Sunday, August 28, 2016

[CRIT] Surviving "Ten Candles"

I have fallen hard for Stephen Dewey's Ten Candles. The mechanics are tight, the atmosphere is palpable, and "tragic horror" is a fresh genre that I am eager to explore. Seeing how my players portray characters whose deaths are inevitable will be a thrilling experience for us all.
But as a Storyteller, I cling stubbornly to life. To me, the enticing thing about horror is not the deaths themselves, but the impact those deaths have on the survivors. How do they change? Who do they become? When they have reconciled with their trauma - if they ever do - how do they cope with the next one?
Of course, I plan on playing the game straight a few times, but I have come up with two methods for constructing thematically-appropriate endings for characters in Ten Candles when total annihilation isn't the intended outcome.

Bargaining with Death

Sometimes death is too merciful an end.
In my setting Blue Mountain County, those who die - and many do - had their deaths planned from the start by the machinations of the God-Machine, predetermined liberation from the captivity, regret, and unattainable desire inherent to their mortal coils. Some, however, have seen the God-Machine's blueprints. They can dodge its agents, the gears grinding ominously in the aether cuing their arrival. Though attempting to dismantle the cosmos-spanning Machine is a noble goal, it is a fruitless one; they must abandon their lives and stay one step ahead of the agents who pursue them, scrambling to decipher the butterfly effect before it catches up to them.
This is not a life worth living. And if a character survives Ten Candles, their life shouldn't be either.
If a character would die, the GM can instead offer them an alternative, tailor-fitted to the character but feeding into a single overall outcome. Some characters will have the traits requisite to accept such a fate - bravery or cowardice, loyalty or treachery, faith or spite - and others will not. This should be a difficult choice, one that expands upon the themes presented in Ten Candles by having characters barter with death:
How much is their ability to die worth to them?
In the case of Blue Mountain County, those who escape death would become subversives against the God-Machine in their own unique ways, recording new final messages that depict the finality of that choice. They become beacons in a darkness that will always be racing to snuff them.
"These things are true. The world is dark."
"And we are alive," the survivors will respond. But their voices quaver with uncertainty. The notion of "alive" is hollow in a world that has gone dark without them.

The Final Girl

Sometimes death cuts short the catharsis of horror.
Every horror movie has to have its Final Girl: the individual who against all odds is the only one left to confront the killer. Often, this individual is selected based on certain criteria, the chiefest of which is whether or not it would be interesting if that character survived, or if it would at least be more interesting than if they didn't. Having a Final Girl gives everyone someone to identify with and root for, the vehicle through which the catharsis that horror brings is delivered.
The GM chooses to spare a character based on logic of their design. Is the character the most or least likely to survive? Is the character the best loved or the most hated? Is the character the only one who didn't run off into the forest to fuck? Regardless, it is now this character who has the responsibility of making everyone's sacrifices mean something.
And those lives need to weigh heavy.
The Last Girl keeps the memories of the dead kindled, matches struck against the vortex of the darkness. They record final messages on the behalf of themselves and each other character, perhaps perverting their identities to fit their agenda. Whether or not the Last Girl goes on to become a beacon in the darkness is irrelevant: she survived, and she should not have. The Last Girl converts all the anguish present in Ten Candles into catharsis, but at what cost?
"These things are true. The world is dark."
"And I am alive," the Last Girl responds, shifting under the burdens those who died for her left behind.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

[&] The Complete Plot of Hotline Miami

Before you ask, yes, Hotline Miami 2 at one point completely consumed my every waking hour. And my eardrums. And my poor, poor mouse and keyboard. I did beat the game on Hard, which I consider a significant personal milestone, and proof that I am one patient motherfucker.
This post is a summary of the plot of both Hotline Miami games in correct chronological order, so it’s all pretty much spoilers. This was the most popular post on my old Tumblr, and since I haven't seen another post that covers this subject as extensively, I figured I'd archive it here. I also did a lot of research to put this post together, and it would be a shame if all that hard work (read: playing video games and watching cut-scenes on YouTube) went to waste

