Welcome to Week 21 of the Wise Not Withered Character Showcase! This week I’m thrilled to present Valeria, our 56-year-old Apocalyptic CEO! Valeria is the chief executive officer of a tech company, and finds herself in the middle of a mysterious apocalyptic situation. Her story is most definitely one that is suited for a video game; one of the very first ideas I had with this character is that it would be an unconventional top-down kind of progression. Her office as the CEO would be on the top floor, and she would have to make her way down the building to progress through the game/story.
My original description of Valeria’s story was the following: Apocalyptic stealth horror comedy! Top-down gameplay: start on the top floor and work your way down to the bottom floor, gathering supplies and teammates on the way, saving various male executives.
As I mentioned in last week’s episode, I am not a fan of the horror genre, so this is one of the stories I definitely needed someone else’s expertise with writing. The way I found Heather, from New Orleans, the writer for this story, was quite interesting and unlike any of the others. We actually met through Kingdom Hearts Unchained X, the phone game, years ago before I even started this project. We were part of the same guild, and even though I stopped playing the game quite a while ago, we got to know each other and she mentioned at some point that she was a writer. When I started recruiting writers and illustrators for this project a few years later, I remembered her and reached out!
The illustrator for Valeria is Michelle, from Mexico. I found her on Instagram, while searching for original character designs. I loved her style, and I absolutely love the casual but sophisticated beauty of our CEO. Just like with others in this project, the ethnicities of the characters reflect the ethnic backgrounds of the artists. So while Valeria is American, her mother is an immigrant from Mexico, making Valeria Mexican-American. Heather is from New Orleans, so she added in another character with a Cajun background.
Before we started any of the actual writing or illustrating, Heather and Michelle and I talked a lot over email about various things, but one particularly interesting part of the conversation was Michelle sharing with us possible names for the CEO and her mother, and many expressive and humorous Spanish phrases used in Mexico, some of which Heather incorporated into Valeria’s story. We decided on Valeria for the main character, which Michelle told us means “strong and courageous”, and Alejandra for her mother, meaning “the protector”.
Now let’s get to the story! I’d like to share the awesome introduction directly from the story that Heather wrote:
Illustration by Michelle Munoz
Valeria never really liked the main office of OrTech; it was so sterile and plain. As the CEO, she vowed to change the atmosphere as soon as she could. Though it had only been two months since she was promoted to her new position, she had already brought stocks and employee satisfaction up. But her office, her space, was just as cold as ever. She sat down in her big black uncomfortable chair at her boring grey desk, staring at her plain glass paperweight her predecessor left her as a present, surrounded by empty grey walls. She imagined the elaborate paintings and vibrant colors she planned for the room. It was the first time since her promotion that she could finally think of something for herself, not just for the company. Not five minutes into her thoughts, a ruckus began outside.
She hit the call button for her assistant.
“Brad, what’s going on?” There was only silence.
“Brad?” Still nothing.
Valeria grabbed her phone and headed toward the door with strong, rapid strides. She was only five feet away from the door when CRASH! Her assistant came barrelling through the wall. She ran and knelt to find him still breathing, but unconscious.
Her phone started to ring. Home. Something had to be wrong with her mother; it’s the only time the nurse would call. Valeria couldn’t answer the phone, though, as a deranged-looking man stumbled into the room through the newly made, Brad-shaped hole in the wall. Valeria stood up in surprise and he tackled her, throwing her into the desk, her phone flying across the room, shattering against the wall. The weird man was on top of her, snapping at her face with his teeth. He grazed her cheek, leaving a small cut. Not knowing what was going on or who this man was, Valeria held his throat with one hand, kicking her heels at his legs. Her other hand frantically searched around to find anything to help. After a few seconds, her hand found the paperweight. She picked it up and struck the rabid man over the head with it. THWACK! He went down, collapsing on top of her.
It took a good bit of effort, but she was finally able to wriggle herself from under him and check back on Brad, scooping up the parts of her now eviscerated phone on her way to him. He was still unconscious, so she gathered him up as best she could and dragged him along with her through the door. She saw the other staff cowering under their desks, too afraid to move. With a quick glance down the hall, she saw that there was another strange man attacking more people.
