August 11, 2020No Comments

Trash Bags for the Rain

I spent my 30th birthday alone in Mexico City. There was nothing sad about the celebration, I was nearly finished with my graduate degree and simply wanted a break from Columbus, Ohio. Mexico City was the cheapest international flight I could find.

I stayed in a tiny hostel in Roma Norte, a touristy neighborhood in the center of Mexico City, close to many museums and a long walk from Zocalo, the famous plaza. The hostel was quaint, but like any good hostel, it’s not the building that makes a wonderful hostel experience, but the people.

I had the bottom bunk in a room of eight and once the awkward introductions wore off, everyone began to enjoy each other’s company. As a confession, I believe one of the many reasons I enjoy international travel is because people find my rural Americanness and slight southern twang to be charming. Whereas in many parts of the US it can be seen as somehow less intelligent or conservative.

On the night of my thirtieth, I went to a simple mexican restaurant in Roma Norte called La Zaranda. I ate tacos and drank mezcal, simple and wonderful. After dinner I returned to my hostel and was enthusiastically greeted by my temporary flatmates, all wishing me a happy birthday and feliz cumpleaños.

Many in the group wanted to go out for a drink that night and I decided to tag along. There were too many of us to seat at a nice cocktail bar so we tried a local club. The short bouncer at the door searched the ladies’ bags and found an epipen. He wasn’t sure what it was, and wouldn’t let her enter. After a small tussle with the bounder we went our separate ways.

I had found a local mariachi bar next to a whiskey bar near my hostel and made my way over there. Another American tagged along with me and we were seated in a very casual restaurant with amazing music. The fellow wasn’t into it as much as I was and kept complaining the entire night. Eventually I told him to leave if he wanted to, he was ruining my night. I’m very much ok with spending the night alone and entertaining myself. He left and we never spoke again.

After the mariachi bar, It was nearing closing time for most places, so I decided to head back towards my hostel, stopping at nearly every taco stand along the way. The vendors raised their eyebrows at me when I ordered a single taco in broken Spanish. I assured them, one is enough. I’ll most likely stop at every stand as I make my way back, which I did.

I sat on a bucket at the last taco stand a block away from my hostel. The man to my right spoke a little English and asked where I was from, making casual conversation. I told him I was in town for my birthday and enjoying the city. He bought me a couple chorizo tacos as we continued chatting.

I casually mentioned it would be nice to have a beer to wash this wonderful late night meal down. The man asks how much money I had on me. It was the end of the night and I had maybe a hundred pesos (five dollars) left. He turns to a man leaning against a bicycle behind him and whistles. It had begun to drizzle and the bicycle man was wearing a trashbag for a shirt.

Trash Bag man walked his bike over to us and the two men chatted in very quick Spanish. The man sitting next to me said to give him the money and he’ll get the drinks. I handed over my cash, thinking I wouldn’t see it or the beers that night.

We continued to chat and eat our tacos. The chorizo was especially good.

About twenty minutes after the bicycle gentlemen left, he came back with an ice cold six pack and tried to give me twenty pesos in change. I cracked open a can, offered the rest to the people around me, and gave the change back to the trash bag bicycle man.

It was a lovely birthday.

August 8, 2020No Comments

Classic Rock

Clark taught me to make pizza. He was the shift manager at the local pizza shop I worked at the summer before my senior year of high school. The pizza parlor was nice enough, big enough to house a children’s birthday party but it only had one arcade machine. The floor usually needed mopping and the bathrooms usually needed cleaning. Neither of which was my job.

I worked on the pizza line, creating pies using the legal limit of pepperoni (eight for a medium, twelve for a large) so the owner wouldn’t explode. Clark always snuck a few extra.

I had just passed my driver’s test. I drove a Geo Tracker with no air conditioning. It did have a CD player though. Growing up in a conservative Christian home I was never allowed to listen to rock-n-roll. I was too afraid to play it in front of my parents.

Clark grew up in the 70's and 80's. He had the psychedelic stare where he would look at the wall and not move. Too much LSD the previous decades I suppose. Clark was a shift manager so he was in charge of the satellite radio. This usually meant Classic Rewind, the classic rock station.

Clark could name every song, Pink Floyd to Black Sabbath. He knew it all. Somehow listening to these old rockers made sprinkling cheese and burning my fingers a little more bearable. The only time he seemed annoyed with me was when I asked if the song playing was Bon Jovi.

