I’m still a bit jet-lagged from the trip and woke up this morning at 4am, but at least it means I have some time to write this Dispatch. I am in Los Angeles for the E3 Expo, the annual trade show for video and computer games. My job here is to help pitch the Delta Green computer game to publishers, a job made much easier by the gorgeous prototype Flying Lab has put together while I’ve been gallivanting overseas. It’s really sweet. You control two DG agents and a friendly as they explore a couple rooms in a luxurious mansion, fight a couple of cultists to the death (one with a handgun, one with a spell), discover a secret subterranean temple below the house, and have a climactic encounter with a truly huge tentacled monstrosity that rips off the head of any character who gets too close. It’s very, very cool.

At the same time, I cringe a little as a play it because it also makes clear a lot of areas where I didn’t do a good job designing it. It’s good for what it is–a playable technology demo to prove we can do the game–but now I wish I’d come up with better situations, more interesting tactics, and on and on.

But that is what is so useful about a prototype. It transforms the glorious, swirling ideas in your head into concrete, sharp-edged reality, and shows you which of your ideas were great and which were not. Now that I’ve seen how my design work turns into a playable game, I’m ready to do a much better job. It’s very educational and I’m really grateful we made this push.

Even better, our next big milestone is to extend the prototype into a full level with complete controls, NPC interaction, and so forth. So I get to take another shot at it and make it bigger and better.

It’s really useful to have a playable prototype so early. It means we can refine the gameplay right from the start, and test all of our levels, monsters, and controls as we create them.

Yesterday we met with a publisher and it went well, well enough to get a follow-up meeting after E3. Today we have five more meetings, and then another handful tomorrow. Something good should come from one of these, I would think.

I walked around the show floor yesterday. My lord. It’s so much bigger and more money-sodden than GenCon. Millions of dollars of equipment, sets, lighting, and people are on display. Activision has an entire half-pipe with skateboarding experts doing demos right in the middle of the exhibit hall. Playstation built an elevated platform so their exhibit area is two stories tall. Bruce Campbell, John Carpenter, and other luminaries are on hand to sign autographs. Heck, even Richard Garfield is here to plug the Magic: The Gathering online game.

On the downside, I haven’t been very impressed with the games I’ve seen on the show floor. The one I liked the most was something like War of the Monsters, and it’s a quite cool monster fighting game, like the old Rampage but in 3-D. I played a giant praying mantis and my opponent was an enormous mutated ape. We each went crashing around the heart of a city in split-screen view, and when we engaged each other the screen morphed to a single image. We fought, jumped, kicked, struggled, and everywhere we went we crushed buildings, cars, and people beneath our feet. It was a real Godzilla experience and very fun.

Besides that . . . uh, I dunno. There were several battlemech-style games on display, which are generally pretty fun and the one I tried (MechAssault) was a feast of destruction. There’s a new Tom Clancy-based first-person shooter coming for Xbox that looked sweet. But I just didn’t get too excited. Certainly, I feel the Delta Green game has most of the show floor beat for graphics quality, but I’m biased.

Leaving E3 aside, though, I should backtrack and catch up. The rest of the trip Karen and I took in Europe was wonderful. After England and the canal, we took the chunnel train to Paris. Trains in Europe are a fine thing, comfortable and sleek. Much better than flying. In Paris, we only had a couple hours before our train to Vernon, a town in Normandy, so we caught the metro to the Louvre stop and went for a walk up the Champs-Elysee or however you spell it. We didn’t see much of Paris, but the part we saw was rather on the magnificent side.

Then on to Vernon and across the river Seine to Giverny, a small village little changed by the twentieth century except for the presence of Claude Monet, the impressionist painter, who spent the final decades of his life with his family in a house and gardens there. It’s now a massive destination for tourists, though Giverny itself is ignored by them. We spent our first night there at a B&B run by a French woman who grew up in Australia, and so has a delightful Aussie accent. But she was booked after that night and we moved over to another B&B. This one was owned by a family in their first year of B&B management. It was a lovely house with a terrific garden in the back, really beautiful. The husband is a record producer who’d worked with Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones; the wife is an opera singer and teacher; their young daughter is a television actress. They’d been living in a busy Paris neighborhood for years and then decided to move out to the country and run a B&B. As our host said, “All my life has been music. Now I learn to be a gardener!” They were very gracious and accommodating.

Giverny was quite adorable. Our first night we went to a restaurant that did traditional high cuisine, and rather than beat about the bush I ordered snails. As Karen observed, like mollusks and shellfish the snails are just delivery systems for butter and herbs.

We stayed for several days while Karen sketched, and then finally we bid farewell to our hosts and took the train back to Paris and then on to Geneva, Switzerland to stay with her college roommate Maria. Maria’s husband, who was out of town that weekend, is a trade lawyer for the U.S. government and has been in Geneva the last five years because it’s the HQ of the World Trade Organization. Maria was very kind and great fun. Her three kids are quite a handful and we had a terrific time.

