Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Character Spotlight: Shakira Moseley

So here's Otto Fellatio's usual partner-in-crime, a fellow hacker who found herself hanging around him fairly often, then working with him on several projects including a podcast. As she mentions in the excerpt below, she was born in Jamaica before her parents moved to Neon City a few years later.

Just as I wanted to avoid certain stereotypes with Otto -- I didn't want him to be whiny or an arrogant know-it-all or a Wesley Crusher -- there were certain things I had in mind and things I wanted to avoid when I started writing her way back in Load. One thing I'd noticed on TV and in movies was that an African-American lead actress usually had very light skin, so as is my wont, I went the opposite direction with Shakira, deciding that she had very dark skin. From what I've seen, this still seems to be a thing today, and a month or two back there was even an article about a young woman named Khoudia Diop, who was bullied because of her dark skin. She ended up becoming a model, so she had the last laugh.

Shakira is also overweight, so another thing I really wanted to avoid was the stereotype of the "sassy black woman." She has a good sense of humor and is pretty mellow most of the time. It takes a lot to make her angry. And for a very long time, there's been a social stigma against women who aren't supermodel-thin, they're often subjected to vile insults and discrimination, so one of the ideas I had way back then was to make this character a BBW to get across a more positive image. Which has been a thing in my writing for a very long time -- the idea that it's okay not to look like society's ideal image of what's attractive or even "normal." So while Shakira has a few self-esteem issues to overcome, she will get there, and most of the time it doesn't occupy her thoughts at all.

Shakira had a substantial role in Chaser, but a younger version of her appeared first in Load, then returned in Fifteen Minutes, and is back again in Project Revenant. The following scene is from Fifteen Minutes, an interview similar to the one in Otto's character profile a couple of posts back.
"So, I guess it's my turn now?" Shakira hung up the last of her shirts and dropped the empty duffel bag on the closet floor.
"Yep." Eddie leaned against the bare wall and aimed his camera at her. "Just a quick introduction, a few words about yourself, that kind of thing. Then I'll be out of your way."
Oy. She hesitated, trying to gather her thoughts. "I've never really liked talking about myself, so I'm not sure where to start."
"Well, just start talking and see what comes out of your mouth." Eddie grinned. "That's probably safer with you than with Otto."
"Oh, hell, I bet your interview with him was mostly him talking about jerking off."
"Not really, but the topic did come up. I was, shall we say, taken aback."
"That's pretty much how I felt when I first met him. In some ways, he's like all the teenagers I knew when I was his age, and in other ways he's not like them at all. Some people march to their own drummer; Otto has an entire orchestra." She chuckled. "Definitely makes him interesting to be around."
"That's why you spend so much time with him?"
"One of the reasons, yeah. He does keep me laughing. And we have similar interests." She chuckled. "We're both colossal geeks. So we work pretty well together." She shrugged, returned to the bed and unzipped her other bag. "Not that I spend all my free time with him; sometimes it just kinda works out that way. Though sometimes I think he goes out of his way to show up where I happen to be hanging out."
"How did you two meet, anyway? Seems kind of an unlikely pair."
"We traded comments a few times on message boards, back before we met in person. Since we're both hackers, we ended up hanging out with the same crowd. We both spend quite a bit of time at a club called the Event Horizon – the owner actually lets Otto live in an apartment upstairs in exchange for working on the software used in the club's computers – and I bumped into him randomly one night."
Eddie nodded and entered some notes into his tablet. Shakira dug through the bag's contents for a moment before continuing.
"We talked shop most of the night, started working on software projects together, then we ended up doing the podcasts for the hell of it. At first we just dispensed advice on gaming and programming, then we gradually branched out into other subjects. Now we talk about whatever's on our minds, and somehow we manage to keep a few people entertained."
"I've listened to a few of your podcasts. One of the first things that went through my head during the first one was, 'I wonder how long they've been married?'"
"Eww." Shakira laughed and pulled her laptop out of the bag. "No offense to Otto, but…ugh. Hold on, I gotta wait for my skin to stop crawling." She placed the laptop on the desk beside the window overlooking the back yard, stared through it for a moment and sighed. Just my luck – the only guy I've met since high school who's interested in me, and he's underage. No wonder I gave up on the whole dating thing years ago.
Eddie jotted another note on his tablet, let the silence stretch out for a moment longer, then nodded at her laptop. "Say, that's a pretty sweet machine."
"Thanks." She smiled and allowed herself to relax a bit. "I've had it for nearly a decade, but it was built to last. Stainless steel case and keys, fully insulated on the inside in case anything shorts out, with a touchscreen and backlit keyboard, and completely future-proof. It's got top-of-the-line innards, and can still be upgraded when necessary. My handheld PC is built the same way."
"Nice. Looks like a custom job; did you build it yourself?"
"Yeah. Most off-the-shelf systems don't last very long. I got sick of replacing my computer every few years – or less – because the damned thing was outmoded or went so haywire that it'd cost more to fix it than to buy a whole new machine. So I went looking for the parts I needed and gradually put this baby together."
Eddie stepped closer and aimed his camera at it.
Shakira returned to the bag and picked a few more devices out of it, including her pocket-sized computer. "You should see Otto's computer, though. Hardly anyone uses the old desktop design anymore – CPU towers, I mean – but he does. He's got that thing crammed full of drives and memory modules and graphics hardware. He found an old tower somewhere and decided to remove the fans and other non-essential stuff and fill all the empty space. Then he put LEDs and other geegaws on the outside."
Eddie chuckled. "Nice. I'll ask him to show it off sometime. But how about more about yourself?"
"Huh? Oh. Right. Well…about myself, then." She shrugged. "My family originally lived in Jamaica until my parents came to America. The accent creeps back into my voice when I'm really tired or stressed out. Parents moved to Neon City to find better jobs when I was a kid. I went to college here, got degrees in graphics design and programming, but never managed to get the kind of job I was looking for. "
She placed her handheld unit on the desk, powered it up, and synced it with the laptop. Then she brushed her dreadlocks away from her face and sat, swiveling the chair to face Eddie before continuing.
"Ended up doing freelance programming, troubleshooting, that sort of thing. And like Otto, I've also entered my share of gaming competitions for the prize money, but it's been a while since the last one. It keeps me afloat, but just barely. That's why I'm on this show of yours; I wouldn't normally do something like that, but the price was right."
"That's definitely understandable." He made another note on his tablet. "A moment ago you called yourself a colossal geek; you don't strike me as the geeky type, other than being into hacking."
She laughed. "Well, when I was Otto's age, I wrote quite a lot of fanfiction. How's that for geeky?"
"Oh, really? What sort of stuff was it?"
"Some Star Wars, a little Trek here and there. A few other franchises that were around before I was born; I'm kind of a sucker for that sort of thing. The Mass Effect games were among my favorites." She tossed off a sheepish grin and looked at the floor. "I was a Shepard-Tali shipper, but it wasn't the focus of my fics. My main concern was simply writing good stories. For a while I entertained the notion of getting published, but that didn't work out. So I fell back on hacking."
"Yeah, I know how it goes. I had all sorts of dreams when I was a kid – I was gonna be an astronaut and lead the first mission to Mars. Then, as I grew up, reality slowly crushed those dreams."
"Yeah, that's it, exactly." She shrugged. "Anyway, there you have it. Colossal geek."
"So noted." He looked at his tablet again and laughed. "You still use the same online handle you had back then?"
Oh, bloody hell. She looked away. "Uh…I don't know what you're talking about."
"Come on, fess up. It's not like everyone won't find out anyway. It's been posted on the show's forum by someone calling himself 'Biggus Dickus.'"
That little shit. "Ah. Yeah. He's one of my and Otto's mutual friends." She lowered herself onto the chair, took her glasses off and covered her face with her hands. "Alright. It's…it was a character I played in a Star Wars RPG when I was in junior high. Like Otto, I kept using the name for a long time afterward."
"And that name is…?"
She groaned and mumbled, "Darth Sugartits."
Eddie snickered. Shakira scowled straight into his camera and extended her middle finger.
"Biggus … uppus your rectumus."

