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Ultimate Bot Tournament #3: Afterword

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I thought it might be interesting to write a record of how the story of Ricardo and Brianna developed as the tournament progressed. It's probably a horribly self-indulgent thing to do, to invest so much time and analysis into such a silly thing. But it's something that surprised me as much as anybody, and it wound up being such incredible fun for me that I'd like to revisit how it all unfolded while it's still fresh in my mind.

My original idea for the pageants, new to UBT #3, was simply to throw a little something extra into the normal battery of UBT games to give #3 some extra appeal. Since #2, I'd added tournament mode into the rating games, and it was a logical thought to include rating tournaments within the Ultimate Bot Tournament. I didn't want to make it a scored event -- I'm not sure how the inflated scores of tournament mode would translate into UBT points anyway -- so they would be unscored, extra events. The next thought was, well, instead of having people make their own entries to the tournament, why not take advantage of the larger number of people playing and the momentousness of the occasion to turn the rating tournaments into grand finales of sorts for the best, worst, and unique? So I compiled rosters of entries that would be both competitive and entertaining.

The next logical thought was, ok, ultimately there are going to be winning images, and we ought to do something with them besides simply acknowledging them. Well, perhaps it would make sense to have the winners offer commentary on the tournament? I wasn't sure how that was going to work out, but I figured it would be simple enough to improvise lines for them to say and crack jokes here and there. And indeed, the first couple sessions -- the bulk of them, at least -- worked out exactly like that.

But then things started happening that I didn't predict but should have. Once I had two characters to work with, rather than just the one, there came to be interaction between the two of them. Interaction leads to conflict, and conflict leads to storytelling. Session 2, the first session after I had both Ricardo and Brianna to work with, became a story. It became so, remarkably to me, before I realized it was becoming a story. At one point, Brianna tells Crystal109, quite emphatically, that her relationship with Ricardo was strictly professional. I remember quite vividly the moment I was moved to make that point clear. I say I was "moved" to, rather than that I "decided" to, quite on purpose. I didn't realize that I was making an important decision that would affect the course of the rest of the tournament. I was making one. I simply realized all at once, without entirely understanding why, that these characters were strangers to each other, and for some reason it was important to make that clear.

Admittedly, it's a point that naturally followed from what had come before. Ricardo didn't know who his queen was going to be. Both of them had flirted, jokingly, with tournament players. They were assigned jobs that required them to work together. Obviously they were not suddenly somehow romantically involved with each other. So my point is not that this moment, Brianna clearing things up for Crystal, was in any way redefining what had come before. But it was the moment that, I realize now, it clicked in my head that Ricardo and Brianna were suddenly no longer hosts but characters. And in becoming characters, they had obtained the ability to have personalities and relationships. They were no longer merely the voices for improvised jokes and bot game commentary.

I still didn't have any idea what I was doing or where I was going. At some point I thought it would be an amusing bit of character interaction to have Brianna drop hints to Ricardo that went over his head. Not a great leap from simple one-liners, but the difference was it was character-based humor, and, still more importantly, set up a conflict. Conflict, as I say, naturally leads into storytelling. All stories are centered on conflicts. If you don't have a conflict, you don't have a story. All stories start when a conflict begins and end when the conflict is over. So for Ricardo to finally pick up on Brianna's hints and act upon them was such a natural step as to be inevitable.

The next two sessions also followed naturally. There were only two possibilities for the session after their first date. Either they hit it off, and I could entertain myself by inflicting horribly excruciating lovey dovey talk on everybody, or they didn't hit it off, and they'd spend the session trading thinly veiled barbs with each other. Again, it wasn't a conscious decision, but it made sense: if I started out with them getting along, then fighting, I could have it both ways. Crystal was right on the money at the opening of session 3. She predicted they'd be all cutesy with each other just as I was typing out that first line of cutesiness. She was later right that they'd start fighting, just wrong on the timing. My idea was that they'd start fighting over things that happened outside the tournament, so the transition had to happen between sessions. In retrospect, I like how this suggested that the characters had lives that extended outside the tournament.

