The Future of Video Games

The more I hear about the Xbox One, the more baffling the whole thing is. I say that as someone who was a huge fan of the original Xbox and pretty happy with the 360. At a time when PC gamers simultaneously dread the violence that Steam sales do to their bank accounts and adore the amount of games they get out of it, when the iOS app store is ludicrously large, free-to-play games are a major force in gaming, and the 3DS is hugely popular, we have the new Xbox going off on its own tangent that’s more expensive and laden with more unnecessary limitations than any other platform.

The big thing with Xbox One is the sheer ridiculousness of the DRM on it. It needs to connect to Microsoft’s servers once ever 24 hours to function at all, and while there are a lot of people for whom that’s not that big of a deal, the list of people for whom it is a problem is not small. From what I’ve heard games like Halo and Call of Duty are pretty big with members of the U.S. military, and oddly enough places like Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t known for having great broadband. There are also countries in Europe that Microsoft isn’t supporting initially ( which may in fact be illegal by EU law ), so that there are people who could literally walk to a place where their game machine wouldn’t work. That’s on top of the limitations placed on lending and reselling games ( which Sony smartly and rightly mocked ). While it seems pretty clear that games that come on discs are on the way out, we’re not there yet. While people are still buying games on discs–and for the Xbox One paying $60 for them, possibly even more–they’re going to feel like they ought to be able to sell them off or let a friend borrow them. People don’t mind not being able to lend games on Steam, but then Steam makes it easy to buy and give away 4 licenses for a game, often for less than the cost of one new Xbox 360 game.

Cost is another big thing. Although Sony’s doing better than Microsoft, neither seems all that interested in a non-premium market. The PS4 is going to debut at $399, and the Xbox One at $499. To get the full benefit of the new Xbox you’re also going to need an HDTV, a broadband internet connection, and probably a subscription to the console maker’s online service too. If you were to start from scratch and buy everything you need to play on Xbox One, you could easily spend over $1,000, possibly $2,000 or more. And on top of that, the tradition of screwing over European gamers price-wise isn’t even slowing down, with the number of Euros in the price being the same as the number of dollars in the American price. There’s not much that Xbox One doesn’t lose out to price-wise, except maybe a really ridiculous gaming PC rig. And that’s before we talk about Kinect. Setting aside all the Big Brother references the Xbox One version has inspired, whoever designed it was just very optimistic about the sizes of people’s homes. I have one friend who lives in a house where rearranging the furniture could just about make room for a Kinect, but he has three roommates to live in that house. I have a brother-in-law who has on occasion made six figures, and there’s just no way it would work in his current house.

For a while now it’s seemed like video games are diverging, splitting off into two separate approaches. There’s the AAA-driven stuff from the likes of Microsoft, Sony, Square-Enix, Bugie, Rockstar, Activision, Ubisoft, etc., and then there’s the non-blockbuster stuff, ranging from more niche titles for expensive consoles all the way to the guy making homebrew Atari games. There are some really great games you can get for cheap or even for free through a variety of venues, and there are games that fit a wider variety of people and lifestyles besides the guy who can park in front of his HDTV for several hours on a regular basis. There’s a lot of overlap between the two kinds of video gaming of course, and along pretty much every axis possible. While there undoubtedly is a mainstream audience that sticks to big-budget AAA titles, gamers as a whole have made stuff like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam plenty successful, and that’s before we talk about games that are able to reach out to people who aren’t hardcore gamers. The internet and other new technology has democratized a lot of technology, and just as it’s become at least as easy to get a Jonathan Coulton album as music from a major label, it’s become far easier for indie video game designers to make something polished and fun and get it out to people. [1]

Under the circumstances, I have no idea what to make of Microsoft seemingly aspiring to make its game console more like the major record labels and less like all the stuff that’s looking like it’ll be the future of music. I’m tempted to check to see if any executives from SCEA have moved over to the Xbox team, because Xbox One is producing the kind of tone-deaf statements that used to be the purview of Sony execs pushing the PS3. [2]

