McMillan’s Codex #14: I.R.L. (In Real Life)


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McMillan’s Codex #14 by C.T. McMillan

I.R.L. (In Real Life)

Videogames offer unique experiences.  With the click of a mouse or pressing of a key, you can explore fantastical worlds, solve complex puzzles, and live out taboo desires.  Since the dawn of the Information Age, we have never been more socially connected, and the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) is where such interactivity occurs in an imaginative context in group activities like raids, quests that require many players to complete, and the ability to organize guilds like clans.  Players from all corners of the globe can interact.  The possibilities seem endless, and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow explores those possibilities in his first foray into graphic narrative.

In Real Life

After a guest speaker at her school advocates for gender diversity in the MMO Coarsegold, high school student Anda decides to buy a subscription and play.  She joins a guild exclusive for women and comes to enjoy the experience.  In the midst of fighting other players, she forms a bond with one named Raymond and finds there is more to him than a virtual avatar.  His problems go far beyond the reach of gaming, and Anda takes it upon herself to do something about it.

As odd as this sounds coming from a critic, videogames are not that big a deal.  Most of them are brilliant works I hold in high regard, but more often than not they are just pleasurable distractions.

At the same time, In Real Life makes a valid argument that the connectedness of MMOs can be an avenue for change.  Much like social media, you can organize whole movements and support causes through interaction.  The cause in question is Anda trying to help Raymond get health insurance at his job in China by rallying his coworkers on Coarsegold.  It also talks about the gold farming industry, the ethics of paid-gaming, and the effect of MMOs on social issues.


Gold farming is the practice of acquiring digital assets to sell for real money to other players.  The farming aspect comes from playing a game for long periods of time to gather assets in bulk.  This entails many hours locked in front of a computer screen, resulting in health issues for gold farmers.  Businesses that engage in this practice, some of which are labor camps, tend to have mounting human rights violations by working their employees longer than ethically possible.

Raymond has back problems exacerbated by 16-hour workdays and his regular addiction of playing more Coarsegold for recreational purposes when he isn’t working.  He lied about his age to get the job and being from outside his place of origin (Hunan, China), his access to proper healthcare is limited to say the least, and his employer is reluctant to give him or his co-workers insurance.  These conditions are bad, as he tells Anda, “I was lifting boxes at a factory before this.  It gets especially bad when I’ve been sitting too long.  Sometimes I have to excuse myself to the bathroom so I can lie on the floor a little while.”

Before she met him, Anda was a part of a her own financial scheme where outside benefactors would pay her and another player to kill gold farmers in Coarsegold.

InRealLife 52 53

On the outset this appears like a solution to those who pay gold farmers to make unethical jumps ahead in their avatar’s power in the game, but it is not long before she discovers there is no difference between killing gold farmers and being one.  Both make money playing the game, on a long and regular schedule, and for a singular, monotonous purpose.  It presents a moral grey area and Anda realizes she is more in the wrong than Raymond.  She learns of his health problems, the working conditions, and decides to help him. She says, “Raymond is a real gamer!  Gold farming is just a job…  What else is he supposed to do?  Make zippers for 25 cents a day?”

While her goals are lofty and heartfelt, Doctorow is not shy about the real world implications of Anda’s activism.  Even though Coarsegold provides a way for widespread communication, it does not change the fact she does not really know a whole lot about the culture of Raymond’s region or that of the workplace and her decision to help him is motivated by pure naive emotion.  What seems unethical to some is normal to others, and Anda learns the hard way when her meddling gets Raymond in trouble. One of his coworkers tells her, “The boss caught him conspiring to take down the company and fired him immediately… Nice job, American.  You don’t know anything about us.  Next time stick to our own game.”

IRL does not hide the fact you cannot entirely change the world through gaming.  Even conventional social media struggles to have the same effect as genuine activism.  But Doctorow is optimistic nonetheless.  The story remains steadfast that despite the complexity of the world and its cultures, everyone from all walks of life has the capacity to come together on common ground, be that social media or MMORGs.  Like standing on a picket line, it takes time and sacrifice.

In Real Life 1

The book is surprisingly exceptional as a graphic narrative.  Jen Wang’s style is simple with an aesthetic reminiscent of Adventure Time and Scott Pilgrim, but more realistic, accurate body proportions, skin color, and hair.  The story shifts between the real world and the world of Coarsegold.  Everything in reality is painted in dark earth tones, whereas the game world is bleached in bright colors that complement its fantastical elements.

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As a comic, the book is consistent in its use of visuals to tell the story.  A lot of information can be gleaned from expressions and the images in each panel.  You cannot just read the dialog without the pictures to help you along with what the characters are feeling. A fellow classmate is rebuffed by Anda’s friends:

“D&D and Jenga are, like, completely different things.  So, thanks, but I think we’re cool just playing here.”

