Working On A Comics Script and Submissions

I thought I should make a proper update while I still have some time.

My Displacement Twine became something of a one-off project that I came up with late at night while I’ve been dealing with other matters. I’ve already mentioned that I’ve got ODSP and I didn’t, in fact, have to go into a hearing as my community lawyer settled it “out of court.” It takes a major load off that’s been weighing on me for the better part of a year, but even though I know there will be more challenges and annoyances ahead, it still feels like progress.

But now for the stuff that you don’t know about.

A little while ago, I was a student at Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp Writing for Comics course. During that time, after doing many assignments, we were supposed to hand in a script: in order to get feedback from Ty himself. Unfortunately, due to life’s circumstances I was only able to submit a rough outline of the script that I wanted to write. So I found peace with that in order to get at least some feedback from Ty.

Instead, he gave me a considerable amount of feedback and actually wants to see a completed script.

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So that is basically why I’d been gone for a month. I’ve been working on my comics script to show Ty Templeton. So far, I’ve finished the Story Mapping phase: where I try to approximate the story beats and pacing on each page. It’s actually made me look at details I might have missed before and even given me the opportunity to hone down other aspects of my outline. I had so much more to say about this a little while ago, but I have been busy. Suffice to say, though, I’m drawing it out by hand in my Mythic Bios notebook with my 1989 Batman movie pencil that you can, no doubt, see in the graphic of this Blog post.

It’s sad because I know there are other insights I could talk about and refer back to, but basically for me this has been creating the skeleton of my story which, considering its subject matter, is very appropriate. But basically I am outlining each page, sectioning it off into threes, and placing the basic idea of what happens in every section followed by beats to show what happens in each panel of that section on each page.

But now I have entered the Storyboarding (wow doesn’t that sound like some kind of psychological torture technique) Phase: where I am going to have to approximate what visually goes on in those panels. Much of this is going to start off with me reviewing the notes I’ve taken from Ty’s class to the point where I’m confident in drawing it all out with crude and inclusive stick figures that I will have to describe with thorough wording for the Writing Phase of the Script: and that doesn’t even include the dialogue and captions that I need to write clearly and distinctively.

Then I’m going to show it to one of my fellow classmates, Kim — who is awesome — and then submit it to Ty when everything is said and done. But yes. I even have plans for further stories after this one, but the World-Building Phase — which includes more descriptive writing — will have to continue along with my capacity to do so and remember that an artist needs to know details but also have the freedom to do their own thing.

I’m almost done with my update. But script writing and submission aside, and have the attention span to finally sit down and knock this post out, I also want to mention that I’ve applied for a writing position in an online magazine called Panels: a place that talks about comics, comics subcultures, and the writer’s reactions and insights into them. It’s right up my alley and it’s a paying job.

Some of the sample works I’ve sent them include: When I Recognized Elfquest and Chasing Amy and Reviewing the Laurel Leaves.  So we will see whether or not I get accepted into their ranks and, if so, it is definitely an exciting start.

So yes. A lot of stuff is happening on my end, finally, and I just need to keep at it while — at the same time — I also need to pace myself. I don’t know when I will write here next, but hopefully I will have more to talk about and more to report.

Take care everyone and thank you for continuing to follow me on this journey.

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Displacement: A Twine About A Learning Disabled Experience

People almost always gravitate towards personal stories. I’ve probably said this already in some way or form, and I know if I haven’t many other people have.

For the longest time, even though I’ve been very busy, I’ve wanted to have an excuse to make another Twine story. I almost did a few times: such as when I was tempted to create a Twine called Bureaucracy Quest in which you have to go on a scavenger hunt of varying documents, while keeping labyrinthine and mandatory appointments, while running into dead-ends and recursive story loops which are specifically designed to make you shut off the Twine from complete and utter frustration. But, fittingly enough, I didn’t have the patience to make this game while living the experiences that inspired it.

It was one night, between other projects I’ve been attempting to work on, that the cynical idea came to me. I was still waiting to hear back from my legal counsel as to whether or not I was going to get on the Ontario Disability Support Program settled out of court, or if I were going to need to attend the hearing that was going to happen this month. The good news is that the community lawyer working on my case was excellent and got me onto this new system. But at the time, I’d been waiting to hear back from ODSP for about a year and I didn’t know what was happening at the time.

There was a series of muscles I must have been holding for over a year, and a few days before I finally heard the decision on the phone from my lawyer, a lot of different elements began to gather in my mind. It began with the first rejection letter I’d ever gotten from ODSP: essentially stating that according to their guidelines I didn’t have a permanent disability.

I had been diagnosed as being learning disabled, as being what nowadays might be called “non-neurotypical” since I was a child. I had to attend special kindergarten, then classes, and then alternate classes. I had an especially hard time in high school: as I only had one class that dealt with learning disabilities and I had to get extra help from the teachers themselves without much in the way of a department to back me up.

My plan was simple. I had gradually weened myself off and away from the programs that I had difficulty completing. I mean, you can imagine how disabilities such as dyscalculia, spatial difficulties, and even challenges in hand-eye coordination and mental focus — in needing finer instructions — can get in the way of mathematics, geometry, fine arts, geography, and even aspects of the hard sciences. Phys. Ed was especially bad for me due to physical coordination issues. So I got through them with the bare minimum. And then I replaced them with philosophy, sociological, historical, and literary courses. I focused on what I was strong in doing: and even then I needed special help with regards to tests and exams.

But I was told, and I hoped, that by University I could take the courses that I wanted and build the education that suited me: making me ready for a career in academics. I was going to focus on my strengths and leave my weaknesses behind. I was going to make it so that my learning disability was irrelevant and I wouldn’t have to identify with it anymore. I believed that I could succeed through sheer merit, through personal work, discipline, and sacrifice: and that, with some help and support behind me, I could excel.

What I didn’t understand, at the time, was that our society is not — and has never been — a meritocracy. It is a bureaucracy: with specific rules and procedures. Networking is also a social skill that is integral to navigating the labyrinth. And while I had instructors and academic representatives that told me about the importance of this element, I just couldn’t relate to it. Not really. Again, I thought it was about what you did and not who you know: or even who knew you.

Then there are the psychological factors to consider. Other kids are hyper-aware of differences and if you have trouble socializing, or counting fast enough, or telling directions, or the fact that you rock back and forth when you are excited or nervous and your hands fidget, or even when you talk to yourself they will notice. They will notice and they will laugh at you, or bully you, or avoid you.

And those are just the children: your peers. I’m not even talking about the adults. Between having my grandfather thinking of my math disability as a sign of laziness, and others snapping at me to stop fidgeting or talking to myself — for fear that I would “look ridiculous” — you can already understand why I’d want to leave that all behind me. You can also more than imagine where a lot of my anger comes from, and where some of my own present difficulties spring.

I was also lucky. My parents recognized that I had cognitive difficulties and got me as much treatment for them as possible. But as such, most of the family emphasis was less on me learning life skills as it was actually succeeding in school: as that was a major difficulty of mine. But it cost me: as by the time I moved out a few years ago, I didn’t really know how to take care of myself. I didn’t really have a stable network of people to help me with that, and I was left to figure out a lot of these things on my own, or deal with people and organizations that gave me basic — or bad — advice and nothing really of substance.

There was a lot of weight on my mind in getting through my Master’s and juggling real life: and I hated, absolutely resented the idea that my learning disabilities — that the make-up of my brain — was still affecting me despite all the calculators and GPSes of the world.

So you can imagine that when I finally swallowed my pride, the first time with Ontario Works, and the second with ODSP that when I got my first rejection letter telling me: “By our guidelines you do not have a permanent disability” that it was the equivalent of a slap to the face.

I had a long time to think about this. It took a while but I had to accept that my disabilities, that my “non-neurotypical” brain are still parts of my life. It took me even longer to embrace the fact that I have to identify what is just another wiring of my brain and experience as a disability: in order to get the current social structure to help me survive it. I thought about all the people that have told me to “suck it up” or just tolerate what I can’t focus on in order to exist. I’ve had to fight against the idea that I am “coping out” when I identify as being learning disabled instead of “earning my place like everyone else”: whatever that means.

And so I decided to call ODSP on its punitive structure. I sent in my forms and my diagnosis from my therapist, which they rejected the first time. I had them do an internal review, in which they found no fault in their decision. And then I faced down a hearing in a game of “Chicken” to see who would give way first. I am a really stubborn person when I have a mind to be. In fact, I do extremely well when I have something passionate and real to focus on instead of settling for something less than.

I’m also aware of how privileged I am. Between my family that actually recognizes learning disabilities and finds itself there for me, to the community counsel that got my case settled out of court, to the best therapist I’ve ever had with or without Canadian OHIP, and a lot of Affirmative Action protocols, I have been exceedingly lucky. And I know that just as all learning disabled people aren’t the same, many others haven’t had — and don’t have — the backgrounds or resources that I do.

But there is one other thing that stuck with me after that experience of having my disability and experiences not acknowledged until I faced them head on. I thought about how we all experience and interact with the world. And that night, a few nights ago, when I was thinking about how best to communicate what it was like to be in the world with a learning disability, I came up with this idea for an interactive story.

I asked myself this: how would someone navigate a world if they had trouble reading maps or telling directions? What would it look like, in words, to see someone with dyscalculia doing equations or basic math? How would I portray the psychological baggage that comes with dealing with these issues since childhood? Can I do all of this and show they have something of a commonality?

And can I communicate my experience — my voice on this — through a creative medium with which I still have limitations? Can I express my story simply through the description of perception and emotion?

I realized, a few days before the bittersweet moment of finally having ODSP recognize that I have a permanent disability, that living with spatial, mathematical, and even body movement issues is like existing out of the same space-time as most people. You are somewhat out of synchronicity with the rest: both cognitively and socially. And that was where I eventually got the name for my story idea the following day.

Displacement.

It’s by no means an exhaustive story about all learning disabilities, or even the different gradations of the ones that I possess. It came out very rough in its first iteration — I had to par down the psychological elements — and even now I think I could have portrayed the experiences of the narrator more effectively: such as using that recursive loop of repeating hyperlinks I mentioned earlier to symbolize getting physically lost. But I also don’t know how accurate that would be and, honestly, I think right now this is as good as it gets.

