And morning came, and evening came, the second day. And Lo, right out of the gate this session rocked for four of the Chosen Five, who did dig right in with the drinking of beer and the snarfing of banana chips, not to mention the lacking of concern for their missing fifth member who, having inadvertently debarked from the wrong subway station — and who then, through no fault of his own, started walking the wrong way — and who was also, by the way, breaking in a new pair of work boots with the new “Belt-Sander Fit” that literally flayed the backs of his heels down to the fucking bone with each agonising Baptist step, and who was staggering heartbreakingly along Bloor, stabbing random numbers into his cell phone in the forlorn hope that nine of them would happen to form Jimsan’s home number before he died of hypothermia in the -25C wind chill—
But in the warm cozy hobbit-hole of Jim and Susan, all was comfy chairs and soft light and endless merriment. And when the Missing Fifth finally, heroically pulled himself up the stairs, dragging his ruined bloody legs behind him, the others barely noticed as he inserted himself into a corner and took stock.
Obviously these were replicants, bereft of human empathy. And they looked like this:
But they suspected nothing.
These then, were the levels of N that the Chosen Five had concocted (and which took, by the way, considerably longer to develop than the optimistic “two, two-and-a-half hours” that Jim had lulled us to sleep with the week before). Each of us could take three shots at completing each of the levels, which meant 15 attempts per player and 90 attempts total. If I remember correctly, one of us succeeded in completing a level. Once.
First came Rosemary’s “Evil Whale”, a kind of Haida-inspired “Fintastic Voyage” in which the ninja travels through the GI tract of the titular whale.
Note the attention to anatomical detail: the squirminess of the intestine, the allometry of the nasal sinuses (vital for the production of echolocation clicks, as first reported by Kellog back in 1964), the laser-beam eye that fries you whenever you get too close to your goal. The chain-gun drone, placed strategically just above the anal sphincter, was especially effective at turning any Gere-hamster-wannabes entering via that avenue into explosive diarrhoea. The only real fault with this entry was that it made some of the others look pretty lame in comparison. (Oh, and the fact that the whale only had teeth in the lower jaw, a feature peculiar to the sperm whales. But this is obviously an orca, or at least some kind of dolphin.)
Next up, Susan’s “B-Level” — another needlessly-stylish, almost artistic endeavour, deceptively simple once you twig to the fact that your ninja can, in fact, scale sheer walls of any height.
This also was a big hit. Its only real drawback was the physical impossibility of actually completing the level, since the only way to trigger the exit is to trap yourself in a cul-de-sac behind an approaching zap drone. On the plus side, your body makes many entertaining rag-doll flips and flops once crushed to a bloody pulp. The physics engine in this thing is really better than you might expect.
Third in line: “Pachinko Death”, a gravity-fed wood-chipper of a level courtesy of Patricio, and inspired by some kind of cultural artefact out of Japan. (Having seen “Iron Chef”, I find this last part easy to believe.)
To complete the level, one must trip the trigger directly below (and in direct line-of-sight of) a pair of satanic laser-shooting eyeballs. Fortunately said eyeballs tend to wander around after a while, although by that time your ninja has probably already fallen to ground level and will have a tough time getting back up. I think this may have been the level that someone beat, but I can’t swear to that since I was nearly passing out from blood loss by then.
Jim’s “Cattle Call” was a bitch and a half.
At first glance it looks about as challenging as a game of tic-tac-toe with a five-year-old (i.e., basically you punch out the five-year-old, and you win). These cows, unfortunately, hit back, and the only way to unlock the exit is to let them out of the cage they’re trapped in at the start of the run. Oh, and did I mention that even when you do unlock the exit, the exit doesn’t open? We’re pretty sure that Jim didn’t plan it that way, but he’s still trying to sell it as a feature not a bug.
Finally: “The Mel Lastman Memorial Rubbie Dodge”, by me. At first glance it looks inelegant next to the other entries, a haphazard mishmash of random shapes with neither the artistic gastrointestinal aesthetic of “Evil Whale” or the in-your-face “Saw-3” sadism of “Pachinko Death”.
In its defence, however, it has the deepest plot structure of the lot, and even a modicum of character development. Your ninja must navigate a warren of downtown buildings from the subway entrance to his place of work at City Hall, while avoiding panhandlers (who tend to hang around ATMs, and who kill you without remorse if you don’t give them change). (This is a game with a strong local flavour.) En route, you must pick up your morning coffee at a local Starbucks — and then, when you’re right at the front door of your destination, you discover you’re missing your key card and have to go all the way back to the subway to retrieve it. There is also motion-triggered vehicular traffic (the “thwumps”), who will grease their axles with your blood if you cross against the lights.
This level also came preloaded with the requisite glitch; while most panhandlers merely circle aimlessly, there’s always one who, the moment you make eye contact, locks on and tracks you like a T-100 on Sarah Connor’s ass. I had one of those, but it just kinda sat there.
“Rubbie Dodge” kind of killed the conversation. After everyone made the requisite failed attempts we all just sat there, shuffling our feet* and staring awkwardly at the empty banana-chip tub. Not a word was spoken for upwards of five minutes. Then Jim showed us a short documentary he had made with taxpayer’s money, focussing on the couple who had created N. They seemed cool. They had a silver tabby DSH. And I have to hand it to them: I’m used to getting lost in Half-Life and BioShock, but after having dicked around with N for a while, it’s far more addictive than it has any right to be. Things were starting to look up.
Then Jim ruined it all by giving us homework. Two pieces of homework.
The bigger piece consists of familiarizing ourselves with a rudimentary object-oriented sprite-driving app called “Scratch”, which is aimed at people who are, shall we say, somewhat younger than those who were assembled that evening. We will take a pre-existing game of our choice from the Scratch community and mod it into something more suited to our own tastes. Evidently there’s no end to the various attributes one can assign to these “sprites”. And you’d be amazed how many hi-res jpegs Google serves up when told to search for “bull testicles”.
The other homework assignment is to take our N levels and submit them for public critique by the fanatical online N community, which is, as Patricio already let slip, “harsh to the point of cruelty”.
Right. Like that’s going to happen.
* Those of us who still had working feet, I mean.
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