The Year 2020

I enjoy the twisted plot of a horror movie or book and tried writing a story that would cause one’s blood to run cold. I read several books that sent chills up my spine.

One of my favorites was Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason. This macabre, darkly humorous story has a great twist worthy of an author’s debut novel. My attempts at writing scary stories have fallen far short of causing a person to coil back in fear and turn on every light in the house.

Last year, scary but true stories filled our newsfeed. One of the ongoing horror stories is the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus. Worldwide, it has infected 105 million people with 2.29 million deaths. About 460,000 of those deaths were in the United States.

The Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of unarmed George Floyd by a callous police officer, the divisive impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, and the West Coast wildfires and Australian bushfires that left thousands homeless and destroyed countless acres of land kept people riveted to the news.

Shocking, newsworthy deaths that touched the hearts of many included that of a phenomenal basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others in a helicopter crash; the trailblazing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Marvel superhero, Black Panther actor, Chadwick Boseman; and beloved Jeopardy game show host, Alex Trebek.

The massive accidental Beirut Port explosion that killed at least 190 people and injured thousands could have been prevented. The authorities were forewarned about the dangers of storing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port.

Then there was the Washington state invasion of Asian giant murder hornets which can wipe out an entire colony of honeybees in a matter of hours. When that attack happened, I thought that in my wildest imagination I couldn’t write scarier stories.

The year 2020 was the boss of horror stories. I looked forward to a different 2021. Then the storming of our capitol happened on January 6, 2021. I’m almost afraid to think that 2021 might up the scariness of the previous year and have my fingers crossed that this year has to be better.

My Journey of Designing a Video Game, Part 1

I feel I started on the path to designing a video game back when I began taking courses in software engineering.  And a contributing factor would be the gaming-related blogs I wrote to post on the website of my writing group.  My critiques of what made a good game drew encouragement from fellow members of the group to design one myself. After many years of deliberation, I finally got around to creating my own PC video game in November 2020.

Initially, I didn’t have a story so much as an idea.  I wanted to have it so the player could loot random items from treasure chests that would either help or hinder them in battle.  This would have included a wide variety of wacky items ranging from food to household items to tools and more.  And I wanted to have it so that certain objects would prove especially useful against a particular monster.  It didn’t take me long to come up with the title, Secret Weapon, for my game.

I started work on it shortly after I took a leave of absence from my job out of fear of the worsening pandemic.  Using a program called RPG Maker MV, I started building some basic maps to use in the game and created some preliminary items to use in battle.

I can’t entirely say what turned me away from my initial concept.  Maybe it was the areas that were teeming with treasure chests to loot that felt meaningless.  Or maybe I felt that the game would benefit from the inclusion of an actual story.  In either case, I started to brainstorm what kind of narrative Secret Weapon could have.

I eventually decided there existed an opportunity to adapt several story ideas I’d had for years that never made it past the planning stages.  One was called Whisper of Destiny, a medieval fantasy story that entailed a female college graduate (Sahara Flowers) being whisked from her modern world into this fantasy realm to become one of its champions.  The other untitled story revolved around a vampiress named Alicia who declared war against a royal family for unexplained reasons.

I also threw in another character of mine, a shapeshifter named Gisselle, with no relation to either of the above stories.  She would be one of two characters who players could choose as their avatar.  The other would be Jason, a modern day thirty-something businessman who took the place of Sahara.  Building up intros for both Jason and Gisselle helped me flesh out their characters to some degree.  Over the course of designing their introductions, I felt that the name Gisselle didn’t fit the character and it got changed to Morrigan.

When it came to Jason, I wanted to create a scenario where he was working late at the office when he’s compelled, via a mysterious disembodied voice, to jump from the roof into a portal that transports him to the medieval realm.  For Morrigan, I decided she should be an enslaved arena fighter (rendered incapable of shapeshifting) saved from a fatal match by a magic academy instructor who sees promise in her.

Designing the opening cutscenes for my two playable characters presented more than a few challenges.  I ran multiple tests for each to weed out problems.  For Jason, I had to tweak his movements quite a bit; if I had him move too far in one direction, he would get stuck against a wall or railing and the scene would fail to progress.  Even more challenging was the bit where I had to simulate him falling from the side of a building.  I don’t know how to accurately describe what I had to do to get the effect to play out the way I wanted.  But it ended up looking really good to me.

I finished up Jason’s cutscene by having him interact a bit with a female character in this medieval world.  That’s currently as far as I’ve gotten with him.  My focus has since been primarily on building up Morrigan’s story, which will be entirely separate from his.

