Archive for January, 2016

Bluescreen Early Access: Overworld!

Monday, January 25th, 2016

In the world of Bluescreen, Overworld is one of the most popular sports: a virtual reality video game that combines elements of several different esports and MMOs. I like to describe it as a combination of League of Legends, Counterstrike, and City of Heroes, but unless you’ve played those games you have no idea what that means. Today I’m going to tell you, but first I let us feast our eyes upon this glorious image:

cherry dogs action

The art, as always, is by the inimitable Santo Ibarra.

I remember very clearly what got me interested in esports in the first place: I was reading an article about world travel, where it said that professional video game players were now officially eligible for athletic visas. This felt to me like a profound milestone–if virtual athletes are legally considered equal to physical athletes, that’s a strong sign that the electronic world is truly melding with the real world. I started looking into esports, and what they entailed and what their culture was like, and it fascinated me. I was living in Germany at the time, so as I learned more about League of Legends (one of the biggest esports in the world) I started to follow the European leagues and championships. (My favorite teams, if you’re curious, are Fnatic and the Lemondogs; I think the Lemondogs have broken up by now, but I named my book’s team the Cherry Dogs as an homage to my first esports fandom). I admit that my initial opinion of esports was low–it looked like video games with all the fun sucked out of it–but that’s because I didn’t understand it. I tend to play video games in a very loose, slipshod way, running around and doing whatever; kind of like a kid on a playground just kicking a ball all over the place. And that’s plenty fun if that’s what you want, but a whole bunch of kids all kicking a ball on a playground at the same time isn’t the same thing as a sport; if you organize them, designate which ones are goalies and forwards and defenders, and define the rules and a way to win, suddenly those random kids become a soccer team, and the unstructured play becomes a sport. Once I realized that esports were the same way, and that the restrictions were actually there to provide structure and focus, it got a lot more exciting, and I was hooked.

As I started to assemble my own fictional esport, I drew from the ones I liked the most. League of Legends (and other games like it, called MOBAs) have two teams of players making progress back and forth across a map, gaining and losing territory, with defensive turrets as both a hindrance and a marker of progress; it had combat, exploration, and teamwork, so I threw that in the blender. I also wanted something far more visceral, though, since virtual reality lets you get right down in the action, more like a first-person shooter game such as Halo. I used to play a ton of Counterstrike back in the day, so I borrowed some elements of that–teamwork, gear loadouts, variable maps, and some of the terminology all went in the blender as well. I was building a fun game, but it wasn’t there yet, and I realized that I was missing a key element: my own characters. What would Marisa love about a video game? I thought long and hard about it, and decided that a key feature for her would be customizability–there had to be a way to personalize your game, or your character, in order to really grab Marisa’s attention. That’s when I pulled in City of Heroes, my favorite (now defunct) MMO, in large part because of the options to customize your character and–more importantly–your costume. It was a superhero game, and the costume creator was amazing, and I would spend hours and days just building new characters, or building alternate costumes for existing characters, and have as much or more fun than I did actually playing the game. Now that I was designing my own game, with an unlimited imaginary budget, I made the costume creator INSANELY customizable, able to generate almost any look, shape, and design you want. Want to play a lithe forest warrior with magic arrows? Done. A giant rhino-warrior who can turn invisible and summon parrots? Done. A psychic chipmunk with seven hands and the ability to swallow enemies whole? Weird, but done. Maybe I went a little overboard, but I gave my imaginary game six classes, 72 powersets, more than 20,000 possible character builds, and an essentially infinite variety of costume options.

Most of the time the Cherry Dogs use game avatars that look nothing like themselves (well, except Sahara, who’s always in character as the online brand she’s created for herself), but every now and then they put on their “team uniforms” and play like you see them in the image above. You can also see their call signs, which are like the usernames or gamertags they use to identify themselves.

We’re so close to the book launch now, folks. SO CLOSE. What amazing new preview will I give you next week? Tune in and see….

Bluescreen Early Access: Jaya!

