(This is another contest entry, this time for a 2000-word limit short story competition.
The theme, which every story has to incorporate, is “A character has a flashback to a time when they were a completely different person.”
I’ll try to be more punctual with updates about the winners this time.)
On a bright day in September, Spencer put on his black suit and drove to a funeral alone. The weather still held the summer’s heat, and he felt the sweat on his back beneath the heavy fabric as he climbed the hill at the centre of the cemetery, the yellowing grass slippery under the worn soles of his shoes. Small groups of darkly-dressed people waited at the top, eyes squinting against the sun. Spencer did not join them, but stood on stiff legs in the slowly-tilting shade of a great drooping willow tree to wait for the service to begin.
He leans in close, the acid smell of cheap wine on his breath, his stained lips. “A grip like a desperate lover,” he says. I can see the blood vessels in his eyes, red lines like tentacles reaching for the iris. “That’s how William described it. Always a poet, he was. To the end. What a prick.”
“Pardon me?” I say. I look around the train, at the other empty seats. There are people watching, cameras. I don’t need this in my life.
“You think you know about it,” says the man, still leaning in. His heavy jacket is open, showing a stained and wrinkled dress shirt. It might have been blue once. The skin hangs loose at his neck, has the look of used sandpaper. “All the programming, the stories they tell you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I can almost feel the lens in the ceiling as it turns, dilates.
The man laughs. “Nobody does. Nobody ever does. William didn’t, either. But he learned the hard way.”
Maybe if I ignore him.
“He and his sister, they were the first to ever meet one of those things. Did they tell you that? She opens the airlock, he’s supposed to interpret. A body language expert.” He snorts. “A twerp.”
He pauses, like he wants me to agree. I stay silent.
“I told them it was a bad idea. The worst idea in the history of the human race. But you know that. You want to say you don’t, but I see it in your eyes. Walking down the street, sitting alone. Not watching while they all watch.”
He’s not waiting for a response anymore. “This thing slithers in. Can you believe they looked even worse back then? It comes through the airlock like an octopus escaping a jar. And William is there with a smile on his face. Mugging it up for the news back home. We’re in the Kuiper belt, and he thinks he’s going to be more famous than Neil Armstrong. He had a speech written and everything. Something about extending a hand of friendship, building bridges across the stars. Prick.
“And it comes in, you know? It slithers in, takes one look at William and his sister. Ashley, that was her name. A good kid. Popped her head like a cherry tomato. We’re up on the bridge, and the navigator starts screaming.”
One of them is moving across train, yellow-green limbs floating above the slender body like hair in static electricity. I hold my breath as it passes, nod politely. Don’t look at the man sitting next to me. But I can feel him there, shifting in his seat. What if he tries to attack it? With me there, on camera talking to him.
But he doesn’t. Does it pause as it passes us? Perhaps, but who can read them? The door at the end of the car opens, shuts. I breathe again.
The man goes on, in a quieter voice. “William just stands there for the longest time, looking at her body. And then it grabs him, pulls him in. He was wearing his space suit. It’s squeezing him, pulling at him. And it’s like he stopped caring about anything, like he was the first to figure that out. He turns his mic on, opens all channels. The live feed that never made it back. That’s when he started describing it. It tore his arms off, and the pain medication kicks in. He’s slurring, but he doesn’t stop talking until I blast the whole place out the airlock. And even then.”
The man stops talking while the train pauses to let on more passengers. I look at the digital clock next to the route map. I could get off here, escape, but I can’t afford the lost time.
“I should have been there. I told them I had to be there. They wanted the guns locked up. Why even bring them, then? We argued for days. Would anything have changed? Could anything change? William wants me to tell his family. Nobody can tell them. Nothing was ever as secret as what happened there, right up to the point where it didn’t matter anymore.”
He’s standing up now, swaying in the aisle as the train bucks and screeches through the dark tunnel. “The trial of the century,” he shouts, throwing his arms in the air. “The trial of the millennium, starring yours truly. They lost the tapes. A magnetic anomaly. A public court-martial for the rogue military officer who killed poor William and his pretty sister. I did it. I started the war with the press of a button. Give me another chance and I’d do it with a shotgun. Or a knife. Or my fucking teeth.”
The door at the end of the car slides open again. It’s back. It moves toward the man, and he turns on it, baring yellow teeth, a snarl curling his mouth. I put a hand up to the side of my face and turn away.
I see it again as it slides through the middle of the train, not stopping. No screams. I look up, and the man is standing, face blank, watching it leave again.
“You think I don’t know what you’re doing to me?” he shouts after it. “Making me remember. Every second of every day, I have to watch what you’ve done to us.” He looks down at me. “We’re supposed to be the ones with a backbone.”
The train stops again, and I get off, pushing through the people waiting outside the doors. I tell myself to never forget to bring music or a book for my commutes. I nod to the guard with the automatic weapon standing at the station’s exit. I can keep my head down. I changed my name. Nobody knows that the most hated man to have ever lived, the man who doomed our entire race, is my uncle.