I started playing video games… actually with the family’s Commodore Vic20, but I started seriously playing on the NES [3] . For a while I would come home from school, start up Super Mario Bros. , and go into a sort of trance and then come out of it to find it was dark and my thumbs hurt. But I think it was when I was playing on the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn (and then the Dreamcast, plus a bit of Neo Geo Pocket Color) that my video gaming was most distinctly mine . I was a huge Japanophile, big on JRPGs and fighting games, and totally obsessed with certain puzzle games (most notably Bust-A-Move a.k.a. Puzzle Bobble ). I ended up owning a bunch of games that were niche if not outright obscure (for example, I had the PS1 version of Touki Denshou Angel Eyes ). There’s a certain gamer archetype that I fit, but I’m pretty far removed from the mainstream, especially in the U.S. I prefer games that are a solitary experience, I’m not impressed by “realistic” graphics (I still think Phantasy Star Online is far better to look at that Gears of War ), I’m not terribly interested in DLC or achievements [4]

All of that helps explain why when I took it into my head to buy a handheld system to play on the bus I ended up getting a new PSP for $95 at Target. It’s a system that got a lot of love from Japanese developers, and it doesn’t hurt that a lot of those games are available for cheap (though retail stores where you can walk in and buy them are few and far between now). It also came just before the whole game industry when totally crazy with DLC and achievements, while being new enough that it nonetheless has an online store available. I get my cheesy JRPGs and whatnot, ready to take anywhere I go, without breaking the bank.

Today I went to a hole in the wall used game shop (actually it’s in the basement of a computer store) to look for PSP games. GameStop does used games in a way that’s kind of terrible for everyone concerned (including but not limited to their own employees), while most retailers have little if anything for any game systems not in active production, so most any store that steps away from that is welcome. This place (“GameShop”) seems to be doing pretty well for what it is, and has a ton of different things available. I picked up a copy of Lumines II , and I also saw a little kid there with his dad buying an Atari 2600 and some cartridges. I really do hope that that moment represents some slice of the future of video games. If it is, I think the future’s going to be pretty great all told.


[1] There’s also the possibility of cheaper hardware that does more. Although the Ouya looks to be having some serious issues, the fact remains that the mere idea of a cheap Android-powered console got 63,000 people to open their wallets. When either Ouya gets itself together or someone properly pulls off what they were attempting, it could be something pretty big.

[2] “So good you’ll want to get a second job to pay for it” and such.

[3] I can’t remember the exact year, but the guy I bought my NES from was nice enough to show me his brand new Super Famicom and hoooooly crap I just felt this huge tidal-wave of 8/16-bit nostalgia.

[4] Though for the Xbox Live Arcade version of Lumines I did end up getting basically everything offered of both. Lumines remains the only 360 game where I got ALL of the achievements, and the “Single Lap Quarter Million” one was pretty brutal.

NaNoWriMo 2012 Postmortem

Yesterday I missed work because of a migraine, but got a net gain on writing time as I spent the afternoon and evening well-rested and at the computer. Then this morning I had one of those bouts of insomnia that I get sometimes, and woke up at around 3:30 a.m. with little hope of getting back to sleep. [1] I pushed past 50,000 words and finished up my first draft of Magical Girl Radiant Yuna just before I left for work at 6:30 a.m. I don’t regret doing it, but I am very glad that it’s over. I feel an extra layer of exhaustion that goes beyond what the sleep deprivation can explain, and among other things I think if I do NaNoWriMo in the future I’ll do it with something more lighthearted.

What I have is most definitely a first draft. It has several parts that I really, really like, but also some glaring weaknesses that I’ll have to try to address once I get into the revision process. There are some plot elements that I need to just plain do more with, including some of the major characters. While I like the ending I came up with, the last quarter or so of the story seems very rushed, the kind of thing you get when the anime studio suddenly finds out they have to wrap things up in a couple episodes before the show gets canceled. I have a natural rhythm of stepping away from a project to digest things and come up with solutions for those kinds of weaknesses, and NaNoWriMo forces me to just write more regardless. It forces me to complete a narrative rather than neglecting a project indefinitely as I too often do, but it also seems to inherently mean there are going to be some flaws in the story that will take time to untangle. Of course, when I look at the stories that I really admire ( Wreck-It Ralph being one that was on my mind a lot lately), it’s obvious that they didn’t get that way on the first draft.

