Jared, Devin, and The Deathwish

My parents and I moved to Helena Montana the summer before I started kindergarten. We were the first of three houses on a lane off of Hope Road, a dirt road off of a dirt road.

Our immediate neighbors were a very kind elderly couple, with grandchildren that I would see from time to time but never really got along with. I remember they had a garage sale once, and I had my eye on this small picture of a kitten. I went home and got $5 from my parents, but the couple wouldn’t take my money. They gave me the picture, and it hung in my room until we moved.

The house on the end of the lane belonged to Jared and Devin’s family. (Always Jared and Devin – never Devin and Jared.) I met them once playing on our mutual neighbor’s swing set. Meeting other little kids as a little kid yourself is still a strange concept to me. It feels wholly different than meeting other people at an older age, so it’s tough to relate to when looking back. It was awkward in completely different ways.

One day, soon after moving in, my mom convinced me to walk over to their house and say hi. When I got there, nobody answered. For some reason my little kid brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t home, so I decided to go inside and find them. The front door was locked, but their back door was open – I was persistent! I walked inside, “hello?” I turned down a hallway, then down another hallway into a bedroom. Nobody. Their house was weird, completely unfamiliar, a smell I didn’t know.

I felt as sudden urge to leave, so I started making my way back to the door. Instead, I found myself in another bedroom, completely confused. I started to panic, and I ran. Another turn, and I was crying. I was terrified that I would be trapped in this strange dark house forever. Eventually I found the door, and I burst out into the sunlight, my heart beating and tears streaming. I hurried home, too embarrassed to tell my parents what had happened. “They weren’t home.”

I smile to myself from time to time, remembering that secret terror. In hindsight, it’s hilarious to me. I wonder how many kids, at this exact moment, are running around a stranger’s house, completely alone, terrified, and crying. This could have happened in your own house, and you would never know! I’m still strangely delighted by this concept. Kids are weird.

Soon after, I found Jared and Devin at home, and we became friends. We each liked video games – they had an NES, and I had a Sega Genesis. We got into trouble in healthy little boy ways, running around the field behind our houses, throwing rocks at things and breaking boards. We were mostly harmless, as I remember it.

Sometimes my mom would call their house when it was time to come home. Often, she just yelled from our front porch. “Jonathon! Time to come home!” It’s comforting to remember these moments, when I was just a shout away from home. I think that feeling still sticks with me, making me more comfortable at parties when I know my apartment is just a short walk away. Eventually she got me a watch, and gave me the responsibility of being home on time.

Jared and Devin’s family was a little weird to me. Different than mine, at least. For one, I was an only child, so getting attention from my parents wasn’t really an issue. Jared and Devin had three sisters – one older, two younger. Their mom had a playdate system where, from time to time, each kid got a day date with their mom, without their siblings. It was a reward she would give her kids for good behaviour, a little slip of paper. This concept was completely foreign to me, and it’s only in hindsight that I can understand the importance of it. I rarely ate dinner at their house; the food was too unfamiliar.

I don’t think their dad was around all the time, but never really understood the dynamic. Their older teenage sister was always upset. Always. She almost exclusively kept to her room, so I barely saw her. When I did, she was yelling at us to be quiet. I think she was an early 90’s punk, but I wasn’t really familiar with those stereotypes as a kid, so my memory is hazy. Their little sisters were too small to really stand out. Mostly, I found the baby talk that people used with them to be annoying.

I saw Jared and Devin fight, as siblings, with their mom as the mediator. I had no way to relate to this, it was something new. I hadn’t had anybody my age to truly fight with in a way that required making up, since I’d just leave and go home. I never had to resolve anything. I remember their mom telling one of the kids to apologize, and they would say “I’m sorry.” The other one would usually yell back “no you’re not!” This was baffling to me – I had never had a reason to doubt an apology before.

I got along with Devin more than Jared. Devin and I would hang out sometimes, just the two of us, which wasn’t true for me and Jared. I think Devin was more of an awkward nerd, like me. Jared struck me as more of a jock, more alpha. He could be meaner and more physical, but was also our leader, dictating the adventures of the day. I was a year older than each of them, so we didn’t really hang out at school.

I was their neighbor and friend for about four years. We built a fort in an old barn in my backyard. The spring that Helena flooded, we played in the water, slipping on the ice underneath. We explored the construction site of a new neighborhood. We had throwing contests, which I never won, and Jared always did. We used a hose to turn our old garden into a mud pit. We tried walking to the end of a rainbow, until we were as far away as our parents would let us go. We took turns playing Mario, Zelda, Sonic. We’d swing on a pipe in their basement, and we’d get in trouble every time. We ate otter pops. We fought, but nothing that wasn’t forgotten the next day.

There were two other houses near us, off of a different parallel road. One with a boy our age. Cory, I think. He was never really a proper member of our gang. I remember that he had a lot of toys, but that didn’t make me want to hang out with him.

The other house shared a backyard with our lane, and they had a little boy, about three years younger than me. We’d entertain him sometimes, but he was too young to really hang out with us. They had the fanciest playground set on the block, so we liked that.

For some reason his mom never liked us, and she didn’t want us using the swing set. I can remember her yelling out of their bedroom window that overlooked the backyard, shooing us away. And I mean really yelling. Until then, I was used to adults being nice, and I was generally free to explore the neighborhood at will. For whatever reason, she was different. Maybe we were more trouble than I thought.

I remember one night, playing on their swings after sundown, when she yelled at us, as expected. We left, once again upset that we had been shooed away. One of the others said that they hated her, and they wished that she was dead. We agreed – yes, we too wish that she was dead. We wished that she was dead so that we could play on her swing set without getting yelled at.

One night, while watching TV with my parents, we saw police lights through the windows. There were police cars in the neighbor’s driveway. My parents didn’t know what was going on, and I think my dad made a joke. I wasn’t familiar with police lights, so I didn’t know what to think.

The next day at school, I saw Jared and Devin during a school assembly. I asked them about the lights, and they told me that our neighbor died. The mean one. The one with the young son. The one that we wished would die, she was dead. She had a seizure in the shower while her husband was at work, while she was home alone with her son. She fell, and she drowned. When her husband got home from work, he found her here there, and his son all alone. Before the ambulance showed up, Jared and Devin’s mom tried to resuscitate her.

It was a lot to process as a kid, and the weight of the situation didn’t really hit me until I was older. That’s when I felt bad for the husband, the son, and Jared and Devin’s mom who was a close friend of hers. At the time, the concept of drowning in the shower terrified me. As I understood it, seizures just happen sometimes. This was reinforced when a schoolmate had a seizure in another classroom, out of nowhere. I couldn’t see how it was possible to drown in the shower, but I knew it was. Drowning in such a small amount of water seemed terrifying because of how helpless you would have to be.

I remember other kids would occasionally wish that somebody would die. It was a popular way to convey hatred towards another kid. For a time, I would protest. I told them to be careful what they wished for, and that I once had the same wish fulfilled. Nobody believed me. Kids say all kinds of things, after all, so eventually I stopped. I started keeping it to myself. I even forgot about it for a while, and didn’t dwell on it whenever I would remember – until now.

I know that I didn’t kill the woman, but I wasn’t so sure as a kid. At that age I was just beginning to realize that the whole world didn’t only exist around me, for me. Santa and The Tooth Fairy and all their friends were becoming less real. I started to understand that the kids at school had their own lives after the last bell rang, as did the teachers. There were other people and other lives.

In that time of philosophical awakening, I still wasn’t sure what to make of the deathwish. Not only was I uncertain about my influence on her death, I also didn’t know how to feel about it. Should I be happy? I definitely wasn’t sad about it, she was too far away from my center. And I had, after all, gotten what I wanted. My own life improved a little now that there was one less person yelling at me, and the cost wasn’t something I could process yet. Still, I knew it wasn’t something to celebrate, so I existed in conflict.

In hindsight, I know that kids will be kids, and it was just bad luck that I was the one with a deathwish granted. In a strange way, I’m thankful. If somebody had to die, at least I learned something from it. While not a grand transformation, I think it made me consider my words with more care. I think it made me a better person.

After 4th grade we moved to Missoula, and I never saw or talked to Jared and Devin again. I mostly forgot about them until very recently, that part of my life fading in my memory. I wonder what, if anything, they remember about me, and what stories they could tell about my family, what they thought was weird about us.

And sometimes I wonder if they, too, know that not every wish should be granted.