I didn't yet know what they'd be fighting about. It had to be a misunderstanding, because I did not want either character to be unsympathetic. That was important to me. Sometimes that's a weakness. I tend to have a hard time making characters, even joke characters, unsympathetic, unless I deliberately set out to create an unlikable character. It was ok by me if, during the conflict, people took sides but didn't all take the same side -- ideally, I'd get the guys to side with Ricardo and the girls to side with Brianna. As it happened, Brianna came off the less sympathetic of the two, but no sweat: I recognized that and understood that I could rectify it, somehow, by what would happen later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What would the conflict be that would set them fighting each other? It made sense that it would be something to injure their budding romance. All that came to mind were those horribly tired and unrealistic cliches of romance stories, the kind of manufactured problems that, if the characters actually ever had a meaningful conversation with each other, would never exist. Then I realized, so what if I use horribly tired and unrealistic cliches? In recognizing that they're horrible cliches, I could use them and play it up. Instead of succumbing to cliches, they could become part of the joke. So Ricardo and Brianna each had three ridiculous misunderstandings with each other.

Next question: do I resolve them all, or leave them hanging? I didn't know. For the first time, I prescripted portions of the dialogue. Why? Partly necessity: if I were to have the characters misunderstand their relationships with other people, those other people should be characters the tournament players already knew, which meant they would be pageant contestants. But they couldn't be present at the time, so how would I inform everybody who they were talking about? Well, include their pictures in the dialogue, of course. But that meant writing HTML code into their dialogue (with the javascript code for the click-to-enlarge feature), which is difficult and slow to do in real-time, so I sort of had to write that dialogue ahead of time. Anyway, as I was writing, I did not know how that session was going to turn out. But again, I suppose, it was not a great, revolutionary conclusion I came to: if they resolved all their misunderstandings, I wouldn't have any story left. If they resolved none of their misunderstandings, it would be a total indecipherable mess to clean up later. The only option left was to resolve most of it but leave something hanging.

Anyway, that session, despite many lines being written ahead of time, was still improvised -- it was just improvised in advance. It made sense to me for Brianna to be the jealous one and Ricardo's behavior to be called into question -- in general, women are more cognizant of how their behavior might be perceived by others and therefore more careful about avoiding misunderstandings. But for Ricardo to remain sympathetic, he had to have good explanations for his behavior. In having good explanations, Brianna's jealousy makes her unsympathetic, so ultimately I had to turn the tables part way through and have Ricardo jealous of things Brianna had done.

But what would I leave hanging until the next session? Well, obviously that had to be the hardest thing to weasel out of. One of those points of contention had to be a pretty compelling one, the one least likely to have a sufficient excuse. Of course, that line of reasoning leads rather directly into the land of cliches, a place bad storytellers have wound up in time and time again, via the exact same line of reasoning as mine. There are only so many ways to have someone incontrovertibly caught committing wrong and still be able to controvert it. But by this point I was indulging in the worst kinds of cliches quite gleefully, and so I saw that place not as a tricky challenge but a grand, wonderful repository of prepackaged possibilities, all tried and true. What was the worst one I could think of? Twins, of course. From the same place, I also took happily took "She's my sister!"

Both cliches worked, but one worked better than the other. I was tickled pink when LaZorra scoffed at Ricardo's "sister" defense. Because it's such a terrible cliche of a defense, consequently the first desperate excuse Ricardo might have conceived to lie his way out of being caught red-handed, I got a highly rewarding moment of audience participation from it. I don't mean I think LaZorra was fooled by my story -- maybe she was, and maybe she wasn't -- but the best reward for me for doing this story, I discovered, was seeing people engaged in the story.

