Friday, December 28, 2012

FTL: Faster Than Light / The Binding of Isaac



FTL: Faster Than Light is a fun little surprise. It's a simple game, but difficult. You're on a Federation starship traveling across the sectors to deliver very important information about the Rebels. But instead of giving you the best they have, the Federation gives you a tiny pea shooter and leaves it up to you to upgrade that ship on the way to survive stronger and stronger enemies.

It's more about strategy and system management than action. The only way to upgrade your ship is by collecting scrap. You don't get very much of it, so choosing how to spend it takes skill. Learning when to upgrade which system, when to spend scrap on hull repair, when to spend it on a shield upgrade, when to buy a new weapon, when to upgrade the doors.

You only get the bare minimum of scrap so you must choose very wisely. Exploring as many nodes as possible is the only way to get scrap, but it will also mean fighting lots of enemy ships, so you must also get good at combat. It's superbly balanced.

The final boss is ridiculously unfair, but not impossible.

Don't expect a story though. It makes no sense. If the information you carry is so valuable, why the hell doesn't the entire Federation fleet help you take the flagship down?? Why are you and your tiny-ass starship the only one able to stop the rebels??!!

It's a challenging game and I enjoy it, but I question it being a roguelike. The game is randomly generated, and once you die, you die, and it's back to the beginning. This makes the difficulty very steep and frustrating. You can get all the way up to sector 7, then have one bad random encounter and lose a great ship. You just spent an hour upgrading that ship, protecting the crew from hazards of all kinds, only to lose it to a couple intruders.

Speaking of randomly generated gameplay, this leads me to another roguelike called The Binding of Isaac.



This game is more akin to the dungeon-crawling sections of a Legend of Zelda game. The dungeons are random, the items you find are random, the enemies you face are random. The game is never the same twice. It's also a fantastic game, but the difficulty of making it through to the end so many times without dying is too much for many players.

Roguelike games have a great plus, which is also their greatest fault: procedural generation. Having the game randomly generate itself every playthrough allows for unpredictability and infinite replay value. However, because much of the game is random, the majority of gameplay comes down not to skill, but luck.

Do you keep playing the game until you've mastered it? To an extent, yes. That's especially true of The Binding of Isaac. But because it's all random, there will always be playthroughs that are unwinnable.

You may not find the right weapon upgrades to do well in boss fights. You may keep ending up with bad upgrades. In the case of Faster Than Light, you may not find any weapons at all, or if you do, you have taken too much hull damage to afford them. Or you may find plenty of weapon upgrades, but you don't find enough scrap to upgrade your weapon systems and reactor to use them. Or you might find plenty of that, but have to neglect shield upgrades. Or you may even upgrade all of that, but none of it matters because a random enemy has two missile launchers and takes you out in spite of every upgrade you fought so hard to earn!

This means you just have to keep playing the game until you get a great setup that happens to allow you to win. A lot of people don't like this; they want more control, they want winning to be in their hands, not luck of the draw. I understand why.

It's not all random though. In FTL, there is a great deal of skill in managing upgrades and learning how to be effective in battle. In Binding of Isaac, if you are careful and master combat no matter what upgrades you find, you can get very good at taking as little damage as possible.

But by and large, it often feels like you're just waiting for a great random setup to take you to the end. This is my biggest complaint with games like this.

I've played FTL for 30 hours, and only beaten the game twice. I have resigned myself to knowing I will never reach the end of The Binding of Isaac because I'm not hardcore enough. I beat the Cathedral and Sheol one time each, and that's as far as I've been able to get. Winning is not completely in my control; a lot of it depends on the setup the computer throws at me, and I don't always like this. But damn it, sometimes it's fun to take what you're given and try to make the best of it.

FTL is worth the price, and so is the Binding of Isaac. They're challenging, fun, never the same twice, and addictive.


Play the Binding of Isaac Demo
Check out the FTL official site


Listen to FTL's soundtrack, too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Future Prediction 3

In America, public school systems are being neglected and defunded out of existence, replaced by private K-12 institutions. If things keep going this way, education will become completely privatized. Education will be in the hands of the select few who can afford it. Why? Simply because it's good for business. That's the only reason anything is ever done in this country.

Friday, November 23, 2012

To The Moon



Kan Gao's To The Moon is everything Dear Esther wanted to be. This is a movie story told in game format. Where Dear Esther failed, To The Moon succeeded.

My problem with Dear Esther is that it tries to be profound by being vague and unclear. Instead of being bold and telling its story, it instead leaves everything vague and counts on the player to piece it together. That's a perfectly honorable way to tell a story, but only if there's a complete picture to assemble. If there isn't, you're just being obtuse and hoping people will imbue meaning onto it for you.

To The Moon succeeds in telling a story in non-sequential pieces, and doesn't leave it vague and open to interpretation. No, it dares to make sense. It is a cinematic story told as a series of interactive RPG-style cut scenes.

It's not much of a game. There's very little gaming to do here. No enemies to fight, no death, no chance for failure. The point of the game is to experience the story, and one might think a story like this told as a 16-bit Final Fantasy adventure would weaken it, but it doesn't. It remains strong, touching, and even funny.

I laughed at the mock battle sequence, then felt looming dread at the room of paper rabbits. I laughed at the origami rulebook, and cried when I found out what was behind the blocked memories.

And it all makes sense. It doesn't hide behind ambiguity to make itself seem artistic and deep. There is a complete picture to assemble at the end, and it's quite a picture.

It will turn away players wanting a real RPG, but it will also unite players willing to enter a movie-quality story presented as a video game. It's a wonderful experience. I look forward to the next episode.

Official site, Freebird Games
Cinema quality soundtrack as well:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Men Who Built America (final)

Well, the last episode of The Men Who Built America finally aired. It could've aired the Sunday before last. You know, 7 days after the previous episode, like all the others. But no. This one was delayed an extra week until after the election.

Could it have anything to do with the final episode being about how the first giants of industry paid out the ass to get a business-friendly president in the White House? A president who would keep regulations on business relaxed so industry could continue to abuse workers and ignore the fact that 1 out of 11 steel workers per year will die on the job? (That statistic is in the show, by the way.)

What goes around has certainly come around. Big business was huge in the late 1800's. So big the giants of industry could spend massive amounts of money buying the media and politicians to get their guy in power. They could intimidate workers into voting for the candidate they favored. It worked in 1896.

