Tag: video games

Book Review: Ready Player One

Fan Cover by Ali Kellner

I state the following without hyperbole: the first few chapters of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is some of the most difficult reading I’ve done in a very long time.

Not because of the nature of the events, or even the quality of the writing, in and of itself. It was difficult because it was just so damn proud of itself for the number of 80’s references it was making. Reading over our protagonist Wade’s list of 80’s nostalgia subjects was like reading over the results of a search for “80’s pop culture references” and had just about as much emotional effect. Hey, I remember the Atari 2600! I remember Adventure! I remember Joust! I remember WarGames! I remember… wait.

Let me back up. For those of you who don’t know, Ready Player One takes place in a near-future Earth where things are not necessarily post-apocalyptic, but are definitely bleak and cynically prophetic. With fossil fuels all but gone and the global economy in dire chaos as a result, homelessness and unemployment are as rampant as power outages and autonomous corporate monstrosities. The only refuge most people have is in the OASIS, a free (ostensibly) virtual world which allows user VR access to a universe that takes notes from the Matrix, MMOs, and even SecondLife. Our protagonist, Wade, is a high school student who uses the OASIS for his schooling, since he lives in a refugee camp/shantytown of stacked RV trailers called… well, “The Stacks”. He is also participating in a hunt for an item hidden within the OASIS by its creator, who recently died, and left the bulk of his fortune and the controlling share of the OASIS to whomever can find the item. Wade is not alone, however; not only have many other nerds started the hunt, but a corporate rival to the OASIS’s company has mounted a major operation with tens of thousands of employees scouring the virtual universe for the item. What chance does one little reclusive nerd has against those odds?

Well, if he starts rattling off 80’s pop culture references every time he takes a breath, his chances are probably pretty good.

I grew up in the 80’s. I didn’t quite hit my teen years until 1990 or so, but I do remember a lot of the things Cline gleefully barrages readers with during the opening chapters of Ready Player One. When he described the crude, pixelated characters of the Atari game Adventure, I could picture it clearly in my head. I’ve played through the D&D dungeon “Tomb of Horrors” a few times since I first learned how to play 2nd edition in the 90’s. Quick aside: I am really looking forward to the full-blown campaign being built around the latest version of the dungeon. It’s called “Tomb of Annihilation” and I plan on ordering it in at my Friendly Neighborhood Comics Store.

The novelty of Cline’s zeal in rattling off his references quickly wears off, and soon becomes tiresome. Yes, Ernest, we get it, you love the 80’s, and a lot of other nerds do too, and this is aimed at making them feel like this is a story for them. That this protagonist is someone they understand and can relate to. Specifically, the tone and timbre of Cline’s opening feels like it’s leaving out huge chunks of cheese for spectacle-wearing mice, where the cheese is references to Back to the Future and Joust and the mice are mostly males, and probably a majority of them are white. It felt, to me, like pandering to a horrifyingly shameless level. I nearly stopped reading entirely.

Like the hunt within the book, Ready Player One contains three gates. This was the first one, and it was definitely the hardest one for me to get past. And to get past it, I had to take a step back.

Ready Player One was published in 2011. This was a time before the Oculus Rift, perhaps the most prevalent equivalent to the OASIS’s VR/haptic hardware. This was a time before GamerGate and the rise of social justice as a major component of the online narrative. Hell, this was a time before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was really a thing; until The Avengers debuted on 4 May 2012, nobody really thought Marvel could pull off its grand experiment. The world into which Cline presented his novel was one where nerd culture was still most definitely a sub-culture, one far less part of the public narrative than sports, celebrity scandals, and reality television. Tournaments for games like StarCraft II happened largely away from public eyes in the Americas and Europe. Other accessible mutliplayer games geared for what is now called ‘e-sports’ like League of Legends, Hearthstone, and DOTA 2 hadn’t been released. Unlike today, where you can find people playing D&D every week on Critical Role, if you wanted to see people doing that, you had to find a special episode of Community or a fan film like The Gamers.

So, yes, while Ready Player One is pretty blatant in pandering to a certain demographic, at the time of its publication, that demographic was not this directly represented. Sure, plenty of white male power fantasies existed — comic books in and of themselves were as power-fantastic as ever, and look at games like God of War and Call of Duty. But here was a novel in which the protagonist, like much of its intended audience, was a reclusive nerd. Even during the first few times we see him in the OASIS, he’s kind of a loser. He starts getting ahead because of all of this esoteric knowledge he has in his brain. Not because he gets bitten by a radioactive spider, or discovers an alien rock, or because he’s some kind of Chosen Onetm. Wade finds the first key, and clears the first gate, by knowing his D&D, his Joust, and his WarGames.

I can see the narrative merit in that. I saw that there was some value in a protagonist, especially in the context of young adulthood, thinking their way through a problem rather than punching their way through it. When I looked at it from that perspective, I found it a bit easier to move forward with the book. And, to be honest, the references became less pervasive and persistent as the book went on. Such was clearing the first gate of the book — whether you embrace and delight in the references, or merely endure them, accepting them gets you into the meat of the story.