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The Stars

Space was one of my earliest fascinations. I got a small astronomy book for Christmas in the 2nd grade. I would read it before bed, and most of it went over my head. But not all of it. The planets were the characters, just like other books had, each with their own story. Saturn was quickly my favorite, but I always had a soft spot for Neptune. Jupiter was a jerk. Venus was a friend.

This fascination got me a little sidetracked. I read dozens of books about aliens, and I watched every bogus History Channel show about how ancient civilizations were helped by extraterrestrials. Along with an early love of magicians, I think this lead to me becoming jaded a little too soon. Before I was in high school I figured out that these things weren’t real. Not really. I felt duped, and while I continued to appreciate astronomy, my fascination had waned.

I never stopped loving the stars, though. My family had a cabin on a lake in the middle of the woods, and I spent many nights sitting alone by the fire and looking at the stars. I would lay on the end of the doc and stare up, the entire sky laid before me. So clear and open. I didn’t care about what was happening in my day-to-day life at that moment. I just looked up.

My family sold the cabin when I was a sophomore in high school, and we moved to a new town. The move was good for me. I made friends and spent less time alone. Instead of weekends with a fire pit, I hung out with people, eating pizza and playing video games. For a little while, I forgot about the stars.

During my first week as the new kid, this girl convinced me to ask her out, then dumped me a few days later. I think she didn’t like that I played Magic during lunch, but it’s not like we had a real relationship anyway. We went on one date, bowling, and split the bill. I had no idea what I was doing, and wasn’t very surprised when she told me a few days later that she “just has to focus on her schoolwork right now.”

A year later, for reasons I still don’t understand, another girl set her sights on me. She got me to go to a movie with her and a friend, then back to her friend’s place to watch movies. We made out for most of the night. It was my first kiss, and she had to guide me at every step of the way, even pulling my own arm around her to start it all. Back in school on Monday, it was clear that it was just a one-time thing, that we hadn’t started a relationship. I wasn’t surprised. We stayed friendly, but I didn’t really know her in the first place.

Those two experiences represented the entirety of my experience with relationships by my Junior year of high school. It became a running joke with my friends that I would never have a girlfriend. Jon? A girlfriend? Yeah right. I played along, mostly because I thought they were right. I had no confidence, and my humor was very self-deprecating.

That said, I was always good at being friends with girls. They told me it was because I listened. I was just a friend, but I usually didn’t mind. I liked being a friend, and tended to dislike the typical guys, as I saw them.

In my junior year, I joined the speech and debate team. This was the first time I had participated in any major school activity, and it served as a catalyst for many things to come. It gave me the confidence and drive to work on the school newspaper, act in a play, and join the tennis team. This world, the one where I participated in things, was incomprehensible to me before speech and debate. And most importantly, it’s where I became friends with Erika.

She was part of a tight group of friends, these four girls. They all took a liking to me, and we started hanging out together. I joined them for lunch, then movie nights, then snowball fights. I started hosting speech and debate team parties at my house, and these girls were often the first to arrive, and the last to leave. They really liked to laugh.

I connected with each of them in our own way, none of which were romantic. Our friendships were never a threat to my guy friends, who made passes at these girls from time to time. I remember one of my friends asking another for permission to pursue Erika. He was told sure, go for it. Then they both looked at me, wondering for a moment if they needed my permission, and we laughed. Jon, dating? Hilarious. In the end, nothing came of his advances.

This is the mindset I was in as Junior prom came around, that a relationship wasn’t something I did, that it wasn’t an option. But I was also coming out of my shell, making more friends, gaining confidence. Dances weren’t a terrifying non-option anymore, not since I had gone to spree (also known as Sadie Hawkins) with another friend of mine earlier that year. Somehow, seemingly out of nowhere and despite myself, I had a realization: I should ask Erika to prom.

Despite the unfamiliarity of the idea, I immediately knew I was right. And I knew, with full certainty, that she would say yes. It wasn’t because of any flirting or awkward advances or who-likes-who rumors. It was because of a connection we had, as friends. Mostly, I remember a moment on the bus, on a way back from a speech and debate meet, just talking. I remember that we were both by the window, talking to each other over the back of my seat, lit by passing cars and city lights. In that moment, I wasn’t talking to a girl I had a crush on. I was talking to a friend, and it was really nice. Somehow, because of moments like that one, I knew she would say yes.

The day after I had this idea, I pulled Erika aside. We had all just gotten to a friend’s house after school, our usual hangout, but I had to leave for work. I looked down at her, she looked up at me, and I awkwardly spit out the words. “So, umm, I was wondering, do you want to go to prom with me?” She said yes, enthusiastically. We shared an awkward-but-welcomed hug, and then I left. I was happy.

The few weeks leading up to Prom were fairly normal, and prom itself was pretty awkward. That whole day was. There’s a lot of pressure and expectations in a very unfamiliar setting, and nobody really knew how to handle it. We all had fun, but it was definitely awkward and not ideal.

It would have been easy for things with Erika to stop right there, to fade back into a nice friendship, nothing more. But I wanted more, and now I finally had the confidence to try. I asked Erika to hang out, and I obliviously trudged through her deflections at every turn. Eventually we watched a movie at my house after school. It seemed clear that something was there, but neither of us really knew what to do. I was very nervous, and she could tell. I think she appreciated it. For our next date, and neither of us would have called it that, she suggested something perfect.

She said we should look at the stars.

It was summer, and the nights were warm and clear. One weekend night we went to the the high school football field and rolled out a blanket. We laid on our backs, side-by-side, and looked up at the stars. The sky was open all around us, just like it used to be for me. It felt so good to share that with somebody else. It felt perfect.

It was under the stars that we fell in love.

It didn’t happen immediately, but over many summer nights. We kept going to the same spot on the football field, with the same blanket, and we continued to look at the stars. We would talk until the sun came up, fighting to stay awake. We were so desperate to just spend time together. As the nights got colder, we got closer.

A year and a half later, I was weeks away from leaving for college, and Erika was about to start her senior year of high school. We had agreed to break up when the time came, and it did. We were both fiercely career driven – neither of us wanted to hold back for anybody, not while we were still so young. In theory.

On one of our last weekends, we got in the car and drove to the next town over. We drank lemonade, we listened to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and we went hiking into the mountains. It was quiet and secluded, and we found a stream. There, we carved our initials into a tree, enjoying the embrace of a cliche.

We talked about returning one day, to the same spot, as friends. Many years in the future, our lives properly split and propelled forward, we imagined a respectful reunion on the same path. I pictured us sharing the intimate details of our lives, made comfortable by our history, and made important by the knowledge of where we each came from. I still hope for this moment, but I do not expect it.

A couple weeks after the hike, I dropped her off at home for the last time. We cried, and hugged, and said goodbye. I remember a look in her eyes the moment I let go, standing in her driveway under the stars, as she realized that was it. As we both did. That’s the moment that sticks with me the most to this day. It was by far the most vulnerable I had ever seen Erika, which was probably true for her as well. We had agreed to jump off a cliff together, and that was the moment we both realized we were suddenly in the air.

Extraordinarily, this was not the final end of our relationship – that moment came six-and-a-half years later, in a different story.

The stars mean something different to me now than they once did. Whenever I look up at a clear night sky, I remember those summer nights, and what it felt like to truly be known for the first time. The clearer the sky, the stronger the memory. It’s still hard for me to visit Montana for that reason. Thankfully, the rainy embrace of this bright city keeps me sheltered from the stars.

Humorous Duo

Back in high school I competed in Humorous Duo. It was really important to me, but I’ve always had a hard time explaining the experience to people. It was…weird. I just found my old script, so instead of packing for my upcoming move I’m going to tell you about some horrible jokes I wrote in high school.

I mentioned my participation of Speech and Debate in A Story About “Sarah”. I started in Extemporaneous Speaking, and event for smart politically-minded people. I thought I was those things, but I really wasn’t. Eventually I realized that I needed to be creative to be happy. I learned this lesson about life in college when I tried to be a physics major, but at least I learned this lesson about Speech and Debate in high school. I found the Drama section.

It turns out there were actually a lot of drama events in addition to the “Speech and Debate” part. I had no idea if I’d be any good at it, but I liked the idea of being funny instead of informative. The only experience I had was a play I did in like 8th grade. It went…ok. I considered myself funny, but I was in the middle of coming out of my awkward phase and had very little confidence. A big part of joining meant that I got to hang out with my cool new friends – especially the girls. Going to a meet was this awesome weekend event with bus rides, food, hotels, bonding, making fun of kids from other schools. It was great.