Chaser on Amazon, and was published one year ago today. It also has its own Facebook page.

Load is available in both ebook and print.

Fifteen Minutes is also available in ebook and print editions.

Monday, November 28, 2016

New YouTube Channel: Feel Boss Gaming

After more than a quarter-century of trying to get published and succeeding only twice (one novel published a year ago, followed by one story in an anthology that tanked so hard, the publisher took it down from Amazon), I thought long and hard, and finally decided to see if I can take things in a different direction, at least to some extent.

I'm still going to continue working on my current books (Harbinger and its upcoming sequels, Freelancers, and Uncharted Territory), but others I've got in the planning stages will have to be put on hold temporarily while I try to get this new venture off the ground. Once Uncharted Territory is finished, I'm planning to get started on the sequel to Project Revenant, but I won't be working on six different books at the same time like I used to, at least until this new thing either works out or crashes and burns.

I'm still thinking about giving Project Revenant another polish and submitting it to another publisher, but at this point I can't kid myself anymore. Despite the vast majority of readers who comment on my work telling me that it's good (or in some cases, outstanding), the people who make the decisions on what gets published ... the gatekeepers ... won't give me a shot. Aside from the two things mentioned above, it hasn't happened in 26 years, so there's no reason to think it'll happen any time in the rest of my life. You know the saying about the definition of insanity -- repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

So, it's time to try something new. If this works out, it'll at least become a supplementary income, which I need rather desperately. After certain events over the course of the past few months ... I'm done. I'm just done. It's way past time to stop trying things that clearly aren't working, and take a stab at something else. Which, in all likelihood, is also doomed to failure, but you never know until you try.

A few days ago I set up a new YouTube channel to see if I can make something happen with my other hobby/passion, video games. The channel is named after the gamer tag I usually use, Feel Boss. I've started it off with a fair number of clips from my character's antics in Grand Theft Auto Online (some of which were posted on YouTube under my real name, but since hardly anyone watched my videos, I decided to set up the new page and start moving the videos over to it), and there'll be more coming soon. And I'll be uploading gameplay videos from other games, as well. For instance, the only thing I bought on Black Friday was DOOM, which Steam had on sale for under $20 (full price is $60 since it's still fairly new).

I'll also be going over my Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 videos, editing out any long, boring pauses and doing what I can to tighten them up, then uploading them to the new channel. And though I'd planned to wait until I heard from other players whether Mass Effect: Andromeda is any good or not, I've decided to pick it up on release day and post my playthroughs, since it'll be something of a hot topic. Since I'm a writer, I'll be looking at it from that perspective, so I (and, hopefully, viewers) will be able to take something useful away from it, but I'm also hoping it'll be enjoyable and not an infuriating slog like ME3 was.

Another series I've got planned is for one of the worst games of all time, Ride to Hell: Retribution. Again, looking at it mainly from a writing perspective, but from what I've heard, that game is terrible in every way, shape, and form, so there should be plenty to talk about.

Something I'm thinking about doing with GTA Online is to go into Passive Mode so I can't be killed every five seconds, cruise around, and just observe the goings-on and see if anything interesting happens. One of the titles I'm considering for this is Feel Boss Likes to Watch ... and I'm considering it because it sounds creepy. I might also use this as a way of making video blogs, just so there'll be something interesting on the screen while I'm talking, since I'm not really comfortable being on camera.

I'll also be revisiting old favorites, like Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV. And I've got my eyes on Agents of Mayhem because it looks like a spiritual successor to those two games.

On my website, I've added a couple of new pages, one for The Misadventures of Feel Boss and the other for some Cunning Stunts races in GTA Online. I've also inserted all the videos so far between these paragraphs for the sake of convenience.

And I'll be posting links to my website, blog, and novels and whatnot under each video, so who knows, if I can get this off the ground, maybe it'll help draw some attention to my other passion. I can't help being pessimistic about my chances, but ... well, you never know until you try.

Character Spotlight: Otto Fellatio

One of the supporting characters in Chaser is a friend of the protagonist's family, who goes by the name of Otto Fellatio. In addition to his hacking skills, he displayed a few other ... unusual ... abilities in the novel, helping Boiler out in her fights on several occasions.

A much younger version of Otto appeared in Load and Fifteen Minutes before Chaser was submitted to the publisher that ultimately accepted and published it. Here's a scene from Fifteen Minutes, in which he's being interviewed for a reality show he and a few others were hired to star in.