Monday, January 18th, 2016

As I created more characters and put together the group of friends at the core of this series, I knew that I needed all five girls to be different from each other, and in meaningful ways. Marisa is our prototypical hacker; Sahara is the fashion-focused queen bee; Fang is the obsessive gamer and Anja is the wild card. All of them are breaking some kind of stereotype, and that’s on purpose, but it left me with no girl characters who acted (if you’ll permit me the term) “girly.” So I created Jaya Tagore:

jaya page

A word like “girly” has a lot of baggage, and the entire concept comes under fire a lot these days. Part of the purpose of this book, in fact, is to show teen girls doing active, awesome things instead of just wearing pretty dresses and pining over boys. The issue over girly-ness comes to a head, in my mind, with LEGO. You probably remember the massive brouhaha that arose when LEGO came out with their Friends line a few years ago: “Why,” people asked, “can’t girls just play with the normal LEGO spaceships and pirates and whatnot? Why do they have to have their own line of play sets that build stupid pet shops and hair salons instead of awesome tanks and robots?” And They kind of have a point, or at least they would if LEGO were somehow restricting girls to ONLY play with the pet shops and hair salons. Demanding that either gender conform to some kind of clich├ęd pigeonhole would, indeed, be wrong.

But here’s the thing: that’s not what LEGO was doing. They weren’t restricting either gender from doing anything, they were just adding a new option to their range. My daughter looked at the Friends toys and said “Finally they’re making LEGOs for me!” Her preferences are the opposite of everyone who was complaining: she thinks tanks and robots are stupid, and pet shops are hair salons are awesome. She thinks cute little LEGO girls riding cute little LEGO horses are the greatest thing our civilization has ever produced. These “girly” LEGOs are every bit as creative and challenging and constructive as the other sets, and yet people were attacking them because of their theme. They were well-meaning people–let’s be clear about that–but without intending to do so they were attacking my daughter along with the LEGOs. They were saying that because she (eagerly) conforms to the “girly” stereotype, she was somehow being a girl incorrectly. And I don’t for one second believe that to be true.

The problem with cute LEGOs, or pretty dresses, or pining over boys, or anything else we consider “girly,” lies not with the choice but with the word “girly.” Loving pet shops and hair salons is every bit as valid as loving tanks and robots; we only fail when we limit those choices by demanding–or even assuming–that only one gender will like them, or is allowed to like them. And I, without meaning to, had fallen into the same trap, and in my effort to make my characters seem cool to one of my daughters I had completely excluded the likes and preferences of my other daughter. If I was really going to show the full spectrum of what a girl could be, I needed one who loved pretty dresses and cute puppies and fancy flowers and so on.

And that’s Jaya: she giggles, she gushes over boys, and she loves pretty things. She’s also an adult (21 years old, where most of the other girls are 17), a college graduate, and a tech support specialist for Johara, one of the largest telecom companies in the world. She lives in Mumbai, knows the other girls only through the Internet, and speaks about a dozen languages (Marisa sometimes jokes that Jaya speaks English better than she does). She also struggles with depression and other mood disorders, and has two implants designed to monitor her neural state and dispense medication as necessary. She’s mature and sophisticated and frilly and froofy and intelligent and “girly” all at once, and she’s awesome.

Now you’ve met all five Cherry Dogs! Next week, let’s take a moment to meet them all in their Overworld avatars….

Bluescreen Early Access: Omar!

Monday, January 11th, 2016

We’ve talked about the Marisa Carneseca, and we’ve talked about her Overworld team, and we’ve talked about her friends, but what about her enemies? She’s made plenty on her own, poking her nose in the parts of the Internet where it doesn’t belong, but her greatest nemesis is one she inherited from her father–an old, bitter feud that’s carried on to a second generation that doesn’t even understand it. The Carneseca family hates the Maldonado family, and vice versa, and Marisa is trapped in a gray area with the youngest Maldonado, Omar.

omar page

Image, as always, by Santo Ibarra.