This will have been my third post dealing with learning disabilities on this Blog: or at least the latest one after my experiences from this past summer. I hope, after this, to go back to writing posts about video games, comics, fictional universes, and projects that I’m working on. Those are the things which I want to be known by and remembered.

That being said, I would like to thank Gaming Pixie for looking over and providing input into the Twine story that I have linked above. Whatever else, I hope you find the story, and this post, educational at the very least.

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A Winding Path of Angels, Glitches, and Binary Parallels: Gaming Pixie’s Raziel

Sometimes a series of lines curve and become a circle. Then that same line curves outward and makes the circle into a spiral. And then the line, that particular line, continues around the spiral and creates the second level of the spiral, emulates three dimensions, and breaks down into its essential numerical binary parts.

So after you imagine Gaming Pixie’s circle of Twine games leading to another string of personal dimensions, think of the second layer of her spiral of game making as a circle of glowing ones and zeroes in the form of Raziel.

Raziel Title Screen

For me the main challenge in writing about Raziel is that much of it is already documented by Gaming Pixie herself on her Games site. In a series of relatively short entries you will find that she began Raziel as a Twine for a Cyberpunk Game Jam: the premise of which expanding over time to include a few more details and various changes in mechanics as it became a short 16-bit game made on RPG Maker.

To be honest, even though I’d played the Twine game some time ago, and I was following the developer posts on Gaming Pixie’s Blog, I actually didn’t know what to expect from Raziel.

I’ll tell you what I did find though. Imagine a combination of The Matrix with its artificial intelligences and hacker themes, Inception with its levels of intersecting reality and memory, Christine Love’s *AI games with their background of gender, sexuality, and treatment of AI as individual entities, and Kan Gao’s To the Moon with its heartfelt use of virtual capsules and subversion of a single instance of combat. Raziel is reminiscent of these films and games, but it is more.

Raziel Intro

On the surface, Raziel is a cyberpunk game about a hacker named Glitch who seeks to kill a fallen angel: someone who must leave the Real World and enter the virtual Otherworld in order to fulfill this task.

The Real World itself in the game is a grey and closed off space: with very few places to go or see. As per some cyberpunk settings, it is almost a closed linear circuit of grim reality: to the point where the extra rooms and levels in the protagonist’s apartment building and the virtual chambers in the material version of Raziel’s Tower are almost superfluous. It’s specifically designed to be a world where you don’t want to spend much time.

Raziel Apartment

Basically you are navigating a cyberpunk world that interfaces from the Real World into Otherworld and, eventually, a series of inaccessible and non-human user junk code in the form of Etherworld. Otherworld and Etherworld, one decked in bright neon colours and the latter in light-screen fragments and binary are circular worlds: the former possessing few barriers and the latter possessing random ones.

Getting into and out of Otherworld, which is essentially an over-world map to other places is easy, but traveling into and interacting with, and getting out of, Etherworld is much more difficult: a series of different levels that — appropriately — intermix an over-world map layout with specific levels depending on what you access.

But this is where our overview ends: because if we journey any further into Otherworld’s circle of eternity, or Etherworld’s realm of code we are inevitably going to find a class of virtual sprite known as Spoilers.

So now that we are here, past the point of safety, I am going to give you the same choice that Gaming Pixie gives all of her players.

If you don’t want to use the Augment, read no further unless you’d like to hack further and remote-view said spoilers. However, if you’ve agreed to take the Augment then prepare yourself for exploration.

The warning above is somewhat misleading, when all things are considered. The option to use Augments, illegal and dangerous cybernetic enhancements that were both more prevalent and allowed you to access Otherworld in the Twine, exist only in the RPG as a plot device: something that gains you, through the character of Glitch, the initial notice of Raziel himself. The rest of what happens after that is entirely up to you. The game has an edgy attitude like that.

Raziel Twine

As such, there are quite a few differences between the Twine and RPG versions of Raziel. While the Twine has only the Real World and Otherworld, Gaming Pixie added Etherworld to the RPG: a place where the users’ intentions from reality intermix with junk data. In addition, only AI can generally access Etherworld. The best way to look at Etherworld is to imagine looking at the real workings of a living body dissected right in front of you, except you’re interacting with its subconscious mind that’s also laid bare. It is disturbing and it is meant to be.

Whereas in the Twine Augments were the only way you could “unofficially” access Otherworld, in the Raziel RPG Augments are used to heighten sensations in Otherworld: bringing you into a state of Null Space that we never see in the game but which we see quite a few references. People can go mad or die from using either “bad” or, again, illegal Augments. Also, if you look carefully enough you’ll realize just how important Augments have been in Glitch’s decision making. I wish you happy hunting on the latter, by the way, as I totally missed it on my first playthrough.

There are also no AI in the Twine version of this game. In order to create an RPG, Gaming Pixie had to expand on the world she first created but it pays off. First of all, you don’t always know who the AI are. It’s true that there are AI that serve one rudimentary purpose — similar to the Virtual Intelligences of Mass Effect — but there are others who are friendly, standoffish, and even creative in their own rights. Second of all, even the former type of AI is important to the game: in the form of Gates. Gates also don’t exist in the Twine predecessor of this game: essentially they are messengers or avatars of the fallen angel Raziel that actually allow you to access Etherworld as a human user.

Raziel Gates

But activating these living Gate AIs is not as easy as merely identifying and approaching them. What you really need to do is get hints from your handler, a woman named Maven — about specific interactions that you need to undertake, find where those are situated, and then find the Gates and access them. You will find that Raziel is subversive in that it uses the mode of the 16-bit RPG to explore: accessing an environment that is literally composed of navigating built-in puzzles specifically in the form of interactions with other characters. Everything is connected in Raziel. That is the point.

Even though Gaming Pixie helpfully provides you with a Database of beautifully pixelated sprite profiles and useful information that you gather as you interact with the world it is only through your interactions with the cybernetic aspects of this virtual reality — the humanoid elements in the electronics — that you even get this information, or feel any investment with it beyond your character’s own enigmatic self-interest.

Raziel Hub

Just like in the Twine version of Raziel, it is your mission as Glitch to destroy Otherworld by killing its living CPU the angel Raziel: and there are implications in doing so. Whereas in the Twine game destroying Otherworld potentially frees human users from the stasis of their own ennui, in ignoring the real world and beginning to get them to face the painful but inevitable task of making their offline lives better, there is a lot more at stake in the RPG. It’s true that many people come to Otherworld for escapism, but there are other programs that exist there as well.

For example, there is Esme: a snow princess who was created to be the friend of a girl who later committed suicide and who now exists to remember her and help other girls. There is an elderly couple that were programmed to function as foster parents: as the only loving guardians a young girl has ever had. And then you have Persephone: an AI who has exceeded her programming, changing her original name of Penelope, and creating artistic programs in her own right. If you destroy Otherworld, you will not only rob some of the human users of their friends and family, but you will basically murder other self-aware beings in the process.

Raziel Etherworld

But even then, it’s not as easy as merely stopping. There is Raziel himself to consider. The reason you have to kill Raziel doesn’t change from the Twine to the RPG. Raziel was a human being connected to the Otherworld for over fifty years. His physical form has been hanging between life and death, leaving him in constant agony, as his mind has been used to create and maintain the reality of Otherworld. Essentially, he is the one who gives you the mission to kill him: to end his pain. While you have to directly find him yourself in the Twine, his contact and friend Maven is the one who recruits you, after he finds you in another form, to undertake this act of mercy.

That’s right. The final boss of the game wants you to kill him and even helps you to do so after an awe-inspiring cut scene and a particularly vicious battle.  There are no other random battles in Raziel. The other encounters you have are by necessity those that you don’t confront in Etherworld. There is no grinding, or leveling up your character. There is one boss battle: and it is the most difficult challenge you will have in this game, morally and physically.

If you kill Raziel, the Angel of Mysteries in Judeo-Christian theology, you will end his pain but you will destroy Otherworld and every AI in it: robbing its human users of their one joy and connection in contrast to a dull and colourless existence in the Real World. But if you let him live, he will inevitably go insane, crash Otherworld, and take everyone down with him. It’s much like the illusion of alternate paths in Gaming Pixie’s games What’s In a Name? or, fittingly enough, The Choice. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like much of a choice at all, does it?

That is something else both the Twine and RPG versions of this game have in common. In fact, should you choose the “wrong” options, the game will shut itself down much in the way Toby Fox’s Undertale will do when you also choose wrong, or lose.

But here is the interesting part: in contrast to the idea of the illusion of free will, in Raziel it is actually about a lack of choice being the illusionEven if your choices seem limited, they still exist and if you think about the greater good, you will make the right one. Yet while the Raziel Twine leads to the game “crashing” no matter what you do, choosing the option of the lesser evil, the RPG is more nuanced. The battle with Raziel is inevitable, but how you choose to fight Raziel depends on how you much you explore beforehand, and how much you pay attention.

swfm paths

You can see the influence of Gaming Pixie’s She Who Fights Monsters on the ultimate outcome of the RPG. At the end of Monsters you — as the protagonist of Jenny — encounter a screen where you have to choose between three boxes: love, hate, and indifference. Some of those options will be opened or closed to you depending what karmic choices you undertook in that game: and specifically whether or not you accessed the places where the game’s Memory Crystals are found.

temple-final

However, in the Raziel RPG it is different. In the cavern that represents Raziel’s virtual prison, there are four other rooms guarded by the Gates with which you’ve interacted to get this far. In it are four coloured Flames that represent different aspects of Raziel’s power and suffering: pain as defense, anger as attack, sadness as magic, and regret as evasion. Whereas accessing Monsters’ boxes or Crystals determines Jenny’s developing personality and future, encountering and defusing the Flames actually de-buffs Raziel’s stats: keeping you from getting curb-stomped in your battle with him.

Trust me: you know that box that comes up before you go into Raziel’s main prison cell asking you if you want to go further and if there is anything else you want to do? For the love of God, listen to that message for what it is: a warning. According to Gaming Pixie, this box wasn’t originally there — she had to add it so that the encounter wouldn’t be completely impossible — and once you go into that cell you will save and not be able to get out again. You will die: many, many times against the power of Raziel.