“Okay, well.  Let me know if you change your minds.”

In prose, those lines would not make sense unless the characters’ voices and expressions were described.  With comics, it is as simple as drawing a smugly risen eyebrow on one character, and a sad face on another, and IRL’s effective visuals make it a page-turner.

I appreciate In Real Life for making videogames seem more than recreational material and for considering their potential for self actualization and seriously socially destructive behavior.  The fantastic art by Jen Wang and the incredibly tight story telling by Doctorow make it a quick, engaging read that makes you think about where the MMO culture is going.


CT McMillan 1

C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer.  He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.

Episode 180: Mixtape 5 (The Difference Between Luminescent Dreams and My Grandmother’s Typewriter)

Episode 180 of the world’s greatest writing podcast is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I share some music.

mixtape 5


This is where I’ll be this weekend. Besides undertaking too many interviews, I’ll be reading on Saturday in The Swamp on Tiffany Razzano’s Saved by the Sunshine State panel.



Episode 180 of the world’s greatest writing podcast is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #111: Legends of the Fall Part 2

The Curator of Schlock #111 bu Jeff Shuster

Legends of the Fall part 2

No, they didn’t make a sequel to that stupid Brad Pitt movie!

Okay, here is part two of my continuing series on fall movies, and by continuing I mean that it’s ending this week. Sometimes your curator has to leave the museum and see what’s going on the world. That means I sat in a theater and watched four more movies.

The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts movie

Yeah, I saw a kid’s movie, but it’s Charlie Brown and nostalgia tugged at me. I used to watch Charlie Brown movies when I was a kid. I remember one where they went camping and rafting and then Cropsy murders them all in their raft. Oh wait! That was The Burning. Anyway, The Peanuts Movie features all of the classic characters you know and love except now they’re CG. It doesn’t look bad at all, but I can’t help but feel they went to huge expense to recreate the comic strip style with computer graphics just so could show the movie 3D.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

This is one of those newer Spielberg movies, which doesn’t have any extra terrestrials in it, but this one actually isn’t too bad. Tom Hanks plays this lawyer that has to defend a Russian spy (Boooooooooooooo!!!) during the Cold War! Something about everyone in the United States deserving a fair trial. The judge throws the book at him anyway because he’s a Russian spy and a Soviet COMMUNIST! Plus, this spy has the nerve to sport a Scottish accent! How dare he? The Scottish aren’t communist…I think. Hanks convinces the judge not to kill him because they may need to trade him for an American spy one day and wouldn’t you know it, that day comes. Guess who has to make the trade? Tom Hanks! By the way, Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan who was a real person so I guess I just could read about this in a history book instead of plunking down a ten spot for this movie.

The Martian

The Martian

No extra terrestrials in this one either. And it’s called The Martian! Matt Damon plays some astronaut that gets left for dead on Mars by the rest of his crew. He spends the rest of the movie listening to disco music and growing potatoes in garden he made from human feces. He runs out of ketchup at some point. Jeff Daniels plays the President.

 Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender plays Steve Jobs in the movie Steve Jobs. This film mainly consistsof protracted dialogue scenes where Steve Jobs consistently disagrees with everyone he talks to. Jeff Daniels stars in this one, too, as the CEO of Apple. I keep getting Jeff Daniels confused with Bill Pullman. Bill Pullman was in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. David Lynch also directed Mulholland Drive which I recently purchased during a Barnes & Noble’s Criterion sale. The DVD has no chapter stops. It’s like David Lynch wants me to watch the whole movie instead of just skipping to my favorite parts. How dare he!

Mulholland Drive


Jeffrey Shuster 1

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

McMillan’s Codex #13: Fallout 3 and New Vegas



McMillan’s Codex # 13 By C.T. McMillan

Fallout 3 and New Vegas

The dystopia appears quite often in fiction. Its most basic form is a world that appears perfect, but has problems and issues hidden behind a gilded veneer. It is a setting that appears stable and peaceful, but its seamless order is maintained by a state of perpetual control at the cost of individuality, openness, and life itself. 1984 and many young adult works are examples of fictional dystopias, whereas North Korea and contemporary Russia are real.

Another form of dystopia is a world that started perfect until its utter destruction. The new world in its place is a direct contradiction, full of savagery and hostility. One common example is the post-apocalypse, a wasteland where anarchy reigns, the only order is personal justice, and survival is a constant struggle. The cataclysm that brought about the destruction varies, but one of the more interesting is that of a nuclear holocaust.

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I never heard of Fallout before I bought the third canon game in the series 7 years ago. It was developed by Bethesda, the same studio behind Elder Scrolls, a fantasy RPG series I reviewed not too long ago. Before my purchase I heard Fallout 3 was basically “Elder Scrolls with guns” and when one combines a perfect role-playing system and firearms, how could I resist? Three hours into the game I realized I bought something far more unique.

