"The Blue Bird of Happiness"
[Friday, April 3, 2015]
"Hey, Cheersquad, it's finished,"
Halley said, juggling the phone and
thon's younger brother, who was trying
to get down and untie Halley's shoes.
"Knock it off -- not you, Cheersquad,
I mean Edison. When can you get here?"
"As soon as I finish my shift and find
a teleporter," Cheersquad said.
"This is going to be so awesome!"
Edison said, bouncing on Halley.
A few hours later, Junket appeared
with Cheersquad in tow, parking
the electric wheelchair precisely
in front of the large viewscreen.
"May I stay and watch?"
Junket asked hopefully.
"Your premiers are
always worth the wait."
"It's up to Cheersquad,
this is his game," Halley said.
"You just want to watch me
die a series of horrible and
"Okay, you got me,"
Junket said. "Come on,
Cheersquad, I'll hop over to
Horace's Health Nuts and get
those sugar-and-spice ones
that you like so much."
"Deal," Cheersquad said.
"I'll just go make popcorn,"
Molly said, heading for the kitchen.
"Okay, let me show you how
to hook up," Halley said. "You're
already in the house network,
so just bring up the menu."
Cheersquad thumbed a button
and then nudged the joystick
on his wheelchair, scrolling
through the menu to find
the Blue Bird of Happiness.
"You might want to start with
the mountain bluebird, that's
the easiest level," Halley said.
"We made like a cluster of games
stuck together so you can use
the same bonus points on
all of 'em," Edison said.
"Let him figure it out on
his own," Halley said.
"We need to test out
the user interface too."
Cheersquad had no trouble
getting the game set up, though.
"So this level is a maze?" he said.
"Okay, that looks simple enough."
"Just remember, it takes subtle signals,"
Halley said. "We designed it to use
wheelchair controllers, not the kind of
yank-and-stab ones for videogaming."
"It was very kind of you to make
this for me," Cheersquad said.
"Let's see how it goes!"
Junket arrived with the nuts
just in time to see the bluebird
bash into the side of the house.
A puff of blue feathers floated down
in time to a wah-wah-wahhh sound.
"Looks like I caught the good part,"
Junket said with a bright laugh.
"Yeah, yeah," Cheersquad said.
"Make yourself useful and feed me."
Junket did so, and he was good enough
not to drop crumbs in Cheersquad's lap.
There was something to be said for a guy
who collected certifications aimed at
catering to rich, picky clients.
The bluebird careened across
the screen like a drunk driver
while Cheersquad swore at it.
"I told you, subtle signals,
subtle signals!" Halley said.
"Yeah, don't floor it or you'll crash,"
Edison said. "That's a feature, not a bug."
"Yeah, right," Cheersquad muttered,
tapping the egg in the lower left corner
to hatch out a fresh bird to play.
Molly came back with the popcorn
just as Cheersquad failed to evade
the lawn sprinklers and his bluebird
went down with a glug-glug-glug noise.
"I have veggie or cookies-and-cream,"
she said, holding out two enormous bowls.
"Cheersquad, you get the first pick."
"Veggie, please," he said, and
Molly passed that bowl to Junket.
"Me-me-me!" Edison chanted
as he reached for big bowl of
the cookies-and-cream popcorn.
On the screen, Cheersquad's bluebird
finally reached the birdhouse at the end,
sending up flowers that spelled HAPPINESS.
"It looks like you've having trouble with
the maneuvering," Halley said. "Try
the indigo bunting, it has more agility."
Each of the eight birds had different stats,
including a unique mission you could play,
along with the standard levels for all of them.
That along with the option to play in joystick,
touchscreen, or voice-control mode made
the videogame exceptionally flexible.
"Okay, let's see what the indigo bunting
can do," Cheersquad said, twirling his dial
from the blue egg to the small white one.
As promised, the bird flew better and
responded faster, even though Cheersquad
was playing at ordinary speed for now
instead of the Super-Speed mode.
Unfortunately that made this one
much more of a target, and it had even
fewer life points than the mountain bluebird.
"How did you manage to make killing birds
so ridiculously funny?" Cheersquad asked
as his bunting blew up with a soft ker-POFF.
"Da helped us with the psych stuff,"
Halley said. "We wanted to teach people
how to laugh in the face of challenges."
"You should send this to that jailbird friend
of yours," Cheersquad suggested.