"Ah, so it's my turn now, eh?" Otto placed his backpack on the bed and took a look around the room. Off-white walls, beige carpet, stucco ceiling; the same as any number of other apartments he'd seen. A desk sat in the corner near a window overlooking the driveway and the street, with a mushroom chair in front of it. The chair was kind of nifty, but didn't look as if it would work well with the desk, which was quite plain – no shelves or drawers, just a flat surface facing the wall.
"Yep," Eddie said, standing in the doorway with his shoulder-mounted camera pointed at Otto. "Figured I might as well get as much supplemental stuff as I can while we're waiting for the rest of the cast to show up."
"Okay. Guess you'll want to start with an introduction, then?"
"That's a pretty good place to start, yeah."
"Well, then." Otto scratched the bald portion of his head, near the base of his frill of green hair spikes. "Uh, introduction. Okay, I'm Otto Fellatio. Not my real name, obviously; I started using it as an online handle years ago, and it kinda stuck." He shrugged. "I've been told it fits, though."
"And how old are you? You look pretty young."
"Thirteen. Well, I'll be fourteen in a few months." He unzipped his backpack and took a couple of T-shirts out, opened the tiny closet and hung them. Gotta bring my dresser. Or just get a new one. Might not be a good idea to haul too much of my stuff over here, in case this thing doesn't work out.
"How'd you get picked for the show?" Eddie said, tracking him with the camera as he returned to the backpack and pulled out a pair of cargo pants.
"Not sure, really. Shakira thinks Jack wanted us here to draw some attention away from him, and that makes sense to me."
"You're good at drawing attention, I take it?"
"Apparently. I suppose it's because of the podcasts we do in our free time. I usually find a way to bring the conversation around to sex or masturbation or something like that." He dug around in the pack, pulled out a plastic bag and hurriedly placed it on the top shelf in the closet. "My Fleshlight. You don't need to be taping that."
"Uh…okay." Eddie's eyebrows shot upward. "No offense, but that caught me a bit off guard. When I was your age, nobody I knew would ever admit to, um…"
"Punchin' their munchkins?" Otto snorted. "Life's too short for pretenses. Besides, you remember what it was like to be my age, right? Hormones raging, and all that shit. There's no way to stop it, so why not embrace it? It's not like it's destructive, or anything." He grinned. "In fact, the reason there are so many unwanted pregnancies and STDs is because too many people go out and bang the first person who'll take off their clothes for 'em instead of staying home and jerkin' it. Remember, kids, masturbation prevents abortions." He raised an eyebrow. "I need to put that on a T-shirt or bumper sticker or something. The preceding phrase is copyright 2046 by Otto Fellatio. Steal my idea and I'll sue your ass off!"
Eddie stared at him for several seconds and just blinked. "Uh…well…if Jack does want to keep the audience's attention off him, I guess he picked the right person."
"That's why I have so much fun with our podcasts. I have too much pent-up energy – and that's even before my morning coffee. And all the cups of coffee that follow it. Anyway, I gotta get all this out of my system somehow. When I grow up, I should do talk radio for a living."
"I've actually worked on a few talk shows. There's not much job security. You get fired a lot. Either the station format changes or the management just decides to replace you without warning. And radio stations haven't really been able to compete with online podcasts and blogs for years."
"Yeah, I've heard that. I wouldn't like going to work every day knowing that someone else might have already moved into my office." He shrugged. "I'd rather keep doing the podcasts with Shakira, but there's not enough money in it to make a living. We just get a few dollars from sponsors and affiliate programs."
"What else do you do to make ends meet? You had to have some way to pay the rent for your previous apartment, buy food and so on."
"I do a lot of hacking." Otto took a few of his gadgets out of the backpack and placed them on the desk, then took out his scrolltop and put it beside the other devices. Should bring my desktop unit on the next trip. "Freelance stuff. I'll write code for whoever hires me, and sometimes I troubleshoot programs that have already been written."
"Yeah, I guess that'd pay pretty well."
Otto nodded and took a few more devices from his bag. "I got my apartment because the building's owner lets me stay there rent-free as long as I code for him and his friends; I wrote all the software he's currently using in the Event Horizon, for example. And sometimes I enter gaming competitions if the prize is big enough."
"That's pretty good, given your age. How do you balance all of that with school?"
"I haven't gone to school since first grade." Otto took one more gadget from his pack, a scanner for detecting cameras and audio bugs. He swept the room with it and nodded when it only detected Eddie's camera. So far, the showrunners were keeping their promise of leaving cameras and microphones out of the bedrooms.
"Really? Wish I could've done that."
"Yeah, from everything I've heard, I haven't missed much." Otto returned the scanner to the backpack and shrugged. "Even before I dropped out, all the crap they had us do was stupid and boring. It wasn't about teaching us as much as getting us to conform – sit down, keep your back straight, keep your arms and legs in a certain position, shut your mouth and do what you're told. And not only that, but the only way to get through the day without being picked on or beat up was to be exactly like all the other kids. I got sick of that really fast."
"Huh. Your parents didn't make you go to school?"
"Well, I never knew my dad. And my mom…eh, there were things going on at home that I couldn't stand anymore. So one day I just left. Crashed at a friend's house, then moved on to another, then stayed in a shelter for a while before going somewhere else, always trying to keep a step ahead of anyone who might've been looking for me." Which no one did; once his mother learned that he wasn't lost or hurt, she hadn't exactly gone out of her way to bring him back.
He hoped that Eddie wouldn't pry about any of that. There weren't many subjects that he was unwilling to talk about, but this one was an exception.
"Hmm," Eddie said. "How did you learn to read, much less learn programming, without going to school?"
"TV, actually. I learned the basics by watching educational shows when I was really young, then one day I figured out that I could watch movies or shows with the closed-captioning on. Maybe I just had a natural aptitude for reading, because it wasn't that hard. As for learning how to program, that was something I got hooked on when I found out how video games and other software are made. I read voraciously – technical manuals, programming languages, the works. It was the most fascinating thing ever." He grinned and arched an eyebrow. "Well, until I reached puberty and the female anatomy became far more interesting."
"Yeah, that always trumps everything else, doesn't it?"
"Oh, hell yeah." Otto sighed. "I'm really gonna miss my teenage horniness when I outgrow it."
"Huh. Once I got past that stage in my life, I never really missed it. Always caused too many problems, made it hard to concentrate on anything, and just generally made life awkward as hell."
"It's a phase of your life that only happens once. I intend to milk it for all it's worth." Otto chuckled and plopped onto the mushroom chair. "Anything else you wanna know?"
Before Eddie could say anything, screeching tires and a roaring engine made both of them turn toward the window facing the street. Otto stood and hurried to the window, wondering if he was about to witness an accident.
Out on the street, a huge, battered old Ford truck with a lift kit and giant tires jumped the curb and skidded into the driveway. The engine sputtered as the driver shut it down, then the door opened. A twenty-something guy in tight jeans, a hickory shirt and a yellow baseball hat dropped to the pavement and stood for a moment, staring at the house.
Otto frowned. "Who's that hayseed?"
Eddie looked out the window and laughed softly. "That's Dale Halvorson – one of your new housemates."
Otto stared at him for a long moment, turned back to the window and watched the new arrival take a case of beer out of the truck and saunter up to the front door. Otto shook his head. "You gotta be fuckin' kidding me."

Chaser is available as an ebook on Amazon. It also has its own Facebook page.

Fifteen Minutes is available as an ebook from Amazon, and there's also a print edition.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Misadventures of Feel Boss

The whole getting-published thing just isn't working out. Last week, Project Revenant was rejected by the publisher I'd sent it to. So while I decide whether to give the book another polish and submit it to another publisher or just put it on Kindle Direct with all the others, I've been working on a few other little projects to see if there's something I can either use to draw attention to my books or make a few bucks off, somehow (or both).

I'm going to be continuing my two video series in which I analyze the writing of, and comment on, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, and I've got a few other ideas for more videos. For instance, vids introducing and discussing Project Revenant and my current work-in-progress, Uncharted Territory. My approach to those will be similar to the one I made a while back for Chaser, in which I went into a solo session in Grand Theft Auto Online and talked about the book while riding a bicycle around Los Santos.

For the Uncharted Territory video I'm planning, I'll be recording my GTA Online character hiking up Mt. Chiliad (and probably falling off a few cliffs due to my incompetence) while talking about the book, its characters, its setting, and so on.

In addition to those, I've been making a few short gameplay videos for a series I'm calling The Misadventures of Feel Boss. I recently decided to see if I can exploit my ineptitude for humor (as well as the occasional awesome moment), and post some amusing videos of things going wrong. I added a page to my website with four videos embedded so far. I'm adding them below.

In the first one, I was trying to get a cool screenshot to use as a Halloween image, and it wasn't long before things went horribly awry and led to my brand-new Sanctus motorcycle merging with a section of corrugated metal fence like it had a transporter accident. After several minutes of trying to dislodge it, the two objects separated on their own, and then things ended the way just about everything I do ends.

In an older video, I solo'd the Sandy Shores Survival mission. This was just me mowing down ten waves of hillbillies hell-bent on killing me, so there's not much that's hilarious in it aside from the way the hillbillies keep rushing out and getting gunned down in the same spot, so their corpses just keep piling up. I've done that particular Survival mission several times because I find it oddly relaxing as well as amusing.

