Game Overwatch

Gather ’round while I tell you a tale of a not-so-young Karinshastha and their experience with a wonderful First Person Shooter game played primarily by people who aren’t female.

I’ve been playing Overwatch for a little over a month now and I’ve come to the conclusion that this very pretty, well-polished game is not something I am inclined to continue with, even on a casual basis. It’s worth the purchase price of $40 as far as I’m concerned. Getting a month out of it is quite all right. I don’t spend much on games in the first place. What drove me to this conclusion was the fact that at some point, I’m going to have to get better at this game in order to enjoy it, and there’s no good way to do that without investing an unpleasant amount of effort into being social with highly competitive young people who are more than happy to rage when things aren’t going the way they’d planned. Microphone required.

The maps are beautiful, the mechanics are smooth, the animations are fluid, some of the sounds are borderline ASMR, and the game play is pure adrenaline. The audio-visual-kinesthetic experience is excellent.

The problem I face, however, is that this eventually fades and I find myself craving a structured experience that casual play does not offer. Enter competitive play, in which one is constrained to a handful of character picks out of the 23 on offer in order to be maximally effective for one’s team while not being a burden.

I really enjoy playing D.va, the young Korean mech pilot with armor and infinite ammo and a low skill floor. I’d play her every game if I could. But you’re not supposed to do that in competitive Overwatch – you need to be versatile and swap heroes as the situation calls for it. If they have a Pharah raining justice from above, you’re supposed to bring Soldier 76 and shoot her out of the sky.

Okay, I can do that. Soldier is the game’s best-known all-rounder. He can sprint, heal, do good damage, and his ultimate is literally aim assist. No problem.

I can also bring Pharah. I used to play Quake extensively. I can point rockets at people’s feet and pilot her jet pack reasonably well. I know where my Q button is when I want to unleash a deadly rocket barrage. Sure, I’ll insta-die to a sniping Widowmaker, but as long as I take a few with me, it’s a good trade.

D.va’s getting a pretty big nerf next patch to the point where she’s no longer desirable. Okay, who else do I like to play? Sombra, the hacker, whose usefulness is very situational and requires a team to play around her. Tracer, the zippy track star who requires a great deal of skill to play effectively – skill I don’t have and don’t want to invest the time in training at the expense of other heroes. Mercy, the healer whose usefulness and utility is eclipsed by every other healer in the game and, like Sombra, requires a team to play around her. Ana, the sniping healer who requires an accuracy of 60% in order to be more effective than Mercy in a vacuum.

I’d train for that, I guess. The problem, though, is that competitive compositions are very limited and comprise characters that I mostly don’t enjoy playing. What happens when Ana is taken (perhaps by a more skilled Ana player) and so are the DPS roles (as they usually are)? I don’t mind Lúcio, the super-mobile wall-rider who heals by merely existing. Zarya, the Russian bodybuilder who shoots beams and bubbles is all right. I don’t care for the heavily armored meatshield known as Reinhardt whose rectangular blue shield is mandatory in every single game. I really don’t like Roadhog, a pot-bellied misfit who wears a gas mask and pulls people in with a hook for “picks.” Everyone else, apart from the abovementioned favorites, gets a resounding meh. (Except Mei, she’s super cute and I have no idea how to play her effectively.)

Play something that isn’t on the above list in competitive and you open yourself up to toxicity for having committed the cardinal sin of picking an available hero who is not in the “meta” for winning games. Manageable in a game like Smite, perhaps, where you have 83 gods to choose from and much more flexibility in finding something you like. Not so much in Overwatch, where I’ve found that your often teenage (or younger) compatriots are ready to jump all over your ass at the drop of a hat. And if you’re not playing to win, like you should be, even the Game Masters will jump on your ass.

So just play casually, right?

Well, I think I’ve exhausted my enjoyment of Arcade Play. There’s only so many all-Reinhardt or all-McCree brawls I can take before bowing out. I’m not interested in 3v3 elimination matches or 1v1 mystery duels – I am happiest when operating as part of a largish team – or no limits matches where people pick three of the same hero. Mystery Hero matches are all right – you get a random hero every time you respawn – but they don’t help me git gud at any specific hero.

And then there’s Quick Play, the casual alternative to Competitive Play. In Quick Play, you can play whatever you want and learn your hero’s abilities and the maps and health pack locations and so forth. There’s no team cohesion or strategy to speak of, mostly random Team Fortress 2 with a team that’s a third of the size in a scale-appropriate fortress so you’re bound to run into the Now Spectating screen relatively quickly once you’ve hit level 25 and start getting matched with level 400 players who are warming up before or cooling off after rousing matches of high-level competitive play.