Although compared to previous NaNoWriMos I had a better idea of what I wanted to do with the overall story, there was still a tremendous amount to discover along the way. Some of the characters surprised me in odd ways, and new twists were emerging in the story right up until the very end. More than once I came up with something just to toss in to fill word count, and found I couldn’t imagine not having it in the story. There were also some things I thought were just plain neat, like an American magical girl in a wedding dress with a shotgun with intricate carvings of roses, or Ami Watanabe, the magical girl who now heads up the Japanese government’s underfunded supernatural intelligence agency. When I was gearing up to do this project a friend of mine asked me how it was going to be different from a Madoka Magica fanfic, and I didn’t have much of an answer because it was so obvious to me that apart from some superficial details, the differences massively dwarf the similarities, and that only became more true as I kept writing. To pick just one example, Pyonkichi, Yuna’s mascot/tsukaima, started off as a low-rent version of Kyuubey I came up with for the Magical Burst book, but he wound up having a character arc that I personally found much more interesting. Where Kyuubey knows exactly what he’s doing and simply reveals more of it over the course of the series, Pyonkichi, who takes a certain twisted pride in his magical girls, experiences profound conflict when he learns what’s actually going on. (I got a WordPress plugin that allows for spoiler tags BTW.)

Another thing that I realized is that at some point I would really like to put together an anthology of Magical Burst short stories. Evil Hat did such an anthology for their game Don’t Rest Your Head (which was an influence on Magical Burst coincidentally) called Don’t Read This Book . While I like where I’m going with Radiant Yuna, I deliberately made Magical Burst a game where the group playing it has a lot of power over the setting, and I want to make stories that explore not only other possible settings, but different tones besides the Serious Business one I struck for the novel. I especially want something zany that feels like a Studio 4°C short. But, that’s way in the future, probably well after I finally publish Magical Burst in the first place.

Focusing on one project for an entire month was an interesting exercise, but it really made me appreciate how I normally allow myself the freedom to jump from one project to the next at random like I usually do. I’ve got this big backlog of other projects that I want to mess with, and in fact a couple of times I couldn’t help but poke at some things. I do need to be better about making a habit of writing a bit every day, especially where writing prose is concerned, but forcing it to be on one project does violence to my normal creative process. Now than NaNoWriMo is behind me, I think my output of blogging and podcasting is going to go through the roof for a bit, because I have a massive number of things I want to work on on those fronts.


[1] Dehydration seems to be a big factor in this, and I’m planning to go buy a humidifier after work today.

NaNoWriMo 2012

This year will be the third time I’ve done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). (You can see my profile here , if you must.) I’ve done it a couple times before, though both of those times were while I was working as a security guard and could get in as much as 4,000 words in one day by bringing my laptop and typing while watching an empty building. Now that I have a full-time office job as a localization editor it’s a lot harder to make time to keep up the word count. I want to make the effort though, because in the past few months I’ve kind of fallen off the wagon when it comes to writing stories. I’ve been putting a ton of energy into designing card games, and while that’s included stuff like Channel A that involves words and creativity, they’re pretty far removed from writing stories.

I had originally intended to try to execute the “Tiny Aliens” story idea I’ve been kicking around for the past year or so, but in the weeks leading up to November I got heavily inspired to work on Magical Burst , my dark magical girl RPG, which in turn has led me to start working on the tie-in novel I’ve been wanting to write to go with it, tentatively titled Magical Girl Radiant Yuna . I’m writing this blog post on Day 2 of NaNoWriMo, and I’ve already broken 6,000 words. That’s partly because I’m writing both a foreword and an appendix of game stats for elements that appear in the book, and those things are generally a lot easier to do than story prose. On the other hand the pure prose part of the book is up to around 3,000 words. I don’t at all expect to be able to keep up this pace (if I did I’d hit 50,000 words in less than two weeks), but I’m glad to be off to a good start nonetheless.

