Flash Fiction: “Love After Death”

After almost a year, here’s a new Flash Fiction story. This is actually a short tale I wrote out by hands years ago and I figured it was good enough to share with all of you.


Love After Death, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 474

“So what you’re saying is I’m a zombie.”

“No, you’re a revenant.”

“What’s the difference?”

Hal pressed his fingertips together. She remembered that he did that whenever he had to explain something. It made him look like one of her old professors from college.

“A zombie,” he said slowly, “is just a reanimated corpse. It has no free will, no real personality. A revenant, on the other hand, has the original personality and exists only to take revenge for an unjust murder. You were unjustly murdered, ergo you’re a revenant.”

Ciara frowned. “So, by that logic, you brought me back just for revenge? And you expected me to be happy about it?”

“Er…” Hal rubbed at the back of his neck. “No, I was expecting you to be, well, angry. About your murder, I mean.”

“Oh, really?” She took a step toward him, her hands slowly curling into fists. “Because right now? I’m feeling particularly angry with you.”

“Listen, it… it’s going to be all right—”

“No, it isn’t!” The howl from Ciara’s mouth was strong enough to quench the flames on every candle, shrouding the room in total darkness. “I thought you brought me back because you missed me, Hal! Because you loved me! But it’s all about you, isn’t it? It was always about you and your magic and your revenge!”

“I want revenge for what he did to you!”

“Then why didn’t you stop him before? Why bother now?”

“There wasn’t time—”

“That’s what you said when I asked you to come down to the lake with me last year.”

“I was studying the Occult!”

“And yet you know nothing about relationships!”

“Well…” Hal waved irritably at the air. “You’re right about that! But I can learn now that you’re here! Once we’ve tracked down Eric—”

Ciara raised a hand, silencing him. “But you said a revenant only lives for revenge. Once that’s done, I’ll be gone again, won’t I?”

The young mage stared back. After an uncomfortable pause, he said, “…Maybe not?”

“That’s all I needed to hear.” Ciara turned and went toward the door, nearly tripping over a stack of grimoires on her way out.

“Ciara, wait. You can’t just leave!”

“Watch me.” She tested the doorknob, but it come right off with a simple twist. Rolling her eyes, Ciara lifted her left foot and gave the door such a kick that it broke off its hinges and fell onto the floor of the next room.

Pleased with her newfound strength, she ignored the rest of Hal’s pleas and marched down the corridor toward the stairwell. While she understood what Hal was trying to do, she also knew that he couldn’t help taking the most complicated path toward his goal.

And as far as Ciara was concerned, if you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Revisiting Childhood in More Ways Than One: Gone Home

Spend enough time online and you’ll definitely experience the Streisand effect, wherein a bit of controversy (or censorship) has the side effect of raising more attention and interest in a subject than ever before. As it turns out, when it comes to video games, I tend to fall for that bad publicity. It was the controversy surrounding Zoe Quinn that got me to try out her game Depression Quest and it was the same kind of social media uproar that got me to play Gone Home.

Designed by Steve Gaynor and developed by Fullbright, Gone Home is an exploration game set in the mid-Nineties. You play Katie Greenbriar, a young college girl coming back home after spending a year abroad, only to find yourself in an empty house. While you explore every corner of your creaking, shadow-filled home, you discover that the real horror element of the game isn’t in possible ghost sightings, but in the clues of unhappiness between your absent parents and in the journal entries collected from your sister Sam, who’s been wrestling with her identity and sexuality while you’ve been away.

Copyright © 2013 by Fullbright Company.

Copyright © 2013 by Fullbright Company.

It’s easy to dismiss this game as another Dear Esther knockoff. Both games feature a first-person POV and a common goal of telling pieces of a story through exploration of an ethereal setting and fragments from a disembodied narrator. But while the island of Dear Esther is strange and remote, there’s something so familiar about the house in Gone Home. Yes, it’s a big, scary mansion, but any player can see something that resembles their parents’ bedroom or the living room they had while growing up.

It’s on that theme of growing up that older players might get a lot of enjoyment out of this game. Because it’s set in 1995, the story relies on crumpled fragments of notebook paper, self-help book titles, and Riot Grrl mix tapes to tell its story instead of whipping out a smartphone to figure out what’s been happening with Sam, Lonnie, and the Greenbriar family. On the one hand, the game does an excellent job of putting the player in the Nineties, but it could also be read as a nostalgia trip for people who were Sam’s age at the time—a way of working through their own past.

I will say that, going into the game and not being a fan of the horror genre, I was a bit unnerved at the setting’s Gothic atmosphere and trekking through darkened hallways and secret passages. But there’s nothing to actually fear in this game, apart from a single jump scare of a light in the basement suddenly going out. If anything, the creepy atmosphere does a good job of keeping you alert and focused on uncovering more journal entries and clues about Sam’s past and eventual fate. You come to rely on finding those clues as their own little beacons of light, hope, and sympathy.