The Cold War Goes Hot

Hotline Miami takes place in an alternate universe where the Cold War escalated to actual warfare instead of the United States and Russia just staring each other down across the ocean. They engage in some pretty brutal island warfare, culminating in Russia annexing Hawaii. This is known as the Russo-American war.
In 1985, Beard and Jacket are members of a special military task force called the Ghost Wolves. The Ghost Wolves are deployed to Hawaii on a mission to reclaim it. When they arrive on the island, they have their picture taken by Evan Wright, a war journalist.
As the war progresses, the Colonel in command of the Ghost Wolves slowly goes mad; in a drunken stupor, he enters their tent wearing a panther’s head with the 50 Blessings symbol carved into its forehead, ranting: “This is my true nature! We’re animals! There’s no denying it! A bunch of goddamn animals! They’re sending us out to slaughter or be slaughtered… we don’t even know why we’re fighting now, do we?”
During a raid on a power plant - the Ghost Wolves’ final mission - a booby-trapped elevator explodes, mortally wounding Jacket and killing the rest of his unit. Beard drags Jacket out of the power plant to safety just as the power plant self-destructs. As Jacket is airlifted to safety, he tries to thank Beard for saving him. Beard replies with “no need to thank me, kid. It’s on the house” and gives Jacket the picture that Evan took of them. Beard then returns to San Francisco and takes a job at a convenience store.
On April 3rd 1986, Russia nukes San Francisco in retaliation for the United States reclaiming Hawaii. In-game, we see Beard get vaporized by the nuke while on the phone with Jacket. Much like Japan during World War II, these events force the United States into an armistice known as the Russo-American Coalition.

The Miami Maniac

50 Blessings is a nationalist organization hellbent on toppling the Russo-American Coalition. It is heavily implied that the Colonel founded 50 Blessings, or at least inspired it. 50 Blessings disguises itself as a patriotic newsletter, using the information provided by members to threaten them into assassinating members of the Russian Mafia. Typically, 50 Blessings provides orders by leaving messages on its members’ answering machines that are disguised as mundane house calls.
Jacket signs up to be a member of 50 Blessings, driven to the breaking point over the futility of the Ghost Wolves’ mission and the death of Beard. It’s likely that he knows exactly what 50 Blessings is, considering that he was present during its conception. Either that, or the Colonel recruited Jacket, knowing full well that he would be a willing candidate.
It is at this point that the events of Hotline Miami transpire, between April 3rd and July 23rd 1986: Jacket single-handedly thins out the presence of the Russian Mafia in Miami, Florida. His killing spree slowly erodes his psyche, causing him to hallucinate Beard, whose death was the catalyst for his rampage.
In the background, Biker stomps out the majority of 50 Blessings’ Miami operatives, desperate to get to the bottom of who’s sending him threats and phone calls. During one mission, Jacket is called to Phonehom to prevent Biker from uncovering phone records that would expose 50 Blessings. Jacket horribly maims Biker, but does not kill him.
50 Blessings finds itself unable to control Jacket, who is completely Section 8 by this point. As such, it sends Richter to eliminate Jacket before he exposes 50 Blessings altogether. Richter waits for Jacket in his apartment, kills his girlfriend - a prostitute rescued during one of Jacket’s early missions - and shoots Jacket when he returns.
Jacket is brought to a hospital and is treated under police supervision. He is able to escape, however, and he resumes his rampage, first by shooting up a police department. He finds Richter in captivity - likely captured when Jacket was taken to the hospital - and decides to spare his life.
Jacket’s killing spree ends at the mansion of the Russian Mafia Boss, who he promptly assassinates. He tosses the picture of him and Beard over the balcony - finally at peace - and is willingly escorted away by police. He is sentenced to life in prison. Evan Wright, Biker, and the Fans are present at his trial.


The following events take place between October and December 1991, all of which were inspired by Jacket’s rampage.