When it came to designing Morrigan’s intro, I decided I wanted to have a scripted battle in which the player had no control over how the fight went.  This presented its own set of challenges.  I have it set up so that Morrigan and the orc she’s fighting deal random amounts of damage to each other, but neither was intended to die before the scene played itself out.  During a handful of my many playtests, either the orc or Morrigan would get killed unintentionally.  I’ve had to tweak the settings to avoid these outcomes, but I’m still not sure I have it entirely accurate.

As I’ve continued to develop Morrigan’s narrative, I’ve deleted some of the prior map layouts I’ve made, particularly the various rooms of the castle and almost all of the first dungeon.  I’ve come to realize it may be better to build up the environments as they’re needed for the narrative.  I’ve gone from having at least twenty-five rooms for the castle to just six that are necessary for the start of Morrigan’s story.

In addition to the story and world building, I’ve also been designing in-game items to utilize and set up a system where the player can obtain random potions, weapons, or armor from treasure chests or other characters.  I can see there’s a lot of work to be done before I have a complete game – map/world building, character creation, monster creation, sound & music design, and item/weapon/armor design.  I even aim to create my own artwork, particularly when it comes to designing creatures to combat.  But I am hoping to have a demo put together soon from which I can derive helpful feedback from some online acquaintances of mine.

All in all, I am loving all the progress I’ve made so far.  And I imagine I’ll continue to take joy in putting together my newest creative endeavor.

Tangled Web: Evolution of an Idea, Part 3

I have been writing for a very long time. Though I have yet to get anything published, creating stories has always been something I’ve been very passionate about. I never believed there’d be anything that would ever diminish that.

This past year has proved me wrong. I’d been writing a fan fiction story since 2014 set in the world of Resident Evil, a series of survival horror video games revolving around mutagenic viruses created by a corrupt pharmaceutical company. My particular story had the character of Claire Redfield unknowingly infected with a virus that imbued her with rapid healing, which resulted in her being abducted and held in an underground facility by uber-villain Albert Wesker.

I never expected real life to mirror the story I was writing, but it has. I find myself, like Claire, living in a world where I have little contact with friends or acquaintances; the freedom to partake in things I used to love is a thing of the past thanks to a devastating virus. Even worse, I feel the year of feeling like a prisoner and being at the mercy of a madman has gradually chipped away at me.

I stopped writing at some point during this past year. I have blamed it on the inability to go to my usual haunts that inspired me. But I think I’ve recently come to believe there’s more to it than that–it’s because I lost sight of who I was.

I very recently realized that I haven’t changed just because the world has. My fire, my passion for writing, is still there; I just needed to rediscover it. I am still that person with a very vivid imagination who loves creating works of fiction or writing video game blogs. And it is something I need to wholeheartedly dive back into.

And if I ever lose sight of that again or falter, then at least I have this article as a reminder.

Do Dieters Have Split Personalities?

           Why is it so hard to stay on a diet when success is just around the corner?

           You decide to lose ten pounds, pick a diet, and weigh yourself. Then, it’s off to the races!

           For the first day, week, or month, you are so good! You do everything right. You cut down on fat, sugar and salt. You eat green leafy vegetables, fruit, chicken, and fish. You even hide your stash of candy.

           Then that time comes, maybe it’s the next morning, the next week or next month, when you weigh yourself. You have done SO WELL! The scale has gone down one ounce, two ounces, or maybe even a whole pound. 

           “Great! Congratulations! Wonderful!” you tell yourself. 

Immediately, your brain, that most devious part of your body, speaks. “You have to celebrate! After all, this is America! If you don’t celebrate something, then it wasn’t that important. You have to mark this event so you know you’ve accomplished something.”

           You start thinking about all the ways you can acknowledge this great weight loss. Which would be the best, most meaningful one? Why, with food, of course! You could have a chocolate bar or an oatmeal raisin cookie, the really good kind that are at least three inches in diameter, or maybe a Frappuccino with whipped cream on top?

           Instantly the sane part of your brain speaks up. It’s trying to look out for you. “A pound is 3,500 calories and that’s for sixteen ounces. You’ve only lost half a pound.”

           Let’s do a little math. 3,500 calories divided in half equals 1,750. The chocolate bar is around 300 calories and the super duper oatmeal raisin cookie is around 500. The Frappuccino with all that nice, real, not fat free, whipped cream on top is around 600.”

           Now the devious part of your brain reasserts itself. It’s very warm and friendly so you just can’t resist paying attention. “Why not have all three, just this once? That would add up to only 1,400 calories. You’ve just lost half a pound. That’s 1,700 calories. You’d still be ahead. You would have lost one and one-half ounces!”