Spoilers abound past this point. Fairly be ye warned.

The second gate involved seeing Wade as a human being. With all of the pandering in the narrative’s set-up, and the many ways in which it was clear (at least to me) that Wade was meant to be just as much an avatar for the reader as Parzival was Wade’s avatar in the OASIS, how do we contextualize Wade as a person? This involves not just raising the stakes but also making Wade respond to pressure, dealing with real complications, and so on. When his horrible aunt and her idiot meathead of a boyfriend are killed when the evil corporation bombs the trailer where Wade had his mail sent, it’s horrific, but Wade walks away from it pretty nonchalantly. By now, as an online celebrity for clearing the first gate of Halliday’s challenge, Wade has sponsorship money in no small amounts and can look after his own needs. Sure, it establishes EvilCorp — sorry, “IOI” — as a pretty major threat, but it also shows Wade is capable of planning and forethought to a pretty high degree considering where he goes and what he does next to keep himself safe for the hunting to come.

There is a romance, and this being not just a novel with a young adult protagonist but a romance in the context of online, things run anything but smoothly. It feels like pretty standard teen angst, albeit with the backdrop of nerd ephemera and virtual laser-gun battles. The zero-g dance party held by The Great And Powerful Og was a highlight, to be sure. But it isn’t until another character is killed — literally yanked out of his rig and thrown out a window by IOI goons — that suddenly the threat becomes incredibly real. In his conversation with the victim’s brother, Wade shows us that he has a capacity for respect and compassion that, honestly, runs extremely counter to how straight white male nerds tend to comport themselves in modern society.

I feel that it is this, just as much the moment where I considered the second gate of the book cleared, is really what sets Wade apart from quite a few other young adult protagonists. While he did get a little obsessive over his paramour Art3mis in the wake of her cutting off communication, lovesick teens do a lot of dumb shit. He never goes so far as to invade her privacy or compromise her safety or integrity, but he does do the whole standing-outside-the-window-with-the-boombox routine. The window, in this case, being set in a huge fortress on the remote world of Benatar. Wade is someone who can learn from his mistakes. He can take steps to improve himself — he sets up a system for himself to get and stay in shape rather than just become a sad sack of meat strapped into an OASIS rig. And, most of all, he can see past the digital avatar to the real person on the other end, and imagine them complexly.

When he sits with Shoto, the brother of the murder victim, their conversation is quiet and meaningful. There are no explosions of angst or huge dramatic reveals; instead, Shoto tells his story, Wade conveys his condolences, and they start to plan what to do next. This could have been another young-adult-standing-in-the-rain moment; instead, both Wade and Shoto demonstrate a strength of character that is not only difficult to find in the genre, but all too often lacking in many of the denizens of the Internet we deal with here in the real world.

What happens next in the book, with Wade infiltrating IOI, was to me, a very pleasant surprise. After all of the tiresome reference-making and the teen angst — which, again, Cline handled very well — we come to a moment where Wade risks everything. He sacrifices his safety, his comfort, and his very identity to find a way to overcome the villains. He doesn’t do this by kicking down doors, shooting up goons, or even confronting the enemy mastermind in the real world. He lays out an elaborate plan in secret, sets himself up for success, accepts the hardships that will be involved, and without a word to his friends, disappears into the IOI corporate machine. To me, this sequence is the highlight of the book. Moreso than the explosive climactic battle (which I’ll get to), this demonstrates what Cline is capable of in terms of storytelling. Devoid of his toys, his resources, and his allies, left with only his wits and whatever he prepared for in advance, Wade has to be clever, subtle, and think on his feet to accomplish his goals.

There’s no violence, no explosions, no rants, no moments of big drama. Just tension, a touch of corporate horror, and — if I’m honest, much to my delight — a very subtle nod to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

I never said all of the references were bad ones.

The second gate is cleared when Wade is picked up after his real-world infiltration gambit by one of his closest friends and allies, H (spelled out ‘Aech’ since the OASIS doesn’t allow one-letter monikers). While presented in the OASIS as white and male, H turns out to be neither of those things. How does Wade react? Barely at all. H’s race, gender, and sexuality matter very little in the grand scheme of things. Cline, in his fashion, may make the point in a bit of a heavy-handed matter, but considering how relevant a point it is to this day, in this case I think it’s justified. Wade’s character sketch is now complete; we can move on to the third and final gate.

The third gate is — what’s the point of this story? What’s it trying to tell us?