"Bruce, are you kidding me? This is Led Zeppelin" he scoffed.

I was ashamed.

Saturday nights were the busy ones. The owner would work a shift from time to time, mostly to prove that he was still in charge, not because he wanted to help. He was running the dough machine and an order rang up for a large and a medium pepperoni and mushroom. He ran the dough through the machine and I cut it to size, a medium ten-inch pizza.

“What the fuck are you doing? Are you fucking stupid? Did you hear me say cut that into a large?”

“There wasn't enough dough for a large! It barely fit a medium!” I retorted.

“Don't you fucking talk back to me. You listen to me you little piece of shit. I said to cut it to a large.”

“Knock it off Ed, It's not a big deal Jesus, just run some more dough,” Clark said as he came to my defense.

He gave me a wink and turned on the radio.

I took a week off from the restaurant for high school football training camp. It wasn't uncommon for Clark and me not to share a shift for a week or two, the schedules were random and often made by someone who just smoked their third bowl.

Going on the fourth week without sharing a shift with Clark, I was getting bored with the country music station and asked where he had been, usually, he works the late shift.

“Clark’s dead” Rusty the shift manager said bluntly.

“What?” I said, absolutely shocked.

“He hung himself three weeks ago.”

Rusty went back to work, shaking his head like I was insane. I stared at the dough hook as it spun the soggy mass of flour around in circles again and again slowly getting fed up with the honky-tonk blasting through the place.

I grabbed the remote that Rusty kept near the cash register and changed the station to Classic Rewind. No one said a thing.

August 8, 2020No Comments

My First Shovel

I heard the door open.  My father stood holding his Russian made SKS looking out into the garden.  The sun had gone down and I was already in my pajamas. 

“Coyotes,” he said.  “They’re gettin’ the chickens again.”

My father was a deacon and my mother a Sunday school teacher.  His hobby was guns and hers collecting home and garden magazines.  They both had too many.  Every Saturday they would drive a half an hour to the flea market looking for ammo and a new craft project.  I was twelve years old and neither interested me.

Dad aimed his rifle and shot.  The coyotes barked, one yelped.  He never liked killing animals, but I guess losing a chicken was worse.  We had eggs for breakfast the next morning.   

I grew up learning how to handle a weapon.  Dad would get annoyed if I called it just a gun.

“It’s not just a gun,” he would say.  “They are dangerous and require respect.  It’s a weapon.  Use it properly”

It wasn’t a bad hobby, I just enjoyed baseball more.  But I could clean his SKS, .45, Glock, and if it was one of his new firearms, I could handle it well enough.  In a southern Ohio farm town, guns were as commonplace as the bible.  I learned to use both, but I didn’t have my own gun yet.

In the winter he would take me hunting and in the summer, fishing.  Both needed a patience I didn’t have, but I enjoyed the food.  His specialty was fried catfish and venison jerky.  On Sundays we would hand out samples of the jerky after church and host fish fries in the spring.  I would sit in the back of his red pickup truck with bags of dried meat and treat smiling old men to free dried deer.  But I never killed any of the animals.

It was a hot August night.  That summer had been especially dry.  Dad thought the coyotes were hungry and desperate.  He joked that they were slowly turning into people that lived in southern Ohio.  I asked him what he would do with the dead coyote. “I’ll put it in the ground” he said.

I asked if he needed help.  “No, stay inside and get ready for bed.  I killed it.”

He went back outside into the night with his flashlight and six shot.  He moved the truck in front of the chicken coup.  I watched through the window as he grabbed a shovel and a grain sac from the shed and loaded them into the truck.

The moon was bright, but clouds covered most of the stars.  A cool breeze blew through the window.  Maybe rain was finally coming.  Dad’s garden was dying and it made him irritable.  I heard a loud THUD and then the grinding engine turn over.  I watched as the taillights disappeared into the drive by the woods.

My mother was reading a magazine on the couch.  I said goodnight and walked up the stairs into my room.  I lay in my bed with the lamp on, trying to decide if I should make my mom happy by reading a chapter in the bible or read one of my magazines hidden under the bed.  After a few minutes of reading, my mother said goodnight through my closed door and went to sleep.

I flipped a few more pages and heard rustling by the garden.  I walked out of my room and to the window.  The door to the chicken coup was wide open, the yellow porch light reflected several pairs of eyes creeping by the door.