While I enjoyed the game from start to finish and felt like I got a good, multifaceted story out of it, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Katie (the character you play) and her personality. Going back to the comparison with Dear Esther, in that game I enjoyed the narrator’s poetic vocabulary and blurred consciousness, which made for a distinctive voice. But in this game, we’re never given too much of an impression of what memories Katie and Sam shared as sisters or the relationship between Katie and her parents for that matter. Sure, it could have been a bit distracting from the players piecing together Sam’s story for themselves, but I would’ve liked to seen more of the dynamic that siblings can have.

It’s no surprise that a lot of serious gamers don’t like Gone Home. When most games are about racking up skill points and achievements, Gone Home is about telling a coming-out story and little else. While some gamers would rather chase or be chased in an Amnesia-style horror game, the creepy atmosphere of the house only serves to focus attention on family drama and Sam’s heartfelt journal entries.

After reading so many other reviews, “pretentious” is the word I’ve heard most commonly thrown around in regard to this game, but what of it? I personally enjoyed this little dip into the Nineties and hearing Sam’s story, and if you have the patience and imagination for interactive storytelling, then you might like it, too.

Gone Home is available for purchase and download throught the official website and Steam.

Bibliography: Gone Home. Designed by Steve Gaynor. Developed by the Fullbright Company. Published by Midnight City. Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Wii U. Original release date: August 15, 2013.

Button Mash To Glory: Dust: An Elysian Tail

Copyright © 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

Copyright © 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

Around the end of summer, I decided to get back to trying and playing new video games. The process started with Dream, an art game by HyperSloth Ltd. that gave me high hopes but didn’t yield as enjoyable an experience. Disheartened, I dove back through Steam’s listing of recent titles on sale and came across a relatively new PC release courtesy of Microsoft.

This is the beat ‘em up game known as Dust: An Elysian Tail.

Dust is the story of an amnesiac warrior armed with a sentient sword and accompanied by the weapon’s guardian, a flying girlish creature named Fidget. Dust and Fidget begin a quest to rediscover his identity and restore peace to the land, facing down hordes of monsters and aiding villagers as they move one step closer to unraveling a terrible mystery regarding the monster attacks in their land and Dust’s shady past.

At a certain point, fights become pretty one-sided. Copyright 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

At a certain point, fights become pretty one-sided. Copyright © 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

Looking beyond the story, Dust is a 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up game with RPG elements. One thing about the combat system in this game is that it’s very simple to learn and very satisfying to use. After the first few fights, you quickly learn that you can clear any screen of enemies by holding down the right set of buttons while rapid-tapping your attack sequences. Of course, the game is nicely balanced out with occasional rock monsters and boss fights where rapid button mashing sometimes need to be broken so you can dodge an actual attack.

As for the RPG elements, they’re alright, but nothing inspiring. I honestly didn’t get much out of the more banal aspects of the game, like gathering materials that I could sell to local merchants or craft into new combat items. With the right combos, most enemies can’t touch you and you’ll level up pretty fast, so the occasional armor vest that grants +1 Defense doesn’t seem like all that great an investment.

It does show that Microsoft Studios and the Humble Hearts team really put a lot of effort into designing this game. Besides the variety of colorful monsters you get to battle, Dust also features a lovely setting, which is an odd mix of Edo Period architecture and landscapes populated by several species of talking animals. While some might dismiss the style as a bit too cartoonish, I didn’t find it to be that bad. It certainly didn’t distract from the simple joy of mowing down enemies with my sword and spinning attacks.

If you’re looking for a basic beat ‘em up game with a decent story, then Dust is the game for you. It’s not a game that requires a lot of skill, only persistence and a willingness to have fun whenever possible.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is available for purchase and download through Steam.

Bibliography: Dust: An Elysian Tail. Developed by Humble Hearts. Published by Microsoft Studios. Designed by Dean Dodril. Written by Dean Dodril and Alex Kain. Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, Linux, OS X, PlayStation 4. Microsoft Windows release date: May 24, 2013.

Getting Lost on the Way to Log Out: Sword Art Online

Thanks to the wonder of getting my own Netflix subscription, I finally have access to so many anime series that I never would’ve watched before. One of these shows was the anime adaptation of a popular light novel known as Sword Art Online.

Copyright © 2012 by A-1 Pictures

Copyright © 2012 by A-1 Pictures

In 2022, Kirito is a young man who, like thousands of his peers, has become a skilled beta tester for a virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online (SAO). However, on launch day, the game’s creator traps every player inside the virtual world, demanding that they fight their way to the final level and beat the game in order to reenter the real world. To survive and triumph, Kirito partners up with an equally talented female player named Asuna, with whom he finds love and a few answers about the madness driving this whole plot.

For the most part, what struck me most about this anime was (naturally) the animation. From its sharp lines and fluid color shadings to its detailed monster and player designs, it really is quite lovely to look at. For the most part, it’s a standard fantasy landscape of villages and beast-filled countrysides. However, what balances this out is the detail of the in-game controls and stats, which make this stand out as a show about roleplaying games.