As much fun as the epic final battle is, with everything from a tiny Johnny-5 robot being a key part of our heroes’ plan to a showdown between Mechagodzilla and Ultraman, the payoff for all of the fireworks needs to be worth all of the time it took to set everything up. While Wade’s obsessive knowledge-farming and gaming skills get him up to the climax of the battle, it is a combination of things that see him through to victory. He relies on a little luck — a one-off scene from earlier in the book becomes incredibly vital to success — as well as knowledge his friends possess that he does not. In the end, his recollection of Halliday’s message to the world and an understanding of where Halliday’s heart lay are what secure victory. And what lays beyond for Wade is not just the prizes and the accolades, but something far more interesting — he has the ability to turn the OASIS off.

Would Wade ever push the Big Red Button? I don’t know. Probably not, not unless IOI put some sort of virus into it that might kill everyone if he doesn’t. But that seems far-fetched. The message, though, is that Wade can turn it off for himself and, more than likely, should do that more often. After all, he’s proven that he can handle himself in the real world, without having to be some kind of hyper-masculine badass or post-human savant. His friends respect him because of who he is, not because of what he can do for them. The last scene of the book, between Wade and Art3mis (Samantha) in a lovely garden maze in the real world, is quiet and touching, and it makes it clear that however amazing and dangerous and empowering a virtual world like the OASIS might be, it is the people we connect with, not the systems we use for that connection, that really matter. And it doesn’t really matter who that person may pretend to be, but rather who exists behind the digital avatars and the character sheets and the bells and whistles. That’s what matters. That’s the crux of the story. That’s what lies beyond Ready Player One‘s third and final gate.

Maybe I’m still too optimistic after all of these years. Maybe I’m trying to find meaning where there is none, where other critics see just an endless pile of pandering 80’s references aimed at a demographic that already has more than enough representation in pop culture, thank you very much.

I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Cline has smuggled something to us under all of that seemingly shameless tat and glitzy graphics in our minds that actually means something. On the surface, Wade is a stereotypical gamer — reclusive, introverted, obsessive, maybe even selfish or downright mean. But look again at how he treats those around him. Examine the way he tackles his problems. Read over how he looks into himself when he runs into obstacles, and how he works to overcome them. How many gamers do that? How many dedicate themselves more to practice and self-improvement, rather than screaming imprecations and slurs and insults at their opponents before throwing down their controllers and jumping on Twitter to blame SJWs for the woes of the world?

Wade takes responsibility for his actions, and pushes himself to do better. He doesn’t give up, never stops trying. He reigns himself in, checks himself, corrects himself. This is something a lot of people, not just gamers, fail to do when the time comes for the individual to step up and do the work necessary to make things right.

This is why I ended up liking Ready Player One. This is why I feel it has value, and why I will be interested to see how Speilberg’s film adaptation turns out. I don’t think it’s a “HOLY GRAIL OF POP CULTURE” as the self-fellating promo text tells us in the preview. I think it’s good, and honestly, better than its superficial reference-making pandering appearance would make it out to be. Like Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors, if you can navigate the various traps and get past some of the more monstrous parts of things, there’s definitely treasure to be found.

In my honest opinion, to see a protagonist behave like a decent human being in a world where most of the populace would rather be anything but a human being is definitely a treasure worth finding.

It’s easy to blame the controller or the other player or the world or your circumstances for whatever made those dreaded GAME OVER words flash in front of you.

It’s a lot harder to dig out another quarter, take a deep breath, and put yourself in harm’s way again.

Ready, Player One?

Cover artwork by Ali Kellner

Delta-V: Foundational Barter

Previously: The year is 3301. Six months after Zachary Hudson was swept into office, Jason Frimantle, a young and unregistered Commander, broke with his father to start his own trading business.

One of these days, I’m going to need to get myself a docking computer.

It wasn’t that Jason had trouble easing the Wayfarer through the ‘mail slot’ of a particular station. His more immediate concern when landing was scraping his ship against the guide rails, or bumping up against other ships. It was a reaction based on how the Federation treated incoming or outgoing Commanders — threats of lethal force were commonplace from traffic control. Jason found the attitude of those along this trading route much more agreeable, for the most part. He guided his ship to the landing pad within Lave Station, feeling the reassuring bump of his landing gear against the solid metal.

The pad lowered into the hangar, and Jason felt the faint pull of the access corridor interior’s 0.2 gravity. One didn’t have to worry about a particularly strong step along a corridor putting one into freefall, but handrails were still highly recommended. He moved from his ship into the corridor with a few long yet careful strides, and took hold of the handrail in the corridor. A few minutes later, he was in the Workers trade station, bringing up his manifest to onload some crates of Lavian Brandy.

The woman at the front desk looked up as Jason walked in. “Commander Frimantle?”

Jason blinked. “Um. Yes?”

“Commissioner Parker would like to see you.”

Most of the dealings Jason had had with the Workers of Lave Liberals had been through a contact that worked directly with the system market. Parker was the overseer of the faction’s trade, a subordinate to their leadership; from what Jason had gathered, they were a middle manager who tracked inventory and ship traffic. He wasn’t sure why such a person would want to see him, since he was still starting out in terms of being a freelance trader. Regardless, it wouldn’t hurt to make new friends, or at least establish new contacts. He thanked the receptionist and found Parker’s office.