A single chicken screamed.  Then they all screamed.

I ran downstairs and to the cabinet where dad keeps his rifles.  The door was still unlocked and his SKS was still on top.  I grabbed it and a clip.  I ran through our front door and to the side of the deck.  I could still see the eyes near the hen house, chickens cawing like the devil.

The clip jammed in the dark.  Underneath the porch light I unwedged the metal, slid it back in, and flipped the safety off.  I stood tall, feet apart.  The stock pressed firmly against my shoulder, weight on my front foot.  I took aim and fired.

The eyes scattered.

My mother ran down the stairs asking what the hell I was doing.  I told her about the coyotes.  How dad was up in the woods burying another.  I removed the cartridge from the gun and emptied the chamber. I put the rifle back into the cabinet and grabbed my father’s colt.  I found my white tennis shoes and another flashlight and went back outside.

As I neared the chickens I could hear an almost silent, difficult wheeze. Lying on the ground near the door was a dead chicken and a coyote bleeding from the neck.  As I neared, it tried to stand up and run, but it lost too much blood.  Blood soaked its fur, the ground beside, and the chicken. The two animals’ blood mixed together and sank into the earth.

I shined the light on Coyote’s head, took aim again and fired.  Not the way my father taught me.  I missed his head and shot it in the shoulder.  I heard another wince of pain.  The coyote couldn’t even call out.  The eyes now looked on me with fear.  I took proper aim this time, steadied the gun on top of my left wrist with the flashlight facing the coyote.  My weight on my front foot, shoulder width apart.  I found his head and squeezed the trigger.  This shot was clean.

I removed the magazine and the bullet from the chamber.  I put them back inside the gun cabinet.  I walked back outside then into the shed and grabbed another grain sac.  I heard the gravel crunch underneath the tires of my dad’s truck.  The door slammed.  I walked back outside and saw my father looking down at the dead animal.

“Shovel’s already in the back,” he said.  “Here are the keys.”

My dad went back inside.

I grabbed the coyote by the hind legs and slid the sac over its body.  Blood splashed on my sneakers.  I tried to throw the carcass into the bed of the truck like my father, but it bounced off the side and the body spilled onto the ground.  I slid the bag back over the dead animal and managed to lift it onto the tailgate.  I climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

Digging the grave took the longest.  Spraying the back of my dad’s truck was the easy part.  My clothes were stained and my shoes were ruined.  My mother asked my father why he made me bury the coyote by myself.

“Because he killed it alone.”

I was only twelve, just a boy that knew how to handle a weapon, I still didn’t get my own

August 2, 2020No Comments

The Last of Us Part II – Ending the Cycle

The Last of Us Part I remains one of my favorite video games ever. It demonstrates the potential for compassion in people and the ugliness of their desperation. In this world people are dangerous, being vulnerable is deadly, trust can be destructive. The opening sequences of Part II showed the consequences of being a good person in this world.

I have my problems with Part II. However, the issues I have with the game are minimal compared to the overall experience. It was harrowing and exhausting. I won't be playing through it again any time soon if ever. Boiled down, my issues are the drastic changes between the characters we knew in Part 1 and how they are portrayed in Part II. The main, of course, being Joel.

Before I dive into my issues with the game, I would like to write about the parts I enjoyed. Maybe enjoyed is the wrong word, the parts I found interesting:

  1. Joel and Ellie's relationship post Part I
  2. The war between the WLF and the Scars
  3. Yara and Lev
  4. Parts of Abby's story

Too often people create a picture of the ideal world after the credits roll. The challenges are over, therefore, the characters will never again encounter any problems, pie in the sky storytelling. I was glad to see the struggles Ellie and Joel's relationship had post Part I. It felt human, it felt real. These struggles ultimately make the ending 'cathartic' scene more like a dagger in my side knowing how long the two were apart. The Last of Us as a series isn't about feeling good, quite the opposite. Ellie choosing to cut Joel out of her life then losing him immediately after offering an olive branch is the true reason for her revenge mission. Abby not only took Joel from her, she took away any chance she had at true forgiveness.

