Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 11
Challenge #5: Write a post-apocalyptic fairy tale with a non-linear narrative.
Little Red pushed open the door of her grandmother’s cottage, knowing what she’d find long before she saw it. There was blood on the doorstep. The Wolf had left his car hidden in a stand of trees, but the atom-scorched trunks did little to disguise the bright warpaint and burnished chrome.
“Eyes bigger than your stomach, eh?”
She primed her weapon.
The creature on the bed bared its teeth.
“Wouldn’t recommend going that way,” the Wolf said, clearing flesh from his car’s grill with the end of a tyre iron. “Big horde of ghouls. Barely got through it myself.”
“Oh dear!” Little Red stepped off her bike. “But I simply must get these supplies to my grandmama!”
“No fear!” The Wolf gave her a big, toothy grin. “Where does she live? Perhaps I can suggest a safer route…”
“Now remember what I told you,” said Red’s mother, for the fiftieth time.
“Yes, yes, I know. Stick to the path, don’t talk to anyone, and if I run into any ghouls—”
“Don’t cave their heads in.”
Red stepped out of the bunker and onto her bike.
“And make sure that your cattle prod’s got a good charge: you know how grandma gets when she hasn’t been fed!”
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
Click any cover to find that book in your choice of format.
You might also be interested in my sci-fi murder mystery novella, Ten Little Astronauts, which is currently crowdfunding at Unbound. Most pledge levels include all the books shown above, and all will include your name in the back of Ten Little Astronauts itself as a patron of my work.
Or: Pay to Play Versus Pay to Win. But I feel as though that general topic has been covered over and over, so for this article I’m going to focus on two specific games in the same series that each take a different approach.
Plants Versus Zombies is a 2009 tower defence game that’s made it onto a bunch of different platforms (though I’m only familiar with the Android version). Rather than the traditional variety of tower defence in which you strategically place armed towers around a winding path, Plants Versus Zombies has you plonking plants down directly in front of a horde of zombies who approach in a perfectly straight line.
Though the basic idea is ludicrously simple–zombies are approaching from the right, your house is on the left…stick something in the middle!–there’s a good deal of strategy involved. You often have to weigh up the benefits of planting a quick defence now versus saving up for something stronger later. You’re also frequently faced with a choice between paying for a very powerful (frequently explosive) plant to use just once, or saving up for weaker plants that will continue to chip away at the zombie horde throughout the level. The game might look silly, but it demands a fair bit of thought.
It’s also funny. Really, really funny. What story it has is presented through polite notes dropped by the waves of zombies, and the ravings of your saucepan-wearing neighbour, Crazy Dave. The game attracted some well deserved praise when it was new and has maintained a following ever since. Long story short, it’s a neat little package and a hard act to follow. If you fancy playing it, it’s easily worth the (now fairly trivial) price.
Plants Versus Zombies 2 (2013) takes almost exactly the same approach in terms of gameplay, but its pricing is completely different. The game is free to download on Android and iOS (but not available on any other platform), offering optional in-app purchases in lieu of a mandatory up-front charge. Ever come across one of those games that invites you to buy power/crystals/gems to progress better/faster?
Yeah. It’s one of those, and it attracted a lot of criticism when (and especially before) it was released. Plants Versus Zombies 2 offers opportunities to spend real dosh on imaginary plants at pretty much every turn, even going so far as to take you to the shop screen as part of the tutorial. Twice. The first time funnels you towards (though doesn’t actually require) buying additional plants and accessories, while the second illustrates a FarmVille-style plant-tending mechanic, in which you earn powerups by watering and waiting in real time or (you guessed it) spending gems.
That said, once you’re past the “BUY SOMETHING!!!” portion of the tutorial, it’s easy to forget that the game ever brought it up. Though new level packs are available for purchase before they’re unlocked, I can’t really imagine ever doing this. At the time of writing, I’ve unlocked the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth worlds without even completing the first: paying for number seven at this point would feel like going out and buying a chocolate bar when I already had six melting in my hot little hand. This abundance of levels feels particularly generous compared to the original game, which offers just one well curated (but entirely linear) series of levels.
The wealth of content available for free in Plants Versus Zombies 2 is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. On one hand, I’d probably recommend it over the first game purely because there’s a lot more to do. Even without paying for any extras, there’s a wider variety of plants and a wider variety of zombies, and the gameplay feels more refined. On the other hand, the non-linear levels make for a weak plot (Your neighbour Crazy Dave has invented a time machine so he can re-eat his taco. There. That’s it.). The first game wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of storytelling, but the setting and the sequence of levels (front garden, back garden, pool, roof) did an adequate job of presenting you, the player, as an ordinary guy whose house is under siege by the undead. The sequel never quite explains why Crazy Dave even takes you along for the ride.