My first attempt to enter Drama was to do the Humorous Solo event. I memorized Weird Al’s Albuquerque, which I pretty much already knew, and somebody told me it was a good piece anyway. I was ready to go, but unfortunately there were not spots open for that event in our school. (It was popular.) I kept getting stuck in Extemporaneous Speaking hell, and I was miserable.

Luckily there was an open spot in Humorous Duo, so my friend Kevin Love and I joined together. We didn’t really know what we were doing, so we grabbed a piece fairly at random from Ken Bradbury – Open to Interpretation. To get a good idea of what this event is like, here are two people doing that piece better than us. We didn’t have a female Gretel, but I think we got points for me wearing a dress. Some friends tried to put a bra on me for added comedy, but it was way too physically uncomfortable.

We may not have been good, but this got us in the door. For the rest of the year we traveled to meets and performed. We got to hang out with the team and bond. We also got to practice performing, which was really key. Looking back, the piece was actually really good for teaching. Essentially, it tells the story of Hansel and Gretel while switching through a variety of styles. Film noire, vaudeville, shakespeare, that kind of thing. It also showed us what we were good at – a lot of the styles we didn’t understand, so we were unsurprisingly bad at them.

The other really important part of that year was watching. You spend so much more time watching other pieces than actually performing. Each meet had maybe 5 rounds. Each round they would post your room, where you sat and waited with about 4 other teams, each taking turns to perform. Over the course of a meet you would see the same performances from other teams 3-5 times. Over the course of a season, especially in our small Montana district, you could see the same pieces from the same people 20 or more times. We could even see pieces transform over the season as the actors improved and tweaked the piece to their skills. The competitors also spend a lot of time between rounds hanging out and getting to know each other.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back this was incredibly important. I bet this repetition really shaped my acting and sense of humor. They also really shaped what we would do next year.

I remember the Romeo and Juliet piece – probably the best in our division. Their energy and volume was incredible. Our own school had two hilarious seniors that performed a bit making fun of TV. They had Steve Erwin, Creed, and a laid-back acting style that really worked well with the humor. The best ever were these two girls we only saw at State. They were dressed all in black, no props, and they delivered this incredible spy piece. Their body movements and inflections were so good at conveying their different characters. And they wrote it themselves! They were the ones that really motivated me for the next year.

That season ended unspectacularly, but I had the fire.

Season 2

Unfortunately, this was my senior year. Oh how I wish I had found this competition sooner! Kevin and I knew we were going to write a piece together, and as the season approached we finally put pen to paper.

Our first script was actually pretty bad. It had some good elements in it, but it had no cohesion. Here’s the opening…

Announcer 1: From all the reality TV shows around the world comes the greatest reality TV show since the development of reality TV. We present to you: Willy Wonka’s – The Apprentice.

Announcer 2: This year we decided to abduct the most outrageous contestants, from the most outrageous reality TV shows, and insert them into one chocolate factory the size of the national debt.

Oompa Loompa: Oompa Loompa doompadee doo, we got a story to tell you. It’s about four guests in a factory, who have all been snatched from reality TV.

Those four guests were Sea Captain, “from Celebrity Date Your Mom: Little John”, Hansel, and “from Desperate Housewives: Gold-digger Edition comes Anita Yaumoney.”

We loosely tied a bunch of gags together with oompa loompa rhymes and commercial breaks, but the “show” itself had no plot. We even cut off who the winner was in true “tune in next time” reality TV show fashion, but even that would have helped. I didn’t see it at the time, but you can’t introduce a plot like this and have it go nowhere. Even in a ridiculous skit, you still want something to pull the audience through and pay them off in the end. One judge said it best:

“This script is confusing. You did it well, but I’m not sure what you did.”

This is a literal quote from a judge form. I collected our feedback forms at the end, and I found them today while I was packing. I’ll share more quotes later.

We weren’t married to the script, so we changed it up after one or two meets. We really liked some of the elements, but needed a solid structure. We know what we had to do – structure it around TV channels – but we were avoiding it because that’s what our school’s best team did the year before. Eventually we sucked it up, did what was right for the piece, and slept at night knowing that our version was very different in content and delivery.

One of my biggest regrets about high school is not having a third year to write another piece from scratch. It would have been killer!

Anyway, we had our solid piece for the rest of the season. We would take the audience through 15 over-the top TV channels. I found our original script, so I’m going to walk you through that piece now, for better or for worse. We tweaked some things over time, but most of the jokes stayed intact.

Now, I’m going to break it all down for you.

Setup

Picture a high school classroom. The desks have been shifted back a bit, to leave room at the front of the classroom as the stage. The judge, an adult from the community that’s volunteering their time, is sitting in the front and center. (Final rounds had three judges.) Each team sits and waits at the desks until the judge calls them up.

Kevin and I wore alternating black and white suits. I was black pants with a white jacket and a black tie. We realized halfway through the season that my thrift store jacket was actually a woman’s jacket, but that only added to the humor. Kevin had the white pants, black jacket, and white tie. I knew I wanted us to dress nice and simple and let our acting take us over the top, and our contrasting hair colors (me blond, him black) gave me the idea for the alternating suits.

When our team was called up, we would walk to the front of the room with our prop bag. Kevin had an old leather doctor bag that was perfect. We situated our two chairs (customary with any stage) and set our props in just the right places. Our props were minimal – just enough to accent the channel we were on. A stethoscope, a package of diapers, a beanie – more of character accents than physical gags.

I would sit slumped in a chair, Kevin would set the timer to 12 minutes, look at the judge, get the nod, then hit start…

Intro

Kevin: Hey dude, wake up!
Jon: NOOO! Ohh man, I just had he most horrible nightmare!
Kevin: Ohh yeah? What of?
Jon: I dreamt that I went to a speech and debate meet, NAKED…and my judge was that, Dell guy.
Kevin: Dell guy?
Jon: You know the guy that used to always be like: Dude, you’re getting a Dell. Instead he was all like, Dude, you’re going to…heck. Ohh it was horrible.
Kevin: I’m sorry. Hey, I know what will cheer you up!
Jon: Yeah, what?
Kevin: Let’s watch some TV.
Jon: At four in the morning?
Kevin: Yeah, I have fifteen channels, there is bound to be something on…
Jon: Ok…
*CLICK*

I screamed that “NOOO!” loudly. I wanted to grab the judge’s attention right off the bat and set the tone for the rest of the piece. It was also important to establish the premise – two dudes watching horrible TV – and set expectations that we could meet and play with – 15 channels.

At the start of each channel the two of us would step to the front of the stage, look forward, snap in unison with our hands in the air, and say “channel ###”. This made the transitions super clear, and let us add a nice abrupt cutting edge to whatever the last joke was. It also reinforced which channel number we were on, continuing to build expectations towards 15 channels and keep the pace moving. I felt like this was super important to the pacing.

*SNAP* Channel One

We started with a bunch of news jokes we got from SNL Weekend Update.

Kevin: Welcome to the four O’clock news. [As I did a “dut-dut-dut-dut” sound in the background.]

Jon: South Africa’s Hendrik Ramaala won Sunday’s New York City Marathon in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 28 seconds. Ramaala credited his fast time to the fact that he was being chased by 30,000 white people.

Kevin: Donald Trump and producer Mark Burnett are reportedly considering creating a Broadway musical based on The Apprentice. The pair came up with the idea when neither one of them could find a match to set fire to a pile of money.

Jon: The next edition of The Real World will be shot in Detroit. As will several cast members.

Kevin: Officials in China said Monday that a con man took advantage of his resemblance to a famous historical figure to dupe patriotic old pople out of their money. Thus proving that even to Chinese people, Chinese people look alike.

Jon: A state trooper in Oklahoma, who had pulled over a delivery truck, found 600 ponuds of marijuana hidden in four coffins. Or so starts the math section of Snoop Dogg’s new SAT prep book.

Kevin: A man who had a heart attack while he was alone in his house was saved when his dog brought him the phone so he could call for help. However, it should be noted that for every one of these heartwarming stories there’s a million where the dog just sits there like a moron and watches you die.

Jon: Radio Flyer, Inc, the maker of Little Red Wagon, is closing their Chicago plant and outsourcing their production to China. On the plus side, the wagons will be made for kids, by kids.

