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Hi, I'm Tess. I'm thirty and live in London. Dances with Squirrels is a blog for my collected stories and stuff. My books are available on your friendly regional Amazon in paperback and e-book. Comedy fantasy, The Gatekeeper on the Docks is here and The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus is here. If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm @TessStenson

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Gatekeepers: Spring Break

This short story takes place after the events of The Gatekeeper on the Docks, so consider this a spoiler warning.


“I’m not sure about this George. I kind of feel out of place here.” said Charlie. She nervously looked around at all the other guests at the party. She was very much aware of the fact that she seemed to be the only human present. George placed the stack of burgers he had brought along to the barbeque party on the table full of all sorts of exotic meats and grillable vegetables that other guests had provided for the master griller.
            
“Don’t worry ‘bout it luv. Pazulivul is ‘appy ta ‘ave ya along. Even insisted on it ya know.” replied George, not seeming to notice Charlie’s discomfort at her surroundings. He surveyed the surroundings, trying to locate the party’s host. “Ahh, there’s tha bugger. Come on, Charlie mate, I’ll introduce ya.” He led Charlie through the crowds of demons and angels happily chomping on burgers or hotdogs, drinking beers and cracking jokes with each other. Charlie found herself weaving through an ocean of Hawaiian shirts and baggy swimming shorts. All the guests seemed to be pointedly not talking about the pressures of work as they let their hair (or wings) down and got increasingly drunk from the ever growing stockpile of beers and cocktails. A group of angels from the Discipline and Completions Department were taking on a group of demons from Communications at a game of water polo in the pool; it didn’t take long before it degenerated into drunken splashing and taunting a timid group of Gremlins that had banded together to huddle in the corner away from the rest of the party. Charlie subconsciously peeled the label of the bottle of wine she had brought along with her as her offering to the booze surplus. She gradually came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the most grown-up gift that she had ever given in her entire existence was completely out of place at this particular party. She had been very pleased with her choice of fine wines from a jolly angel named Farmer Gabrillio in an especially pleasant district of the Light After-worlds. She had even asked advice from one of her wine expert colleagues at the offices in the Deliveries department.
            

Since being released from her short stay in Purgatory four months previously, George had been pestering her with increasing regularity to come and meet his friends and get to know more people. She had quickly found a selection of pubs and bars that she found pleasing enough but all of them were almost exclusively frequented by humans. The human population of the After-worlds rarely mingled with the rest of the land’s denizens, Charlie could see exactly why. If she hadn’t already known George to be a good guy and nice enough, she would probably have been a little intimidated too. Even then, she found most of the non-human population more than a little scary, or at least strange. It was hard to acclimatise to the new world she was in. Just different cultures Char babe, a little different to what you know but you’ll get the hang of it, she told herself. George shook her out of her reverie when he nudged her in the shoulder. Being friends with a small human was a bit of a strange experience for him too, he forgot that a playful nudge of the shoulder could send a human rocking off their feet unless he dialled it back a bit. Charlie managed to stay on her feet, eliciting a drunken cheer from a nearby group of demons.
            
“Ya alright luv?” asked George.
            
“I don’t know anyone here George. You sure it’s okay to be here?” Charlie nervously strangled the neck of the bottle of wine, she was certain that at any moment someone would point and shout “Human! Get her” and she would be chased out by burning torch and pitchfork wielding hordes. George smiled warmly at her.
            
“Come on girl, ‘ow many times I gotta tell ya? Yer more than welcome ‘ere. Me mates wanna meet tha girl that caused all that mischief an’ such.”
           
“I’d argue that the mischief happened around me, not because of me.”
            
“Maybe so. Whatever, they wanna meet ya.” He smiled once more and carried on pushing through the crowds, occasionally stopping to greet someone, throw a loose beach ball back to its owners or give a friendly thump on the back of an old acquaintance. Charlie took a deep breath to try and steady her nerves and followed him. She felt her mobile phone vibrating in the pocket of her black jeans and fished it out to see the message. It was another text from Zeitgeist. Guess he’s bored sat at home again, she thought. She did not bother to read it, she knew that it would just be another message taunting her and making lame puns about house arrest. She would give herself time to think up something witty to send in retaliation. George reached his target group of demons and angels. A tall slender demon in an old American Army Air Force cap and the most explosively colourful Hawaiian shirt Charlie had ever seen was telling a story about a spirit he had chased across half of California with a broken leg and one of his horns blown to pieces, as the spirit had stolen his shotgun and turned it upon its pursuer. The audience were highly amused by his tale and took great pleasure in making fun of him. He took it all in good grace.
            
“Needed a new leg of course but Inventory couldn’t find a new horn in my size, so I’m stuck with this here stumpy horn...” The demon broke off his story as he saw George approach.
            
“Maybe it’d be best ta just go ‘head, bite tha bullet an’ request an ‘hole new body mate, save tha rest of us from needin’ ta stare at yer ugly mug.” said George with a big grin on his face.
            
“We can’t all have a fabulous new body like you now can we? Look at you, not a scar or even a hint of a blemish. How long are you spending on your beauty regime these days, you sexy beast you?”
            
“Smooth as a baby’s bum Georgey boy.” said a demon in a grass skirt and with a coconut bra on.
            
“Don’t pretend ya don’t luv it Beth.” replied George. Beth chuckled and raised her martini glass to him. George gave a good hearty embrace to the demon telling the story. “Pazulivul, good ta see ya mate.”
            
“You too buddy. Glad you could make it. Get George a drink will you Zachary?” said Pazulivul to one of the angels in the group. The angel hopped off to find a beer for the new arrivals as George said hello to everyone else and introduced his human friend.
            
“So this is the famous, no, infamous, Miss Phillips then?” said Beth as she scrutinised Charlie, making her feel naked and even more uncomfortable than she already was. “I think it’s fair to say that we all got a good kick over your evidence giving at Samson’s trial. ‘Suited cock muffin’ has become something of a department favourite down in the pits.”
            
“So glad to be such entertainment.” replied Charlie sheepishly.
            
“Lot of folk in the Extractions Section were fond of Samson. Casual Wednesdays were pretty popular you know?” said another demon. “We were all glued to the news when the verdict was read.” Charlie went white as a ghost and took an involuntary step back. She suddenly feared that she had been set up and only brought along in order to let Samson’s followers get revenge on her. Beth broke Charlie’s paranoia when she burst out laughing.
            
“Oh how precious! She thinks we’re out to get her.”
            
“Don’t worry luv, we don’t talk politics ‘ere. If any of Sammy’s folk are ‘ere, they’ll leave ya be. He dug ‘is own ‘ole, no one blames ya fer ‘im getting taken down.” said George reassuringly. Charlie wasn’t as fully convinced as she thought George probably intended and quickly took the drink Zachary had returned with to offer her. He took her bottle of wine silently, to go and add it to the booze pile. He looked at the label and nodded to himself appreciatively. Charlie was relieved to see that her gift had not been ridiculed and rejected at first sight and had been taken away out of sight, so if anyone did take offence to the bottle, she wouldn’t get blamed. She listened in as the conversation began to turn to the annual inter-department sports day that was approaching. George was confident that he could take first place in the four mile egg and spoon race this year. His new body was in perfect working condition, unlike the previous few years in which he had sorely let himself down with his showing.
            
“Been training much then George?” asked Pazulivul.
            
“Yeah mate. Don’t wanna loose ta that bugger Benny again. He ain’t a good sport about it. What ‘bout you? Enterin’ the long jump again?”
            
“No, I’m sick of having to fish annoying sand grains out of my hooves for weeks after. Going to go for the caper toss this year. Think that’s more my sort of thing.”