Though the overall bundle of levels feels a little haphazard, with the game coaxing you into completing various “quests” without ever really doing anything to recommend one over another, this free-to-play game offers a huge amount even if you’re determined to never pay a penny. The only time the game really seems to be pushing you towards “paying to win” is in the events and minigames. The vasebreaker, for example, presents you with a vast field of vases to break. Three green ones will obviously contain plants, while the rest will contain plants, powerups or (far more likely) zombies.
Vasebreaker plays more like a slot machine than a strategy game, with the level of randomness involved making it nearly impossible to win without either several restarts (to find a favourable vase layout) or several powerups purchased with in-game currency. This is a game where one unlucky break can easily see a super-tough zombie spawn right in front of your base, and 1,000 coins spent on zombie-paralyzing butter (Yeah, it still has all the charm of the 2009 original!) can just as easily stop it. You earn coins steadily for free, and it’s trivial to stockpile them for this one minigame, but when you know you have to–when you know that the only reliable way to win is to throw coins at the problem–there’s little joy to be had in doing it.
The daily events present a similar problem. Your first attempt is free. However, given that you have no idea what that event will involve–shark-wielding giants or swarms of zombie chickens–you’re at quite a disadvantage right off the bat, with little chance of setting up an effective defence. You can retry as many times as you like, but each retry costs 1,000 coins. Since there are additional rewards for beating five events in a row, it’s easy to imagine a situation where you’d be forced to choose between losing a four-day winning streak or paying real money for additional coins.
If people want to invest their money in this kind of minigame, it’s reasonable enough to offer them the option. However, personally, I find it kind of off-putting. If winning five events in a row was simply presented as an additional challenge, I’d be all for it. However, when it feels like a trick to make me invest money in the game, it makes me unwilling to even invest my time. There’s something to be said for paying for extras to support the developers (who have, after all, put out a remarkably enjoyable game for free), but I’d prefer to do that by buying additional content rather than gambling on a minigame. Fortunately, this is where they’re really onto something.
In addition to the regular quests (which make for the easiest way to earn gems without buying them for cash), the game occasionally offers the opportunity to “Try a Premium Plant for Free!” This behaves like a regular “go here, do this” quest in terms of earning gems, but at the same time trying out the premium plants is pretty neat in itself. Many will be familiar to those who played the first game, and all of them feel finely balanced: a fun extra rather than an overpowered tool to blast through levels. This pretty much hits the “freemium” sweet spot. If you want to support the game, you get something neat in return. If not, you aren’t missing out.
To wrap this up, both Plants Versus Zombies games are well polished and fun to play. If you’ve got an Android or iOS device, I’d highly recommend the second one: it’s certainly the bigger of the two, and (when you’re not being forced to depend on them entirely) the various manually-activated powerups make it faster and more lively than the original. If you enjoy the sequel and want to throw some money towards the franchise, I’d suggest buying the first game over paying for additional content in the second: the original still holds up very well, and the same things that make it feel smaller than the sequel also make it feel more complete as a package.
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 18
Challenge #8: Write a story that opens with the first sentence from another author’s piece this month, and includes the username of a different author in a creative way. It must use at least three words of the following five words: “flash”, “flasher”, “flashers”, “flashing”, or “flashed,” and at least three of these five words as well: “viva”, “fist”, “fistpump”, “community”, or “madness.”
“This can’t be right.”
SC:\Frank.les looked up from the script. “Hm?”
S:\ebast.ian held up the proof copy of the programme, servos whining in annoyance. “It says here that the part of Othello will be played by Leonardo DeadCaprio. You can’t have a zombie playing Othello! If he’s still dead in the sequel then the whole time machine plotline just falls apart!”
“Oh.” SC:\Frank.les’ ocular LEDs flashed reassuringly. “The theatre’s looking to shore up its relationship with the zombie actors’ union. Hopefully make our performances more accessible to the undead community. We’ve also got Helena Brainham Carcass for the role of Desdemona.” She scanned a little further down the script, LEDs flashing rapidly. “Oh, wait. Deadsdemona.”
S:\ebast.ian raised a hydraulic pincer to his forehead and gave a sigh of despair that only a Mercurial thespiandroid could perform. It was perfect to within a tolerance of six point two nanofacepalms.
“This is the thirtieth century! Zombie theatregoers want zombie actors. It’s inevitable.”
“It’s madness!” S:\ebast.ian detached his hydraulic pincer and swapped it for a lifelike latex fist, which he proceeded to shake angrily. “It’s an insult to the works of William Shatner!”