I’ve played my share of Quick Play. It doesn’t do much to help you learn how to play your hero effectively, just what the abilities actually do, so to train for Quick Play (which sounds a bit ridiculous, but whatever), I decided to set up custom games with bots. Hard difficulty Lúcios padding both teams – Lúcio uses a speed boost, moves unpredictably, and keeps you alive – are good for training tracking. Just last night I was fairly adrenalized by my increased ability to track and kill the bots on Sombra while listening to very loud music (best way to train, I’ve found). They’re always running after health packs and are a pain to kill, but I was doing it with regularity.

But did I really pay $40 for a shooting range simulator? And do I want to spend thirty minutes to an hour a day training for an unknown payout at some point in the distant future on the roster of a squad full of jocular man-children (and children) who only like you when they win?

Maybe it’s my attitude that’s the issue here. I’ve calmed my temper considerably, when I can remember to, and have even been able to type words of encouragement in the chat box. But I really don’t have any motivation to get on voice chat and start calling shots or compliment assholes on their play to stroke their egos and stop them from tilting and/or throwing.

Essentially, I’d need to find enough motivation to seek out other players, group up with them, and queue for competitive play as a team in voice chat if I really wanted to get any further enjoyment out of Overwatch. I couldn’t even be bothered to do voice chat in The Secret World, which I enjoyed very much while I was in the swing of things. I think the last time I did it was in Guild Wars 2’s sPvP years ago with my guild – people whom I had gotten to know and who knew me and so I didn’t mind so much talking to them on my tin-can audio jack microphone. Random people? Ehhhhh, no, thank you.

So, bye, Overwatch, I guess. For now? (*shrug*) It was moderately fun and somewhat painful while it lasted.

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Going Home

I had Help Me by Hako Yamazaki blasting in my ears when I walked into Daimon Kiyota’s renovated “office” and told him I was done. It wasn’t until halfway through his response that I bothered to take the earbuds out and let them hang from my phone’s audio jack almost all the way down to the floor. My deadpan gaze made him stop and rewind back to the beginning, this time with a shit-eating grin in place of his usual Blackbeard smile.

To my surprise, he stopped himself before he started speaking. His suddenly blank expression masked an eerie calm.

“Everything is Jake, Liling.” That got my attention: it was the first time he had ever used my real name – or any name at all. I felt a bit taken aback, briefly. He wasn’t dealing with my usual humorless bullshit and he was no spring chicken when it came to reading people. I could tell that he was just as serious as I was.

“You’ve been on the lam for a long time. There’s nothing going down in town.” He shrugged dramatically for effect. It didn’t have any, so he put a smile back on his face. “Zip your lips, don’t double-cross me, and you can high-hat every drugstore cowboy and gold digger from here to Big Sur. Copacetic?”

“Copacetic,” I said.

I glanced to my left and right, looking for the Bong Cha treatment.

“We’ll skip that part,” he crowed. “You’re too strong, now.”

I nodded curtly and thought about bowing. To hell with it. I put my earbuds back in and walked out the door of the Dragon’s main temple in Seoul for what I hoped would be the last time.

Kingsmouth is on the other side of the country from my parents’ home in California, so there was still the business of arranging a cross-country flight. I traded in my Pax Romana for a modest sum in pounds at one of the black market vendors in London – apparently the council’s currency is worthless outside the not-so-secret circles that float it.

It was enough to take care of transportation to the West Coast and then some. I bought new clothes for the first time in ages and dumpstered the black-and-purple hoodie that had been my mainstay for the past two years. Mixed memories, more good than bad, none of them worth dwelling on.

I still think of Shani, sometimes, when I look up at the moon at night. Probably better to forget about that one, too.

When I arrived in front of the light-blue rambler my parents called home, the door opened before I had even stepped out of the taxi. As I tipped the driver my mother called out to me with such agitation in her voice that I nearly tripped over my own toothpaste-white shoes running up the sidewalk.

“Oh, Lily. Thank goodness you’re here.”

“Mother! What’s wrong?”

“I made too much for dinner and your father and I can’t eat it all up by ourselves.”

“Oh…” I laughed stupidly, as if I were a six year-old child again. And then it dawned on me that my mother had just called me by my American name for the first time I could remember since I had been born. I looked down at her brown eyes behind thick-rimmed, thick-lensed glasses that cost more than mine did. Her smile, well, you couldn’t put a price on that.

“You’re not angry, mother? After everything that’s happened?”

She pursed her lips and pinched my left cheek between her thumb and index finger. “Just forget everything and start over. Oh, and Liling…”

“Yes, mother?”

“Welcome home.”

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Late to the Afterparty: Overwatch

I’m unfashionably late to the after-afterparty where everyone’s passed out and some people are even beginning to wake up with massively overpowered headaches that will follow them throughout the day. My interest in MMOs has waned to the point where I can only be bothered to log in to The Secret World every couple of days for one to three consecutive days of play, and then only if the people on my friends list are going to be running classic Nightmare dungeons or, more recently, Kaidan Elites (AEGIS dungeons). This interest in MMOs will undoubtedly be bolstered by the return of Nostalrius in its second incarnation on December 17th, which will see me resuming play on my priest and rolling up a fresh warrior for tanking dungeons on the PvE server where I’ll be free to roam with a headcanon full of nostalgic musings on fantasies that disappear when the game client closes.