The reason Fallout is so well regarded and the appeal for me is the world. With the post-apocalyptic setting is the underlining aesthetic of atom-punk, a derivative of cyber-punk where the speculative future of the 40s and 50s is literal. Fusion powered cars, radiated soft drinks, robots, and lasers are the norm, trapped in a time warp of 2077. After a costly resource war, the remaining superpowers squared off in a nuclear exchange that devastated the planet. Those who found refuge in the many Vaults, advanced fallout shelters, emerged to a place transformed by chaos and horror, the Wasteland

Barrowing from A Canticle for Leibowitz, religion plays a big part in the many factions and groups that make civilization in their own way. The Children of the Atom pray to an un-exploded nuke and the Brotherhood of Steel treats old technology like precious relics to preserve while defending the innocent. Starship Troopers and Foundation contribute much to the aesthetic with the atom-punk and the use of power armor. Mad Max references are plentiful as Raiders wear armor made from random scrap, whole towns are built from refuse, and wandering Slavers look for fresh captures to sell off.

Exploration is the best part of any open world RPG. What sets Fallout 3 apart from conventional wastelands is that it takes place in Washington DC, an area rarely depicted in a post-apocalyptic light. Monuments and famous buildings still stand, but as saturated ruins hastily repaired or converted into settlements. The National Mall is a no man’s land of trench works as a constant battle is waged between heroic soldiers and mutant abominations. In the shadows, lone treasure hunters comb the landscape for iconic documents and artifacts. Licensed tracks help the feel of the world with music by the likes of the Ink Spots, Roy Brown, and Bob Crosby that can be heard over the in-game radio.

Progression is similar to Elder Scrolls with the SPECIAL, skills, and perks systems. SPECIAL determines the player’s proficiency with abilities like how much they can carry and how well they can sneak. Skills directly affect gameplay and what you can do. A high Small Guns means you are adapt with pistols and rifles, Lockpick allows you to open doors and safes, and Speech could mean the difference between talking your way out of confrontation or going loud. Perks can help your stats and skills, while some make your attacks especially powerful like Bloody Mess or give you unique dialog options for female characters like Lady Killer.

In many ways Fallout 3 is no different from any game in the series or RPG for that matter. But the vast array of detail and the setting of a destroyed DC made it remarkable and cherished as one of the best games of all time.

Fallout 2

While Bethesda developed Fallout 3, Obsidian Entertainment took charge of its follow-up two years later. The studios came to an agreement that one will set the games on the east coast, while the other took place in the west. It is fitting considering Obsidian is made up of former employees that worked on the series before Bethesda took over.

As a result, a lot of the lore in New Vegas is based on Fallout 1 and 2. The Brotherhood of Steel is more secluded and does not care about innocents. The Followers of the Apocalypse is a missionary outfit that helps the poor and sick. The New California Republic (NCR), as their name entails, is a fledgling superpower with bureaucratic expansionist ideals. There is plenty of new material like Caesar’s Legion, a faction inspired by ancient Rome and the titular city, whose majesty is that of legend. The lore is presented in a familiar fashion, as if the player already knows what is going on. Though it takes away from the sense of discovery as you progress, it makes sense because your character is a local. But the loss of wonder is one part of the game’s biggest problem.

New Vegas takes place in the surrounding area of Las Vegas, a setting that is already a wasteland. Immediately the otherworldly charm of the post-apocalypse is gone because the place that was supposed to be a barren ruin, started out a barren ruin, and remained as such after the apocalypse. Simply put, there is no reason for the setting to be a dystopia because no disaster took place, even in the backstory. Why anything is in disarray can be boiled down to convenience.

The city is kind of different with a vast slum in its periphery called Freeside, but it is still a generic copy of the same location with some aesthetic changes and different hotel names, one of which run by cannibals. Even that is not interesting considering there are maybe a few quests per hotel and they serve no purpose other than to house mini-games in the form of slot machines and a variety of tables that you will never play.

While the game fails thematically, it succeeds on conceptual grounds alone. The background of the main story centers on the NCR and Caesar’s Legion fighting for control of the Hoover Dam to exploit its resources. To gain the upper hand, both sides are trying to gain greater influence in Vegas, but Mr. House, the mysterious overseer of the city, has other plans. It is up to the player to decide the fate of the Wasteland and who controls Vegas.

You directly affect how the world develops on a political and cultural level. The NCR brings old world ideas, while the Legion was born out of the apocalypse with values akin to underdeveloped societies, and Mr. House is a balance of the two with totalitarian tendencies. You choose sides by gaining the trust of other groups and convincing them to lend their support to whomever you deem worthy. Either choice presents a variety of outcomes tied to the factions’ traits, but who says they have to control the Wasteland? Being player driven, you have the option to forgo the select groups and claim Vegas and the Dam for yourself. It is entirely up to you as you shape the outcome to suit the morals and ethics of your character.

