Saturday, December 3, 2011

Zelda: King of Limbo Synopsis, Part 1

Today I'm beginning serialization of a synopsis I wrote for some Legend of Zelda fans. It's what my Zelda game would be like. It's reference-heavy and in a passive sort of writing style I enjoy more than most people do. Let me know what you think, and particularly if you're interested in continuing. The plan is to keep it running daily into next week.

I’m a literalist. Following the title of the series, my Legend of Zelda game would actually be about Princess Zelda. The game opens on a Hyrule that is largely obscured under a boiling black sky, with sunlight only shining through on the west-most portion, like a fingernail moon. Someone called The King of Limbo has conquered Castle Hyrule. It looms in the distance as knights and survivors flee to the only region that still has sunlight. The darkened world is beset by an army of classic darknuts, giant hands, and moblin-type creatures that are coated in a similar blackness to the sky. Zanath, a wizard resembling Zant from Twilight Princess, pursues the escapees into the lit region, leading part of the King of Limbo’s army.

The player will quickly realize that Link is absent. We know the woods he typically resides in is overtaken by the King of Limbo’s darkness. Hyrulean soldiers set up a rampart to defend against the pursuing monsters, and reference that the invasion seemed come from nowhere. Princess Zelda, our player-character, is forced to take up a bow and help fend them off. After some moblins are temporarily incapacitated she steals one of their quivers, affording her arrows the same powers of darkness that they wield, and so allowing her to harm and dispatch the baddies. This temporarily scares Zanath off.

After getting kidnapped for her entire series,
it's about time she kicked some ass.

 The bow is Zelda’s (and your) primary weapon for the first act. Once her bodyguards are all safe and preoccupied tending to the wounded, she sneaks into the dark region to see if she can’t save Link and his fellow elves. We know she was buddies with the elf-boy. For a bit you’ll be playing through stealth, with no way to fight monsters in melee. You’re entering the dark lands and the whole mood should be foreboding. It gets creepier as you enter the forest and have to keep aware of which trees are infested and hungry. There are equal amounts ranged combat and running for your life.

The elf village has been razed, and you find only the elders are left. They claim their kids were all abducted by the Army of Limbo. You enter Link’s house hoping he’s in his hiding spot, a cave under the floorboards that is reminiscent of the first cave in the first NES Legend of Zelda game. Instead his grandpa is hiding down there. Link fought to save him and was taken. Before you leave, he says it’s dangerous to go alone and gives you Link’s wooden sword.

Because I like nostalgia references.
But Zelda’s not foolish. She isn’t fighting shadow-beasts with a wooden sword. She gets lamp oil and sets the blade on fire. The flaming sword emits heat and light, which can harm the Army of Limbo, and wards off most of the dangerous critters. This is your melee weapon for the rest of the act. Its light-warding is especially handy since the black sky begins to rain, and blighted rat-monsters spawn from the ground as it softens. Zelda needs to get the heck out of here, but first she's going after the kids.

Our first proper Dungeon is a real dungeon, at the bottom of which the kidnapped children are held. Our boss is the Fairy Eater, a giant evil fairy that’s been good at rounding up both the kids and fairies. Defeating her frees many of the children, though it’s revealed some were sent to another world called Limbo. That’s where all this blackness came from. Link was among those sent there. 

Jump to Part 2.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Maybe Santa Will Rescind

Three aunts, two uncles, two grandparents, and two parents who have been fighting all week reside over a flock of children. It’s a crepe paper massacre on Christmas Eve, starring villains Ages 3-14. The tree is ten feet tall and is guarded by a barracks of boxes. My siblings, younger and unaware how little of the haul is for them, huddle with our cousins. I retreat for the computer, letting everyone else have their night. Neither children nor Christmas are my thing, and at the height of teenaged cynicism, the family is about as unappealing.

The oldest cousin, let's call her Cedar, trots up to me. Cedar holds a green and blue box in her hands, and for a moment I think she’s going to hand it to me. It’s stirring, since she’d be the only non-grandparent who remembered me this year. It almost hurts that I’m a broke invalid teen with nothing to offer her in return. Our family stretched the bank to get as many gifts for them as we could.

Then I see CEDAR on the FOR label. She is toting one of her own trophies.

She asks, “Where’s your present?”

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “Maybe Santa will bring me something tomorrow.”

“No.” Her face contorts. “What did you get me?”

Like magic, the guilt dissipates. Her father’s loaded. I look aside the box she’s clutching, recognizing both an overflowing stocking and six packages for her by the coffee table. I point to her stack.

“Isn’t it in there?”

Cedar waddles off to investigate. I’m about to get a drink when she returns.

