SHORT STORIES / MINIATURE BULLET HELL

“Short stories do not say this happened and this happened and this happened. They are a microcosm and a magnification rather than a linear progression.” – Isobelle Carmody

Of course this also means more scrutiny. Even the smallest crack becomes a chasm when it is magnified. When I started studying film our lecturer gave us an assignment. It was simple, “Make a 5 minute movie.” Piece of cake, I thought arrogantly. This’ll be a breeze, walk in the park, easy as pie. You can guess what happened next. That little assignment kicked my ass. Turns out it was harder to come up with a worthwhile narrative that was 5 minutes long than it was to think of something four times that. It’s one of the lessons I’ve never forgotten to this day. Short stories are like that. Underestimate them and they will destroy you.

When I started writing I attempted short stories first just like everyone else. The stories themselves weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great either. It takes experience and hard work to write a truly gripping short tale. I’m talking about stores like I, Robot by Isaac AsimovDagon by H.P. Lovecraft, A Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe,  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

There is the possibility that you have not read these stories, but I will wager that you’ve at least heard of them. Have you seen Battle Royale? No? What about The Hunger Games? You could draw a straight line from them to The Lottery without much difficulty at all. This is the power of a well written short story. It may be small in volume but its potential for growth is almost limitless.

On Monday this week I finally downloaded Aa Mujou Setsuna (or Metal Torrent as it’s known in the West)  by game developer/publisher Arika. If you know shmups then you know Arika. They’ve been involved in a bunch of Cave stalwarts, DoDonPachi Dai Jai Ou and community darling Ketsui amongst these. Arika also brought Ketsui Death Label to the DS and of course Metal Torrent to DSiware.

There are a fair amount of decent shooters on the DS and 3DS so far. Ketsui Death Label, Metal Torrent, Liberation Maiden, Space Invaders Extreme, Retro Game Challenge’Cosmic Gate and Bangoi-O Spirits (by the monolithic entity known as Treasure) are all available on one version of Nintendo’s little handheld or another. Old NES classics such as Gradius, TwinBee and Xevious have all been released on the eshop as of late allowing for some bullet dodging on the go. For those of you who like manic shooters there are only two options though and not surprisingly they’re brought to us by the Cave / Arika combo.

“Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.” – Paolo Bacigalupi

I’ve poured hours into Ketsui Death Label and still the beast living in that little cartridge demands more. It’s basically just a boss rush mode of Ketsui but does that make it bad? No not at all, not to me at least. Finding a review of Ketsui Death Label on the net is tricky. Vertical shooters simply do not command the same amount of interest here in the West as they do over in the East, and something like Ketsui Death Label even less so. It’s seen as a cop-out by many because they wanted a port of the original. Look around a bit and you’ll find one or two reviews worth your time but that’s about it. I love Ketsui Death Label for what it is; a scaled down version of the original that I can delve into whenever and wherever I want. It isn’t a DS port of the original arcade game but that’s ok since that exists on other systems more suitable for it. That doesn’t mean that this DS version of Ketsui doesn’t have content. Play hard and long enough and you’ll unlock extra difficulties, each one more brutal than the last. There’s even and Extra mode which lets you play through a single complete stage. Be warned though. It will eat you alive.

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart…” – Haruki Murakami.

I think of these games as short stories. They aren’t fully fledged novels but rather snippets, things that may never be whole. You could call them footprints left in a forest somewhere, shadows as Murakamiputs it. They are, in short, glimpses into the minds of their creators. Photographs which hold a fragment of creative thought captured and looped forever.

“A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” – Stephen King, Skeleton Crew.

It’s true that Ketsui Death Label and Metal Torrent may seem one dimensional to some people and I get that. If you look at the games as full-fledged releases they fail. Are we meant to look at them in this way? I don’t think so. These games are centered and built around a single, specific gameplay mechanic. Poe‘s comment on short stories hits the mark perfectly:

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” – Edgar Alan Poe

When viewed in this light both Ketsui Death Label and Metal Torrent exist and succeed perfectly.