            

Charlie was beginning to loosen up and feel more comfortable. She remained self-consciously silent for the most part, keeping focused on the conversation around her and her drink. Beth questioned her for a while about her and the Samson trial. She was teased a little as George told a slightly embellished version of how he and Charlie had met, much to the amusement of everyone else. She was about to venture to tell an equally embellished story of her battle in her own mind-space with Zeitgeist when she realised that there was a hush rolling over the party.          
            
“Oh ‘eck.” said George under his breath when he realised the reason for the change in the party’s atmosphere.
            
“Aww crap. Sorry George, I didn’t think he’d be here.” said Pazulivul.
            
“No worries mate, I’ll ‘andle it.” He put his arms up in a friendly greeting and shouted over to the newest arrival. “Skut, buddy, good ta see ya.” Skut stood by the pool with a look of fury on his face; the moment he had laid his eyes upon George his blood had begun to boil. A gap in the crowds appeared and Skut stormed through, up to George.
            
“Buddy? You’re calling me buddy? After what you did?” he yelled.
            
“Ahh, come on mate. No ‘ard feelin’s yeah? Just a disagreement over politics.”
            
“Is that all is it? Politics? You shot me in the head, dumped my body in a canal and then when I got out, smashed my head on a hard floor. Politics? How long had we been partners? Four, five hundred years?”
            
“Yeah, we worked together a long time, fer sure, but ya had ta see ‘ow things were gettin’ a lil’ bit rotten with the jobs we were bein’ asked ta do. Charlie ‘ere,” George nodded over to Charlie. She grimaced and tried to hide behind one of the larger demons nearby. Thanks for reminding him about me George mate, she thought. “well she was just a job too far. Somethin’ needed ta be done. It wasn’t anythin’ personal Skut. Ya know that. You just didn’t want ta see it my way.” Skut said nothing for several moments before laughing bitterly.
            
“You’re a fucking disgrace George. Turning on your own to help out a weak, stupid little girl who’s in over her head. Yet you’ve still got you licence and you’re still on payroll. The whole department is nothing but a bunch of weak human loving apologists now. You bastards never did deserve Samson...”
            
“Alright, that’s enough fellas. This isn’t the place for this. Come on man, let’s all just try to get on with each other. It’s a good party, no need to ruin that eh?” pleaded Pazulivul. ‘Go get a drink Skut and we’ll all pretend this ugly little scene didn’t happen...’ Skut wasted no more time in grabbing George by the horns and throwing him to the ground. George tumbled over into a group of party goers, scattering them like bowling pins. Skut kicked him in the stomach a few times and then turned on Charlie. She froze in horror as the large demon advanced upon her. Pazulivul and Beth tried to shield her but Skut was determined not to be held back and pushed them aside without much resistance. He grabbed Charlie by the shoulders and snarled at her.
            
“Time to do what should have been done a long time ago and take you to your cell.”
            
“I... I served my time though.”
            
“Pah. You served a token week. That’s not a punishment, just a shit holiday. No, you need to rot in purgatory.”
            
“I really don’t. What I really need is one fewer grumpy demons in my life... err... death.”
            
“You really don’t have a choice in it girl.”
            
“Maybe not. However, I do have a nice friendly demon watching my back and about to twat you with a wine bottle.” said Charlie quickly, hoping that no one noticed that she was desperately close to a full on panic attack. Skut swung his head around, expecting to see George behind him and about to hit him with a wine bottle. He seemed almost disappointed to see that George was in fact still languishing on the floor, drunkenly trying to get back up. Charlie capitalised as well as she could on Skut’s momentary confusion by biting the back of one of his hands. He grumbled and let go of her with that hand, Charlie wiggled out of the grip of his other and ran to hide behind Beth once more. Beth was a little more prepared to keep Skut back this time and managed to keep Skut from just pushing her out of the way again to get at the little human woman. Pazulivul took the opportunity to tackle Skut to the ground and pin him down. The two struggled on the floor for a while, wrestling awkwardly with each other and stopping each other from getting back up. Charlie stepped out from behind her guard and sighed.
            
“Guys, this is kind of getting embarrassing now. I mean even more so than it already was.” she said. The two demons stopped wrestling and looked up at her as she moved to stand by them, looking down disapprovingly at them. “You’ve been drinking haven’t you Skut.”
            
“It’s a party, of course I’ve been drinking.”
            
“You only just got here though; you’d been drinking by yourself before coming. Drinking a lot, your breathe reeks of meths. Am I right?” Been there myself so many times my friend. Well, maybe not with meths as such. Skut looked at the ground sheepishly.
            
“Yeah, maybe. So what?”
            
“Maybe you need to just chill out a bit? You seem very angry at the universe and everyone in it. George has told me before about how angry you used to get when you two worked together. I know I don’t really know you and I’m certainly no expert, but maybe it’s time to seek out an anger management therapist?”
            
“You’re talking such crap human.”
            
“Am I? You came here today, after drinking vast amounts of methylated spirits, with the sole purpose of picking a fight with an old friend, correct?” Skut nodded silently in agreement. “Maybe it’s for that sort of reason that you don’t seem to have any friends these days. Maybe it’s time to seek help Mr Skut.” Careful Char, don’t push it. For a horrifying moment, she thought that Skut was about to start crying. She was relieved to see George was back on his feet and came to help Skut to his feet. He didn’t seem angry or upset with his former partner, just concerned for his well being.
            
“Ya know it wasn’t anything personal Skut. Ya know I ain’t like that. I respect ya too much fer that an’ I knew you’d be getting a new body an’ all.”
            
“You bastard...” Skut was unsteady on his feet and had to hold back from vomiting on the ground. George put an arm around him and began to lead him away.
            
“Come on mate, I’ll get ya back home and put the coffee on.” said George softly. As he walked a dejected looking Skut away he turned his head to thank Pazulivul for the party and apologise for having to leave early. “Catch ya later Charlie mate.”
            
“Yeah, see you George mate.” responded Charlie. With her link to the rest of the party gone, she suddenly felt very self-conscious again and began to think of how to bow out gracefully from the party herself. Beth had other ideas and beckoned for her to come and join the conversation and handed her a drink.

            
“Don’t worry about those two, Charlie. Not the first time they’ve come to blows. Doubt it will be the last time. Come on; tell us all about your little rampage back in that silly mortal world of yours.”

The Gatekeeper on the Docks is available here (or at your own friendly regional Amazon store) on Kindle and in paperback. Hey, wow, did I mention that the kindle version is free from the 4th March until the 7th? Because it is you know.

The Gatekeepers of Gloucester will be available at some point in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Is it transphobic?

I don’t talk about transgender issues often, which is something that I find odd when I really think about it. Being a transgender woman myself I think that maybe I should talk about it more often, but frankly it just bores me most of the time. I’ve had my whole life to muse on it to myself and work out my own feelings on the subject, I don’t feel the need to go off and rant or argue about it with other people too. This is partly because there are other people far more eloquent and wiser than me who are better able to discuss the finer points, but also because most people just don’t care. We live in a lovely world. It may be trite, but it’s worth reaffirming it every once in a while. This lovely world is, in my experience, dominated by equally lovely people who in this age of moral and civil enlightenment are quite happy to let others live their lives as they so choose and how they are best able to.