She reports, “It wasn’t in there.”

“Did you check under the tree?”

I’m in the kitchen when she re-returns. Now she carries fists instead of a box. Her head cranes around the entrance, as though losing sight of the Christmas tree will cause her trove to evaporate. Maybe Santa will rescind.

She asks, “It wasn’t there, either.”

“Are you sure?” I ask, hoping that a return to the tree will get her caught up in her other gifts and she’ll forget about me.

I slosh my plastic cup of tap water and lag behind her to the living room. Cedar actually elbows her sister on her way under the tree skirt. By now the skirt is lonely. Only discarded bows keep it company; the goods have been dragged to the four corners of the room for rummaging.

Near the fireplace, my little brother talks with concern to our dad. The poor little guy is close to tears with incomprehension over why the others have so many more boxes. Dad is doing his typical bad job of hiding outrage. The in-laws got him the perfect gift: another reason to be angry at someone.

Cedar purses her lips up at me. This is not at all her fault, but teenaged cynicism doesn’t care about fair.

“It’s not there,” she repeats.

“That’s funny,” I say. I wave my palm at the tree’s twinkling lights. “I put it next to the present you got for me.”

The look on her face sticks with me for years. It’s like I’ve gotten a Math problem wrong. Even the tone of her response suggests I’m the dumb kid.

She says, “I didn’t get you anything.”

And I say, “How about that?”

I remember going to check on my sister, but not much else. Christmas isn’t really my holiday.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Not Santa

Dad sees no footprints in the snow, though you know something was out there. You hear its hoofs on the roof. The chortling sounds nearly human. It waits in the chimney, or behind the tree with its eyes blinking like bulbs, carrying a sack full of children who seek out Santa. It has adapted to hunt this time of year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Lord, Hear Our Vegetarian Prayer

John: I'm going vegetarian once a week. Meatless Mondays! It's good for my heart, and my great grandma used to do that praying for my health. Maybe I can count it as a sacrifice in prayer for a friend's health.


John: But my great grandma did!


John: ...What if I promise to eat really delicious fat-heavy meat once a week? Could you cure somebody's cancer then?


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Seven Ciphers in Classic Speculative Fiction, OR, Why Ciphers Are Bad

The cipher is the character in fiction whose experiences let us learn about the world and plot. They’re the new guys in town, the teenagers coming of age and, as Steven Erikson devastatingly put it, “the people who need their own world explained to them.” There’s a strong bias against ciphers in Speculative Fiction because they’re a cheap mechanic. We live casually around things that to every previous generation would seem unbelievable. The cipher generally causes us to sacrifice the casual nature of actually using and working with things, and thus the immersion in the concocted world, for the sake of holding hands with our audience. Generally these ciphers do insult the audience, hedging that they can’t figure things out on their own, or don’t have they don’t have the attention span and intellect necessary to do so.

Early in my writing life I set out to avoid ciphers. I wanted to be fresher, more original, to challenge my readers in exciting ways. I was convinced that anyone with talent would avoid using such a low device. In retrospect of that opinion, let’s review a few of the ciphers from Speculative Fiction’s history.

Want to drive a nerd insane? Sneak up behind them
and say, "I heard those Harry Potters are based
on a book or something."
Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)
Arguably the most brilliant and blatant cipher of all time. He's a kid, so he’ll learn just by virtue of inexperience. He travels to an unknown part of our world, so he's out of his element and has to interact with everyone for the first time. And he goes to school, a building that exists so people can tell you things. He is buddies with a hardcore nerd, a wildlife enthusiast, and the ancient head of the school, all of whom vomit knowledge at him. This seven-book series could have fit in a single marble composition book if you excised all the Harry-learns-things (give or take a second composition book for redundant-events).

Alan Grant (Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton)
He knows everything about dinosaurs except that they’re alive. He also doesn’t know much math. Many of Crichton’s novels are secretly about scientific education. Congo is about primate cognition, Prey is about nanotechnology, Terminal Man is about the nervous system, and Jurassic Park is cloning. Cloning dinosaurs, and so Alan also has the park explained to him, and the cloning process, and Chaos Theory. But Alan Grant stands out as an admirably complicated cipher, introducing us to both the fun plot stuff and real theoretical science.

Bilbo and Frodo Baggins (The Hobbit and
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)
You bet your ass someone tells him what this is.
These two hobbits are the classic fish-out-of-water ciphers. They come from one specific place and have limited handiness at the outset of their stories. Their journeys force them to learn about Middle Earth, though this education causes them to grow more sufficient until the learning processes are not as explicit. Better, they’re increasingly able to deal with the strange things they run into, while not exploding into wish-fulfillment bad asses. By the end, they are winging it without learning, and the writing is implying rather than preaching. Ironically the two share one mentor, Gandalf, who at many points exists  to tell us what Tolkien was building in his world today.