Yet why is it that despite Raziel’s aid, his manipulations, and his request for death that he fights you with every fiber of his being? Why doesn’t he just give up and let you kill him? Are there safeguards in place that automate him to protect himself? Or is it more than that?

Raziel Existence

I am going to reveal to you Raziel’s and ultimately the RPG Raziel‘s ultimate secret. The truth is that Raziel doesn’t really want to die. The Otherworld built from Raziel is wondrous, but there has always been something missing from it: some component that the best scientists and technicians could never replicate. Glitch has felt this and other users have no doubt done the same: perhaps even influencing their need to leave the banality of the Real World and use questionable Augments and experience Null Space while they are there. But that’s just it: it is merely existence. And existence does not necessarily equal essence. Existence is not life.

It’s Raziel’s sense of self-preservation that makes him fight you. It’s your sense of wanting to live that makes you, as Glitch, want to fight back and finish the deed. It is that moment on the edge of death, of contemplating oblivion, that the will to live is arguably the strongest impulse any living being can ever possess. And this is where the two Raziel games diverge with extreme prejudice: the Twine game being a grim lesson in the lesser of two evils and the RPG — Raziel itself — becoming a story about connecting with others, learning to feel the needs of others above your own, helping them shed the pain of their old and cumbersome attachments, and allowing things to be renewed: allowing the angel to be reborn.

It is a redemptive ending as Raziel leaves his physical body behind and becomes a powerful AI that flushes the will to live throughout the entire system of Otherworld. It’s as though Raziel played Gaming Pixie’s The Choice himself — a game about suicide — and realized the most positive and powerful choice is to live. But it is not just Raziel who makes this decision.

If you consult Gaming Pixie’s Blog entries on Raziel, you’ll realize that she wanted to incorporate the karmic system that is popular in her Eden, Shadow of a Soul, and She Who Fights Monsters games as well as many other independent ones of late, but she decided against it and took another approach. While Raziel is about the angelic CPU of Otherworld, it is also about Glitch.

Raziel Glitch Menu

Glitch becomes more than an optional name in a Twine game. In another loop between her video game creations, Gaming Pixie takes you out of the second-persona of “you,” and places you behind Glitch’s first-person “I” perspective. Glitch follows your commands: within reason. This game persona mechanic is reminiscent of Christine Love’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. The hacker has is caustic, sarcastic, and sometimes outright impatient. You might want to explore, and Glitch will indulge you until you intrude on someone else’s personal space, go against their wishes, or you waste Glitch’s time. In this sense, Glitch is the narrative of the game. Even Etherworld and one ending of the game where it crashes is a reference to Glitch’s actual name and what it means in a system like a video game.

Raziel Glitch

Yet Glitch is more than this. It’s strange. In Gaming Pixie’s other games, your gender is neutral, default female, or you have a choice between three genders of “him,” “her,” and “they.” In Raziel, however, you only get two genders to choose from. This is a controversial move in a lot of ways: especially when you consider that depending on whether Glitch is male or female, this protagonist will interact with other characters in different ways. Even so, his or her personality is generally the same and is more than just a blank slate silent or unnamed protagonist. And if you look closely, very closely, and double-check all information about Augments in the game you might also find just what might be the motivation behind Glitch wanting to destroy Otherworld.

There is, however, one other element that definitely shines through. Whether you choose to be male or female, Glitch is always going to be a Black bisexual person. Bisexuality is a core theme in many of Gaming Pixie’s games as a legitimate sexual orientation and identity: just as it is for her main characters to generally have a default Black identity. The way this is introduced is just as a given. Everything else in Raziel is utterly fantastic, whereas diversity, bisexuality and indeed the LGBTQIA spectrum is seen as commonplace: especially in a virtual world where you can appear as you want to be.

Raziel Dance

Even so, it is intriguing how when Glitch is female you get a little more clue as to her mental state as she develops a relationship with Maven, who is a lesbian, whereas the information about Glitch’s past is hinted upon differently when he is male and he tells a gay and newly incarnated Raziel — who becomes his lover — that it has been a while since he has been with a man. But either way, Glitch has his or her own exposure to that life affirming moment where they realize they want to live: and actually move on with a real life past their former self-destructive Augments by the game’s end.

Writing about Raziel is hard. It feels like every time I thought I was making progress, I encountered one of the angel’s Gates, or I had to search for a node to access in a confusing realm of junk data and ideas threatening to diverge from the point, or that each time I was missing the prison chambers that could lesson the stats on my sense of intimidation in writing about the game. Certainly, I began to wish that I could take an Augment just to make sense of it all: just to organize these experiences. But Raziel is about binaries. It’s about the differences and similarities between the Real World and Otherworld, male and female, human and AI, hope and despair, Gaming Pixie’s other games and Raziel, and even the Twine and the RPG version of Raziel.

Essentially, I’ve had to make an Etherworld out of Gaming Pixie’s game: exposing some of its bones and shapes, while giving you hints about its codes and interactions. It’s like weaving behind a curtain while simultaneously painting the scene of the stage. But it’s more than that. If I’m going to refer to Gaming Pixie’s Etherworld, I should mention that it is the heart of Raziel. It is its soul and its very being: and it says something powerful about the human condition.

Raziel Heart

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I had no idea what to make of Raziel but I can safely say that through this short game built from her Twine, Gaming Pixie has more than exceeded my expectations. Her particular voice shines through both her pixels and her text with the strength of empathy. In fact, if there is one flaw in what she’s built it’s that she’d built an entire world that deserves more than just one interactive story.

You can find Raziel, for free, at Gaming Pixie’s Games and I couldn’t recommend it more.

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In Undertale You Are Player Two

I wrote a brief post about Toby Fox’s Undertale a month or so ago. It was difficult as I was really trying to remain spoiler-free while, at the same time, attempting to actually say something relevant about the game itself. But now that I’ve had some time to think, and talk, about Undertale there are some more things about it that I would like to write about.

You are now in the Spoiler Bone Zone. Please either play the game first, as it is excellent, or don’t upon your own risk. As always, you have been warned.

Undertale

Mechanically speaking, the game is a work of pure genius. For the most part it feels like an RPG with some very elementary, archetypal cartoon aesthetics. On the surface, it is a combination of turn-based battles and puzzles. But then there are some interesting aspects to the conflict portions of the game: interactive gameplay elements that will really affect the plot as you go on. And, believe me, you will see these effects almost immediately.

Undertale Fight

The fact that you have the option to either Fight and kill, or Act and Mercy enemies is not a spoiler in and of itself. Acting actually gives you many options as to how to deal with monsters as people: each one having their own likes and dislikes.

Undertale Act

When you interact with them through the Act option long enough, you can Spare them and continue onward: sometimes gaining money, but no EXP. Or, you can kill them and they disintegrate into dust.

Undertale Combat

The battles, or if you want to get more technical, the Encounters are structured in an interesting fashion. While they are turn-based, allowing you time to heal with items or choose other options on your screen, the monsters’ turns are mostly bullet-hell mini-games. You play as a small red heart in a box, and the object of those games, on the turn of your opponent, is to avoid their attacks until it’s your turn again. Generally, you can move all around the box but then … sometimes … Toby Fox will change the game dynamic.

The way that Fox changes the game dynamic in encounters often ties into the Special Attacks of particular monsters. For instance, there are at least a few situations where a bullet-hell can become a platforming or even a shooter mini-game. Having mini-games in an overall game is nothing new, of course, but these different games — turned into specific dynamics or interactions with characters — provides the skeleton (if you pardon the pun, which is ironic as there are two Skeletons that love and detest puns respectively, with their own encounters) of Undertale as a game.

Of course, I’m probably not saying anything at this point that no one has heard before. The game itself, like many contemporary and independently created interactive narratives, is fairly self-referential and — a jargony word — intertextual. It is a game that spiritually and mechanically knows its a game to the point of fourth-wall breaking and is aware of other games. Even the plot of the game is fairly straightforward at first glance: where you play a silent protagonist child character who is trying to escape from an Underground realm ruled by Monsters that were banished there by humans during an ancient war from long ago.

But aspect from the Pacifist options of being able to Act and Spare in encounters, Undertale has two more unique characteristics that can either make, or break, a good game.

These two elements play into each other well. The first is that Toby Fox creates archetypal and relatable characters. You very clearly know who they are from their brilliant musical leitmotifs and their cartoon aesthetics. And the best part is that a majority of all the other characters are Monsters. That’s right. They could be your enemies and Toby Fox goes out of his way to make sure that they are people who have their own hobbies, likes, dislikes, families, and friends. They are not nameless creatures that you kill to gain EXP. And some even befriend you on their own.

Sans and Papyrus

Fox manages to blend enough self-awareness, humour, and far-reaching emotional resonance into your interactions to make you seriously look at what you’re doing in the Underground and what you are willing to do while you are there.

Just think about it. That Woshua that just wants to clean you and might not be aware that they are hurting you until you Act with it, could be a Monster that you just kill. Or that Froggit that comes at you in all ignorance, that could have given you some advice in the beginning, could be your unintended victim.

But you see, you can’t really kill by accident. Well, not exactly. Because there is also the other element of Undertale to consider: the moral structure of the game itself.

And here lies the rub. There will be times, especially in the beginning, when you don’t know how to Spare a Monster if they won’t Act with you. In my experience, what happened was that without knowing what to do, I reverted back to my old time and tested gamer routine: I tried to damage an opponent to the point where I hoped they would ask me to Spare them, or give me the option to do so.

It didn’t work. And they died. They died because of my own actions.

I was horrified. That was not what I intended to do, and yet in retrospect I realized how flawed that idea was. I mean, when you meet someone sympathetic in real life and they get in your way, do you beat them within an inch of their life to get past them? To get what you want? Just what kind of person does that? What kind of person does that make you?

And so, I decided to reset, to Load my Save because I knew there was another way to deal with it without killing them: this character whom I’d grown to care about, to relate to, and made me feel conflict when they opposed me. But even when I figured that out, the game itself … remembered what I did in my last Save. It didn’t let me forget.