The next one's just me playing a round of the new "Deadline" Adversary Mode. Most of the time I stick to solo sessions because I didn't enjoy going into multiplayer and getting shot dead every five seconds because I'm too terrible a player to survive very long. But when I heard about the new Shotaro motorcycle, which is based on the Light Cycles from Tron Legacy, and then found out that the only way to unlock it was to play a round of Deadline, so I gritted my teeth and went for it. Surprisingly, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit even though the other players mopped up the arena with me. I guess it was because it was a specific thing we were all doing, rather than me trying to accomplish a task and having some fucking rando interfering just for his own shits and giggles. I'll probably play Deadline again, and end up with several more videos in the "Fiery Deaths" series.

This last one I uploaded earlier tonight. I hadn't even planned on making a video, but the mission I was playing through got ... interesting ... and I just had to record it, add a voice-over track, and the share it. I'd been running a couple of businesses that came with the game's recent "Bikers" update, but after the Deadline experience turned out to be surprisingly positive, I decided to temporarily shut down those businesses so I could focus on other races such as Cunning Stunts. I decided to do one last delivery run before shutting down the weed farm, and I was not expecting what it was about to turn into. My character's passenger lit up a really powerful joint while she was driving, she got a contact high from it, and she ended up going on a magical adventure.

Over the past couple of nights, I jumped into several Cunning Stunts races against other players and had a blast. I'm editing the first of those videos now, and will hopefully have it uploaded soon.

A Chip off the Ol' Block

Here's a bit of a spotlight on one of the characters in Chaser, the protagonist's father, Jack Hammer. In that novel, he and Boiler's mothers are agents in a government special investigations division, but he appeared previously in the novels Load and Fifteen Minutes. He's younger in those books, which are set at a time when he and his girlfriends were just starting their careers.

What follows is a full scene from late in Fifteen Minutes, showing what happens when Jack has been assaulted repeatedly, locked in a jail cell while seriously injured, hospitalized, and barely fought off an assassination attempt. Basically, this is Jack Hammer when he's had enough of the bad guys' shit.

It also shows where Boiler gets her mean streak.

Jack strode through the foyer, holding his ID out to the guy behind the desk on the left.
"I'm here for Carlton Lewis."
"I'm afraid he's unav – hey! Stop!"
Jack pushed through the turnstile and started to cross the dining room. The diners nearby looked up when the guy shouted, arching their eyebrows at Jack and exchanging worried glances.
A hand clamped onto Jack's left arm. He whirled, cocked his fist back and drove it into the foyer guy's face. The man's head snapped back, blood poured from his nose, and he staggered backward two steps and fell on his ass.
The customers released a burst of screams, jumped to their feet, and scattered.
Jack pointed at the foyer guy and said, "Stay down." He waited a few seconds until he was sure that the man wouldn't move. He resumed his course toward the doors on the far side of the room. The diners continued their rush away from him, some screaming, some gasping, others muttering to one another.
Two tall men with shoulders broad enough to park a car on charged out of the door at the back of the room and blocked Jack's path. Both were dressed similarly to the guy Jack had just decked.
"We're gonna have to ask you to leave," the one on the right said in a raspy, growling voice.
"I'm here for your boss." Jack held up his ID, trying it one last time. "I'm not in the mood for any of your shit."
"Out. Now." The other one took a step closer to him. "Or we'll throw your ass out."
"Oh, you will, will you?" Jack arched an eyebrow. "It'll hurt."
They flicked a quick glance at each other, sneering and shaking their heads.
"Just get that son of a bitch out of here," the one on the floor snapped.
Both men advanced on Jack. The one on the right grabbed the front of his duster and shoved him toward the front door.
Jack jabbed his index and middle fingers into the man's left eye, sending him reeling backward, clamping his hand over his eye and screaming.
The other guy reached for a weapon under his jacket. Jack drew his right leg back and launched a kick to the man's crotch that dropped him to his knees. Jack picked up a chair that had been toppled by its occupant's panicked run for cover. He raised it over his head and slammed it down on the back of the guy's neck with every ounce of strength he could muster. The chair exploded into shrapnel and the guy pitched forward and collapsed.
Jack turned to the still-shrieking goon, kicked him in the gut and stomped on his head, silencing his screams.
"Jesus," the foyer guy blurted. "You're fucking crazy!"
Jack glared at him and drew his gun. "What can I say, I've had a really shitty day. Don't make me any crankier than I already am." He crossed the room, pushed through the door and strode down the hallway to the door at the end. He flung it open, descended the stairs and turned the doorknob. Locked, of course. He pounded on the door.
A hatch slid aside, revealing a small view-window. A human face appeared briefly. The eyes widened and the face backed away from the window. "Oh, shit! It's – "
Jack drove his fist through the window and into the face. The thump of a body hitting the floor came from inside the room. Jack landed a kick to the door that snapped its bolt, and charged into the room. There he found three men in black suits and sunglasses and a fourth sitting behind a large desk. The three pulled guns from under their jackets.
Jack shot the nearest one in both legs. The guy collapsed, howling, and his gun bounced across the carpet.
The others hesitated, staring open-mouthed at him, and Jack took the few seconds that gave him to kneecap both of them. He rushed over to them, kicked their guns out of their reach, and turned his glare on the guy behind the desk.
"Carlton Lewis, I presume?"
"What the fuck?" Lewis jumped out of his chair and backed up against the wall. "Who the hell do you think you are? You can't barge in here and – "
"So it's okay for the mercs you hired to break into an anthro shelter and rough people up, but not for me to give you a taste of what you've been dishing out? Wrong."
Lewis slid along the wall, still trying to back away – then he launched himself at the door, trying to sprint past Jack. Jack grabbed Lewis's arm and dragged him back to the desk. Lewis flailed and swung his fist, driving it into Jack's left side.
A sudden, stabbing pain tore through his side, and he froze, unable to breathe. Somehow, he managed to keep his grip on Lewis. Shit. Feels like some stitches tore loose. Just what I fucking need.
He spun Lewis around and lunged, ramming his forehead into the bridge of Lewis's nose and knocking him stupid. Lewis flopped over onto his desk and moaned.
When Jack could finally breathe again, he staggered over to Lewis, rolled him over and jammed the gun into the back of his neck. "You even twitch and what's left of your head won't be enough to fill a shot glass. Understood?"
"Yeah," Lewis groaned.
"Good. Now, you've already confessed to sending those thugs to that shelter to beat the crap out of several residents and abduct them, but what I want now is their names. Each and every asshole you sent there. Give me their names and tell me where to find them."
"You can't do this," Lewis mumbled. "You're not a cop. I don't have to tell you shit!"
"No, I'm not a cop. A cop would arrest you. I don't have to stop there." Grimacing and trying to ignore the pain, Jack took a slow look around the office. His gaze landed on a set of golf clubs in the corner on the right. Okay, that's promising. "Start talking, fuckstain, or I'll beat you to death with your own golf clubs."
"You wouldn't dare. You're in enough trouble as it is. You push things that far and you won't live through the rest of the day."
"The feds have already pushed things a lot farther than that." Jack grabbed the back of Lewis's head and slammed it into the desk. "You give me those names or I'll start clubbing you like a baby seal!"
"Fuck you!"
Jack looked around to make sure that Lewis's henchmen were still down. As he swung his eyes back to Lewis, he spotted a row of potted cacti resting on a shelf over on the left. Most were small and colorful, but one in particular caught his attention – a plain, cylindrical cactus that looked about ten inches high and as big around as Jack's forearm.
"Oh, you're gonna wish you hadn't said that." Jack kept his gun pointed at Lewis and hurried over to the shelf, picked up the cactus and returned. He reached around Lewis, unbuckled his belt and yanked his pants down.
"What the hell're you doing?" Lewis shrieked.
"Nothin' much. I'm just gonna shove this cactus up your ass, that's all."
"Unless you feel like answering my questions, this cactus is going up your poop-chute. And if you still don't tell me what I want to know, I'll start hitting it with your nine-iron."
"Jesus Christ, Jack," Shakira's voice came from his earpiece. He ignored her and yanked Lewis's boxers down.
Lewis screamed again. "Get away from me, you sick fuck!" He swung at Jack again, but Jack blocked it and slammed his gun into the side of Lewis's head. He shoved Lewis over the desk, jabbed the cactus into his crack, and pushed.
"Stop!" Lewis screamed, his voice going high-pitched as he gave himself over to total panic. "I'll tell you whatever you want to know! Just stop!"
"Say the magic word." Jack nudged the cactus.
"Okay. Names. Now."