“That’s what they said about the first robot actors.” SC:\Frank.les gave a meaningful flash of her LEDs. She leaned in, speaking quietly. “After all, C-3Piago was originally played by a human in tinface!”
S:\ebast.ian’s CPU fan whirred loudly for a few seconds.
“Alright,” he said at last. “We’ll give DeadCaprio a chance.”
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
Click any cover to download that book in your choice of format.
The following stories were produced for Flash Fiction Day 2015. I’ll be updating this post with new stories throughout the day.
At a glance, the Human Fly wasn’t the most obvious choice of accomplice for a bank job. But X-Ray Ted wasn’t one to make decisions based on a mere glance. The Fly might not have the strength to heave a sack of gold bricks, or the mind-reading powers to get the guards’ security codes, he possessed one trait that no other supervillain had. Or wanted.
Super-corrosive bug vomit.
X-Ray Ted’s incredible X-ray vision had long ago revealed an odd quirk of this particular bank vault. The bulktanium mega-alloy of the door was capable of withstanding lasers, saws, and 99.9% of superhero eye beams, but for some reason had pretty much no resistance to being melted by acid. A can of supermarket own brand orangeade could probably strip the finish off. The Human Fly’s gastric juices could eat right through the hinges.
And so they did.
As the door of the vault crashed to the ground, the bank’s alarm began to blare. They would have only forty seconds until the cops arrived, but that was thirty-one more seconds than they needed. X-Ray Ted’s surveillance had been comprehensive. He ducked inside, gathered up a few choice—priceless—items, and let the Fly take his share.
The Human Fly hesitated, torn between a big bag with a dollar sign on it and a guard’s half-eaten bagel.
“Come on!” shouted X-Ray Ted, “We’ve got to go!”
The Fly took the bagel and stuffed it in the bag, which he heaved over his shoulder. He wasn’t smart, thought X-Ray Ted, but he wasn’t stupid either.
There were sirens in the distance. X-Ray Ted made a dash for the nearest window, the Human Fly buzzing noisily behind him. Ted jumped head first through the glass, did a flip, and landed on his feet in the alley outside. A standard superhero/villain move—banal, really—but it got the job done. He checked behind him.
The Human Fly was still inside, hovering just in front of the window.
BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! He took another shot at getting through the window, but brained himself on the wall next to it. BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP!
“It’s right there!” shouted X-Ray Ted, from seven feet away. “It’s right in front of you!”
BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! The Human Fly caught the top of the windowframe this time. BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP!
The sirens grew louder.
BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP! BZZZzzzzzzzTHWAP!
Finally, the Human Fly found the window and made his way outside. Then straight back in. X-Ray Ted considered running off and leaving him, but that would seriously affect his bragging rights down at the supervillain local. He hopped back inside the bank and tried to shoo the Human Fly out through the window, but it just freaked him out.
BZZZzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!! The Human Fly made a lazy lap around the foyer.
The cops burst through the door.
X-Ray Ted gave up. This was no longer the perfect crime he’d had his eye on, and bragging rights were the least of his worries. He dove back out through the window, and was immediately tackled to the ground.
“Should have used the door,” remarked Commissioner Hindsight, as he slapped the cuffs on him.
10:41 Continue reading
Why, hello there! It’s been a while.
It’s actually been so long that I’m struggling to remember exactly how much progress I’ve neglected to update people with. First things first, I guess, back in 2012 I made the first little bit of Inhuman Resources available online and, in response to the interest it gained, promised I’d let everyone know how it was getting along. Well, that didn’t go entirely as planned. I figure I’ve mentioned it perhaps two and a bit times in those two and a bit years. However, in this case no news is good news: I’m actually still working on it on a semi-regular basis. The main thing slowing it down at this stage is that other, smaller projects (and various jobs I’ve had, and the Master’s course I’ve since started) end up taking priority.
I’d also like to reassure people that, though it’s been a while since the last chapter appeared, Beyond the Black Throne will also continue. It might even continue soon, since the next chapter is already written. My main concern at this point is that I set a schedule that won’t involve immediately dropping it for several more weeks in a row. Which leads in nicely to the next thing it’s probably worth mentioning: Continue reading
If you liked the stories I posted every day in July, you’ll love this: you can now download the entire collection–Bionic Punchline–free to enjoy on your e-reader, tablet, phone, or just any old computer.
For those of you who didn’t catch every single story this year (and given how many there were, I’m guessing there’s more than a few of you), this is a great opportunity for you to catch up. For any die-hard fans who managed to read all of them, you’ll be pleased to find a never-before-seen introduction to and statistical analysis of the collection. And if that comes as a surprise to you, you may also be interested in OCR is Not the Only Font and Red Herring, because I’ve done this twice already. But don’t worry: it turns out different every time!