I'm always interested in the people outside the main characters in the story world. Creating outsiders or hints of outsiders makes the world feel larger and alive. In Part I there were survivors, the Fireflies, people living in the QZ, and remnants of groups the player discovers through their journey. I was excited to dive into the two main groups and learn about their interactions. I think the Seraphite's back story was more interesting and was a little disappointed that I didn't get to spend more time with the group.

Yara and Lev's story really struck me. Your family disowning you because of who you are, especially when it comes to religion is something that hits close to home for me. I'm not transsexual but I do come from a extremely religious family and I don't prescribe to those beliefs. It hurts. The bond between Lev and Yara was special, and it was nice to see such a strong sibling bond that transcended family beliefs.

Most of the time I didn't enjoy playing as Abby. I was disappointed with parts of the game but let me be clear, just because I didn't like what I played does not make it bad. When I started Abby's side of the story, I ran through the levels as fast as I could (died a lot too because of hard mode). This is not the way to play the game and I was punished. I missed collectibles and journals, which I really enjoyed. To be honest, the chapter she returns to the trailer to pick up Yara and Lev I started to get behind her and simply enjoyed her character for who she was.

Life is hard, full of difficult choices. Often luck outweighs skill in the world of The Last of Us. Life is fleeting and can end at any moment. Joel's death was surrounded by bad choices that I felt didn't match his character, at least from part 1. Part 1 Joel wouldn't help someone he didn't know. He wouldn't tell them his name, or promise them supplies. He would be suspicious, careful, and protective of his family. Seeing this transition was jarring, especially after replaying part 1 so recently. I don't mind that he died. Too often I believe storytellers are afraid to make difficult choices like this and avoid it all together. I applaud Naughty Dog for having the guts to make a decision like this. However, I wished it was handled differently.

Revenge on this scale is hard to relate to. I've never experienced a loved one murdered, let alone right in front of my eyes, so Ellie's feelings were a little foreign. I would have preferred to see Joel captured instead. The rest of the game would play very similarly, Tommy immediately runs after Joel while Ellie prepares to sneak away. Dina tags along and Jessie follows. Ellie tears through Seattle, gathering info on Abby and Joel, taking out people along the way. She learns of Joel's whereabouts, he's malnourished and tortured nearly to death. Or perhaps he escapes on his own and in the end sacrifices himself to save his family. But that's just me wishing.

I was happy to see Ellie decide to rebuild their relationship in the end. Of course it's sad they missed a lot of time together and never had the opportunity to fully restore their bond, but Joel knew she cared for him and she knew Joel would do anything for her. I think it hurt because ND made us care so much for these characters through the first game. The birthday flashback was a gift and in the end, Joel had one last great cup of coffee.

July 22, 2020No Comments

A Casual Intro – Mechanics as Message

This post was originally published in my old blog on June 26, 2018.

Recently I began writing my MFA thesis paper at Ohio State. This post will work as a casual version of my thesis introduction.

Games are huge is an understatement.  Everyone I know plays games in some form or another, video games, board games, sports, etc.  Game-like qualities have found themselves in apps, school, and websites thanks to the gamification revolution.  The popularity of games as a pastime and storytelling medium and its unique characteristics make it a prime candidate for alternative modes of storytelling.  What characteristics are unique to games as a medium?  How do these traits help establish the medium?  What can they do for the player?

The "cut" is arguably the most import attribute of film.  The story in a movie is told through the cuts (Mamet).  A shot of a man screaming cutting to a shot of a mouse is a very different story than a shot of a man screaming and cutting to a dark figure lurking in the corner.  Unique attributes like this are found in all sorts of visual mediums.  Comics, for example, is comprised of juxtaposed images similar to film, however, the time between the frames can vary, unlike film which is shown at a standard rate. Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics states that a major difference between film and comics is the “space” in which the image occupies (McCloud).  A film (and most video games) occupy the same space, perhaps a screen or a monitor, and comic frames “occupy a different space.” If comics and film have specific traits unique to their medium, what are the traits unique to games and video games as a medium?

Video games share many of the same visual traits found in film.  Lighting, camera, tone, and pacing are all part of film and modern video games.  Even genre tropes have been successfully transferred to video games.  Sci-fi games like Mass Effect have created vast science fiction worlds that use many of the traits found in science fiction films, traits like aliens and space exploration.  The game Alien: Isolation has successfully adapted an existing film universe into a video game while keeping the same tone and style of the films (strict movie to game adaptations often fail, however).  