Parker stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling holo display of Lave’s market, a tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other. She was an older woman, still in her middle years but definitely showing the signs of working hard on her career. She wore a business-style blazer and knee-length pencil skirt that flattered her figure yet projected an air of professional austerity, backed up by the unadorned blouse that came to her neck. Her reddish-brown hair was drawn back in a conservative bun, but the chopsticks holding it in place were lavishly decorated with flowers and branches that seemed to fly in the face of her steely demeanor.

Jason adjusted his jacket, which he’d opened after exiting the Wayfarer, suddenly aware of the fact that both it and his pressure suit were due for a cleaning. His hair was probably mussed, as well, from the last few trade runs being uninterrupted by stopping for anything other than food and sleep. Parker looked up from the tablet in her hand at the motion, looking at Jason over the rims of spectacles that complimented the light brown color of her eyes.

“Commander,” she said, her voice reminding Jason of a schoolmistress. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

“Nice to meet you, Commissioner,” Jason replied. “What can I do for you?”

She turned away from the display to lay her tablet on the desk. Jason noted she was wearing high heels, which couldn’t have been easy at lower gravity. They weren’t stiletto-style, but still…

“I have need of a trader who can take care of a matter of some urgency. Your efficiency in the Zaonce trade route leads me to believe you can accomplish such a task.” She turned back to him, regarding him for a long moment. “Do you believe I am correct?”

Jason nodded. “Lots of Commanders starting out like this run, ma’am. It’s got decent profit margins and there’s enough of a gap between deliveries that no markets get too flooded, nor do they dry up. The items are always in demand, be it Lavian brandy or blue milk.”

“I see you have a head for the greater business picture as well as your own credits. I do believe we can work together.” She picked up a different tablet, took a step towards Jason, and handed it to him. “How is your planetary landing experience?”

Jason regarded the tablet. It was information and telemetry for a settlement called Abel Prospect, located in the Arque system. “I’ve been a spacer all of my life. Making planetfall hasn’t really been a priority, but I’ve done it a couple of times. Usually with my father guiding me.”

Thinking of his father filled Jason with a mix of emotions that weren’t entirely pleasant. He tried to keep that out of his voice, but Parker was studying his expression closely. After a moment, she nodded.

“Very good. The settlement has indicated a need for medical supplies. There has been a minor epidemic of a rare skin disease. None of the in-system stations have what they need to deal with this, and they want to combat it lest it become a system-wide outbreak.”

Jason studied the layout of the settlement and the planetary landscape around it. “I don’t see any landing pads.”

“That is the other concern. They lack the facilities to accommodate starships in the usual manner. They also have no means to take in a SRV. So the supplies must be hand-delivered.”

Jason’s brows furrowed. “How’s the gravity there?”

“0.09 on the surface. They need two tons of specialized medical supplies, and are paying 200% above market price. You will be entitled to 50% of the profits.”

Jason looked over the figures, and hoped he wasn’t suddenly showing signs of his excitement. With that amount of money, he could buy several enhancements for the Wayfarer — a frame-shift drive with longer range, an improved fuel scoop, a more comfortable pilot’s seat…

Maybe even a new ship, he thought.

“I do believe you’ve got yourself a pilot, Ms. Parker.”

“Excellent. The sooner you can depart, the better.”

A short jump or two later, the Wayfarer‘s planetary approach suite was guiding Jason into a low orbit over the rocky body where Abel Prospect had been established. The gravity of the body was negligible, but he definitely felt the tug of it when his ship dropped out of supercruise. The Wayfarer creaked slightly as he adjusted his approach, unused to flying in any sort of atmosphere or planetary gravity. Granted, Abel Prospect’s host body had only the thinnest of gas layers drawn to it during its formation, and a human being would still suffocate in about 15 seconds if they found themselves outside without a pressure suit.

As he made his descent, he checked his radar to ensure a good position for the transfer of the goods. Then he looked again. There was another contact on the surface. He rolled to starboard to get a visual look. A Hauler, smaller (and, in Jason’s opinion, less elegant) cousin to his own Adder, was parked near Abel Prospect’s sole lock. A bad feeling crept into him, tightening his jaw as he sussed out a similar place to put down the Wayfarer.

Once he was settled on the surface, Jason activated his p-suit’s helmet and seals, and did a check of his equipment — integrated oxygen supply, suit displays, utility & gun belt, and so on. He moved aft, unlocked the crates from their restraints, and opened his hatch before pushing them out towards the lock. As he moved closer, he saw that it was still cycling. Quickly, he tapped a few commands into the control panel. He reset the system, then opened the outer door.

Two men were inside, wearing pressure suits, staring in shock at the outer door. Jason gave them a wide grin.