A big part of what’s different this year versus the two times in the past when I did NaNoWriMo is that I’ve done more and better outlining for the story. There’s still a lot I’ll need to figure out and discover, but especially in this initial sprint I have a clearer idea of what I’m trying to do. For UFO Girl and Slime Story: The Legend of Doug I produced first draft novels in one month, but I still have a ton of revision to do on both of them. That’s partly because I’ve matured a bit as a writer since then, and partly because there are issues with plot structure and such that arose from the mad rush to finish by the end of November. (Seriously, some parts of the Slime Story novel are just embarrassing.) Sometimes I need to let stuff simmer until the right solution for how to handle something comes along, and I think that’s even more true of stories than games. In the days leading up to NaNoWriMo I did some fairly critical outlining work. I removed some of the more contrived elements of my earlier plans for the story (like there being a clone of one of the major characters), and I think strengthened the planned core plot immensely. I’m already doing some really weird stuff with the story anyway.

One of the interesting things about writing a story based on Magical Burst in particular is that the game has an awful lot of elements intended to help jog creativity. A lot of such tools exist, like Rory’s Story Cubes , Daniel Solis’ Writer’s Dice , and the Seventh Sanctum random generators site. I picked up the habit of using that kind of randomness in a big way from Maid: The Role-Playing game , which makes extensive use of random tables for character creation, random events, random items, and more. (If you’re not familiar with Maid RPG, here’s a fan-made character generator .) Magical Burst includes tables for most every element of magical girl creation, plus tables for creating monsters and mascots, for generating the mutations magical girls can sometimes suffer, and more. It both provides something I can fall back on, and gives me a decent checklist of things to be sure to cover, making the magical girl characters for the novel that much richer as a result. I didn’t go so far as to randomly generate an entire character (though there is a fan-made generator for that ), but the tables in the game have enough ideas that it’s never hard to figure stuff out.

The biggest lesson that I’m taking from this is that I can make time to be creative if I really try. I think it’s a lesson that needs to be reinforced from time to time, since apparently I forget just how much I can get done if I’m feeling obsessed enough. The turnaround time from the spark of an idea for Channel A to the “OAV Edition” I have up for sale on The Game Crafter was ludicrously short all considered. All of this makes me realized that NaNoWriMo and similar events like NaGaDeMon and Script Frenzy are just a really good idea. It’s easy to let life become a bland paste of random stuff happening, and it takes a certain amount of effort to turn a day into an occasion or a holiday. NaNoWriMo does that with novel writing, turns it into a celebration and lets you do it alongside countless other people.

Happy Things

“In December 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals.” –Wikipedia (Also, clearly this is the BEST way to start a blog post titled “Happy Things.”)

Penn Jillette has been on the Nerdist podcast twice now, and one of the threads of his conversation with Chris Hardwick is that in recent years cynicism has become the cool thing, but earnest expression is always better, and all the more powerful in a time of ironic cynicism. More recently, there’s been the whole Daniel Tosh rape joke brouhaha. One insightful commentary on it came from a Tumblr post by Dave Holmes , who observed that good comedy challenges the status quo, and today “the status quo is fucking dark.” Trivializing rape is tasteless, shocking, and reprehensible to some, but unfortunately it’s just not in any way outside the norm. [1] Art (in the broadest sense of the term) has gone through a series of challenges, where artists push boundaries and change what’s within the bounds of “normal.” Paintings had to be clear representations of something, poetry had to follow a form, and so on, and pioneers and experimenters gave us new ways of thinking about things. The problem is that there are also a lot of people who like to do transgressive stuff for the sake of being transgressive, imitating the surface aspects of the likes of Duchamp without the originality or substance. Tosh seems to thrive on making people uncomfortable, but does so without the artistry of the likes of Louis C.K. I don’t shun things that are dark or shocking, but I have enough of a sense of what does and doesn’t have actual substance that there are some things I don’t bother with. I’d rather watch just about anything by Tarantino than The Human Centipede , for example.