In the meantime and downtime, I’ve been looking for a gap-filler. So, on a whim, I decided to buy Overwatch after mulling it over for a week or so. It’s a multiplayer shooter with heroes and objectives and mechanics. It’s easy to pick up a specific hero’s ablities; mastering them in matches against human players may take quite some time depending on one’s FPS experience and killer instinct.

I have no killer instinct to speak of and don’t really know why I’m shooting at other players. I presume it’s because they’re shooting at me. I think I’m doing the whole Overwatch thing wrong, anyways, because I hate the popular damage-dealing heroes Genji and Hanzo and prefer to play mostly support and sometimes tank characters almost exclusively. I’ll even switch from Mercy with her single-target healing/damage beams and resurrection ultimate to Lúcio who possesses a speed boost/healing toggle (with an amplifier) that functions most effectively when he “exists” in the midst of his teammates.

Things like positioning, situational awareness, map terrain navigation, and aiming are coming back to me slowly. Twenty years ago I played shooters quite a bit – the feelings died down as I got older. One of the things I asked myself when contemplating the purchase was: why are you getting back into player combat after your experiences with Smite? Don’t you remember? It made you hate other players.

Overwatch is a bit different so far: I’m relatively low level, so people don’t seem to mind much what others are doing, which is great because if anyone were to notice my individual performance in some of these matches and I made the mistake of leaving voice chat enabled, I’d probably be called some things I’m not interested in hearing. In any case, after several rounds against the A.I., I began playing Quick Play exclusively (non-competitive matches) and have been having fun to the tune of two hours a night. Perhaps this will change as my skill improves, but for now I’m content to watch my Play of the Game once every thirty matches in which I stand with my nose in a corner and a healing beam on my team’s Winston as he kills three players in a row with his monkey rampage ultimate.

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In which my mech self-destructs behind strategically stacked crates and two enemy players die off-screen. Well done.

As in Smite, I don’t really like most of the heroes. Pharah’s rocket launcher reminds me of the Quake series which I used to play very heavily two decades ago, so I don’t mind her. Sombra, Mei, and Widowmaker are cool even though I suck at them. D.Va is the stereotypical k-pop streaming hearthob who is most effective as a tanky DPS harasser and is therefore a bit difficult for me to get used to, somewhat like some of the support gods in Smite who didn’t really seem to “do anything” until their play style clicked with me several matches in. Unsurprisingly, Mercy is my favorite healer aesthetically. Lúcio is an enormously useful healer and enjoys the advantage of being “meta.” I like rifle-toting grandma Ana, too. Unfortunately, I’m no good at sniping if the target has any amount of mobility.

And actual live opponents do. They are surprisingly aware of where I am at all times and annoyingly deadly. Sometimes I’m murdered without mercy in the space of five minutes. Unlike Smite which has Conquest matches that range from 25-45 minutes in length, a round of Overwatch is over fairly quickly and I’m free to leave in between matches without penalty. I’ve begun acquiring a collection of sprays, skins, and icons, most of which is pretty fluff to look at in the Hero Gallery when I’m done for the evening.

When it comes down to it, it’s a nice game to play when there’s nothing else I’m hot to trot for. I’ll probably never play it competitively, however; I have little tolerance for toxicity. That’s one thing that all of the multiplayer games I play have in common: they’re most fun when played with nice people. It’s no wonder a lot of us are playing single-player games these days.

Life Is Strange Fan Fiction: “After This”

Games are endlessly rewarding: they birth fantastic stories both within and without. Once upon a time I wrote about Guild Wars 2 and I still, from time to time, post flash fiction or short stories about The Secret World. Now, I’m writing about my latest love interest, Life Is Strange. The euphoria has died down; there’s a resonant mental energy that continues to buzz and gives the illusion that I am made of ten thousand moving parts. If you’d like, you can read the illustrated Thing “How to be perfectly unhappy.” by The Oatmeal and you’ll understand how I feel. Games are a conduit, a catalyst, a source of inspiration. Humble beginnings, stepping stones, or maybe…just what I like to do.

“After This” by Karinshastha

I’ve published it on Archive Of Our Own, one of the most active, user-friendly sites I’ve found that’s been designed for people who enjoy reading and writing fan fiction. So far I’ve completed one chapter. It’s a rather dreamy second-person narrative which tries to emulate the style of Alyssa Wong, an award-winning flash fiction/short story author whose work I admire. I don’t know how many chapters are in the cards, to be quite honest. Sometimes I can come up with a first draft that’s fully formed, albeit skeletal; most of the time, as is the case with “After This”, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story until I’ve actually written it.