“Gentlemen! Delivering medical supplies?”

One of them slowly nodded. “Um… yeah.”

Jason nodded, looking over the crates. “Four tons, it looks like. What’s your margin?”

“150% market price,” said the other.

“Undercutting the competition to sell more quantity? Nice.” Before he continued, Jason took in the logo on the crates. He blinked, trying to hold down a sudden surge of shock and anger.

It was the logo of his father’s company.

Without warning, he drew his pistol. Like the flight jacket he’d left in the Wayfarer, it had belonged to his grandfather. It was an old-fashioned ballistic weapon, a revolver, designed to fire without issue in near or full vacuum. He shoved its muzzle against the clear faceplate of the closest trader. The other man didn’t move. Neither of them seemed armed; if they were, their sidearms were somewhere inside their pressure suits. What was the point of that?

“Okay. Before I cycle this lock, you’re going to leave it. And your crates. You’re going to take off, go back to Eravate, and tell my father that he, and you, and any of his other cronies, are staying on your side of the galaxy. Nod if you understand.”

The man nodded. Jason reached behind him with his free hand and opened the outer door one more time.

“Good. Now get out.”

They obeyed. Jason slammed the butt of his pistol into the controls to close the door and cycle the lock. He turned to the crates — now six in total — and tried to ignore the little voice telling him that, technically, he’d just committed an act of piracy.

But what was his father going to do? Put a bounty on his own son?

To be continued…

Elite Dangerous is a registered trademark of Frontier Developments.

Delta-V: Furious Egress

The year is 3301. Zachary Hudson has been swept into office as President of the Federation. Cuts to healthcare and other social programs has made his corporate sponsors quite happy, but has left casualties among the populace. One of them, Abigail Frimantle, finally succumbed to a debilitating disease after over a year of battle. Her son, Jason, embittered and emboldened, has taken steps to strike out on his own into the wild and dangerous galaxy beyond his home…

Courtesy Frontier

The interior of a station access corridor resembles a telescope when seen from within; for Jason Frimantle, it gave the promise of freedom.

As a boy, he’d looked up at the inner surface of the Ackerman’s Market hub and its traffic with wonder, his head full of dreams. Once he was old enough, his father had entrusted him as an extra pair of hands aboard the Frimantle’s family freighter. Recently, he’d been given permission to run a few missions of his own in his grandfather’s Sidewinder, the same ship that had established the Frimantles as reliable and efficient traders in the Eravate system and several of its neighbors.

He stood alone in the control tower of one of the Market’s many landing pads, gazing at the familiar habitats and conveyance ways, blue eyes focusing on the bright fields dividing the hub from the blackness of space beyond. When he took in that sight, as the sovereign young man he was becoming, he did so with hope, and more than a little impatience. The need to exit Federation space and avoid its stations after said egress was becoming an itch under his skin.

He went down from the civilian observation area of the tower to the hangar below. Perched under the lights was an Adder, its cobalt blue hull shining in the overhead lights. It was freshly washed, fueled, and its stock equipment had been replaced with everything Jason needed. The plates declared its registration code, and the name Jason had given it: Wayfarer. With the Civil War having calmed down, and interdiction rates at an all-time low, Jason knew it was time for him to leave. He tugged at the collar of his somewhat weatherbeaten flight jacket, a relic of his grandfather’s time with the Federation Navy, and was about to climb aboard his new ship when he heard the door open behind him.

An unctuous and preening man in a suit about a size too large ambled towards Jason with a big smile. “Ah, young master Frimantle! I thought I’d find you in the Trader’s Lounge. I bring good news! We’re all set.”

Jason took the tablet from the man’s outstretched hand and gazed at its screen. It did, in fact, lay out all of the payment information for the Wayfarer behind him. It included the sale price he’d gotten for the old Frimantle Sidewinder, which tugged at one of Jason’s heartstrings, just a little. But it was a small discordant note in the growing feeling within him, like an orchestra tuning up.

“Are you sure I can’t interest you in a Cobra Mk III? It’s one of our best sellers!”

Jason smiled and shook his head. “For the last time, Mister Cornwall, no thank you. I have a long journey ahead of me, and the more credits I hold onto for that journey, the better. Besides —” Here Jason’s smile became knowing, his tone chiding. “— you and I both know there are no refunds on customizations like paint jobs and name plates.”

Abashed, Cornwall tugged at his mustache, a tick Jason recognized as his unconscious “I’ve been caught red-handed” expression. “Now, now, no reason I can’t make an exception there, my boy. Your old Sidewinder is in excellent condition; I’m sure I can extend a line of credit. I’m always willing to work out a deal! Remember, once you’re a Cornwall customer, you’re a customer for life!”

Jason stopped smiling. That my boy made him bristle, and the idea of being tied to Ackerman’s after today was too much. “My life isn’t going to be here, Mister Cornwall. Or anywhere near your dealership.” He pressed his thumb to the marked square on the tablet, and it chirped, indicating the finalization of the sale. “Thank you. I’m sure you’ll find that Sidewinder a good home.”