However, I sometimes read articles, opinion pieces or shouting matches that just depress the hell out of me. Being transgender in this world is not especially easy, and it often feels like it paints an easy target on my back for people to take advantage of. My story isn’t exactly special; like many trans-folk I’ve suffered abuse, both verbal and on (thankfully) rare occasion, physical. I’ve had further threats of violence, been in situations where I’ve been made to feel sexually vulnerable. I’ve had people spit at me, I’ve been laughed out of prospective job interviews because the interviewer found the very notion of a trans-woman hilarious, I’ve had work colleagues belittle and harass me and in general people making my life far harder and devastating than it ought to be. I’ve met strangers who seem to think that they have the indelible right to question me and dive into my personal private history. It seems that every other day there is a new story about transphobic hate mongering or articles that trivialise or even demonise trans people. Make no mistake, transphobia is a very real phenomenon and it is utterly soul wrenching to see happen. I am, however, so pleased to see that it’s an issue that is being taken seriously and people are becoming more aware of its impact and what it actually means to be transgender.

So what does it mean to be transgender? I can only say what it means to me. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you all with personal sob stories and the like, suffice to say that for me, it’s about quality of life. Before transitioning, I was a mess emotionally. I did my best to hide it, but there came the point where I could no longer hide it. I admitted first to myself the big scary thing that had haunted me my whole life up until then, that I couldn’t function in the male gender I had had up until then. Then I admitted it to friends and family. I sought help and was overwhelmed by how much support I received from those around me and from the medical professionals I saw. The brutal truth is that that support and the NHS aid saved my life. Eventually I made peace with my own gender issues and I settled into what has since become a far better quality of life. I am now at a place in my life where I am more mentally stable, my gender issues don’t keep me up at night and I can look at myself in a mirror without wanting to tear my eyes out. In short, I’m a trans-woman and I am very comfortable and so much happier than I ever was before with my place in life.

What is the reason for it? I’ve no clue. Really, I don’t know what makes someone transgender. Is there a physiological reason? Is it purely a social construct that has gone a bit awry in my case? Is it something that happened during early childhood? I don’t know; I had a normal and safe childhood, bar from the gender issues I’d harboured as long as I can remember. So I really don’t know what makes someone transgender. I’m not really sure it matters to me. I made the choice to transition as it was the only thing that I felt could help me (aided in my decision making by family, friends and the well considered help from the medical professional I came across). It was a calculated risk to transition and I believe that it has paid off for me.

I say this in the hope that it may give an insight into how my transgender status affects me. When I see articles that attack transgender people or seem to imply that they are all deluded and abominations, or that they are just mutilated males (in male to female cases) and as such should be treated exactly as you would a regular dude, it cuts deep. I don’t want to think that the world is so callous as to so rigidly dictate exactly how people can and cannot live their life and define their own path. I don’t actually want people to treat me differently at all. I’d like to be treated with the same respect and dignity that you should be treating everyone else with. I’m a transgender woman, not a biological female; this is true, but please don’t deny me the use of the pronouns or gender role I have grown into because of my biological history. Don’t punish me because of my gender identity dysphoria and the disconnect between my genetics and the gender role that gives me the greatest chance of a good quality of life. I don’t want to take anything from biological and genetic females; I don’t want to subvert the struggle women have had for millennia or barge in and dictate new terms for them. I’m just trying to live my life in the gender role that is most comfortable and syncs the best with my dumb head.

I hope that makes sense and that I’m not trivialising anything or stepping on anyone’s toes, but it brings me to the reason for this stream of consciousness. I read an article today about the differences in terminology. Put simply, there is a biological definition for sex and then there is the social construct of gender. Two different things. One based on physical characteristics and functions, the other based on historical and social ideas to define (and sadly to often subjugate) roles in the world. That’s not the whole story but I don’t want to just rewrite what the article itself says, go read it. As I mentioned, I know I’m not biologically female, this is not a revelation. I never will be. Likewise I’m not sure I could really say I’m biologically male, I just don’t have those parts or functions anymore (though obviously my genetics are a different matter). As for the gender part; I live in a female gender role and I identify as a trans-woman (note the trans part). Again, I don’t think that this is such a big story. Most people are quite happy to let me live this way, it is the only way I can live. Most people are lovely and supportive and I couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you. I was rather surprised when I saw that this article was controversial. It all seemed like a no-brainer to me.

It seemed that some in the transgender community took objection to the article and started flinging accusations of transphobia and bigotry. Whoa there, slow down a bit! Of course people are free to disagree with an article, but is it really a hate piece? Is there really a transphobic message? I don’t know the author of it, and to be honest I’d never come across her before, but I just can’t see how it is a transphobic or bigoted piece. Writing a piece about the biological definitions of sex isn’t bigoted. The piece doesn’t deny the right of transgender people, like me, to exist or live in their acquired role. It is just doing what it set out to do, define what sex means. Sex and gender are different things, this is not new information. It’s something that most have been agreeing on for decades, if not longer.

Transphobia is a problem. A real problem. It’s great that it gets more mainstream attention and that people are becoming more and more willing to talk about it, but let’s be more careful with where we fling accusations. It’s something I’ve felt for a while, but the transgender community can (at times) seem far too willing to use the T-word and close down discussion on topics such of sex and gender. It’s not always comfortable to talk about and can leave ourselves open to fresh attacks, but it is something that needs to be addressed. Open and free discussion on it does more good for the cause of transgender rights and legitimacy than bullying down people that try to get a discussion going and flinging unwarranted accusations to those who could be an ally. It saddens me to see apparent knee jerk reactions such as those that Gia Milinovich’s article garnered. Creating a straw man doesn’t help anyone and just serves to alienate us further from those who we have no need to fight with.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if we want the respect we deserve; we need to respect others too just as much. In fact fuck it; why not try respecting everyone equally?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Re-living Unreal II: The Awakening

The first inkling I had that something was amiss with Unreal II: The Awakening came to me whilst I was flicking through the game’s manual as I excitedly waited for the game to install. Back in those days games actually came on a strange physical media now known to archaeologists as “CD-ROMs”, they usually came accompanied by a manual that contained background information, instructions, character profiles and weapons lists. It was whilst reading the weapons list and descriptions that I noticed that every weapon had a colloquial name (such as Dispersion Pistol or Shotgun), followed by a designation and a nick name (the LEPEW-13 “Popgun” and the M700 12G Semiautomatic Riot Shotgun “Crowd Pleaser”). Was this really necessary, I wondered. The game’s developers had shown that they had a bit of a military fetish with their add-on to the original Unreal, in which they space-marine-ified the alien and bizarre world of Na Pali, but I asked myself that surely they don’t think that world building means just slapping tedious made up military jargon over everything. Do they? At the end of the game’s first mission, your character hands over a mysterious artefact to a ridiculously armoured space-marine and yells “Semper Fi!” at him. Yes, Unreal II is a very standard space-marine romp the likes of which had been seen countless times throughout the video-game industry’s life.

A space ship. Your space ship. It flies through space.

My friend Joe gave me his copy of Unreal in 1998 because his PC couldn’t run it. Mine could, just barely. 16 year old Tess loved Unreal. It was colourful, beautiful, had some intriguing sets, great level design and unique monsters and weapons. Most of all, it got the feeling of being stranded on a strange alien world just right; a place where things were so spectacularly weird and curious that it drew me in and engrossed me in the land of Na Pali almost immediately. The first moment I stepped outside of the crashed prison ship the player character had been aboard into the lush and peaceful alien valley, I knew it was something unlike I’d experienced in a game before. It truly earned the right to call itself Unreal. Epic Mega Games created a great action game and so I was thrilled when I heard that a sequel was in the works; less thrilled when I found out that Legend Entertainment were in charge. Their add-on pack to the original, Return to Na Pali, was typified by dull and frustrating levels, new enemies that were annoying and uninspired (Oh wow, tiny lizards that swarm at your feet and are too small to hit most of the time. Oh amazing, Space-Marines! Just what we wanted) and boring weapons. Basically it was lacking any of the creativity or sense of the alien that made the base game such a memorable thing. Unreal II was all those things too, wrapped up in one of the most clichéd story arcs in gaming; ancient artefacts of unimaginable power, a race to uncover them all before other baddies do, betrayal, blah blah blah. So far, so generic.

