Nov 18

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Thoughts from overheard conversations

Boonton Coffee

Boonton, NJ

September 2017

People speak loudly in coffee shops, so it’s their fault I think what I’m thinking.

“She’s tall.  Very nice.  Comfortable.”

— Guy on high school desk chair.

I sip my coffee and wonder if he’s referring to an actual woman or if he’s assigning a gender on an inanimate object.  Maybe it’s because of the eclectic seating in here, but his emphasis on “comfortable” makes me think of furniture, a refrigerator or a sturdy wooden armoire.  The espresso steamer drowns out whatever he says next.

“A Murkrow.”

— Guy standing in line to order coffee.

The Pokémon GO twinkling percussion theme song follows that comment.  I’d recognize that anywhere because my husband doesn’t turn off the music when he plays that game.  I love that game, too, but there is a level in hell where that theme song plays nonstop.  I hear the swoosh toss sound effect of the Pokeball, the boink bounce on the Pokemon’s head and the catch snap, capture click.  He won this round and I hear that trumpet blast of triumph.  Really loud.  His phone volume must be maxed out.

I pause and look down at my phone.  I have the app open as I often do and think, Did I miss something?  A Murkrow doesn’t interest me, but is it time for me to spin?  This is the reason I’m sitting on this mildly uncomfortable bench with my phone tethered to the outlet at my feet. Pokemon GO sucks the battery life from my phone like a kid slurps spaghetti.  I see the Murkrow on the screen.  It still doesn’t interest me, but the conversation does.

The guy at the counter is part of a group of four young adults who look like, well, I imagine they play Dungeons & Dragons.  One of them appears extra-nerdy and could be the reason I hear the theme song over the steaming espresso machine.

Should I get up with the excuse to refill my coffee and casually comment on the game when I’m up at the counter?  I want to go up there and ask them if there’s a Legendary raid nearby.  I know there isn’t, but I want to be a part of their world their all.

I squirm on my bench and watch them shuffle and waddle out the door.  Did I miss an opportunity?

“We need something unique.  Like Starbucks.  Put a slice through our logo….”

— A male Boonton Coffee barista.

Unique?  Is he talking about this coffee shop not being unique?  This long wood table, worn but slightly shimmery as if recently varnished, has a picnic table vibe from it.  But it’s much more commanding than that.

There’s a fluffy leather or vinyl couch on my left with black and white striped throw pillows.

There are two white wood barstools at a white drafting table in the back.  Someone sits there, typing on a laptop.  There’s another table with a world globe as table decor.

Four wall-size chalkboards list the drinks.  Above them, “Boonton Coffee” is spelled out from sliced up old New Jersey license plates.  Next, to that metal montage, a framed The Toxic Avengers movie marquee poster hangs on the wall.  They have a drink named that.  Which came first?

The hip and the groovy vibe is further conveyed with the rough burlap coffee bags everywhere.  Serious coffee establishments display them as art deco, and I’ve not seen them used as full-size wall hangings, here looking shabby chic, bohemian, chill against raw red brick walls.  There’s a stump across the room that looks like a wrapped wood barrel that I can’t tell is a practical seating element or museum-esque décor.  Pleasantly, there’s not a single pillow crafted from that material; that’s so overdone.  The crafted burlap cup coasters are unique.

Like the Starbucks chain could charm this haunt.

“We lost our dog.  Then my dad got news that my grandmother was going downhill…. My mom has two cats she’s really attached to and one ran away…. But other than that, nothing’s new.”

— Guy on the couch to my left.

He ends that with a lighthearted laugh, not a serious laugh but the shrug-your-shoulder kind of laugh.  I glance to my left, expecting to see a pimply skinny teenager.  Instead, here’s a blonde hair, scruffy-stubble-bearded Andrew McCarthy from the Pretty in Pink era.  He’s across from two girls with everyone using the steam trunk treasure chest as their table.  By their body language, they’re all friends, just friends, and he’s the ringleader.  He’s the only one on the couch, leaning forward on the throne and the only one of three with a to-go cup.  The two girls sitting on green-handled chairs have for-here mugs.  Either this guy is super-casual, you know, nothing bothers him, or he has no sense of loss in real life tragedy.  He comments that he’s dated his girlfriend since high school.  I’m glad I’m not her and take another sip of my room temperature coffee.

“Crap!  It’s Jordan’s birthday.  I forgot to call her.  (Girl laughs) She’s my best friend. (Giggles) (Picks up phone, beep boop dial) I can’t get through.  What’s her number?”

— Girl #1 sitting on one green-handled chair.

She talks about “on my 18th birthday” like it was forever ago, so I figure she is the ripe old age of a college sophomore or junior.  I go with sophomore because that makes me feel younger and them more insensitive.

Sad thing is, I see myself thinking her initial comment.  With my move to New Jersey, I’m now physically closer to my college friends.  This is a great opportunity to reconnect.  I called those friends exactly zero times.  Two of them called and visited me, but I haven’t done the same.  I suddenly want to call everyone, but I’m in a coffee shop.  I’m not one of “those people” who hold a conversation so loud you can hear it over the espresso machine.  That’s my excuse, and I sip my coffee to feel trendy and distracted.