On the other hand, I can’t say much for what I saw and learned of Switzerland. It’s a dreary, plodding place, full of snitches and busybodies. Calling the police to report your neighbor for having an untidy back yard is routine. Bah!

We then flew from Geneva to Malaga, on Spain’s southern Costa del Sol. This coastline is a mecca for northern European tourists desperate for sunlight. As a result, it’s crammed with resort hotels, summer villas, fast food, and expensive glossy retail. It’s as if the Hamptons were in Orlando, Florida.

My aunt and uncle live in a town near Malaga, where my uncle Dave works for Caterpillar, the earth-moving equipment company, at a training facility they have there. Betty and Dave invited us to stay with them and we spent a few days as their guests. They were terrific, driving us hither and yon and taking us out for elaborate meals.

Our first night we went to a big dance revue at one of the resort hotels. It was two revues, actually. The second was flamenco, very stylized and elaborate, and it was pretty cool. But the first was a Las Vegas style medley of songs and dance, with ridiculous sets, outrageous outfits, and on and on. At this point I’d like to simply present the scattered notes I made in my journal as the spectacle unfolded, Hunter S. Thompson style.

Sala Fortuna – “High Society” – Hotel Torrequarada – May 10, 2002. Dave saw this same show here in 1987. Guys in Star Trek uniforms (burgundy and black) with fishnet stripe down each pants leg. Boobs. Lip-synching. Fifteen foot bowl of fruit outlined in Christmas lights. Giant pineapple rolls onto stage, disgorging half-naked lip-synching woman. Ninjas embrace. Clones of the android woman in Cherry 2000. All the guys look and gawp-smile like Joey from Friends. Giant lips move through the fog like sharks. Suddenly the Joeys turn into leather boys. Then their clothes come off to reveal flesh-colored undies. Each crotch has a fluorescent letter spelling out “WE LOVE YOU.” Women emerge wearing costumes from the never-produced second season of the Star Trek animated series. Then the stage and floor rotate as one and I am dumbstruck. Dozens of aging boomers spiral around the room, confused, without ever leaving their chairs. Chico Marx arrives, with a microphone. He thanks us and then introduces the lead female dancer. Still speaking in Spanish, he appears to be auctioning her off. The curtains close and Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” starts.

In short, it was a thing of glory.

We spent the next day at the Alhambra. When the Moors crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and conquered a goodly chunk of Spain, they built palaces and mosques all over the landscape. But none of them so great as the Alhambra, a fantasia on a small mountain above Granada. Gardens and fountains of sublime delight, ornate arches and domed ceilings representing heaven, poetry to Allah inscribed in all the walls. It was magnificent, beyond belief, a Moorish paradise on earth still standing after centuries. During the trip I bought a copy of Washington Irving’s book Tales of the Alhambra, which proved to be a delightful read. Irving spent several months living in the Alhambra in the early 1800s. He wrote of the fortress in its decayed state, and the odd collection of misfits who lived there, as well as both the history and the fairy tales the Alhambra possesses. It was a pleasure to read, reliving the experience of walking those amazing halls.

Many cats live in the Alhambra. They are its princes now. Tourists feed them, and they also dine well on the many, many glorious fountain pools full of beautiful fish. We watched three cats gathered at the same pool, tensing on the rim, watching the fish dart back and forth and occasionally swiping a paw into the water, then recoiling from the splash. One seasoned tabby scored, scooping a little fish out of the pool and then carrying it off to devour in quiet repose. Another cat came trotting through the gardens of the Generalife with a fish in her mouth.

(Everywhere we go on this trip we have seen cats. On the Oxford canal we noticed plenty of rabbits in the little farm gardens, conjuring up images of the Beatrix Potter stories. And sure enough, one little rabbit was too bold in nibbling at Farmer MacGregor’s cabbages–a cat emerged with a little bunny in her jaws, trotting merrily along, followed by another cat who looked rather anxious and, no doubt, hopeful of sharing a meal. Given my experience with cats, I suspect that little bun rab was destined to be dropped at the door to the house as an offering to the humans therein, and then gnawed on sporadically over a period of hours once the approving coos had issued forth from the lady of the house. “That’ll teach you to savage my watercress, Mister Peter Rabbit!”)

That night we went to a seafood restaurant on the coast and had a magnificent meal. There were little fish the size of minnows, breaded and fried whole. You squeezed lemon juice on them and then just popped them in your mouth. The calamari were of surpassing magnificence, far larger than the little rings I’m used to in the U.S. And the sea bass cooked whole inside a tub of sea salt, then uncovered and filleted right at the table–ah, a delight.

The next day we piled into the car again and headed west along the coastline. The southern Andalusian landscape is joyous, rolling hills pocked with rocks and groves of olive trees. You can see so much of the sky there. I’ve never seen a sky so huge. The clouds drift and dance across the bowl of heaven and their shadows fall on the earth below.