The gameplay mechanics are also improved. Fallout 3 is as basic as you can get when it comes to a shooter. With the exception of series’ trademark VATS (Vault Assisted Targeting System), you just point and shoot at whatever you want to die. New Vegas gave the mechanics a contemporary spin with the use of iron sights and the option for different ammunition types. Missing from the formula, however, was the ability to sprint and one-button grenades.

While the magic that made the previous installment great was nonexistent and the environment uninspired to the point of banality, New Vegas had a lot to offer in other respects. Where it fails in aesthetics the game is exceptional in its role-playing and depth of choice as the factions you support and destroy reflect your personal morals and ethics. It was a new addition that built upon an already perfect concept.

Fallout 3

Fallout 4 just came out and I am nonetheless enjoying it to the point of losing sleep. A review is inevitable and I would like to play enough of the game to understand it as well as the last two. I highly recommend buying it ahead of my critique, but I also recommend Fallout 3 and New Vegas as a primer for both the lore and the world.


CT McMillan 1

C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer.  He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.

On Top of It #6: Trolls, Predators, Confessions


On Top of It #6 by Lisa Martens

Trolls, Predators, Confessions

My Aunt Patricia introduced me to the fine art of trolling chat rooms when I was ten. My parents had just gotten Internet (dial-up, of course) in our grey, two-bedroom Dallas apartment. I don’t remember too much about the apartment: The walls were stained with tobacco as a result of my father’s chain smoking, my seizure pills were kept in the kitchen along with the spices, and a tornado once threw an air conditioner into our balcony. My parents slept on a futon in the living room, I had one bedroom, and the computer occupied the guest room.

Patricia had come to visit us for Christmas—She was eighteen, and I was ten. She was the youngest of my aunts, and the only one of my aunts who looked like me, and so of course I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be thin enough to look good with short hair, wear baggy jeans, and listen to grunge music.

I had pneumonia again that year. Every November, my parents would pull out the dehumidifier, use old antibiotics until they had to take me to the doctor to get new ones, and then eventually take me to the free clinic because we didn’t have insurance. It was also the same place I went to get my blood drawn every three months to make sure my seizure pills were not damaging my immune system or liver.

I had my antibiotics and my inhaler, and since Patricia didn’t have a car and my parents had to work, we spent most of our time either renting tapes from Blockbuster or making up fake identities and chatting with people online. I thought it was hilarious. Men believed absolutely anything we said.

And, usually, they directed the conversation towards sex. I knew as much about sex as I knew about the Internet. As a chronically sick ten-year-old, the only contact I had ever had with a man was during one of my many doctor visits: When they had to determine how much fluid was in my lungs, when they had to put wires on my head to monitor my brain activity, when they had to take blood out of my arms, when they had to give my parents the disappointing news that yes, my brain was still all over the place.

My interest in the Internet dipped for a couple of years. My seizures went away, I had coughs but not as frequently, and, most importantly, my parents bought a house in Plano. A real house—I had neighbors, I could walk to school and to the park, and I didn’t need a ride to see most of my friends. The Internet was that thing where a music video took three hours to load. It was that thing that tied up the phone line and prevented my friends from reaching me. I was not convinced that the Internet was the future.

Then, when I was twelve, we got high-speed Internet.

My friends and I liked to troll Internet chat rooms in the same way we liked to watch “When Animals Attack.” We weren’t going to meet any of these men or have sex with them, but something about it was so appealing, so funny. If you told them anything about yourself, they acted sympathetic for two seconds before redirecting the conversation. You could find a man online who would tell you he loved you after less than a day of IMs. And then, just as quickly, we would block him and walk to Liberty Park, or grab ice cream and go for a swim at the rec center.

The men never had anything in common, not really— They wrote with bright fonts on black backgrounds. They usually had Madonna/Whore complexes and were looking for virgins. But they were all ages, all backgrounds. Some were married with kids and tried to make us feel bad for them:

“Since the baby was born, my wife just doesn’t put out anymore.”

“I love my wife, but she’s always traveling, and I get so lonely. I just want a lady I can love and spoil.”

“My wife and I had an arranged marriage, but we are not in love.”

Some proclaimed that all females were bitches, and dared us to prove them wrong:

“I never met a girl like you. Most girls are so judgmental. But you’re different. I can tell.”

“I wonder . . . are you just like all the others?”

“Most women are bitches or sluts these days. I just want a nice girl.”

My friends and I would usually bend the truth, and we had a few set personas so we didn’t get our lies mixed up. For example, I’m Lisa Marie, but I would usually say my name was Maria. I would say I lived in Dallas, not Plano—another half-truth, because I had lived in Dallas during my epilepsy heyday.

“Do you like older men?”