Kevin: On Thursday, more than 7,000 sites took place across the country in National Depression Screening Day, which screens the public for depression related illnesses. A spokesman for the group said, “I don’t know…uh…turnout was OK, I mean I guess…just wasn’t as great as I thought…but, you know…it was a stupid idea anyway…so…I guess I’m just gonna go back to bed…”

Jon: Direct TV has filed suit against O.J. Simpson in accusing him of pirating its satellite television signal. In an unrelated story, DirecTV has been stabbed to death.

Kevin: Despite the fact that Martha Stewart has disgraced herself too much to hold an official position at Omnimedia, the company may still use her name and images to sell their products. You know, sort of like Clinton and the Democrats.

Jon: Polaroid is warning customers not to listen to the part of the Outkast song, “Hey Ya, ” that tells people to “shake it lie a Polaroid picture,” because that could actually ruin the picture. In a related story, Bacardi is warning shorties to be responsible, and not “sip Bacardi like it’s de birthday.” [Old judges loved this joke.]

Kevin: Michael McGuire, a prisoner in Nebraska, escaped from a hospital by using a fake gun he had made out of toilet paper. The plan turned tragic, however, when he used a real gun to wipe himself.

Jon: This week, Georgia’s board of education approved the plan that allows teachers to keep using the word ‘Evolution’ when teaching biology. Though, as a compromise, dinosaurs are now called ‘Jesus Horses.”

As I write this, I realized that we should have switched from me to Kevin for the “unrelated story” punchline to the OJ Simpson joke. That would have been much funnier. Good pacing with the quick switch-back.

As one of us was talking, the other one had their head down. This eliminated distraction for the judge, and also provided a nice cut to the next joke as we swapped.

This bit was probably a little too long, but I wanted to give the judges some time to settle in and laugh.  I didn’t feel bad taking established jokes from SNL, especially since a lot of our competition was doing written and proven pieces. Given another year, though, I wouldn’t have used so much. I think it helped to start out really solid, though. It established us as credible sources of the funny, and let us get away with the really wacky stuff to come.

*SNAP* Channel Two

After the relatively tame new section, we kicked the overacting into high gear for this soap opera parody.

Kevin: Doctor, how is he? How is he doing?
Jon: How is what doing? The fact that I’m in love with you?
Kevin: No, my husband. For the love of god man, pull yourself together! [He fake stage slaps me.]
Jon: I…I…I killed your husband.
Kevin: You what!?!?
Jon: I killed him…but I do have some good news for you. I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.

*Snap* Channel Three

The judge was probably feeling comfortable by now. Time to really turn up the heat! I said this section really fast while Kevin acted out the side effects, effectually keeling over.

Kevin: So try out our new product, Aumnitrol.

Jon: Only available for a limited time. May cause drowsiness, headache, constipation, kidney stones, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, memory loss, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, lepracy, alcoholism, death, Athens, and chronic smoking. Offer not valid in Texas, the Mississippi River, or Saskatchewan. Do not use around heavy machinery or an electric can opener. May cause temporary blindness in the left eye. In a few isolated cases loss of feet or temporal lobe have been experienced. Do not use around children under the age of twelve. Any attempt to burn may result in sudden death by electrocution. Aumnitrol should not be used as a flotation device.

*SNAP* Channel Four

Time for a solid joke…

Kevin: Welcome back to…THE BIGGEST BOOZER! Let’s go down on the floor to see how the Sea Captain is doing…
Jon: Ahoy! Bartender, give me another lager.
Kevin: Sure…but sir, I have to ask. Why do you have a steering wheel in your pants?
Jon: Ahhrrrr, it drives me nuts! [Big toothy smile at the judge.]

This was probably the most controversial joke with judges, but we kept getting away with it.

*SNAP* Channel Five

“MTV Rap” is all my first version script tells me, but I can’t remember exactly what we did. I liked having something lyrical in here, but I think we struggled with exactly what it should be for a while. We tried a Wizard of the Hood thing, but we flubbed it up enough that I think we switched to something else. I can’t remember where we settled.

*SNAP* Channel Six

Time for more loud ridiculous. I put on the beanie and pulled it over my eyes.

Kevin: And now you too can enjoy your favorite Christmas Carols with famous rapper, Lil’ John! Here is that old holiday favorite, Jingle Bells

Jon: What crunk yeah, What crunk yeah, What crunk yeah what crunk!

Kevin: Silent Night!

Jon: Whaaaat crunk yeah…whaaat crunk yeah…OK what crunk, OK crunk what…

Kevin: Rudolf the Red Nosed Raindeer!

Jon: What crunk yeah what crunk yeah what. Krunk ok yeah what crunk yeah!

Kevin: The twelve days of Christmas!

I really like the hard cutaway right here, because that would be a truly long and ridiculous and pointless song, there’s no need to go into it.

Now that I look back, I think this section was influenced by Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the CD compilation skit they would do. This is probably my favorite Whose Line moment. I watched that show a lot, even the reruns, and I bet it has a big hand in shaping my comedy.

*SNAP* Channel Seven

All right, the halfway mark. Probably over halfway in time. We just did some ridiculous yelling, so now we’re going to bring it back down with a ridiculous premise but a relatively straight delivery. We’re also setting up the big punchline for the end.

Jon: [Walking like a crickety old man, wavery voice.] Oh…so old…barely walking…

Kevin: [On his knees, kid voice.] Grandpa, grandpa! Come out and play with me!

Jon: Ohh, I’m sorry Kaylub, but I can’t go outside to play with you. Sometimes I have to get to he bathroom quick.

Kevin: But grandpa, why can’t you just wear diapers like me?

Jon: Well you see Kaylub, they don’t make diapers fro guys my age…

Kevin: Ok…[stand up, grabs diapers, switch to excited adult character] – Well That Depends! Try these! New adult diaper, by depends! [hands me diapers]

Jon: [Not an old man anymore.] You can depend on depends for those times when old faithful just isn’t that faithful.

Now we start doing these little one-liners. Kevin says the line, then we do some action associated with it while saying “HUH-HUH…YEAH!” It’s hard to explain.

Kevin: You can depend on depends for…Pep Rallies [fist pump] HUH-HUH…YEAH!

Kevin: You can depend on depends for…Roller Coaster Rides [hands up] HUH-HUH…YEAH!

Kevin: You can depend on depends for…Sporting Events [the wave] HUH-HUH…YEAH!

Kevin: You can depend on depends for…Dance Parties [disco move] HUH-HUH…YEAH!

Kevin: You can depend on depends for…Long Funerals [sobbing] HUH-HUH…YEAH!

Jon: Ok Kaylub, I’m ready to play now, and you can depend on it!

Kevin: HUH-HUH…YEAH!

It’s worth noting that the “Kaylub” name was not random – it was an inside joke for a lot of the repeat performers. Early in the season we were in an elementary school, waiting in a room for a judge to show up. Somebody noticed this Kaylub kid’s handwriting on the wall and made a joke. Then we started working the name into each of our skits. One of the downsides of performing with the same people over and over again is that they stop laughing. Anything you could do to get the room to laugh was good, and a good Kaylub reference usually did that.

*SNAP* Channel Eight

We’ve really gone into the absurd now. We’re going to stay absurd, but anchor it with some current events humor. And I mean really current. Remember the winner of Surviror one, Richard Hatch? And how he was naked? And how he was later arrested for tax evasion? We did! Here, Kevin held a “for dummies” book over his crotch.

Kevin: Hi, I’m Richard Hatch. You may remember me as the naked, and Amazing winner of Survivor one, who was recenty suspected of tax fraud. IN my book, Richard Hatch’s Tax Evasion for Dummies, you will learn two easy steps on how to successfully avoid the authorities when trying to commit tax evasion. In step one, you will learn to become famous by either A: Getting on TV. B: Becoming a Nudist. Or C: Becoming a Nudist, on TV. In step two, you will learn the effective ways on buying my book on how to understand step one.

[I think we added a line for me here later.]

Kevin: [Satisfied customer.] Thanks to Richard Hatch’s book, and due to the fact that I no longer buy clothes, I have saved thousands of dollars!

Jon: Thanks to Richard Hatch, [aside] and Geico [end aside], I have saved 2,000 dollars, and became very well known around my block, if you know what I mean.

Kevin: Also check out, Martha Stewart’s Insider Trading, the right way. Montana Powers’ Business destruction in 80 days. Judy Martz’s How to throw a party – out the window, and George Bush’s How to speak good. And for a limited time offer you can receive nothing delivered to your door, for 8 dollars and 23 cents.

Montana Power was a big catastrophe of a company that crippled a lot of communities. Judy Martz was governor or something. Timely!