“I’ve tried to find every reason not to like her, but I can’t.”

— Girl #2 sitting on the other green-handled chair.

The 80s phrase “Oh my gawd!” comes to mind.  The tone of the girl’s voice is light-hearted but what a mean person, someone who envied the popular crowd in high school.  Or was she the popular crowd?  She wears jeans with rips down both legs, new ones that are sold pre-destroyed.  Like, she’s so hip.

“Thanks.  It’s been nice sitting next to you.  My name’s Greg.” 

— Big guy next to me at the table.

He reaches out to shake my hand.  Is this awkward or creepy?  Regardless, I’m polite in coffee shops.

“Hello, Greg,” I say as we shake hands.  “I’m Diana.”

He speaks quietly, the way an awkward teenage high school boy does.  His handshake is mildly firm and a bit clammy but without the sweat.  We’re at an awkward angle, so it’s more like a half-handshake.

“Have a blessed day,” Greg says.  He walks away.

There was nothing special about our interaction.  I never saw him before and we mostly ignored each other.  I asked him if I could put my phone on the chair between us because my charging cable is too short to reach the table.  He asked me to plug in his laptop cord because the outlet is beside me, too far from him to reach.  There was no missed opportunity.  It was common stuff.  Or not.

Nov 06

His to Hold

An insidious hot bubbling from Lucas Remmer’s past started to rise inside his chest. He’d been out of practice blocking it out, a kid the last time it happened. But he felt it when he heard a scream come from inside a suspect’s house. They were there to question him, but the sound lit a fire inside his limbs to get in and help. When he saw what had happened after kicking in the door his helplessness ignited the final spark that took him out. It gripped him from the inside out and there was nothing that could have stopped it. The darkness came.

“Lucas!” Someone yelled. “Lucas! Eyes on me, man.” His back slammed into something hard. “Lucas!”

Muscles tight. Fists curled around flesh. “Lucas!”

Something pulled him back. He knew that voice. His best friend. A slow blink and then, “Joe?”

“Fuck.” Joe’s whole body went slack. “What just happened, man?”

A stack of images surfaced, fluttering like a deck of cards in his mind. Images from the past he didn’t want to remember, others that weren’t clear of the woman he’d seen lying on the floor. His body jerked out of Joe’s grip. He needed to get to the woman. He had to help her. Lucas looked around.

“Where is she? What happened to the woman?” His mind still lost to the black haze that had coated his mind his focus driven to the woman who needed help. Until he looked around to see the other officers on scene. Their eyes were wide. Some looked away. Others, stood with arms crossed their bodies primed to jump.

Joe had been his friend since the academy, the same graduating class. The man tensed as Lucas went to move around him. Joe stepped in his way. Lucas moved toward the front door, his hands fisted at his sides, his anger jumping across his skin. He didn’t want to hurt his friend, but he needed to see the woman for himself.

“Move out of the way, Joe.” He went to move again, and Joe caught his arm.

“Just hang on. Coop and Mick got her loaded on the ambo. They’re headed to Beaumont West Emergency.”

“Let me go, Joe.” Lucas’s voice low, disembodied like it was from another person said. “I need to get to her.” The whole time Lucas pushed Joe, Joe pressed him harder back into the wall.

“No.” Joe’s eyes narrowed on Lucas, searching. Joe shook him. A tiny jerk. “What the hell just happened?”

Lucas shut down. He didn’t want to acknowledge what had just happened. He didn’t think he would ever have to speak of that time in his childhood again.

Joe waited for him to respond. Lucas stayed mute. What could he tell his friend without revealing too much? He broke Joe’s intense stare and his eyes took in the room. It was destroyed. Blood. There was a pool of it.

Lucas’s panic jetted with the congealing puddle of blood that rested not too far away from his feet. Had he done this? No. He shook his head. Maybe he could un-see it. Had he caused this? He couldn’t remember. Only flashes of memory came to him. They were memories of the woman, not the man they came to question. “No,” he whispered.

Joe looked over his shoulder and jerked his head toward the door. The other officers stepped outside to greet the continually blue and red flashing lights. Lucas now recognized the flurry of movement and more officers and an ambulance. Another ambulance?

“Where’s the suspect?” Lucas asked. That was when he noticed the throbbing in his hands and uncurled them. He just stared. His knuckles were a jagged mess, red and oozing blood. Lucas’s jaw hurt too.

“Where’s the woman?” He ignored the mess he made of himself and concentrated on the one thing that mattered above all else. “I need to see her. Let go.”

“Only place you’re going is the precinct. The Lieutenant wants your ass in her office.”

“Shit.” Margo was the only one who knew his secret. He had to fully disclose his one and only weakness. He should have told Joe, but what would the guy think of him if he knew what he’d done.

“You good?” Joe asked.

“Huh?”

Joe rubbed his face. “I don’t know what the hell just happened but you’re gonna tell me all of it.”

“Yeah,” Lucas responded. He didn’t know if it was to Joe’s statement or just to appease him, so he could get the visit over with his Lieutenant.

Joe’s fingers uncurled from Lucas’s arm and he stepped back. It was then he got a full look at the destruction and carnage left behind after his blackout. Furniture was overturned, blood was splattered over the floor, the sofa. The drapes were marred with stains.