Midnight Animal

Actor Martin Brown stars in the exploitation film Midnight Animal as the Pig Butcher, a fictionalized version of Jacket. Martin has a mental breakdown during an interview with Ellen Degeneres, ranting about how he’s using the film to act out his murderous fantasies; whether he’s a true psychopath or a method actor who went too far down the rabbit hole, we’ll never know. Martin is killed during filming when he is shot with a gun containing live ammo instead of blanks, a la Brandon Lee.

The Rise and Fall of the New Russian Mafia

The Son of the Russian Mafia Boss has reorganized the remnants of the Russian Mafia that Jacket left behind. In an attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps, the Son eliminates the other gangs in Miami through fierce gang warfare and assimilates their territories, returning the Russian Mafia to its former glory.
Meanwhile, a group of Fans who idolize Jacket have been murdering random thugs in order to get the attention of the media and 50 Blessings (which is no longer operating in Miami due to the efforts of Biker and Jacket, unbeknownst to the Fans).
The Fans overhear a phone call made by a Henchman of the Russian Mafia. Through this, they learn that the Miami chapter of the Russian Mafia is back on its feet. For the Fans, this is a golden opportunity.
The Fans attempt to storm the new headquarters of the Russian Mafia, dealing serious casualties before the Son - in a drug-induced rampage - kills them all (except for Tony, who is executed by Detective Manny Pardo when the police arrive on-scene) and throws himself off of the roof, falling to his death.

The Miami Mutilator

Detective Manny Pardo is a serial killer - the Miami Mutilator - who uses his badge to get away with murder, even “investigating” the scenes of his own murders to give himself an alibi. He is furious that his murders are being overshadowed by Jacket’s continued press coverage, the Fan’s “15 seconds of fame,” his friend Evan Wright’s book, and the drama surrounding Midnight Animal.
Detective Pardo spends the last of his days boarded up in his own house, paranoid of his killing spree being discovered - especially by Evan - despite the fact that nobody really gives a shit about what he did.

The Miami Maniac Memoir

Evan Wright is writing a book about the Miami Maniac killings, called The Miami Maniac Memoir. Evan’s wife leaves him because he cannot support her or their kids as long as he is obsessing over the book. She takes the kids with her to Hawaii.
Evan’s friend Detective Manny Pardo gives him his first lead, a contact at The Golden Truckstop, a casino owned by the Russian Mafia. The contact assures Evan that the masked maniacs were far too organized to simply be a vigilante group. Manny didn’t think that Evan would actually pursue the lead, and tries to goad him into writing about the Miami Mutilator instead.
During the writing process, Evan is able to get in contact with Biker, meeting him in a bar for an interview. Biker divulges the existence of 50 Blessings to Evan. After the events at Phonehom, Biker hid out in the desert for two years until everything blew over. Biker shoos Evan away when Evan refuses to pay him for the information, on account of it being insubstantial.
Later, Evan gets in contact with Richter’s mother, a sickly woman who is incapable of taking care of herself. Through her, Evan is able to arrange a phone call interview with Richter. During the interview, Evan learns that Richter was extorted by 50 Blessings, who burnt his car and threatened his mother’s livelihood. Richter ended up in prison after Jacket spared his life. He organized a prison break and escaped to Hawaii.
Richter asks Evan for money to buy his mother a plane ticket so that she may come live with him. Evan obliges, and he even boards the plane with Richter’s mother, abandoning his book to be with his family.

The Twist

The remnants of 50 Blessings - apparently led by the Colonel - assassinate the Presidents of both Russia and the United States during a summit meeting of the Russo-American Coalition. This incites nuclear war; Miami and Hawaii are destroyed in what is assumed to be a worldwide nuclear holocaust.
We see the surviving characters in their final seconds before they are obliterated by nukes: Evan having dinner with his family; Richter watching TV with his mother; Detective Manny Pardo boarded up in his apartment, contemplating suicide; Jacket sitting on the cot in his prison cell.