid, my brother and I messed around with the computer mike and sound recorder, and I made all kinds of weird skits using my voice. I even learned how to use only "Add Echo," "Increase Speed" and "Decrease Speed" to make vocal effects, from chipmunks and ogres to robot voices and sounding like I was coughing into a radiator. I also tinkered around with my computer games, making an entire sound set of my voice for Worms 2 and WarCraft II, and stretching my amateur acting abilities to their limits by voicing characters on my Starcraft and WarCraft III maps.

As I got older, I began to admire more and more the famous voice actors you hear everywhere: Mel Blanc, who voiced all the characters on my childhood favorite show, Loony Toons; Jason Marsden, the friendly voice of nineties characters like Max Goof and Tino Tonitini; the child voice actors on Disney's Recess and The Magic School Bus; Matt Chapman, the comedic voices of Strong Bad, Homestar Runner, and everyone else on that site; and of course, the voice actors who are so ubiquitous they can get annoying, mostly Jim Cummings and Jeff Bennett.

My admiration for voice acting further increased every time I saw a behind-the-scenes featurette on animated movie DVDs, showing the actors in all their enthusiasm behind the mike. I also began to recognize video game voice actors, which added a whole new level of yearning in my dream. I noticed that most video game voice actors mostly voice animes. Though I've liked very, very few animes, I'd voice a hundred characters on them no matter how cheesy, if I could voice just one Warcraft character.

Of course, though, being a voice actor isn't easy to get into or whatever. You have to be born into a family with connections to show biz, or have an agent as a family friend, or get your foot in the door as a child actor. And no amount of reading my own audiobooks, voicing over WarCraft Easter egg videos, adding foreign accents to my portfolio, or tinkering with my voice on Audacity is going to ever make me a voice actor. My voice isn't even that great sounding anyway.

My Wasted Talent


Fact 2: My personality seems designed for Dungeon Mastering (DMing). Ever since I was a kid, I was making up games. I wanted to be a computer game designer when I grew up (another elusive dream, but I digress). I made up fake game manuals, strategy guides for games that didn't exist, websites for games I would never finish, hundreds of playing cards, board games with milk caps as game pieces, fully illustrated forums, games that consisted of nothing more than Windows folders and .txt files... and I invented a roleplaying game without ever hearing about Dungeons and Dragons.
I also have always liked to write, though I lack the skill to finish what I start without others' participation and input. My Alfred novel never would've succeeded without my cousin writing half of its plot in staggered sections. I dropped out of my creative writing degree because I just could not let my flimsy writing skills stand on their own.

Whenever I play a board game, I make it an experience. I don't just move pieces around and draw cards. I put on music based on the game's genre. My voice takes on an accent of someone in a relevant time period or setting. Game mechanics as simple as a pawn removing a bishop become epic scenes of peasants violently rising against a tyrannical clergy in my illustration.

I am also a driven person in social settings. I take initiative in crafting experiences for other people, whether that be adding tasteless garnish to food to make it look more presentable, making sure things at appointments are set up precisely and directly on time, and always looking for the easiest, most efficient way to make someone comfortable when giving instructions.

All of these things would make me a wonderful DM. I'll admit I'm proud of these talents. And yet, they are wasted. Why? Because I am the only one I can find as driven as I am.

Give and Take? Mostly Just Give


Years ago, the play-by-post forum Argaenothruzil (the cradle of my novel's first origins) was run entirely by me for my friends. I wrote the storyline, crafted the setting, invented lore, compiled avatars, designed maps, balanced gameplay, wrote instructions, and offered to reply to every player's posts as soon as I could. And I did. For as long as they were willing to reply to mine. Which wasn't very long.

Why was this? I can't imagine. If the idea of an RPG sounds fun in the first place, why not make the most of it? If the forum's leader is willing to do 90% of the work, why can't you offer 10% in exchange? I guess you'd have to ask my friends, because the majority of the stories written in this way went unfinished, and their existing content was written so slowly it rapidly lost its appeal. My friends claimed they were "busy" and provided other excuses for not posting on the forum more often. And yet, I was just as busy, and found time to post to five or six people's stories when they couldn't find the time to post on just their own. It's been said that friendship is about give and take, and while some complain that their friends take and never give, sometimes I wish I had friends who would take anything at all.

A few years ago, in order to incentivize myself to work on Knight Guy more seriously, I started a writing group called Escutcheon. I invited my writer friends. I found a time and day each week when we could all meet. I reserved rooms at the local library where we could go and discuss our works. I made Facebook and Google groups where we could schedule our next meeting and post our work for others to read and comment on. I came prepared with specific questions about how my work could improve, and answers to their inquiries. I compiled ideas for topics to discuss. We came, we met, we discussed writing, we explored various mediums of writing, from poetry and prose to comics and even music, and everyone was excited to bond as writers while improving their writing.
Take a wild guess what happened.

A few weeks went by, and though the members attended, no one seemed to "have time" to read each other's work but me. Eventually, one member stopped coming, then two others. They didn't respond to comments on the groups. Eventually, the group dissolved, despite my very, very best efforts.