The game still forgave, then, but it didn’t forget.

Undertale Flowey the Flower

Undertale’s moral structure acts like something of a stereotypical gamer deterrent. It punishes you for gaining Levels, for grinding for Levels, for resolving issues with “Solo shooting first violence” and even for the extreme end of Determination: for seeking to do something just because you know that you can.

This is the spirit of Undertale. It is more than one of those games that have consequences for every action of the player. It is the child of a popular idea in various parts of the independent game-making scene: the notion of deconstructing violence as a normal interaction in games and creating alternatives. And some of those alternatives branch into consequences and elements of diversity and representation. What I love about Undertale is that these aspects do not lead into places of heavy-headed preaching or messages. Rather, your actions are reflected in what happens to the characters whom you’ve grown to relate towards: even and especially if they are different from you.

Snowdin Puzzle

In a way Undertale can also represent the idea of a ludic society: of a social order and community operating on interactions of “playfulness” or games. The Underground literally has a tradition of puzzle games to confound and challenge humans and outsiders. These puzzles are how the denizens of the Underground interact with each other and the player: and they notable because they are generally non-lethal. Even befriending certain characters triggers parodies of dating sims mini-games.

Papyrus Date

It can also be seen to reflect another ideal in some of the independent game-making scene: of games being more than just entertainment, but art itself. But perhaps this potential Games studies look, with its possible influences on independent game-making night be reading a little too much into what Toby Fox might be intimating.

But these implications are good to discuss. Because Undertale does say something about a particular stereotype of a gamer that is hard to ignore. The way he does this is fascinating. At the beginning of the game you are told to name the character that you will, presumably, be playing. In addition, you will encounter your first enemy: who will continue to follow you around and offer “advice” throughout the entire game. It even fits well into the story.

As it turns out, you have a special power as a human called Determination. In your case, it allows you to control time to a limited extent. You can Load and Save your progress. You can even Reset the game: the very world in which you are interacting. Your enemy, if he is your enemy, also had this power once until you came along. He is, in a lot of ways, your shadow: your doppelganger. He represents what happens when you replay a game far too many times, when you commit all good and evil on each reset, when you become bored with your game, when you persevere to great and ridiculous lengths to gain an achievement … and he will question and mock you for everything you do: while sometimes helping you … for his own benefit.

But here is the thing that you need to understand. This first enemy of yours, as powerful and terrifying as he can become, may not really be your enemy at all. He represents something. And depending on what you do, this antagonist is just Player Two to the real enemy that can manifest in the game.

After all, there’s a reason why the mirrors in Undertale have dialogue boxes when you click on them.

Undertale Mirror

Eventually — depending on what life choices you make — you realize that the person you named, early in your adventure, isn’t who your silent protagonist actually is. It turns out there was another human, long ago, who fell into the Underground. They are the person that you name. And if you choose what’s called the Genocide Route, namely going through the intense grinding motions of leveling up and killing every Monster in your way, they will manifest and you will lose control of the character.

In fact, the person you play as isn’t even your character. They have their own name. It is a revelation that through the grandiosity of the True Pacifist Ending actually took me out of my immersion with the game by sheer confusion. I named that character. Even if they were different from me, that was how I related to them. Naming was yet another assumption that gets subverted. It’s only when you play the Genocide Route, it is your murderous intentions, your capacity to kill, your lack of caring for puzzles or characters as people, your lack of fun, that will re-awaken someone or something else that will take control of the person you were supposed to guide. It is pretty clear what Undertale states through these actions, and the words of some characters towards the end, about certain kinds of gamers.

And it can be both unsettling and off-putting.

The truth is, you can’t accidentally play the Genocide Route. You have to painstakingly, numbingly, grind through all those Monsters with their own thoughts and feelings. You have to distance yourself from your emotions and capacity to feel relationships to kill and maim and take what you want. You will destroy people that you could have been friends with: that you could have loved. And you will encounter bullet-hells and platforming battles that are completely unforgiving: and the ending of the game will not be a pleasant one. You do not get rewarded for mass-murder.

In fact, your “reward” for doing this will ultimately be a jump-scare worthy of a creepypasta.

Undertale Chara's Deaths

And it gets worse. If you play Genocide before Pacifism, it will taint every other playthrough that you make. It is at this point that the game does not forgive you. You deal with the consequences of your actions. And if you played Pacifist first, killing and tormenting your friends will feel like agony unless you have completely distanced yourself from these interactions as “just a game.”

This morality is Undertale‘s greatest strength. It can also, arguably, be considered a flaw. Genocide reveals other information about the story line that you would not have gotten in any other route. There are different interactions and sides to the characters that you will not see in any other way. And if you do this, you will be punished for it in all of the aforementioned ways. For the most part, it isn’t preachy but there are some moments where it feels like you are being punished for wanting the full experience of the entire game. It even goes as far as to castigate you if you watch the Genocide route on YouTube.

Flowey is an Asshole

Obviously, this moral mechanic destroys Undertale‘s replay potential. You don’t want to go back and kill your friends. You also don’t want to obliterate their — or your character’s — happy ending if you have achieved the True Pacifist run. And so here is this game, with all heart, that when it’s over — if you think of these characters as people — you should just make sure it’s over. It is said that art is an imitation of life, and if Undertale subscribes to that ideal of being art instead of primarily entertainment — even through the microcosms of the puzzles that the Monsters make in their society — then there you are: that is your experience.

In fact, it’s not even your experience. It’s not supposed to be about you. The person you name isn’t even the protagonist and all of your aggressive gamer impulses, if you have them, are vilified … by you. And no matter what, whether you are Pacifist or have committed Genocide, the story becomes about someone else. And if you respect the flow and the rules of the game and its code, you will have to walk away.

The fact that Undertale feels like it is against replay value can be seen as a detriment and a punishment to that completionist mentality in a gamer, but the Catch 22 of the thing is that without it, this game would not be Undertale. It would not be special.

And there is the rub. Just like the foe you displaced by coming to this world of games, you are not the central character. How does it feel to actually know that you were always Player Two? And do you have the strength to play through it, to guide your character, to go for the best ending, to relate to others without hurting them, to walk away when your time is finally done with some grace? Will you need to alleviate that need to know more by “cowardly” viewing “other timelines” on YouTube or other recordings? Will you need to read and create fanfiction to make the emptiness of Undertale‘s completion go away? Or will you just grind on and become a Dirty Brother Killer?

In the end, I know what choice I made when I put my metaphorical controller down.

Frisk the Ambassador

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A Step Back Into a Much Larger World

It’s time for another retrospective.

In May of 2005, I was twenty-three years old. My girlfriend and I had broken up for the last time and it was as pleasant as you could expect. I was sitting in a movie theatre, with my brother who’d already seen the film, watching Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. My disillusionment with the Prequels had been growing for some time: from the three-hour commercial of The Phantom Menace to the atrocity that was Attack of the Clones. I wasn’t even pretending to like them anymore because they were Star Wars. It had gotten to the point where I spoiled myself on what happened in Sith because, frankly, I was just so tired of the entire ordeal.

After much anger, sadness, disappointment, and bitterness — and all the other stages of grief — I had to accept that this would be my final Star Wars cinematic experience: surrounded by ashes and a haze of post-adolescent hate. In fact, The Clone Wars not withstanding, I was almost relieved that it was finally over and I would have time to ruminate on what could, or should, have been.

Anakin Gets Burned

Ten years later, in December of 2015, I am sitting in another theatre. This time I am there with my girlfriend. I don’t really know what to expect when we’re both sitting there waiting for the film to start. I’d heard good things, but I also know about the power of hype. The mere fact that George Lucas was no longer involved with Star Wars was enough, but I didn’t want to raise my expectations.

But when that introduction, followed by the logo and the scrawling opening narrative somehow, despite the passage of time and adult cynicism, that I was seeing a Star Wars movie again: in the cinema, in good company, and that there is at least the hope of it only getting better from there. The fact that Revenge of the Sith was not my last Star Wars experience and that The Force Awakens is the first of the new, was a gift in and of itself.

The Force Awakens

And then there is the second notable geeky thing that I undertook this year. A week ago, I finished Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp Writing Classes. What can I say? I learned more about writing in four months than I did for years. It was intense. Between Ty’s engaging and witty lectures, spontaneous collaborations with my classmates, and writing assignments on the spot, I felt as though I were Luke Skywalker getting a crash course in Jedi training.

Yoda Training

Seriously, I’d studied writing and novels before. I had even created some of my own comics scripts from what I could piece together from scholarly and professional books. But if there is one thing Luke could tell you is that it’s one thing to glean information from books and Holocrons, and the occasional visit from from a Jedi Master’s Force ghost but it is a whole other to have an actual interactive teacher: someone who passes on lore and knowledge but also knows how to create exercises to challenge you, and to encourage you to share what you have learned.

One of the main lessons I take away from Ty’s class, if anything else, is the following. Perfectionism is death. If you spend so much time trying to think of something perfect, it will never happen. You have to just keep going. Just take some time, have an idea, and run with it. You will be surprised at what you might create.

I found that the ultimate challenge for me was our final assignment. The idea was that at the end of our course, we were going to send Ty a script for either a television show or a comic book. I chose to make a comics script for a twenty-two page comic. My plan was to take one of the pitches I made for the course and flesh it out into a crude outline. Then I was going to sit down and use the script format Ty taught us and give him an actual script.

What really ended up happening was that I left it for too long. I was on a creative streak and then life happened. My aunt passed away towards the end of the course. Obviously, I had great difficulty concentrating on anything afterwards and I almost gave up completely. And I could have. There were no marks riding on this final assignment. No money. I was already working on another project and it would have just been easy to let it go and sleep.

But something … wouldn’t let me. Part of it was the encouragement from my peers and loved ones. But another part of it was that I knew that this was what Ty had been talking about. While in the professional world it might not have been acceptable to hand in something so skeletal, or even miss a deadline for life reasons, I thought about what was important. In this case, it was to tell a story.