This was a common question posed to me in AOL chats when I was twelve. It was a bizarre question to me—not for its inappropriateness, which is glaring to me now, but because the only “older” men I knew were my teachers and my father. I did like them, so an honest answer would be something like “Yes, I like my social studies teacher. He lets me wash the blackboard after class, which I find fun for some reason.”

“So what do you like to do?”

Another question that, if taken literally, would disappoint the twenty-nine or forty or sixty-three year old man on the Internet.

“On the weekends, my friends and I like to walk around Stonebriar Mall twice, look at the massage chairs by the skating rink but not use them, then go to that cake store that can make a cookie in the shape of anything. We end the day by maybe buying a shirt or a pair of jeans and meeting our parents in the parking lot. The only reason I’m not there now is because my dad had to work this weekend and my mom has anxiety attacks when she drives.”

“I’m old enough to be your father.”

This brilliant comment, popular among men thirty-five and older, will always have a special place in my heart. My father was eighteen when I was born, meaning he was thirty when I was twelve. Most of the men soliciting me for sex actually were older than my father. They didn’t like to hear it, though. For some reason, being old enough to be my father was sexy, but actually being older than my father was creepy.

Why did we do it? Part of it was boredom, the Texas heat, the lack of a driver’s license, and the sense of immortality only suburban preteens can feel. We didn’t believe any of these men would materialize or hurt us.

The other part was fascination: public schools gave us very little sexual education. My sex ed consisted of photos of STDs followed by a message of DON’T DO IT. One speaker had a Barbie and a Ken Doll. The Ken was covered in velcro, and the speaker stuck the two together. When she pulled them apart, the Barbie doll became mangled from the velcro on Ken. “That’s why women shouldn’t have multiple sexual partners,” she explained. No one answered our questions about condoms, virginity, or pregnancy.

Online, these men were willing to talk to us like we were adults who would potentially have sex with them. They may have been society’s rejects, but we were excited at the idea that someone would answer our questions without referencing what was “right” and what was “wrong.”

One day, after walking home from school, I noticed my neighbor had made it home before I had. I had walked fast, so I was confused. I asked her about it when I went out to get the mail.

“Oh, I sucked this guy’s dick for a ride home,” she said casually. “I met him online.” This was bizarre to me, not because we were in middle school, but because our school was less than a mile away. My neighbor continued to get home before I did.

I discovered Kazaa, started downloading my favorite songs for free, and making my own CDs. (iPods weren’t a thing yet.) I gradually stopped talking to men online. The hangers-on complained that I had changed too much, so I blocked them.

It didn’t matter: North Park Mall had opened by then, so my friends and I had somewhere else to buy cookies in the shape of anything.


Lisa Martens

Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.

The Global Barfly’s Companion #20: The Elbow Room


The Global Barfly’s Companion #20 by Todd Gray

Venue: The Elbow Room

Location: 2213 W Cervantes St, Pensacola, FL 32505


Don’t let The Elbow Room’s location scare you off. Google reviewers will tell you it’s in a shadier part of Pensacola. Really this means gentrification hasn’t extended this far up Cervantes Street yet, though it’s slowly working its way there if Pensacola’s downtown residential neighborhood is any indicator. Like many such bars, the Elbow Room refused to move when the boundaries of the “nicer” part of town retreated to extend its claim over newer, cleaner parcels of urban sprawl. If you’re not a local such bars are hard to find. If it weren’t for word of mouth I never would’ve found the Elbow Room myself. Though don’t misunderstand me, calling the Elbow Room a dive-bar would be a misnomer. You’d also be insulting Captain Kirk if you were to debase the Elbow Room’s good name. (More on the bar’s Trekkie influence later).

A small and square brick building, like a little ranch house, the bar stands adjacent to an open parking lot cratered with potholes. The brick work is red, off-red, lighter-red, and burnt red. The aggregate effect of these reds is nothing short of ugly. You wonder really if you’ve the right place, if you might not turn around, but then there’s the inconspicuous metal-worked sign pinned to the building’s front that reads: Elbow Room Pub & Pizza. No windows. No way to judge what’s inside but to enter through its door that’s large and upholstered with red pleather. Maybe this is a safety measure? a screening process to protect the patrons inside from unwanted customers? Most likely it’s a stylistic holdover from the 70s. There’s no way to know for certain, only you’ve got to steel your nerves and push ahead.

Inside is more red. The same red pleather adorns the barstools and a nice cushion of it runs tacked to the bar’s edge. The bar itself dominates the wall directly in front of where you enter.


A few tables and chairs are outliers to the right, which is also where the Pac-Man machine is and a real juxebox which is laced with aglow neon tubes and is, sure enough, stocked with real records.


Also here, lest I forget, is a bowling game with physical pins that’s operation is an intelligence test I failed.