It’s great fun.

 

Favorite Game of 2016: Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange has become my favorite movie. I’ve watched it twice, both times with somewhat different decision-making but with the same basic themes, one of which was impressed upon me at the game’s midpoint: Maxine and Chloe, the title’s protagonists, are partners in time. The dynamics of the cast of associated characters revolve around this locus and play out based on your decisions large and small. Tonight I’ll be playing it for a third time, bearing in mind the knowledge and theories I’ve gleaned from reading hundreds of pages of commentary, fan fiction, and analysis, as well as from watching dozens of videos devoted to its intricacies. It’s a game that invigorates the imagination and invites endless discussion on the heavy themes it addresses unflinchingly: bullying, suicide, euthanasia, PTSD, and mental illness, among others.

I briefly thought about writing a hyper-ballad dedicated to this wonderful game with which I’ve become obsessed as of late, but that multi-part treatise has already been written. I’d like to invite you to read Polar Opposites and Binary Choices: A Critical Reading of Life Is Strange – Part 1 at Dubious Ideas which discusses many of Life Is Strange’s most fascinating elements in no fewer than 47,000 words divided into six sections.

At its core, Life Is Strange is an episodic narrative which Dontnod, the game’s developers, intentionally leave open-ended so that you, the player, are the one who decides the precise nature of the things that go on around you. It’s also stress-free and slow-paced: there is no sense of impending danger and no rush to do anything. It is predicated on rewarding you for the simple act of stopping to smell the roses. Click on everything you can find. Sit down on a bench, a couch, a bed, and watch the world around you from Coppola-esque camera angles as Max pontificates. Announcing what your characters are thinking is presumably one of the cardinal sins of authorship – Life Is Strange utilizes this to great effect in a flawed masterpiece whose conclusion and lingering resonance have left me in a state of emotional vulnerability that I have not felt in a long, long time.

Life Is Strange is a story about 12th grade senior and aspiring photographer Maxine Caulfield who has been accepted into Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Here, she reconnects with her childhood best friend Chloe Price, whom she had not seen since she moved with her parents to Seattle shortly after Chloe’s father, William, died in a car accident five years prior. Through a series of strange events, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time, first using it unintentionally to save Chloe from being shot dead by drug-dealing rich kid Nathan Prescott in the girls’ restroom. Chloe is trying to extort money from him for the purpose of repaying the debt she owes to Frank Bowers, a local drug dealer.

Max’s powers become central to Chloe and Max’s efforts in trying to locate Chloe’s missing “angel” Rachel Amber, a magnetic personality and social butterfly who served as Chloe’s anchor – and crush – during Max’s absence. In the process, Max and Chloe’s rekindled relationship redevelops over the course of five days and, based on player choice, may blossom into romantic love. Max continues to have visions of a tornado that will destroy Arcadia Bay at the end of the week; it is discovered throughout the course of the game that Max’s use of her powers are thought to be the cause of this. Plot twists abound and culminate a final, heart-wrenching decision for anyone who has become attached to the protagonists: sacrifice Chloe by letting her die and thereby saving Arcadia Bay from the time-tornado (which now never happens because Max did not use her powers to save Chloe) or sacrifice Arcadia Bay and spare her girlfriend.

When I first started playing back in January of this year I was far less patient when it came to “fluff” in games and so thought nothing of the characters beyond Maxine or the introductory episode’s pacing and environs. The dormitory setting houses a mountain of interactive exposition which is mostly Chloe-free. Instead, we learn about Max’s life, her interests, and the people she has come to know at Blackwell Academy. Later on, when we first meet Chloe (after five years apart), our first impression of her may be somewhat negative: she is loud, profane, obnoxious, self-centered, petulant, and arrogant, so of course she’s going to nearly hit us in the parking lot driving the rusted out beater truck we saw earlier double-parked across two handicapped spaces.

Ten months later, I shook off my Secret World habit long enough to start playing through Episode 2 in which we get to know Chloe a little bit better. And by getting to know, I mean going along with her as she tests the validity of our powers and then convinces us to use them for her personal amusement by shooting bottles at an improvised target range in the junkyard she and Rachel Amber used to hang out in. The shooting attracts the attention of Frank Bowers, the drug dealer to whom Chloe owes money. Turns out she borrowed from Frank so she and Amber could leave Arcadia Bay for Los Angeles; that dream died when Rachel Amber went missing. The player is left to determine how the encounter plays out. The episode ends with Max using her powers to save Chloe from an oncoming train – the second instance in which she rewinds time to save Chloe’s life.