I played the "twins" cliche differently. Rather than having Ricardo jump back with his defense right then for people to scoff at, I left it as the mystery, the bit of unresolved story that would give the following session a forward impetus. So, quite naturally, people started speculating, and the twins idea was one of a few proposed. I should have predicted it would be -- there are only so many ways to explain away what Brianna saw. But I was pleasantly surprised at the other crazy theories people had. I liked Zup's, that the guy Brianna saw only looked like Ricardo because he, too, had his hand over his eye. Goosey's -- that a plastic surgeon ran out of ideas -- was wonderful. But I was committed to the twins idea at that point. Never did any player predictions affect where the story went. The only catch was having to come up with an excuse for why Ricardo didn't immediately realize it had to be his twin that Brianna had seen, but that turned out to be a trivial task.

Now here's where everything suddenly took shape. Monday night, during the pageant for the pet, a line of reasoning hit like a wave that gave some vague shape to the rest of the story. Here's how it went: if Tuesday night's session was going to be about Ricardo resolving that last misunderstanding, I'd come again to a point where outstanding conflicts are resolved. So I needed more story. Maybe I could give Ricardo kids? Yes, and it had to be Ricardo, too, rather than Brianna, or I couldn't use the line, "I want you to be the mother of my children. Would you like to meet them?" But the kids idea got shelved for a bit, because I had a larger problem at hand.

That problem was a serious imbalance in the characters. Ricardo successfully defending himself to Brianna made Ricardo sympathetic again but put Brianna at a severe disadvantage. She'd screwed up badly, carrying her jealous anger as far as she did, and it would take more than an apology for her to redeem herself in a dramatically satisfying way. Moreover, it made Brianna a passive character, which is a big storytelling no-no. The main character or characters must be active, meaning they must propel the story forward, rather than having the story happen to them. Ricardo, in taking the active role of trying to recover Brianna's favor, was fine. Brianna, however, was simply reacting to what happened to her. She saw Ricardo with another woman and was quite naturally upset. She got a reasonable explanation handed to her and was quite reasonably appeased. It's bad storytelling, and I had to fix that, preferably before any of this actually went down, and I was committed to it.

Hopefully you realize the stark difference between how I was looking at the story now, versus just a session or two earlier. Suddenly instead of thinking about how I could make funny jokes, I was thinking about plot structure, character development, and the sympathies of the audience. It was a wonderful place to find myself. I am in love with stories and storytelling. I've long recognized that this is a part of who I am deep down. The one thing I regret about RinkWorks is that it stole the time I probably would have otherwise spent writing novels and short stories, as I had before RinkWorks came along. The site has afforded so many other opportunities for creative exercise, including some related to storytelling, that I consider it a reasonable trade. Nevertheless, when I very unexpectedly found myself in a position to tell a story to an interested audience, it was a pleasant surprise indeed.

So how do I make Brianna an active character and give her more definition than simply how she relates to Ricardo? An alterior motive sprang to mind. I also had yet another problem, though, and that was the lack of a villain. A story about two sympathetic characters and nothing else is difficult to stretch out too long. If all they can have are manufactured problems, that becomes annoying if it's stretched out too long, and neither one of them will be sympathetic, because they're both so darned unreasonable and unwilling to communicate with each other. Well, it doesn't take an ingenious mental leap to get from these two thoughts to the idea that Brianna was a con artist in league with a true villain. She had to remain good, however, and so her motive in working with this villain had to be a good one. No need to reveal that to the audience straight away, of course. Might as well make everybody think she's bad for a day or two, and I was pleased as punch about how well that worked, people shouting out against her as they did. In retrospect, that was a dangerous place to be, though, because if revealing Brianna's true motives weren't convincing, she would not be redeemable as a sympathetic character, and the happy ending would have been lost.