Now we're back in the same position we're in. Many businesses are too big to fail, they pay for politicians to come into power to pass laws in their favor.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. These are my final thoughts on the History Channel's The Men Who Built America. (Part one is here.)



Episode two: Carnegie.

Proponents of unrestricted capitalism (Randians) romanticize it, citing that it creates competition between products, which drives innovation and benefits consumers with better products, raised standards of living, etc.

But once again, the way this show portrays it, no product competition is happening. It's all about personal vendetta. Individual men using other human beings to achieve their personal goals, and being rich isn't enough, they want to get even richer!

Carnegie had nobody to compete with, and anybody who actually did was no threat because he just bought them out. Power was a goal unto itself, and revenge against Rockefeller was the engine that drove him.

None of Carnegie's competitors created a product and forced Carnegie to improve his product to compete, which drove his competitors to improve their products to compete in return; all of which benefited consumers who get the fruit of this competition/innovation engine. None of that is happening. Powerful men are out to get each other, and their solution to competition is either to buy it out, or force it out of business by lowering costs to undersell their competitor. How did that happen? Easy: cut worker wages and force them to work longer hours.

Where's the competitiveness that drove innovation there? Where's the benefit to society to let these men crush one another? To me, advocating unrestricted capitalism a la the 1800's is like the Japanese recommending Godzilla and Mothra duke it out because their personal battles help society... even though it destroys the country! There's nothing romantic about this!

The way this series portrays it, Carnegie was a nice guy and Henry Frick was the evil man forcing the workers into deplorable conditions. Edison was only acting under Morgan's orders to smear AC current's image. That's not quite how it happened from what I remember. Edison was just as fierce a businessman as Morgan.

Carnegie knew what had to be done to maximize profits in the face of competition, so he removed himself from the country and let Frick handle the dirty work. He did it save his own image, but he approved of what Frick did. Oh yes, he would have done the same thing if he were there. He just got Frick to do it for him, that way when the shit hit the fan, he had somebody else to take the fall. You wouldn't get that from watching the show though.



Episode three is mostly about the current wars between Morgan/Edison and Westinghouse/Tesla. There's one example of product competition at least, but still, unlike the romantic vision of unrestricted capitalism some people believe we should go back to today, there's nothing honest going on. Rockefeller engaged a smear campaign on electricity to scare people away from it to protect his own business. Edison smeared Tesla's AC system with public executions and the like. Everyone looking out for his own self interest, not improving their own product to compete.

"That's what it feels like to hold a million dollars. Now, learn how to earn it for yourself," says Morgan's father to J. P. as a boy. Sounds like another message to America's poor today. Not to mention the constant imagery of these bold entrepreneurs standing dramatically inside factories they (had) built, railroads and pipelines they (had) constructed, etc. Yay, inspirational documentary!

I like how one person in the show admits the greed and ambition and dirty play built America. It was terrible for the average person, but it built America. Don't romanticize it. It was dirty, and it hurt a lot of people.

Another stated you have to be smart to succeed in business. Yes, but Morgan wasn't smart. He didn't innovate. He didn't build an empire. He inherited all his money.

Morgan bought Edison out right from under him. Took over his own company and muscled Westinghouse to agree to a buyout. Morgan did business on the principle to avoid competition at all costs, and he did just that.

It's hard to portray the American Dream--that if you work hard enough you can achieve it--when Morgan was born into the banking business, groomed from birth to succeed his father as the head of the Morgan bank. He was already in the business. Carnegie was a poor boy who happened to get favor with the owner of a company and was elevated to a position of power because of it.

Edison and Tesla were much better examples of that, but the show left off that Edison cheated Tesla out of money for an invention he created for Edison's company, and that was the reason Tesla resigned. Edison was a ruthless, heartless businessman himself who often took inventions other people made and stole the credit, and the money. You wouldn't get that from watching the show either. It portrays Edison as a nice guy who invented something that changed the world. He certainly did, but Edison himself admitted the Current War was the biggest mistake of his life.

The Men Who Built America portrays the early entrepreneurs as psychopaths, and if you're a big enough psychopath, you can be a great leader of industry, too! Our entire modern economy was built on the mindset of psychopaths!



Back to the last episode.

The show portrays Ford as a different kind of entrepreneur. The kind who doesn't abuse his workers, pays them a livable wage, and creates the 8-hour workday, five days a week. There is truth to that, but they're leaving out the decades of labor union struggles and strikes to limit the workday to 8 hours. Ford didn't create it for no apparent reason; he wanted to be on the side of the average American worker so they'd buy his automobiles. The show also doesn't mention the federal laws and social reforms passed under Roosevelt that forced employers to stop exploiting their workers and busting unions.

It establishes the first titans as "monopolists," and the new entrepreneurs are not like that. They're different. They cared about how they affected people and were nicer than the first men. The series leaves out that they're only different because the people stood up to the giant corporations and demanded safety and fair wages, etc. They demanded to be treated as human beings, not used as tools for an individual's personal gain.

Rockefeller is probably the best example of a man who rose from the bottom, did not have a privileged education or favor with the company's owner, and built an empire from nothing, but it wasn't romantic. He had to crush a lot of people to get to the top. The show doesn't mention all the bad business practices that got Rockefeller in trouble.

For example: Standard Oil would frequently lower prices in a certain region to well below what was profitable in order to drive a new competitor out of business. To compensate for the loss, they would raise prices in a region in which it had the monopoly to astronomical rates. Then when it had the monopoly, it would raise prices again.

Politicians bribed, competitors driven out of business, price gouging, workers abused, people died and on and on, all so he could get richer. Not so he could build America into a great industrial power, not so he could provide a great product to the people. And all of it caused by lack of regulation. That's why those laws were passed in Roosevelt's administration, and beyond. People were getting hurt, prices were manipulated to push people out of business; it was next to impossible to get a new business off the ground because the big boys crushed competition at every turn.

The government stepped in to make sure businesses competed fairly; it wasn't something the new generation of capitalists did on their own free will. They didn't just decide to let everybody compete, to treat their workers like human beings and notice the deaths they caused. The people forced them to. The lack of government regulation caused all these problems. Regulation does not hinder business, as some people keep crying out. It created the even playing field to force businesses to compete the way Ayn Rand romanticizes. The series leaves those details out, and the omission is so obvious I'd call it intentional.

No wonder the last episode aired the weekend after the election.

The series ends with: get back to work you lazy whiners. Go out and get a job! Go be a psychopath so you can become a great titan of business!