*SNAP* Channel Nine

This was a condensed version of something from our original Willie Wonka script, and the Hansel reference is a callback to our old piece, mostly for the veterans in the room. We just delivered a fairly wordy and newsy bit, so now we’re swinging the pendulum back to an acting-heavy bit:

Jon: And now back to Law and Order: Fairy Tale Victims Unit
Kevin: [As Hansel.] Ohh, but how did you know I did it?
Jon: WELL, when I found the trail of bread crumbs leading to the house of candy I immediately remembered the overweight french gardener I met in the Bronx who put a curse on the magical apple that gave mother goose a wooden leg that grew when she lied about her grandmother’s porridge. THEN, when Mr. Plumb, with the wrench, in the conservatory contacted Mr. Yamagashi with the shoe phone at approximately three O’clock AM a message was delivered by sparrow in a coconut, over the BEARING STRAIGHT!!! I WANT THE TRUTH!!!
Kevin: [Still in ridiculous Hansel voice.] You can’t handle the truth!

I would have made some different choices now with the ridiculous crime solving rant, but it worked well enough. Mostly it was about me fast-talking and building up to screaming at Kevin.

*SNAP* Channel Ten

Speech and Debate ran through winter, so this was an incredibly timely bit. We had a really warm winter with notoriously bad skiing weather. Or so Kevin told me.

Kevin: Big Mountain Ski Pass…

Jon: 36 dollars.

Kevin: Brand new snow gear…

Jon: 380 dollars.

Kevin: New skis

Jon: 550 dollars

Kevin: Foo, water, gas, and cough drops.

Jon: 80 dollars.

Kevin: Taking the day off work to watch the snow melt in December.

Jon: Priceless

*SNAP* Channel Eleven

It’s just a bunch of pickup lines. I was never super happy with this one because of how lazy it was. It didn’t really fit the TV premise and wasn’t very original, but it stuck around for the whole season because it kept working. We always delivered them right at the judges, for maximum uncomfortable laughter.

Jon: Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven.

Kevin: I lost my phone number, can I have yours?

Jon: Are you tired? Cause you’ve been running through my mind all day.

Kevin: Have you bought tickets yet? To the gun show. [Flexing his real muscles.]

Jon: If I were to rearrange the alphabet, I would put U and I together.

Kevin: Which way is the gym? Is it this way, or this way? [Again, flexing his real muscles while pointing.] Well I guess it really doesn’t matter, because the world is round! [Brings his still-flexing muscles around in a muscle-man pose.]

Jon: Do you know Karate? Because your body is kick’n!

Kevin: The power company has been looking for you, because your body is electric!

Jon: IF I told you that you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?

Kevin: Your body is like a parking ticket. It says Fine Fine Fine all over it.

*SNAP* Channel Twelve

At this point, we’re pretty late into our time. If the judge is paying that close attention, they’ll be wondering how we’re going to fit all 15 channels, which we set up in the beginning, into 12 minutes. Each of our channels have been fairly substantial so far. I really wanted to play off of their expectations and hit them with a hard 1-two punch. I consider channel 12 and 13 our most successful channels. They always got a good reaction and really drove the piece home.

As we snap and say “Twelve”, I’m on me knees with my head down. The judge is like “wtf is he doing?” Then…

Kevin: Welcome to Survivor: Neverland Ranch!

Jon: AHHHHHHHHH!

I would put my hands on my cheeks and just scream at the top of my lungs in that high pitched girl scream. Just hit them right in the gut while they’re thinking “oh god they went there.” Then…

*SNAP* Channel Thirteen

Jon: and welcome back to the Life channel, and today’s special: That time of the month…

Kevin: AHHHHHHHHH! [A manly, yet horrified, scream.]

Boom! One-two punch! At this point we’ve usually managed to keep them interested throughout the piece, and we’ve gotten their heart racing again towards the end.

*SNAP* Channel Fourteen

I really can’t remember this channel. My original script just says “Dating Service”. Honestly, I think we may have cut this one for time and gone down to only fourteen channels by the end. I also think the pacing works better carrying over the excitement into…

*SNAP* Channel Fifteen

Jon: You’ve seen trading spaces. You’ve seen trading houses. You’ve even seen trading spouses. Now watch, trading couches…[We each sit in our chairs.]
Kevin: Ok dude, you ready to trade?
Jon: Ok dude, let’s do it!
Kevin: OK! [We get up and switch sides.]
Jon: [I sit in Kevin’s chair.] Ohh dude, this is a niiice couch!
Kevin: Ohh yeah, you like it? Alright, here I go[Kevin sits in my chair]…Ahhhhhhh…[comfort turns to discomfort]…awwwww! Why is yours all wet?
Jon: It depends!
Together: HUH HUH YEAH!

Together: End!

At this moment, Kevin dives to the timer and hits end, then shows the remaining time to the judge. We were always cutting it close, down to 20 seconds or less usually. We also tended to glance at the clock as we headed into the last channel, because we could speed up the couch bit if we really needed to. Being close on time made us looked practiced, which we were.

Judge Comments

At this point, the judges jot down some notes, then call up the next team. Some of them take time later to write more elaborate notes. The judges rank the teams in the room from best to worst and turn in the sheets to be scored for the placement at the end of the meet. Then there’s the awards ceremony, where everybody has changed into their normal clothes and gotten comfortable in the auditorium. Kevin and I usually left our ties on. Then, hopefully, the comment sheets made their way to our coach and we could read them on the bus ride back.

I still have some of those comment sheets, and they’re great to read now. Very uplifting, and I think telling of things to come. A lot of this process reminds me of the Limited Resources signoff. I’ve picked some comments to share with you, most of which are only inflating my ego. Here you go:

“Too funny. It was awesome. Very creative. Very timely.”

“Maybe not appropriate at all times?? Seriously good timing – good interaction. How do you speak so fast yet clear? So impressive. Some of your comments were mean! It’s not necessary to bash people to be funny!”

“Worked well together especially during ‘depends’ commercial.”

“Very good inflection and facial expression. Excellent control of your voice.”

“Could see you in a comedy night club…some of your material was crude and that hurt you…way to go on your lines! Good speed and use of timing.”

“Blond young man – speaks very clearly – super enunciation + diction. I especially enjoyed the Richard Hatch disclaimers + warnings.”

“Guy in black is a bit like Seinfeld. Guy in white has a great sound, rich voice, and has great rhythm – good delivery…very entertaining – left me wanting more!”

“They were very quick on the take and never missed a beat that I could see.”

“Very very good! Fast paced piece with lots of humor. Timing & overall expression excellent. Keep up the good work.”

“The duo plays too much to the judge/audience.”

“You two have done this before haven’t you? Bravo, well done! I truly enjoyed the material delivery and uniqueness.”

“Kept me laughing. Great team. Everything was clear & precise and it just kept going. Great facial expressions, clarity, movement, and flow. Truly a humorous duo.”

“I liked how it was big, bold, and loud at times to really drive home the ridiculousness of some of the things on TV.”

“Funny! These guys were great! Took me on a wild ride…On to greater things.”

“Blond guy hilarious!! Great TV voices!”

There were also a lot of comments about how well Kevin and I played off each other. It really was a great partnership, and the piece wouldn’t have been the same at all without him. I think I did most of the actual writing, but a lot of the characters and premises came from Kevin’s repertoire. We were really able to find our own strengths and play to them, and I think it showed.

States & The Pants Incident

We practice and performed this piece for a long time. We won our division handily, which only had three teams. (Montana, not a lot of people, and we competed out of our division for most of the season.) Then we went to State, where there were around 32 teams.

One of the rounds at State is called the Power Round. This is where they take first and second place from each division and place them in a room together for that round. (Usually you’re randomly spread out among the rooms.) Some of these pieces we had only heard whispers of from friends, having never competed against them before. We were nervous, having come from a small division, but remained confident. How you do in the power round is a good indication of how you’ll do in the finals.

Our team was called. Earlier in the day my pants button had broken, but the zipper was holding so I hadn’t thought much of it. As I stood up, at this moment, in the power round, my zipper snapped. Oh god. I didn’t even have a belt. I held my pants up, acted like nothing happened, and followed Kevin to the front of the room. I whispered to him, my back to the judge, while we set up our props.

Jon: “My pants broke. Look.”

Kevin: “What do you want me to do?”

Jon: “Help me!”

Kevin: “Just fix it!”