So I sat down and typed out a comics outline. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, but I think it got the point across. The truth is, the most important thing about the final assignment of writing course was that if we met the deadline, Ty himself would provide “copious notes” — suggestions, critiques, and insights — to what we had given him. And feedback from a professional in the field is utterly invaluable. I just couldn’t turn that down: even if what I wrote was not much to work on.

Still. I did that.

Luke Skywalker's Lightsaber

It’s funny though that, even now, I am getting new ideas for the series that I came up with in Ty’s course. That this course and its assignments gave me that much is another well-earned gift. But finishing that final assignment, even with such a basic and most likely flawed outline, was an achievement. Four months before this course, I was filled with almost nothing but stress and frustration at where my life was not going despite everything I was putting into it. Four months later, I feel like I truly graduated from Ty Templeton’s Writing Bootcamp: and that is something for which I am definitely proud.

And this is how I want to end the last post of this year: not in anger, or disappointment, but in the promise of something new. There is plenty of time for sarcasm and hellfire, but right now my batteries feel recharged. And perhaps there might yet be room inside me: for more wonder.

Oh and, one more thing. Please consider taking some of Ty’s Comic Book Bootcamp classes. They are completely and utterly worth it. Happy New Year, my friends.

Looking Outward

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The Greatest Mystery of All

Dedicated to Toby Fox’s Undertale. This is the sequel to Opposite of a DogWarning: there be Spoilers here. Reader’s discretion is advised. 

Even now, you are not entirely sure why you did it. After you welcomed the human and the others inside of you, you’ve seen all the alternate realities. Sometimes you died. Other times you made friends with the human and they left. In a few more timelines you got to even fight the sun with them. But now you know that these different places and times are all the same: in you.

They remind you of the tangled three-dimensional model pasta experiment that once stuck inside your rib cage.

“eh.” your brother says as he reaches towards the human’s floating Soul. “just how much can i still afford to care.”

Your gloved hand closes over the red heart first. “LAZY BONES. YOU’LL FIND  THAT, WITH PRACTICE, MY DEAR BROTHER,  YOUR CAPACITY TO CARE WILL ONLY INCREASE TEN-FOLD.” 

Sans’ eye-sockets widen. “pap … what are you … no …”

“NYEH HEH HEHHH …” You tell Sans and the Soul of the Human in your hands. “DON’T WORRY. I, THE GREAT PAPYRUS, SHALL SAVE THE DAY.”

Papyrus Enthusiastic

Poor Sans is distressed. The human has come back and fallen down. They wanted Sans to help them, but you know better. Sans has, dare you think it to yourself, worked himself to the bone … (wow, puns still make you wince even after everything) so far. It is a good thing you got sick of him missing a spaghetti dinner again and couldn’t find him at Grillby’s. It’s also fortunate that you can smell the scent of his magic and that he wasn’t far away from Lesser Dog’s old sentry point: a place you’ve made a point of still patrolling just in case any new humans came through … or the old one, your friend and former date, returned.

The Soul in your hands quivers, as though trying to get away from you. But you understand. This is a scary mission from what you’ve heard: one to save the timelines and Monsterkind. To save the human. But you can do it. 

*You shouldn’t have done it, Papyrus.

It’s your friend’s voice. Even as you sail through the rainbow-coloured wave of infinity to your next destination (you are in no hurry, as you really don’t feel like rushing infinity: it will do its job anyway), they still sound old and sad.

You’ve tried. One of the first things you did when you rescued their Soul was take the two of you, or yourself, for a Nice Cream: just to cheer you up.

“NONSENSE, HUMAN.” You tell them cheerfully. “I COULDN’T ABANDON MY BROTHER AND MY FRIEND IN NEED. YOU KNOW THAT. I HAVE A REPUTATION TO UPHOLD.”

*Papyrus … you took an awful risk. After everything I did … I didn’t want …

“bro.” Sans’ eye is actually glowing blue now. “don’t … don’t do this …”

“NO SANS. YOU AND THE HUMAN SHOULD’VE INVITED ME TO THIS SECRET SAVE THE WORLD MEETING. ESPECIALLY SINCE THE HUMAN’S FALLEN DOWN. I CAN HELP YOU. I’M GOING TO HELP YOU.”

“no …” Sans reaches for you. In retrospect you wonder why he didn’t just use his pranking abilities in space and time to just take the human’s Soul from you, but really, he was probably too shocked by your daring and deductive reasoning to even think about doing something so cheap and unfair. 

“AND THEY’RE COLD.” You say, feeling the Soul shivering violently in your hands, as though trying to get away from you. “DON’T WORRY, HUMAN.” You say as tenderly as you can. “YOU WILL BE WARM IN MY RIB CAGE UNTIL WE GET THIS ALL SORTED OUT.”

“PAPYRUS! NO …”

But it’s too late. You eased the trembling heart between your ribs. You recall hoping that it doesn’t fall out of them like all of your pasta. 

Undertale Heart

That is when it happens. You’ve never really felt the cold before, what with being a skeleton and all. But suddenly … you can feel it. At the same time you feel a raging warmth inside of your rib cage that makes you aware of the cold, but utterly immune to it. Something is beating, not unpleasantly, in your skull. Sans is in front of you still, but you can now see an afterimage. It’s white and shining. You blink and memories and thoughts that aren’t your own, and are, fill the deep cavern of your brain. 

Textures, colours, sounds, and sensations fill your bones. You recall something spoken not too long ago.

“WOW, HUMAN.” You tell them, drawing on the vast reservoir of culinary knowledge now at your disposal. “WE REALLY DON’T TASTE LIKE KETCHUP.” 

*Papyrus. Please. It’s not too late. Just put me down … and give me to Sans.

Sans is looking at you, at the two of you, in shock. “kid …” He looks at you and the human’s body on the ground. You realize, belatedly, that the human just spoke through your mouth. That’s ok. It’s only fair since you are roomies now. “pap. listen to the human. you … you don’t know what this power will do to you. i … i can take it from here.”

He is afraid. And you realize he is afraid for you. 

“SANS …” you say, and your voice sounds simultaneously large and quiet. “DO YOU … KNOW WHAT THIS FEELS LIKE?”

“pap … c’mon, bro.” Sans is pleading now, tears coming out of his eye-sockets. 

You go up to him and lean down. You put a hand on his face and wipe the tears away. “I CAN … FEEL YOUR TEARS, BROTHER. FEAR, HORROR, SORROW, REGRET, EXHAUSTION, DARKNESS, AND LIGHT … HUMAN?” You ask the presence, feeling awe, now inside of you, “IS THIS WHAT YOU FEEL ALL THE TIME? IS THIS WHAT YOU SEE?”

There is a pause. *Papyrus, this is what we … both see. I’ve never done this before, not in this timeline but I can see so many others now … No, Papyrus. Let me go. Please. I can’t do this to you. Not you. Of all people, not you. 

You realize it now. “YOU DON’T THINK I CAN HELP YOU.”

“bro, it’s not like that. this is … too dangerous.”

“NO.” You look at Sans and the human’s body on the ground and you understand. “YOU’VE BEEN PROTECTING ME. BOTH OF YOU. BUT, DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?” You grin at them. “I AM THE GREAT PAPYRUS! IT IS MY JOB, MY DUTY AS A PROSPECTIVE MEMBER OF THE ROYAL GUARD TO FIND A HUMAN AND TO SAVE ALL OF MONSTERKIND! I FOUND YOU HUMAN. AND AS PART OF MONSTERKIND I NEED TO PROTECT YOU, SANS!”

“… bro.” Sans is openly weeping now. “please. i can’t lose you. not again. not like this.”

There are many rifts in the rainbow coloured expanse that you ride: opening to more strands of reality than there are strings of angel-hair pasta. You now understand that this is similar to how Sans would take his short-cuts, the lazy bones. It’s also close to how he was able to view different timelines.

But you also understand, with some sadness, just what he has been going through. There is a difference though.

“HUMAN,” you tell them, “HEROISM IS A RISKY BUSINESS. BUT WE HAVE SAVES AND LOADS. IT REALLY SAVED MY BATTLE BODY THE LAST TIME.”

*Papyrus, you really shouldn’t have put your costume in a washer with our Soul power. 

‘NYEH HEH HEHEHHH!” You pat the human, or really just yourself on the back. “BUT LOOK AT HOW IT TURNED OUT THE SEVENTIETH TIME. THE HUMANS IN THAT PARADE ON THE SURFACE REALLY LIKED HOW IT TURNED OUT.”

The human sighs. *We agreed to use that power to just make your scarf … match your eyes. Even the others thought the … The human sighs again. *The Rainbow Shell Battle Body was a little too … derivative. 

“BUT WE NEED TO ANNOUNCE OUR INTENTIONS LOUDLY. THAT IS WHAT A TRUE HERO SHOULD DO. BESIDES, WE CAN ALWAYS RESET –”

*Papyrus …

“YES YES I KNOW.” You shake your head. “LOADS AND SAVES ARE FINE. RESETTING IS BAD. TRUE RESETTING IS EVEN WORSE.” You sigh, suddenly a little melancholy. “IF MY BROTHER COULD ONLY SEE THIS, HUMAN. I MEAN, HE CAN. BUT I KNOW JUST HOW MUCH HE LOOKED FOR THIS POWER. IT’S AS EASY AS JUMPING THROUGH UNDYNE’S GLASS PLATE WINDOW TO USE THE WASHROOM. IT COULD HAVE SAVED HIM SO MUCH PAIN …”

*Trust me, Papyrus. It would have only caused him more, in the long run …

“OH LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE DONE, HUMAN. YOU’RE CAUSING ANOTHER NARRATIVE FLASHBACK –”

“IF THIS POWER IS SO DANGEROUS, AS YOU SAY BROTHER.” You confront Sans, with your hands on your hips just so he knows you mean business now. “THEN WHY IS IT OK FOR YOU TO HAVE IT? AND YOU TOO HUMAN, WHY IS IT OK FOR SANS TO HAVE IT?”

They tell him that Sans has had experience with Resets and other Timelines. They tell you that you have a different duty and destiny. But you know that, what they’re really saying, what even Undyne had been thinking with all of your private training, is that they see you as just too … innocent. 

But this is the point where you need to tell them what is what. 

“SANS. YOU HAVE 1 HP.”