What had it looked like when they’d arrived? His hand twitched. And he flinched. A memory took a front seat in his cortex. The scream. Lucas had been through the flimsy door in a second, breaking it down with the slam of his boot.  The locks had torn from the jamb. He blinked again. He saw the woman lying in a pool of blood. He blinked again. He’d moved toward her to get to her. Her swollen eyes in macabre relief, the slits barely open. Fingerprints embedded purple on the woman’s arms and neck. The suspect hovering over her. That’s when things got fuzzy.

He thought he might have groaned at one point as he exited through the tiny house’s front door. He walked straight to his unmarked ride keeping his gaze forward afraid what he might see in the other officers’ eyes.

Lucas stood at the passenger door and looked at Joe over the roof of the car. He went to open his mouth and make some excuse for his actions but closed it. What could he say? He got in and buckled up. Joe yelled something over to one of the other guys and got in.

Lucas looked down to find his hands shaking. His opened and bloodied knuckles a reminder of what he didn’t remember doing.

The driver’s door slammed, and Lucas jumped. Fucking jumped.

Joe gripped the steering wheel, his friend taking a quick look over at Lucas. Lucas ignored him.

The drive to the precinct seemed to take a lifetime.

*****

Rubbing his face with his fucked-up hands, Lucas slammed his locker.

“Fuck!”

He’d been suspended. Lucas wasn’t surprised.

His badge now sat on the Lieutenant’s desk along with his police-issued Smith n’ Wesson M&P. He had to fix this, so he could get back to work. He was the job.

Margo didn’t want to take his gun and badge because she was on his side. But she couldn’t have one of her Detectives going off, losing his shit on a suspect to the point where Joe had had to restrain him. But he knew the man he’d beat the shit out of deserved it. That and a lot more.

The wife or woman the man had been assaulting had barely been conscious when they’d busted down the door.

Joe and he had arrived to ask the man some questions on a case they’d been trying to solve for a couple of months. It was the first break they had gotten. At least the asshole was in a cell. Joe had struggled to pull him off as things went critical, but he’d also said it had taken longer for Lucas to snap out of what had gone down. Lucas took a slow breath trying to calm his heart rate, a trick one of his earlier shrinks had taught him. He could have killed the guy without even remembering it. From what the paramedics had told him, the man only needed some stitches after they’d woken him up with some smelling salts. Lucas had punched the guy hard enough, Joe said, that he hit the floor with such an impact it rattled the whole place.  He and the other officers had gotten him cuffed, on a gurney, and quickly assessed he would be fine. He’d been quickly hauled off to jail.

As his hands still trembled with emotion he opened his locker once again and pulled his coat and go-bag out of his locker. He threw everything else that was in his locker in his bag and was just about to leave when he smelled tobacco and fabric softener. Joe must have changed while he was in with the Lieutenant.

“You okay, man?”

Lucas’s head shook with a jerk. He kept silent. When Joe’s hand landed on his shoulder Lucas pulled away turning to his best friend.

He regretted Joe seeing him at his worst. The scene Lucas and he had walked in on had him on a precipice. On one side was the rage on the other was a helplessness he’d not felt in a long time. And then there was the shame, but he pushed that down. All sides daggers to his psyche. The beast of emotions inside him had been dormant. Not so much anymore.

A ball of inanimate emotion ready to burst out of his skin had been his nemesis as long as Lucas could remember. And it had gone off today. He didn’t grow up with violent parents. There was no sordid past that had him sitting in a shrink’s chair to sort out teen angst. No, that had come as the edge of adulthood crept closer.

He’d seen violence all his life growing up in a neighborhood that stood on a line, that if crossed, could bring a world of hurt followed by a lot of bad decisions. He had never crossed that line but it had crossed his. Images from the past crowded his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and forced them into the small box deep in his mind.

He looked up past Joe and saw the sign over the door. “Protect and Serve” Lucas laughed. There was no humor in it.

Joe frowned. “Talk to me, Luc.”

Lucas hadn’t done his job. He’d added more problems for everyone in his unit.

When he’d walk in on the scene, his mind remembering more as the day dragged him across a graveled pavement, he’d seen the look in the woman’s eyes. Abject terror. Her muddled and beaten body had probably still been in a fight or flight mode but it wasn’t able to react, and she’d seen him, and the panic had pushed her to the point of passing out. When he’d looked at her he was pretty sure she thought he was a monster.

“I got to go.”

“Come on. Jesus, Luc. Had I not stopped you, that guy would have been done. As it was, it took three of us to pull you off him. What’s going on?” Lucas thought it had been just Joe. Now he understood all the other guys in the room.

Lucas could see the hurt in his friend’s eyes, but he didn’t want to talk about it.

“I need to go,” he repeated.

“Fine. You don’t want to talk about this with me. But you need to talk to someone about what happened.”

He nodded, not able to look his friend in the eyes and left the building. Lucas drove straight to the hospital. Once there he was glad to see a nurse on duty that knew him. With his badge on his Lieutenants desk, he had nothing to show proof of his identity that had some pull to get in and see Marcella.

“Hi, Detective Remmer.”