Thinking about this stuff, I realize that I genuinely, unironically like things that are optimistic and uplifting. Obviously [2] I’m not suggesting that cynical, grimdark stuff is bad or needs to go away, but there’s room for happy shiny stuff too, whether it’s slice of life manga or the sleek utopianism of Star Trek . An e-mail conversation with a Neko Machi fan made me feel like my preference for creating and enjoying this kind of thing makes me stand out a bit. I like doing things that make myself and others happy, especially when it comes to creating things. I like a bright, happy aesthetic that for me at least engenders those kinds of feelings. [3] Certainly the only other RPG designer I can think of whose overall style is like that is Daniel Solis .

When it comes to cute, happy stuff, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and its adult male fans are kind of an elephant in the room. Max Gilardi (who does parody animations based on MLP amongst others) has an interesting insight on the brony [4] phenomenon . While it’s true that the show is well-made and has excellent voice acting and animation, Gilardi contends that the real core thing is that “…it has something to do with the show’s ability to reach a certain level of cute without crossing that line over into schmaltzy or sugary,” and further that it’s “…a children’s cartoon that, unlike Pixar films, doesn’t cater to adults as well as children, but rather, caters to the children INSIDE adults.” The internet is a big factor too of course, but I think his insights go a long way towards explaining why it has a lot of male fans when any number of other cartoons and other properties aimed at girls don’t. [5]

My childhood was weird and often unhappy, and in early adulthood as I was getting into anime I acquired a fondness for cute things. I was really big into Card Captor Sakura for example, which I think rode a bit closer to the “Saccharine Line” than MLP, but didn’t cross it. In some ways this was a second go at childhood for me, even as I was starting college and entering the work force. I don’t know how much the emotional content of fandom of MLP and cute anime lines up with my own, but I feel like there’s a largely untapped audience for something more optimistic and happy that still has a core that feels genuine. Today the better cartoons are probably the place where this aesthetic comes through the strongest, and it’s why I gravitate towards stuff like MLP, Gravity Falls , My Life as a Teenage Robot , Fairly OddParents , and so on. It gets into some of my RPG projects (notably Adventures of the Space Patrol and Raspberry Heaven ) and my writing ( UFO Girl and Tiny Aliens , and maybe a bit of I Want to be an Awesome Robot ), and I think defines a major part of where I want to go creatively. I want to be honest and genuine and happy.


[1] Another Tumblr poster observed that if anything it’s much harder to talk about rape in a serious way than to joke about it, which is all kinds of messed up.

[2] Though not so obviously that I feel comfortable neglecting to mention it.

[3] There’s an aspect of this that comes from finding certain aspects of the real world nauseating, but I won’t get into that here.

[4] Another place where I find myself nodding along with Gilardi is where he says he enjoys the show but doesn’t strongly identify as a fan. My experience with bronies so far is that they’re generally pretty cool, and their major flaw is simply not knowing when to shut up about ponies. Compared to the problems with, say, gamers, that’s not too bad.

[5] Though the way companies market to girls is a whole other issue. I still can’t get over the time I went into a local Toys R Us and saw an endcap of board games for girls, and all of them, including the likes of Jenga and Monopoly , were in that burning Barbie pink color. Also, I get pretty annoyed at the people who can’t seem to accept that a guy might like MLP or CCS without having some kind of depraved kink involved (not that those guys don’t exist, but I don’t see any indication that they’re the norm), and the inability to conceive of non-pervy fandom to me says a lot more about the accuser than the accused.

Riffing Advent Children

I’m a huge fan of RiffTrax . If you’re not familiar, it’s a thing where three Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni have banded together to produce downloadable commentary tracks for movies. They’ve been at it since 2006, and have done over 100 feature films, and a ludicrous quantity of shorts (of which ” Drugs Are Like That ” remains my absolute favorite).