Image result for munchkin boxA few years later, at my job, not being able to join the Dungeons & Dragons group there, I began my own group to play the board game Munchkin. I brought my copy of the game, sent out invitations, complete with simplified instructions on how to play for new players. I verbally invited my friends to the group. Enough people joined for us to have a weekly group. I reserved a room each week and was there with the game set up and ready to go at 12:01 p.m. so that no one would have to waste any of their lunch break. Of course, the players took their precious time arriving most of the time, and over time, the players, despite having a wonderful time each week, began to dwindle and join other gaming groups. Eventually it was only down to two of us, and after trying fruitlessly to play the game with only two players, I disbanded the group. Another casualty not of a lack of effort, but a completely out-of-my-control lack of engagement. Why? I couldn't tell you in a hundred years why. Making experiences fun for people is my forté, and yet it seems to be a wasted effort.

And then there's Dungeons and Dragons. I discovered Dungeons and Dragons in 2015. After buying the guidebooks online, I was fascinated to find that the game wasn't nearly as nerdy as I thought—it was full of story writing, logic, math, and roleplaying mechanics that I had been implementing into countless other board games for years. I quickly collected other sourcebooks that encompassed other things I found interesting converted to game form—building strongholds, creating other planes of existence and planets, and the entire collection of WarCraft Roleplaying Game books. I tinkered with mechanics in my head, found other roleplaying games like Tunnels and Trolls, the Mistborn Adventure Game, GURPS: Discworld, and Dying Earth as ways to satiate my endless hunger for "gamifying" actions of life itself as well the fantasy realms I enjoyed in other mediums. And yet... I just read the books. I never had any chance to play. I listened to podcasts about it, but they soon turned boring or ridiculously crass. I read countless stories of D&D experiences online—every one I could find—and marveled that such events could occur in a game with rules. All my life I had played games that had limitations on them in terms of graphics, scope, size, or choice of action, but in D&D, anything could happen, and I yearned to have my own adventure where I could enter a world without bounds, or create one for others.

At last, my buddy and I managed to create a group. It was to be a group of him, myself, and three other people. Well of course, knowing my luck, only one of the other players showed up at the first session, but we had a blast anyway. I thanked Fate for allowing me to finally indulge in the type of game that I had been longing to play for years: the type of game that all of my talents and personality quirks seemed to resonate with, with the perfect balance of fiction stories, roleplaying mechanics, logic, and, most lacking of all I realized, social interaction. I laughed and bonded with the members of the group over the game we played, and though it was a sacrifice to meet each week in terms of setting aside other appointments, it was so immensely worth it, and I looked forward to

But the other players never did show up to another game and the other existing player said he couldn't play anymore after like three sessions and we had to disband the group and we can't find anyone else to build it up again.

The Lemon Juice for My Papercut


This past week, I was fortunate enough to find the show Critical Role. It will finally quench my thirst for experiencing a secondhand form of D&D, much more than those podcasts will, but at the same time its existence seems like the universe's personal mockery of my ambitions in life. The D&D game in the show is DMed by Matt Mercer, a professional voice actor and an expert DM. Not only does he direct the game for his players in a smooth, engaging, epic, fantastic way, but he does amazing voices for the characters he creates. What's even more incredible is that every player in his group is a professional voice actor as well. This makes for a tremendously torn experience for me to watch it. Each player speaks for his or her character with a voice that sounds like it's from a video game or a TV show—because it literally is. Some, such as Laura Bailey, voice characters in video games I play. Here all in one room are a group of the type of people I admire most playing the game I find the most engaging, in an expert, professional way that I will seemingly never experience. Matt Mercer manages to play a weekly game of D&D with essentially a group of eight other celebrities—certainly they must be busy—and yet I cannot find more than one other person in my entire region who will commit to spending a few hours a week humoring me with a session of the game; more than one other person at work who's willing to play a game of Munchkin each week; more than a couple of people to discuss writing with every once in a while.

What am I doing wrong? If something I'm doing is glaringly obvious, then by all means, please point it out in the comments. I've tried everything possible to make games and groups inviting to others, and still their interactions with me fizzle out after no more than three or four weeks. It's not that the people themselves lack interest in the things—these same people hold gaming and writing groups of their own with their other friends. Perhaps the thing that is most difficult to accept is that in my friends' lives and in groups like Critical Role, having a happy, exciting, fun, fulfilling group of dedicated friends this is clearly possible, and yet despite my hardest work and most fervently exhausting and thorough efforts, I have no personal evidence to confirm it.

Dreams Are Stupid


I've said this before, and I hold to it more and more, but I think dreams are stupid, and the idea that "if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything" is utter garbage. The way I see it, if you're born with vocal talents and happen to have the chance to do voices in shows and media when you're in high school, AND you happen to love voice acting, you are a very lucky person named Matt Mercer, and I envy the crap out of you. But guess what I am? A lowly editor in a marketing startup with barely enough free time to read, update comics, or work on countless dust-gathering unfinished projects. A guy with no free time, and yet enough drive to sacrifice what little free time I have in order to play a game I've always longed to play if I could just find a handful of people to call friends. Apparently, though, even that's too much to ask.

