Birthday Poetry

For Sonia


I

A pale dawn breaks upon the day,
Wisps following behind, not yet led astray
Cascading down the brae
And off to seize tomorrow.

The pallid sheen of an achromatic dress
Will it lead to an egress
In the affection I feel from one’s caress?
Will it bring me sorrow?

I feel the mist upon my face,
Here in this forgotten place
While I sit, silently, and retrace
That which seems so apropos.

What is the answer? I cannot say.
Hearing these thoughts ricochet,
Trying to figure out how not to betray
My truth, in flight, aglow.

 

II

I attended a party last night.

A dull affair, by most means. Watered down spirits, and I don’t just mean the drinks. I had not planned on staying for long. A couple of glasses, a conversation or two, and then off to bed. But then she approached me.

Was it my aura? Was it the stain on the left side of my torso? Whatever it was, something consociated us, linking us together. Two indelible, intoxicated compatriots.

Slurring her words together, she began to talk of homophones. Words that sounded the same but were not. The contrast between what is and what could easily be. At least, that’s what I assumed she was talking about. It became difficult to discern any specific words from one another. Her diatribe went on, as she pointed out the difference between “pique” and “peak”, between “raise” and “raze.” I was losing patience and was ready to retire.

“And what about censor, censer, and sensor? Who is to say what anything means after all?” She mumbled into incoherence, drifting off into the crowd.

And so I thought. What about them?

Does a censer censor from the senses? That which isn’t seen can still be present. When does a sensor betray a censor? How am I to keep track of my cents? No, my sense. Do the censors have any sense? No, scents. Camphor fills my nose, a sensation of scents, of cense.

I mused on this, inhaling my scotch. Flat stones fitting into palms, skidding across the stream of my thoughts.

She was right, of course.

Who is to say what anything means after all?

 

III

Effervescent ephemera, drifting
From inexperience to something
Satisfactory. Observations can only bring
One so close to reality, before even
Reality begins to whisper
Saccharine vows. Honeysuckle, a most
Bitter tincture, acerbic like wit, caustic like
A lover’s nuzzle. The truth lies somewhere in
Between, within that canyon of
Apprehension and anticipation. Doubt
Creeps across one’s sulci, malachite
Tendrils massaging anxieties. To kill is
No small task, but to execute that which remains
Within? There, does it all flourish. Adequately,
Charms flutter across the skin, stroking and
Instilling vellichor. Or is it petrichor?

 

IV

Falling
Within
Without
Form
A cacophony of
Endless
Carbons
Chained together
Bonded
Fettered
Who is to say
What is up?
What is
Forward?
Who
Is?
Lethe
Leading to nirvana
An end
Or a new beginning

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Player-Response: On the Nature of Interactive Narratives as Literature

After what was probably the most academically rigorous year of my life, I can officially call myself a Master. And that’s pretty cool.

From start to finish, the focus of my time in graduate school was my thesis, a culmination of all my years of research, composition, passion, and abilities as both a writer and a gamer. It was obvious to me what the topic of my thesis would ultimately be, having spent much time defending the merits of video games to my friends and family. This thesis, where I explore how game narratives, specifically Mass Effect, are the pinnacle of modern storytelling and justify their utilization of active participation and hypertextuality, was both a joy to work on and an immense pressure off my shoulders. I am glad that I can now share it with you all today.

Read Player-Response – On the Nature of Interactive Narratives as Literature

Special thanks to Morgan Read-Davidson, my thesis advisor, and Jana Remy and David Winnick, readers on my thesis committee.

The Ashskin and the Sea

Read this story, and more, in the upcoming collection Terminus.


He could not tell whether the salt on his tongue came from his fervent perspiration or the frigid sea spray. It filled his mouth, drying his cheeks and cracking his throat. He burned, ached for the relief of even a droplet of fresh water. Nonetheless, he persisted, pulling the length of frayed rope down, releasing the mainsail of his vessel. Raindrops spattered on his head like needles and soaked through his linen shirt and breeches, which stuck themselves against his sore flesh. It was enough to bring down a lesser man, but the image he created of her, etched forever between the sulci of his brain, drove him forward. She had ignited the fire in his chest, a furious blaze that charred his lungs and spilled ash throughout his capillaries, an inferno which the raging sea could not quench. The sail was free at last, and as the roaring winds blew into the rugged cloth and bore his ship forward, he knew victory was almost at hand. He let go of the ropes and, his hands chewed and blistered, grasped onto the splintering mast at the center of the deck. He squinted his eyes and fixed his firm gaze on the pallid horizon, and the vision of his prize filled his head once more. The island cannot be much further, he told himself. Soon, his bow would breach the craggy shores and she, the Ashskin, would be his.