I didn't like how the series tried to be inspiration instead of historical. I've seen other documentaries that went into more detail about who these men were, and how they got so powerful. This series, for as long as it is, presents very little material, replacing it with inspirational, cinematic imagery instead.

The Men Who Built America strikes me not as history, but inspiration. Even regarding what life was like back then, it tries to portray the early days of big business as ideal somehow. Not by lying, but by emphasizing certain parts and glazing over others. It emphasizes the number of jobs created, the industry, the mechanization and how what they did led the world into the modern age. But it ignores how they got there.

I submit the series had an agenda, as if Americans have stopped wanting to work for a living or something, and we need to be reminded how wonderful work is and what the rewards may be for working hard. Not to mention paint big business of the past as a bygone era, while big business of the present is kinder, nicer and beneficial. To an extent, it is, but only because of the laws in place that force it to be.

And now here we are again. Business is big and has more power than the federal government. Big business buys politicians to pass laws that favor it instead of the people. They get bailed out while the people who bailed them out get foreclosed. Our public schools are getting shut down while they continue to cash in on government subsidies. I'm not exactly inspired by this.

Remember, the men who built America were the "job creators" certain political groups worship. They were psychopaths who had to win at everything are cared nothing for who they stepped on to get to the top. Without the laws that keep them in check, we'd return to the way of life in the late 1800's. Regulation is not communism. It created the kind of beneficial business we enjoy today.

Again, I'm not against business and innovation and success. What I'm against, conceptually, is devaluing people for the sake of it. I'm against business getting so big it has more say in the government than the people.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A long post about politics that will convince you I'M RIGHT AND YOU'RE WRONG!

...

...

...


Just kidding.

As much as I want to do this before the election, I realize I won't convince anybody and anything I write will only be self-indulgent. So instead I'll let the internet speak for me.

















Election day is the sixth. Know what you believe and vote for people who agree.

Oh, and don't forget your voter IDs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Future Prediction 2

Corduroys, pointless life-preserver vests, and even some of the hairstyles from the 80's have come back in style. This means that by the time Oct 21, 2015 rolls around, the "future" will look indistinguishable from the 1980's. Where did we go wrong?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Men Who Built America

In some trailers for Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is the text "will it influence the election?"

And I watched the first entry in the series The Men Who Built America. It's all about the great capitalists who had so much freedom from government intervention and such great work ethic they built America into a world power!

The first episode is about the railroad guy, Vanderbilt. Very quickly the show makes the point that because of Vanderbilt--a single man with ambition to succeed--over 100,000 new jobs were created. The period right after the civil war was a period of unprecedented growth all because of unrestricted capitalism.

Talk about timing. It comes across very strongly not as history, but public relations.

It's like someone is afraid of the attitude around the country after the economy crashed. Someone is afraid people will demand communism because gosh darn it capitalism is just not fair! TV shows and movies were made to remind people of the dangers of communism and the virtues of capitalism; that regulation hurts business; that unrestricted competition is what built America into the great nation it is.

Evidence? The section on Rockefeller, narrator: "Rockefeller is raised in a poor, Cleveland household. But even as a young man he yearns for something more. Something bigger. And he knows it isn't going to be handed to him."

What an odd thing to emphasize for a documentary. It sounds like the series is talking directly to all those OWS people, telling them to stop whining about how unequal things are and go out and get a job and make yourselves into great men!

This feels like damage control. Propaganda. Does somebody feel the need to defend capitalism and big business after the recession shook America's faith in it?

It seems like someone--perhaps many sometimes feel they need to change the atmosphere in America, restore the people's faith in the system that hurt them. They produce movies and TV shows that glorify the hardworking man and imply: if you work hard enough, you could be just like Vanderbilt! Sure, these businessmen were greedy psychopaths who had to win at everything and would stop at nothing to crush one other out of business so they can RULE THE WORLD!!!--but that greed and that drive to succeed at everything is what made America great!

Let us gather together and celebrate the glory of the entrepreneur! Let us revel in the cinematic glory that is competition, business and WORK! Let's celebrate WORK! Work is glorious! Work is wonderful! So go to work, all you lazy people protesting the system! Remember your place and keep working like good little citizens! That's what the series screams at me! It comes across very strong, especially in the interviews with various titans of business, because it doesn't take a historical point of view. Rather, an inspirational one.

Maybe they think we're as easily swayed as the crowd in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I swear it feels like this series is not about history, but about calming the attitude in America--reminding the people how wonderful capitalism is. Do you realize what this means? OWS made a difference. Someone is afraid.

Between Atlas Shrugged being made into a movie, and The Men Who Built America, it's obvious someone has an agenda. I wonder if anybody tried to placate the people during the Great Depression, telling them it was their own fault they were unemployed and capitalism is still great.

I have no doubt America is great because of the freedom to do business and innovate and compete. America is great because there was no monarchy or dictatorship that kept the people suppressed. America let its citizens be everything they could be. I am not in favor of ending that--hell no. But does that extend to the freedom to manipulate the market, gamble with people's money and jeopardize the entire country so you can make a buck? Does that mean business should have more say in the government than the people do?

So, will it influence the election? We'll see.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Zeno Clash




Weird game. Weird art style, weird characters, off the wall gameplay. Think Final Fight or Streets of Rage in 3D from the first person. Every level is basically a boss fight, and you get to use your hands to beat the crap out of everybody.

It's repetitive. You'll fight so many people in the same basic way it gets old. It's frustrating at times trying to fight like this when you've got three other people punching you. I did a lot of running around to stay alive, which can also get awkward because though you run forward very well, your character seems to slow to a crawl when you try to run sideways, which makes it tricky to dodge anyone.

Every level is fight, fight, fight, run, dodge. Little else, and your companion character is totally useless. Eh, what NPC tagalong isn't?

As frustrating and repetitive as Zeno Clash is, it sure gets the blood pumping, and there is just enough story to make me want to continue. The revelation at the end is interesting, and more than enough to make the game epic as hell. I was disappointed the game is so short. I'm curious how the story continues. Hopefully the sequel will have more variety.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Prophetess

New flash fiction published, Prophetess in Fiction and Verse.