I have a multitude of things to be grateful for, of course: a wife, three kids, a religion I trust to be true, a close family, and the resources to at least practice my talents by myself. I'm thankful for all of these blessings. But why, after all this, would the universe curse me with desires I can't fulfill? With aspirations that even my most fervent efforts would not begin to satisfy? Time and time again I have tried to prove just how much I want what I want, and the best I can achieve never lasts long enough to keep me satisfied, because of completely uncontrollable circumstances. Why couldn't my innate desires be to call having a family enough? Why couldn't I in my situation be born with the one dream of becoming an editor? Instead, I find myself locked into a pigeonholed destiny in a rapidly passing life that could end any day, just like everyone else's could, yet with so much effort spared toward a dream that very well could never happen?

A part of me believes that, perhaps, in the afterlife, all of this disappointment will be made up for, but that doesn't take away the desires I have right now. It doesn't stop me from buying RPG manual after RPG manual and reading through it by myself, knowing that I may well never get to see the rules played out in person. What sort of lame waste is that? I wonder if the most inspiring movie star who would ever live, or the doctor who could find the cure to cancer, or the political leader who could unite all nations under one banner of peace, was perhaps born in a tiny, plague-ridden village in a third-world country, doomed to carry water from a well his whole life and die from tuberculosis without ever having the resources or the contacts needed to make his talents known to the world.
Though my hopes of entertaining others with my voice and playing a stupid make-believe game seem insignificant compared to that, it seems odd to me that any aspiration should exist at all if there's no way for them to be individually fulfilled. If games have taught me anything, there's always a way to win, but sadly, it doesn't seem to be that way in life. At least as far as dreams go.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Snippet: "The Fireweaver"

Inspiration, especially in writing, is a really weird and often frustrating thing. I wrote this snippet of a novel I intended to write almost two years ago, in the world my cousing and I created, Shaarzahn. I stumbled upon it today and am amazed at how intriguing it is. It draws me in immediately to the story and I'm dying to read more. I don't remember writing a lot of it. I remember having an idea, but not enough of one to assemble into an entire novel. Why did I stop writing? What made me stop where I did? Why can't I ever finish what I start? It's frustrating for me to find such radiant and pure gems buried in the sand, but gems that I know will likely never be cut into the shape they need to be to live their potential as refined, sparkling cut jewels. Well, at least I have material here in case whatever muse first whispered this story's beginnings to me ever chances to return.

- - -

R
ali An-destan drew his camel-wool cloak closer and shivered. It didn’t seem right to be up this late. Whether or not Zalir was smiling on him at this time in his life, he still felt the lack of the sun-god’s unmistakably powerful rays of sunlight. And being forced to remain not only awake, but outside, during the dark, cold night of the Kharazim desert was… unsettling, to say the least. The moon was out, but its light was cold, foreboding… like the sun-god’s jealous brother who could only mimic the glory of true sunlight.
            “Here they come,” said Hizan. Rali looked to where his friend was pointing. Sure enough, in the distant cold moonlight was a cloud of dust being kicked up by the hooves of four or five horses. Their riders were dark—black shadows against the bluish night sand, almost like extensions of the black of night itself. Rali felt a pang of fear shudder through him, but he tried to cover it.
            He looked at Hizan, trying to lighten the darkness with a smile. “No turning back now, right?”
            Hizan smiled back, but Rali could see fear behind his eyes. Hizan was a couple of years older than Rali, and a couple of inches taller. His own cloak pressed tightly against his bald head as he looked back toward the riders. “I guess not. You scared?”
            “Yes,” said Rali.
            “Me too,” admitted Hizan. He looked back at the dust cloud. The riders were already slowing, even though they were still a hundred or so yards away. “Do you think they see us?”
            Rali pulled out his long knife and a lump of flint from his pouch. He struck the two together, making brief sparks illuminate the air. The riders paused for a moment, then sped up again toward the two men.
            Rali pocketed the knife and flint, then closed his eyes, trying to swallow his fear. Why was he so jumpy? He had been through much more terrifying ordeals than this. Some of them in the past few days. And he had handled them beautifully, like he always had. Perhaps this was more of a “dread” sort of ordeal, though. Acting on impulse was always second-nature to Rali, but this stewing in impatient dread of what could happen was much worse.
            The riders finally arrived, stopping in front of Rali and Hizan. Rali closed his golden eyes once more, imagining himself in an alley, facing another thief. Time for talk. No fighting even… at least, he hoped not… just talk. He could handle that. He opened his eyes.
            One of the riders dismounted. His head was wrapped in a black camel-wool scarf, and he had an equally thick and dark vest over a linen tunic. His arms, however, were bare, and golden bangles shone in the light of the desert moon. Two unsheathed swords also shone, one at each hip, as well as a single orange gem on a golden chain around his neck.
            “Shouldn’t you be leaving the night watch to the Tibaa?” the man asked in a high, raspy voice.
            “They cannot be trusted,” said Hizan carefully, “for they shun the light that must be embraced.”
            The rider nodded at Hizan, then extended a hand to clasp his wrist. He reached to Rali, who shook it, nodding. His hand felt rough, as if it had been grated on rocks. Or perhaps scarred by holding the wrong end of a sword many times.
            The other riders dismounted. It turned out there were five of them, and they formed a sort of half-circle around the two men. They were dressed in cloaks, more like Rali and Hizan, except for their choice of black attire. They each also had two swords at their waists.
            “Hizan An-Tosif?” asked the head rider. Hizan raised his hand and bowed respectfully. “And Rali An-destan?” Rali mimicked the gesture.
            “Who do we address?” asked Rali, hoping he was acting the way he should.
            “You address Sharoh, the first-chosen of Zalir, brother,” said the head rider. “You will learn the names of these your four other brothers in time. For now, we must talk business. But first, shall we sit?”
            Rali looked at Hizan, who seemed relaxed. He tried to relax as well as they all sat cross-legged on the sand. They each pulled their cloaks up beneath themselves as they sat.
            “Now,” said Sharoh, removing the scarf from his face. “You know why I am here. I am here to bring you into the horde of the sun-god.” Sharoh’s face looked as rough as his hands were. He had a black goatee, but some parts of his chin were scarred where no hair grew. “I have heard of your… inexperienced thefts in Ptaliram, which is why I sent Zalir’s second-chosen to reveal to you my intentions to recruit you. The question is, why are you here?”
The two men hesitated. Rali spoke first. “We wish to accept your recruitment, sir.”
Sharoh’s golden eyes flashed at Rali. “There is no sir,” he said as Rali’s spine turned to ice, “but Zalir.”
“Yes… brother,” said Rali.
Sharoh smiled, the fire in his eyes immediately gone. “You wish to accept? Fine enough, but why? Why leave the town of your birth, your houses you call home, your thieving routes, your reputations? Surely you’ve worked hard to become the clandestine thieves you are. You have avoided the capture of the amin, or else you would be dangling from the ropes on the Tree of Thieves right now. As far as my men have gathered, you aren’t even suspected or wanted men. For all the amin knows, you are upstanding citizens who do good for the community.”
Hizan spoke next, leaving Rali relieved. “You flatter us, brother, but we are not as silent as you say. The amin is indeed suspicious of us, and were it not for your timely arrival, we may have been making our last few robberies before being strung up.”
The head rider smiled. “Ah, so it is out of desperation that you accept my invitation?”
“N-no! That is…” Hizan fought for words.
“What he means is, Zalir be praised that you have come to take us to our next station in life,” said Rali. “It truly is by providence’s hand that this opportunity has presented itself.”
Sharoh nodded assent. “Perhaps. It is common for Zalir to shine upon those who hide in the shadows. Perhaps he has seen it fit to bring us together for mutual benefit.”
Hizan nodded, bowing his head again.
“What, brother, is this mutual benefit?” asked Rali.