In 2008 they launched a thing called ” iRiffs ,” where other people can sell commentaries through their site. iRiffs are all over the place of course, but a few really excellent ones have emerged too. I really like Cinester Theater ‘s riffs of the Back to the Future trilogy and Total Recall , and Blame Society has also done some top-tier stuff. Riff Raff Theater ‘s crowdsourced riffing has also produced some great riffs. More recently Team Four Star (the guys who mainly do Dragon Ball Z fandubs) put out a richly-deserverd iRiff of Dragonball Evolution .

Not unlike with RPGs, with riffs I see a dearth of anime/Japanese stuff, which got me motivated to try my hand at it. I recruited my friend Mike Mallon to help with the project, since in my experience solo riffs just aren’t as good, even when Mike Nelson is doing them. Mike Mallon is one of those people who can barely stand to be serious for five minutes, and for a while did he did a “Great Teacher Largo” panel at various anime conventions, where he would basically do in-character improv comedy for an hour at a stretch. For me watching YouTube videos of the GTL panels from FanimeCon is surreal because it’s the exact same humor he throws around in everyday life, so to me it doesn’t feel like an act exactly. There’s a certain kind of internet humor that he’s immersed in and really grasps in a way that I struggle to keep up with. He can also do the Group X voice pretty much perfectly.

While MST3K concentrated on obscure, terrible movies, RiffTrax has let Mike Nelson and company take a crack at big, mainstream titles that beg to be mocked. For both ventures (not to mention Joel Hodgson’s excellent Cinematic Titanic ) I’ve found that what makes a movie good for riffing isn’t being bad exactly, but being ridiculous, especially if it does so with an air of self-importance. That’s why the RiffTrax of movies like 300 and Avatar turned out so great, while the riff of Daredevil was so-so. It’s also why our riff project is going to be of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children . It’s a fun, entertaining movie, but it also treats most everything as Serious Business.

I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed right now.

I don’t expect to make much of any money from this–iRiffs are a niche within a niche after all–but it’s been a fun project to work on so far. Plus, maybe between our respective followings Mike and I can at least get some people to give it a chance. Last night we gave the movie a once-through, and it highlighted how different our styles of humor are. Mike is incredibly spontaneous, while I have to craft and script things more often than not. 20 minutes messing around with Wikipedia gives me a couple of solid sentences of joke, while Mike effortlessly comes up with these amazing running gags. From here the plan is to get heavily into the writing, and after that we’ll be getting into recording and editing, for which I’m going to have to buy some equipment (which fortunately will be useful for podcasting too).

Awesome Robot Stuff

I’m still plugging away at I Want to be an Awesome Robot , and I figured I might as well put together another blog post about what I’m working on.

Dr. Science
I mentioned before that Dr. Science was one of my big comedy influences, especially for the whole “saying made up shit with a straight face” kind of comedy. Since then I’ve acquired a Dr. Science CD (“Get Smart!”) and two books ( The Dr. Science Big Book of Science and Dr. Science’s Book of Shocking Domestic Revelations ). Dr. Science’s humor is kind of hard to explain. Some of it is his animistic and decidedly non-scientific view of the universe as he tells listeners about what kinds of bars subatomic particles frequent, how unintelligent oranges are compared to other fruits, and about how most dogs are possessed by Satan. He also has a strange wistfulness, and at turns yearns for and despises the way things used to be. As a character he’s larger than life, but in a strange and somewhat pathetic kind of way. He claims to live on vitamin injections and caffeine instead of food, and despite having several ex-wives has no particular interest in anything like normal human contact. His scientific knowledge is eccentric to say the least, and his most exceptional quality is his spectacular arrogance. And yet, he seems motivated by a desire to enrich the lives of his listeners. Sometimes this is friendly advice (from his warped perspective), and sometimes it’s from a desire to elevate them to his own kind of scientific enlightenment.

Artwork, and Kurumi

Fire the Orbital Friendship Cannon!

Books in this genre more typically use lots of stock photographs and public domain stuff. In The Dr. Science Big Book of Science they were particularly adept at finding odd National Archives photos and giving them weird captions. Awesome Robot is going to have a fair amount of that sort of thing, [1] but also some original art.