To your immediate left a small enclave like a narrow hallway leading nowhere telescopes away from you—more table seating. Overhead all this the lighting is dull, also semi-red, creating an ambiance that complements all the aged, vintage beer signs that line the walls. It’s seat yourself at the Elbow Room and once the eyes adjust nowhere’s a bad choice, but I preferred the area closest to the jukebox. My choice was predicated on the fact that life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock occupy this part of the Elbow Room. This is why I sought the bar out. The USS Enterprise’s two officers stand like sentinels over your drinking experience, readied to be called into action should they be asked.


The Elbow Room serves Italian, not only pizza. Good Italian. Damn good. Also some vegetarian options. The beer selection is what you’d expect and then some. Mostly domestics though. There’s liquor of course, some fancy named shots I don’t bother with that are hidden somewhere amongst the faux-foliage of vines framing the bar’s backdrop mirror. Thematically the Elbow Room is hard to peg. I was told it was Star Trek themed. Not so. The owner is a Trekkie though, so there’s a lot of Trek memorabilia on the walls alongside the retro (and probably original) beer signs. This is not the original location. The original was next door but burnt down. They rebuilt. All this history I get off the menu. Also this: the bar is haunted by some kindly spirit of a former employee. I feel bombarded here, universes colliding. But there’s order in chaos, an authenticity of experience sorely missed inside the places farther down Cervantes where tourists roam after exiting I-10.


Inside the Elbow Room this night Willie Nelson’s voice skips on the jukebox and a naval aviator—a Blue Angel, kinda pudgy—sits at the bar beside me. I order a Genesee Cream Ale, which is a brew from upstate New York, an anomaly of sorts in Florida, but that shouldn’t be too surprising given the influx of Yankee fans that retire to the Sunshine State. After a few I know why Genny Ale is imported—they’re smooth, like cream soda—so I drink more and order The Enterprise (a baked, breaded eggplant hoagie made with goat cheese and marinated tomatoes). Finally, and this is my advice to you too, I mind the house rules, especially no. 8) Don’t feed the tribbles, and keep them away from Klingons. And, of course, and most importantly no. 19) Live long and prosper.


Todd Gray

Todd Gray is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Southwestern American Literature, Hawai’i Review, Belt Magazine, and others. Sometimes he posts on twitter @todd_gray.

The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #11: Henry V (1989)



Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 3

The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #11 by John King

Henry V (1989)

Henry V poster

Two weeks ago, I mocked Kenneth Branagh’s weak casting and directing, because I had to. I mean, Robert Sean Leonard.

Much Ado 5

By now, if you’re reading this, you’re obviously asking yourselves, how will this rogue rank Branagh’s Shakespeare films? Like this, from best to worst:

  1. Henry V (1989)
  2. Othello (1995, directed by Oliver Parker)
  3. As You Like It (2006)
  4. A Midwinter’s Tale (1995, a comedy about a beleaguered production of Hamlet)
  5. Twelfth Night (1988, in which Paul Kanfo directed an adaptation of a stage production originally directed by Branagh)
  6. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
  7. Hamlet (1996)
  8. Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

The top four are top notch, Numbers 5 and 6 are a mixture of good and bland, and the last 2 are only as good as the liquor you’ll be drinking while watching them. Your liver may not survive Love’s Labour’s Lost, actually. (Alicia Silverstone plays one of the leads.)

But lest you think me hopelessly blackened in heart, let me devote the rest of this review to Branagh’s finest film, Henry V.

For Americans, the history plays have often been under the radar, as the intricacies of British history before Shakespeare’s time can seem rather obscure, especially since these plays often had multiple parts whose connective narrative threads can seem elusive. For British theatre-folk, though, they are much more familiar, and for a young actor like Branagh, trained in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, who would play Henry V in the Royal Shakespeare Company, filming the play and portraying the part would seem like a normal enough of a maneuver.

When Laurence Olivier wanted to declare himself a film actor and director of Shakespeare in 1944, he did so with Henry V. (L.O.’s first film work of Shakespeare, As You Like It, did not yet convince him that Shakespeare could be meaningfully filmed.) Of course, the timing of Olivier’s Henry V was fortuitous for a British public eager to feel patriotic and keep its spirit up. Henry V is about a young king who, after several dissolute years as a prince, strives to be an ideal monarch for his people, and fights for the rights of England without compromise.

Henry V Olivier

Arguably, for Branagh to adapt Henry V for the screen is more problematic, for patriotism outside of a Nazi subtext asks a lot of its viewers. Henry will appeal to his priests (who privately, corruptly think mostly of their own statuses) and then throughout the play to God.

There is also the matter of the chorus, who will provide the audience with exposition at the start of every act. He opens the play with an apology that the stage cannot present the epic spectacle of the narrative:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

This warning is meant for the sparse stage space of Shakespeare’s day, not the scenery that a modern movie is capable of showing. Often enough, in this film, the scenery will seem to lack nothing concocted by a Muse of fire.