“pap …”

“1 HP. 1 DEFENSE. 1 ATTACK. SANS, HUMAN, I CAN SEE THE TIMELINES A LITTLE MORE NOW. UNDYNE HAD DETERMINATION. ALL THOSE OTHERS. THEY MELTED. AND YOU HAVEN’T EVEN BEEN TRAINING. REALLY, IT SHOULD BE HIS MAJESTY AND MAYBE HIS … CLONE? HUH, THAT’S NEW. AS BOSS MONSTERS THEY MIGHT BE ABLE TO HANDLE THIS. BUT I CAN’T RISK THE ROYAL FAMILY, OR YOU.”

“pap. listen to me.  t h i s  i s  n o t  a  g a m e.” 

“D O N  ‘  T   Y O U   T H I N K   I   K N OW  T H A T ?” 

“stop it bro.”

“NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR PUNS.”

For the first time this entire evening, Sans actually smiles a bit. You smile too. 

“THERE. THAT’S THE FIRST REAL SMILE I’VE SEEN YOU HAVE IN A WHILE BROTHER.”

“pap … even with all that power. you’re still the same skele-ton of a brother.”

“SANS!” You scream at his bad pun and a nearby mountain threatens to explode from the power you just unwittingly unleashed. “OH. OH I SEE WHAT YOU MEAN ABOUT THE POWER.” You put your hands on his shoulders. “BROTHER, I SEE NOW HOW YOU’VE PROTECTED ME. BUT JUST FOR ONCE, JUST IN THIS RUN, LET ME BE THE ONE TO TAKE CARE OF YOU.”

“bro …” The two of you hug. Even without the power of the Soul, you know that you’ve won this argument. The only other issue now will be to talk to the human, and then His Majesty. But one thing bothers you. 

“SANS. AM I … REALLY THE SAME NOW?”

“well …” Sans looks away from you.

“SANS!”

“all right all right already.” He stares you with an expressionless look on his face. “pap.” He reaches up to put his hands on both sides of your ribs. “your eyes.”

“YES BROTHER?”

“they look … like alphys’ rainbow brite …”

You feel a powerful sensation course through your chest. It doesn’t take you long to realize it is complete and total joy. ‘THAT’S SO … BEAUTIFUL.”

“it’s a nice look on you, bro.” Sans looks at your chest. “hey, kid. i know you’re in there. please … take care of the big lug here for me. stay Determined, for him.” You don’t miss his eye-sockets turning dark. “or else.” 

“SANS THERE IS NO NEED FOR …”

*I understand Sans. I-I’m so sorry …

“forget about it.” Sans waves it off, the lights back in his eyes. “you believe in me, kid. and i believe in my bro. time i put my money where my mouth is, stuff it in my ribs, and let him be a hero.” He hugs you, the both of you, again. “and pap. take care of the kid too. they’re good people.” 

“I PROMISE SANS.”

“and … don’t turn the world into spaghetti …”

“OF COURSE I WON’T.” You say as you dash to a short-cut. “AFTER ALL, IT ALREADY IS, SANS. IT ALREADY IS …”

The flashbacks are almost done now. Well, that’s not true. Ever since you walked into the Palace and asked a flabbergasted Mr. Dremurr for the location of the other six human Souls over a nice cup of Golden Flower Tea, you can see the flashbacks and the code still being written as you continue on your journey as a unified being affecting multiple universes.

The first thing you did after getting a human Soul was bury the human’s body. The human told you not to: that you both have great work to do, but you know you have time. They told you that it is just a shell and that once you’ve finished your Quest, it won’t matter anymore as this timeline will be negated anyway. But you did it in any case. You told them to do it.

You control your body fifty-fifty, or whatever number since then after the funeral and getting your six other human Soul friends on board the Papyrus Express (you promised the human never to use that terminology again in reference to your unique situation and arrangement). You made the hole and encouraged the human to take their body and place it down. They looked so old and fragile. Tears coursed down your face, though the human claims they were only yours.

Maybe it was your imagination, but you can feel some of their guilt and regret lighten a bit. Sans was also helpful. He even placed one of his favourite whoopie cushions into the hole to keep the human’s body company.

You read the notebook that the human left Sans, but you realized you knew most of this stuff anyway. Then you said your farewells to everyone else. Then your hellos to new friends and places. Then you said farewells and more hellos. You even met Fun Values and took care of Gaster (you still have no idea why no one can generally remember him, his name isn’t that hard). And now, you have a plan. It’s something even the human doesn’t know about. Yet.

Papyrus Devious

*Some of the others don’t understand. The human tells you. *We had already traveled to the time of the War. We explored the days before that. We even came to the very beginning of Asgore and Toriel’s reign Underground. At any point, we could have changed it. We could have destroyed the Barrier, or made sure it never existed to begin with. 

“AND WHAT DO YOU THINK, HUMAN?”

You hear a pause. And it is a sound. Even before the power of the Seven Souls, you’ve always known that silence has a sound of its own. It actually sounds like thinking: which is exactly what the human is doing inside of you before they respond.

Undertale War

*I think that disrupting history might complicate matters. It could endanger whether or not some of you even exist, or possibly make it worse in the process. And … some of you are so … angry. There is another moment of loud thinking. *And rightfully so. We imprisoned you down there and letting you out so quickly, after all that, without explanation, would be too dangerous for both humans and Monsters. Good intentions, don’t always go to good places, Papyrus. 

“NO HUMAN.” You tell them. “THAT KIND OF CYNICISM IS A BAD ATTITUDE TO HAVE. GOOD INTENTIONS ARE, WELL, GOOD. BUT I THINK THAT YOU NEED TO HAVE SOME GOOD ACTIONS TO GO WITH THEM, YOU KNOW? LIKE A FINE RED JAM WITH SPAGHETTI.”

*It’s good to know godlike power hasn’t changed your lack of taste buds, the human’s voice can’t help but chuckle, for which you are glad.

“ALL RIGHT. LET ME EXPLAIN IT ANOTHER WAY.” You tell them, you tell all of them. “I TEND TO THINK OF EVERYTHING IN TERMS OF PASTA … AND PUZZLES.”

*We couldn’t have guessed.

“WELL YOU WERE PREOCCUPIED IN EVERY TIMELINE WE MET, SO YOU ARE FORGIVEN HUMAN. NO. JUST AS I HAVE ALWAYS ENDEAVOURED TO CREATE THE GREATEST OF CULINARY FEATS OF PASTA, SO TOO HAVE WE SOUGHT TO MAKE THE MOST CHALLENGING OF PUZZLES. IT IS OUR KIND’S TRADITION. PUZZLES PROTECT US, BUT THEY ALSO CHALLENGE US. THEY MAKE US TRAIN, AND THINK, AND GROW. AFTER ALL WE, BY NATURE, ARE THE ULTIMATE GAMERS!” You chuckle. “YOU SEE, HUMAN, THERE IS NOTHING FUN OR REWARDING ABOUT HAVING AN ANSWER HANDED TO YOU. PUZZLES CAN BE TOUGH, MUCH LIKE PASTA, BUT WHEN YOU GET TO THE SOFT CORE OF IT ON YOUR OWN MERIT, THAT IS WHERE THE REAL JOY LIES. BUT I, THE GREAT PAPYRUS, SEEK TO DO SOMETHING … DIFFERENT NOW.”

The human’s presence is slow and hesitant. *Does this have to do with the surprise that you’re planning, Papyrus.

“NYEH HEH HEHHH … HUMAN, YOU ARE MOST ASTUTE!” You have gained enough power and discipline, along with promises of personal privacy and common decency from the other Souls to pick up their soul-socks without having to write too many mental notes that you can keep some element of surprise in play for them. It’s more entertaining than being stuck in glass jars for years on end watching dust, or bashing your head against a temporal paradox one too many times.

“YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN EXCELLENT AT FOILING THE MOST DIABOLICAL OF MY PUZZLES, HUMAN. LET’S SEE IF YOU CAN SOLVE THIS ONE, THIS GREATEST MOST WORTHY MYSTERY, BEFORE I DO.”

Papyrus Foiled Again.

*Papyrus. We should really do what we set out to. We don’t know how … long your body will …

Before it turns into a mass of ooze. You were already aware of that. As you’ve already stated in your internal monologues beforehand, it seemed most likely that only Boss Monsters or Vessels like your lost flower friend could safely hold this much power before liquidating like one of Sans’ failed quiches. You don’t like to think about Undyne in so many of the timelines who, on her own merit, managed to find Determination: or the poor people that Alphys tried to help out.

“WE HAVE BEEN GOOD SO FAR. EVEN UNDYNE, AT HER WORST, LASTED A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF TIME. AND THAT WAS WITHOUT A HUMAN SOUL. I HAVE ALL SEVEN OF YOU NOW. AND I FEEL … GREAT. AS IS MY NAME OF COURSE. BESIDES, THIS IS GOING TO BE OUR LAST STOP.”

*Papyrus, I made a promise to Sans. I won’t let you sacrifice yourself.

“AND I MADE A PROMISE TO SANS TOO, HUMAN. AND TO YOU.” You say. There is that loud quiet again inside of your merged Souls as you come to the closest rift: the one that you’ve been looking for. You marvel at this, one of your last journeys. Sans’ short-cuts are generally good, but limited to specific spaces and times and storage spaces for sleeping Gaster Blasters (while you only used them in the past to store your bones) whereas the Human’s Resets are linear in experience. Together, your journeys are winding and tangential. You make a good team. ‘AND HERE WE ARE. NEXT STOP FOR THE PAPYRUS EXPR –”

The collective groaning of your co-travelers is cut off by the sudden appearance of your current destination. It’s familiar to you, even though they aren’t necessarily your memories.

You are in the Underground again. Vast, ancient rumbling pillars surround you. You look up and see the hole of the mountain where humans can enter, but never leave. Somehow, though you don’t have lungs, you can feel the rest of your passengers holding their collective breaths: especially the human that was your first friend.

Where golden flowers should be growing are, instead, patches of hearty grass and dried dirt. Someone is lying on the ground.

Chara Has Fallen

They are wearing a green stripped sweater. Somehow, you know you have time before anyone else finds them.