Jon: “They’re going to fall. Help meeeeeeee!”

Kevin: “Fix it!”

Clearly, Kevin was no help. I sheepishly turned to the audience. “Umm, my pants seem to have broke.” Laughter. “Yeah, really. Um…anybody have a belt I can borrow?” More laughter. A boy from another team, a boy I had never met before, walked up and handed me a belt. “Thank you,” I whispered as I put the belt on.

Luckily, my pants were now going to stay up on their own. Unfortunately, the fly was completely busted and wide open. To this day I thank god that I was wearing a sturdy pair of boxers. Not all boxers are sturdy! Some are liable to let slip the dog of war, or at least a peek now and then. These boxers were sturdy, yes, but bright blue. Just a bright beacon of blue underwear shining from my crotch.

It was hilarious, and I think we handled it well. This actually helped us, I think. It gave us sympathy from the judge, and set a funny tone. It also gave Kevin and I renewed energy. I remember moments during the performance when we would normally be making eye contact. I could see Kevin’s eyes darting down to my boxers, then back up to me as he strained to hold back his laughter. I trusted my boxers, but there’s a limit to that kind of trust. It was terrifying and hilarious.

After the Power Round were more rounds, and eventually a cut to top 8 – which we made! We performed our piece, did it well, and ended up placing 5th at State. Of course I hoped for better, but I honestly didn’t expect or goofy little piece to win the whole thing. I was super proud of both of us for writing our own piece and taking it this far. If I had another year, I would have shot right for 1st place and settled for nothing less. But that year? I’m very proud of 5th.

After the meet, we were on the bus and driving back home. Our coach was handing out the comment sheets, and luckily we got ours. Kevin and I are looking through the sheets when we realize something amazing. We shouted it to the bus. WE WON THE POWER ROUND WHERE JON’S PANTS WERE BROKEN! Oh how we cheered.

There’s some moral here about embracing when things don’t go completely as planned, or something.

Nostalgia

Thanks for giving me a chance to get really nostalgic. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to look back on my past creative self, both fondly and with a critical eye. I can see a lot of myself in this piece, and it’s really interesting to put myself in the old-me mindset. What was I thinking when I made these choices? What would I do differently? How has this experience shaped me?

One thing’s for sure, I love having this kind of creative outlet. Limited Resources was a big help for this, especially with the signoff. I hope to be able to find my way back to something like that before too long.

Lastly, I’d like to thank our coach, English teacher, and my newspaper lead, Mrs. Woodhouse. She’s an amazing lady who sat through a lot of horrible jokes and bad performances, and put up with our shenanigans. She really cared about us, and invigorated the team with her energy and spirit. It wouldn’t have been the same without her. She also had a really great laugh – my favorite laugh to get.

Thanks for reading,

-Jon

Timberman, a mobile game

There’s little downside to downloading Timberman. It’s free and take under 30 seconds to figure out what’s going on. If nothing else, it’ll teach you a little more about mobile games.

I totally unlocked Mr. Tree.

I totally unlocked Mr. Tree.

I want to talk about Timberman because it’s an incredibly simple game. Tap the left or right side of the screen to chop the tree and avoid branches. Get as far as possible while the time pressure increases. That’s it. Within the first few seconds the player has experienced the entirety of the gameplay.

This is the whole game.

This is the whole game.

I’m jealous of Timberman, because it’s the kind of game I’ve been wanting to make for years. It’s a tight polished package with a very small scope. I would love to be making a game like this every month. With that model, the goal is to rapidly deliver small games with decent quality, then see what sticks. Hopefully this cycle provides quick learnings that can be applied to the next game. A rapid feedback loop is incredibly difficult to find in the game industry, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for to improve as a game designer.

Now I imagine myself having released Timberman, and it seems to have stuck. So what now? I think the next goal is to up it from the Flappy Bird level of complexity to something more like Jetpack Joyride or Ridiculous Fishing. (Two games I love.) Even then, I think Timberman wants to remain an incredibly simple open-and-go game. I think that’s a key part of what makes Timberman work, so I wouldn’t want to lose that.

There are a lot of things I could talk about to improve this game, but I’m going to focus on one aspect: how losing feels. Right now, it feels bad. Usually the player hits a branch after making some dumb mistake, then it immediately and unceremoniously brings up the “Game Over” screen, with their best score and current score.

That's my high score. 500 even.

That’s my own high score.

Here are a few ideas on how to improve the Game Over moment.

Add a sense of progress. Make the player feel like every game moved them forward. There’s already a count of the total wood chopped that can unlock characters. At a minimum, that total could be shown on the the Game Over screen, along with how much the player just added to that total. Maybe this is a bar that represents the distance to the next content unlock, though that system would need to change to support this. The League of Legends end screen does this well.

LoL End

 

Make a big deal of a new high score. I’m surprised at how unceremonious this is. It should be, like, crazy sparkly with all kinds of fireworks. This animation should actually stop the player from hitting the play again button for a few seconds. The high score number could animate up from the old score to the new score, to emphasize how much progress was made. This is also a good time to add a sparkle to that share button.

Make a big deal out of new content unlocks. There’s not a lot of content in the game to unlock, but there are a few cool skins. As-is, the player unlocks new skins, but they’re not really called out. Similar to the new high score animation, new content should be messaged on the Game Over screen, with an animation that stops the player from hitting play immediately.

Take a breath. Right now, it jumps RIGHT NOW to the Game Over screen as soon as the player hits a branch. The animations I talked about above would help, but I think adding just one second of animation to the character death could go a long way. That said, it’s still important to make sure this game remains a quick and easy experience. I wouldn’t want to put too much time in between a game ending and the next game starting, but I think there’s room for a little.

Give the player a sense of their place in the world. I hesitate to suggest backend work when I’m not sure what Timberman has access to through the app store, but here we go. I think a leaderboard type stat would be great on this screen. I wouldn’t say “#12345 out of 99999!” More like “Top 20%!” Or “Better than # of your friends!” This can be done for both the total number, and the best number. Heck, even a daily standing could go a long way. There are a lot of options here, and they don’t all need to be done, but I think one would go a long way.

Shop

So there you go. It’ll be interesting to see if Timberman ever expands. Even at its current small size, it still has design lessons to teach.

Thanks for reading,

-Jon

Monument Valley, a mobile game

If you’ve got an hour and $2 to spare, you should play Monument Valley from Ustow.

Monument Valley

It’s a puzzle game, but I didn’t find it particularly hard. The small scope of the game keeps you focused, so it’s easy to know where you should be looking for answers to the puzzles. This is a pleasing, low-stress experience with a focus on rewarding discovery, instead of difficulty. This isn’t a puzzle game where content can be created infinitely. It’s clear that each level was carefully hand-crafted, and you can get through all the content in a satisfying hour or two.

What most fascinated me as a designer was how well the game pulled you through its mechanics with barely a word of explanation. It’s really important to communicate to players which parts of the game can be interacted with, especially in a puzzle game, and especially on a touch screen. Monument Valley is a great example of clarity and simplicity in UI.

Monument Valley has a satisfying amount of story. Just enough to pique curiosity, but not enough to get in the way. It’s a good example of story more as a way to set the tone than to actually convey a plot. Story in games is one of my personal weaknesses, so I appreciated the lesson.

I also want to call attention to the awesome level-select screen that is superbly introduced. After beating the first level, you’re transitioned to a screen with a floating four-sided building in the middle. You’re staring at one of the sides with a gray roman numeral “X” symbol on it. Then the building starts to rotate, and you see a side with “IX”. Then “VIII,” and “VII.” It’s counting down in roman numerals. Then, as you think it’s going to rotate back to the “X” side, instead it’s a “VI.” This continues until it hits “I”, which starts to colorfully animate. Then it rotates back to “II”, which appears to activate.

This moment is awesome for a few reasons. Most importantly, it wordlessly emphasizes the primary mechanic of the game: impossible geometry. It also gives the player a sense of scope and location in the game – there are ten levels, you just completed level one, and now you’re on level two. Lastly, it teaches the player how to navigate the level selection screen by showing rotation in one direction, then in the other. This also subtly reinforces one of the major ways the player interacts with the game – rotating objects in 3D space.

It’s so great to see this level of care and subtle design applied to the level select screen. It’s such an easy screen to “level one” design and just stick in a grid of levels with padlock symbols on the locked ones. Granted, sometimes the typical level-select screen is the way to go. It’s typical for a reason – it’s cheap, and sometimes resources are better spent elsewhere. In the case of Monument Valley, taking the title screen to the next level really reinforces the goals and messaging of the game. This game is meant to be artistic, and it was made with care.