Only takes a minute to read. Check it out!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Story time: Tibicen Politicus

I think this story is publishable, but I also think I wrote it too late to be published anywhere. So, in celebration of this U.S. election season, I present a freebie for everyone,



Tibicen Politicus
a Thursday prompt by James Steele

A family of four sat on the back porch, watching the trees as they shook and undulated. Several thousand trees all across the country seizured, quivered, swelled and contracted, and then burst open. Loud shockwaves cascaded over the entire country. The family of four, like all citizens of this nation, was wearing construction-worker's ear cups to protect them from the noise of the hatching insects.

They crawled from the bellies of the trees. Tall as a single story house, they had six arms, six different faces all looking in different directions, three distinct body segments and most of them were dressed in expensive suits which they had instinctually woven from saliva and digested wood pulp during their two years in hibernation.

They perched at the tops of the broken trees and looked around. They sought not food. They had eaten the insides of the trees hollow, so they were fed for life. Now it was time to compete for mates.

The insect atop the tree in this family's backyard looked down and noticed them watching. It spread its wings, flew down and landed with the force of a crashing helicopter. Three more insects saw the family at the same time and slammed down into the backyard. They stood on their hindmost legs, as was their natural instinct to do, and faced the family in a straight line.

"My opponent wants to take away your freedoms!" said the one on the left.

"My opponents are engaging in a negative smear campaign, which is unprecedented!" said the one on the right. "We must focus on the issues!"

The third giant insect, not wishing to be left out, jumped into the debate. "I am in favor of more jobs and more education. My opponents want to take that away from you, but I will bring both sides together and fight for you and your rights!"

"That is completely inaccurate!" said the one on the left. "I am as focused on the issues as much as the people are!"

The family of four was still wearing the ear protection and couldn't hear a thing the political cicadas were saying. Nobody ever did these days, but they watched, they gestured, they acted as though they were following along.

In backyards all across the country, giant cicadas were gathered in groups of three, four, six, or sometimes twenty or more.

"We're going to change the system!" one cicada was saying. "With your help, we'll get it done!"

"I love this country!" another cicada in another backyard said. "My competitors don't love this country as much as I do!"

"My opponent has failed!" said another in a faraway backyard. "If that tragedy had happened on my watch, I wouldn't have reacted the way my opponent did."

"My opponent is lying again! Let's bring honesty and transparency back into the process!"

"We're facing a real crisis here in this country. It requires real leadership, for the real world, to bring opposing sides together to solve real problems. I am the real candidate!"

"I represent everybody in this great nation! Choose freedom. Choose democracy. Choose the future!"

Human beings all over the country stood still, wearing their ear protection, pretending to pay attention. The insects couldn't be stopped, reasoned with, or exterminated. Giving the insects what they wanted was the only way to end this.

It was a cruel trick of evolution (or, some said, proof of God's sense of humor) that the mating calls of Tibicen politicus happened to be human words. The insects, of course, were not actually speaking the language or saying anything, rather just stringing words together that sounded good.

Nonetheless this correlation of language enticed the insects to look to the inhabitants of the country to choose who should mate with whom. They'd say any words, in any order, to impress people to vote for them, and not for someone else. Natural selection, ironically, dictated which random words were most likely to receive votes, so these days the insects pretty much all said the same things.

Life stopped while the insects campaigned. School was shut down, nobody worked, nobody talked to one another. The sound of their calls was so loud it was impossible to hear anything else. The insects didn't need sleep, didn't need to eat, and their mating calls shattered the sky day and night. The campaigning continued for weeks and weeks.

"My opponent wants to raise your taxes! I don't! I want to lower them!"

"I am for the middle class! I am for education! I am for jobs!"

"We must achieve positive results! We must fight for our right to move forward!"

"The electorate cares about ideals! People are smart, I know they are, so they will make the right choice for freedom!"

Weeks turned into many long months of debate. Finally the day came to cast votes for the cicadas. It was never that simple. There were always problems with the antiquated voting system and recounts were common, but somehow everyone muddled through the process and victors were chosen.

Satisfied, the cicadas took to the sky, the elected ones pairing up and the losers trying to squeeze in. The noises they made were loud enough to crack the moon, and they continued for days. After mating, the cicadas laid their eggs in the surviving trees and flew off to some unknown region where they probably shed their exoskeletons and died. Nobody bothered to follow them after the election.

Finally, men, women and children all over the country removed their ear protection and started conversing again. The family of four resumed their lives, relieved to be able to hear themselves think again. They tried not to dread the next hatching cycle.

People had proposed finding out what would happen if they refused to participate, but nobody dared try it. The citizens feared the insects would campaign forever if they were ignored. Other measures were proposed, but everyone was too used to the system to try changing it now.

 2012 James Steele. Do not reprint or alter.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

New story, new anthology!

The man stood in the middle of the bonsai valley. Miniature redwoods, birch, sycamore and every other species surrounded him in the valley, reaching no higher than his waist. Between these were even tinier bushes and shrubs. The flowers that grew on them were miniscule to match. He felt like a giant.

The man was bruised, bloody and caked in mud. He masturbated. He planted his seed, and now the man stood exhausted. He had planted his seed all over the valley and had nothing left in him now. He collapsed and slowly died of starvation, content that he had succeeded...


New story released in the anthology from Bizarro Press:



"Life Cycle" is mine!

Originally written for Nicole Cushing's How to Eat Fried Furries short story contest, I had high hopes it would win. It didn't, but it found a home in Tall Tales with Short Cocks volume 2! Very proud of this one. Definitely one of my stranger stories, not for the casual reader, but perfect for those who like weirdness to be extreme. Check it out!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Stacking



Double Fine's Stacking

What a fun little game! Charmed the hell out of me. It's casual, more like an action/puzzle game, but it sure is effective.

It's a steampunk-like world in which everyone is a Russian stacking doll. Charlie Blackmore is a tiny doll who has the ability to stack with other dolls and take control of them. Each doll has a unique ability, which he uses to solve puzzles and rescue his family from an evil baron who's enslaving children.

Puzzles are relatively simple, but still require you to pay attention to your environment. Stacking with random dolls and playing with their special abilities is fun and rewarding. In fact, it's required. You need to know who's around you and what they can do in order to solve the puzzles and move to the next level.

There are multiple solutions to every puzzle, doll sets to find, unique dolls to "collect", pranks you can play. There's a lot of extra things in the game to keep you busy, and they're not just pointless busywork. They're fun to complete!

The style is charming, tongue-in-cheek, and lighthearted. Won't be much of a game for the shooter crowd or adventure game fans looking for a serious challenge, but the game strikes a nice balance between casual challenge and G-rated fun.