Cornwall’s frustration at a loss of potential revenue seeped past his genial expression, which suddenly froze on his whiskered face when he looked past Jason as another door opened behind him. “Well… ah… excuse me, master Frimantle, I have to finalize the transfers. Nice doing business with you!” The little salesman scuttled off. Jason didn’t turn around.

“I hope you have a damn good explanation for this.”

Jason shrugged. The irritated voice of his father no longer had the terrifying effect on his guts it used to. Now it just served as one more obstacle to overcome before he left this place forever.

“I do. I’m leaving.”

“The hell you are, boy. Your place is here. Just like mine is, just like your Pappy’s was. Why’d you have to go and sell his Sidewinder? It’s a better ship than this…” His father’s voice trailed off, as if he was searching for the right way to trash-talk the Adder, which was smaller, faster, and definitely prettier than the beat-up Type-7 his father used.

Jason didn’t let his father finish. Instead, he turned.

“Is it better because of the tracking device you had installed in it?”

Joseph Frimantle, his hair going more gray by the day, frowned. It exacerbated the worry lines on his face.

“You taking that tone with me over something I used to keep you safe?”

“It kept me on a leash, Dad. That’s all it ever did.”

“What if you’d run outta fuel out there? Huh? Or how about if you got jumped by pirates?”

“Then I’d be dead.” Or I’d call the Fuel Rats. Jason didn’t want to mention that aloud; his father’s opinion on the altruistic organization usually involved words like ‘socialist scumbags,’ ‘hippy nonsense,’ and more than a few expletives. “I don’t see how you knowing my every movement outside of this station kept me ‘safe’.”

“You’ll understand when you have kids of your own, son. Now, come on, let’s sell this flashy piece of crap back to Cornwall. I’ve got work to do.”

Jason crossed his arms. “I’m not stopping you. Go do work.”

Joseph blinked. “Now, see here…”

“No.” Jason glared at his father. “This is over, Dad. I’m leaving. I made my own credits, I bought my own ship, and I’m leaving.”

“Oh, is that so? And where is it that you’ll be going in your fancy new ship?”

Jason shrugged. “Away. What do you care?”

“What do I—? I am your father, you overgrown snot, and what I say goes.”

“I’m a licensed, independent commander, and I have no outstanding warrants or fines. I can come and go as I please. Emphasis on go.

“Your mother would be weeping if she were standing here to see you talk to me like this.”

“My mother is dead.”

“She’s turning in her grave, then.”

“She wouldn’t be, if you’d let her get the care she needed.”

“She was just sitting around the house, not lifting a finger to help us at all!”

“She was in pain, Dad, every single day, and the fact that the doctors we could afford couldn’t help her wasn’t her fault. And did you think the dishes washed themselves? Or that prepared meals just emerged from the oven at your whim? You’re really dumb if you think all Mom did was sit idle all day.”

“Don’t you dare call me stupid, boy.”

“Oh, I dare.” Jason’s hands were in ever-tightening fists, and they were just starting to hurt, now. He didn’t care. His voice was a growl. “I dare because you could have paid for better care for her. You could have been here more for her. Hell, if I had then the cash I had now, I would have paid for her medical care, and I’d be taking us both away from you.”

“One more word outta you —”

“Go ahead, Dad. Can’t be worse than you killing her. You son of a bitch. Why didn’t you just shoot her, if you wanted her out of your hair so badly?”

Joseph raised his hand to slap his son. Jason’s arm flashed up, grabbing his father by the wrist, blocking the blow. Shocked, Joseph stared at the young man in front of him.

“You’re never hitting me again, old man.” Jason resisted the urge to twist the wrist in his hand, possibly breaking his father’s arm. There were lines, even now, he refused to cross.

He did tighten his grip, though. Joseph’s eyes began to water. “Let… let go of me.”

Jason did, and stepped back. Joseph kept staring, uncomprehending, gently holding his wrist in his other hand.

“Listen to me. And you listen well. This is the result of your actions. You voted for that blowhard, Zachary Hudson, to be the Federation President. You put up all of those signs, about people paying their own way, and how those who can’t work shouldn’t get ‘handouts’ from the government. You barely lifted a finger when Mom started getting sick. You stayed out on longer and longer runs, and when you came home, drunk and exhausted, you yelled at her to keep the house more tidy and to get a job. And when I started working on my own? You took as much of my profit as you could, putting it who knows where.”

He paused. He waited. Joseph was, in fact, listening. Another discordant note sounded in the young man, but he kept on his tirade.

“When Mom died, I set up a way to have credits automatically deposited in an account of my own before you saw my balance sheets. And I worked a lot. Check that tracking data of yours. I’ve been out as far as GD-219 and Macarthur Terminal. And I earned this.” He pointed at the Adder. “I earned my way out of here, and away from you.”