But I'm getting ahead of myself once again. Brianna's alterior motive posed some questions about how the story should unfold. Her motive meant that Ricardo had to be taken in, and if he were taken in, how could he ultimately be able to reconcile with her after such a huge ruse? More immediately, when should I clue the audience in to her deception? I don't think I answered the second question until the next day, and the answer to the first question took longer still. In answering the second question, I actually, believe it or not, took a tip from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, where the shocking twist is revealed in the middle of the film instead of at the end. The producers thought Hitchcock was crazy to do it that way, but he was right: revealed at the end, you get a moment of surprise, and then it's over. Revealed earlier on, and you get much more mileage out of it by involving the audience more fully in the events that follow. Nothing like using high art to inspire an accidental joke chat room story, but, again, it shows how weirdly and unexpectedly the whole endeavor changed for me.

So my best move was to reveal Brianna's duplicity earlier rather than later. How much better would a proposal scene play if people knew Brianna's game beforehand rather than after? Answer: incredibly better. I'd let Ricardo win back Brianna's favor first, but then muddy the waters again immediately thereafter. Briefly, I toyed with the idea of the Brianna/Sheldon scene shaping up in my head at the end of Tuesday night's session, but no -- it would be better to play that card at the beginning of a session rather than after, as it would give people less time to concoct theories that might land too close to the mark. Besides, their reconciliation had to be given time to sink in. So anyway, I now had enough story for two more sessions. Tuesday night, Ricardo and Brianna reconcile. Thursday night, Brianna's treachery is revealed to all but Ricardo, who proposes marriage and walks into Brianna's trap.

The question of how to get the characters out of this mess without irrevocably mistrusting each other was tougher. A key part of the answer lay in deciding when Ricardo should catch on. That decision was only made at the very last moment before Thursday's session. I knew that if I waited until Brianna confessed, that was not only too late, but also the storytelling mistake of making one of the characters -- Ricardo, this time -- entirely passive and reactive. So Ricardo had to find out earlier, but how? Well, Archie, perhaps. Archie won the pageant the day before, and I want to talk about him momentarily. But my gut instinct was that this was wrong, too. Why? Because the earliest opportunity Archie would have to tell Ricardo was too late. Archie couldn't tell him sooner than the proposal, but he couldn't tell him any later than that either. Ricardo not finding out until after proposing meant that he'd have made a fool of himself, that he was tricked into proposing marriage to a fraud. He wouldn't have been able to come back from that and ultimately reconcile with Brianna. So he had to know earlier, without the audience being aware, and he had to have decided to propose to her anyway.

See how inevitably the story shaped up? The above line of reasoning is very linear, with few alternate possibilities. Sometimes you hear authors of fiction describe the creative process as "discovering" their characters and stories, rather than making them up. Authors "get to know" their characters, rather than purposely form them. This is sort of why. The rules of storytelling and a few very general wishes of my own dictated only a single, logical, inevitable course for these characters and their story, and the challenge for me was not to devise it but to figure out what it was.

As I say, my realization of exactly when Ricardo caught onto Brianna (now Janet, and I was actually quite disappointed to have to change Brianna Day's name, as I rather liked it) came to me at the very last minute before Thursday night's session, and it meant a last minute change in the introduction. Ricardo's opening line had him speaking from mid-sentence, the implication being that he'd been on stage, opening the tournament, while Brianna was talking to Sheldon. But now he was going to have overheard them, and so I had to rewrite the line so that he might have just come from outside her dressing room.

Now back to Archie. It's funny how Archie came along right when I needed him. Sheldon came along because I made him come along -- because I needed a villain, and so I reached back into the pool of pageant entries and found one that fit. But Archie was thrust upon me, and I had no idea what to do with him, but the need for him was there all the same. See, by Monday night, the day of the CuteBot pageant and the day Brianna and Ricardo started fighting after being so cutesy with each other, I had two characters who were so wrapped up in each other as to be quite ridiculous, really. They had been as over-the-top lovey dovey with each other as I could make them, and then I had them in an exaggerated, protracted uproar. I didn't realize it, but I needed a voice of reason very badly.