This meta-theatrical hemming and hawing, however, comes off as charming, as we see the peerless Derek Jacobi prepare us for the film while stalking about a film set before thrusting open a large door to a black room.

Henry V 7

Henry V had a limited budget, so some of the scenes were done sparsely. Frankly, there is a humility to the production that is so intimate and lets us focus on the exquisite actors.

And the acting in Henry V is perfection. Branagh begins the film as a calm, quiet king asking for counsel from his cabinet and from his clergy.

Henry V 1

While the ambassador from France conveys an insult to him and his kingdom, Branagh manages one of the finest examples of modulation in any acting performance ever, as he moves from his calm to powerful, meticulous rage.

In his adaptation, Branagh shows Henry’s dissolute ado (borrowing from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2), and also shows how the king treats his own psychological make up as a tool, and how he draws out the psychology of those around him, including known traitors, and the various attitudes of the common soldiers fighting for him, and for England. Branagh shows Henry to be a trickster in fooling those around him, but a trickster with a heart so large that it will do anything to be a good man, and a good king, which at times will cost him his own humanity.

The cast is superb. Gigantic, sonorous, beautiful Brian Blessed plays Exeter, the king’s uncle; you may remember him as Prince Vultan (leader of the Hawkmen) from Flash Gordon. The intense Ian Holm is Captain Fluellen. Paul Scofield plays the woebegone king of France. Robbie Coltrane, who the world knows as Hagrid, plays Sir John Falstaff in some flashbacks. Judi Dench plays the inn keeper Mistress Quickly. Emma Thompson mines as much humor as is possible from the part of Princess Katherine of France. (Shakespeare really thought French accents were simply hysterical, for some reason. It gets worse in Merry Wives of Windsor.) If you squint, there’s a fifteen year-old Christian Bale playing Robin, an iconic boy for the commoners and the soldiers. Every actor in the film seems to know what to do, seems comfortable with rendering Shakespeare into the real.

Henry V 6

And this Henry V is earthy. The battle scenes show the ugliness of war, and the exhaustion and confusion and the nauseating amounts of mud and blood that result from thousands of men swinging blades at one another’s heads for hours.

Of course, this is the play that has the “St. Crispen’s Day” speech in which Henry rallies his tired, weary soldiers who will be facing a massively larger, well-rested French army.

Henry V 4

Here Patrick Doyle’s score rallies in melodic triumph, which seems appropriate; in later films, he seems to launch such pomp for the mere sake of Branagh seemingly never saying no under any circumstances.

Branagh does try to give his audience reasons why the French would fail at Agincourt: the French show ample hubris (that is in the text) and the English employ archers while the French do not. But what is remarkable to me about this Henry V is that Branagh seems as humble and earnest as Henry is. He gets me to cheer for England’s success, despite the fact that, unlike most Shakespeare junkies, I am not an anglophile whose heart tingles at the sight of the Union Jack, nor am I capable of believing that God will direct the fate of a nation’s military initiatives. But I am capable of believing that Henry believes that God will guide his hand, which is a remarkable thing.

The setting and the performances are all straightforwardly superior. Branagh followed in Olivier’s footsteps, and outdid him with his first Shakespeare film.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Episode 179: Cate McGowan!

Episode 179 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I interview fiction writer Cate McGowan,

Cate McGowan

plus Shawn McKee reads his piece, “Job Letter,”

Shawn McKee

& Racquel Henry discusses her experience with NANO-WRIMO.

Racquel Henry


True Places Never Are



Episode 179 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Lists #24: Some of the Worst Adverbs in the English Language


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The Lists #24 by John King et. al.

Some of the Worst Adverbs in the English Language

On Writing

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (no relation) warns that “the road to Hell is paved with adverbs” (118), based on the idea that a more precise verb, or the more careful context of what is conveyed in scene, makes most adverbs an annoying tick of timid, lazy writing.

Here are some examples to strenuously avoid:













John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler. Some of his facebook friends (Rob Davison, Demtri Kakmi, Brooke Lewis, Will Garland, Cate McGowan, Helena-Ann J. Hill, & Lisa Clare Roney) helped him mightily with this list.

McMillan’s Codex 12: Call of Duty: Black Ops 1 and 2



McMillan’s Codex 12 By C.T. McMillan

CoD: Black Ops 1 and 2

The Call of Duty (CoD) series is the videogame equivalent of Friday the 13th. It is an annualized franchise with each new installment having the same formula and noted improvements in what people like. Where in Friday the 13th it was the gore and kills, it is the multiplayer that keeps fans coming back year after year. Each release has a variety of tweaks from game modes to basic mechanics. The Kill Streaks and Load Out systems change the most as you pick and choose what perks and gear to bring into a match.