“Cindy,” he said. “I need to ask Marcella Neens, the woman who was attacked and brought in earlier some questions.” Since he wasn’t so lucid after his blackout he had had to ask Joe on the way over what the woman’s name was.

It made his insides curl up to think that Marcella would still have the frightened look on her face when he went in to see her. Lucas didn’t want her to fear him but there was a definite chance that she would feel that way. Remembering a little more of what had happened he’d gotten to the woman at one point, such a quick second before the suspect tried to get back at the woman and Lucas had gone at him again, she was still lost in fight or flight mode and Marcella had seen his figure leaning over her and had cowered in fear, a natural reaction.

“She’s in room 201, Luc.” She smiled and stopped him before he could move away. “Hey, do you want to catch a drink with me later? I had a nice time the last time we hung out.”

Lucas tried to remember if he’d ever spent time with Cindy without giving away that he didn’t really remember a time they’d hung out.

“Sure, I’ll call you.” Cindy frowned and went to stand up, but Lucas quickly walked down to Marcella’s room without looking back. He probably deleted Cindy’s phone number. He wasn’t much for relationships. His job was what mattered. And he wasn’t interested in getting her number again either. He had to get his shit together and even thinking about a relationship gave him hives.

He stood outside Marcella’s room and tried to stockpile some courage to walk past the threshold. Once Lucas walked in he knew what he would see. It made him curl up his fists as his anger once again grew causing his nails to dig into his skin. One more deep breath and he moved into the room the ground shaky. Or was that his legs.

“Oh, Jesus!” He couldn’t help the outburst. She was black and blue everywhere and what he couldn’t see Lucas was pretty sure it would be the same.

He took a seat that was close to the barred bed and didn’t look away. As quietly as possible he released the pin in the side barricade and moved it down. Lucas scooted his chair closer. She was too thin, the bruises more evident because of it. Her one hand lay next to her covered form. It seemed to be the only place that she didn’t have bruises and without thinking of the consequences he slid his bigger hand under her delicate one. Thin and pale, the manicure still perfect but without color now, Lucas stroked her fingers like he was touching the cap of hair on a baby’s head.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more,” he whispered. “If I’d gotten there earlier maybe we could have prevented what happened to you.” His forehead went to her hand and rested there. Then to his cheek.

The hand under him jerked and his head shot up. Marcella’s eyes were only the narrowest of slits, probably making it hard to see.

“I’m sorry,” Lucas said but didn’t let her hand go. He continued to stroke her fingers, so she would understand he wouldn’t hurt her. She tried to pull away again. “I’m Detective Lucas Remmer. You’re in the hospital. You’re safe.” Her breaths were getting faster and the beeping on the machines sped up. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you. My partner and I rescued you. I’m sorry…I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner.”

Marcella began turning her head in hard angry jerks. Back and forth, back and forth. Moaning.

“Are you in pain?” Lucas stood up to get a nurse. This time he felt her grip harden and he held in a wince.

“No, no, no,” she whispered repeatedly. “Not your fault.” Her breathing hitched a few times and her eyes skittered around the room.

“He’s not here. You’re safe. The man who beat you is in jail.”

Her eyes met his. Marcella’s breathing began to slow and finally level out. Cindy rushed in breathing heavy. Her eyes flashed down where their hands were joined, and her lips pinched together. She took some vitals and wrote some things down on a chart.

“She needs her rest, Luc. And you’re obviously not here to question her. You need to leave.”

Marcella squeezed his hand hard. “No,” came the small voice, her throat still swollen, which it would be for a while. Cindy’s head turned toward Marcella and her face softened. But as soon as she took in Lucas sitting next to her bed, again the woman glared at him like his head was an empty can and her eyes were a forty-five that had just shot at him. She turned on her heel and left the room.

“I’m Marcella,” she said.

“I know sweetheart. I’m Lucas.”

“I know.” A small smile lit her face as tears welled in her eyes. But in the next moment something banged outside in the hallway, and what followed was a deep roar from, Lucas guessed, another patient. There was shouting and running feet. Marcella reacted and jumped pushing herself back as far as she could go, her body starting to shake uncontrollably. She groaned and curled in on the pain he could guess was bad.  Lucas stood up and moved slowly toward her never dropping eye contact. Her eyes never leaving his stare.

“You’re going to be alright. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Lucas decided then and there that he would do everything he could for Marcella in her recovery. Even though they were complete strangers, when he looked at her, there was a connection that he couldn’t deny. Something had happened to him in that house while she lay on that floor bleeding. More than just the blackout. Something that brought back the past he’d kept buried for too long. He didn’t know what his time with Marcella would bring but he wasn’t going to hide behind his badge or his past. He needed to figure things out. And he thought Marcella might just be the first step.

 

 

 

Nov 05

Twenty Games I’d Like to See Get a Sequel

If there is one thing I like best about video game sequels, it would be the continuation of a story or enhancement of a casual game. While I love hearing news of an upcoming installment that will add to a series I enjoy, there are many games I’ve played in my lifetime that sadly never got a follow-up.

Below is my list of twenty games, including some obscure titles, I would like to see a sequel for.