"Shiv doesn't like my games,"
Halley said quietly, looking away.
"He likes the games just fine, it's
you that he doesn't like," Edison said
with a preschooler's brutal precision.
"Edison, that wasn't a very nice thing
to say," Molly replied. "I think you
hurt Halley's feelings with that."
"I'm sorry," Edison said.
"But it's still true."
"Well, yes, Halley and
Shiv are having a hard time
getting along," Molly said. "We
love them both, so that means they
need us to help, not pick on them."
"Well, Shiv is a ninny if he's too busy
sulking to grab onto the good games,"
Cheersquad said. "This stuff should be
hilarious to supervillains everywhere."
"I hope so," Halley said. "I wanted it to be.
I thought Cash might get a kick out of it."
"He'll have an edge on the controls, for sure,"
Cheersquad said, deftly avoiding a killer thistle.
"Are you planning to put this up for comfort care?
It could make learning wheelchair controls fun."
"That was my idea," Edison chirped, taking
another handful of cookies-and-cream popcorn.
"I remembered how sad Cash was, and I thought
that the silly birds might make him smile."
"Yes! I made it!" Cheersquad said
as his indigo bunting landed safely and
began to sing an elaborate victory song.
"There's a hailstorm on Level 3, a blizzard
on Level 5, and an ice storm on Level 7,"
Halley said. "Check out the Steller's jay and
the common kingfisher. They're both tougher,
but they're also harder to make happy. The jay
can steal things and the kingfisher has an attack."
Cheersquad dialed up a blue egg with brown flecks,
and immediately regretted choosing the jay, because
it couldn't maneuver as well as the bunting had.
He groaned as his bird disintegrated in
a flurry of snowflakes to the sound
of sleighbells jingling a tune.
"The jay can steal things, right?"
Junket said suddenly. "That's
got to be useful for something.
See what you can do with it."
It took a few tries -- and the jay
getting turned into a snowbird,
an ice coin, and a snowcone --
before Cheersquad figured out
that he could steal things like
aluminum cans to use as armor.
Tink! clink! went the hailstones
as his jay flew fearlessly onward.
"Now we're talking," Cheersquad said.
"You're picking up really quick,"
Molly said. "Halley and Edison
thought that they might've made
the learning curve too steep."
Cheersquad shook his head.
"Nah, the Super-Speed gives me
an advantage in learning things
faster than usual," he explained.
"For most folks it'll be just right,
and look, the game grows with you
so there's no need to skip ahead
the way I've been doing here."
"You can go at your own pace,"
Halley added. "There are things
that don't happen until after you've
mastered certain skills, based on
your handling and scoring."
"Yeah, the lower levels you can
play right away, but the higher ones
you have to unlock," Edison said.
"So there's room for player choice
and required game mechanics,"
Molly said. "That's smart."
"Da told us a lot about how
to make it more fun for players,
and then how to reward them for
specific things that we wanted
to teach, like how to handle failure,"
Halley said, tilting thon's hands
back and forth. "It has to balance."
"Oh, it has great game balance,
I'm just struggling because it's new,"
Cheersquad said. "I have to admit,
a couple times I've crashed on purpose
just trying to see how many different ways
that damn bird can find to die!"
"Yes!" Halley crowed, punching
the air. "We set it so some versions
would appear more often, and others
only on rare occasions. It's another way
to provide a random reward for playing,
because mastering the controller takes
a lot of practice for most people."
"That it does," Cheersquad said.
"So this thing has a third mode, right?
I've tried haptic mode and touchscreen."
"Try voice control," Halley said. "It's
harder because speaking takes longer
than pushing a button, but the game itself
accounts for some of that in playing speed."
"There's eastereggs too," Edison said.
"Shh, they're more fun if he finds those
on his own," Halley said, nudging him.
"Ooo, egg hunt!" Junket said. "Can we
watch for them as Cheersquad plays?"
"Sure," Halley said. "Write down
your guesses and show us. Edison
and I can tell if you're right, without
blowing the secret for Cheersquad."
Junket turned to Molly. "I've got
a jar of melipona honey that says
I spot an easteregg before you do."
"I'll put up manuka honey,"
Molly said at once.
"Well, now I'm committed,"
Cheersquad said, choosing
a verditer flycatcher for its agility
and ability to refuel in flight. Then
he thumbed over to voice mode.