Overall, I love when a game know its scope so perfectly. This isn’t a puzzle game like Cut the Rope that can pump out forgettable content. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Cut the Rope.) They made ten levels, and they made them beautifully. They picked their mechanics, integrated them into the experience seamlessly, and didn’t stretch them too thin. The story serves the tone of the game instead of its own ends. Monument Valley just wants an hour or two and a few dollars in exchange for an artful experience, and it’s clear that the game was crafted with that goal in mind.

Design Thoughts – Introduction

One of my favorite things about being a game designer is that I feel like every creative experience I have makes me a better designer. Every piece of entertainment I consume contributes to my creative knowledge base, be it a game, movie, tv show, book, podcast, stand up comedian, music video, whatever. I love learning new things from all kinds of mediums. Heck, even mundane activities, like going to the dentist, can teach you things about entertainment if you’re looking hard enough, but creative pursuits tend to be more interesting.

I’ve also found that I absorb lessons better if I’m looking at something through that lens. If I’m thinking about learning while I’m consuming, I tend to learn more. Knowing this, I’m going to try writing the things I’ve learned down, here, on this blog. When I consume something new, especially a new game, I’m going to try to write about what I learned, even if it’s small.

It’s not my goal to completely dissect what I’m talking about. If I’m talking about a game, I’m not going to rate gameplay, sound, graphics, controls, multiplayer, blah blah blah. My goal is to stay brief, and just talk about the bits I found most interesting.

I hate making a big deal about starting something new when I don’t know if it’s actually going to stick, but here we are. Time to go write the first post.

Leaving the Dream

This is the story of why I left Wizards of the Coast.

My name is Jonathon Loucks, and I was a digital designer in Wizards R&D. I sat in the pit, right next to Shawn Main. I worked on Magic Online and Duels of the Planeswalkers, was on a few FFL playtesting teams, was on a few design teams, worked with the technology team and the business team, and worked on stuff I can’t talk about. When you’re in R&D, you end up doing way more than just your job.

If you’re looking for me to trash talk Wizards or any of its employees, that’s not what this is. This isn’t a story about Wizards being a “bad company.” This is a personal story, about me. It’s about how and why I started working at Wizards of the Coast. It’s about what it was like to finally work in my dream job. It’s about why I wasn’t happy.

This is the story of why I left Wizards of the Coast.

How I Became a Wizard

In the summer of 2002, fresh out of 8th grade, I bought an Odyssey tournament pack, my first Magic product. Later that year I started playing in tournaments at the local card store, right after Onslaught came out. In my sophomore year we moved, but I still drove 2 hours on Fridays to draft at that store.

Playing tournament Magic was a big part of me coming out of my awkward shy shell. It gave me confidence and helped me find friends that I really connected with. So did getting a girlfriend my junior year of high school – more on that later.

In my senior year of high school, The Great Designer Search began. I had been reading Mark Rosewater’s articles, and I started to seriously think about game design as a career path. I didn’t win, failing out in the multiple choice section, which wasn’t a big surprise. I continued to think of game design as my dream job, but I figured the chances of me actually doing it were slim. I focused on math and science and all that stuff I thought I was supposed to do, all while continuing to play Magic.

I went to the University of Washington for college. I was somewhat familiar with Seattle because I had family there, and it was the closest place to PTQ from Missoula Montana. I knew Wizards was in the area, though I still didn’t quite consider that a realistic option.

During orientation I just happened to hear about a class being taught by Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias on game design, and I managed to get in. Boy am I glad that worked out – there was some luck involved. Skaff liked me and hooked me up with his friend Tyler Bielman, a Wizards alumni, who was looking for an intern for his TCG, Xeko. Thanks to my understanding of TCGs through Magic, I got the job.

The rest is history. That job, and Tyler, taught me a lot about game design and broke me into the industry. The job gave me a sense of purpose and direction, helping me correct my failing trajectory in college and graduate with a degree in economics. I finally knew that game design was what I wanted to do, and I could actually do it.

Flash forward to 2013, I was working at Amazon.com as a game designer, and I was living with that same girlfriend from high school. I had failed a few times to get into Wizards, most notably with The Great Designer Search 2, but I really liked my current job. I was working closely with programmers on mobile game prototypes. Prototypes of games I designed myself. I felt like I had finally made it as a game designer. Until then, my connection to the game industry had felt like it was hanging from a tenuous thread. For the first time I was feeling secure in my career.

I was also very much connected to the Magic community. I was a part of the Limited Resources podcast, which gave me a lot of joy and sense of purpose. I wasn’t playing Magic as much as I used to, but I was still playing. I really enjoyed streaming, and it felt like a way to just hang out with my friends. Nearly all of my friends were Magic players.

Enter Ryan Spain, the original cohost of Limited Resources and current Wizards employee. He told me that there was a position opening up on the Magic Online design team, and he thought I’d be perfect for it. I had come to enjoy digital game design more than the paper stuff, so the job sounded like the perfect way for me to work on Magic. I met with Ken Troop, digital R&D lead, who said I was a little more junior than he was looking for in that position, but that he had a lot of faith in me. I passed the interview and was given an offer.

At this point, I had a tough choice to make, but I think I always sort of knew I would take the Wizards job if I had the chance. I had to. It had been a dream for so long. But I liked my current job, a lot, so I asked my friends and connections for advice. They all agreed that it was a tough choice, one only I could make, though they usually cautioned me about Wizards being a potentially difficult environment. Many of these contacts hadn’t worked at Wizards for several years, so they weren’t sure what it was like these days.

I Signed the Contract

I knew it wasn’t going to be entirely smooth sailing, but I took the Wizards job. A big part of my acceptance was that I really wanted to make Magic Online the best that it can be. I wanted to give the Magic community the Magic Online that we’ve always wanted. This fire burned inside of me hotter than any Magic tournament fire. Game design had become my passion, and I wanted to turn my sights on the product that I cared the most about.

What I didn’t quite expect was how big of a life shift this was going to be. I had to stop playing tournament Magic, an activity that used to be a real drive for me. This also meant that I lost my primary connection to a lot of my friends. I had to stop doing Limited Resources, losing a tight connection to one of my best friends, Marshall Sutcliffe. We had become really close over the show, and our final show together was emotional. (Don’t worry, we’re still good friends.) I also lost my connection with the Magic community, especially given Wizards’ tight restrictions on social media – I couldn’t even stream myself playing other games. On top of all that, I left Seattle and moved to Renton.

This was a lot of change.

Then, after my second day at work, my girlfriend of 8 years broke up with me.

That was not an expected change. Things hadn’t been great between us for the last few months, but I never actually thought the relationship could end. Her leaving college was a transition that put new strains on our relationship, but we had survived all the other big transitions before. I assumed things would work out, because they always had. This time, they didn’t.

I was devastated, and it made the transition into Wizards incredibly strange. People kept congratulating me on the new job, gushing about how jealous they are, and saying how happy I must be that I finally got my dream job. I could only fake a smile and say “yeah, it’s great.” I couldn’t imagine being happy.

In that moment, I felt like all I had left was the job. It felt like everything else was gone. Wizards was it.

Working Through It

It was easy to pour everything I had into my job. I hated being at home, which was a painfully empty place. I worked a lot of late nights. I knew that I couldn’t fix my relationship, so I thought I could at least fix Magic Online. I felt like I owed this to the community, and I felt a great deal of pressure to deliver. Magic Online became some sort of weird metaphor that I still don’t completely understand.

I was clearly depressed. It had been building up for a few months, but the breakup and the shift to Wizards brought it out in full force. I lost thirty pounds in only a few months because I just wasn’t eating. The things I used to enjoy suddenly felt numb. Whenever I tried to play a game, I’d be bored within twenty minutes.

I wasn’t a great employee during this time. Sure, I was working hard, and I was told that my work itself was very good. However, being a good teammate is more than the quality of your work – you’ve also got to be able to work with people. I felt so out of control in life, I hated it when something stood in my way at work. I tended to take setbacks personally.

And there were setbacks. Wizards is a fairly big company with a lot of inertia. This helps Wizards ship high-quality card sets at pace that no other company can match, and always on time. Unfortunately, it also makes change difficult. Features that I cared a lot about weren’t gaining traction, and process improvements could take months.