And thus, the Jack Hammer Interrogation Technique was born.

Chaser is available from Amazon.

Chaser also has a Facebook page you can follow for updates, character bios, and stuff that's just for fun ... such as this idea for what the protagonist's personal theme song might be.

Fifteen Minutes is also available from Amazon, in both ebook and print.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Mass Effect: Andromeda contest entry

So, YouTube channel MassEffectFollowers has been running a monthly contest with a copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda as the prize. The question for this month caught my interest, so I decided to give it a try.

I'm still waiting to find out whether it's a good story or not before I actually buy it ... but I'd feel a whole lot better about getting the game if I didn't have to pay for it, heheh.

My three picks for the ideal team:

Matriarch Aethyta, because she's a total badass who can headbutt a krogan across the room without flinching, and after being around for 1,000 years, she's got to have some serious tactical skills. Also because she's sexy as all hell. And because she should've had more screen time in the games, damn it. The Normandy has a bar in one of the observation lounges, so she'd be bartender when she's not kicking ass on missions.
Eve/Bakara, because she's strong, tough, and knows how to use a shotgun. But at the same time, she's calm and level-headed and actually sounds friendly during conversations rather than angry or threatening. She'd be useful on missions because she thinks things through rather than charge full-speed-ahead like most krogan, but when it comes time to kill every last motherfucker in the room, she'd pull out a pair of M-300 Claymore shotguns and do this.
EDI, to handle the team's hacking needs. Her skills and her newly-acquired mobile platform's resilience and agility make her a tremendous asset in the field. Her growing sense of compassion, loyalty to her friends, and disgust toward the Reapers not only make her a good person to have watching your back, but would also go a long way toward demonstrating to organics that AI isn't always a crapshoot.
And all three should be romance options (I'd feel bad about taking her away from Joker, but she could get a second body and, um, multitask). All at the same time, ideally. XD
Ahem. Excuse me …
I'll be in my bunk.
Heh. Joking aside, I should add a couple of notes.

I think Bakara would make for a really interesting romance subplot because it'd be a fairly new and different approach to the subject matter. Almost all of the options in the series so far have been hotter than hell in one way or another. Even though we couldn't see Tali's face, her body was easy on the eyes, and her personality is what won me over. Female Shepard had Garrus, so that came pretty close to what I'm talking about, but there really wasn't a similar option for Male Shepard. I think Bakara would've been a great way to show a romance that didn't start with, or depend on, physical attraction. It would've been a chance to show two characters making an intellectual and emotional connection first, and if physical appearance even became a factor, it wouldn't have happened until after that bond formed.

As for EDI, I should add that there'd be nothing stopping her from acquiring a third physical body to "interact" with Samantha Traynor. Given Joker's personality, I doubt he'd object.

Anyhoo, this just came out of my tendency to attempt to avoid double-standards when it comes to romantic relationships in fiction.

But there you have it, my entry in this month's contest. Now I just wait and see what happens when the contest ends ....

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mass Effect: Andromeda Trailers Commentary

Here's something that's been on my mind for a couple of months, but I never got around to writing down my thoughts on it. Better late than never, I guess.

A bit of background stuff before I get started, though.

So, about two months ago BioWare released a trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda. To be honest, I watched it and just shrugged and moved on. I'm still holding a grudge after Mass Effect 3 turned out to be such a huge, steaming turd. Well, it's not just that. Every writer has at least one story that doesn't turn out as well as others, or is just plain bad. I've certainly written my share of stuff that was just awful.

Here's the thing, though. When I write something that doesn't work and someone points it out in a critique, I fix whatever's wrong in the next draft. Even if the person commenting is rude about it, part of my job as a writer is to think it over and decide whether or not that person had a valid point. Sometimes they do, and I make the necessary corrections while rewriting. That ... was not what happened after the backlash from fans of the series who disliked the ending (or, in some cases, the entire game). Rather than listen to criticisms and consider that the critics had some points, and maybe do something to fix the issues, BioWare reacted like petulant children. There was a lot of demand to change the ending, which wouldn't have been unprecedented (the name Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind), but even though a DLC was released a few months later, it did not change the endings. BioWare's wording in the announcement came across as if they were saying, "We're not going to change the endings, but because you're not smart enough to understand our artistic vision, we're going to spell everything out so maybe you get it this time."

They did add a fourth ending, which is triggered if players refuse to go along with the bullshit spewed by the Catalyst at the very end -- and results in the Reapers harvesting humanity and wiping out all other advanced species in the galaxy. Then there's a cutscene explaining that the Reapers were stopped the next time they invaded 50,000 years later. So ... when faced with three "choices" that are complete and utter bullshit, Commander Shepard makes what I feel is the only in-character choice, and refuses to play along with any of it ... and that gets the entire human race harvested (melted into organic goop and used as the core or essence or whatever of a new Reaper, as we learned at the end of Mass Effect 2) and all other advanced species exterminated. Billions of people were counting on Shepard (rather, the players), and the only sane thing Shepard could do got all of them killed in a wide variety of horrible ways. Instead of coming up with another option, which is what Shepard did time and again throughout the two previous games, he/she just stands there and lets the galaxy burn.

The only way to "win" is to do exactly what BioWare wants you to do. If that's not a big ol' middle finger to everyone who didn't like the original endings, I don't know what the hell is.

An article on Kotaku goes into detail about why so many people were disappointed or angered by the endings, and Forbes has a review of the "Extended Cut" DLC, so I won't rant on and on about it here. (Okay, as it turns out, I did launch into quite a rant, but I needed to get all my thoughts on the matter down in one place.) For me, though, it comes down to a few things.

After saying that the story wouldn't end with an "A, B, or C choice" ... it ended with what is essentially an A, B, or C choice. And that choice resulted in an almost identical cutscene no matter which option was chosen.

The utter crap at the end is nonsensical and contradicts themes that were running throughout all three games up to that point, one of which was the mission set on Rannoch, where, if you made certain choices throughout all three games, you could convince the quarians and geth to stop fighting each other. For me, it was one of the most satisfying moments in the whole trilogy (it wasn't flawless by a long shot, but overall I loved the way it played out) ... then, at the end, the game insists that AI/synthetics will always wipe out the organic species that created them -- and it doesn't even give you the option to point to the quarians and geth and say, "Hey, wait just a fucking minute, here. Look at them, they're not only coexisting now, they're also working together to fight against the Reapers! Synthetics are trying to save billions of lives!"