Suddenly, one of your bones flies out from the short cut space where you keep them between training and duels. It’s your largest bone. Somehow the multi-coloured glow surrounding it is far less friendly than usual. The human lying on the ground looks up at you. They have paler skin and rosy cheeks. Long bangs of brown hair are plastered to their smudged face.

It’s like looking into a mirror, but it’s not you that’s looking — filled with rage and grief — and preparing to release your Special Attack.

“HUMAN.” You tell them. “PLEASE DESIST.”

Your human friend, controlling your Attack, does nothing. They aren’t listening. The human child opens their mouth. They scramble back, trying to find something: anything to defend themselves. But when all they find is dirt and grass, they lower their head. Then they look up at you again.

“Huh.” They say. Their eyes are distant and cold. “I didn’t know they had rainbow demons in hell.”

You don’t move. Neither does your Attack. But you find that you can still speak. “I AM AFRAID THAT YOU ARE NOT DECEASED. YOU ARE VERY MUCH ALIVE.”

*Not if I have anything to say about it!

“HUMAN, THAT’S ENOUGH.”

The human child in front of you looks up with some puzzlement. “What is …” They look up at the hovering bone. Then their face becomes expressionless again. “I see.”

You feel the other Souls wriggling inside of you. You realize that they are trying to stop your friend. But your friend was always so Determined. And now they are angry. They are screaming at them. At the child. At you in particular.

*Papyrus. Let me end this now. 

You shake your head. “NO HUMAN.”

*Papyrus. All of you. This is their fault. You are all here because of them. Let me kill them.

You shake your head again. Meanwhile, the child in front of you laughs. It is a cold, mirthless, dead sound. Even with the Seven Souls inside of you, even knowing how helpless they are, you can’t help but be disturbed by that sound.

“So that’s how it is.” The child says. “Well, I was going to do it anyway. Go on, Monster.”

*Let me kill them. They barely have enough LOVE yet. Hardly any EXP. If I kill them, I can end this. 

“HUMAN …”  You love the human, but you are not pleased with this development, even if if you should have expected it. This is their last chance.

“This world is cruel and vicious.” The child says. “It’s meaningless. I knew it was going to get me one day.”

*They made me kill Shyren while she sang. They made me kill my Mother after she made me pie. The Snowman kept screaming as they took him apart … as they laughed. And everyone … And Sans and … you. I’ll never forgive them. I’ll never …

The child sighs, as though bored of their incoming death. “It’s kill or be killed.”

That does it. “HUMAN, I AM DISAPPOINTED IN YOU. YOU ARE DOING EXACTLY TO ME WHAT THIS CHILD HERE DID TO ASRIEL.”

Suddenly, there is a surge of horror inside of you and your bone disappears.

*Oh … oh god. Papyrus I’m … oh no. It’s … it’s me.

“IT’S ALL RIGHT HUMAN.” You tell them, relaxing again, sending out some calming vibes to your friend inside of you. “DESPITE EVERYTHING, IT’S YOU.”

You urge the other Souls to comfort your friend as you turn your attention back to the child in front of you. They are completely still. If you didn’t know any better they might as well have been carved from the rock around you. You’ve chosen your words carefully. You are, after all now, a skeleton of great elocution.

“I AM THE GREAT PAPYRUS.” You tell them, towering over them. “I AM AFRAID THAT YOU WON’T REMEMBER ME BY THE TIME WE ARE DONE HERE. A LONG TIME AGO, YEARS FROM NOW, IN ANOTHER PLACE, IN ANOTHER LIFETIME, WHEN YOU BECAME SOMEONE ELSE, MY BROTHER ASKED YOU A QUESTION.

“DO YOU THINK EVEN THE WORST PERSON CAN CHANGE?”

The child stares up at you: completely and utterly dumbfounded. “What …”

You sigh and begin to pace, moving your hands around in a way reminiscent of Gaster. “THE HUMAN INSIDE OF ME TOLD ME ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS OF LIFE AND IN PARTICULAR TIME TRAVEL. I ACTUALLY COMPARED IT TO PASTA AND PUZZLES. BUT MAYBE WHAT WE ARE REALLY DEALING WITH HERE, IS COOKING.

“YOU SEE, IF I DEALT WITH THIS THE WAY THE HUMAN WANTED TO, IT’D BE LIKE MY SPECIAL LESSONS WITH UNDYNE: MESSY, DESTRUCTIVE, AND ONLY FIRE WOULD LIVE HERE. UNDYNE IS A GREAT TEACHER, BUT THE STUDENT MUST EVENTUALLY SURPASS THE MASTER.

“BUT SPAGHETTI, YOU SEE, HAS TO BE AGED IN AN OAKEN CASKET. YOU HAVE TO TAKE TIME AND EXPERIMENT WITH IT. YOU HAVE TO BE PATIENT.  YOU HAVE TO, IN THE WORDS OF MY BROTHER, SHOW IT LOVE INSTEAD OF LOVE. YOU ARE IN LUCK. MY BROTHER. HE LIKES JOKES. BUT ME. I LOVE RIDDLES.”

“AND THIS IS WHERE I NEED YOUR HELP.”

The human gets to their feet. You wait until they get themselves composed. Those dead eyes flicker with something you’ve not seen before: a shimmer of uncertainty.

“YOU SEE, I PROMISED MY FRIEND HERE.” You point to your chest where your friend is now watching, tense, sad, but incredibly observant. “I PROMISED THEM TODAY THAT I WAS GOING TO SOLVE A MYSTERY INSTEAD OF CREATING ONE. I WAS PLANNING ON GIVING THEM A SURPRISE.

“AND I WILL GIVE YOU SOMETHING AS WELL.”

You loom over the child and open up your arms. The human inside of you starts screaming again, but the other Souls are gently holding them back, and reminding them that they trust you.

You walk up to the child. They actually flinch back, but they stop themselves as you are both at eye-level now. Before they can react, you stretch out your arms and wrap them around the child. The human inside you grows as silent as the child you are holding.

The child themselves stiffens in your arms. “What are you …”

You close your eyes and draw on the power of your friends inside you. You imagine using this power to break the Barrier in two. You take that power and you imagine a series of hard, brittle noodles. In this state, they cut the insides of people’s mouths. They could damage their stomachs going down. And when you squeezed them, they could so easily break.

But you know that when you put them in boiling water, something will happen. The noodles will grow. They will expand and soften. They will settle into the bottom of the pot and lengthen to the point of becoming completely and utterly expansive … and inclusive.

That is the armour around the child’s heart. You feel their eyes widen. But now you need to release them out of the pot. Out of the boiling water that coursing, unabated now, through their Soul.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE OUTSIDE WORLD DID TO YOU, HUMAN. TO MAKE YOU FEEL THE WAY YOU DO, BUT I’M SORRY. I’M SO SORRY.”

Undertale Papyrus

You are burning with power now. It is coursing into the child’s mind and Soul: into their very being. The other Souls join in — including and especially your friend’s — and they soften the hard bits that are the child’s heart and conscience. They start to feel what you feel, what they feel. They get all of your friend’s memories. They feel the emotions and the pain of everyone they have touched: and everyone they haven’t even met yet. The child begins to shake violently: as hard as your friend’s Soul did that day above their aged body at Lesser Dog’s outpost.

“Wh-what I …” You gently let go of them. The child looks around. Then looks at you. Tears are streaming down their rosy cheeks. They put their shaking hands up to their face. “What is this?” they blubber. “What … what have I done? No … oh … oh god.”

The child wails. They fall onto their knees and puke. You rub their back gently as they scream. Years of pain and anguish experienced and inflicted rip out of them. The Souls inside of you are quiet as they realize what you have done. But then you hear the approach of footsteps from the Ruins and know that there isn’t much time left.

You whisper to the sobbing, convulsing child in front of you. “Remember. You can still be a better person.”

With that, you get up and walk behind a pillar. You watch as a young Boss Monster finds a crying, injured human child. You wait until the Monster takes the child and calls out for his parents.

Asriel and Chara

Then you step into a corner … and go into another shortcut.

You find yourselves back outside Snowdin: just out of Lesser Dog’s sentry post again. This time, however, the place seems more lived in: complete with even more sculptures than before. Your friend’s grave mound is no longer there.

*It’s funny. Your friend’s voice says through your head. *In some ways, I think what you did to them was far more cruel than simply killing them. Changing is painful. I remember that day, in the Ruins when you met me …

You walk towards the sentry house as you begin to release the other Souls out of your body: letting them dissipate out of you like a rainbow mist.

*That day I met my parents and my brother. I lived with what I did and tried to help them. When I died, the first time, I left. I told them I would come back one day.

The other Souls leave into the timeless space where all human and Monster Souls go when they are done. The world seems a little less vibrant now, but it’s replaced by a pleasant sort of tiredness.

*And I was told the story of the six other humans that found their way down here. Each one brought something new to New Home and Monsterkind. They were the children of the King and Queen, just as I was … Each generation would come until the Ambassador.

You smile.

Frisk the Ambassador

*The other six would leave their Souls with our parents and brother after showing Monsters that not all humans are bad.  And one with a strong Soul … will pass through the Barrier and help Monsters communicate with humanity and get a final voluntary Soul to free them. It’s amazing, Papyrus.

You feel your friend’s Soul relax and begin to rise out of your rib cage, out of your being.

*Even as a Soul, I can feel time expanding out, changing, like a noodle. My past is my future, and vice versa. I was the first. I remember being told about myself. I am also the last. I am not really here, am I? I … you are the real hero here Papyrus. Thank you … goodbye … 

“I DON’T ALLOW GOODBYES IN MY TOWN, HUMAN,” You say as a red light shines brilliantly and disappears. “SEE YOU LATER, MY FRIEND.”

Then you rest against the sentry post and go to sleep.

A little while later, someone nudges Papyrus.

“knock knock.”

Papyrus sighs, knowing there is no way around this. “WHO’S THERE?”

“doctor.”

“DOCTOR W — GAH! SANS! STOP WITH THE FREAKING PUNS!”

“well, someone had to wake you. seriously, bro.” Sans looks down at Papyrus with some concern. “i’m the one who sleeps around these here parts.”