“Yes, I have been a bit vague about it, haven’t I?” said Sharoh. “I accept your reasons for joining, and will now explain. In the palace, in the Grand City, there is a man who Zalir sees fit to dispose of. He has grown fat on the money of those who serve him, but his real sin lies with the Tibaa.” 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Relic Story: Mr. Arrow

I stumbled upon this as I was looking through my old WordPerfect documents. It's not a bad story for a thirteen-year-old. The actual metaphor for the entire thing being a computer is a tad clumsy, but I like the pacing and flow of the plot. The inspiration from the story comes from my family's computer's tendency of basically never working. The CD Rom was always having issues, and at the time of this piece, we had a virus or Spyware on our computer. The ending is a reference to my brother Redge calling my uncle, a computer wizard, who walked him through the steps of eliminating the virus.


Mr. Arrow

Mr. Arrow walked up the stairs into the main desktop. Many doors lined the walls, and each had a label. He pulled a list of instructions out of his pocket and read his task again. He wiped the sweat from his brow and walked past several working processors. They greeted him, but he paid them no heed.
Finding a door that read “Port C,” he slowly made his way into and through its corridor. After reading his instructions a few more times and following the directions through the winding maze, he found himself in a room with no more hallways branching out from it. Nervously, he began to root through the crates surrounding the walls. He noticed one that was blotched and reddish, as if someone had spray painted red paint on it, and began to search it. Suddenly his heart skipped a beat. He had found it! A large black card that read Spy-Warehouse Inc. As he pulled the card out of the crate, a red sticky film peeled off that had been attached to the inside of the crate. Mr. Arrow wiped the card on his shirt and turned it over in his hand, reading the details of it. All of a sudden, as he walked slowly towards the door, absorbed in the details of the card, he bumped into a Motherboard executive.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” the huge, red-faced executive boomed in his face.
“This card shouldn’t be here,” Mr. Arrow said, trying to cover his nervousness.
“Excuse me?”
“It was not imported here by normal means,” Mr. Arrow explained. “Mr. Norton thinks it may be corrupting the factory. In fact, it was spreading reddish film all over the stuff in—”
“It’s not your responsibility. If you think we have corruption in the factory, you should speak to an executive like myself,” the massive man growled. “You could be banished for coming in here without proper authority.”
“But sir, I had to act quickly. Why, if something like this went unfixed, the entire—”
“Let me see that card!” the executive’s muscular arm snatched the black card from Mr. Arrow’s hand. The executive read the details over a couple times, then he chuckled. “This is an important file. I wouldn’t dream of having this file gotten rid of. In fact, Mr. Arrow, while you’re here, make copies of this and have it distributed throughout the factory.”
He handed Mr. Arrow the card and walked away.
Mr. Arrow reluctantly went to the copier in the corner of the room and made two copies. He put one in a crate, and was surprised to find out that it began to excrete red liquid on the other files, crossing out certain words to change the instructions completely. He took the copies of the card and dashed out of the room.
As he began to find his way out of the complex, a voice crackled on the intercom, “Illegal access at Port C / Documents / MyFiles...” and began to list the path at which Mr. Arrow resided. He tried to open the door up a level, but the handle jammed. “Let me out! Let me out!” he cursed, jangling the handle. Executives began running out of rooms with pistols.
“Put down the card!” they yelled, but Mr. Arrow pulled out a portable cutting torch from his pocket and began to burn open the door. Screaming in anger, the executives began firing bullets in Mr. Arrow’s direction. Luckily, Mr. Arrow’s optic boots allowed him to zip around the room, dodging their shots. When they all stopped to reload their pistols, Mr. Arrow found enough time to break the door down. He dashed out into the main desktop, fleeing his pursuers.
“Get out of my way! Stop the executives!” he yelled to the processors, who obeyed him and began to fight the executives.