Flash Fiction Month 2014, Day 1
Challenge #1: Write a story inspired by or featuring the username of one of your fellow FFM 2014 participants. I chose IntelligentZombie.
“If you thought it was alright to be a zombie…” Bruce pumped his shotgun for emphasis, “you were dead wrong.”
“Aaah!” yelled the zombie. “Not the face! Not the face!”
Bruce jumped in surprise, accidentally pulling the trigger, but only after he had also made an ungainly flailing motion with the shotgun. The result was that he not only missed the zombie, but the recoil caught him completely by surprise, prompting further flailing. All in all, it didn’t really fit with the badass action hero persona he had been trying to cultivate since the start of the zombie apocalypse.
“Stop! I’m not a zombie!”
Whether or not this was true, the slightly-rotten figure in front of Bruce was cowering, and since he had already ticked “shoot first” off his mental list, this seemed like a good time to start asking questions. “What are you, then?”
“Would you believe that I’m a guy with really, really bad eczema?”
Bruce looked him up and down. There was a worm poking out of his forehead, waving around comically. “No.”
“Elaborate Halloween costume?”
“Undercover secret agent trying to bust a zombie crime ring?”
Bruce pumped the shotgun again.
“Okay okay!” The zombie put his hands up. Or rather, one hand and a decomposing forearm. “I may have exaggerated my non-zombie qualities. Strictly speaking, that is to say, one way of looking at it would be that—that’s a great shirt you’re wearing, by the way—I am actually a zombie. Kind of.”
“What does ‘kind of’ mean, exactly?”
“It means I am, you know, a member of the zombie community, but I’m not a braindead monster. I’m an intelligent zombie.”
“That sounds really dangerous.”
“Wait wait wait!” The zombie waved his hand in a “seriously, please don’t shoot my face off” kind of way. “I can help you! I know how the zombie apocalypse started.”
“How?” Bruce wasn’t sure if this was something he actually needed to hear, or if it was just a ploy to delay the face-shooting.
“I may have kind of slightly—seriously, love the shirt—maybe started the whole thing. Please don’t get mad!”
Bruce honestly wasn’t mad. For one thing, if what the zombie said was true, it could be extremely important. For another, Bruce was kind of enjoying the zombie apocalypse. It had explosions and witty one-liners. “How?” he asked again.
“Alright. You know the Necronomicon?”
“Well, I got hold of a copy, right?”
“And I covered it with foil…”
“And I put it in the microwave.”
“Alright.” Bruce took a moment to process this. “Why, exactly?”
“Look, I said I was an intelligent zombie. I didn’t say I was intelligent before I became a zombie.”
“So what do you do now that you’re an intelligent zombie?”
“I read,” the zombie shrugged. “I paint…pretty much anything to get the slime-like brain juices flowing, really. I’ve got a lovely collection of pressed flowers if you’d like to see.”
“You’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and you’re pressing flowers?” Bruce gave him a look. “That’s stupid.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that zombie apocalypses leave you with a lot of time to fill when you’re undead. And pressing flowers is nowhere near as stupid as letting a gang of zombies sneak up on you.”
“Wait, what?” Bruce turned. Sure enough, a big group of shamblers was making its way slowly down the hallway towards him. “Oh no. Oh no no no.” They were on the third floor, and the mass of zombies had already blocked off the only route to the stairs. Rushing forwards to a fire door in the middle of the hall—the closest thing to a choke point there was—Bruce started firing at the crowd.
Click click click.
He really wished he’d had more than four shells.
The intelligent zombie stepped forward. “May I?”
Putting a hand out to stop the first zombie that reached the narrow doorway, he waited until the second was also trying to get through. He pushed back against these two zombies until those behind them had begun to pile up in the doorway. The intelligent zombie slowly stepped away, leaving a big pile of less than intelligent zombies all trying—and failing—to get through the door at once.
The intelligent zombie smiled, though it looked pretty messed up because he had no lips. “I got the idea from The Three Stooges.”
“Wow,” said Bruce, genuinely impressed. “That is intelligent.”
“Sure is.” The intelligent zombie sank its teeth into Bruce’s scalp. “More brains for me!”
Spring Rain is my second work of interactive fiction. If you’ve already had a look at Blacklight 1995 then the format will be familiar. However, I’d describe Spring Rain as more of a game than a story: the focus is not so much on unravelling a mystery as it is on simply surviving. Make your choices carefully: each one could be your last.