I didn't vote in the CuteBot pageant, except at the end. I knew I was going to have a third host that I'd have to work with. With my supply of "it's so bright in here" jokes running out and even less to work with with Brianna's image, I felt compelled to cast rankings in the CuteBot finals based on how much comic material I thought the finalists might give me. The two puppies, one with his mouth around the other's snout, posed a wealth of comic possibilities, and so I ranked it first. I ranked Archie in the middle. The kitten himself, cute as he is, didn't necessarily lend itself to a wide range of personality, but at least the act of peeking around a door suggested some action I could use. As it turned out, I got more mileage out of that door than I ever could have hoped for, and even more out of Archie himself.

Anyway, Archie's personality sprung into being all of a sudden. The story needed him to be the voice of reason, as a counterpoint to Ricardo and Brianna's emotional arcs. That aligned perfectly with the mentality of a cat and contrasted perfectly with the cuteness of a kitten. It's almost obvious in hindsight: of course the one host not being all sickly cutesy would be the epitome of cuteness, a shy little tiny wide-eyed kitten. I'm a dog person myself, but a puppy wouldn't have worked. A puppy would have had to have been as eager and exuberant and silly as Ricardo and Brianna were being, and then I'd not have had an objective eye at all.

So Archie was a gift to me. I take no credit whatsoever for him. He easily became the most popular character, a sheer joy, but I didn't even recognize the need for him until after the fact, and then it was so obvious that that exact picture and no other precisely fulfilled the story's exact need. Of course he became the most popular character.

At this point, I started thinking back on the kids idea, which I'd had as far back as session 3 on Friday night, the "cutesy" day. I didn't know when or even if I'd use it, but I thought it would be funny to have them resolve their heated misunderstandings and then have Ricardo spring that surprise on Brianna. Ultimately, I did just that, but within the context of Brianna being a con artist. And inasmuch as that lost a bit of dramatic power I would have had if the audience thought Brianna cared if he had kids, I like the way that whole session turned out. Ricardo proposes marriage and introduces his kids, all the while knowing that Brianna is conning him but keeping quiet about it. It's like he loves her and forgives her enough to give her that chance to come clean, but he can't quite resist laying it on extra thick and making it difficult for her. Another happy accident.

Well, the question then becomes, who are his kids? For the third time, a prediction from a player floored me. (First was Crystal predicting mushy talk, and second was Maryam predicting exactly how Ricardo's twin brother would look.) Nyperold guessed Holly and Charlie. Admittedly, there aren't all that many possibilities, but I hadn't even said how many kids he had, let alone who. Yes, Holly and Charlie -- who, by the way, had never once been presented as siblings and in fact were never intended to be siblings. None of the characters from the RinkWorks subscriber ads were supposed to be related. They were all supposed to be friends who met each other through RinkWorks. But yeah, how could I pass up the opportunity to use Holly and Charlie? So they became Ricardo's kids. I'm ashamed to say it never even occurred to me to give Ricardo a million kids, as some players anticipated. That would have been hilarious. But perhaps it worked out better the way it did, after all.

But once again, I was faced with a storytelling problem, one that I apparently needn't have fussed over. I had previously jokingly established that Henrietta was Charlie's mother -- this was quite before I ever thought to do anything further with that idea. That meant Henrietta was Ricardo's ex-wife, a pretty funny thought. But that meant I had two moments of comic impact that I had to do justice to: one, the revelation of Charlie being his son, and two, the revelation of Henrietta being his ex-wife. Revealing both at the same time would be less effective than revealing them separately, but revealing either one would spoil the surprise of the other. So the answer had to be pacing. I had to reveal one, then reveal the other just before anybody thought it through enough to predict it. But in the end, nobody remembered that Henrietta was Charlie's mother, or indeed that the bodybuilder woman was named Henrietta. It's funny that nobody got what I had previously told them, but meanwhile they were nailing unrevealed plot points on the nose.