Mr. Arrow found the door that read “Recycle Bin” above it, and sprinted inside as fast as he could. He quickly dragged the cards into the bin amongst the other useless files inside and pushed the button that said Empty.
A robotic voice inquired, “Are you sure you want to delete these 62 items?”
He quickly punched yes and waited for it to empty.
To his dismay the voice said, “Cannot delete ‘SpyWare.exe’. Access is denied.”
He cried out and grabbed the cards. As quickly as possible, he ran into the main desktop and looked for the doorway that said “Add/Remove.” Finding it, and gratefully acknowledging the processors’ detaining the executives, he ran in.
He quickly accessed the inventory list of everything in the factory, and found “Spy-Warehouse Inc. files.” When he activated it, a large crane pulled all the cards from Spy-Warehouse Inc. into the large vat in front of the list. He typed in REMOVE, but the programs persisted. “Are you sure you want to delete the files from SpyWare?”
YES
Are you sure? If you remove these files, you will not receive the benefits it gives.
Suddenly Mr. Arrow became aware of a beating on the door behind him.
YES
Removing SpyWare will make it so you will not have the benefits such as
l free Internet access
l improved CPU usage
l etc.
Proceed?
YES
Last chance to change your mind. Delete SpyWare?
YES
Mr. Arrow’s heart began to pound as another reading came up and the door began to give way.
The benefits of free Internet access, improved CPU usage, and etc. will be deleted. Continue?
YES
At last, the computer gave in.
Deleting...21%
The door’s hinges popped out, and angry voices began yelling through the hole between the frame and the bent door.
44%
Mr. Arrow tried to prop things against the door, but he didn’t have much time.
67%
“Give us the card!” murderous voices shrieked.
82%
Mr. Arrow knew it wasn’t long now until the executives could get in. What was worse, they were beginning to shoot and cut at the door with their weapons.
100%
FOOMPH!
All of a sudden, a deafening explosion rattled the entire factory. The vat that the files were in had combusted, and particles of the files were beginning to float upward into nothingness. The files were deleted. The viruses had not corrupted the computer.


The executives suddenly snapped into their wits as the door came crashing the ground. They all began to retch horribly, and the vomit on the ground was red. It dissolved into pixels, which the wounded processors began to automatically take into the Recycling Bin room.
Realizing what they had done, the executives apologized profusely. Obviously, the virus had corrupted them, as well as the files.
A hologram appeared in the room. It was Mr. Norton.
“Well done, Mr. Arrow,” he said warmly. “The viruses were deleted, and my team is now going to begin fixing up the infected files. Thank you for saving the computer.”

“Is that it?” Redge asked into the phone.
“That should do it,” Scott told him.
“Alright. Thanks again, Scott,” Redge said gratefully.
“No problem.”
 Redge moved the mouse, and Mr. Arrow clicked on ‘Restart Now.’ the computer would be all back to normal soon.


THE END

Monday, October 24, 2016

Short Story: Cold

Cold
Austin Ballard

It was a cloudless morning, for the first time this year. Like many of his cabin fever-ridden neighbors, Peter hoped the long winter was finally over—the longest and earliest winter in forty years, the news had said.
   Peter’s snow boots crunched on the frosty grass as he lugged his load to the edge of the pond. He dropped his lunchbox, ice saw, and lawn chair still in its bag onto the ground, then hefted his shovel. He walked up to the edge of the frozen pond, up to the familiar spot by the willow with its hanging tendrils frozen in the water.
   Peter didn’t bother being careful when stepping on the ice. He walked right onto the familiar sheet near the willow and stomped down hard. Nothing happened. He took the shovel and speared the ice with its spade. The ice didn’t so much as chip. It was just too hard.
   Peter let out a long, white breath that billowed into the wind. He pulled his scarf over his shoulder and peered out over the pond toward the pines on the other side. A couple of premature geese honked as they flew over the fog. Even animals seemed to have been caught off guard by the unnaturally cold winter.
   Peter looked down at the ice again. It had frozen so quickly that it had gotten an odd, milky quality to it, like mottled quartz or frosted glass. Still, Peter thought he could see a bubble in a darker part of the ice. Maybe today was the day after all.
Peter trudged off the shore to the grass and set up his lawn chair. He sat on the canvas seat and looked out over the pond. Another goose honk echoed through the air.