Now hang on just one moment 31 year old Tess, I finished Unreal II shortly after it was released and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Oh Lord, its 21 year old Tess. Everyone, just ignore her and hopefully she’ll go away. Let sleeping fan girls be.

Dalton and Ne'ban having a good old chin wag.

As I was saying, Unreal II took a genuinely interesting setting for a game and turned it into some standard travelling around the galaxy doing space-marine stuff and collecting artefacts for a shady general named Drexler who you never actually see. You play Marshall John Dalton, a member of the Terran Colonial Authority (space-police) who flies around in a spaceship called the Atlantis with your crew; Ne’Ban (squishy alien who serves as pilot and cipher for awkwardly asking questions about the rest of the crews relationship to each other because working that into the actual story was apparently not something Legend Entertainment thought of doing), Isaak (ship engineer and resident alcoholic, but don’t worry that won’t impact the story) and Aida (responsible for showing off the game’s hologram special effect in the briefing room and badgering Marshall Dalton whilst he’s shooting space-baddies). Between missions you get to explore the ship and interact with the crew, not that there is ever any reason to explore the ship, there’s nothing in it other than storage crates and a few beds. Characters barely interact with other and we’re told (explicitly told via Ne’Ban asking Marshall Dalton after a mission, for some reason) that Aida and Isaak don’t like each other because Isaak got some of Aida’s friends killed during the Strider Wars. What’s that? You don’t know what the Strider Wars were? Not to worry; who or what the Striders were and why there was a war with them is never explained. Aida was a hero in the war because she won a decisive battle after she tricked the Striders into thinking a civilian outpost was a major military post and led them into an ingenious military trap (we’re told at least). Aida blames herself for sacrificing so many people, but cheers up when Dalton explains that the civilians surely would have been totally cool with being sacrificed for the greater good and all. Do we get to see any of this back story? Ha, no, of course not.

Isaak. He tinkers with guns.

Now then, 31, you’re being a bit unfair aren’t you? Since when was it a crime for a story to give its characters a little bit of back story? Would you rather everyone was a complete blank slate with no motivation or personality?

Don’t be dense, 21. Of course I want characters to have, well, character, but in Unreal II this all has no bearing on the plot. Isaak’s alcoholism doesn’t factor in at any point; it doesn’t tell us anything about him that is in any way meaningful to how we see him act throughout the game. In fact he tells us that he hasn’t touched a drop for most of the game, but it doesn’t change anything at all. We are given no reason to believe it actually impairs his job. It seems to be just a way for the game to tell us he’s a troubled soul, but without showing us any of that actually troubled soul part. Aida only seems troubled by her past because the script says so. For most of the game we only know she has a troubled past because Dalton tells Ne’Ban so. Aida only talks about it at one point, and then only to act as cheap and obvious foreshadowing for her own sacrifice (spoiler: the Atlantis blows up, your boss in the TCA was the big bad all along). She shows no signs of being troubled by her decisions beforehand. She just hates Isaak. Boy, the TCA must have been embarrassed when they realised they put those two on the same crew together! Ne’Ban is reduced to mouthpiece for the player, asking the questions that the game didn’t bother to integrate into the actual story. His own storyline, that he’s a prince on his home planet, goes nowhere and is solved off-screen by Dalton saying he made a call to sort everything out nice and easy. So, 21, my problem here is that the game forgot the basic rule of visual story telling media: show, don’t tell.

Aida, and her boobs that the designers so wanted you to see.

You seem to be forgetting that this is, ostensibly, a game about shooting aliens and space-baddies. That’s what people got the game for, as you know well enough. Don’t try and pretend you cared about a story when you went to get the game. The back-story for the central characters is just icing on the cake of a solid action game.

What a terrible excuse, was I really ever that silly? Let’s look at some of Unreal II’s contemporaries shall we? The likes of Beyond Good and Evil, No One Lives Forever 2, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City... Just a few off the top of my head from that sort of time period. Not all are necessarily classics by any means but they managed to mix the action and characterisation far more effectively than Unreal II’s rather clunky tacking on of story. Hell, even Timesplitters 2 managed to get across characters motivation and personality better than Unreal II did, and that game had different settings and characters ON EACH LEVEL!

Oh, so I see that in your old age you’ve become a tediously opinionated blow hard then? I do know a thing or two about writing you know?

Yes, I know. I was there. You spend you’re free time getting drunk on cheap chardonnay and writing dumbass stories, unplanned and free right? The organic way of writing? The most honest way to write? Yes? Christ. They were terrible, not funny and sometimes... auuurrrgggghhh, I don’t even want to remember how bad they were.

Well that’s just charming, 31. Charming. At least I’m trying to follow my passions. My stories might be a bit raw but it’s all the learning experience...

Speaking of which, don’t you have a Sedimentology assignment to finish?

... Do you even still write? No? Yes? Well I got news for you sister, you’re just building on what I gave you.

Do be quiet. Let’s talk about the action, as you so evidently think that is all that mattered.

It’s rather tedious. One of the things that I think sums up Unreal II quite nicely is the target reticle.

Oh I love them. The way there’s a different crosshair for each weapon, the way they rotate as you move, and have their own idle states that they revert to if you stand still for long enough.

Exactly 21, exactly. It’s so over designed and unnecessary. Now I’m not trying to say that the person responsible for making all the crosshair icons in the game should’ve been tasked with coding ally AI instead, I’m no expert but I doubt they are especially transferable skill sets. The problem is that there was a lot of focus on the style and not nearly enough on the substance. Don’t get me wrong here; it was always a pleasingly pretty game (even by today’s standards I’d say) but I’d much prefer the actual feel of the gameplay and combat to have the spit and polish that the target reticles did. For example the flamethrower, sorry, the UA69 “Vulcan” Flamethrower...

Teehee, 69.

The flamethrower during one of the rare moments that it was needed.

Yes, well it was very pretty to see in action and looked the part, a shame it was useless in most of the game’s campaign. The spider gun sounded really cool, until you found out that it didn’t really do much at all and was limited in its use. The point being that the combat, the main focus of an action game, was pretty under developed. A lot of under developed features added up to make a combat experience that was frustrating and disappointing. Sometimes very minor things. The health metre for example; in game logic it’s that number or bar that tells you how close you are to dying. In Unreal II it’s tiny and tucked away into the corner and masked with another bar for your armour, one that uses a different scale. Couple this with the general lack of feed back as to when Marshall Dalton is receiving damage, and it means that dying becomes much easier than in a game that gives you better signs of how badly a fight is going. It’s a simple thing that has a very annoying side effect and symptomatic of the game as a whole. Slow movement speed (just for you, not your supposedly equally outfitted human enemies), weak and dull weapons, terrible enemy placement in the levels and occasional cheap spawning, the way levels often start with you facing a boringly long walk to the first obstacle or fight...

Ooh, but the scenery is lovely. It was nice of Legend to give us time to enjoy it.