Max also deals with the attempted suicide of her friend Kate Marsh, a devout and kind-hearted student who was drugged at a party and videotaped kissing several boys; the video goes viral and sends her into a deep and dark depression. You have the option of talking her down from the roof of the dormitories but without the aid of your rewind powers as you’ve used them to stop time so that you can get up to the roof before she jumps.

To this point I had been able to play for an hour or so before becoming restless and stopping. Episode 3, the game’s midpoint, was where I began to fall for the relationship between Max and Chloe and by extension, everything surrounding them. Chloe texts Max close to midnight and the two meet for a moonlit rendezvous in the main building of Blackwell Academy. Chloe managed to snag the entrance keys from her step-father (also known as “step-douche”), an overbearing war veteran suffering from paranoia who serves as the head of Blackwell security. I’m a sucker for night-time settings; skulking about the halls of Blackwell when all the lights are off to the background hum of deliciously intoxicating dark music rubs me in all the right places. I absolutely love the fact that Max’s “flashlight” is an app on her smartphone. Circle the camera in front of her, and she moves her arm to accommodate it. (I cannot adequately describe how cute this is.)

After obtaining information about Rachel Amber from the principal’s files, the two head off to the swimming pool for a midnight dip. They have a playful, intimate heart-to-heart conversation – and it should be mentioned that Life Is Strange treats its protagonists as human beings first and foremost. They then return to Chloe’s house where they crash for the night.

The following morning, the two muse on how they used to hang around all day. Max’s clothes are covered in chemicals from the previous night’s swim, so Chloe invites her to try on some of Rachel’s clothes that have been left in her closet. When Max expresses hesitation (“they’re not my style” – “Max, you don’t have a style”), Chloe dares Max to kiss her in the name of being more adventurous. Prior to this, I had read somewhere that Chloe dies in one of the game’s endings and thought nothing of it. At this point, the relationship between Max and Chloe became central to my play through and I started engaging in marathon play sessions. I wanted to see exactly where the story would lead them and how things would play out. Yes, romance was the hook that lured me in.

At the end of the third episode, Max discovers that she can travel back in time by focusing on photographs. She does so with a photo of herself and Chloe in their teens when Chloe’s father William was still alive. Seeking to make a better life for Chloe, she travels through the photograph back to Chloe’s house and prevents her father from taking his car to pick up Chloe’s mother from the supermarket and thus never dies in a car accident. In exchange, Chloe receives a car for her seventeenth birthday and is permanently paralyzed from the neck down when she is thrown from her vehicle after being cut off on the highway. When Max returns to the “present day” of the reality she has created, she is horrified to see Chloe strapped into a wheelchair with a respirator attached, completely dependent on her parents.

Episode 4 is where my love for the character of Chloe and her relationship with Max were cemented. The “better” world inhabited by a bed-ridden Chloe in which her father is alive is offset by a strange, howling wind that blows outside the house and flocks of birds that flutter about in bizarre formations. It’s intended to give one the sense that the world is a bit “off.” It’s here, when Chloe is most vulnerable, that Max and Chloe’s love for each other is allowed to exist in its purest form, free from the pretensions of everyday, artificially complicated life. Chloe is helpless, Max has come back into her life to help her. This episode highlights the role that Max plays in Chloe’s life as an anchor, someone who gives her space in which she can be interpersonally secure and thrive. Max is Chloe’s rock. Alternate reality Chloe floored me, so when she asked me to obviate her eventual respiratory failure by giving her a fatal overdose of morphine, I did so and sat for a while in the room as she drifted away. Her final memory was of us together, looking at photos taken when we were both children and the world was not cold and cruel.

Max then returns to teenage Chloe’s house and refrains from hiding William’s keys so that he takes the car to pick up his wife and is killed in a car accident. Max is overjoyed to see Chloe again in the primary timeline and they go off to investigate Rachel Amber’s disappearance. They discover that she is dead and buried in a shallow grave in the junkyard which leads to the game’s most emotionally heart-wrenching scene. It turns out that Mark Jefferson, Max’s stylishly hip photography professor, is behind it. He lures them to the grave again at night, allowing him to dose Max and kill Chloe.

The final episode is where things gets real. Max wakes up in an underground bunker which Jefferson uses to photograph his victims at the point where their “innocence turns into corruption.” (He’s a psychopath, it turns out.) Via a series of time-bending photograph leaps, Max is eventually able to right all the wrongs, save Chloe, stop Jefferson, and make the game’s final, most difficult choice: sacrifice Chloe or sacrifice Arcadia Bay.

From reading /r/Games, which appears to be dominated by people more likely to play logically and provide excellent mechanical analyses of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, sacrificing Chloe has been christened the “good” ending due to the fact that the ending cutscene is longer, more powerful, and wraps up this coming of age friendship story by acceding to Chloe’s final, selfless request: let her die so that others may live. Doing so, they say, means that you have grown up and moved on from your childhood. You got to say goodbye to an old friend, something that some people never get the chance to do.