***
“It’s getting cold!”
“I’m coming!” Peter grumbled as he stepped down the stairs. He turned the corner down the hall and entered the kitchen. Hannah sat at the table with her arms folded, a stern expression on her face.
Peter sat down across from her and took a fork, and then sighed. “Egg whites? Really?”
“It’s healthier.”
“I don’t care. I need filling food. I should’ve just made breakfast myself. Now I’ll have to pick up something on the way just to stay full for work.”
“Oh, I wanted to tell you, don’t use the debit card for a while. I ordered the inventory for DressMiss.”
Peter dropped his fork onto his plate. “You what?”
“I know it’s a lot, but it’s an investment. You said it’d be a good supplement to our income.”
“Hannah, I said we needed to talk about it more before you dropped $5,000 on dresses!” Peter said loudly.
“It’s actually $5,600, and, and—” she said, holding up a finger as Peter opened his mouth, “I told you I’ll make it all back in four months! I’ve already got a sales party scheduled for next weekend. I’ve thought a long time about this, and it’ll be something good to keep me busy and make money for us.”
“Fifty-six hundred…” Peter scoffed, eating a bite of his omelet. “I work and save all summer and come back and you spend it all.”
“I’ll make it back,” said Hannah irritably. “Just support me in my desire to work and stop being a jerk about it.”
Peter glared at her. “I don’t see us ever buying a house together at this rate.”

***

Peter smiled as he swiped on his iPhone app. $230. Not a bad start to the day. Why hadn’t he been this good at gambling when he had tried it years ago? Perhaps he simply hadn’t been mature enough yet. He was so young back then, when he and Hannah had just gotten married.
Peter looked over the pond again. The sun was definitely warmer now—still not a cloud in sight—and the day was turning into the loveliest one he had seen all year. The morning frost had already faded from the grass, and Peter had taken off his scarf a half hour ago. If today’s sun didn’t thin the ice, Peter didn’t know what he’d do. Despite his remarkable earnings, he’d spent too many days out here by himself, it seemed.

***

Peter briskly opened the gas station door and walked toward the liquor section. He threw open the refrigerated door and started pulling random bottles into his arms. Foster’s, Heineken, lager… he didn’t know if they were brands or flavors or what. He didn’t care.
Peter brought the clinking bundle to the counter and pulled out his driver’s license and wallet.
“Debit or credit?” asked the clerk.
“Credit.”
Peter brought the sack of alcohol to the car, pounded on the steering wheel with his fist, and screamed. Four months he had worked while Hannah was watching TV and eating home-cooked meals with her mom, just so they could save up for a new life somewhere else. And she was throwing away her $5,600 investment after one party? It was this type of shortsightedness that had started their marriage off so poorly in the first place, but twice was just too much.
Peter opened bottles and drank the bitter, burning liquor from them as he drove. He hoped a cop would arrest him so he could have somewhere else to sleep tonight. But no cars in the dark streets so much as slowed or blinked their headlights at him. He sped to his neighborhood and parked halfway onto the lawn. Hannah’s car wasn’t there yet.
Peter drank some more in the car, coughing and nearly gagging from the taste. He had never drunk before, and now he didn’t understand why anyone would. But he kept drinking anyway.
Eventually, Peter got out of the car and walked into the cold garage. Small snowflakes were beginning to fall. Peter vaguely thought that seemed odd for this time of year, but there was a fog behind his eyes that made it hard to think. He grabbed a shovel and took it inside the front door.
Peter waited.
***

Peter had waited long enough. A sheen of melted water had covered the pond, making it blinding in the noonday, spring sunlight. He took his shovel and walked next to the willow again. This time he was careful as he walked out onto the ice. He stomped the wet ice with his foot, and heard a thick shifting sound as white cracks appeared over the surface of the pond. Peter smiled. He hit the ice with his shovel and was pleased to see that it cut a sizeable crack.
Peter peered into the ice below the willow. He had been stupid to throw Hannah’s body into the pond that night, no matter how drunk he’d been. But how could he have known the pond would freeze that very night? It had been the earliest winter in forty years. Snow had covered the pond for most of the winter, but still, the thought of her being here out in the open for anyone to stumble on had been terrifying.
Peter ran back to his chair to grab the ice saw, almost giddy with relief. Now that the long winter was over, he could finally rest.

(1200 words)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)


For the most part, I've been pretty impressed with Disney's recent fever of putting a modern spin on their old classics and making them unique through exploring different characters' points of view. I enjoyed Maleficent, as it focused on the villain's point of view and explored an alternate storyline and a different meaning of the word "love" that goes beyond the cliché. And from what I hear (I haven't seen it quite yet), Cinderella does a great job of tying up some plot threads that the original cartoon left loose, adding valuable and meaningful character motivations along the way.