Perhaps, but it’s completely void of anything interesting to do. Levels are often massive (with excruciating loading times to match), but for all the space to explore in, there’s nothing to find. No secret caches, no hidden Easter eggs, nothing to see or do, just lots of wasted space. Throughout the game you visit loads of wildly different settings; a lush jungle, a barren desert, a robot world, the belly of a giant planet sized beast. All of them had potential to be interesting, but before the game can give you anything interesting with each planet, you’re whipped off to go and spend a bit more time with your dull crew mates and then onto the next planet, and so on. It’s a game of wasted potential. I would have liked to explore the perpetually acid fog covered jungle world a bit and perhaps actually meet the nomadic Arab descendant people (*cough*Dune rip off*cough*) that Aida tells Dalton about, but no, you go down and shoot some dudes then carry on to the next setting without ever getting to know what makes the planet tick. It’s like the designers were constantly getting bored of their creation after thirty minutes on each planet. All interspersed with pointless scenes of Marshall Dalton coming and going in his drop ship from the Atlantis.

Lovely landscape. Shame that there is nothing over there and no reasons to explore it.

Christ, it’s not as though there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the game.

There’s plenty wrong with it.

You’re being petty. It’s not the most imaginative of games or the most original, but that doesn’t make it a bad game.

No, the bad bits make it a bad game.

Oh how I look forward to being a grumpy moaning old fart!

Yes, yes, I know, anyone who criticises your opinions is automatically wrong. How mature.

And here you go about to tell me how I’m wrong because you think you’re emotionally detached enough to have better perspective. So you just sweep aside my thoughts on it and tell me I’m stupid for enjoying a game you don’t. Is that mature? I accept the faults and let myself enjoy the game despite them. Maybe your future utopia has eliminated game faults and so you’re less accepting that not everything is perfect? Maybe you just hate old games as a rule?

Well obviously not as I expressed my love of the original Unreal right at the top of the retrospective. A game I played just before doing its sequel when I first got the idea for an Unreal II retrospective, and I enjoyed it just as much as 16 year old Tess did. I have a large catalogue of old games I still play and enjoy regularly.

Whatever. So tell me just how Unreal II was bad then.

Again, it’s mostly via the little things that add up to make a frustrating, dull or excruciating experience. Like how the level design wastes so much space and boss arenas are littered with geometry that you can get stuck on and become easy targets for the one-hit-kill boss enemies. The game seems to have confused spectacular graphics with interesting environments. It all felt so sterile and devoid of any life of its own, instead relying on tropes that the genre had grown tired of years before. Giant spiders are not original or clever; they are the same cheap terror that have plagued fiction since mankind first encounter a spider. Yes it tries to give back story to things, but it never meshes with the game as a whole because the central story is so thin and under baked. It doesn’t help that so much of what is there is just so stupid and nonsensical (within the game’s own internal logic that is). The TCA and space-marines seem perfectly capable of landing on any planet within minutes of being called, yet the big corporations and their private armies are allowed to get on with their illegal activities without any interference; even when these corporations seem perfectly happy to fire on sight at government authorities. That would either make the government authorities (i.e. you) pretty incompetent at their jobs, corrupt or the corporations are stupidly and recklessly brazen in their shameless illicit deeds throughout the galaxy. There is no reason for this. I guess corporations are all evil or something? Don’t even get me started on the needlessly sexualised lady-mercenaries you fight (when all the dudes are powered up in standard space-marine ultra-thick-amazo-armour). Oh, and if you want to talk to Aida on the ship, you have to go up to her and point the screen at her ridiculously revealed boobs to get the icon to start a conversation to pop up. The bits that made me groan the most were the defence and escort missions. Those were tedious and went on too long, with too dumb AI, dull design and often useless defence options.

*Sigh* They're called The Angels too.

Any other complaints?

I hated that the most basic weapon in your arsenal, the dispersion pistol, occupies slot 4 in your weapon load out. How counter-intuitive is that?

Petty, petty, petty.

Everything was just so long winded though. From the overly long weapons names, the long load times, the player death scenes you can’t skip, the unskippable cut scenes, the long walks through the levels where nothing happens, the way Ne’Ban just wouldn’t shut the fuck up at times, it’s a game that is obsessed with making everything big and epic, but it fails to make it interesting.

Is there anything you do like then?

Well, I guess I liked the shotgun. You have to work hard to mess up a computer game shotgun. I suppose that it’s a nice touch that when reloading the sniper rifle whilst zoomed in, it goes back to your zoom level once the reloading animation has finished. If pushed I would say that some lines of dialogue did make me chuckle. Mostly though, it’s a game of missed opportunities or naive design choices. It’s a classic case of style over substance. At worst it’s flat out terrible, but mostly it’s generic sci-fi guff and serviceable corridor shooting.

Ne'Ban's cameo as holographic special effects operator did make me chuckle. Ha, look, he meant to say "fuck".

Fine. So you found it disappointing then.

You’re playing dumb here. WE found it disappointing. You were right, I didn’t especially care about the story when I got the game, but as the game had pretensions of telling an epic story, I’m damn well going to ask that it be worth hearing. How about you admit that you found the game disappointing too?

I enjoyed it an awful lot I’ll have you know.

But I’ve already been you; I know that you were disappointed. You just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe it’s because you’re a student and have a more limited budget so making an investment in a new AAA game requires a greater emotional investment. Maybe it’s because you’re an Unreal fan girl at heart after the original game and didn’t want to see how bad a sequel got made. Maybe it’s because of that one guy on that forum you read who was getting all obnoxious about the pre-release promotional material and was trolling everyone about liking Unreal, you felt threatened by this and felt the need to justify the game more, and by extension justify yourself? Maybe it’s a mix of all those things?

Or maybe people can change their opinions about stuff over time?

Perhaps, but we both know that isn’t the case here.

So what’s this then? Some sort of revisionist history of yourself then? How about some evaluation of my future then? For you it’s been, what, eleven years since Unreal II came out? Why on Earth are you reviewing it now? I get the impression that no one cares about it anymore. How self indulgent can you get to think anyone cares about your thoughts on it? It only came out a year ago for me, it’s actually relevant now. How will the likes of Doom 3 or Half-Life 2 compare to it? How does it fit into the evolution of the genre or games in general? Maybe I should write a review and ram my opinion down the throats of anyone unfortunate enough to come across it? It would be more relevant than what you’re writing now. Yet apparently I don’t write a review for a game I liked until I’m old and bitter at the world. You have such little regard for my opinions when they are relevant, why should anyone have any respect for yours when they’re not relevant? You’ve become everything I hate; overly opinionated, obsessed with shouting your opinion and telling people off for having differing ones, inflated sense of self importance, derisive and unpleasant.

Oh here we go. Look at you 21, as smug and self righteous as ever. You accuse me of being opinionated, well as you pointed out earlier, I learnt it from you. I bet you’ll tell me next how you only ever read those forum threads with that obnoxious troll, never participated? Tell me that you never replied to him yourself or actually got into arguments defending the game that you hadn’t even played yet? You may not have written your opinions out, but you sure did think about them. The difference here is that I’m actually following up on an interest and trying to put it into some sort of coherent form, because it’s something I always thought would be a fun thing to do, despite your interference in my retrospective piece. But that’s just you all over isn’t it? Too timid to act on things, content to drift away into the back ground and go below everybody’s radar. If I’m old and bitter... oh and fuck you, 31 isn’t old... it’s because I’m dealing with the mistakes you made. No, I didn’t want to go into palaeontology full time, but maybe if you worked harder I could have got that first in it and opened up more doors for me and given me more options to at least explore. Maybe if you had written sober and to an actual plan I could have written more by now? Yeah, I’ve actually gone ahead and written books, not just talk about doing so. Maybe I am still smug and pretentious at times, but the key word there is still. I hated who I was so I made efforts to change how things were going, and I’m no way near as full of myself and pompous as I was once. As you are. I’ll always be those things, but at least now I know what else I can be and how I can do more than you’d think I’d have done by now. I’m a deeply flawed human being, as everyone usually is, but at least I’m not just sat around accepting things as they are and not doing a damn thing to try and better yourself.