           Where did this devious part come from? It seems to know you so well, almost like your best friend. It acts like it’s only looking out for you and shows up every time you start to make some progress on that ten pounds. “What’s going on here?” you ask yourself. “No one needs a friend like this.” 

           You want your brain to tell you: “Great! Congratulations! Wonderful! You’ve finally lost some weight. You need to commemorate this remarkable achievement. Go to your favorite café, sit outside in the sun and order a hot cup of herbal tea. How about orange mango, cranberry apple or lemon zest? You will feel so wonderful afterwards and the number of calories is zero.”

           “Zero calories,” your devious part starts in, “how can I mark this important event by putting something with no calories into my body? I need something that tastes good. That means salt, fat, sugar.”

           “No, no, no,” your sane part says. “You don’t want calories.  That’s the whole point.  You want something with zero calories so you can continue to lose weight.” 

           “What kind of friend are you?” your devious part demands.  “She lost weight, after all. She needs to go out and celebrate and eat something very special with lots of whipped cream, chocolate and sugar. There’s nothing like the taste of real sugar. After all, she just lost half a pound.”

           “Whoa”, your sane part weighs in. “You’re not at the end of the line. You’re only on the first step. You didn’t go on this diet to lose half a pound. You went on it to lose ten pounds. Remember? To lose ten pounds, at a half pound a week, will take twenty weeks. That’s close to five months. You haven’t even gotten through the first month yet. Actually, this is only the end of Week #1.”

           So the real reason it’s so hard to stay on a diet is our brains have two parts—the sane and the devious. It is hard for some of us to realize the devious part is not really our best friend. What we really need is therapy for our split personality!

First Impressions of the Resident Evil 3 Remake

Ever since the Resident Evil 2 Remake was released in February 2019, I had been looking forward to a new and improved version of the third game. I was even more elated when I learned that the Resident Evil 3 (RE3) Remake had secretly been in development at the same time as the second title and would be released on April 3rd of this year.

I tried to remain spoiler-free prior to playing the Resident Evil 3 Remake for the first time, but didn’t quite succeed at it. But I still very much enjoyed the game for its intensity and improved character development. The story is simple: ex-STARS (Special Tactics and Rescue Services) officer Jill Valentine is in a race to escape a monster-infested city before it is destroyed while also trying to evade an intelligent titan-like creature called Nemesis bent on killing her.

What differentiates the remake from the original game is that it is more fast paced, with Nemesis coming after Jill within the first two minutes of the game. And Nemesis gets deadlier with each encounter, either by equipping himself with a flame-thrower or rocket launcher or by mutating into a bigger, faster monstrosity.

In spite of this, my first playthrough took five and a half hours because I was either taking my time, trying to figure out how to navigate a sometimes confusing map, or trying to work out the solution to one of the game’s puzzles. I have since played through this year’s Resident Evil 3 two and a half more times for the achievements or to get my time down. My best run so far was 2 hours & 10 minutes, but I’m sure I can get through it faster than that.

I have also hit some oddities that made for interesting experiences. Midway through my first playthrough, I started having a problem with the sound (I couldn’t hear much of anything), so I decided to skip one of the cinematic cutscenes to exit the game. This resulted in me dying two seconds later because I didn’t realize I should be running.

During another playthrough, I was facing off, Nemesis aside, against two of the most dangerous monsters in the game—one in front of me and one to my right. I successfully gunned down the creature I was facing, but this somehow made the other keel over at the same time.

While I very much love the way the remake’s story unfolded and that the characters were more fleshed out, there were some elements present in the original that I would have liked to see here. For one, it would have been a treat to see a new and improved version of Gravedigger, a giant worm sporting two sets of teeth. I also would have preferred to see the alternative narrative brought on by branching choices sprinkled throughout the game. I have never played the original Resident Evil 3, but I may purchase a copy for the full experience.

Accompanying the release of the RE3 Remake is a multiplayer game called REsistence where 1-4 players attempt to escape a testing area overseen by another player\Mastermind. I have attempted a few practice runs to get a feel for this game, but I need some time doing solo runs before I’m ready to join an actual match. I’m sure once I get the layouts for each area memorized, I’ll do much better at it.

One other aspect that thrilled me about the RE3 remake is that there’s a post-credits scene that seems to tease that the next installment in the series, Code Veronica, will also get remade. Since I consider the latter as the one game with the best plot twists, I would love to see a modernized version of it. Especially if it’s on the same level as the remakes for parts 2 and 3.

Resident Evil’s production company, Capcom, has done such a great job reintroducing their older classics to a modern audience that I look forward to what’s in store for future entries of the franchise.