Unfortunately, the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book not only falls short on achieving any of these positive reasons to remake a movie—it fails to even provide a cohesive plot or character development, making for a confusing, clichéd, wholly unsatisfying film that, in my opinion, did not deserve the "widespread acclaim" it got from critics.

The movie starts by playing the same mysterious oboe tune the original intro starts with, which was my first surprise. Was this going to be an exact remake of the original, or a different take like the other films? Maleficent had a wholly unique soundtrack that I actually liked better than the movie itself, but already the movie seemed to be pandering to the audience's nostalgia, as if pleading for them to look past the plot the movie was going to present and just enjoy a walk down memory lane instead.

Honestly, I don't remember much of the beginning of the movie. It's extremely rushed and seems mainly designed to show the audience just how heavy the CGI in the film is. Though the CGI is technologically impressive and the animals' fur looks realistic, the animals lack both beastlike and humanlike looks, making them look unnatural and unemotional. It's disappointing to think that behind it all, Mowgli is the only real character, running and climbing around in a bluescreen studio. I recognize that many movies rely a lot on bluescreen technology nowadays, but this movie seemed to almost brag that Neel Sethi is the only human character in the entire movie as if it were some sort of revolutionary choice on Disney's part. In reality, it makes it very hard to connect with anyone in the film.

The villain, Shere Khan the tiger, is introduced to the film early on, and is quickly and forcefully presented in a dark light so as to engender the audience's hatred against him. It was honestly somewhat conflicting for me as the viewer to hear Shere Khan, who was actually bringing up a reasonable argument against keeping Mowgli around because of the danger of him growing up and burning down the jungle, be rebuked and cowered to by the other animals. The writers of the film seemed to undermine their own reasons for having a villain—they put a modern spin and motivation on Shere Khan's personality while also yielding to old-fashioned clichés of good vs. evil into his psyche for no reason. I was easily swayed to Shere Khan's side through his logic, and his evil appearance did nothing to bring me back. I would have been wholly satisfied if the man-cub had been brought to his man-village and been completely separated from the animal kingdom. Even if that argument had not been brought up, Shere Khan's motivation was based on the fact that his face had been burned by a man (who turns out to be, not surprisingly, Mowgli's father) years before—so of course he would be against the idea of man having a place in the jungle. I'm not saying the Shere Khan in the original Jungle Book cartoon is any more compelling as a villain, but it seems to me that the most important thing here would be consistency—they should have focused either on a believable villain character who was forgiven or redeemed at the end of the movie, or a cruel one that you felt good about seeing die in the end. Disney did neither, and Shere Khan, the driving conflict of the plot, fails as a worthy villain in the story.

After learning a strange unexplained subplot of the elephants of the jungle revered as gods, Mowgli soon encounters Kaa, who is female in this adaptation. Through means unknown, she knows all about Mowgli's story, and somehow gives him a vision of it while seducing him into a position where she can eat him. The scene exists purely for exposition and nothing more, and like every other episodic interaction in the movie, it is extremely rushed and feels unsatisfying when it's over. I think the original movie's position of making Mowgli's origins unknown was the wiser approach. Mowgli doesn't seem to care one way or another how he got abandoned, so we as the audience don't either. This makes the entire encounter with Kaa, like many elements in the movie, nothing more than a nod back to the original cartoon.

The next character Mowgli encounters is Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray. I didn't mind Baloo's character development at first, but his episode did end on a completely forced and unrealistic note: After Baloo and Mowgli spend a montage stealing lots of honey together using Mowgli's technological "tricks" (which is actually one twist on Mowgli's character I did enjoy), Bagheera informs Baloo that Shere Khan is hunting Mowgli down. Rather than simply telling Mowgli this, Baloo makes himself the martyr and needlessly destroys his friendship with Mowgli by saying "Do I have to spell it out for you? I don't want you around anymore." I could not believe that Disney would stoop to adding pointless drama to the story through this line. Of course Mowgli storms off thinking he has no friends to turn to, and Baloo saying to Bagheera "That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do" was utterly laughable when a clear, logical alternative to handling the situation was obvious. I love fantasy films and media, and I can easily get into stories where "unreal" things like talking animals are commonplace, but character interactions in my opinion are the trump card—a character doing something just for the sake of moving the plot along or blatantly creating fake emotional drama kills my suspension of disbelief faster than anything else.