Richard Cypher (The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind)
Richard Cypher. Richard Ding-Dong Cypher. Goodkind knew what he was doing to sphincter-tightening degrees. The special kid of Sword of Truth is just one of many special kid ciphers following an established publishing trope. Harry Potter was another. Following the success of Tolkien's Bilbo and Frodo, many Fantasy authors created their own rags-to-heroism ciphers, packing them with even more wish fulfillment. Richard doesn’t stay a little guy suffering to toss a ring into a volcano; he’s going to grow up, get hot girlfriends, own magic swords and slay villains. Unlike Tolkien, the new Fantasy tradition was to introduce awesome stuff so that the cipher could become awesome at that awesome stuff, or at least always witness awesome results from it. The Epic Fantasy sub-genre positively strains under the weight of these wish-fulfillment ciphers today.

Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card)
A cipher so deliberate he even has to be told he won the war. God help us all.

Also the poster for "Fuck Yeah: The Movie"
Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
As formative as Frodo Baggins, Luke starts at the bottom of the totem poll on a backwater planet. He fixes R2D2 to learn about the rebellion and plot of A New Hope. He pursues Obi Wan Kenobi to learn about his family, and in turn, we watch him studying and revealing the ways of the Jedi. In terms of ciphers, he gets some of the best emotion. One particular bit of information he uncovers is the most famous reveal in all of Science Fiction, but it resonates because it was as much of a shock to audiences as it was to the boy. His ascent fits both the Hero’s Journey and the model of the cipher’s journey. We want to learn more about the Jedi. We want to learn if there’s anything left in his father’s heart. The best way a cipher can succeed is when we want to learn what they’re going to teach us about their fictions.

Upon learning what the cipher is, you gradually realize that they were integral to droves of the Speculative Fiction you enjoyed. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Peter Parker? Kvothe? John Crichton? Chell? David Bowman and friends? This is Commander Shepard’s favorite cipher on the Citadel? Speculative Fiction will be a richer landscape when more of it is about people casually living with the fantastic, but the cipher will probably never go away. Not so long as there are more generations growing up and learning things for the first time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

True Stories of John 16: Skyrim

The first blue rays of dawn are scarcely enough to differentiate the plains from the sky. I sprint under a sheet of fading stars, seeking openings in the grey cliff face. One opens like a black mouth. I am swallowed, and creep on my knees through shadows toward their fireplace. Their dog sniffs. It smells me. My bow-arm isn’t swift enough, and soon its masters follow. Two humans and an orc. That orc, the Bandit Captain, wears so much iron that I have to dance behind him for a hope of harm. He kills me six times before succumbing to a combination of lightning and mace blows.

Then came nine o’clock. The town dump was open. I rose from my padded chair and strained with my back. It was three minutes before I could bend to pick up the recycling bin. I’d spend the whole drive thinking what you could do with three minutes in that zany videogame.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Editing 1996

“And you, Des?” Wesley leaned up from the time capsule, extending his left hand for her offering. “What are you sending back to old 1996?”

She folded her arms under her breasts. “You mean, if any of this works at all?”

She was the skeptic of the group, but she was here. He frowned at her.

“Yeah, Des. If.”

Des mirrored his frown for so long that he grew suspicious. Eventually he realized she was really watching the others shuffle out of the backyard, beyond the blast shield. Only when they were out of earshot did she open her purse.

“Des. You’re sending yourself your own book? Want teen-Desdemona Restlake to rest assured that it all works out?”

“If I knew what I know now, I’d be an immeasurably better writer.”

As she extended it, the jacket fluttered open. Wesley caught sight of a red inscription. Was she sending herself an autograph? That was just like her. Or maybe stock tips. Which was fair. Wes was ordering his past self to get on top of Google.

Wesley made the show of placing it into the capsule, watching her eyes more than her hardcover. The instant she turned to leave, his fingers curled in the pages.

He looked down into the capsule and was surprised to find every page had signatures on it. Wait, not signatures. Sentences were scratched out. Her awful chicken scratches filled the margins. He could only make out a few of the red notes.



“So original. You’ve never read Hamlet?”


“Was this innuendo? We forget”

He jerked his head up. Des was already behind the blast shield with the rest of their friends. Perfect posture, eyes condescending over all the dumbasses. The brains of the group. If Wes had been standing over there, he never would have imagined the one thing she’d change in time was her bestseller.
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