“Tom, come take Brad,” Valeria said, looking at the middle-aged man trembling closest to her. “Make sure he’s okay.” He just stared at her in fear. She clapped her hands and chided him, exasperated, “Órale, let’s go!” He finally snapped out of it after some coaching and took the injured young man from her. As soon as she was free from the dead weight—thank goodness no pun present—Valeria ran to help the others down the hall. As she ran past the mini-kitchen that the staff used for lunch breaks, she came up with a plan.
Heather and I chatted online for a couple hours, talking at great lengths about this story. We came up with so many awesome ideas, and Valeria’s story is yet another that would make a wonderful game that I would love to play!! From the beginning, Heather ruled out some apocalyptic scenarios that have become tropes nowadays: zombies, aliens, robots. We decided to go with brain-eating amoebas, which is actually somewhat of a surprise reveal toward the end. Heather will talk more about this later in the episode.
As mentioned in the excerpt I shared from Heather’s story, Valeria’s elderly mother tries to call her near the beginning of the story, but her phone is destroyed. This part of the story serves two purposes: 1) Valeria is unable to check the news and see updates as to what exactly is happening, and 2) gives her a sense of urgency to leave the building and check on her mom.
Heather and I thought it would be fun and funny to add in some parts where, as in my original description, various male executives are rendered useless under dangerous pressure, and their female assistants are the ones who step up and fight back. It would be implied that the office building is shared by many different companies, but Valeria’s is the most successful, which is why she gets the top floor!
One of Heather’s brilliant ideas was for Valeria to make weapons out of ordinary office supplies: the more crude and ridiculous, the better! Together we came up with lots of ideas, such as a microwave on a rolling cart that shoots fireballs, scissors or letter-openers as daggers, cords and cables as whips, hole-punchers and paperweights as simply projectiles, and even chairs and computer monitors as high-damage projectile weapons. Again, the more ridiculous, the better!
Another one of Heather’s amazing ideas was to introduce a shop keeper toward the start of the story. He would be this weird guy named Murphy who had set up his own fortress and was already making weapons and supplies using duct tape and other office equipment. We decided that in the game, Valeria/the player and her crew would bring him resources and he would give you recipes to craft your own items. At some point while discussing this guy, Heather had yet another genius idea: he would literally be the final boss. The shop-keeper would be the last person you’d think would show up as an enemy! And because I love this story so much, I wanted to read the part where they introduce Murphy:
Valeria gave Rita the crowbar and quickly made herself a more portable flamethrower than the one upstairs using the smaller microwave and mini fridge. Rita swung the crowbar around a couple times, getting a feel for its weight. They also grabbed some bottled water and continued to search the area. That’s when they heard… RUS-S-S-STLE… Under what seemed to be a random pile of office equipment.
The women slowly walked towards the pile and, as they got closer, realized the pile was far from random but a perfectly structured fort. And then a head popped out.
“Oh, hi,” A man with slicked back hair and thick glasses stared at them, “Happy to see someone alive and not trying to kill me.”
He peered over his glasses, dropping his head slightly. His eyebrows twitched as he murmured, “You’re…not going to try to kill me, right?”
“Of course not!” Rita exclaimed without hesitation.
“If you don’t try to kill us first,” Valeria answered at the same time, deadpan.
“A woman after my own heart,” muttered the weird fort-man, looking at Valeria. “My name’s Murphy. So what are you two ladies doing here in an abandoned dump like floor fifteen? Everyone but me evacuated, like, an hour ago.”
Rita and Valeria quickly explained what happened on floor twenty. Murphy took out a pen and notepad, scribbling notes and uttering quiet exclamations to himself.
“We’re now trying to get out of here so we can bring authorities to help,” Valeria concluded, “We can only get so far with basic first aid and who knows if or when those people will regain consciousness.”
“That’s exactly why I stayed here. Who knows what those people have. Rabies?” Murphy shuddered. “Those who survived the attack brought the dead and the Infected downstairs with them.”
Murphy nodded his head, pondering. He brought his fingers up to his face and wiggled them on his chin as he repeated with widened eyes, “Infected…”
Valeria and Rita exchanged a look, and Murphy continued, “That’s what I’m calling them at least. But I wasn’t going with the others downstairs because who knows what’s out there? What’s causing this… I’m just going to stay in my fort and hope for the best.”