Omar is one year older than Marisa, and their lives are wildly different: Marisa is the poor, tech-obsessed, daughter of struggling restaurant owners, while Omar is the rich, business-minded son of a powerful crime boss. But one central mystery ties them together: when they children, still too young to understand what was going on, they were in a car accident. Marisa lost her arm, and Omar lost his mother, and if anybody knows what happened or why they were there in the first place, they’re not telling. Ever since that day Marisa and Omar have been raised to hate each other, and forbidden to talk to each other, but when Omar starts dating Anja he and Marisa finally start to get to know each other, and they don’t understand what the big deal is. But a lifetime of distrust is hard to overcome, and Omar just feels untrustworthy….

Omar’s entire family has been groomed to help in their father’s “business.” His oldest brother is a cop, ensuring that the police don’t get too close to the Maldonado’s illegal activities; his other brother runs the family’s Internet presence, too damaged by the car accident to feel comfortable in public. Their sister is practically royalty, spoiled rotten and used as a social figurehead, wining and dining the Maldonado’s various business associates. Omar, recently graduated from high school, is using his natural gifts for charm and cunning to act as his father’s front man, the silver-tongued devil who talks fast and makes deals and helps keep the business itself running smoothly.

Omar is roguishly handsome and effortlessly charming, but you don’t grow up in a motherless crime family without a little emotional baggage. Marisa and her friends trust him for now, but how long will it last?

Bluescreen Early Access: Fang!

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

It’s 2016, and distance is becoming less important–we communicate through phones and the Internet more than we do in person, and more of our social lives become digital every day. By 2050, in the world of Bluescreen, distance is practically meaningless. You don’t even have to pull out a phone anymore: just think it, and your djinni can connect you to anyone, anywhere in the world. Marisa has friends right there in LA, like Sahara and Anja and Bao, but she also has close friends on the other side of the planet, and even though they’ve never met in person they’re virtually inseparable. Say hello to Wong Fang, from Beijing.

fang page 2

Fang is younger than the other girls by a couple of years, but she is by far the most obsessed with Overworld, and she and Marisa have been on the team together longer than anybody else. Fang is…well, maybe I need to explain a little bit about Overworld. It’s a virtual reality game, which is basically just a mashup of my favorite video games all blended together and turned into a sport. Imagine League of Legends crossed with City of Heroes crossed with Counter Strike–you move across a map fighting minions and killing towers and trying to blow up the enemy’s base, but you’re down inside of the action, running and jumping and everything, plus you get to customize your powers and appearance down to a ridiculous degree of control. That’s actually how Marisa and Fang met–Fang was looking to start a team, and Marisa had just gotten famous for some of her costume designs, and they started talking. Just like a sport, each player has a position: soccer has Forwards and Defenders and such, and Overworld has things like General and Sniper. Fang is the Jungler, which basically means that she sneaks around in the sewers underneath the map killing monster and hunting other players. Why is it called a Jungler if they play in the sewers, especially considering that most maps don’t even have jungles or sewers in them? The kids in 2050 have no idea–those are old, old terms from back when their grandparents were playing games, and they’ve just stuck around in common usage.

The thing about Fang is that she’s kind of two people–online, playing Overworld, she’s a stone-cold killer and a boisterous, irreverent jokester. She eats, sleeps, and breathes Overworld, and a passable coder, and she loves getting involved in the schemes and trouble the other girls drag her into. Offline, though, she’s quiet and shy. She doesn’t know how to talk to people face-to-face, and prefers to live as much of her life as possible in a virtual reality instead of a real one.

As a writer, it was both fun and challenging to write a character who never appears in person–fun because it was different, and because I got to find cool new ways to keep her relevant to the story even though she’s all the way on the other side of the world. The challenge came from the fact that keeping her relevant was way, way too easy–distance really is meaningless, like I said, and if Marisa was ever in trouble for any reason her friend Fang was right there for her, always, anywhere. Writing a world in which communication is so constant, and everything is always connected, really kept me on my toes and helped me see the future–and the present–in a new light.

Who should we talk about next week? So far everyone’s been friends, so how about someone they don’t really trust? How about the other half of the big, mysterious feud at the center of Marisa’s life: Omar Maldonado.