The guy in blue sucks. I hate him so much.

So it’s come to this then, mutual contempt?

It would seem so.

So is there a point to all this then?

Yeah. I’m writing this retrospective because it’s something I’m interested in. I’d hope that maybe someone else out there in the ether may have some passing interest in the Unreal series too, and maybe this hypothetical person could get some enjoyment from the retrospective. That is the hope. It may not be the case, or this hypothetical person may read this and hate it. I may very well just be making myself look like an enormous tit after all, but the point is I’m taking a punt in writing something and putting it out there for others to judge. You on the other hand are putting off doing a university assignment and get hammered on horribly sweet and insipid wine and writing something that you full well know you will do nothing with. The Legend of the Evergreen Dragon? Come on, you know by now that that story just isn’t working, yet you persist in it.

I enjoy it.

True, but you have aspirations to be a legitimate writer some day.

Then its practice.

You’re not learning anything from it; you’re just making the same mistakes over and over and getting nowhere. Mistakes we make in our youth are ours to own, but we need to learn from them. As much as I dislike you, 21, I do think you can do better. You will do better, even if it’s only by small degrees. Apply a bit energy and enthusiasm, maybe a bit more humility too, you can turn things around and start to feel less angry at the world and more capable of writing without the need to get pissed first to make knowingly terrible stories that do you no good. Don’t be afraid to ask for some help once in a while, a bit of support or inspiration.

If The Evergreen Dragon means so little, why are you referencing it still? Didn’t the very act of talking about it ten years on legitimise its existence somehow?

Not really. But it’s a reference point in my development and a sign of my own hubris as an aspiring writer. Trying to carry on regardless was a waste of time and a big mistake, one that you’re still making. There’s no need to accept it. Let it go and start again. Trust me, it can get better.

You keep telling me that, it makes me wonder who you are trying to convince.

Yeah? Well it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself of that at times. There’s no need to put up with mediocrity. No need for either of us. We can both do better. Unreal II isn’t the best we can aim for.

Fair enough. You still sound like a twat and not someone I’d want to hang out with, but I guess there are worse things to grow into. Serious question though, will Half-Life 2 be any good?

Oh yeah, it turns out amazing.

Well I look forward to playing it then.

You’ll need a broadband connection for it though.

What the fuck! The future is stupid.

Pretty much, yes.


Friday, 23 August 2013

Free the London ghosts!



Yep, my book, The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus, is available from Amazon as a free download until the 27th. Go give it a go. I dares ya.
Available in other regions too by the way.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

A Love Letter to Shareware

My earliest gaming memories are not my own, not really. They're simply of watching my big brother play Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on our ancient ZX Spectrum. Even when my family got an 8086 IBM machine, I'd still just watch others play Boulderdash as much as I'd experiment fumbling with the controls myself. That's all it was back then, experimenting. Seeing what fit. I was a young naïve pre-gamer; I didn't know that you would come along and shake me to my very foundations. You, Shareware, you were my first true love.
            
I'd seen you hanging out before of course; on those five and a quarter inch floppy disks that my father sometimes brought home from work. I saw you there, amongst the program listings. You looked ravishing, but you were out of my class back then. I didn't really understand what you were about and what made you tick, but I knew even then that there was something about you that was very special. In truth, I'm not sure I could have treated you well at that time. You were always so generous, giving large chunks of your games away for free and encouraging people to share them with friends. You're trusting generous spirit was a shining beacon, and you always let people know how to go about purchasing the full games without pestering or nagging. If only everyone could have been so thoughtful. Sure, I had some good times with a timed demo, but it would only be a fleeting fling. With you, it would be something more serious.
            
Purple blobs hate men with moustaches, especially in Bio Menace.

I remember the first time we truly met. It was a summer’s day shortly after I left junior school. I was heading to high school in the new term; I was ready to grow up. At my friend Gareth's house, we were introduced. You were in your handsome Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons form. The Marooned on Mars shareware episode. Oh, what fun we had, the three of us. I knew then that I'd met something wonderful that I wanted to know better. But you were still out of my reach as I just didn't have the computer infrastructure to take care of you in the way you needed. In the way you deserved. I had to suffer getting calls from Gareth to tell me exciting anecdotes about how the two of you went to new levels in Marooned on Mars, how he found the ice levels at the Mars poles or the thrilling way in which the game ended. He went on to get the full version of the game that boasted two more episodes; The Earth Explodes and Keen Must Die! I'm ashamed to admit it, but I was insanely jealous.
            
I was so happy when my family got a 386 PC because it meant that I could finally take you out myself. An office supply store in Gloucester stocked little heat sealed plastic blister packs with a single shareware disk game on for just 99p. A lovely little treat to get with my pocket money. The frustration of opening those little packs made playing the game all the more rewarding. That one day I myself was marooned outside that store whilst I waited for my ride mattered not; I had a selection of exciting looking shareware games to experience when I finally got home. My mind was swimming with anticipation and I'd forgotten that I'd arranged to be picked up elsewhere. Never mind; I had you to look forward to. The shareware episode of Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy will remain very special to me. It was my first. The first computer game that I can truly say I discovered by myself, with your help.
            
All hail the Poison Slug King.

The agony of waiting for the program to install on our 386 was palpable. Watching that blue screen with the white progress bar simply filled my imagination with thoughts of the fun beyond it. The thrill of loading the game for the first time and seeing the stylish title screen and enchanting menu, complete with a miniature version of Pong to try. Oh yes, I was smitten immediately. The game itself was everything I hoped it would be. Exploring the Border Village level and coming across the underground room with a giant slug monument, I knew that this was the beginning of a long relationship that would bring real joy to my life. Eventually I bugged my father to order the full game for me after I poured lustfully through the shareware catalogue on the game disk. Reading those fanciful descriptions of these incredible sounding games filled me with awe. I watched avidly as my father carefully typed in his credit card details onto the Apogee online store and then passed control of the old 386 to me when the mammoth sized two megabyte download croaked over the line and snuggled itself into the deepest reaches of the computer's hard drive. Somehow I was surprised when I loaded the game up and didn't see the message reminding you that it was the shareware version of the game. Somehow I missed it, but the game was wonderful. I owe that little slice of happiness to you, Shareware.
            
You opened the flood gates and showed me so many different worlds. From the monster bashing side scrolling of Bio Menace to the war torn streets of Traffic Department 2192, you never let me down. You gave me my first taste of Doom whilst babysitting the Hanson's kids down the road and you took me on a mind warping journey in Xargon. It didn't matter to me that you propagated an inaccurate image of rodents in Lemmings or that I was so overcome with options that I never got around to trying Descent; you gave so much and asked so little. I had such fun with you.

Xargon always felt like a higher class of game, you can tell by how serious it took its jumping.
            
You helped me try new things. Remember how I installed an Ad-Lib soundcard just so I could finally get some proper music in my game time? The theme tune to Wacky Wheels is still the best games theme tune in my mind. You got me interested in computing and encouraged me to make it a worthwhile hobby. You even helped me in developing my love of sci-fi and pushed me gently into looking closer at storytelling techniques. You made me a savvier buyer with my pocket money. I'd already seen the game that came to define so much of my early game playing time in the local game shop; Format, on Westgate Street. I'd not seen it before or heard my friends mention it before so I'd no idea if it was worth the price. “Why not try it first”, you whispered sweetly. Yes, shareware Rise of the Triad: The HUNT Begins. It was a marvel. And a marvel with a new trick; the shareware episode was made up of unique levels not from the full game, a full and riotously fun game all by itself. I had to share this wonder with my friends. We all found ourselves playing ROTT. We all bought the full game (I confess, in total I believe I've bought it thrice over the years). My friend Dan and I even spent a long time making our own levels in the level editor. All the while, you looked on, smiling at how happy you'd made us by introducing us to this game.