I have a muse/mascot character, a bunny girl named Kurumi, who I’ve already commissioned entirely too much artwork of . Since the book is going to have a section about her (one of the embarrassingly personal parts), I got Sue-chan to do the first piece that’ll go into the book. There have been two versions of Kurumi, and since the essay on her has kind of a retrospective I wanted art of both versions of her. (Though I’ve wanted something like that for a while regardless of whether it’ll fit into a book.) Sue-chan was the very first artist I’d ever commissioned to draw Kurumi, and although there are more technically proficient artists out there, she has a rare gift for for drawing with a certain joyful quality.

Today in Geek History
“Today in Geek History” is one of the more ambitious and creatively masochistic parts of the book. Inspired by Hodgman’s calendars in More Information Than You Require and That Is All , I started putting together a thing that gives some partly made up nerdy thing for each day of the calendar year (plus one for January 0, plus 12 extra entries because I felt the need to add a Yo Dawg reference). I’m more or less on the home stretch of this, or at least of the first draft of it, and I’ve hit a certain rhythm. I started out looking for different things to include as they occurred to me, but now I’m mostly going through month by month and filling in dates in sequence. My basic strategy now is to look up a date on Wikipedia, Wookiepedia, and Memory Alpha to see if there’s anything of interest, and failing that looking at the front page of Reddit for something I can make up, or just going with whatever pops into my head. I’ve put in a couple different narrative threads, notably about Abraham Lincoln traveling through time to fight History Crab, and about Gary Gygax going on a quest for the Rod of Seven Dice, plus some things about the secret World Nerd Council and the historic accomplishments of catgirls.

It’s kind of interesting to see the patterns that emerge when you try to do 378 discrete bits of comedy. A lot of them start out laying out stuff that’s perfectly factual and then swerve at the very last second. Other times the whole thing is nonsense, but regardless I often find myself having the swervy part be either an unexpected anachronism or a sudden veering into supernatural elements. Sometimes I just get really sarcastic and snippy, though I’m trying to limit that.

This part of the project is up to around 20,000 words so far, and it’s reached a point where a it looks like lot of my other creative endeavors are going to be at a standstill until I finish the first draft. Thankfully it shouldn’t take too much longer. Then I start bugging my friends for help revising it. Next year I’m aiming to do a daily podcast of the calendar, which should be pretty goddamn insane.

[1] My favorite idea for this so far is that there will be a section on weird D&D monsters, which includes a monster called “Evil Pants.” Next to that I’ll have a photo of an ordinary pair of blue jeans captioned, “A trap!”

Books and E-Books

A while back there was an article in the Telegraph with the provocative title ” Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society .” I wasn’t familiar with Franzen, and the extent of what I know about him now are that John Hodgman portrayed him as Oprah’s right-hand man in That Is All , and that some of my friends who read more literary fiction than I do have described him as being really phenomenally overrated.

E-books are a challenge to the way things have worked for books for a long, long time. [1] I don’t want to accuse Franzen or other e-book haters of being luddites or whatever, and I would expect some people to dislike using a Kindle for purely subjective reasons alone. However, calling e-books a threat to civilization is a bit much. At least as quoted in the Telegraph article, Franzen explains why he has a personal preference for paper books, along with some trite complaining about the capitalism of e-book readers [2] , but utterly fails to connect that to anything of greater significance to society. Given how great of a writer he’s supposed to be, it’s rather strange that he makes such a weak argument.

The permanence of print is a great thing, but I for one don’t only read Certified Classics that I’m sure I’ll read over and over, and some of the widely praised classics are overrated anyway. There are books I treasure in print, but (for example) the book on iPhone app design I’m currently reading will be obsolete in a few years, and I’d just as soon not add that bit of wood pulp to the clutter in the basement. I also don’t have unlimited space for books–it’s getting pretty ridiculous and I’ll have to sell some off before too long–and being able to put countless books on my Kindle is useful from a purely pragmatic standpoint. It also makes it much easier to get certain out of print books, and public domain classics can be had for free to boot. When I decided I wanted to re-read The Devil’s Dictionary , I went on Amazon and got a free e-book sent to my Kindle instantly. I didn’t get a Kindle in order to do away with paper books, especially because I own a lot of RPGs, [3] but rather to expand my options. I can put smaller RPG PDFs, fan-translated manga, free e-books from the likes of Cory Doctorow , and independent weirdness on there, along with professional e-books from the Kindle store proper.
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At the Plant

This is another excerpt from I Want to be an Awesome Robot , and shows off the less wacky but still not quite true aspect of the book. It’s a sort of elegiac tribute to a shopping center near where I live. I took the pictures myself.