The subreddit I have been visiting lately, /r/LifeIsStrange, is dominated by people more likely to play with their hearts on their sleeves. I fit right in. We decided that we had fallen in love with Chloe despite her massive shortcomings and if the world has to burn for our honeybun, then so be it. Shipping (supporting) a relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price, dubbed team “Pricefield,” forms the basis of thousands of fan fiction pieces, some of which I rather enjoyed in a sentimental sort of way. (I’m obnoxiously picky when it comes to fiction.)

And you’re allowed to be sentimental in video games because it’s the realm of the imagination. You’re also allowed to be sentimental in art because it makes really good fucking art. Life Is Strange, from its music to its images to the fluidity of its animations, the scene-setting, heck, even the awkward dialogue (Max is awkward, by the way) have shown me in a way that has touched me unlike anything else that there is beauty to be found in creating and sharing. I’ve even joined DeviantArt and Tumblr to explore my creative side with more enthusiasm. This entails spending less time playing games, which is just fine with me.

It makes me want to create and share so that perhaps some day, something that I have contributed to will make someone feel the same way I do about Life Is Strange.

Sleep, Cousin of Death

I don’t notice the dead bodies any more. An unhinged jaw attached to a lifeless once-was ringed by an oblong hexagon of soaked pine slats scarcely registers among the high-rise book shelves and rigid tendril candles that dominate the bowels of the Devore family crypt. The ghostly attendant rendering ministrations to an audience of skull pedestals and misshapen pastel crystals is but a flicker in the periphery. There is nothing in this place of soot, ash, and dust that has not already been seen and unseen more times than there are days in any of our lives.

Choosing to visit Solomon Island for its Samhain festivities is akin to watching a porn flick because it has a well-written plot. Once the veneer fades, the ever-present smut continues on as it always has, existential grounding or not. I didn’t return entirely of my own accord – my presence had been requested by a secretive individual bearing the name “Jack” who claimed to have an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was equal parts boredom and fatigue from endless field operations that led me to assent to a holiday stay in fog-shrouded Kingsmouth, a popular tourist destination for those who choose to escape reality by vising a tornado-ringed Halloween town where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the shambling drowned.

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A painstakingly hand-written letter using overly flowery calligraphy appeared to invite me to midnight coffee in the attic of the local academy for the occult. Had I been asked to share chai, I might have declined; I have always preferred beans to leaves. I rebelled against the lukewarm, flavorless bedtime tea of my childhood by drinking the strongest coffee I could find. What I found waiting for me on the shin-high rectangular table in the school’s fully furnished loft was a viscous, heady tar the color of skunk shit that set my veins on fire and relocated the auditorium echo of my heartbeat to a place between my temples. It tasted as if the devil himself had been blazing up until sunrise and capped off the night’s bacchanalianism by squatting over a coffee pot. My body hummed with exquisite potency as a hooded figure entered to my left and sat down awkwardly at the table across from me.

Neither an introduction nor tact were on offer that evening: “You are very serious and boring. This elixir will change that.” The rim of my bone-white mug hovered inches from my lips. I stared blankly through my prescription glasses into the folds of the rough woolen robe opposite me and saw nothing. There was no movement as he continued: “Take this pistol and dispatch the rider who will appear on the southern shore three hours hence.” A lacquer-handled black revolver appeared from an overly long sleeve and went directly into my waistband. Thereafter, silence – not even the ticking of a clock’s hand in the background. My interlocutor’s death warrant was trailed by a wake of peaceful stillness.

“He appears once a year when the fornication of mortals is at its filthiest. The…coffee…is needed to see him, especially by a soul with a disposition so disagreeable.” An audible in-breath. “I smell it on you.” Frowning, I took another drink from my cup and felt as if my body had suddenly decided to shed its skin. The figure moved ever so slightly. “You are ready. In return for this favor, I will leverage my control over the spirits of the living and see to it that your love is requited by anyone you wish. Simply come to my side and whisper their name into my ear.”

I stood up carefully with saucer and cup in hand by pressing the outer arches of my feet against the floor. My office shoes drummed softly against the old wood that carried their weight. The fabric of my black slacks tautened against my left knee as I knelt down and whispered: “Shani.

An almost imperceptible nod. “Return to me when you have completed your task and your love shall endure until your weary body comes to rest.” And then, as disjointedly as he had seated himself, the figure rose. He padded without sound to the top of the stairs and descended out of sight. The pleasant quiet returned.

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Presently, the coffee took full effect. The bones of my body hummed as if struck by a tuning fork. I meditated in silent bliss for nearly three hours before departing the attic for the southern shore where the lighthouse meets the sea. A full moon hung low in the starry sky as I made my way down rolling, sandy hills. When I arrived at the concrete pier that overlooks the tower’s lonely beacon, I found myself gazing thoughtlessly at the intoxicating luminescence reflected by the night ocean. Transfixed, I crossed my arms and opened my mouth slightly as I waited for Jack’s bane to enter stage right and submit to a bullet between the eyes.