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“Battles that last five minutes spawn legends that live a thousand years.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower

 

About two weeks ago I woke up and felt the soft pulse of restless frustration I’d been feeling every day for a few months. Today I’ll write at least five pages, I promised myself.

Five pages may seem like nothing to most people reading this, unless of course they’ve ever tried to seriously write a novel. It’s strange how just about anything can become terrifying simply because you’ve decided to take it seriously. A lot can happen in five pages. The world can end in five pages. Hell, it could end in less than one.

 

Writing, to me, is about discipline and perseverance. I can find dozens of excuses on any given day to justify why I didn’t write one sentence, couldn’t write a single word. Excuses are easy to find. Motivations on the other hand, are sly beasts. I used to obsess about every sentence, every line, every damned character twitch in my stories. It got to the point where writing a short story took me months. It was maddening. It was a form of OCD so developed that I could hardly put pen to paper for fear of the process that would follow.

Then I read a quote by Iain Banks which allowed me to take a step back and breathe. Of course what he said seems obvious now, but things feel very complicated when you’re intimately close to them.

 

“Writing is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.”– Iain Banks.

 

So following this advice I’m finally making progress on something that should have been completed two years ago.

 

What struck me recently is how applicable this advice is to playing vertical shooters or shmups, as they’re also known.  Not all of the quote of course, but the feel of it. It’s the same as the first time I read the sentence “Don’t be afraid to use your bombs regularly” in a review of Mahou Daisukusen by Malc. Until reading that I’d ben hoarding bombs as if they were the entire point of the games.

 

Shmups have become my personal form of martial arts, my Mount Wudang if you will, with Cave as my shifu. Martial arts instill discipline in one’s mind through physical and mental exertion and concentration. You need that discipline and balance in order to gain a bit more control of your life. I know this because I watch about 110 kung fu movies every week! Don’t argue!

 

Together with renewed motivation in writing I have taken my first steps towards one credit clearing my first Cave shooter. It seems an impossible task right now to be honest and I’m filled with doubt as to whether I can even do it. I haven’t played a lot of shmups in my life but they’ve always held a special place in my heart. I’m 30 years old and this in itself seem to be a bit too late (if I listen to all the younger gamers out there).

The thing is that vertical shooters take dedication and discipline. You will not beat a shmup on your first attempt if you aren’t familiar with the genre. Fact.

 

You may wonder why I chose Cave as the mountain I must climb. The answer is simple. I played Dodonpachi at a friends house once upon a time and it blew me away, quite literally. Since then I’ve had an eye on the company and follow their works keenly. I’m not a Cave elitist though. I’m a huge fan of G.Rev, Treasure, Raizing and a lot of other companies too.

 

 

 

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius, Confucius: The Analects

 

It’s while playing shmups that it started to dawn on me how many similarities there are between the quest to 1CC a shmup and the quest to write something with substance. That realisation is what lead to the creation of this blog. It is here where I plan to document my struggles and triumphs. So to start it all of I thought I’d talk about some novels and how they resonate with my shmup experiences.

 

There are three literary characters I love which come to mind immediately when I think about explaining this journey. Roland Deschain, Alonso Quijano and K; from The Dark Tower, Don Quixote and The Castle respectively. 

These characters have one thing in common, they’re all entwined in seemingly impossible quests. There is something they feel they must do no matter what the cost. Other people might think they are insane, and perhaps they are, but that is of little consequence. They continue onwards, ever onwards.

 

“Willpower and dedication are good words. There’s a bad one, though, that means the same thing. That one is obsession.”– Stephen King, The Dark Tower

 

In Stephen King’s series we follow Roland Deschain of Gillead, the last gunslinger, on a perilous path towards the titular Dark Tower. He has been questing for hundreds of years and has lost and sacrificed countless people on the way. He is the solitary anti-hero with unmatched, almost mythical, skills. That’s how I feel when I play games like Dodonpachi, Battle Garegga or Ketsui. I feel like I’m the gunslinger, standing alone against insurmountable odds. I could give up my quest and live out my days in peace but I will not, can not. There is no one else who will stand against the threat now before me. Failure is not an option.