The tips of her slender fingers could just barely stroke the surface of the rock, but it was otherwise out of her reach. The chain clasped around her ankle, pulled taut, would give no more. She attempted to extend her arm further, feeling the lithe muscles and sinew stretch, as if some invisible force was trying to yank it from her shoulder. Nevertheless, the stone danced at her touch but came no closer. In a huff, she retracted her limb, wiped the strands of limp, flaxen hair from in front of her eyes, and lied back on the slab. She had grown tired of the rain. It was miserable, at first, to be soaked through every layer of garment and integument, but now, it was merely an annoyance, albeit a major one. She returned her thoughts to the same question she had been asking herself since first arriving on her waterlogged island: why? Why was she cursed with beauty? It was not her fault that regents, fueled by lust, led their nations to war in order to win her hand in matrimony. She was not some fragile doll, to be placed on a shelf and admired from a distance, only played with in order to entertain her owner. She had told all that to the barnacled crone, that it was not her intent to bewitch       men into a carnal rage. The hag simply raised a single, mottled finger and pressed it against her rose-petal lips. Hush, this is what is best for you, child. That was what sea-witch told her, and it had irked her ever since. She may be young, but she was not callow. Battles were fought and the lives of thousands were extinguished before her very eyes. She turned over and reached for the rock once more, her soft brow sharpened in animalistic anger, her stained glass eyes burning, her teeth like millstones grinding into each other. She grazed the flint with her fingers and, as if a primordial growth being uprooted, it slid into her palm.

The rolling, ebon clouds and leaden waves seemed to stretch on beyond the length of possibility. It had been days since he had seen any visual landmarks to break the monotony of his voyage. Or had it been weeks? Time became even more intangible to him, as the hours bled into one another, embracing like a newlywed couple consummating their love for the first time. He knew he was close, though. The legend often spoke of the eternal maelstrom that surrounded the Ashskin’s lithic prison, a meager atoll which held a woman of mythic beauty unparalleled in another mortal. He would succeed where others, obviously unworthy adventurers, had failed. His trials would soon be complete. He had conquered the great labyrinth, a warren with infinitely diverging pathways and unremarkable surfaces, which ground down the will of many heroes and turned them into shambling lunatics. He had slayed the revenant knight, whose torment and pain was tempered by his skills with a blade. He had acquired the decaying remnants of the star chart meant to guide one lucky soul to the island. Just one more task, he reminded himself. Just one final struggle and she would be his. He imagined her lying on the slick stone slab, her pale skin fading into the equally ivory clothing that just barely clung to her youthful curves. He bit his tongue, the sharp taste of his sanguine fluid mixing with the brine already between his lips.

Clang clang! She bashed the rock against the blackened chains, each strike resounding with a solid thud. With each pound, the links leapt into the air, as if performing a mating dance for the maiden. This only served to anger her further. Clang clang! Sparks exploded outward with each of her attempts to break her manacles, pricking her smooth legs and hands, marring her pale complexion, but the pain didn’t bother her. Between the fetter chaffing her ankle raw and being forced to rest upon a stone dais, she was used to physical discomfort. Clang clang! The ringing awakened something dormant within her, a memory long-forgotten by time and sunk under the rain. With each clang, she drifted closer and closer to that first ship, the one that the crone used to steal her away from home at her father’s behest and bring her here. Though the canoe only contained the two of them, it flowed down the colorless waters, propelled forward by the will of that barnacled fiend. She did not ever turn her eyes towards the girl, whose tears streamed down milky cheeks, whose cries were filled with confusion and fear. Clang clunk! A fracture running through one of the chain links split open, as if it had spread its legs, and slithered down the side of the dais, conforming to a lifeless metallic pile. Without a moment’s hesitation, she pushed herself off the raised black slab and began to sprint down the roughly-carved path leading to the shore, her feet clapping against the drenched steps. She did not hear it at first, the pounding in her ears muting out all else around her, but as it grew louder and louder, her scamper slowed down to a halt and it became all she could hear. It was the sound of some beast, growling a trilled, glottal roar that filled her bones with dread.