The ending also gave us a completely nonsensical reason for why the Reapers harvest one species and kill the rest every 50,000 years. It boils down to, "The Reapers, which are synthetic, are killing us all to prevent us from being killed by synthetics." Uh ... what? If you're going to explain the motives of the Reapers, apparently it's too much to ask that your explanation makes sense. But to be honest, I think the Reapers are actually much more terrifying if we never find out why they do what they do. It makes them that much more alien and threatening.

The ending also comes out of nowhere and veers off in a completely different direction, to the point where it feels like the end of a totally different story was just tacked on to this one. It's like watching The Wrath of Khan and, just as the USS Reliant is about to explode, suddenly you find yourself watching some artsy-fartsy indie film someone made for a college course, and you spend the next twenty minutes thinking, "What the ever-loving hell is going on, here?!"

The choices themselves ... well, of those three, the most logical one was to destroy all the Reapers in the galaxy (basically, a Reaper "off switch," which was another thing BioWare said wouldn't happen). The problem is, this destroys all AI/synthetic life in the galaxy, which means the geth became collateral damage. Even if you played your cards right and got the geth and the quarians to coexist peacefully and fight the Reapers alongside you and your other allies, they got thrown under the bus. Not only that, but EDI also gets shafted. After completely averting the AI is a Crapshoot trope, helping Shepard save the galaxy, and potentially starting a relationship with Jeff Moreau, the Normandy's pilot (which was one of the few good bits in Mass Effect 3) ... she becomes a casualty of war. It's especially painful because, in a conversation just before the final battle, EDI basically tells Shepard, "Only now do I feel truly alive, and that's because of you." And only a few minutes later, she dies because of the choice Shepard makes.

Another "choice" is to take control of the Reapers, which results in Shepard dying (and becoming an AI, I guess, so it's really the AI-Shepard who controls the Reapers, since the real Shepard is vaporized) and then forcing the Reapers to stop their attack and begin rebuilding what they've been destroying. That's just creepy. Imagine suffering through the war, seeing friends and family killed or worse ... and then the Reapers stop their attack and begin rebuilding, and afterward they keep hanging around as protectors or guides. So imagine going through all that suffering and witnessing all that death and destruction caused by the Reapers ... and then having to spend the rest of your life with those very same Reapers everywhere you look.

Not only that, but controlling the Reapers is what the Illusive Man wanted, and if you made certain choices throughout Mass Effect 2, that in itself should be a huge red flag. And even if you made different choices, the Illusive Man is responsible for some damned horrific things, and shouldn't be trusted with a burned-out match, let alone the fate of the whole galaxy.

For me, the most repugnant of the three original "choices" was Synthesis, which is what Saren Arterius wanted in the first game, and players spent the entire game fighting against that. Synthesis results in every living thing in the galaxy being merged with technology and becoming half organic, half synthetic -- without their consent, or even their knowledge. A green light washes over everyone, and suddenly they're converted into creepy cyborgs with glowing green eyes and glowing green circuitry patterns on their skin. BioWare tried to pass this off as the "best" ending to the story, but to me it's the most horrific. It was forced on everyone in the galaxy. I'd probably be okay with the idea of replacing some body parts with cybernetic components, or even having my brain put into a Ghost in the Shell-style prosthetic body ... if it were my choice. I'd wait until all the bugs are worked out and it's a safe procedure (not to mention affordable) ... but the most important thing here is that I'd only be okay with it if I were the one who got to decide whether or not to go through with it.

If it just happened one day, coming out of nowhere, with no choice in the matter and no time to prepare for it, I think I'd be absolutely fucking horrified.

A character like Javik would probably commit suicide if he were converted into a partially synthetic being. Assuming he wasn't being controlled by a hive mind, at least.

YouTuber Archengeia summed it up perfectly: Synthesis is the Borg winning.

And then there's the Refuse ending added in the Extended Cut, as mentioned above. For me, at least, the Extended Cut didn't fix a single goddamn thing about the ending, other than changing the destruction of the mass relays to heavy damage to the relays. This matters because, in the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2, it's revealed that a relay's destruction releases an explosion equivalent to a supernova, which would mean the obliteration of every star system that has a relay -- including Earth, the Citadel, Thessia, Palaven, and every other homeworld of a major spacefaring species. So, that was an improvement. But, in my opinion, it's the only one, and in many ways, the Extended Cut made things even worse.

The ending was by no means the only problem with Mass Effect 3. Aside from a few genuinely good moments here and there (such as the development with EDI's and Joker's relationship, which I thought was sweet), it was a piss-poor story from beginning to end. The ending, however, was so atrocious that it overshadowed all the other issues. Seriously ... Uwe Boll could've come up with a better ending by scribbling it on sheets of toilet paper while taking his morning dump.

As a result of this and BioWare's treatment of their own fans, I'm having trouble getting excited about Mass Effect: Andromeda. Though, I'm amused by the thought that BioWare choosing to set the story in a different galaxy is pretty much a tacit admission that they completely fucked up the Milky Way. At least, that's what I choose to believe. I'm sure as hell not going to preorder the game. I did that with Mass Effect 3, and paid $80 for the Collector's Edition, and I got burned. That's a mistake I won't make again. So, I'll wait to hear the opinions of people who actually played the game after it's released. Not the professional critics who gave 3 "75 perfect scores" without bothering to play through the whole game. Actual players. Especially the ones who hated 3 but are still willing to give Andromeda a chance. Those are the opinions that will matter to me.

Anyway, having said all that, let's get to the actual topic. As mentioned above, there was a trailer released about two months ago. And about a week or so ago, there was a tech demo video released showing how the game will look in 4K.

First, the trailer from a couple months ago:

Okay. The visuals are certainly impressive, and I like the idea of exploring a whole new galaxy. But since nothing about the story was mentioned, I'm not going to gush all over this. I'm not hoping for this game to fail. I want it to be a good story. I want to enjoy Mass Effect again. I want to be able to buy the game and not feel like I need a shower afterward. But I'm not going to preorder it or rush to the store on release day and thereby send BioWare the message that they can crank out any crap and we'll buy it just because they slapped the Mass Effect name on it. I want to be sure they learned from their previous mistakes and won't repeat them.

On to specifics. It starts off with a few images from modern-day space exploration before switching to a CGI view of a nebula.

And then a ship appears, the Tempest, presumably the one we'll be using to explore the galaxy. And oh, look, it looks an awful lot like the SSV Normandy.

I would've preferred something a bit more original, but this isn't a deal-breaker. Hey, at least it looks cool.

Anyway, we then get a glimpse of what's probably the Tempest's bridge or CIC or whatever it ends up being called. And there's a krogan on the left and a salarian on the right, so we'll be seeing at least one of each of those species in addition to the humans.

I'm not sure how many, or if there'll be any others aside from these two and one other, at all. The trailer's narration talks about "finding a new home for humanity," but doesn't offer up any information on any of the Milky Way's other alien species. And, given Mass Effect 3's emphasis on saving humanity and taking back Earth, when every species and homeworld in the galaxy was at stake, I'm not exactly confident that we'll be seeing many others in the new game.

Next, we see a few glimpses of planets in the Andromeda galaxy, and I have to admit, the environments are well done. They're quite imaginative, which is how things started off in the first Mass Effect game, way back before BioWare got lazy and started using poorly-Photoshopped pictures from Getty Images. Tali'Zorah, for instance ....