That’s not to say film and games contain exactly the same traits as a medium.  Although they share many characteristics, there are many things film does that wouldn’t work in a game and vice versa.  Film has an established language that the viewer understands. In Star Wars, the soft radial wipe has a different meaning than the traditional cut.  It usually signifies the passage of time and a location change. In the film Mean Streets, a wobbly camera, a long take, and inconsistent lighting show that Harvey Keitel’s character is intoxicated. This effect uses the strength of film as a medium, camera, color, and the cut. This effect could be recreated in a video game visually, however, it doesn’t use the strength of games as a medium. The strength of games lies in the agency of the player.  The interactive quality of a game and the rules or systems in the game that allow for interaction are the major differences that distinguish games as its own medium, these are called a game’s mechanics. Instead of camera effects to describe inebriation, the same message could be told in the interaction with the character. In a board game, maybe there’s a punishment added to the dice roll or some other handicap given to the player. In a video game, perhaps the usual way of controlling the character isn’t as precise compared to when the character is sober. In a video game, using the point of control over the character to describe a physical or emotional state is stronger than simply showing the player. The traditional film rule of “show, don’t tell” can be extrapolated to games as “play, don’t show” (Fine). “In a film or a book, if the characters take the left-hand door, then they will always take the left-hand door, no matter how many times you re-watch or re-read; but in a game, you can take the right-hand door instead. Instead of being nice, you can be nasty; instead of being cautious, you can be gung-ho; and you can see what happens.”  In games, it’s often better to convey meaning through gameplay and player interaction. 

I'll be looking at deeper definitions of game mechanics in a later blog post.
If visuals, audio, and the cut are unique characteristics of film, then what are traits unique to games?  Obviously the answer is interaction via the game's mechanics.  The player's control over the game, the agency allowed to the player, sets games apart as a medium.  How can this characteristic of game mechanics be designed to influence the mood or perception of a story in the same way the cut or visual effects do for film?  Games I believe that do this are Braid, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and various game in the indie scene.  We'll look at these game more closely in a future post.  The common theme, however, is the game's mechanics help to share the message of the game.


As part of my MFA degree, I also need to do a creative project.  That's the main reason for this contextualized research, to inform that project.  If mechanics determine how a player can interact with the game state, and if the mechanics are designed in a way that shifts the player’s perception away from how they traditionally see and experience the world, in what ways will this altered view contribute to the player’s understanding of different states of mind in the character or story being portrayed in the game? With this question in mind, the story won’t be like traditional narratives told in film and books. Instead, the conflict and resolution will be in how the player interacts with the game and the changes in the player’s perception of this conflict.

For the project, I intend to explore the design process for game mechanics so players can experience a metaphorical representation of onset dementia through interaction. Players will have two very distinct comparisons of reality: their everyday reality outside of the game world and the reality created in the game that is driven by dementia and rules of the game.  The goal of this project is not to recreate the dementia experience for players with healthy minds, but instead to offer a glimpse into the emotional conflicts and confusion that are an everyday part of the disease.
The goal of this research is to show how games, with their distinct characteristic of mechanics, can inform the player of the game’s message. Game mechanics can be the main conduit for the story’s message. In some cases, mechanics can provide better insight into altered realities, in this case, dementia. This research will work to show game’s strength as a storytelling medium and provide an example of how mechanics can be designed to add meaning to a player’s interaction.  I hope this project will serve as a model for myself and other game designers in the future to adapt mental and emotional states to the medium of games.


Thanks for reading this long winded post.  If anything is confusing I'd love to clarify!


References for this post
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
On Directing Film by David Mamet
https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/124172/Opinion_Play_Dont_Show.php
Mass Effect by Bioware
Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott
Alien Isolation by Creative Assembly
Braid by Number None
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice by Ninja Theory

July 22, 2020No Comments

Quick Update

Hey all,

I wanted to give a quick update along with my new portfolio site.  Earlier this year (pre-Covid) I quit my dev job at Pixologic because I was offered a role at Blizzard.  I couldn't say no.  I joined the animation team back in February and have been working on the in-game cinematics for Overwatch 2 and World of Warcraft Shadowlands.  It's been an amazing year minus being stuck inside.  So pumped to show everyone what the team has been working on.

I'm gonna spend the next few days and migrate my old blog posts (the ones that are worth migrating).

Cheers!

Bruce

©2020 Bruce Evans

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