He readied the slender harpoon, its jagged edge rusted by sea spray and gore. In precise steps, he surveyed the waters, feverish intent in his eyes. The crests were too rough. It was impossible for him to detect movement beneath the surface. Just then, he heard another roar, this one as fierce and guttural as before, only louder. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. He spun in circles around the rain-slicked deck, his eyes nearly bursting out of his skull, open wide and now filled with the same fear and rage as before battle. The lactic acid began to build up in his arm, stinging his muscles, draining his energy. He merely readjusted the grip on his weapon’s rod, trying his best to ignore the building pain. He continued to scan the seemingly limitless sea, but there was nothing. Nothing but the endless, crashing waves and gloom overcast. As he concentrated on the image of the Ashskin, a streak of doubt flashed before her pearl face. Was he to fail here, to come so close to his goal only for his efforts to be forgotten on the pelagic floor? No. He had succeeded before, even when his chances at survival seemed dire. He must—he will reach that island! The unholy growls started once more, clamoring inside his skull. It was here. He had enough time to readjust his footing before a massive shadow rocketed out from the water’s surface. It coiled and writhed as it came into focus, its malachite scales glistening in the downpour, venom trickling down its forked fangs, its ruby eyes fixed upon him.

She left petite footprints in the sodden sand as she stepped onto the shore from the last black step. She had not been on the beach since that clammy hag brought her onto the island, but she hoped it would be more pleasant than her rostrum. It was not. The shoreline led out to the featureless, turbulent waters, broken only by the equally featureless veil of mist taunting her from the horizon. Her vision darted across the sand, looking for…yes! The kelp-eyed witch may have destroyed their canoe long ago, but the petrified bow still sat on the coast’s edge, the hull coated in a thick layer of sea foam. She may not know much about seacraft, or, rather, anything, but even she could tell that if she tried just to ride the timber skeleton, she would soon find herself among the fish. Scrutinizing her surroundings, the only thing she turned up among the weeds and sand were the same smooth rocks surrounding her carven bed. What other option did she have? Should she resign herself to never be the master of her own fate? Inhaling deeply, letting the salt coat her lungs and her resolve, she gathered the stones one by one and lined the bottom of the fragmented boat. When she was satisfied, she snapped off a plank and dragged the hull into the water. Half surprised and half hopeful as she saw the vessel promisingly bob up and down in the turbulent waters, she took a timid step inside and, pushing off the sand with her plank paddle, she soon found herself surrounded by the sea. It was almost fortuitous that the waters were choppy, as it helped to keep the rain out of the boat. How she wished the rains would cease.

The serpent reeled back, hissing a high pitched whistle reminiscent of steam rushing out of a kettle. Its clarion ring reverberated throughout his body. His bones seemed to vibrate in sync with the hiss, echoing inside him as though to paralyze his actions. What kept him moving, he did not know. He tugged at the lines and spun around the mainsail without having to even think about it, his instinct guiding him, all the while keeping his vision focused on the ophidian nightmare. The creature lurched its head. It was about to strike. As it rushed toward him, its jaws snapping shut as a hunter’s trap would, he jerked the rudder to opposite direction, shifting just out of the deadly strike. It regained its composure, shrieking its same unearthly scream before blitzing once more. The ship merely changed course yet again, dodging its attacks, swerving in a serpentine pattern in irreverence to the oncoming hellion. Once more, it gnashed at the vessel, this time snagging the very top of the sail with one of its barbed fangs. Its lashes were becoming more accurate. He knew he would not be able to avoid the beast forever. He closed his eyes imagined the Ashskin, her delicate, welcoming smile beckoning him to join with her, the windfall of his dreams. Opening his eyes just as quick, he spun the ship around once more to face the monstrosity. Whether it was divine assistance or some demon spurring him towards death, the winds seemed to shift, and at once, the sloop charged toward oblivion. Its crimson eyes flickered as the ship approached, salivating venom. Extending its head back once more, it struck. Still on impulse, he leapt backward, just barely avoiding its serrated teeth. As it rent the mast and deck, the vessel’s bowsprit impaled the basilisk’s soft underbelly. It roared, but this time, its cry echoed with frothing anguish, blood spilling into its throat. As soon the spar pierced its scales, the torrential downpour ceased. He had just enough time to gaze up at the creature’s silhouette, a black mass against the clearing heavens, before its skull crashed down upon the ship.