For a minute he did all right
flying over the garden, just
trying to catch insects.
As soon as he tried
to get past the forest edge,
though, he ran into a branch.
Eeeee-POP! went the bird,
accompanied by a balloon graphic.
"Try again," Edison said,
flapping his hands.
Cheersquad tried again,
but the voice mode
was driving him nuts.
He couldn't get into
the forest where all of
the best bugs were hiding.
"Son of a b--birch," he snapped.
It seemed like, the longer it went on,
the harder the game got, even though
Cheersquad wasn't making any progress.
"Got it," Molly said smugly, and
passed her phone to Halley.
"That's it," Halley declared.
"Pay up, Junket."
The teleporter vanished,
then reappeared with a jar of
honey which he handed to Molly.
"What's the easteregg?" he said.
Halley tilted the screen so he could see.
"Ohhh," Junket said. "That's clever.
Also nasty, but it maps to real life so well
that I can't blame you for programming it."
Then he chuckled. "Whenever this hits
the open market, I'm giving a copy to
some people I know, just for this."
"Right now, that one only works
in voice mode," Halley pointed out.
"So think of a way to make it work
in the others too," Junket said. "There
are programs that assess the kind of
information you'd need for it."
Halley made a note. "Thanks."
On the screen, Cheersquad's flycatcher
went down for the seventeenth time,
swarmed by angry bees with
an ominous BZZZZZZZ.
Cheersquad threw up
his thumb and forefinger.
"Okay, I'm lost," he said.
"Somebody give me a hint?"
"If you lose your temper,
the voice mode dings you for it,
no matter how well you're doing
other than that," Halley explained.
"If you keep your cool, it gives you
a boost, no matter how badly you're
doing at everything else in the game."
"Huh," Cheersquad said. "That's evil."
He glared at both programmers.
"No, that's real life, just like
Junket said," Molly argued.
"If you get mad or panic, that
makes everything harder to fix.
It's how I spotted the easteregg."
"Because paramedics have to stay calm
no matter what happens," Junket said.
"Exactly," Molly said. "So the game
teaches not just physical skills, but
mental ones as well. That's useful."
"Yeah, but anyone who doesn't know
how to keep calm gets screwed,"
Cheersquad pointed out. "That's
all the worse if you want this
to work for people facing
an acquired handicap."
"Didn't think of that,"
Halley admitted, and
nibbled on thon's lip.
"So add a hint function
that people can access after
a certain amount of trying, or
put things in the game to help
upset players calm down,"
Junket said. "It's fixable."
"You could add other features
like they put in happiness apps,"
Molly said. "It would give people
an easy way to stumble across
things that would help them, but
it's so tied into the theme that
it wouldn't be too obvious."
"Oh, I wanna look up happy apps!"
Edison said, grabbing his tablet.
Halley nodded. "You find things
that look fun and soothing. We'll
run them by Da. When we agree
on a set, I'll write them into the game
and add a sideline just for relaxation."
"You know how some calm-down games
use a screen tap or things like that?"
Cheersquad said. "If you make yours
based on the same moves the controller
uses, it will naturally teach people
how to do things one step at a time."
"That's a great idea," Halley said.
"We don't even have to call it a tutorial."
So many tutorials sucked that people
tended to avoid them, even the good ones.
Just then, Cheersquad managed to catch
the sparkly blue butterfly that sent
his flycatcher into ecstatic loops.
"Hugs to the programmers,"
he said. "This game is awesome."
Halley and Edison both hugged him.
Sometimes, happiness was all around you.
* * *
Cheersquad -- Chuck Collins has short sandy hair, green eyes, and tawny skin. His body is crumpled and mostly paralyzed from an accident, so he uses an electric wheelchair to get around. He has very limited use of his left thumb and forefinger, not much else. Given his current job as a counselor, he knows many other people with superpowers and/or handicaps. Most people pronounce his code name as "Cheer Squad." If you listen closely, however, you can hear that he says "Cheers Quad." If asked which it is, he smirks and says, "That's a state secret." (It's the Hellspark joke.) Chuck is popular as a charity auctioneer, one of the few ways he can still use his super-speed.
Origin: Chuck started out as an ordinary college student studying linguistics. While on a field trip in Guatemala, he was struck by a mysterious clay pellet from a blowgun that left him shivering and delirious for weeks. Chuck emerged from the ordeal with super-speed and a new interest in emergency medicine. So he got his Class Z license and drove a zoom ambulance, sometimes also serving as a translator. His girlfriend Jocelyn, a cheerleader at the local college, threw a fit but stuck with him.