I bought this one without even playing a demo. The style and concept won me over. I had to find out how a game of stacking dolls would play out, and it was a fun little game!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hunting for short story markets / What writers do when they get impatient

Been hunting for pro markets to send new stories. I don't like looking for markets that happen to fit what I've already written. It's tedious and boring. Confusing, too, trying to figure out what genre my stories fit into and whether or not a certain publication will accept what I've done. Writing is great. Publishing sucks.

Lately I've been trying to write stories for specific markets as I find them. It has worked in the past, but it comes with a pitfall of its own: submitting too quickly.

I think I made a mistake sending a particular story out too soon. This has happened before. I know, because after merely a week or two of writing I think a story is perfect, but when I revisit it months later, after being rejected by at least one publication, I slap myself on the forehead and think this is dull and if I did this and that it would be better!

This string of failures is trying to convince me that every story, from the longest novel to the shortest piece of flash, needs to rest at least three months. You'd think I would learn by now, but I'm getting impatient. I'm tired of waiting. Tired of waiting for something good to happen. I want to make it happen now.

But I won't make the same mistake again, even with flash fiction. I have to restrain myself, let the stories rest a while longer, then shop around for the right market instead of sending them to the first paying market I find.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Search terms 2

This is a special message to everyone who found my blog via these search terms:


"james steele communist"

"james steele scammer"

"obama anthrocon"

"constructing a +"horse's sheath""

"horse dildo geschichte"

"brokeback mountain sleep with the sheep"

"jim steele sex"


I am proud to have had exactly what you were searching for.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Seek the Original: Contact

94% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

I watched the entire series of Cosmos, by Carl "billions and billions" Sagan over the last couple of months. The original science documentary. Amazing how every documentary after it pretty much just covers the same material Sagan talked about, just with more animation and less history. Sagan talking for 13 hours, and much of it is still accurate today. Basically college lectures on history, science, cosmology, astronomy and theory. I enjoyed the series.

So naturally I wanted to check out


Contact
by Carl Sagan


Ellie Arroway grows up into a scientist. From the very beginning she doesn't get religion. In fact, early in the book, she is quick to point out various inconsistencies in the Bible, and is subsequently told to shut up. She doesn't go back to Bible Study. Instead she focuses on her education and wants to become a scientist. She does, specializing in radio astronomy. While working at SETI, she and her team discover a transmission from an alien race.

It's as if Carl Sagan wrote a nonfiction book about a fictional person's life and the receipt of a transmission from an alien culture. Imagine a Cosmos episode wherein he explains the precise sequence of events for an hour with no visual aids apart from close-ups of diagrams and his disarming countenance. Once in a while he adds a human detail, an insight of perception, but that's as human as the people get. Parts one and two read like this. Lots of explanation, but no visual cues, no descriptions of anything happening. It doesn't flow like a story, but a series of long explanations. A nonfiction book about a fictional event. Makes Contact very tricky to read.

Word gets out that there's a message from aliens, and everyone else starts getting involved. Everybody has different agendas. The scientists want to explore this discovery without restriction because of the implications it has on mankind. The religious communities denounce this as the work of the Devil, or even a message from God, of which unbelievers like scientists should not have the right to be keepers. Politicians see this as a potential threat to security, and want to suppress it so the USSR can't exploit its contents against the United States. The Soviets have similar qualms against the USA. Everybody is suspicious of one another, but eventually they cooperate on recording and analyzing the Message.

The Message from the star Vega turns out to be instructions to build a Machine. Nobody is sure what the Machine will do, but it's deduced to take a group of five people somewhere. Perhaps to meet the messengers. But first, they have to figure out who is going to build the Machine.

Nations disagree on who should share the cost, nations jostle each other for position, making sure no one nation has more information than the other which can be used as leverage against the United States, or the Soviet Union, or Japan, or anyone else.

In the end, the Japanese Machine is the only one fit to work, after sabotage on the US side and construction failure on the Soviet side. (Those Soviets. Just can't build anything without... problems.) Five crewmembers, all scientists, including Ellie, are sent on a voyage to the stars. They meet the messengers. Or at least their descendants.

Part three is their voyage through the Machine to the center of the galaxy. They meet the aliens...kinda. Ellie meets a vision of her deceased father, standing in for the alien. The aliens answer a few questions, and then send the team back with no evidence. Part three is the best because the voyage through the galaxy is the most visual part of the trip, but even then it's not very vivid or engaging. The end leaves me bewildered and lost. It seemed they found something profound, got some answers, more questions, and then what?

Well, the aliens imply that there are violent species all over the universe, and their destiny is always self-destruction. Species with short-term perspectives do not live long, and the aliens never interfere. But the ones with promise avoid that fate. Those who can think to the future and act for the sake of the future instead of their own self-interests will survive to join something bigger. They leave the crewmembers with a sense that it is important to look for "God" in the science, and this will unify the world before we destroy ourselves.

Sagan was apparently very worried about that, and of course he would be, living his entire life through the Cold War, the Earth always seemingly on the brink of nuclear annihilation. He mentioned it extensively in Cosmos, and now here it is again. International cooperation and commitment to science and learning is vital to the survival of the species. The quest for knowledge should be a goal unto itself, not just for commercial purposes--it should be the force that unites the human race, not the arms race and trying to destroy each other.

It's a good message to convey and it's a good story to tell, but Contact isn't much of a story and I didn't care for the way it was told.

The book is very much a Cold War story of the value of cooperation over petty bickering. There's a lot of petty bickering in this book, but it's explained in scientific terms and doesn't flow in the sense of a story. Nothing does. There's nothing visual anywhere, and the characters aren't really there so much as explained to be there.

I enjoyed the religion verses science debates though. Ellie's way of debunking the Bible at a relatively young age is intriguing, and her debate with charismatic preacher Palmer Joss is thought-provoking. And unlike certain other books, there is actual debate. The creationists can argue their point. It's balanced, and it is a realistic discussion the two sides may actually have.

It is also realistic to portray that many people on the outside, who have no knowledge of the science and what's really going on, will look at the Message from the stars and find various ways to misinterpret it.

But this debate is not central to the story. The politics of international bickering are not central to the story either. Ellie's personal development is not central to the story.

Imagine a half dozen moons sitting idly in empty space. Each of these factual discussions is like one of those moons, just sitting there, not moving, you can see they're there, and they stand very well on their own, but that's all they do.