As if passing through a curtain, the waves fell asleep and the skies opened up. She held her hand before her face, light streaming from between her fingers. How long had it been since she last saw the sun? Her eyelids flitted rapidly, adjusting to the marvelous brightness. The spots in her eyes dissipated, and at last, she saw colors other than black and grey. The cerulean sky, the opalescent orb reflecting off turquoise waters, the thousands of muted shades of sea life just below the surface. The warmth on her skin permeated throughout her body, reigniting her smothered core. She was frightened, but also felt something different, something unfamiliar to her. Was this what hope felt like? Whatever it was, whatever was out there, she knew it had to be better than the resignation she left behind on that drenched cay in the middle of a long forgotten nowhere. On the edge of the horizon, where the sea met limitless possibilities, she saw the faintest hint of a blur, some shape that broke the tedium of the seascape. She squinted her eyes and crinkled her brow as it flew across the water, coming closer until she could recognize its shape: a ship! A massive galleon, flying the flag of some unknown nation. She instinctually began to raise her arms, but hesitated. She could not know if they would treat her like all the rest.

He awoke with a start, gasping for air, lying splayed in delicate sand, with gentle waves lapping at his heels. His vision blurred, he wiped a coarse hand across his face, brushing away the saltwater. Rising, the haze before his vision began to part and he could now see his surroundings. Splintered planks of resin-painted wood, all that remained of his humble ship, dotted the embankment. The shore he stood on extended a small distance before fading into charcoaled rock, which loomed above him like a mesa. His eyes followed a single winding path, carved into the stone, leading up the plateau. This must be it, he thought. This is the island, and at the top… Without hesitating, he sprinted up the trail, the rough-hewn stone digging into his feet, but he did not care, for at the top would be the sweetest panacea, the Ashskin. As he made his way up the spiraling passage, he considered what he would tell the object of his desire. Would he regale her with the exploits he underwent upon her behalf? Would he devote himself entirely to her sheer magnificence? His pace slowed as he suddenly remembered that his ship, his only method of transportation and escape, was obliterated. But it did not matter! He would be united with his goddess, and that was the important part. He gained speed and hurried to the top of the promontory, his heart bursting with infatuated joy. It took him a few moments to realize his opalescent dream was not there. There was no fair maiden clasped to the chain hanging broken from the onyx dais, no sign of his devotion. He stood there, frozen in confusion, dismay, disbelief, as dusky clouds gathered above and rain began to fall.

Composition Processes of First-Year Students

As part of my graduate studies, I was tasked with overseeing and completing a research project on a topic related to the field of composition. I knew I wanted to look at how writers write, how the changes one will make from a first draft to a second affect the reading of the final product, how a piece of writing evolves from a concept to a publication. Starting only with a basic proposal, I received approval from my university’s Institutional Review Board, acquired writing samples from the test subjects, and began my investigation into how first-year writing students modify and adapt their compositions, in order to create an improvement.

If that wasn’t enough, this project was also presented at the 2018 College English Association Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, as part of the Attitude, Access, Advocacy: Overcoming Obstacles in First-Year Writing panel. This was my first time presenting at an academic conference and, as nervous as I was, I hope to return one day with more pertinent research.

Read Composition Processes of First-Year Students

Please keep in mind this was a project meant to be small in scale and completed within a period of three months. As such, this research project is limited to a case study of three individuals.

Special thanks to Ian Barnard, the professor and principal investigator overseeing the project, and Meghan Kemp-Gee, the professor who lent me her students as subjects.