Then a drunk driver T-boned the ambulance at an intersection, killing everyone but Chuck. He broke his neck and a bunch of other bones, leaving him mostly paralyzed. At this time Jocelyn finally dumped him. Chuck fell into a depression, but eventually started to claw his way out. A local charity contacted him, intending to put him on their list of recipients. Instead, he proved such an engaging conversationalist that they hired him and trained him as a counselor. Now he works primarily over the phone, helping people deal with personal trauma, especially things related to superpowers. He has subsequently begun working at the Eastbord SPOON Base as well.
Uniform: Light blue jumpsuit with a red cross on each lapel, modeled after his old ambulance uniform. His electric wheelchair is a bright metallic blue with the same emblem on both sides and the back.
Qualities: Master (+6) Cheerful, Expert (+4) Ambulance Driver, Expert (+4) Constitution, Expert (+4) Counselor, Expert (+4) Contacts in Soup/Disabled Circles, Good (+2) Games, Good (+2) Linguist, Good (+2) Science Fiction Fan, Good (+2) Trivia
Poor (-2) Mobility
As a linguist, Chuck is fluent in 9 foreign languages: Esperanto, French, German, Japanese, Láadan, Latin, Nahuatl, Russian, and Spanish.
Powers: Average (0) Super-speed (Spin-off stunts: Auctioneering, Speed-reading)
Motivation: Keep your chin up and do your part.
* * *
Horace's Health Nuts is a Terramagne-American company that makes flavored nut snacks. Enjoy a recipe for Sugar-n-Spice Nuts.
Flavored popcorn has many variations including:
8. Veggie Pulse 2 cups each mixed veggie chips and dehydrated snap peas in a food processor until powdery; toss with 8 cups hot popcorn and 2 cups each veggie chips and dehydrated snap peas. Season with salt.
49. Cookies and Cream Warm 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk in a saucepan over medium heat; drizzle over 12 cups hot popcorn. Toss with 4 cups lightly crushed chocolate sandwich cookies (such as Oreos).
The T-American model of this wheelchair controller has a touchscreen and voice recognition as well as the haptic controls.
The Bluebird of Happiness is a popular concept. In this game, it changes to "blue bird" -- that is, any bird with blue plumage, not just an actual bluebird. The featured species are:
Mountain Bluebird (bright blue eggs)
Blue Grosbeak (pale blue)
Indigo Bunting (white eggs)
Steller's Jay (eggs are pale blue with brown flecks)
Common Kingfisher (round white eggs)
Verditer Flycatcher (habitat) (tan eggs on left)
Satin Bowerbird (eggs are cream speckled with brown)
Blue Peacock (large ivory eggs)
A steep learning curve feels like climbing a cliff. Some videogames stand out for their brilliant design in leading characters to new skills, while others are notorious for being very difficult to learn. Only one game makes both lists: Dark Souls. The Blue Bird of Happiness incorporates characters with different strengths and weaknesses, not only to meet the widely varied challenges but also to suit different player interests and abilities. The haptics of the game relate directly to those needed to maneuver an electric wheelchair. In a subtle touch, the voice-control mode rewards you for remaining calm (no matter how badly you're doing) and penalizes you for getting angry or panicky (no matter how well you're doing). This reflects the fact that keeping your cool solves more problems than losing your shit. There are ways to cut your learning curve down to a manageable level, and one of those is a hearty reward system that activates the brain's pleasure circuits -- also generously used in video games to hook players into continuing. What makes this evil or not depends on how the programmers apply it. In T-America, the knowledge is more often used for positive purposes than negative ones. Halley and Edison use it to reward people for learning skills that translate directly to mobility. If you think those skills are irrelevant to anyone who doesn't use an electric wheelchair, just talk to Cash, who landed in one very abruptly.
An easteregg is a bit of hidden code that does something amusing or useful when discovered. Many of the effects are obvious once revealed, but some games use subtle ones that deliver improvements or other advantages without advertising what they've just done. In this case, keeping your cool in voice mode improves the character performance, thus making the game easier.
Exotic honey varieties include manuka and melipona.
Mood improvement apps offer programs that promote happiness and relaxation. These apps are playful.