“The Plant” is a shopping center near where I live, a soulless conglomeration of chain stores. The name comes from how the space used to be a General Electric plant, though the one building left over from the GE days now contains an Edible Arrangements, because that’s apparently how the world works these days. There is more than one Edible Arrangements store in my city, and for that matter in the universe, and no one seems to know why.

No one is here to welcome you, but please come in all the same.

The heart of the Plant is a row of big chain stores. Target, OfficeMax, Toys ‘R Us (with a Babies ‘R Us), and Home Depot, plus PetSmart and Best Buy forming the short part of an L-shape of capitalism. When it first opened the only restaurant was Rubio’s Mexican Grill, a step up from Taco Bell, a step down from real Mexican food. When it first opened, there always seemed to be men in polo shirts looking at blueprints. Once I asked one what he was doing. “This is the new shape of the world,” he replied. It was true. There was the Market Center and a hundred others, shopping centers in orange and yellow, all across America, striving for the same set of chain stores like fevered poker players.

“Just kidding,” he added sheepishly. “We’re doing the electrical work for the new Radio Shack they’re putting in.”
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I Want to be an Awesome Robot: Inspirations and Influences

Involvement in the indie RPG scene impressed on me the idea that there’s no shame at all in openly discussing your interests and inspirations. I want take some time to talk about the things that inspired I Want to be an Awesome Robot and instilled in me the kind of humor that makes the book work. Remembering, researching, and writing about these things turned out to be intensely nostalgic in some cases. Does everyone have works that influenced them when they were young, little treasures dug out of weird corners of pop culture? I didn’t expect this project to lead me to dig up quite so much of my own past. I ended up ordering new copies of a bunch of books I used to have too.

Ask Dr. Science

“Where does the other sock go when you unload the dryer? The answer is of course B. Demons take it.”

Way back when I was in elementary school my dad got an audio tape and then also a book by “Dr. Science,” a comedy character from Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. It was first and foremost a radio show on NPR, but I never managed to actually catch it on the radio. Instead I listened to that tape over and over, sometimes even letting Dan Coffey’s voice lull me to sleep, and I read the book cover to cover more than once. Duck’s Breath seems to have disbanded apart from the occasional reunion, and Dr. Science is down to a WordPress blog . It was my first exposure to the kind of beautiful lies delivered with an air of unflappable authority that John Hodgman later perfected. Dan Coffey would explain, without any shred of doubt in his voice, how money is a kind of fungus, about the kind of protective clothing he wears to divide by zero, about how to create life in your own bathtub. There was also a single TV special, The Ask Dr. Science National Science Test , which someone put up on YouTube, presumably from a VHS tape. It’s exactly the kind of relic of my past that I wish were better preserved than it is. The local PBS and NPR stations (KTEH and KQED) loomed large over my childhood.


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Washington DC

I don’t do very much traveling, so when I do it’s kind of a big deal for me. In recent years I’ve averaged about one plane trip per year, and they’ve tended to be either for conventions or to visit my sister Rachel. My trip to Washington, D.C. was in the latter category. Her husband Chuck is an all-around awesome guy, and his IT job has a way of flinging him around the country every now and then. Before they were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I got to visit them there twice and it was really amazing. When I got my 2011 tax return I decided to spend it on two things: a new TV and a trip to see Rachel. So, I got a 40″ Sony TV and plane tickets to D.C. It took a while to figure out what local stuff I wanted to do there, but I knew for sure I wanted to go see the Library of Congress, and I had ever since I first learned of its existence on Reading Rainbow.
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