Rhakaa Story Document

Another project I worked on for a short time was called Astrae, a puzzle platformer set deep in an alien installation. The player is a young explorer who gets embroiled in a conflict between the last two avatars of the Rhakaa, a long-dead civilization of avian warriors. My first task was to write about what Rhakaa life was like during the reign of their empire.

Unfortunately, my graduate school studies cut into my ability to work on this delightful game and I had to step away from the project. Please give the development team some of your time and check out the progress they made on their unique property.

Biology

The Rhakaa (Ere’kh for ‘the Risen’) were a bipedal humanoid species. They were believed to have stood upwards of seven feet tall, with long claw-like appendages and fringes of feathers attached to their arms and legs. Rather lean and muscular, they had the ability to leap to high locations with ease and even glide for short distances.

History

The Rhakaa civilization, from the few records available, spanned nearly 10,000 years of history, originating from the planet Aramkesh (‘Land of Ancients’). Early information shows they lived in various disorganized clans, until many of the clans united under the leadership of the Rhakaa who would become the first Emperor, Corthayx I. Instituting a harsh, militaristic caste system, he conquered much of the territory on Aramkesh during the Unification and ruled over a warrior culture that culled any weaknesses or imperfections. He founded the empire’s capital, Teryx, which became a major trade hub over the course of centuries.

It is not known how or when the Rhakaa achieved spaceflight, but at some point in their empire, a technological renaissance occurred and soon after, their empire exponentially expanded, claiming planets with ease and even expanding outward to new star systems. It was also around this point that the Rhakaa began to experiment with cybernetics and genetic engineering, fine-tuning their biology to push their bodies beyond what was considered possible. Over the course of millennia, as their DNA became more and more modified, it became aware that their genetic code was rapidly unraveling and mutating, placing their society in imminent peril of destruction. A coalition of members of various castes, under the leadership of the last emperor, Xanthot III, set to the task of building Aerie sanctuary facilities to study the degradation and develop a cure. The afflicted were placed into stasis and the healthy were divided into two groups: those who would defend what remained of the empire, and those who actively researched a cure. As their numbers dwindled, the remaining Rhakaa created AI Overseers to run the facilities and assist in the research. Ultimately, the last of the Rhakaa entered stasis, now completely relying on the Overseers to save their people.

Aerie Keshkaa-0 is the only such facility whose location is currently known. The facility is maintained by Overseers Seq and Myz, named after the Primes Seq’rha the Elegist and Myzandir the Centurion. The two performed as programmed, with Seq developing a fondness for the Rhakaa and Myz becoming more assertive and experimental. When the final Rhakaa went into stasis, Seq began to pressure Myz into developing a cure for their creators, while Myz kept up security measures to keep the creators’ safe from the enemies that encroached upon their territory. As supplies dwindled and became virtually nonexistent, Myz attempted to wrest control of the Sanctuary out from under Seq. In retaliation, Seq restricted Myz’s access to the facility’s systems, further slowing down research. The conflict eventually came to a head when Seq attempted to regain full access to the Sanctuary, resulting in a degradation of the facility and the main generator to malfunction. Backup power was eventually restored, but the Rhakaa stasis pods had been too badly damaged in the outage. By the time repair drones were sent to fix the pods, the Rhakaa were long-since dead.

Culture

The Rhakaa are obsessed with perfection and, as a result, their desire to achieve perfection is reflected in every aspect of their life. The symbol of the Rhakaa is the Hexagon, where each side represents one of the Six Virtues of Rhakaa culture: Tenacity, Ferocity, Sagacity, Vitality, Adaptability, and Austerity. Rhakaa architecture expresses this obsession with the hexagon. Their structures are linear with harsh, imposing shapes and angular geometry contrasted with the organic world surrounding them.

The Rhakaa are quick to remove any sort of weakness from their ranks. As a result, many Rhakaa do not live past adolescence. Those that do are given the opportunity to prove themselves in the  Ritual of the Claw, a week-long coming-of-age ceremony and series of tests, which ultimately determines the caste each Rhakaa will be a member of; until the Ritual, Rhakaa children are borne into the caste of their parents. Trials of strength, intelligence, and durability push each Rhakaa to the test, with those that survive becoming the next paragons of Rhakaa culture.