In parallel with these thoughts, I was thinking about why Janet and Sheldon would be working this con. Janet needed a sympathetic motive for it. That meant it couldn't be anything for her own personal gain. She couldn't be the one threatened. She couldn't get a cut of the money. She had to be doing something for somebody else that outweighed the wrong she would be committing against Ricardo. Sheldon, meanwhile, had to have a selfish motive. The money itself would have been sufficient, but a more personal would be better. A grudge against the Von Steppenwergen family would do the trick and give me more secrets to reveal. Well, somewhere in that place full of wild intrigue cliches was one that suited my needs. Janet would have a dimwitted sister being blackmailed by Sheldon. Gharlane noticed the similarity to Raymond Chandler, whose novels I adore, and there are other stories, too, that employ that kind of a device. Many of them are also stealing from Chandler, but, again, one winds up with cliches because they lie at the natural ends of lines of reasoning like the one I describe here. How do you give a goodguy a noble motive to do something bad? You have to go after the loved ones. How do you make a badguy really really bad? You go after the loved ones. Sheldon is seemingly used to working that way. He got to Janet through Sandy and tried to get to Ivy through Ricardo. Believe it or not, I only just noticed the parallel.

Anyway, the next step became, how do I reveal of all this? The first time we learn of Janet and Sheldon's plot, it has to look like she was a true villain. So I was careful not to suggest that Janet wouldn't be profiting financially, or that she was being forced to cooperate. I made her at least try to take control of the conversation (later explaining why she handled Sheldon that way). I figured I had to hint at Sandy -- one, it's more satisfying to foreshadow future twists; two, it would give people another mystery to think about -- but I had to be careful to do it in a way that did not suggest who Sandy really was. In the end, I sort of accidentally stumbled upon a wording that hopefully suggested that Sandy was actually a badguy higher up the chain, somebody Sheldon was threatening to sic on Janet if she didn't cooperate, but of course that wasn't it at all.

For session 6, which would also open with a Janet/Sheldon scene, I could reveal more or less the full story, saving only the details for her confession to Ricardo, to keep that conversation from being overly laden with information that was already revealed.

Anyway, the revelation that Ricardo had kids provided a good enough reason why Janet would have second thoughts. And obviously Janet would have to be falling in love with Ricardo for real, and that meant she would fight Sheldon harder than she would have, though continuing to cite the kids as her sole reason. By lying to Sheldon and confessing to Ricardo, she would become sympathetic again. By Ricardo already knowing what she has to tell him, he wouldn't have to be put off her irrevocably. All the internal character struggles would be wrapped up in session 6, leaving me free to make session 7 an all-out action extravaganza. Well, there were still a few plot details to iron out, like the rescue of Sandy and the revelation of Sheldon's real motive, but those things all fit in quite naturally with the action-based events I had in mind.

But, despite being free of the complications that had made sessions 4, 5, and 6 so delicate, session 7 by far the hardest to plan and execute. I didn't want to skimp on the grand finale, so I tried to come up with as many uses of all the characters as I could. That meant a lot of scene transitions and isolated confrontations, and I worried that it would be hard to follow -- hard for people to comprehend where the characters were when and with whom. And indeed, the story did seem to lose those players who were actually concentrating on the bot games, but I think it worked out well all the same.

But I had a lot that I had to prepare in advance, and it's a good thing I had so much time between sessions 6 and 7 to prepare, or I wouldn't have finished. I had a lot of Photoshop work to do, to manipulate images for various jokes, and I had a rap to write for the end credits, which was an idea that came quite naturally from thinking about the final scenes. In my head, the story became more and more movie-like, and if it was movie-like, why not have end credits, and if there were end credits, why not have a song, and if there were a song, why not have a WhizKid rap? WhizKid as a rapper was established earlier in the tournament, and as I said at the time, I promise I did not make WhizKid say "I can rap." He just did, and then there was only one thing to do with that.