The whimsical man rubbed his palms together, then suddenly stood up straight and held both hands open and offered, “But I’ll trade with you. If you give me things you find, like food and water, I’ll give you other supplies so you can make more weapons like that…thing you have there,” he motioned to Valeria’s flamethrower.
“Sounds reasonable.” Valeria handed over a bottle of water and a granola bar.
“Cool!” Murphy grabbed the granola bar and immediately tore it open, nibbling like a squirrel. He suddenly shoved the whole bar into his mouth and swallowed it with a loud gulp. Wiping the crumbs off of his face, he said, “I’ve been preparing for a day like this for years, so I’ve got quite a selection.”
He turned around and rummaged through one of the many piles in his fort. Facing the women again, he proudly presented an item to them: “Here’s some barbed wire I made out of staples and paperclips and a table leg I got from the broken conference table.”
“Thank you,” Valeria said with admiration for his ingenuity, but utter disbelief for his readiness for a possible apocalypse. The closer she looked the more she realized just how much thought he had put into his apocalypse fort. The chairs and desks were held together by what Valeria approximated to be about five rolls of duct tape. Murphy also had a small gas-powered generator running some purple and orange fairy lights he must have bought around Halloween. He was really taking this whole doomsday prep thing to a whole new level.
Heather is just full of great ideas! The last one that I’ll talk about right now is the idea she had for the very, very end of the story. After the big reveals of the brain-eating amoebas AND Murphy as the final enemy (he gets infected), Valeria’s mother would come rushing in and save the day. She originally is supposed to be suffering from dementia, and the brain-eating amoebas have the opposite effect on her, giving her super-powers instead of turning her into a zombie-like creature.
Now let’s hear from both the illustrator and writer for our Apocalyptic CEO!
Here is Michelle, Valeria’s illustrator, introducing herself and talking about inspiration and why she joined the project:
“Hi, my name is Michelle Munoz. I am from Mexico. I started drawing since I was very little, but I took it seriously when I was eleven years old. Actually, I really like to draw in comic style traditionally; I am trying to learn more about it. Honestly, my inspiration comes from many things, from a simple tree to a random song on my playlist. There are many things that can inspire what I do.
Why did I decide to join this project? Well, this was the first big project I could be part of. When they contact me to invite me, I was the happiest person because I feel it was something new. I wanted to know what it was, like to participate in something like this. So I joined this project because I wanted to have such a nice experience!“
And here is Heather, introducing herself and talking a bit about her background as a writer, her inspirations for Valeria’s story, and why she joined the Wise Not Withered project.
“Hello, my name is Heather Thompson, and I was the writer for the Apocalyptic CEO character Valeria. I am from the greater New Orleans area; born and raised there, went to college there, only moved away last year. How did I get into writing? Well… When I was a wee child, I was a very, very avid reader. I loved taking in stories and seeing where they could go, and everything blew my mind. So in eighth grade, my English teacher… She encouraged myself and a friend of mine, who was also in the class, who was also a very avid reader, to write our own stories. I actually still have the notebook that my friend… She got me a notebook that I still have to this day, with my first attempted novel. Or at least the first couple of chapters of my first attempted novel, just hand-written. It holds a very special place in my heart, while also being very cringey.
So I ended up going to Loyola University, New Orleans, got my English degree, and now we’re here! Originally I would have said that I was 100% a paranormal, urban fantasy writer, and that’s what I wanted to do with my writing career. But now, since I’ve grown as a person, I’ve definitely come to realize that I’ve also grown not just as a writer, but also a reader. So basically I would say that I go for things that I would want to read, and go from there. So I actually have a project right now that is more in the thriller category. It all just depends on what era of my writing we’re talking about.
Lately, besides that thriller project, I also have the Reflective Reviews project that basically consists of essays about books that I have been re-reading that I originally read in middle and high school that I loved at the time, and for the most part don’t necessarily love anymore. And those essays are usually talking about the editing, the writing, both style and word choice, things like that. And just how I would have changed or ‘fixed’ the problems that I’m finding.