1) Phantasmagoria (1995)\Puzzle of Flesh (1996) – An interactive horror game series that filmed actors against a blue screen, Phantasmagoria was quite innovative for the technology of its time. While the original entry and its sequel, Puzzle of Flesh, told stories unrelated to each other, they were the most suspenseful and goriest games I’d ever played up to that point. If the company that produced them hadn’t gone out of business, it would have been interesting to see the series evolve with the times.

2) Portal 2 (2011) — I love the Portal series for its interesting blend of logistical puzzles and humorous stories. It centers around a mute girl named Chell who is being used as a test subject in an underground facility run by a sadistic artificial intelligence called Glados. While Chell is let out into the surface world at the end of Portal 2, it shouldn’t necessarily mean the series is over. I feel that there are other stories that could be told – maybe even with a different protagonist. I hold out hope for news of a third game on the horizon.

3) Gauntlet Legends (1998)\Dark Legacy (2000) – Gauntlet Legends and Dark Legacy both exist as bold, larger than life reimagining of the original two-dimensional game from 1985. Legends took the basic concept and made it a hundred times better with a three-dimensional environment and more resources to keep the player’s character alive. Legends and Dark Legacy were so enjoyable that they had me visiting the local arcade on a weekly basis. What’s even better is that the arcade game saved my progress and character level because I typed in a password on the machine. While I wish that there was a sequel to expand on the two existing games, they remain some of my all-time favorite dungeon-crawlers.

4) Command and Conquer: Renegade (2002) — While I am a fan of the Command and Conquer franchise in general, Renegade stands out for being the only game in the series to let you assume control of a single character rather than directing one army to fight another. In Renegade, you step into the shoes of a commando named Havoc who takes on missions to destabilize an evil organization. I spent countless hours playing and replaying levels on all difficulty settings. I would have liked to see another Command and Conquer game use the same formula. But since the production company went out of business a year later, it seems all I can do is dream.

5) Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001) — Though loosely derived from writer Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Emperor tells an equally intriguing story centered around a battle between three factions to seize control of a planet holding the galaxy’s most valuable resource. I spent countless hours with the roleplaying strategy game, sometimes spending half a day just trying to get through a single mission. The ending of the game remained the same no matter which faction was picked and was left very open-ended. I would have loved to see a follow-up that would answer some questions about the conclusion of Emperor. Unfortunately, the same company – Westwood Studios — behind Command and Conquer was also the one that produced Emperor: Battle for Dune. The closure of the company pretty much guaranteed that a sequel would never come.

6) Fable III (2010) – Though I don’t consider Fable III as the best PC game I’ve ever played, it still had good qualities I’d like to see improved upon in a fourth entry. In Fable III, you play as a young prince or princess – dependent on player preference – whose older brother is a cruel ruler who is asking for a revolution. The younger sibling escapes the palace and proceeds to forge alliances to take back the kingdom. The player decides if the main character will be a benevolent or downright evil ruler. But I feel there could have been better ways to exemplify the paths chosen. For me, it’s very off-putting to see the main character show his or her willingness for evil by farting in someone’s face. Sadly, the series hit a dead end following the release of a standalone game in 2012. Since the company behind the Fable series – Lionhead Studios – closed down in 2016, there may never be a Fable IV.

7) King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity (1998) – The only thing that this particular game has in common with the first seven entries in the King’s Quest series is the title. Mask of Eternity is a role-playing, dungeon-crawler game that hardly seems to fit with a series of point-and-click fantasy games. Nevertheless, Mask of Eternity is very enjoyable for what it is. While I never made it all the way to the end thanks to a game glitch that halted my progress, it would be nice to see a follow-up in the same vein.

8) Dead Island: Riptide (2013) – The Dead Island series consists of the most intense zombie survival horror games I’ve ever played. Both the original game and Riptide are hardcore enough to have me angrily cursing every five to ten minutes. There are also moments where I’ve felt like a total bad-ass with some of the zombie kills I got. The first two games are set on separate islands in an archipelago where an outbreak has occurred and both games allow you to play as one of 4 to 5 characters with different strengths. There was an announcement for a Dead Island 2 – to be set in California of all places – that was scheduled to be released in 2015. But production problems resulted in the sequel never seeing the light of day. Whether it will ever be released is anyone’s guess.

9) Oregon Trail 2 (1995) – Oregon Trail 2 is an excellent educational simulation game where the player strives to get pioneers safely from their starting point to a new life in the west. I can’t even count the number of times I attempted to traverse the trail, but most of my playthroughs ended with the wagons getting trapped in a mountain pass during the winter. I feel that a potential third game would be outstanding with today’s technology. I strongly hope to see Oregon Trail 3 become a reality someday.

10) Icebreaker (1995) – Of all the games I’ve played in my lifetime, Icebreaker wins top marks for being the most unique. It is an addictive arcade-type game where the player controls a 3D triangular icon that can shoot bullets or smash certain objects in the game by ramming them. The goal to beating each level is to completely destroy a grid of pyramids. Some examples of what makes it challenging are that the stationary pyramids require different methods to demolish, while the mobile pyramids can kill the player-controlled icon if they catch it. As if that didn’t ramp up the difficulty enough, there are also hidden traps or hazards to watch out for, such as a pit to fall into. I got so much enjoyment from Icebreaker that I’m sad it never got a bigger and better sequel.