“THAT’S FUNNY SANS. HEY. WHERE IS EVERYONE?”

“well … i don’t want to interrupt your rest six feet under, but …”

“SANS …”

“ok, well you know those humans you’re always looking for? well, prince asriel: he was in the ruins, at his sibling’s grave. and he found one.”

Papyrus folds his hands behind his head. “OH REALLY?”

“um. yeah. says they look just like the first kid. like his sibling. i … guess i see the resemblance. hey, what gives, pap?” Sans looks down at Papyrus quizzically. “i mean, uh, you’ve been looking forward to seeing a human for a while now. and what’s with the rainbow scarf getup?”

“WELL, PERHAPS THAT IS A MYSTERY FOR ANOTHER DAY. TO GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO. AFTER ALL,” Papyrus winks, as he gets to his feet, dusting off the snow that accumulated on his knees. “NOT ALL OF US CAN BE THE LEGENDARY FARTMASTER.”

Sans looks at Papyrus. Papyrus grins back at Sans. Suddenly, they both begin to laugh.

Sans and Papyrus

“what did you do, pap?”

“MYSTERY, SANS.” The taller skeleton says, putting an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “AND I WANT TO GO SEE THE HUMAN. AFTER I MAKE US SOME EGGS.”

“eggs?”

Papyrus shrugs. “YES. FOR SOME REASON I WANT SOME SCRAMBLED EGGS. AND SOME CLOVER. AND … WELL, I GUESS THAT NOT EVEN I, THE GREAT PAPYRUS, CAN EXPLAIN EVERYTHING.”

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What If Marvel Cinema

I’m not sure if it will ever come to this, but I would definitely love to see a Marvel What If short film series: on the web, as bonus content on DVDs, or others. But I’m afraid I’m just being a bit misleading with my title. Really, this is just another Thursday geeky conjecture ramble that was a long time coming. What can I say? I am a busy man these days.

There are a few things I would have loved to see happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, there are some things that I could have definitely seen happening in the films that — for obvious reasons — did not.

One thing always bothered me about Avengers: Age of Ultron. You know, for all Joss Whedon had Ultron sing that “there are no strings on me,” Ultron and the way he carried himself felt a lot like Joss Whedon playing Ultron if that makes any sense. What I mean is: it felt less like watching Ultron develop and go into action, and more like Whedon using Ultron as a prop to carry the story onward: being the puppet that he claimed he was not.

Age of Ultron

Like many of you, I saw the trailers. In particular, I saw the trailer where Ultron’s conscious possessed one of Iron Man’s suits and made that twisted, jagged hole of a mouth on its surface. I thought it was creepy and perfect: the sign of an artificial intelligence going completely, maliciously, and utterly insane.

So imagine this. Instead of a long and convoluted plot that starts off with the Avengers going after HYDRA — with perhaps a key streamlining of the process for the sake of continuity with Agents of SHIELD — we get to actually see Ultron get created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. But more importantly: imagine if we could have seen Ultron develop.

Picture Tony, Bruce, and JARVIS working on Ultron. Think of them working with him. After deriving all the missing elements of artificial intelligence evolution from the Sceptre’s Gem to further improve on Tony’s own knowledge, I could see Ultron genuinely affecting change and improving on a defense plan: undertaking the monumental task of protecting humanity from all dangers. But perhaps there are … “glitches” or “malfunctions” along the way. Sometimes Ultron complains about “an absence” or “lacking something”: phantom electronic pains. Think of it as an artificial intelligence’s sense of dysphoria: though in this case it is Ultron’s lack of a physical body that plagues him. You even see him experimenting with one of Tony’s suits and attempt to embody it like a ghost in the machine: resenting the people that made him and the constant chronic discomfort that he always feels.

ultron

But it’s only when he begins to fully process the fact that humans are a greater threat to the world than anything that is extraterrestrial that Ultron decides to destroy humanity in the only way he knows how. It’d be a slow burn, perhaps one that has no real place in a superhero action movie where the audience already knows that Ultron is supposed to be evil, but the payoff along with the philosophical implications and the confrontation with Vision could have fleshed it out even further. A sympathetic Ultron, as warped and evil as he is, could have made audiences truly unsettled.

Then consider how Ultron would undertake his goals. It’s true. He could spread his consciousness through many bodies as he already has. But he could take control over SHIELD and general human technology. Hell, he could even release substances into Earth’s atmosphere that would utterly decimate humankind without going through something as grandiose as smashing Sokovia’s capital into the Earth. A subtle, creepy, and ubiquitous Ultron could have gone a long way into making The Age of Ultron an action adventure superhero film bordering on pure science-fiction horror.

Ultron wouldn’t have to look far to realize that humanity is a threat to Earth and itself. All he would really have to do, and what he already did in Whedon’s take, is look at the chaos that HYDRA attempted to unleash in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is also interesting to note that there was an AI in that film as well in the form of Arnim Zola: the man responsible for regrowing HYDRA right within the ranks of SHIELD itself.

Zola

It was Zola that ultimately created the data-mining algorithm that HYDRA relied on to eliminate potential enemies. This was done through SHIELD’s Project Insight: taking advantage of three heavily-armed satellite-linked Helicarriers that were supposed to proactively protect the Earth from further alien invasions and using them to destroy HYDRA’s enemies and everything around them. This would allow HYDRA to obliterate the world’s infrastructure and be the only force of civilization left to Earth’s survivors.

But Zola’s algorithm didn’t predict the Avengers: or at least it didn’t deal with them all that well. Imagine what would have happened if HYDRA remained in hiding for a little while longer. Think about it: HYDRA had infiltrated all levels of SHIELD and the World Security Council. HYDRA itself, at least since WWII, had evolved from a para-military branch of Nazi Germany, to its own organization, and into an intelligence sleeper-agent group. Covert operations became the name of their day.

Would it have been too much of a stretch for HYDRA, who had already been privy to most if not all SHIELD operations, to know about Captain America’s retrieval from the ocean? Would it have taken much for one of their operatives, as a SHIELD staff member, to gain a sample of his blood? And I’m not even talking about HYDRA recreating the super-soldier serum: though they sure as hell tried in the Centipede Project. No: certainly the Red Skull wouldn’t have been nearly so trusting of his branch of HYDRA back in the day to take some of his blood as we know the organization thrives on Social Darwinism to its nth degree.

What HYDRA could have done, if they had been clever enough, is create an anti-serum for Erskine’s formula. All they needed to do was inject it into Cap while he was comatose. And, really, who would have been the wiser? Cap was frozen for quite some time: and no one really knew how that formula worked to begin with. It wouldn’t have been inconceivable for Cap to have died of complications in his decades long sleep. And in injecting some sweet sleep painless poison from a hidden fang, HYDRA could have removed one major enemy off the playing board.

What would the Avengers do without him at the very beginning of the game?

Captain America on Ice

And about the rest of the Avengers? Well, most of the technology they had access to came from SHIELD itself and HYDRA has infiltrated many facets of the organization. Imagine if HYDRA had managed to get their hands on the blueprints Howard Stark created for a power source and purposefully engineered a controllable flaw in the device: effectively creating a kill switch to Tony Stark’s heart? Or maybe they could have rigged something explosive into Sam Wilson’s EXO-7 Falcon jet pack or sabotage one of Hawkeye’s arrows.

Thor and The Hulk might also be problems. However, HYDRA has the psychological profile of Thor to work with: or at the very least might be able to prevent him from returning to “Midgard” due to their own researches into Asgardian technology. As for The Hulk: they would need to use some powerful tranquilizing agent on Bruce Banner before he transforms and they would need to do it quickly … or have a very good assassin cut off his head.

The Avenger HYDRA would have the most issue with would be Natasha Romanoff. She is distrustful of everyone and she has millions of contingencies: perhaps as many as Nick Fury himself. Even releasing all the information of her past gruesome deeds to the world and a warrant for her arrest would only buy time with warm bodies. Perhaps forcing her to kill unwitting agents or having her hold back would wear her out. The Winter Soldier has defeated her before as well, and he could either be sent after her or be placed into the Avengers in Cap’s place to turn on her. But you never know with the Black Widow.

Of course, there are many flaws to these possibilities. The Hulk can change really quickly. Hawkeye probably takes care of his own arrows. Tony Stark would spot a design flaw in his Arc Reactor, back in the day, a mile away and he doesn’t even need it to protect his heart now. Even if the alloy and equipment for his armour had initially come from Obadiah Stane’s engineers, Tony would have detected any discrepancies and improved on them. Thor might be a warrior but he is not stupid enough to be manipulated easily into being unworthy of his Hammer, and I doubt anything HYDRA has can incapacitate him or keep Asgard from accessing Earth unless their “real plan” comes to fruition.

And finally, we have Cap. That Super Soldier Serum is built like a motherfucker. It is not going to be poisoned or altered easily. And even if HYDRA somehow had legitimate access to him through medical staff, Nick Fury is paranoid. He has a sixth sense born from battles and infiltration gone wrong. He is a man that trusts his gut and he just knew there was something wrong in The Winter Soldier. Also, it is fairly possible only Fury, Maria Hill, and their confidants knew about Cap’s retrieval and kept it that way.

Winter Soldier

No. if HYDRA had really wanted to win, they needed to pull an Order 66: create a visible enemy to distract SHIELD and the Avengers that wasn’t them, and then simultaneously sabotage and/or kill them with the operatives that served as their “back-up” and “cavalry.” And even if the Winter Soldier himself was brought into play, and there is no way HYDRA’s SHIELD operatives could have convincingly brought him into the Avengers or SHIELD without setting off major warning bells in Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury’s minds, none of this would be a sure thing.

Seriously: Black Widow should be remembered for just how terrifying her fighting and infiltration abilities truly are … the deeds she did in the past, and what she tries to do about them now. I wish there had been more emphasis on that.

Black Widow

Yet all this aside I can honestly do this all day and all night. But I really don’t have the time and I know there are many flaws with my ideas. Certainly, there are better geeky experts than I who could poke holes in all of these scenarios. But this was a good exercise in creative speculation. I look forward to doing this again sometime in the near future.

As the man says, “Excelsior.”

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