 

 

“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”– Franz Kafka

 

Facing those hellish patterns makes me feel like a hero! I’m just a normal guy who sucks at these games in general and dies all the time during the second stage of Ketsui, but I believe that I can do it! 

It is this insane and deluded belief that is mirrored by the character of Alonso Quijano in Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The aging retiree has read so many novels about heroism that he starts to believe in them as fact. He adopts the name of Don Quixote and sets out to revive chivalry and become a knight. In his distorted mind, every day inn’s are castles, cloaked monks are enchanters and windmills stand as terrible giants! 

 

Is this not what I have done in adopting a gamers nickname? Not many people I know play games under their own names. Everyone picks a name they like, something personal for the most part. They strike out under these monikers every day and do battle in fantastical worlds! We are a horde of Don Quixote’s out to become knights of the modern age.

The world of knights is part of a dead and archaic world of course. The world we live in is that of McDonalds and Starbucks, not dragons and honour. Many people do not see the excitement of that forgotten age. The same can be said for shmups. I’ve met countless people who look down on the genre. With a look of disgust on their lips and a cold sneer they turn away saying things like “The graphics are so dated…” or “It’s too one dimensional and they’re all the same anyways. Play one and you’ve played them all.”

Then they walk over to the couch and power up the latest first person shooter. You know the one. It’s plastered all over the front page of every gaming website on the internet. Don’t even get me started on RPG’s. I love the genre to a fault but I swear that I’d trade in my balls for just one ounce less hand holding.

 

Take Ocarina of Time for instance. It’s heralded as one of the best games on the planet! It’s genius and yet that damned fairy will insist on treating you as if your brain was made of some soft sponge, an incontinent one at that.

 

“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.” – H.P. Lovecraft, The Outsider

 

Modern games are there to remind you that your mother will never think of you as being older than five. A shmup is that awesome uncle or aunt who let you stay up late and watch Predator 2 when you were ten, because you told him you could handle it. Of course Predator 2 ended up terrifying the living hell out of you and a game like Dodonpachi Dai Jou Ou will leave you for dead at the roadside. Reality can be a brutal teacher and it loves cocky little bastards. You always feel OK though, no matter how many times you  fail. You feel OK because you made the decision to face these things and know it.

 

 

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.” – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

 

This fantasy of being capable of anything, this madness I suffer from, sometimes cracks and falls victim to self-doubt. What if I’m too old to be playing games? What if playing shmups is stupid? What if I will never succeed in a 1CC?

Thinking this way reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle. In this story the protagonist (known simply as K.) struggles to gain access to a castle in which mysterious authorities reside. This story is about the pursuit of an unobtainable goal. The frustration of seemingly futile and hopeless attempts at a quest. Throughout the tale K is stuck in the village below the castle. He is at the foot of his goal. It is right in front of him! Yet he cannot get to it no matter how hard he tries. This is exactly how I feel some days when I try to clear a stage of Ketsui without dying. It feels impossible! It makes me want bang my head against the screen until the glass or my skull, I don’t care which, breaks. But then there is hope, and hope as we all know, is the last thing to die.

 

 

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

 

Kafka passed away before finishing The Castle but suggested that the novel might end with K. dying in the village without ever reaching his goal. It’s dark and it’s crushing because it’s so horribly believable. This is what fills me with fear and doubt. There is the real possibility that I will never 1CC a game. It is when I’m at my most frustrated that I know I could try and try and try… and fail. At times like this I just stare at the bullets. I don’t see them but I know they’re there, filling the screen. Then hope sparks up once more deep inside my heart and I feed the machine another coin.

 

The games know I will return and are content to wait patiently. They think they’ll remain victorious forever but I know better.

 

“Let evil wait for the day on which it must fall.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower.

 

Come Rocinante let us ride, for the tower and the high score.