We may visit the center of the galaxy in the story, but the story itself doesn't have a center point. Nothing that sits in the middle of that system of moons and pulls them into exciting orbits. There's a lot of explanation, lots of talking about history and science and religion, but it's all just there, unconnected.

And here's an author's worst nightmare: the main story takes place in the 1980's and continues just past the year 2000. In that time, the Soviet Union still exists. It's not a good sign when your futuristic book is outdated just five years after it's published.

It's not a bad book, definitely not, but it's clear Sagan wasn't used to fiction. The characters are uncharacterized, the scenery is invisible much of the time, there is no action, nothing actually happens, but everything sure is explained to have happened. For all of these explanations, the book never really makes a point.


Compare that to...



Contact (1997)
starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey


As with many adaptations, the story is stripped to the bare bones and then retold. But in this case, it's a huge improvement.

In his book, Carl Sagan took the bare bones of a story, hung scientific explanation on them and published it as fiction.

In the movie, the filmmakers took the bare bones of Sagan's story and hung human flesh on them. They took everything that was insufficient about the book and corrected it, focusing the story around a central point.

Sagan's book didn't focus on something as a central idea, but the movie does, and now the entire story has something to orbit. The science and action and religious debate now support a single idea, which is just what the story needed.

Ellie's atheism (agnosticism?) is now deeply rooted in her past. The death of her father is a much stronger element of her personality, and it's because of her father's death she was turned away from faith.

In the book David Drumlin is rather passively introduced as the doubting Thomas wanting to shut down SETI for financial reasons. In the movie, he's the two-faced, passive-aggressive jerk who at first wants to shut down SETI, and then nudges in to take credit for the discovery of the Message.

Michael Kitz remains the asshole politician, but much stronger than in the book.

Finally, the religion verses science debate is now the singularity around which the entire story orbits!

Just about everything is different from the book. It would have to be. Sagan's novel is mainly about the importance of international cooperation during the Cold War. (In other words, please don't destroy yourselves!) Well the Cold War is over. Fears over nuclear war aren't very relevant anymore. But the religion v/s science debate is still universal.

The movie saves the major plot points from the book and essentially builds up a new story around them: Ellie Arroway is a science girl, while working at SETI she hears a message from an alien species, the message turns out to be instructions to construct a giant machine to travel and meet the messengers.

But now instead of nations bickering with one another, the movie focuses on people who don't understand what's going on completely misinterpreting the facts.

When word of the Message from the stars gets around, people find ways to misunderstand it, and spread that misunderstanding to others in order to make themselves look more important. For example, when the aliens send back the first TV transmission they receive from us, and it's the Olympic broadcast from 1936 featuring Adolf Hitler at the opening ceremonies, the first thing the politicians think is the aliens must be hostile, genocidal maniacs since they sent that back to us.

They don't understand that the TV broadcast was the first transmission powerful enough to leave the Earth's atmosphere and travel across the stars, so it would have been the first signal the aliens received. There's no evidence they understood who that man was, or what he would later do; they just sent the broadcast back to let us know they received our transmission.

People twist the Message around. They accuse scientists of attacking faith. Bash scientists for talking to God when it should be the people of faith who have that privilege. It's completely ridiculous, but at the same time it rings true. It's easy to imagine commentators on CNN saying ridiculous stuff like this. We know the Message has nothing to do with faith, but the ignorant find ways to misinterpret it.

This happens all throughout the movie, and it makes the film frustratingly realistic. It took me years to figure out why Contact is so frustrating, but I think I have. It’s because we see what’s really going on. We know what this really means. We know the facts. But ignorant people stick their noses where they don't belong. We know what the correct interpretation of the evidence is. Everyone else doesn't. They get it all wrong, and yet they're allowed to speak in public and influence people. It's irritating, but oh God it's exactly what would happen in reality.

The character of David Drumlin is especially hatable because he's a total phony. Ellie is the honest person, she does all the work, but this man is taking the credit. He pretends to be whatever people want in order to get ahead in the world, while Ellie does all work and is honest about who she is, and is constantly pushed aside. Drumlin represents everything that is wrong with humanity, and yet he is chosen to represent humanity! This is maddening because it's exactly what would happen!

In spite of everything he does to Ellie, she doesn't want to see him dead. Nothing could be more human than that. She tries to save his life when the terrorist blows up the Machine on launch day. Just like in the book, now that he's out of the way, she is chosen for the mission.

Instead of a five-person team, it's just one person, Ellie herself. Her trip through the wormhole is spectacular. The relationship with her father is better established in the movie, so meeting a vision of her father at the center of the galaxy means far more.

The alien's conversation with Ellie now carries much more weight for her personally, and for the entire human race. In the book, the moral is Cold War cooperation. ("Please don't destroy yourselves!") In the movie, the moral now reinforces the central theme: there is no proof of God, the aliens don't have all the answers, but there is proof of other alien civilizations, and that is in essence the same thing. Being part of something bigger than oneself--knowing there is more to life than this is the most hopeful feeling in the universe.

Ellie's atheism comes to the foreground of her character because she has a spiritual experience she can't prove or explain rationally. Unlike in the book, it really does humble and change her.

The movie is better than the book. It tells a much stronger story, gives human breath to the characters, makes the story relevant both to them on a personal level as well as on the level of humanity itself. If only the book had told this story! It is much more timeless and profound than the Cold War cooperation warning.

I do wish there had been more on science verses faith, but the filmmakers probably didn't want to offend anybody with such open discussion. What little debate there is ties in with the characters' personal histories, which is a clever way of disguising it. The audience understands that Ellie had a personal tragedy that turned her away from faith, so her arguments are from that point of view, not attacking religion itself. The tradeoff was worth it. The movie makes the story into something that really is a personal voyage.

Read the book if you want more overt debate, but in terms of story, you won't miss much by skipping the book. Give credit to Carl Sagan for coming up with the story in the first place though.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Seek the Original: The Wizard of Oz

88% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

The internet can be very depressing because when I have a great idea, I search it and discover about 100 people have already done my idea better than I could have. The internet just drives home how unoriginal we are. One reason I abandoned my youtube account. At least without the net there was no way to know! But oh well. I'm gonna keep seeking the original for myself, and if anybody else wants to know what it's like for me, that's even better.

Here's one I've been looking to do for a very long time because I am probably the last person in the country not to have seen the movie. Yup, somehow I never saw the 1939 film with Judy Garland, so it was a perfect opportunity to check out the public domain children's book.