Shortly, a chill breeze flattened my hooded sweatshirt against my breasts and crawled across my face with icy fingers. A sing-song nursery rhyme whispered its way into my ears:

Saccharine stillness
In the land of the dead
A bucket of treats
For the price of your head

There, beneath the water tower, sat a skull-masked rider atop a horse the color of blackest night with eyes like glowing embers that were painful to look at. The pale moon cast a wretched shadow across the beaked end of the rider’s facade. He inclined his head ever so slightly in my direction and I clutched my chest in pain. A volcano erupted in my rib cage. I cried out in agony as my stomach expanded uncomfortably. My hand reached reflexively for the pistol that was now grating against my spine. White-hot lightning arced through my back as the gun left its waistband holster. With my left hand fiercely clutching the fabric of my shirt and hoodie, I rounded the revolver on the rider’s lifeless face, took aim at a spot between the sockets of his bone mask, and used every bit of strength I could muster from the right-hand side of my body to pull the trigger.

I remember looking up at the night sky with vomit on my chin and blood pooling around the back of my head.

To my left the sounds of the amusement park’s roller coaster screaming a violent symphony of steel and wood. To my right the ocean’s spray soaking my clothing as wave after wave of piss-scented water roared past the shore and up onto the stone slab that had received my fragile body with dispassion. It was here that I was going to die. I closed my eyes and prepared to fade into the inevitable.

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Bright, piercing light rushes toward me. I extend one hand toward the center of it feebly. The brilliance of the background diffuses and is replaced by the sterile white walls of a hospital room. A thin, cream-colored blanket covers my body. A needle has been inserted into my left arm. The tubing is held in place with medical tape. My right hand caresses the angular cheekbone of a strong, rugged face framed by a tied bun of short, thickly braided hair. Shani returns my gaze evenly. Her right hand rests on my shoulder reassuringly. I pull gently on the back of her neck. She leans closer.

“You’re a good person,” I whisper, and place my lips softly on her cheek. She pauses, then kisses me briefly on the forehead before standing back up and taking my right hand in her left. “You need to rest now,” she says, caressing my knuckles with her thumb. I smile and drift off into sleep.

I did not expect to wake, so the opening of my eyes came as quite a shock. I bolted upright into a sitting position with such force that my battered body’s pained breathing could not keep up. I sucked in air with a loud, howling gasp. In front of me, I heard the sound of glass shattering and a half-hearted curse. “Oh my gosh, ma’am!” called a boyish tenor from my right. “Are you all right?”

The sheriff and her deputy appeared on both sides of my makeshift cot and guided my head back to its pillow with steady hands. I stared at the cool grey ceiling of the police station as their faces appeared above me. Helen, the experienced veteran, and Andy, her fresh-faced deputy. Just like in the TV shows. The worried creases in Andy’s forehead brought the word dapper to mind.

“I’m sorry about your coffee,” I croaked.

“Oh, honey,” said Helen with more compassion in her voice than on her weathered face. “Coffee can be replaced. You can’t.” Andy looked at Helen for a moment, then back to me. I was in too much pain to chuckle at his charming innocence. “Say, ma’am – we found you way out by the lighthouse near the Franklin mansion. What the heck were you doing out there?” Helen frowned and waved her hand dismissively. “Let her rest,” she chided. Andy took a step back. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Helen looked at me calmly. “We’re still working the crime scene. It appears that you were ambushed by a lone assailant. We have a suspect but all of our leads are coming up dead ends. Name is Jack Lambert. He seems to have vanished into thin air and taken any useful evidence with him.”

I opened my mouth to speak but before anything could make it through the filter of phlegm that guarded my voice box, Andy began to converse animatedly.

“You know, it just occurred to me that Jack Lambert sounds a lot like Jack O’Lantern,” he volunteered. Helen sighed and crossed her arms as she rounded and walked a slow, knowing gait back to her desk. Andy didn’t appear to notice. “Around this time of year, Halloween, that is, my Nanna – my grandma – used to tell us all kinds of stories about Jack and how he would play tricks on everyone. They said he’d go after anyone, especially the big-shots who thought they were too good for tricks. He’d make business propositions to them, stuff that sounded like there’s no way it could be a trick. That just meant that it was a really good trick.”

I humored him. His story seemed harmless enough. “What about the rider?” I rasped.

“The rider, yeah. I heard Miss Rogêt, you know, what the fortune-telling lady calls herself, talking about that, and she said that Jack has a more serious cousin that rides a fiery-eyed horse around in the underworld. He doesn’t like to play tricks like Jack does on account of he’s so serious, but he’s just as angry at mortals for condemning him to roam the land of the dead for all but one night of the year, so he goes along with his cousin’s pranks.”