Morning came and we caught the train from Malaga to Sevilla. There we were the guests of Edge Entertainment, publishers of Unknown Armies and Puppetland in Spain. Jose Rey and Brant McFarland of Edge were delightful hosts, and valiant UA translator Gustavo Diaz joined us for a day as well.

Sevilla is simply paradise. A hot and sweaty paradise, to be sure, but paradise nonetheless. Wonderful, simple food, cold beer, friendly people, twisty streets, and more stunning, jaw-dropping, hand-of-God architecture than all of America. I just plain loved it.

We spent a considerable amount of our time in Spain visiting what one guidebook called our “cultural obligations.” There was the cathedral, a fabulous Gothic affair that holds the world’s record–they display the certificate from Guinness–for being the largest cathedral on the planet. It’s a stunner, built on the site of a mosque and still retaining the mosque’s orange grove courtyard and tower, somewhat altered.

One of the massive doors to the cathedral was the Puerta del Perdon. After Sevilla was retaken from the Moors, the Catholic church wanted to encourage people living in northern Spain to move south, both to help stave off the moors and to resettle the land for Christendom. (Rather like the Israeli settlers on the west bank.) Nowadays we offer tax breaks and cheap land, but the church’s answer instead was to offer forgiveness. If you moved to Sevilla and lived there for a year, then after a year and a day they would open the Puerta del Perdon and you walked through it. This forgave you all your sins, without any penance required. It was a Get Out Of Hell Free card.

We saw lots of classical Spanish art, which meant lots of religious art, much of which was all about blood and gore–or Passion, as they called it. Endless images of Christ bleeding, lots of Passions of Saints (meaning depictions of the various bloody ends they met), lots of John the Baptist getting the short straw from Salome, and so forth. We even saw two different sculptures of the severed head of John. And I mean just that: a carved head of John, painted to be life-like, complete with bloody neck stump showing the severed windpipe and spine. These were done in the 16th/17th centuries. They don’t have stands or pillars. They just lie there on one ear, mouth gawping open, eyes half-shut, skin of pallorous hue from loss of blood. We saw so many depictions of severed heads in Spain that whenever we ran across one, I would check my watch and say perfunctorily, “Time to severed head, twenty-seven minutes.”

Then there were the saints. My lord. Part of the traditional of religious paintings is the use of symbols, like a white bird who represents the Holy Spirit. Mary turns up again and again standing on a crescent moon, with the earth below her and a serpent encircling it. Each saint gets his or her symbol, too, to clue in true believers as to which saint you’re looking at. Usually they’re objects, often related to the saint’s Passion. Which means that in a seemingly formal, contextless portrait of a saint, the painterly equivalent of a sculptor’s bust, there is a big knife jutting from the saint’s neck because he was hacked to death by heretics or Romans or something. St. Sebastian either holds an arrow or is gored by them. One guy turns up in a cauldron, boiling alive. These symbol-objects appeared so frequently and reliably that they reminded me of the accessories you get with G.I. Joe Figures. You know, Navy Seal Joe comes with SCUBA Gear and Mask, while St. Sebastian Joe comes with Arrows of Mortal Passion.

We could also observe trends that came and went. For a while, God Himself made personal appearances in these paintings. Up in the clouds there’d be a bearded guy with a robe, a scepter, and an orb, looking every bit like an earthly king who learned to fly. Sometimes rays of golden light would pour out of his mouth, holy drool for the faithful below. In one painting of the Immaculate Conception, Mary sits dutifully reading a book. God hovers in the corner spitting golden light from his mouth, and borne on the light is a little baby Jesus, with a cute little cross slung over one shoulder like he’s running away from home with his favorite toy. The white bird of the Holy Spirit hovers over Mary’s head like a homing beacon. It’s as if God hocked a sacred loogie at her.

Really, it was all too much to take very seriously. It was frequently beautiful, but seeing dozens and dozens of paintings of very similar subject matter, with the same symbols deployed in the same ways, just wore you down. I took to making my own interpretations of the paintings. “This one shows how you gain power in the church. Here he’s a humble monk, and then he has this fiery vision of Hell that he tells his boss about, and here he’s now a bishop. It’s like the Catholic version of How To Get Ahead In Business Without Really Trying.”

I don’t mean that this cultural miasma of inks and oils provoked contempt. Humor was just the only sane reaction to a system overload.

We ate like humble kings. In Spain, ham is treated like wine. Different parts of the country have their own preparations and flavors. It’s all marvelous, delicious stuff that bears no resemblance to the stuff we usually get in the states. The cheese is also a delight, mild and sweet, with none of the overkill you get from France. (And I do enjoy the stinky cheeses of France. But Spain has the right idea.)

But this has gone on too long. I hope to find time again soon to pick up where this Dispatch leaves on. Now I need to get ready for another day of E3.