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum


A magical journey through Wonderland--er, I mean the land of Oz. Oz is a country ruled by witches and wizards. Four witches rule the four compass points of the land. The good witches are in the north and the south. The wicked witches are to the east and the west. The Wizard rules Emerald City in the center of Oz.

Dorothy's house is lifted up by a tornado and dropped down onto Oz, killing the Wicked Witch of the East. The Munchkins, who live in the eastern land of Oz, greet Dorothy with open arms, for the witch kept them oppressed and in slavery. Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas, and is told the Wizard can help her. She takes the silver shoes the wicked witch was wearing, and she and her dog Toto walk west towards the great city.

On the way she encounters a scarecrow who wants intelligence, a woodsman made of tin who wants a heart, and a lion who wants courage. Together they brave the dangers of the country of Oz and reach Emerald City.

It's very much a children's book of the era. It's not descriptive, action is not dwelt upon, but simply told, and the characters speak in unnaturally formal dialogue. Did people really talk like this in the early 1900's or is it just how storybook characters were expected to sound?

I have only one real problem with everything up until this point: none of the characters lack their respective traits! The scarecrow is supposed to be stupid, and yet he himself comes up with the most ideas for how to get out of danger. The Lion lacks courage, and yet he is the one brave enough to try jumping over a great chasm. The Tin Woodman is supposed to lack the ability to love, and yet he cries after stepping on a bug.

I think I get it... everyone sought what they lacked, when in reality they possessed courage, intelligence and compassion the whole time. If this is so, and not simply bad writing, it was so obvious I nearly missed it...

The origin story for the Tin Woodman is grotesque. The Wicked Witch of the East enchanted his ax to chop off his limbs one at a time, but this doesn't phase him, as he simply goes to the local tinsmith to have new limbs made to replace them. For kids!

They must cross chasms, rivers, a dark forest full of dangers, and a field of deadly flowers. It takes many days, but they reach Emerald City.

They meet the Wizard, and he wants them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West before he'll grant their wishes. So the group sets out for the West land of Oz. The Witch throws everything she has at them (bees, crows, wolves), but each of their unique talents helps them survive the attacks. Finally she calls the winged monkeys on them! Dorothy is captured, and her friends are nearly dead. Surprisingly, Dorothy kills the Witch quite quickly, she and the natives of the West find her friends and the winged monkeys fly them back to the Wizard.

But it turns out the Wizard is just a big fraud. He gives the scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion their wishes, but it's obvious to the reader these are placebos. He tries to take Dorothy home, but the hot air balloon he builds takes off without her. So now Dorothy has to go to the Witch of the South to find out if she knows how to get back to Kansas.

I like this last leg of their journey the best because of the land of china. No, not China. This is a land where the animals, the buildings and the landscape itself are all made of porcelain! It's funny, and it reminds me of something that would be in Gulliver's Travels.

She meets Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and in the end, much like the other members of the group, Dorothy always had the means to go home. She clicks her heels together and returns to Kansas. In her absence, her uncle has built them a new house.

I do wish for more details instead of just telling the reader this happened and then that happened, but it was how stories were written at the time. I had not seen the movie before reading this, so it was a fun little adventure.


Compare that to...


The Wizard of Oz (1939)
starring Judy Garland


Talk about hype. Do a search for best movies of all time, odds are The Wizard of Oz will come in either first or second place (with Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind as its only potential equals). I'm surprised I never saw the whole thing until now.

Well of course it was the 30's so everything becomes a musical and every actor is expected to sing and dance. It's just how movies were made back then. The acting is very "theatrical," which is a nice way of saying it's overdone. Nobody reacts to anything like a person would if he or she were actually there. They act like they're acting. I recognize it was meant for kids and this is also how movies were made back then, but it's still very artificial and distracting. The sets are gorgeous and colorful, the makeup and costumes are elaborate and these are spectacular special effects for the time. It looks like a big budget blockbuster. The movie was a real triumph of filmmaking for its time, and thanks to the numerous restorations MGM has done over the decades, it still looks amazing today.

The entire first act has nothing to do with the book though. Dorothy is in trouble because Toto chased the neighbor's cat, and the evil witch of a neighbor wants to take Toto away. Yeah, that ferocious terrier is just a menace to society and needs to be destroyed. So to save her dog from being taken away, she runs away from home. This lasts all of five minutes and then she decides to go home again, worrying how she must have upset her adopted parents.

We have to go through all that to get to the first pages of the book. Ah, the tornado. Outstanding special effects for the 30's! No computer animation here--somebody had to make that tornado and make it look like it was tearing up the land behind the house, larger than life! It works. I know it's a special effect, but I still believe it.

Finally we land in Oz, and pow! TECHNICOLOR! It was quite a shock to go from sepiavision to glorious Technicolor, even for me! I can't imagine what it was like for theatergoers in the 30's.

The movie exchanges story for song and dance. Most of the music numbers are sequester, meaning they help to tell the story instead of interrupting it. Though I was very eager for the Munchkin's number to be over and the story to move on. Meeting the scarecrow, his backstory is sung. Same for the tin man and the lion. It's not nearly as detailed as what the book gives us, but it's enough to know what each character wants.

The tin man's disturbing backstory is omitted. We don't know why he is the way he is. I wanted to hear a song about that!

The scarecrow and the tin man don't lack their character traits, just like in the book. The tin man still seems to have feelings and the scarecrow comes up with ideas, but at least the lion lacks courage.

They don't encounter a lot of danger in Oz. In the book, the land itself is dangerous in places, there are monsters they have to face, chasms and rivers they must cross to reach Emerald City. In the movie, the Witch of the West is stalking them the whole way, and she's the cause of the danger. Well, really just one obstacle, the field of deadly poppies.

The scene is very weak compared to the book. It's not explained exactly why the flowers make them sleep. Something the Witch of the West does, maybe? How do they get out of it? Do the scarecrow and the tin man carry Dorothy out of the field and make friends with the field mice and employ them to build a cart to carry the lion out of the poppies where the toxic fragrance can't affect him? No. Of course not. That would've been too complicated to pull off on screen, even with the budget this movie had. Instead, the good witch makes it snow, and somehow that... neutralizes the flowers... cancels out the witch's evil magic... something?