Note the hand in the altered image, in particular. That's not what a quarian hand looks like. The fingers are spaced much farther apart. Someone just erased two of the fingers, which makes the hand look way too narrow.

Anyway. The planet surfaces we see in the trailer look genuinely alien. A lot of thought and effort seems to have gone into these. I can only hope just as much went into the story.

I love that floaty thing. Plus, I've always been a sucker for desert landscapes -- another reason I enjoyed what little I saw of Rannoch.

Then we get a glimpse of a huge creature, possibly a sentient life form, but maybe just an animal. Either way, it looks cool.

We get another brief look at a different alien environment, and this one is gorgeous, with a flying/floating creature in the background. Again, very imaginative and quite alien-looking, as it should be.

Next, we finally see another familiar alien, an asari. I'll have more to say about her once I start talking about the 4K tech demo, but for now I'll just comment on the "raccoon" face paint. It's different from the "lines" face paint we're used to seeing on asari, and it looks a little weird, but I'm assuming there's a specific reason for it in this character's backstory. Whatever it turns out to be, I doubt it could make less sense than Mass Effect 3's ending.

Then we get a few more awesome planet-surface environments, and they're all equally beautiful.

Next up, there's a quick look at a ground-exploration vehicle similar to the Mako from the first game. I hope it's a lot easier to drive than the original Mako, because I fucking hated that thing.

Here we have a tower thrusting up out of the ground. It's spinning, so maybe it's drilling its way out. Another really cool, imaginative image, and appropriately alien. I'll give the developers credit for that. A lot of "alien planets" in games, movies, and TV shows don't look very alien. I often don't get any sort of "otherworldly" vibe from them. The images in this trailer, though, really do give me the impression that these places are somewhere else.

Brief look at what's probably the female version of the protagonist, Ryder, in the middle of a battle. Not much to say, since I have very little information about her.

Cool ship here, possibly a shuttle or a cargo transport. I'm liking the design. It's quite different from ships like the Normandy and the Kodiak drop shuttle, so that's a plus.

Looks like this guy's hosed.

Next we see a planet which is probably Earth, with a squadron of Kodiak shuttles on the way to ...

... this. Probably the ship that'll be taking the expedition to the Andromeda galaxy.

Another very cool design, though it reminds me a little bit of the Citadel. One thing I really like is how it appears to be enormous. Again, I'm really hoping there'll be more than just humans on this ship (or several ships with different species on each). We're clearly going to see at least one krogan, salarian, and asari ... it's probably a long shot, but I'd really like to see some quarians and turians, and maybe even some geth, as well. Could happen, depending on how the Andromeda expedition was set up and when it launches (before the Reaper invasion, or during the war but before the reprehensible ending of 3).

And finally, we get our first clear look at Ryder as she wakes up from cryonic stasis and gasps for breath.

I have to admit, this sequence sent a few chills up and down my spine. As Ryder sits up, still gasping, and the lights in the huge chamber flicker on, it's quiet except for her breathing and a few mechanisms starting up. This really does make it feel like she's reached the end of an incredibly long journey. There's a palpable sense of being so far from anything familiar that there's no chance of going back home.

And we end on a close-up of Ryder. Gotta say, the animation is amazing. Her expression as she finishes waking up really gets across a sense of wonder and joy at her realization that the ship's arrived at its destination. The image fades to black and she whispers, "We made it!" And I got another chill from that. It makes me hope this will be one hell of an adventure ... but again, I'll wait to find out more about the actual story and the characters before I invest my time, money, and emotions into this franchise again.

One thing I really like about this character's design is that she doesn't have a supermodel's face and giant breasts. That's something I've seen a lot in games, movies, and TV shows -- female characters (protagonist or supporting cast, at least) always have to be hotter than hell. I could go on a whole other rant about that, especially since I've seen some comments about Ryder being "ugly" (same with the asari character pictured above) ... which I just don't see at all. Here, Ryder looks like someone you'd see in real life, everyday life. So I'll give BioWare props for making the female version of their protagonist a bit of a girl-next-door rather than a Lara Croft.

I'll have more to say on that later, particularly when it's time to talk about the asari character. But that brings us to the 4K tech demo video from a week or two ago.

So ... that happened. Okay, I'm hoping the trailer coming in November will tell us something about the story and characters, because all they're talking about so far is how good the game looks. Sure, it's pretty, but that's not the only thing that matters. It could have the most gorgeous graphics in the history of the medium, but without a coherent, entertaining, good story and compelling characters, it won't make any difference. If you want me to buy another one of these games, you need to show me that you can put the story and characters above everything else. Otherwise, there's no reason for me to make an emotional or monetary investment in it. Last time I did that, I got burned. Show me that you've created a story worth getting into, and I'm onboard.

A few thoughts on the video ....

Here's the male version of Ryder in what appears to be a cave, but as we see a few seconds later, there's also technology seemingly built into the surroundings. The characters call it a "vault," so it was likely built or modified by an ancient, vanished species called the Remnant. So ... we travel to a completely different galaxy and find ourselves investigating a long-extinct alien species ... just like we did in the first Mass Effect game (the Protheans).

In fairness, the "extinct precursor civilization" trope is an old stand-by of the science fiction genre, and I have to admit I'm kind of a sucker for it, so I'll let it slide here. One of the best uses of the idea, in my opinion, happened in Babylon 5, which got a lot of mileage out of it. I probably should complain about lack of originality because this sort of thing has been done so many times before, but I'm always intrigued by the idea of ancient civilizations that vanished, leaving only a few tantalizing remains and bits of technology. I love a story that has a sense of wonder about it, and that was lacking in Mass Effect 3 aside from a few moments here and there. So if Andromeda can pull that off and not screw it up somewhere along the way, that'll be some serious points in its favor.

Next up, Ryder continues exploring and uses a low-powered jetpack to hop from one platform to another. I've heard that it can be upgraded (just as the Mako-like ground vehicle and the Tempest), which I presume will let you jump higher, but I'm not sure whether it'll become a true jetpack and allow you to fly when it's maxed out, or if it'll just be used for jumping walls and whatnot.

Here, Ryder scans an alien plant and comments, "No sunlight, no water. They should all be dead." Um, not necessarily. Granted, this is only a glimpse at the game and I don't have any information about whether they've run into a lot of plants like this ... but a couple of things popped into my head instantly.

First of all, this is an alien plant. On an alien planet ... in an alien galaxy. Assuming Ryder hasn't seen anything like this before, well, if I found something like this, I wouldn't assume right off the bat that it functions anything like the plants I'm familiar with. Since it's alien, it could draw the energy it needs to survive from something else entirely, possibly trace gasses in the atmosphere, if there is one. (Ryder's sealed inside an envirosuit, but that could just mean the atmosphere is toxic to humans. On the other hand, a few moments later we see Ryder with his helmet off, so ... shrug.) Or maybe it drains the life force of animals who pass by.

The other thing that came to mind is, there are technologically advanced devices all over the vault. Maybe the plant is being fed the nutrients and sunlight it needs from a mechanism built into the platform under it. It's possible that Ryder or someone else has already investigated and learned that this isn't the case, but I'm just going by what I saw here.

Then we see Ryder access a console and, I guess, download something from it. Again, I have to give the developers props for designing alien technology that actually looks alien. One thing that bugged me about the previous Mass Effect trilogy was how so many of the alien control panels looked just like QWERTY keyboards, even the ones used by aliens with three digits instead of five.