I couldn't have been more delighted at the enthusiastic reception the last session got. And I think that was as indicative of anything at how weirdly and unexpectedly this story came about. Suddenly people -- myself included -- were involved in this thing, and even going back and revisiting how it happened, I still can't entirely wrap my head around the fact that this was a chat room joke that resulted in the birth of characters people came to care about.

One of the parts of the finale that I was most excited about was the demise of Nimsy. It was logical that Nimsy would have to confront Archie -- he wouldn't have been so much of a threat to anybody else, for one thing -- but I couldn't have Archie actually defeat Nimsy, or it would reveal that Archie had the physical attack power he would ultimately use against Sheldon. And I definitely wanted Archie to be the one who struck the final blow to Sheldon. I considered Janet for the job, in part to compensate for how I wound up with so many moments where men rescue women from Sheldon. But how could I not have that Grar moment, and who else would he have been so determined to protect? And how could I not have Henrietta punch him in the eye, but who else but her kids would she have defended? (It had to be Holly, too; Sheldon couldn't have posed Charlie any threat!) Finally, Sexsi had to be a victim just because I had that wonderful HoN image of the woman in the Pepsi shirt on the ground. So I wound up with a disproportionate number of victimized women, but I didn't see any way to avoid it or compensate for it other than have Brianna strike the final blow. But that belonged to Archie. His popularity and good cat sense made that moment rightfully his. Provided he apologized to his mommy afterward.

So as I was saying, I had to have Nimsy confront Archie but not be beaten by him, and that's where the SMOOSH lady was just absolutely perfect. Time and again, I was lucky about what images I had to work with. I had previously established her as dumbly going around and smooshing things, and I'd done that 100% as a joke. Never had any thought that I'd actually put her in the story. But there, at the end, I had her and a need for her. Smoosh the dog. Cut back to a squashed picture. There's the scene. I thought about having him say "Owwww" or something, but after I thought of the post-credits thing at the end, I knew I had to leave him for dead. Plus, Archie's "*blink*" worked better if it followed silence. By the way, I think a lot gets lost when you read the transcript, instead of experiencing the story in real time. The delay between lines can be important, as comic timing can be delicate. I had to hold it after Archie quivers, twelve seconds or so. By contrast, the "I SMOOSH PUPPY!" line and the dog being squashed had to appear almost at the same moment. Then hold. Then Archie blinks. For the post credits scene, the timing had to speed up the earlier scene. Five seconds between each of the preliminary lines. Then the woman and the even more squashed dog appeared at the same instant. Then the "THE END" came up very quickly afterward.

Anyway, I was so excited about these Nimsy scenes, and it just killed me when, a few rounds before the first one, PicMatchBot came out with a picture of a giant thing trying to stomp on a little thing. It was the perfect opportunity to pull off a one-line gag with the SMOOSH lady, but to do it right then would have ruined the better moment with Archie just around the corner, which depended on the SMOOSH lady not being too close to the forefront of people's minds. I had to resist.

The most calculated thing I had to do in terms of dramatic tension was to kill somebody off. Sheldon wouldn't have been as much of a menace, confronting Ivy and Sexsi and so forth, if it hadn't been established that he could and would kill, and I was going to let him. Staff Man was an obvious choice -- a guy that just had to wind up in the fight somehow, but a guy unattached with the main storyline. I was open to killing off more than just him, and/or characters more central to the storyline, but ultimately I wasn't happy with any of the other possibilities. So Staff Man bought it early on, establishing that Sheldon had snapped and was on a mad rampage. Then, of course, I proceeded to undercut how dangerous Sheldon was by having both Charlie and Grar get the better of him, but never mind.