My primary job was to create the “set spec,” a document I’ve written about it in my articles on dailymtg.com. This is the handoff document that R&D gives to the cardset programmers with each set. It’s meant to include all the information the programmers need to code the set.

A big part of what I liked at Amazon was working closely with the programmers. I literally sat next to them, and we could talk to each other freely. We hung out, and one of them is now one of my best friends. I thought this relationship was a key part of the success we had at Amazon. When I got to Wizards, I was surprised to find that the cardset programmers were not only sitting away from the design team, but they were on an entirely different floor!

I would describe Wizards as “siloed.” Each department is fairly disconnected from the others. There are strict channels of communication, and the departments tend to look out for themselves. There are a lot of documents being “thrown over the wall” to other departments, without a lot of communication. The set spec, at the time, was one of these documents.

As I started diving into the set spec, I realized that communication was one of our big problems. R&D just wasn’t giving the cardset team enough information. In turn, the cardset team wasn’t communicating with R&D when they had questions or needs. This lead to a lot of inconsistencies in how cards were coded, and new mechanics weren’t getting the design attention they needed. To Wizards’ credit, I think they knew this, which is why they hired me.

When I started working with the set spec, it was just a few notes on new mechanics and a handful of complicated cards. Nine months later, I had made the set specs a detailed design of the implementation for every mechanic and every card, down to the text on the buttons in the prompt box. I expanded the scope of the set spec to include all digital releases, like cubes and commander decks, instead of just the major sets. I also befriended the cardset programmers, looping them into our process earlier, collaborating with them in design meetings, and enjoying their company over lunch. I was determined to break down the wall between our departments, because that’s what was best for Magic Online.

I tell this story specifically because I feel like it’s the biggest win we had at Wizards for Magic Online. It actually worked. You can see the difference by comparing my earlier articles to my later ones. In my Theros article I’m talking about single-card implementations that I honestly wasn’t that proud of. Eight months later in my Journey into Nyx article, I’m talking about multiple system-wide improvements that are going to help all sets going forward. This was all due to a massive improvement in our process and the willingness of the two teams to collaborate. The rest of digital R&D and the cardset team deserve credit as much as I do.

So I should be happy, right? I wasn’t, and it sucked.

I was still incredibly frustrated. The improvements we implemented with Journey into Nyx were things I originally asked for with Theros. I wanted more. I couldn’t help but see what I wanted MTGO to be, so I couldn’t see the progress we were actually making. I had a lot of conversations with Ryan Spain, who kept assuring me that I was making more progress than anybody on MTGO. He would get visibly frustrated with me when I couldn’t see it. When Ryan Spain is frustrated with you, you know you’re doing something wrong.

I continued to be unhappy. Ken Troop, my boss, would take me on walks around the building and try to figure out how to make me happy. He needed me to be a productive member of the team. Eventually, something had to change.

The Day I Gave Up

In early March 2014, Ken pulled me into his office. He told me that he was moving me to the Duels of the Planeswalkers team. He hoped that the faster-moving and more stable Duels team could channel my design skills in a productive way. He appreciated my work on Magic Online and the progress I had made, but said that he needed to move me somewhere where I’ll be happier and more productive.

I hoped that I could be happy on Duels, but I know I kind of just gave up at this point. I didn’t go to Wizards to work on Duels. I had barely even played Duels. I wouldn’t have left Amazon for Duels. My fire had been snuffed out.

Around this time I also made my way onto a design team, codename Lock. Years ago this was my dream, and I would have been ecstatic. For whatever reason, it’s just not what I want to be doing with my career full time right now. I like digital games, and I want to build something.

I told various contacts I had in the industry that I was willing to leave, and I waited for the right opportunity to present itself.

Over the next few months I enjoyed the card design I was doing, but I didn’t really feel like I had a place at Wizards. Duels ended up not having that much work for me (I wasn’t really looking for it anyway) and the things I designed never went anywhere. I felt like I had been put out to pasture. I went from working late to cutting out early.

If I’m honest, it was also really hard to watch other people continue to work on Magic Online, essentially doing the job I was fired from. I was bitter. I think I still am, mostly because I know they were right to kick me off the team – I was hard to work with. I hated myself for failing.

It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t just unhappy, but that I was unhappy at Wizards. At first I blamed my misery on the breakup, but as I worked through those issues I realized that Wizards was also contributing to my unhappiness. When the right job offer came along, I took it.

I felt like I had really let myself down, as well as the community. I still feel that way sometimes. It’s rare that I think I tried my best, was prepared, and still failed. Unfortunately, my best wasn’t good enough this time. Making the choice to leave Wizards was really difficult. I still feel some guilt about it, though I’m starting to recognize that it wasn’t entirely my fault. It was a tough project to work on. In my time on Magic Online, three other designers had left the team, so I wasn’t the only one.

I Feel Better

I’m sitting at my computer, the night after my last day at Wizards, and I feel better. I feel like I’m connected to the community again. I feel free and unshackled.

This last year has been a struggle, but I’ve done a lot to get through it. I started going to therapy, which was a big help. I was on antidepressants for about 6 months. I gained all of the thirty pounds back. Then I lost twenty of them in a much healthier way by eating less, eating better, and exercising sporadically. I reconnected with friends that I had been pushing away as my relationship started failing, and I’ve become closer to them than ever before. I tried new hobbies, stuck with some, abandoned others. I went to Burning Man. I had a new girlfriend for a few months. I dyed my hair, grew a beard, painted my fingernails, shaved the beard, and repeated that cycle a few times. I went on a cruise with my parents, pushed myself out of my comfort zone, then wrote about it. Eventually, I left Wizards.

Leaving was an important part of my journey. Despite everything, I’m glad I worked at Wizards. I learned a lot, including stuff that you can’t learn anywhere else. I’m a much better game designer than I used to be. I made a lot of friends. Saying goodbye was hard.

On July 28th I start my new job at Dropforge, a mobile games startup in Bellevue. I’ll be a game designer working on bringing Card Hunter to tablet, among other projects. I’ll be their 13th employee, and I really like the people on the team that I’ve gotten to meet. I’m really excited about getting my hands dirty in design again. I think I’ll like the startup atmosphere, especially being a key piece of growing a company. I can’t wait to have something to show you!

What’s the Deal with Wizards?

Wizards isn’t a “bad company.” In some ways, it was the best job I ever had. I loved coming into work every day, even when my job itself was frustrating. I loved being in the pit. I forged a lot of new friendships. It was such a great place to actually be.

Unfortunately, Wizards just wasn’t a good fit for me. Maybe in a few years, but not right now. It was too big for me to feel like I could have the sort of impact I needed to be satisfied. It has too many ingrained, yet necessary, processes that make change slow and difficult. I also think I prefer working on games with a smaller scope. I made an exception for Magic, because I love Magic, but I think I prefer smaller, more agile projects.

There’s one aspect of Wizards that I feel like the public vastly misunderstands. If you take anything away from this article, I hope it’s this: Ideas are not Wizards’ problem. People are constantly talking about what we should be doing. Feedback from the community is constantly being analyzed, shared, discussed openly, and integrated into decisions. It kills my every time I hear somebody in the public say that Wizards doesn’t listen to players or care about their needs. It’s just not true.

When you feel like there’s a missing or poorly implemented feature on Magic Online, Wizards probably agrees with you. They would love to give it to you. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, and in ways that I never fully understood, they don’t have the resources to give it to you right now. You can argue that they should be able to give you the features you want, but I promise you that they want to give you those features just as much.

Lastly, can you please stop begging Wizards to “fire the design team” or “fire the programmers”? I was at Wizards longer than most of these people have been in their roles. They’re trying their best, and they’ve been handed the same program as you.

To The Future, and Be-Loucks!

A lot of people have been asking me if I’m going to return to podcasting and other things. I might. I hope I do.

First, let me get my footing. I need to start playing Magic again. I need to see if I still like playing Magic. I need to get comfortable in my new job and see what I have the bandwidth for. I also have about a year until all the tournament restrictions are off and I can fully compete – I’m still learning exactly what those are.

If things go well, I see myself grinding PTQs again. I see myself streaming often. Maybe traveling to some Grand Prix. Marshall and I have been talking, and I’m sure we can work something out if I want to podcast again. I’ll be more active on Twitter and Facebook now that I don’t have to watch what I say as closely. I’m looking forward to being able to connect with the community again, and I’ve really appreciated my welcome so far.

I think that about covers it. I hope you liked this oddly personal tale that isn’t really about Magic all that much.

As always, thanks for reading,

-Jon