Top (L-R) Altered Beast, Phantasmagoria, Command and Conquer: Renegade
Middle (L-R) Plants vs. Zombies 2, Super Puzzle Fighter II, Maniac Mansion
Bottom (L-R) Battle Slots, Dead Island: Riptide, Icebreaker, Darkseed II (photo credits at end)

11) Plants vs. Zombies 2 (2013) – The Plants vs. Zombies series consists of games that are kid-friendly, but still very enjoyable. It is exactly what the title suggests and consists of the player picking a roster of eight to nine plants per level to ward off zombie attacks. When I first heard news of a sequel to the original game from 2009, I was ecstatic – until I found out it would only be playable on an Android device instead of a PC. I greatly hope that there will be a Plants vs. Zombies 3 someday and that it will be compatible with a device that I actually own.

12) Maniac Mansion (1987)\Day of the Tentacle (1993) – Maniac Mansion was a comical puzzle game series that was so challenging I had to frequently look at hints on how to get through it. While the plot was too bizarre to try to make sense of – a mad scientist kidnaps a college girl because he’s being mind-controlled by a meteor – the game greatly appealed to me at my young age. Day of the Tentacle brought back some of the characters from Maniac Mansion, but there’s no way I could summarize the plot in a way that would do it justice. I would have liked to see a continuation, but I guess there was only so much weirdness that the series’ production team could come up with.

13) Age of Mythology (2002) – Age of Mythology is one of the best strategic battle games I’ve played and features tons of elements from Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology. The game also has an epic story that sees heroes from each civilization band together to prevent the release of the imprisoned Titans. Most levels allow you to utilize God powers, such as summoning an earthquake, to help defeat the enemy armies. Good luck on figuring out how to get through the game on the hardest difficulty – I never could, but I still enjoyed playing it very much. I recently learned that there was an expansion pack – which focuses on Chinese mythology — developed last year for a remastered version of Age of Mythology. But I still would very much like to see a sequel made.

14) Origamo (1994) – Origamo is a casual puzzle game that’s similar to Tetris and consists largely of using polygonal shapes to fill in a given origami-like image for each level. While it might not have appealed to everyone – especially since it seemed impossible to beat the game on the hardest difficulty setting – it is one that holds a special place in my heart. Part of me will always wish it had been popular enough to warrant a sequel.

15) Altered Beast (1988) – A game I was frequently drawn to during trips to the arcade, Altered Beast is a side-scrolling fighting game that pits the generic main character against a wide variety of supernatural monsters. During each stage, the player can use power-ups to transform their character into a beast – such as a werewolf or were-tiger – to better decimate the monsters encountered. I loved this game so much when it was still around that I once spent an entire day feeding quarters into the machine just to get all the way through it. What I would love even more is to see a modernized version of it made available for gamers.

16) Darkseed II (1995) – The Darkseed games hold the distinction of being a showcase for the artwork of H.R. Giger, the artist who designed the title creature in the popular Alien film franchise. Aside from being visually stunning, this sci-fi PC series has some good stories. The basic plot for both games has a man named Mike Dawson striving to stop aliens – from a place called the Darkworld – from succeeding in a plot to destroy the Earth. It disappointed me that Mike was killed at the end of the second game. I often felt that the story shouldn’t have stopped there. I’ve seen many other video games come up with something creative to bring a supposedly dead character back to life. It’s doubtful that the Darkworld aliens would have stopped aiming for Armageddon. It would really be nice to see the series revitalized after all this time, but I won’t hold my breath.

17) Mystery P.I. (2007 – 2011) – Mystery P.I. is the collective title given to a series of hidden object games for the PC. Featuring elaborately designed levels, Mystery P.I. really made it a challenge to locate all the objects on the given list. It is a series that easily could have kept going, but sadly came to an end after the release of the eighth game.

18) SimCoaster (2001) – I know there are a lot of video games that allow the player to build their own theme park, but I regard SimCoaster as a personal favorite just for its simplicity. It is another game I never got to play all the way through thanks to some bugs in the code, but it is one I never tired of. If a more modern version should ever be released, I would snap it up in a second.

19) Battle Slots (2011) – Battle Slots is a highly creative video game that combines slot machines with a duel-to-the-death fighting game. Your victory in battle against your opponent is dependent on how many good spins you get on the slots. The concept is so original and innovative that I’m surprised a Battle Slots 2 never came to be. Fingers crossed that my hopes for a sequel will one day become a reality.

20) Super Puzzle Fighter II (1996) – Super Puzzle Fighter II, an arcade game that I frequently fed quarters to, was a combination of Tetris and Street Fighter. The primary goal was to clear rows on the Tetris board as quickly as possible to decimate the other player or computer A.I. controlled fighter. It is one game that I really miss playing, especially because I was particularly good at it.

I’m glad that I’ve lived long enough to have played so many different video games over an ever-changing landscape. It’s a far cry from the two-dimensional environment of Maniac Mansion to the realistic high definition characters and settings presented in Dead Island. For me, each of the games on this list deserves either a follow-up or modernization of a terrific concept. Whether or not a sequel comes to pass for each of them, the fond memories I hold for the games on this list will never go away.