However, the cast doesn’t quite pull me in. Kirito should be interesting as our protagonist, who has a prior knowledge of the game as a beta tester, but he just becomes another generic fantasy hero for most of the series. The same goes for Asuna, who could have been interesting if they’d played up the lone wolf dynamic from her first appearance, but she pretty quickly devolves in the standard action girl love interest for our dark, brooding male hero. As the show went on, I stayed sympathetic for these characters, but they didn’t exactly stand out against the backdrop of their fairly generic fantasy world.

I think the biggest problem I had with this series is that it never quite delivered on its original premise. It’s supposed to be a major shock when the game’s creator cruelly traps thousands of players inside the virtual world, forcing them to literally win or die. The players all have families and lives outside the game, which they no longer can touch or feel. But the show never took any steps in this direction. We never learned why the creator did what he did and we don’t see what the real world’s reaction to this horror is like. I would have loved to have seen a real-world subplot throughout the series. Perhaps a tech specialist trying to work around the virtual barriers and free as many minds as possible, forming some bridge between the two worlds.

Ultimately, even with an intriguing premise and high-quality animation, I felt like Sword Art Online is a bit of a mess. It never follows through on its own premise and devolves into a pretty standard fantasy shonen anime, albeit with one or two nods to MMORPGs. It could’ve been great, but it took a few too many hits and its life meter is reading critical.

The English dub and broadcast of Sword Art Online is available through Aniplex of America.

Bibliography: Sword Art Online (anime). Directed by Tomohiko Itō. Based on the light novel by Reki Kawahara. A-1 Pictures (studio). Aniplex of America (US distributor). Adult Swim (Toonami). Original broadcast: July 7, 2012December 22, 2012.

Magic in Every Page: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Copyright © 2012 by Jim C. Hines. Cover art by Gene Mollica.

Copyright © 2012 by Jim C. Hines. Cover art by Gene Mollica.

Every kid has fantasies. The vast majority of those kids love to play out their favorites, whether they’re swinging imaginary lightsabers or flying on the back of a winged horse or literally anything else they can think of. But strange as it may seem, not too many authors have actually tackled that power of imagination so directly.

That’s where Jim C. Hines comes in. Libriomancer is the first book of his Magic Ex Libris series, which tell the story of Isaac Vainio, his partnership with a sexy dryad named Lena Greenwood, and his tempestuous relationship with a secret society of magic-users known as Die Zwelf Portenære—a.k.a. the Porters, led by none other than the immortal Johannes Gutenberg. The source of their power lies in the collective imagination of the human race. If it’s in a book, they can reach out and summon it into the real world, both the good and the bad.

In Book One, we see Isaac make his return to the field when war breaks out between the Porters and the vampires, as a series of murders and attacks prompts an investigation into a rogue libriomancer and his warped agenda. Isaac must navigate both the halls of power and his own heart, with so many of his preconceptions challenged and tossed aside before the day is won.

As a main character, Isaac is rather unusual. At first glance, you might be forgiven for seeing him as another cookie-cutter urban fantasy hero: a dude in a long coat battling monsters in the back alley while spouting off pop culture references left and right. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a nice helping of mad scientist, too; Isaac is so enamored with the theories and laws of magic that he’ll easily forget himself and try to work out every last detail and spell just to understand a little more. Some might call it obsessive, but I find it a very human trait, especially for a geek like him. And given how he’s written, I get the impression that Isaac is meant to be a mirror for the geek population that makes up most of the novel’s audience.

The same curious depth goes for his would-be love interest Lena Greenwood. In fact, Lena’s whole character is a very clever deconstruction of the Strong Female Love Interest. In that she literally is a character from a fictional novel, endowed with supernatural strength and a driving urge to be Isaac’s lovernot by the Creator, but by a hack author. What makes Lena so enjoyable, though, is that she both accepts her nature and tries to move beyond it, defining herself by other choices rather than what she was originally written to be. The fact that she’s a rare dryad in modern fiction doesn’t hurt either.

I also loved the mythology that Hines created for his secret side of the modern world. Besides immortal historical figures like Gutenberg and Ponce de Leon, we also get to see geopolitics among magic-users, an impressive take on the different fictional species of vampires, the twelve automatons, and the long-term effects of serious magical energy on both books and people. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the field of libriomancy, from power drainage to size constraints to the limits of channeling collective human belief.

Truly, I had a lot of fun reading this story, and yet, something didn’t exactly grab me by the end of it. I still can’t quite put my finger on it. I mean, this is a book that has a librarian and a dryad fighting vampires with wooden katanas, laser pistols, and magic herbs from The Odyssey. How could I not love every page of this?

Looking back, it could be that I got a bit too much setup and exposition for the Magic Ex Libris universe instead of some more potent interior moments with Isaac. And it could just as easily be that I’m getting hung up on common Book One issues and the rest of the series is still going to be enjoyable. I sincerely hope it’s the latter and I’ll try to get back to reading and reviewing more of this series in the not-too-distant future.

Libriomancer is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Hines, Jim C. Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris, Book One)DAW Books: New York, 2012.