            
Rotten good fun and ludicrous gibs in Rise of the Triad.

Oh goodness, I can't help but feel like I'm engaging in an emotional affair and cheating on my boyfriend. I'm sure he'd understand though. He knows you well too and I’m sure he has his own stories about what the two of you got up to. I’m not jealous anymore; you’re just a wonderfully gregarious thing. Some may call you promiscuous, Shareware, but we know better. People may misunderstand your generous nature but you were an important part of my childhood, and for so many others people’s childhoods. You may not be around as much as you once were, having passed the torch to other forms of demo, but I still love you. You made our personal computing machines great. Shareware, you're the best.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

An Interview With A Cacodemon


Ahead of the recent Rezzed games expo in Birmingham, I was lucky enough to be granted an interview with one of the true stars of the computer gaming world. From his humble beginning as an extra in art house productions of Faust and small part appearances in Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold to his high profile roles in big budget games such as Doom 3, Derek Cacodemon has built a reputation as the guy to go to for demonic roles. For over twenty years now he has been involved in gaming and appeared in several cult favourites. He is of course best known for his work in Doom, but his versatility and professionalism has landed him work elsewhere. His trademark malevolent grin and screeching hiss has endeared him to millions.

I met up with Derek in a traditional pub off of Victoria Street in London. He was staying in a nearby hotel after flying into Heathrow from L.A. Before he ventured up to Birmingham for the conference, he agreed to meet with me for a rare interview. He wasn't hard to spot in the corner of the quiet pub. He was gently sipping a gin and tonic and watching the tennis from The Queens Club. His round red body looked to be in fine shape, thanks to a professional personal trainer back home and a weekly spa visit (to keep himself ready for the rigours of work, as he would later mention). He wore specially made spectacles over his one gigantic eye; I wanted to ask if that made it a monocle technically, but managed to resist the temptation. He speaks surprisingly softly but with the quiet authority of a classically trained stage actor; a stark contrast to how most of us would be familiar with hearing him. We chat amiably for a while before his grin breaks out over his toothy mouth and he suggests we get on with the “demon talk”.

So, Derek, thank you for meeting me.

A pleasure, thank you.

Its not often that you give interviews these day.

No, no. I prefer to let my work speak for itself.

Indeed. You've been such an influential figure in the games industry for so long now, people often forget that you didn't actually start in it. Just how did you get into it?

You mean: “How did Id Software discover me”?

Yes.

It was quite fortuitous really. At the time I was working in theatre in my home town of Seattle, that's in Washington State; I had never really considered doing anything else, but times we difficult back then and I had to take any job I could get. For the most part that meant bit roles and back ground extras work in small independent productions. Usually that meant appearing in productions of Faust or operatic interpretations of Dante's Inferno, but the late 80's and early 90's was a strange time for Seattle. A new form of rocking and rolling music was all the rage; grunge, I believe they called it. Unless a production could be tied to that latest pop sensation, the public just wasn't interested. So I found myself involved in grunge-operas and trendy productions, I even appeared in a post-modernist Die Fledermaus that was entirely ill conceived. It was a difficult time to be a classically trained actor. It just so happened that Id Software's creative director Tom Hall was a fan of the production; Die Fledermaus: Extreme Dudes. He liked my style and thought that I would be perfect as an extra in a game that they were making for a company called Gamer Edge. Unfortunately, my appearance in the game... err... Catacomb 3D I believe, never panned out, but I remained in contact with Tom and eventually he called me during the early development of Doom to discuss a potential collaboration. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not a great deal of Tom Hall's early work on Doom was kept after he left Id Software, were you worried that your part in the game would be scrapped too?

No, I was quite confident that I built up a good rapport with the rest of the team; we were on similar creative levels. They were grateful to have a voice from outside of the gaming community to add to the project, and I was pleased to be spreading out in my trade a bit more. I got on immediately with the whole team. I spent hours learning the technical parts of the industry from John Carmack, and what can I say about John Romero except that he's a true gentleman and a real hoot.

So who's idea was it to create the Cacodemon character?

It was very much a team effort. Based in Tom's initial concepts of an adaptation of the classic Dungeons and Dragons Beholder monster, we all slowly added together the parts. I worked quite a bit with Adrian Carmack to get the exact design down perfectly. We decided that the character, whom we were referring to as Mr Chuckles at the time, should have a brighter red skin than my natural colour is, to infer an impression of the fiery pits from which the character was written as coming from. Somehow Adrian found out about my ability to produce glowing orbs from my mouth and insisted that it be written in as a character trait; an offensive weapon that the character would use against the player.

How did you feel about that?

At first I was mortified about the request. Those glowing orbs I shoot are simply a party trick, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw how it would fit the character we were building. Even so, I dreaded the inevitable call from my mother to tell me off for spitting in public; even if it was in the name of art. So when the time came for shooting my scenes, I was painted up in bright red make-up, my horns were polished and I put on my toothiest grin to suggest the psychological scarring that the character has had living and working in Hell and I put my all into spitting up some particularly malevolent looking glowing orbs.

And what of the voice recording?

We recorded those at the same time. We all felt that the game would benefit if we could shoot everything live. I'd met Charles Space-Marine III [the actor who played the game's main character] before, but this was our first time performing together. We'd had a private read through or two of our lines before, but we'd decided together that our performances would feel more believable if we didn't rehearse together and we could react organically to each other during filming. We felt that as the two senior actors in the cast, we should try to show a good example to our cast-mates. The stage was deathly silent as we performed our scenes together; everyone seemed transfixed. During the scene in which our two characters first meet [on Hurt Me Plenty difficulty, in the Deimos Anomaly level] I decided to ad-lib a little and let out a tremendous screech as I first saw the player. At that sound, Charles nearly jumped out of his skin. His reaction was very genuine, I think he was a little nervous the rest of the shoot. Once we'd finished, everyone stood to applaud us and we knew that we'd made something special. Later, the decision was made to change the character name to my own surname, something to which I was of course flattered by.

Derek and Charles' iconic meeting scene in Doom.

Doom, of course, became a massive hit. How did you find the sudden fame?

It was remarkably strange. I had never had such exposure but despite my embarrassment at being singled out for praise for my performance, it was gratifying to get the recognition.

You became an instant hit with your Cacodemon character, but it wasn't your only appearance in a PC game at that time was it?

No, I was also in Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold. It was just a cameo really, but it was fun.

So how did that part come about then?

Well back in those days Id Software and Apogee had a close relationship, both being Texan companies and having worked together on Wolfenstein 3D and the Commander Keen series. In fact I believe Apogee were originally slated to be the publishers for Doom, but that never panned out. It just so happened that Scott Miller of Apogee was visiting Id one day whilst I was there for a creative meeting, we got chatting and got on well. With Doom taking longer than anticipated, he suggested I keep my resume ticking over with a guest appearance in one of their games. They were finishing up work with JAM Productions on Blake Stone and were beginning to cast extras for the monsters, Scott said I'd fit perfectly for one of them. He warned me that I'd have to have an awful lot of make-up and prosthesis work to play the Pod Alien, but he felt I was up to the task. It was a challenge that was hard to resist.

Derek took on a very different look for Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold.