Joseph blinked away tears. “I loved your mother.” His voice was quieter, now, tired and worn out. “I didn’t want to watch her die.”

“But you could have helped. You could have let me help.” His father’s face took a little of the wind out of his sails. “She needed both of us. All she had was me. And I couldn’t do enough.”

Joseph shook his head. “She used to be so strong. She was making her own way, and she helped make our business become one of the best.”

“She loved you. She honored you. And… you let her down.”

“Okay. Okay. Just… let’s just go home, son. We can talk more when we’re at home. I’ll keep listening. I promise.”

Jason closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “No, Dad. I have to go.”

Joseph frowned again. “You can’t. Jason, you can’t. I’m getting more work requests every day. I can’t be in two places at once.”

Jason shrugged. “I guess that’s because I told everyone I was trading with to contact you. I figured the Frimantle name meant speed and quality of service, and now you’ve got customers far and wide. You’ll be making even more money!”

Joseph’s eyes narrowed. “Then… why are you leaving? You know I can’t do this alone.”

“You know why I’m leaving. And isn’t that your President’s whole thing? Independent businessmen doing business on their own, without handouts or help, ‘personal freedom at any cost’?” Jason spread his arms. “Well, here you go. Plenty of work, no family holding you back, just you and that rattling old rustbucket of a ship. That’s what you voted for, Dad. I’m just making it all happen for you.”

Righteous indignation crept back into the old man’s eyes. “I’ll have your license revoked.”

“By the time you get that paperwork squared away, I’ll be out of Federation jurisdiction. Which means it’ll be a huge waste of your time and money. Go back to your freighter, Dad. Go back to work.” He turned towards the Wayfarer.

“At least take off that jacket. It’s mine.”

Jason looked over his shoulder, one foot on the ramp into his ship. “No, Dad. He said I was a better pilot than you, and that only the best pilots wear jackets like this.” He paused. “Get clear. I don’t want you to get caught in the blast wash when I take off.”

Joseph glared, his hands balled into fists, and turned to leave the hangar. Jason walked into his ship, sealed the ramp, and got his pre-flight checklist completed as quickly as possible, without missing anything. With his flightsuit secured and all systems green, he requested liftoff clearance, and headed for the exit of Ackerman’s Market.

As he cleared the landing lights on the exterior of the station, his comm channel crackled to life.

“Jason! Stop!”

Turning his head, Jason checked his contacts. Sure enough, an old Type-7 freighter had emerged from the station.

“Don’t make me call the Federation Security pilots! I’ll tell them you bought that ship with stolen funds!”

“And when I keep flying away in spite of your cunning ploy?”

“Well then I’ll just shoot your engines out myself, smart-ass!”

“Oh? With what?”

“The guns I got installed by my friend over at Cleve Hub last week! Now turn that ship around!”

“I don’t think you have a single weapon installed on that crate, Dad.”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

Jason cocked his head to one side. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

They had cleared the no fire zone around the station. Jason knew that, given their position, Joseph would feel confident in bringing his weapons online. Jason immediately turned his ship, boosted himself back into range of Ackerman Market. The Type-7 began its slow turn, killing its throttle, and had never left the zone.

The ship automatically switched over to the traffic control channel when the Federation pinged him. “Zorgon Peterson Bravo Lima Uniform, please comply with all Federal regulations —”

“Mayday, mayday, calling Ackerman Control.” He kept his voice calm, but added a hint of urgency, as if he was truly terrified but trying to control it. “This is Zorgon Peterson Bravo Lima Uniform. I am being pursued by a hostile party, their weapons are hot. I am unarmed. Say again, this vessel is unarmed.”

This was true — other than a chaff launcher and point-defense turret, the Adder transport did not have any weapons. Jason had made sure to remove them after he’d bought the ship from Cornwall. They were weight he didn’t need on his trip; once he got where he was going, maybe he’d install something. But, for now, his Harmless status was in his favor.

Federation fighters zipped towards him. He keyed his comm back over to his father’s frequency.

“I think those officers want to have a word with you, Dad.”

“You!” The voice on the other end crackled through the speaker with impotent fury. “You tricked me! You —!”

“Bye, Dad.” Turning off his comm, Jason turned to his map of the galaxy. It was a long way to Lave, but it was out of Federation space, and the trade routes he’d heard of were lucrative, if a bit volatile or dangerous at times.

Nevertheless, he was going. He was putting this system, this station, this family behind him. And he wasn’t looking back.

Courtesy Frontier

Chapter Two: Foundational Barter

Elite Dangerous is a registered trademark of Frontier Developments.

Mondays are for making art.

The Playing’s The Thing

Courtesy Supergiant Games
Would Bastion mean as much if we just watched it?