You are a Japanese fighting game developer, eagre to deliver a high-quality game that both casual and competitive players can enjoy for years to come. Traditionally, you’d have plenty of time to work on the game, its balance, the single-player content. With an early arcade release, you can gather feedback from highly competitive players, allowing you to work on balance patches at the same time as your animators, artists, and programmers put together story modes, cut-scenes, and other extras for a console port. The port is where you make the bulk of your profits, and where you need to engage a wider audience. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s worked well enough.
As the years go on, things change. With a newer generation of consoles, it’s possible to put out post-release patches and DLC. The West is also interested in fighting games again, but they no longer have arcades. They want online play. And your company has given you a firm release date, delays and setbacks be damned.
What are you going to do? How can you satisfy sometimes disparate, and expanding, demands from fans, all while on a tighter leash and with a shorter development cycle?
If the year is 2010 and you work for Namco, then you are Daishi Odashima, and you’re now in charge of the newly reassembled Project Soul, tasked with releasing Soulcalibur 5 in a little over a year. You make grand promises about your game’s single-player content, teasing an elaborate story mode, even announcing that you’re bringing on CyberConnect2–well known for their work on the cinematic Naruto fighting games, and the bombastic Asura’s Wrath–to help with all the animations and cut-scenes involved.
Time marches on, and the mandated release date approaches. With delays and limited resources, it’s clear that the game is not going to meet all its goals. You have to start making cuts.
As someone who enjoys playing fighting games competitively, who has been open about the development process on Twitter, and even flew to North America to meet with the tournament community, you probably decide that longevity is the goal. You cut characters and focus more on trying to balance what’s already there, and to improve online play. All at the expense of single-player.
After the release, there is a huge backlash from the players. Why are there so many clone characters? Where are all the favourites from past games? Why is the story mode so short? Why doesn’t it explain anything?
While the move lists and controls have been further simplified for controllers, many competitive players feel that it’s overall a good game. Unfortunately, missing content is the rallying cry on the internet, and soon after the completing the game, and bearing the brunt of fan’s ire, you quietly leave the company.
Project Soul goes on to make a micro-transaction-based free-to-play single-player only game using the same engine, and eventually adds many of the characters missing from Soulcalibur 5. All to the continued consternation of the dwindling competitive fanbase.
A New Era
The year is now 2015, and you’re at Capcom and it’s time for Street Fighter 5. As with Soulcalibur 5, you’re tasked with releasing a competitive fighting game based around online play, for the first time without an arcade test of any sort. Whether determined before or during the development, the release date in February 2016 is little more than a year away from the game’s “leaked” announcement in December 2014. Time is tight. Not only that, but you’re working with Unreal Engine for the first time, and want cross-platform play between the next-generation PlayStation 4 console and PCs. There’s also a new service-oriented business model, new characters and systems to work out, a brand-name sponsored tournament series, and everything else that comes with a new fighting game.
While the other major Japanese fighting game in development at the time, Tekken 7, went for the arcade release and location tests they’ve been doing for decades, Street Fighter no longer has that luxury. Not with the Capcom Pro Tour running. Tekken is primarily a Japanese and Korean game, places where people can still go to arcades. The whole world plays Street Fighter, and it’s especially big in North America. (In 2015, the Capcom Pro Tour had 4 events in Japan, 11 in the United States.) Short of opening new arcades in every major US city, Capcom’s only options were a console release at the start of the year, or cancelling the entire tour while Japanese and Korean players tested the arcade version. Which would essentially be the same as cancelling one of their major advertising campaigns, and their most direct interaction with the competitive community.
As someone who is openly critical of both Capcom and service-oriented games, you might not expect me to defend Street Fighter 5. Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone else. But when I look at the alternative, I think the Street Fighter developers have made the best lemonade possible with the ingredients on hand.
Am I biased? Of course I am. But I can’t help seeing the parallels between Soulcalibur 5‘s disastrous release, and the ill-will it created amongst fans, and what’s happening with Street Fighter 5.
If a delay isn’t an option, then cutting content is all you’re left with. Or at least it was. With the increased online integration of the new generation of consoles, there’s a third option where there wasn’t before. Release the game in pieces. A basic roster and versus mode now, and all that work-intensive single-player content later, when it’s finished.
I understand completely why Street Fighter players and fans might feel let down or even ripped off by the game’s current state. And technical issues are inexcusable, especially after all those betas. I played during a couple of them and, though I still don’t particularly care for Street Fighter and 2D footsies, the general gameplay seemed competent enough. It certainly could be worse.
The entire thing could be worse, as I think the Soulcalbiur 5 story demonstrates. I wouldn’t fault anyone for holding off until the full story mode in June. There’s every chance it’ll be terrible. But it will actually be there, in full. As a Soulcalibur fan, I would trade places with Street Fighter 5 in a heartbeat.
I’ve noticed there are more mobile users than I expected, and the theme I’d been using is old and not very mobile friendly. I also know it’s a strain to read black text on a white background, and I’ve got an awful lot of text.
I think this new theme and colour scheme will make it easier for everyone.