Here, in the distance, there's a group of floating things that appear to be robotic, with several tentacles dangling under them. They seem to be drones, and dialogue points out that they won't pay any attention to you unless you get too close and they perceive you as a threat. Until I got a closer look at them, these things reminded me of the hostile aliens from the Babylon 5 TV-movie, Thirdspace.

Ryder sprints across a floor that appears to build itself a few feet ahead of him as he runs. So, credit where it's due. This is a cool idea and another example of alien technology that comes across as genuinely alien in both its form and its function. I'm reluctant to get my hopes up, but BioWare appears to have gotten their imaginations back.

At the far edge of the platform, there's another thing that looks like it might be an alien drone. It doesn't appear to be a part of the surroundings, like a console or some other device built into the vault, so it might be able to move around on those long "legs." And again, it's quite alien-looking and more than a little unsettling. And, if I'm not mistaken, after Ryder moves a little closer and then turns away, I think I heard it release a burst of electronic chatter off-screen, like it was reacting to his proximity and maybe getting ready to pounce or start shooting.

I just have to mention those two straps dangling from his belt. I'm guessing they're for attaching a backpack or some other equipment, to hold it in place, but here they just keep swinging around and slapping his ass. That's a good demonstration of the advancement in graphics, because they move around as Ryder starts walking, stops, or jumps. From what I've heard, the characters' hair will also move around a lot more realistically, rather than being stuck into one solid chunk.

Ryder opens a door and this beam of light instantly reminded me of ...

... that goddamned A, B, or C choice at the end of Mass Effect 3!

Thanks for reminding me of that travesty's existence, BioWare. You sons of bitches.

Ahem. Moving right along ....

The interior of that vault is, once again, very well done and it makes me want to take a thorough look around.

We get a closer look at one of the consoles, and the components that retract when he touches them look like smaller versions of the "building blocks" of the floor that formed as Ryder ran across it. That shape in particular appears to be an important part of the Remnant's design aesthetic. It may have had some cultural or mythological significance to them ... or maybe the Remnant who designed the chamber just thought it looked cool. Or maybe something sillier, like all the sheets of paper on Battlestar Galactica having their corners chopped off.

Here we suddenly see two other people with Ryder (they seem to appear out of nowhere, but that's because this was edited together, either from more than one cutscene, or just trimmed out of a longer one). There's already been a lot of speculation about who they are, so I won't rehash any of it except to say that because there's going to be a family dynamic in the story (when you choose either a male or female Ryder sibling to play as, the sibling you didn't choose becomes a character in the same story), so it's possible the female here is the male Ryder's sister and the other guy is their father. Or they could be other characters on Ryder's team. Or just placeholders for the purposes of testing the game.

A holographic map of the "Helios Cluster" appears. It's the kind of thing we've seen a thousand times before in movies, TV, and games, but at least it's a cool visual and it does a decent job of helping to get a bit of information across.

And now we come to the asari character. People have pointed out similarities to Liara T'Soni from the previous trilogy -- an archaeologist studying the extinct Prothean civilization ... and here we have another asari studying the extinct Remnant. We don't know if this new girl is an archaeologist or something else ... it's possible she's a scout or a scientist in some other field, and picked up a lot of info about the Remnant.

Another kind of comment I've seen a lot under YouTube videos and whatnot is all about her appearance ... as if that's the only thing that matters. "She looks like shit" or "She's ugly as fuck" or whatever, is a type of comment that came up a lot under these trailers and other videos analyzing them. And y'know what? I'm just not seeing it. I actually think she's cute. As I mentioned above, the raccoon-paint is a little odd, but there's probably an in-story reason for it.

So she's not a supermodel. That's not a bad thing at all, and making a character's looks the top priority sends the wrong message, especially if the character is female. Enough people have self-esteem issues as it is, feeling as if they'll never live up to the Hollywood-beauty standards saturating our society. Can we please stop being so damned superficial?

Besides, Liara was beautiful, but I found her completely uninteresting until the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. Before that, I just thought she was bland, personality-wise, and as soon as more interesting characters joined Shepard's team, I brought them with me on missions and left Liara on the Normandy. What interests me about this new asari character is her personality, which really comes across in only a few seconds on-screen. Of all the things in Mass Effect: Andromeda that I'd like to learn more about, she's at the top of the list.

Back to the video. Something goes horribly wrong (because of course it does!), and the team needs to haul ass. One thing that amused the hell out of me is how Ryder is the first one to pull the ripcord. Shepard would've stayed behind and covered everyone else's retreat before following them, but here, Ryder is the first one to turn and bolt. And I like that. Making this character so different from the previous protagonist caught my interest, whereas a main character with a lot of similarities to Shepard would have gone in the "negative" column, at least for me.

Here's a better look at the floaty drone thing, just before it tries to cook Ryder's team off. This was my first good look at one, and it's where I saw that it wasn't all that similar to the Thirdspace aliens after all.

Now we come to my only complaint about the asari (so far, at least). When she's running from all the bad stuff happening all of a sudden, she does this stupid hopping-on-one-foot thing while changing direction. Seriously, who the hell does that unless they're just deliberately being goofy? And when something is trying to kill you, that is not the time to be fucking around.

And I had to toss this screenshot in just because of the look on her face. The characters' faces being so expressive is a definite "plus," but that expression right here made me burst out laughing.

I'm sure I had the same look on my face almost every day when I worked in the one-hour-photo lab in a Walmart in the small Oregon town I used to live in. If you've ever worked in a photo lab, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. I'll never be able to unsee any of those images, and only managed to forget some of them thanks to the passage of time. Every now and then, though, something will remind me, or one of those photos will just pop back into my mind out of nowhere, and there it'll be, as if it happened only a few seconds ago, a memory of seeing some of the evolutionary mishaps in that town posing naked or humping it out. And with a shudder I'll say to myself, "Fuck me, that looked like two bags of wet laundry slapping together." And then ...

Anyway. Moving on before I make myself sick ....

Fortunately, she turns back into a badass a few seconds later, dodging lasers (or whatever they are), hopping over an obstacle, and returning fire before running off again.

If she has a prominent role in the game, I'll be a little more inclined to buy it.

Then the scene ends on a cliffhanger, without revealing whether anyone escaped. So ... now that I've finally gotten through all that ... final thoughts.

So far, it looks like a net-positive. Not just the graphics, though of course those are impressive. The asari character really stands out ... I haven't seen enough of Ryder or the others to know whether they're compelling or not, but I'm already a fan of this asari. The vault and the technology inside are convincingly alien, and I do like the focus on exploration as it reminds me of playing through the first Mass Effect game for the first time, nearly a decade ago. Setting the story in a different galaxy gives BioWare the chance to start over from scratch without actually starting over, with a whole galaxy to explore.

The thing is, the Mass Effect universe was already a story-rich environment. The Milky Way had tons of places and characters who could've had their stories told ... but BioWare completely borked it at the end, leaving the galaxy in such a ruined state that there was really nowhere else to go with it.

Bottom line -- I'm mildly curious about how this is going to play out, but I'm not getting my hopes up. BioWare needs to earn my trust back. They need to show me that they've learned from their mistakes, colossal as they were, and won't repeat them. They need to show me that they can still tell a good story. So I'll wait and see how this develops.

But I really want it to be good. I want to enjoy Mass Effect again.