I settled my head back into the cushioned recesses of my pillow in a vain attempt to make it harder to hear Andy’s Bedtime Stories for Naughty Children. Apparently he interpreted my reluctance as worry, as he immediately returned to my side and placed a comforting hand on my left shoulder. I feigned a pained grimace. No luck.

“Well, at least they’ll be asleep for another year now,” he reassured me with the cutest, dumbest smile I had ever seen. Andy strode back to his bar stool perch near the windows of the police station as if he were a victorious arena gladiator approaching Caesar for the final verdict.

As I watched him walk, I got to thinking that the Devil’s Own Coffee had been some pretty powerful stuff, all right. Combined with sleep deprivation, it’s possible that I saw things. A “gun” that did nothing more than create enough force to knock someone back. A dream in which my subconscious generated movies for me to watch based on recent events in the waking world.

Nonsense – there’s no way that it was all a set up. Right? Andy raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and started scanning the width of the window pane in front of him.

“Yeah, Andy, this Jack O’Lantern and Mr. Black Stallion of yours might very well be asleep until next Halloween,” offered Helen gamely. “But you wouldn’t know it from looking at this town.” She glared disdainfully at the back of Andy’s head. “Or the people in it.”

If I hadn’t been too tired to talk, I would have voiced agreement. I didn’t feel as if I knew anything more about reality now than when I had first arrived. Given the company I kept, perhaps it was better that way.

Nightmares with a Spirit Guide

This corner of the internet has been quiet. Nothing has changed. I’ve been playing The Secret World exclusively in my free time and not much else – either in terms of games played or activities engaged in – can really compete with my desire to do or be whatever it is I’ve got my mind set to. I haven’t exactly figured out what that is and I fully intend to do so before my interest wanes. It’s been an engaging several months to say the least.

Even with Samhain in full swing in the world outside Agartha, there are still willing participants to be found for the training sessions that constitute my introduction to advanced tanking. My learning experiences have thus far looked something like this: go into a pre-Tokyo Nightmare dungeon with my guide and a handful of friends. A few random people join us via the Group Finder. We wipe a fabulous number of times while I learn the mechanics of the encounter. Our guests come and go as they please until we find ourselves in the company of individuals who don’t mind enduring the process. Some of them are able to offer helpful advice and pointers. Eventually we finish the dungeon. Subsequent runs take less time and require fewer wipes.

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This entire process is messy and organic. Few among our ranks are teachers; among these, none of them are psychic. One of the least interesting mini-games I play within these dungeons, then, is figuring out what I don’t know and then hitting upon the specific thing that I don’t know which unlocks the door to understanding. Sometimes it’s given in the answer to a question I ask directly. Sometimes it’s found in a comment made by one of our group members after the twentieth wipe. And sometimes it’s uncovered during the second or third run of the same dungeon on a different day in which we learn from a random player that their tank does this specific thing during their successful attempts. Somewhere in the distance the sound of a door unlocking is heard. Extra mental processing power becomes available for the execution of combat mechanics.

So far I haven’t broken any keyboards. My foray into Nightmare dungeons has thus far been a generally palatable one. My spirit guide is a well-intentioned, experienced individual on whom I have become somewhat dependent to get our groups kick-started. They really enjoy running dungeons and are quite good at it. In turn, I try to help them with whatever I’m capable of doing. When they’re not online, I tend to do other things, mostly because 1) I lack the philosophical motivation to take the initiative in forming my own groups and 2) I have developed a strong desire to run difficult content exclusively with people who are on my Friends List or are on my friends’ Friends List. Word of mouth and networking – even passively – carry an enormous amount of weight in TSW.

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Even so, there are some reputations that pop up now and again whose presence must be endured for the sake of civility. There are only a handful of players whom I have come to know by name who are impatient, bossy, rude, or flighty. On a more positive note, I am slowly developing a thicker skin, a measure of tolerance for criticism from hostile third parties, and the ability to persevere despite repeated failures. Generally speaking, however, most players have been willing to help in the learning process. It’s the product of an outstanding community which I seek to preserve as best I can. I go to great lengths to restrain my temper. It’s somewhat telling that there are exactly zero people on my ignore list and I strive to keep it that way.

There are rumblings in the background, now. I feel myself approaching a point where I must make a decision: continue with Tokyo content, which involves AEGIS, or simply cap my skill level in pre-Tokyo Nightmare dungeons and end things there. Engaging in Tokyo would involve leaving my guide behind for the moment as they are not very interested in the missions necessary to build up AEGIS controllers and shields to the baseline levels required for Tokyo Elites. I have long since done so and can confirm every blog post ever written on the topic of AEGIS and the extent to which it is straight up not fun.

I suppose I’ll just head whichever way the wind blows me.