While the multiplayer is the selling point, the rest of the games falter from neglect. There is such a lack of effort that whole animations, assets, and graphics engines are repurposed from previous games. The campaign is hurt the most. I am of the opinion the series peaked at Modern Warfare 2 before the gradual decline. The stories of the preceding games played out like terrible Tom Clancy fan fiction with boring characters, daddy issues, predictability, and sequences stolen from movies. They also lacked the moments that made the previous games memorable like “No Russian”, the street battles in DC, and “All Gullied Up.”

Fortunately, Treyarch, one of CoD’s three developers, had the opportunity to do more with the series. Given how cheap and how little the publisher cares what is in the games besides multiplayer, Treyarch was free to do what it wanted with the story. Its last two titles, Black Ops 1 and 2, showed a consistent effort to take the series in a different narrative direction. The stories are really nothing special, but at least they tried and I find that admirable.


Black Ops 1 is the only game in the series to explore the Cold War, a period that should be visited more often considering all the proxy wars, espionage, clandestine conflicts, conspiracy theories, and nuclear tension. Following a failed assassination attempt on Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Mason, a CIA operator, is captured alive and sent to a Russian gulag. He escapes thanks to a fellow inmate and sets out on a quest for revenge against the people who experimented on him. The same individuals are also behind a plot to attack America with a biological weapon the CIA is trying to thwart.

Compared to other stories in CoD, Black Ops 1 is focused and less concerned about being a military simulator. A trademark of the series is putting the player in the middle of the action, the raw intensity of battle, while providing an insight into how real armies work. There are always two halves to the experience: the Special Forces side and the regular army side, shifting between the two sides.

While there are a few shifts in who you play, the main focus is on Mason between 1961 and ‘68. From Cuba to Vietnam, the game’s missions are consistent with the period and covert operations aesthetic. Every level is about the secret wars fought to maintain the balance of power between East and West. There is even a sequence where you play a Blackbird pilot coordinating a team infiltrating a Soviet relay station in a blizzard.

Problems come from the way the game feels. The loud audio, chaotic scenes, and gameplay tension that set CoD apart from most shooters is muted in every respect. It makes sense seeing as the game is story driven, but it takes away from what made the series memorable.


Black Ops 2 is the most ambitious entry for introducing player choice. The campaign has moments that affect the way the story plays out from picking up an intel file, to time sensitive side missions. Each choice leads to a different outcome, culminating in a conclusion with four possibilities. It was a welcome surprise to the series, but not without many shortcomings.

Where the first game was told linearly, the second could not decide between being coherent or straightforward. The first half is told in the mid 80s and 2025 as an elderly Sergeant Woods from the previous game talks about his last years working for the CIA, while the son of Mason hunts down a new threat. The events tie into each other rather well, but why they were told alongside each other I have no idea. Nothing would have been lost had the past events played out first, followed by the future, then the twist during the Panama mission, and onto the future. It is still more coherent than Beyond: Two Souls.

Other weaker parts of the game include the overall aesthetic and the underlining themes. Black Ops 2 was the first to take place in a speculative future with new weapons and gadgets like nano-gloves, wrist computers, and quad-pedal drones. The cool factor was strong, but all the elements felt mashed together with no sense of cohesion. You have future stuff mixed with present day, while there are things years ahead of everything else. Thankfully, Advanced Warfare did a better job of capturing the future, but it also inherited the game’s other problem with the use of daddy issues. The daddy issues trope is the worst thing ever and it will never be good in anything. And that is all I have to say about that.

The story itself is not too bad. It has a lot to say about militaries’ reliance on drones and how it takes away from the humanity of soldiers. There is a sharp contrast between the past where everything is rough and hands-on, and those of the future where warfare is convenient and easy.

Historical events are used to propel the characters through missions suited to the subject of covert operations and conspiracy. The Contra War sets the stage for the villain, Raul Menendez, to enter a life of clandestine conflict as an arms dealer supported by the drug trade. While assisting the MPLA in Angola, he meets Mason who tries to kill him, setting the stage for a years’ long revenge plot. On the hunt for Menendez, Mason goes to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, then to Panama in 1989, before the plot comes to fruition in the 2025.

Real people make an appearance like Jonas Savimbi during the Angola mission, Manuel Noriega, a Mohammed Omar parallel, and Oliver North, which was a terrible decision. I understand he played a big part in the Contra War, but he is still technically a criminal who supported a group notorious for their atrocities.


As I write this, Black Ops 3 is days away from release. It reverses the theme of technology replacing soldiers to technology making soldiers. Bionics takes center stage as whole limbs are replaced by mechanical prosthetics and neural implants give soldiers a direct link to information. While the story is not entirely clear, there are obvious allusions to cyber-punk in the same vein as Ghost in the Shell. What it has to say was probably said better in other works, but I am nonetheless interested in what will come of it.


CT McMillan 1

C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer.  He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.


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