And then comes the character that is most absurd of all, in my opinion: King Louie. Mowgli is brought to an ancient temple by the monkeys of the jungle, and in a completely overdone scene of mystery and a heavily clichéd reveal, Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), makes odd, indirect small talk with Mowgli behind shadows, finally revealing himself to be not an adorable scatting orangutan, but a colossal gigantopithecus. Now, to be fair, King Louie was not a character found in Rudyard Kipling's original short stories, so Disney had every right to take liberties, but the fact that Louie is a twelve-foot-tall ape completely ruins his purpose in the original story and in this one. Everyone's heard the old joke "Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants." Being twelve feet tall, Louie likely weighs about 3,600 pounds, using the cubic scaling law. Why on earth would Louie a) "want to be like [Mowgli]," and b) need fire to rule the jungle? Baloo even marvels at his legendary size. It doesn't help my enjoyment of his character that he spontaneously bursts into song in front of Mowgli, even going so far as to (appropriately) rhyme "gigantopithecus" with "ridiculous." Is this a musical or isn't it? Baloo sang his obligatory "Bare Necessities" earlier in the film, but at least he gave an explanation (though lazily undeveloped) of his love of music to Mowgli. Louie's character is utterly pointless, and he was clearly used exclusively by Disney as nothing more than a source of shock value and a chance for another scary animal to chase and narrowly miss killing Mowgli and instead crush himself in his own temple's rubble (but don't worry, kids, the invincible "fire-needing" ape emerges unscathed in the end credits for an unfitting reprise of "Wanna Be Like You").

The rest of the movie is a blur of ridiculous resolution. Mowgli, finding out that his surrogate father Akela was killed, decides to confront Shere Khan by doing exactly as the tiger had predicted—stealing fire from the man-village and carelessly burning down half of the jungle on his way back (which appears to take about an hour, despite his original journey taking days). When Shere Khan points out that he was completely right all along, the jungle animals look forlornly at Mowgli, but do they logically accept that he is too dangerous to live with them? No! They instead inexplicably side with him against the tiger! Is Shere Khan a ruthless tyrant? Sort of. But killing one wolf alpha and slightly brainwashing his cubs pales in comparison to Mowgli utterly torching an entire section of the jungle and the beasts within it. Shere Khan's utter confusion at their stand against him mirrored my own as they charged at him, buying time for Mowgli to "fight him like a man."

Apparently, fighting someone like a man in the movie meant running away to a burning tree, luring Shere Khan onto a conveniently broken branch, and swinging to safety on a hastily-made rope swing. I was disappointed that this scene even included monologuing by Shere Khan, on top of everything else. And the CGI almost makes you forget that fire is not the only danger in those situations—fleeing into a burning thicket would have caused Mowgli to succumb to smoke inhalation very quickly.

In the end, the animals somehow find it in their overly lenient hearts to forgive Mowgli, and rather than accepting his place as a true man for what he has done, Mowgli instead decides that his true place is with the animals, tricks and all. This, along with the female wolf Raksha ridiculously becoming the new alpha to shoehorn in some feminist propaganda made the ending of the movie entirely unsatisfying to me. What is the theme here? That you can be whatever you want? That you shouldn't listen to others? That you should? Just the fact that Disney made this movie was probably enough to make it a success. If any other studio made a film this rushed and CGI-laden, acclaim would have been replaced by harsh criticism.* Even existing critics' reviews of the film seem to be based on such empty praise as "it handsomely revives the spirit of Disney's original film," so it's anyone's guess how this muddled film would have done on its own as a lone release by a different studio, or if it didn't have an all-star cast. Even with the older Disney film in mind, any theme in the 1967 cartoon is lost in this adaptation, leaving this version unconvincing, uninspiring, and ultimately, unnecessary.

_____
*See Warcraft (2016 film)

Monday, September 19, 2016

WarCraft Easter Eggs: All the Rest

Well, my journey through the Warcraft 3 Easter eggs has come to an unofficial end. I've found pretty much every secret there is to find, I hope. Below are the two "addendum" videos that showcase all the ones I missed during my first pass through all the campaigns. After this, I have ideas for two more videos, one about the models in the game and the other about the interface icons, so I'll get to work on those at some point in the future. But as far as the campaigns go, these secrets were all really awesome to find.

>> goo.gl/rKN0aA <<




>> COMING SOON <<


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Alfred Shortstaff and the Cavern of Time Second Edition!


I got around to reading Alfred Shortstaff and the Cavern of Time from cover to cover in print, which is a good medium to, sadly, find errors! Gah! There were at least 40 changes I had to make to the text itself, and then I ended up re-typesetting the entire book because I realized that the spacing on the chapters bothered me. How embarrassing. Well, if you've bought the book already, you now own a rare first-edition copy!

The book is now updated on Amazon if you'd like to own a cleaner version (I know I do). No plot changes were implemented (except a few very minor changes to dialog), however, so if the book you own doesn't bother you, I see no reason to spend more money on a new one. Now that the initial launch of Alfred is over, I've lowered the price to its bare minimum, $6.60. That's right—I will no longer receive any royalties whatsoever from the book. I just want people to read it now (I was only making like $0.50 per purchase anyway).

But wait, there's more! Now I'm offering Alfred and the Cavern of Time as an exclusive, free PDF for all Pretzel Lectern readers! Simply click here to get to my official Alfred page and download it. If you'd like more updates about Alfred Shortstaff, consider liking its Facebook page here.

I hope you enjoy the book, and please consider writing a review on Amazon for it when you've read it. Please don't give it 5 stars! It's not a 5-star book. It has several flaws. I myself am the author and I would only give it 4 stars, so please be as honest as possible as you review the book. With so many other self-published nobodies putting their weird fantasy books online, I want people to know the good and the bad of it so they can know whether it's worth their time.

Thanks! This has been an awesome and fun experience for both my cousin and me.