Photo credits:

Phantasmagoria — https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/shacknews/assets/editorial/2016/04/phan2.jpg

Command and Conquer: Renegade — http://ilarge.lisimg.com/image/371631/800full-command-%26-conquer%3A-renegade-screenshot.jpg

Dead Island: Riptide — https://media.takealot.com/covers/covers/31999483/di6-zoom.jpg?1406707585

Icebreaker — http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ibEwDvznSZ4/VIcS0nERdII/AAAAAAAAMrw/xNLKn7XA97Y/s1600/Icebreaker_03.png

Plants vs. Zombies 2 — https://o.aolcdn.com/images/dims?quality=100&image_uri=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.blogcdn.com%2Fwww.joystiq.com%2Fmedia%2F2013%2F06%2Fplantsvszombies2.jpg&client=cbc79c14efcebee57402&signature=82c0cf06949e670dfdd42e0f1facdf581563dd6a

Maniac Mansion — http://www.honestgamers.com/images/games/13/M/16468/16.jpg

Altered Beast — https://www.arcade-museum.com/images/118/11812416304.png

Darkseed II — https://www.cdh.cz/galerie/15503-6.jpg

Battle Slots — https://www.gamingnexus.com/Images/Article/kdxlyf3047/1.jpg

Super Puzzle Fighter II — http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/271672/5816060/1266519736607/Super-Puzzle-Fighter-II-Turbo-HD-Remix-1.jpg?token=7iVN9WJB%2Bq9Ggza6oG9xUzNCHw0%3D

Nov 04

Plotter or Pantser

“Secret Sauce: If you’re not spending most of your time figuring out how your characters act or acted, you’re probably wasting your time.” Annalisa Parent, featured speaker, at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference 2017.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Or are you a crazy combination of the two? Some writers prefer to know where their stories take them before they begin. Plotters outline the story from start to finish and then write the manuscript. Others prefer to jump right in the story and let the characters talk to them to determine the direction in which the story takes them. A person who writes this way is called a pantser or “someone who writes by the seat of his pants.”

Annalisa Parent wrote a delightful, easy reading book, Storytelling for Pantsers, that helps in the scary adventure of writing by the seat of one’s pants. After reading her book, I realized that I started as a pantser for one of the manuscripts that I’m working on. Because my story involves historical facts, I’ve decided to plot the entire manuscript for accuracy of location, timeline, and the culture that shapes my characters’ lives.

However, I’ve outlined the entire story of another manuscript, but the characters continue to take me in an entirely different direction. This story puts me in the category of a plotter/pantser. I hear my characters in my sleep and wake up to a new plotline each morning. I’m okay with that because it’s not my story; it’s theirs.

What I believe is that a writer can be a plotter, a pantser, or a combination of the two depending on the writer’s personality and/or the type of story he or she is writing. There are some people who say you must plot your entire story. Others say that you can write “by-the-seat-of-your-pants” and let your characters do the plotting for you.

What do you believe? How do you write? I’d enjoy reading your thoughts on this issue.

 

Oct 25

Crow story, part seven

By Phil & Jack Rosette

My wife is a great organizer, for things important to her, anyway. Twenty-plus years of nursing probably has something to do with that. I find our three honeymoon photo albums on the bookshelf right between the wedding album and the one dated 1990. Boy, we sure took a lot of pictures back then, I think as I take the last of the three honeymoon albums to the desk and start thumbing through it.

Like the albums, the photos are in chronological order. I find that, in fact, we were in Laramie, Wyoming on August 23rd, 1989: the same day Herman Blackclaw (a.k.a. Crow Stalker), died in that same town. A quick thumb to the back of the album and I see we were in Las Vegas three weeks later, on our way home and pregnant.

We were in Laramie three days, but I remember spending only the first night in the tipi. My wife’s notes back me up on this. I look at the pictures. Both the inside and the outside of our tipi were decorated with paintings. Inside, a headdress of eagle feathers and silver, red and yellow beads hangs high on one side. Opposite is painted a large white owl. A metal cooking pot sits in the center of the split-log floor, and skins of animals act as rugs. There is also a small table with a couple of candle holders on it, but not much else. Outside, images of bison, eagles and horses expertly circle around the outside of the tipi. Over the entrance is the image of a brave holding high over his head a hatchet in one hand and a bow in the other. The brave is staring up to the sky, and above him is a black bird in flight.

Weird is fast becoming the new norm.

I take the photo album downstairs to my desk. The Jeremy-Julia charm sits on top of the baggie, right where I left it, and it seems content to stay put if it’s not inside; not ‘bound’ as the legend says. Looking closer, nothing appears to have changed; it still weighs the same and looks the same from what I can tell. If this thing possesses magic, it isn’t clear to the naked eye. It is nothing more than a gift from a crow; a sign of gratitude to me, for effectively providing its murder an easy meal. Or is it?

I did watch the first three of Crow Stalker’s videos a few days ago. I could follow it through subtitles and now know what some of a crow’s basic movements mean, like looking at you with only one eye, and turning their back to you. He explains how crows ask questions with calls and head movement simultaneously. Pitch and repetition indicate important differences that they had to learn. The videos are short so I replay them several times until I think I can hear some of the subtle differences. Now I need a crow to test them on.