I’d like to think that most of the audience of this article is familiar with the television program Whose Line Is It Anyway? be it in its original BBC format or the American version. What makes the show so memorable, funny, and watchable are not necessarily the host, the games themselves, or even the “contestant” comedians. It’s the people we don’t see much of. In this case, that isn’t the production crew or the camera operators. It’s the audience. The audience, through participation and excitement and laughter, make the show much, much more than the sum of its apparent parts. It has all the trappings of your standard television program, but once it begins, the differences become glaringly apparent.

If you were to show a theorhetical time-traveler from the 30s a game like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, or Mass Effect, they may mistake them at first for films. Then, they’re handed a controller, and the protagonist they just saw cracking wise, stabbing Templars, or shooting (or snogging) aliens is suddenly obeying their commands. We don’t just watch these stories unfold; we become a part of them. The difference is in the controller we hold, the keys we press, the gestures we make. Flailing at a movie screen or television set used to have no influence on a story’s outcome. Now, however, the player is invited to join in the storytelling experience.

I am, of course, speaking of games that go into the design process with this level of interactivity in mind. Not every game is going to set out to create an immersive environment for storytelling. To be honest, not all gamers want that, either. Some just want to blow things up, like some TV viewers just wanting to watch rich people slap the spray-on tans off of one another. There’s also the fact that things like Heavy Rain exist, which many people consider a film you occasionally interact with through your controller. As in all things, there are extremes on both sides.

The fact remains that video games present creative minds with new ways to tell stories, just as films and radio and books have done for years. Even when video games were somewhat nascent and confined mostly to standing cabinets in arcades, among the flashing lights and rudimentary sounds were games like Missile Command, trying to do more than simply bilk kids for quarters. Much like the pioneers of literature, visual art, and motion pictures, early gamesmiths realized the potential of the medium and started pushing boundaries. Naturally, there have always been those who have pushed back, and video games have no shortage of those voices.

Apart from the general alarmists decrying violence and sex in video games, there are other alarmists who would have you believe that the medium would be ruined if the audience for a given game has too much influence over it. Once a game is on shelves or available for download, they say, it’s a work of art like a Monet or a Kubrick, and should be treated with the same respect. Opponents of the Retake Mass Effect movement in particular are fond of this argument. They are on recoard as saying the movement is not only a cabal of craven crybabies craving a creamy cake conclusion to their beloved franchise, but also that its success means nothing short of the degradation of the medium as a whole.

Whenever I hear this argument against changing a game’s story after publication, I think of the film Kingdom of Heaven. The film that was released to cinemas had a great deal of issues in its plot and pacing. Director Ridley Scott would later release a Director’s Cut of the film, smoothing out many of the rough patches and turning a mediocre entry in the realm of historical drama to a highly enjoyable and quite adept film on the nature of faith and religion set against the backdrop of the Crusades. There were still historical inaccuracies but they didn’t get in the way of the story. As satisfying as it is to see a work of this magnitude change for the better after its release, imagine how much more potent that satisfaction would be if there was a more direct emotional investment, say if we were assuming the role of main character Balian instead of just watching Orlando Bloom be that guy.

Part of the reason video games matter so much to their audiences is because the audience are active participants. Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Bastion would be excellent stories on their own, but the investment made by the player makes their plot points even more important, their twists even more shocking. The compulsion exists for the players to push onward, to find out what happens next, to see how the threads of character and setting weave together to underline the themes of the work. And if at the end, those threads begin to unravel, the player can become confused, or disappointed, or even angry. Unless this was intentional on the part of the designers to provide some sort of commentary on player expectations or some other greater meaning, the designers may be called upon to address the issues, to in essence fix something the players feel is broken.

This is where video games truly differentiate themselves from other media. Games have been patching for decades, as developers and players discover bugs that escaped the QA process. The advent of DLC has upped the stakes, allowing companies to monetize new material and also provide updates that there may not have been time to fully complete before launch. While monetized DLC is a subject for another discussion, in this instance the potential is for new content to be added not just to supplement the storyline, but to bring it to a more satisfactory conclusion if necessary. I will agree with some of the alarmists that if developers always caved to player demand, games would suffer for it. However, savvy developers will be able to look at their work after the fact, see the flaws being pointed out by players, and if the game overall would be improved by changing something, it will be changed. It works for game mechanics, it works for NPC behavior, it works for weapon balancing, and it can definitely work for storytelling.

Art is constantly changing. I’m sure there were those scoffed at the notion of a pointilist or a cubist painting because the artists did not subscribe to traditional ways of putting oil on canvas. When motion pictures started talking, supporters of vaudville and those seeking tight censorship over films were dealt a nasty blow over their protests. Video games, in this day and age, are also facing a time of change, as players and developers move closer together thanks to the Internet and the dissolving of barriers between the producers of this art and its audience. With players being active participants in the execution of the art, excluding them from the process and holding up the game divorced from player input as sacrosanct cripples any progress of the art form. The playing’s the thing that makes video games so singular and wonderful.

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