The Rhakaa do not believe in deities, instead opting to worship the ancient champion Primes of their people. All Emperors are included in this pantheon of Primes, as well as those who gave up much, including their lives, to protect Rhakaa civilization. Different Primes are called upon to assist in numerous situations; Zhaquir the Fastidious, for example, is channeled when Rhakaa are called to make a tough situation about their own lives or futures.

Government

The Rhakaa are ruled over by a singular Emperor, who assigns various Viscounts to govern over the regions of the Rhakaa Empire. The Empire was founded by Corthayx I the Sovereign, and his bloodline continued to rule over the Rhakaa until the last emperor, Xanthot III the Unguis.

Viscounts are determined by the current living emperor and can be replaced at any time, if the Emperor sees fit. One record indicates that a number of Viscounts planned to overthrow Emperor Takhirius I the Nefarious; in response to this potential coup, Takhirius had every Viscount replaced, with each new lord having to slay their predecessor. Rarely has such a culling of Viscounts occurred during the Rhakaa’s reign.

Military

After completing the Ritual of the Claw, each new Rhakaa adult would begin military training and service. The Rhakaa military was divided up into several ranks. Hunters made up the frontline troops and served under Greatwings, commanders that also acted as law enforcement for the Empire. Shadowsteps worked as scouts, envoys, ambassadors, and even spies.

Although the Emperor ultimately presides over the military, each Emperor also assigns a Suncrest general to advise in tactical situations and, in rare cases, act with impunity.


Special thanks to Leonora Moran and the Laguna College of Art and Design, for turning me onto this project.

About LAF

I was born on July 22, 1993, in Los Angeles, CA. I am the youngest of four sons. My older brothers consist of a law professor and blogger, a filmmaker, and a neuroscientist. I am a writer and a gamer. My parents are obviously proud of me.

I’ve been writing stories ever since I was very young. Mostly, they consisted of weird tales of what happened if Mario and Luigi got caught in the Spawn universe, but at least I was on the track to come up with my own original stories. And I did. I wrote and wrote and wrote, coming up with fantastic worlds with interesting creatures and back-stories. Most of my tales were based in fantasy or science-fiction worlds, which probably helped influence my passion for gaming.

I remember the first film I ever saw: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Most kids my age started off with The Lion King or Barney. Not I. I dove head-first into the galaxy of Jedi and Sith, of Republic and Empire, and never came back. From that first captivating text scroll, I became a nerd, obsessed with fantasy, science-fiction, computers, books, films, and especially video games. The first game I ever personally owned was Pokemon Pinball, but I remember sitting with my older brothers watching them play Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These games were not only extremely fun, but they created experiences more powerful than books or movies could ever hope to achieve. By direct interaction, the audience is causing the events of the game to occur, and through that interaction, the audience can experience stories and characters that reach out and touch us at our very core, at what it means to be human.

As Carl Sagan once said, “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding people together who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic” (Cosmos, Part 11: “The Persistence of Memory). Writing is one of the most essential forms of human connection, to be able to reach out and touch someone only with your ideas. That is why I love writing, and that is why I decided to post my writing here, online, so that, even if I only reach out to one person, I have influenced them in some way and touched the very core of what makes us human.

But enough with all the serious stuff. I hope you enjoy what you read here and come back for more.

We’ll Save the Princess! Documents

Though this project ultimately never came to fruition beyond a short demo, We’ll Save the Princess! was a fun strategy role-playing game I designed, tasking players to traverse a fantasy world and complete random confrontations within a certain time frame. Part-Oregon Trail, part-Final Fantasy, this game would feature over one hundred unique encounters, ten playable classes, and multiple endings and milestones to reward players across playthroughs.

DesignDoc_v9
Encounters

These slides would have been used during the introduction cutscene. Click an image to scroll through and read the game’s backstory.

Character art for two playable classes, the Ranger and the Rogue, and a Bandit enemy.


Perhaps one day, Princess will see the light of day. Until then, however, these documents will remain as a testament to this amusing little project.

Special thanks to Mike Stimpson, Logan Jensen, and Kevin Hewitt, for their roles in the development of this property.