Since my mind has mostly gone to the birds in recent days, I look forward to returning to the park the next morning. It is cold outside, unseasonably so for late July. Taking my coffee on the back deck, I had to grab a jacket. The pockets were full of dog treats from the last time I wore it to take Gracie and Joker to the park. Forward thinking.

The chills in my shoulders make me mistake the smoke from my cigarette for the fog of my breath. Is it really this cold, or is it just me? The dogs pawing at the door to be let inside seem to think so. I put the smoke out, gulp down the rest of my coffee, and head back inside. As I approach the door, off in the distance, I hear a familiar, chilling sound.

Caw! Caw! Caw!

I turn around at once. Nervously, my eyes dart from tree to tree, perch to perch. The chills have proliferated; I am trembling all over.

Caw! Caw! Caw!

I turn away from the door, and the dogs follow me. I scan the whole backyard, looking up toward the roof, around the fence, in our bushes, in the neighbors’ yard, yet see nothing.

‘You got something for me, Jeremy?’ I cry out in frustration. It has been a couple of months since the last time I saw him, though I swore he called after us in the park when the dogs burst after that fawn. Despite all my recent research, I feel unprepared to greet this animal again.

Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!

Five! Curious. I’ve only ever known him to speak in groups of three. What’s more, these don’t seem like the happy caws I heard when he dropped off his nametag. From Crow Stalker’s videos, I recognize the short bursts of monotone caws as ‘companion’ calls. He wants me to come with him.

‘Where are you?’

Caw! Caw!

‘I can’t follow you if I don’t know where you are! Show yourself!!’

I wait for a reply, but receive none.

‘Well??’

I wait for about two minutes, but no response. Exasperated, I finally walk back into the house. ‘Come on, girls,’ I say to the confused but excited dogs. ‘Let’s go to the park.’

At this, they fly inside, whining the whole way. They run circles around me as I attempt to fix their leashes. It takes a couple of the treats in my pocket to get them to sit still for ten seconds. Once I have them on the leashes, we step outside.

I open the door and let go of the whiny dogs. They know the park routine well enough to wait expectantly outside the car for me to open the door for them, instead of sprinting away to get lost in suburbia. I flip the lock and close the door, but instead of dashing to the car, the dogs are frozen in place. I look up and understand why.

Caa-AAH! Caa-AAH!

There he is, perched in the oak tree directly in front of our house. The dogs are both in prone position, waiting. I feel the blood rush from my face. My chills return. The bird repeats himself.

Caa-AAH! Caa-AAH!

This is not a companion call; this is an alarm call. He turns his head to the side and looks at me with one eye – the focused stare of a binocular creature – then does a shimmy motion with his neck. Follow me.

Before I can reply, he spreads his wings and swoops down, flying in the opposite direction. Gracie and Joker dutifully chase him through the front yard and across the street.

‘Gracie! Joker!’ I call after them, but to no avail. ‘Dammit, Fatso!!’ The bird has left me no choice. I hop in the car as fast as I can and try and keep pace with the three flying animals.

Fortunately for me, Jeremy heads straight down the long street, so I am able to catch up with them after about a quarter of a mile. The crow flies low to the ground so the dogs can play catch-up – thankfully, on the sidewalk and not on the road. I pull up side-by-side as the fork in the road ahead approaches. Their tongues flap in the wind, and their leashes drag behind them like broken chains. I momentarily consider the irony of being in a car and chasing dogs, but that thought is cut short when the bird leads us all to the left.

A brief drive down this road leads us to a dead end. Jeremy heads left again, along the fenced-in sidewalk that leads to a wooded area in the back of the neighborhood elementary school. That bird just took three left-turns to get here, I reflect. He easily could have just flown over top. He wanted to make sure I could follow. Recalling the alarm in his voice when he called from my oak tree, I shudder to think what he could be leading us to.

The dogs, by now having sprinted at least a mile, start to slow down to a trot, which gives me time to park in the dead end and try to catch up. Alas, they still have four feet to my two, and are able to run into the woods after the bird faster than I can pursue them. I lose sight of all of the animals as they enter the trees. The cold air rasps in my lungs and exits in clouds of thick haze.

Having lost my eyes, I turn to my ears to guide me. I hear the crow again – Caa-AAH! Caa-AAH! Caa-AAH! – and expect to hear barks, but instead hear whimpers and whines. Worried, I start to run.

I see Jeremy perched on a branch above a small clearing. The dogs are no longer focused on him, and as I approach I find their rear ends poking out of a structure – a tipi! Perhaps constructed by some elementary kids playing fort defense, or some teenage couple looking to steal away. My dogs are fully engrossed with whatever is inside.

I call the dogs again. They start toward me, but the whimpers continue. They return to the tipi, and I follow them. As I turn the corner to peer inside, I hear Jeremy’s calls behind me – Caw! Caw! Caw! – and the wind from his powerful wings bristles my hair as he flies away. His job is done.

Inside the structure, a white dog lay still: broken, curled up, and whimpering. I gingerly scoop it up and return to the car as fast as the wind could carry me.