For instance, one of my favorite pieces from that is my final review on Twilight of all things, because it was the start of the project. It’s the one that I feel I worked the hardest toward. It was the one that I was still getting an idea of what I wanted to do. It was surprisingly in-depth, with a greater understanding of Stephenie Meyer and the book as a whole, as well as editing as a whole, or… The lack thereof for Twilight.
As for fiction writing, the Apocalyptic CEO! It is one of my favorites that I have written to this day, because it was so much fun. There was a great connection between my love for writing and my love for video games. I actually graduated with a minor in game studies, so it just took my major and my minor, and just threw ’em together and made me really happy.
What inspired your story for Valeria? There’s the background of where the problem started, with the brain-eating amoebas. That actually came from my home town actually having brain-eating amoebas in the water supply my freshman year of college. So I was very, very lucky not to have to deal with that because I was already in college when it was hitting the town and the parish.
So we were trying to steer clear from zombies, but we still wanted to do something where the fight would be coming to Valeria and her office building. And so when I came up with that idea, we both really liked it, and it really worked well with what we were going for, and it’s still one of my favorite things to have done with that. So there’s that. Then there was the idea of actually having two great women, instead of just one for this story, by adding the ending with Valeria’s mother, showing that it’s not just her, and where she actually gets it from. That was something we came up with together, I remember.
I very vaguely based the mother off of my own grandmother, cause she… In her final days, actually final years, to be quite honest, was not in the best shape. Though she didn’t have dementia, she had really bad osteoarthritis, and it was to the point that her doctors told her that her bones were basically melting. And so when I say it was based off of her, it’s more based off of her spirit, cause she was always fighting. She didn’t like where her bones were forcing her to be. She always wanted to be doing something else, and doing more, so I was kind of going for that.
I still remember when I was still writing this story, and I would be bouncing off bits and pieces with my boyfriend, and seeing what he thought, without actually telling him what I was working on. Just seeing what the ‘layman’ thinks about these small, little pieces, right. And I remember talking about a specific character, and he was like, ‘Oh, uh, isn’t that a little too video game-y? That really sounds like a video game character. Isn’t that a little much? Isn’t that a little on the nose?’ And I was just like, ‘That’s exactly what I was going for, so… Nope!‘
Why did I join the project… It’s a culmination of already being friends. Thank goodness for Kingdom Hearts, right? And really getting to work with my major and my minor. The idea of having something to show for my writing degree, and my game studies minor. I really want to write stories for video games in the future. I would love to write the next like Chrono Trigger or something, it would be amazing. It’s a lot of what could be seen as small things that just fit perfectly, with the project.
There’s also the background of having older women in a game as something more than just the wise old sage, or a background character, that fits so much more than what we allow in gaming. Or what AAA companies allow in gaming. There’s this stereotype of gamers that just does not actually fit the demographic, in my opinion. There’s this idea that all gamers are men, and all they play are FPS, and all they want in a female character in a video game is a thin waist, and a large chest, and nothing else. And they want them to be a side character because they can’t play as a woman…!
But I highly disagree with that being a gamer. I’ve been playing since I was eight years old, technically before that, but that was the first time I ever picked up a proper video game. And I have met so many female gamers, and none of us have a problem with playing as a male character, so why should a male be so against playing as a female character? Why is it that we can’t just all understand that a game is a game. We can play it no matter who the main character is. No matter what they look like, no matter what they identify as. It’s fine, we can play that game.
I worked at GameStop for two years, and I cannot tell you how many times I was asked, ‘Oh, do you have any girl games?’ or was told ‘Oh, I can’t play that game cause it’s got a female protagonist.’ It was insane! And I really, really think that if we strove to have more main female characters, especially older ones, maybe we could break that cycle. Maybe we could work towards having people being completely okay with playing a game because it’s a game, not because it’s this macho man on the cover, with a gun, ready to kill some Nazis. Which fine, if that’s your cup of tea, play those kinds of games. I’m personally not an FPS person; I’m more of an RPG person. Which is kind of why we were going for an RPG feel for this character as well. That’s what I came to understand this project is about, just trying to make it more equal. And I really appreciated that.”
That’s all for today’s showcase. Stay tuned for the remaining four episodes of the Wise Not Withered character showcase!!