Suddenly finding yourself cast in two separate computer games must have been a shock.

Oh absolutely. I must confess, at first I saw it as just a pay check, but gradually began to find it to be almost my calling. It was tremendously hard work to be in two on-going projects, but I was young and full of vigour.

Was there any rivalry between Id and Apogee with their two shooter games being released so close together?

Perhaps a friendly rivalry, but one born out of a true respect for each other. Doom, I think its fair to say, overshadowed Black Stone slightly, but there was no animosity that I could see. The boys of JAM Productions were equally friendly. Sometimes forgetful of where they've left source code and so on, but very friendly and a privilege to work with. Of course I had a vested interest in both projects...

And of course your brief collaboration with Id Software and Apogee introduced you to another of the stars of PC games.

Dopefish?

Yes, Dopefish.

Indeed, we became quite the friends, despite polar personalities.

Together with Jazz Jackrabbit and Dizzy the Egg, you got yourselves quiet the reputation. The Computer Age Rat Pack, as the tabloids dubbed you.

I'm afraid so.

Can you tell me what happened in Reno?

I'd really rather not...

I'm sure my readers would like to hear you version of events.

[Groans] Oh, okay then. Just to set the record straight. We were at a casino for Duke Nukem's birthday. We were a little drunk, we'd had far too much, I can admit that. Contrary to popular belief, there was no cocaine use involved. I never touched the stuff. Well, anyway, Dizzy was a little worse for wear and got into an altercation with Duke. It was a regrettable situation that I wish I'd done more to stop.

In the aftermath of the scandal, Codemasters dropped Dizzy from their roster and Dopefish checked himself into rehab.

Sadly, yes. I love Dopey, but it was clear to all of us that he had a serious drinking problem. I think Reno was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

Do you see any of them any more?

I see Dopey every so often. I'm glad to say he's cleaned up his act considerably. I'm so pleased for him that he had such a good fan base to pull him through the difficult times, and thanks to the incredible performance he gave in Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy he had cameo appearances in a whole host of games to work on since. Last I heard of Dizzy, he had retired from games and was selling used cars in Brighton, England. As for Jazz, I'm afraid no one has heard from him in years.

Dopefish achieved cult status with his performance in Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy.

Despite the scandals from your contemporaries, you were a big games star, did you get many offers for work?

Quite a few, yes.

And yet, you didn't appear in many?

No, I didn't want to just take on roles for the sake of taking them on. I'm a method actor, I like to get inside the head of my character. If I take a role on, I'm committing to it as a serious figment of myself. Multiple roles on the go at once can be stressful. For Blake Stone it was OK as that was just a small part, but for the kinds of roles I was being offered, it would take a serious commitment in time to do.

Are there any roles you regret turning down?

[Pause] Well, I suppose... Yes. There was one that with the benefit of hindsight could have been a fantastic part to play. I was approached by Looking Glass studios to play SHODAN in their game System Shock. Seeing how well that character became ingrained in people's imagination, I can only lament having passed on it. But Karen [O'Goggles, who went on to play SHODAN] did a tremendous job, she made the character her own. At the time however, System Shock would have clashed in my schedule with Doom 2.

With Doom 2, were you not worried you would become type cast?

Not for a moment no. It may be my most famous role, but certainly not my only one. I had a role as the security guard in a genetics lab in Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon and I was the body double for Glottis in Grim Fandango. I also did the voice acting for Horny the Horned Reaper in Dungeon Keeper; the actor who was cast as him was great for the live action but his accent was far too thick to be understandable to our westernised ears, so I was bought in to provide the voice.

The Horned Reaper as he appeared in Dungeon Keeper II. Derek provided the voice work for the character in both games.

I was not aware of that.

I've been in more than you may think. But Doom is where my heart is.

You went on to appear in Doom 2 and Final Doom, as well as in the remakes for Playstation and N64.

Indeed. It was fun each time. I think the character had a wonderful story arc through out. There was some wonder character design for the N64 version in particular. I think that reinvigorated the character somewhat. Its important to keep any recurring character fresh.

And the SNES version?

I think it's fair to say the SNES version of Doom was a mistake.

You worked extensively with Id Software for the remainder of the 90's, appearing in Quake 1 and 2 as monsters from other dimensions and as aliens, in the form of the Strogg. You also collaborated with other studios in various forms, but we didn't see Cacodemon on our screens again until Doom 3 in 2004.

That's right.

The character had changed a fair amount in the intervening period.

It had yes. We were going for a different feel for the game. It had been over a decade since the first game and we were revisiting the same story but with a grittier atmosphere; the time was right to update the character.

Derek took on a slightly different look for his character in Doom 3; not to everyone's approval.

The iconic red skin tone of the character was changed to grey. Who's idea was that?

It was mine. And not just because I didn't want to spend hours in make-up every morning again. [Laughs] No, we felt that a more mono-tonal colour pallet would fit the tone we were aiming for. A base on Mars that is being attacked by the forces of hell; we thought that it would be a good metaphor for the assault that faces each one of us in our hearts as the world gets ever more crowded with soulless advertising and crushing commercialism. The dulled colour represents the blind acceptance of the eyesores we see everyday as they attack us with garish displays and forceful promotions. The despair of modern life, if you will. Changing the characters distinct colouring would fit that theme perfectly. The reversal of expectations and the desolation of the spirit against overwhelming agency was played upon with the drained colour of Cacodemon in Doom 3.

That wasn't the only change either, was it?

No. I decided to add in a little quirk of the character bouncing around in the air slightly when shot, as though he is full of buoyant gas. I've always believed that a hint of comedy at the right time can substantially aid a performance. The juxtaposition of comedy next to the horrors we were trying to invoke played well in putting the player off and and making them think twice about the situation and how it holds a mirror up to their own reality.

And the character's long range attacks were tweaked in post production to update their visual effects?

Yes, they were.

Not everyone appreciated the updating of the character though.

Unfortunately no; it wasn't as run away success as with the original design. It was a divisive revision, that's for sure. I stand by it however. I still believe it was the right direction to take the character in artistically. Personally, I think its my finest performance. From a technical point of view at least.

Despite the updated character designs, some things remained constant. Derek and Charles worked well together, playing off of each other.

After finishing up on the add-on pack, Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil, you moved onto work with Raven Software for Quake IV. That would turn out to be your final game performance. Why?

It's rather simple really; I'd had a long career in the industry and I felt that it was time to move on. I had always turned down film roles in favour of game roles. I decided that I needed to challenge myself to move into the unknown once more.

If asked, however, would you consider a return to the role that made you famous if there were to be another Doom game?

Absolutely.

You were very quick to answer there, have you been asked back?

No comment.

Were you disappointed to not be given a role in the Doom movie, along side Karl Urban and Dwayne Johnson?

I was a little disappointed yes, but after I was told the storyline and tone, it was clear that the Cacodemon wouldn't really fit into the themes, so I cannot argue overly on it.

I see. So what are you working on at the moment?

I'm going to be appearing in A Midsummer's Night Dream later in the year in L.A. And I'm working on a small picture set here in London actually. A picture about a demon that works at Scotland Yard.

It sounds hilarious.

Its not supposed to.

Well then, good luck with it.

Thank you.

I think that is as good a place as any to end things. Mr Cacodemon, thank you so much for your time, it's been an honour.

My thanks.

Good luck in future works and we hope to see your most famous character return some day.



Derek Cacodemon is appearing in A Midsummer's Night Dream from July 26th to September 20th. Demon of the Yard will be in selected cinemas in the Winter of 2014/15. We have received no word on whether or not he is to return in Doom 4, which is rumoured to be in development for Bethesda Softworks.