The last chapter being as episodic as it is, I had a lot of freedom to manipulate it and add to it and change it right up until showtime. Some ideas, like Nimsy's demise, came early on. Others came very late. Uncle Slouch's line at the end seemed to go over really well, but it was one of the very last lines I wrote. A lot of the images were done so late that the tournament had to start late to give me time to finish -- specifically, Ricardo and Janet's gray hair and Sheldon's black eye. I should have thought of the black eye sooner, before I had done the images of Sheldon slashing with his knife, being injured, and finally breaking apart. But I didn't, and so I had to add a black eye to all these images separately, instead of just adding the black eye once and creating the others from that.

A few plot details might need clearing up. Sandy was not framed; she did indeed kill a man. But it was justifiable -- the guy was in the process of assaulting her, and she was defending herself. As I wrote those scenes, I noted to myself that this story was getting pretty dark for a comic chat room story, but I figured I could get away with it. Anyway, I said that Sheldon had a "tape" of the event but didn't elaborate. What I was thinking was that he had a videotape of it, incontrovertibly establishing her guilt. Why Sheldon just happened to have a video camera on him as he walked the streets at night, I have no idea.

As for Charlie, he does not age. Twenty years later, he's still an absolutely unrestrainable child, and I'm sure he and Liface get along pretty well. Ditto Liface, of course. Just like in real life, Liface is still 13, which is at least a few years older than Charlie ever got to. Holly, on the other hand, probably did grow up and became a renowned dancer for a prestigious ballet company, but I cannot bring myself to entertain that thought any further. As with all our children, we know they will grow up one day and make their own in the world, and we know that day will come all too soon. But for the here and now, they are the children they are, and the future is a vague, indefinable thing whose imminence does not make seem any more real.

Two things happened in the story that I don't think should carry over into the larger world of RinkLand. One: Dude is Dude, and foam is just some inanimate foam that gets treated like a person when we're up too late. I joked that the real identity of foam was that guy covered in bubble bath, and later that Dude and foam played each other in the story, but none of that should be true outside UBT #3. The second thing is WhizKid and Grrrothbabie. Nah, WhizKid doesn't have the attention span to sustain a marriage. He and WhizGirl should continue to have their on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again romance, depending on how one or the other of them are feeling from nanosecond to nanosecond.

One thing that took me by surprise was how everybody kept calling the story a soap opera. Never once did I think of it that way. It's a perfectly valid interpretation: if you imagine the stilted dialogue delivery of daytime soaps, the sparse and terrible musical cues, and the atrocious lighting, most of the story until the last chapter fits. But I never did. I think you can imagine the dressings of a romantic comedy and have it fit just as well. "Playing with dolls" is another connection I never made myself. Once it was pointed out that at least the early part of the story might have been acted out with dolls, I realized that, yes, that was a pretty great fit. But I don't think the story is intrinsically tied to either soaps or dolls. As I say, neither were the type of trappings for the story I had in my own mind. I suspect the common thread here is bad storytelling. Bad storytelling is quite portable from one format to another. You can dress it up in all kinds of different ways. In any case, there are only so many stories to tell; we retell the same ones over and over in all kinds of different ways.

So what happens next? For starters this story is over. It pains me to have to leave these characters behind, but I must. The only ones I expect to reappear are the ones that existed before the story began -- the RinkWorks subscribers, for example. There are open worlds, where many stories can be told, and closed worlds, where only one story can be told. It's like that with characters as well. I see most of these characters as closed characters.

I have a problem on the horizon, which is, what do I do for UBT #4? I fear the expectation is that I'll do this again, with something at least as good. I don't know. This was more a case of lightning striking, wasn't it? And what is there left to do? I've milked a plethora of cliches, played all the obvious jokes, even played the Liface card. I don't know what else along these lines could possibly work. The only way I see to do something "again but different" would be to change genres. I'd love to tell a more serious story in a format similar to this, but a more serious story would demand more undivided attention than it can get during what is, after all, a bot game tournament. So I don't know. I'll continue to try to change up the UBTs every now and then, to keep them from becoming too repetitive, but I have my doubts about whether or not there is any story left to tell this way. Time will tell.

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