The only other threat the witch seems to dish out is the flying monkeys. They're a bit of a mystery in the movie. In the book, their leader speaks to Dorothy and tells her the story of who they are and how they came to be under the witch's command. The filmmakers let the image of monkeys with wings stand alone without explanation, and it works well enough for the film. Letting them talk would have looked ridiculous!

The rest of the movie follows the book fairly closely, reaching the witch, killing her, the Wizard turns out to be a fraud and Dorothy misses her chance to go back to Kansas in the Wizard's balloon. But the movie leaves off the final leg of the journey, traveling to the south to talk to the Good Witch to see if she knows how Dorothy can go home. Instead the Good Witch of the North comes to Dorothy right then and tells her how to return home. All she has to do is click her heels.

By the way, it was a good design decision to change the silver shoes in the book into ruby shoes for the film. They look way better on camera than plain ol' silver would have.

So Dorothy clicks her heels and wakes up in bed. It turns out the whole thing was a dream. A dream... The movie goes out of its way to dismiss everything as the dream of a little girl coming to terms with how glad she is to be home after running away because their neighbor wanted to take her dog.

It's such an anticlimax to turn it into a dream. In the book, Oz not a dream. The tornado really does hit the house, lift it off and drop it smack dab on the Wicked Witch of the East. In the movie, the house is never even hit. Dorothy dreamed the whole thing up. It's like if it turned out Gulliver only dreamed up the fantastic countries he visited--totally ruins the whole setup and everything he was trying to say.

The story was strong enough in the book with a journey through the bizarre country of Oz. The movie adds this confusing, weak setup for the people in Dorothy's real life to be characters in the dream of Oz, loosely inspired by her one-act drama to keep the neighbor from stealing her dog. Why make a simple story more complicated when there was nothing wrong with how the book did it?

Well if Wikipedia is to be believed, someone in the studio assumed audiences were too sophisticated to buy the fantasy, so it was changed into a dream. Too sophisticated, or too stupid? I wouldn't doubt either possibility. After all, Hollywood producers are good at gauging what audiences are smart enough to handle. They sure nailed it with Star Trek!

In the movie, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, knew the whole time that Dorothy could use the ruby shoes to go home at any time, but she didn't tell her because she knew Dorothy wouldn't have believed her, and she needed to go through all of Oz first to learn an important lesson.

What did Dorothy learn? Some sort of lesson that now she realizes that she can dream of a place she'd rather be and where everything is better, but everything she needs to be happy is right at home? Where did that come from? How did going through Oz and killing the Witch of West teach her that? I really don't get what Dorothy was supposed to have learned. It's supposed to tie into what happened in the first act, but the connection is barely there. If this is a dream, I'd think her subconscious is trying to tell her the best way to keep her dog safe is to kill her neighbor!

It's so much weaker than the book, which seems to be going for the theme of "we believe we lack what we already possess." Why not have her learn the same lesson, that she's always had the power to go home? Much like the scarecrow has always had intelligence, the Tin Woodman has always had a heart, and the Lion has always been courageous. They had been looking for an outside solution to their personal deficiencies, but the answer has always been with them. The subtext is barely there in the book, but at least I caught it! Why didn't the movie do this, too?

Well, story wasn't the point back then. Technicolor musicals were all about being colorful spectacles for pure entertainment, and The Wizard of Oz is definitely that. I'm glad I watched it because it is a cultural experience and everyone should see it at least once.

I'm done with it now. With the lone exception of the scarecrow's song, I didn't like the song and dance sequences. They did a poor job telling the story. I prefer the book creating Oz as a real country with a rich history and magical objects over the movie's excuse for a dream. I liked the beautiful sets and the wonderful 1930's special effects, but the acting was so artificial it dulled the joy. I enjoyed the story the book told more than the spectacle the movie presented.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Versatile Blogger Award

thanks, Dale, for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award


Rules:

Thank the blogger who nominated you
Add the Versatile Blogger award picture to your post
Share seven random facts about yourself
Nominate 15 fellow bloggers
Let the nominees know that they’ve been nominated


I'm now obliged to share seven random facts about me.

  1. I'm a health nut.
  2. I've gotten more pleasure from video games than sex so far.
  3. I have no pictures hanging on my walls.
  4. I dislike owning things.
  5. I'm a MST3K fan.
  6. I'm proud to have grown up before the internet.
  7. I'm a game music junkie.

Next I'm supposed to nominate fifteen other bloggers for the award, but I don't want to spam everybody I know with this. Thanks though!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Top Ten Books that Changed My Life

I seem to post about games a lot, and yet this is an author's blog... I guess that means I should write about books from time to time, so here's my

Top Ten Books that Changed My Life



10

When We Were Real
by William Barton


Not every book that changed my life has been a good one. This book scared me away from writing about sex, or even mentioning it in my stories, for years! There's so much tasteless sex in this book it convinced me to avoid the topic at all costs. It took me a long time to get over this fear. Many more books to convince me that it is possible to handle it in a tasteful way.

...then I wrote Felix and the Sacred Thor...

...which still has no sex..

*cough*


9

Rendezvous with RAMA
by Arthur C. Clarke



One of the first books I ever read that left me breathless with wonder. Clarke has this way of describing the environment and technology that makes them seem more real than the people who inhabit his books. So real I was there, and the images stuck with me for years. Rendezvous with RAMA in particular is his most vivid, and it certainly affected how I approach description. I became obsessed with building my environments to be this real as well, and Clarke showed me how it was done.


8

Anonymous Rex
by Eric Garcia



Up until I read this book, most of my writing was very formal. I was taking after Arthur C. Clarke and trying very hard to write professionally. Eric Garcia's Anonymous Rex showed me a serious, professional story can be told with informal, witty prose. Another effect it had on me was showing it is possible to write about sex tastefully. Lessons I never forgot.


7

Timeline
by Michael Crichton


Had the same effect on me as Rendezvous with RAMA, but for the opposite reason. There's nothing visual about Timeline. I read the book unable to see a damn thing, and this scared me. I became paranoid that my writing was turning out this way, too, so I began describing everything in such vivid detail the reader would have no choice but to see it! I wanted to make sure readers understood what I meant--to see what I was seeing--to avoid the same fate Timeline met. It affected me for years and I probably went too far with this in my early works.


6

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams


The second book I read that made me laugh and opened my eyes to what's possible in storytelling through absurdity and humor...and also seriousness. Adams showed me you don't always need eloquent descriptions to help the reader see what's going on. The original book has a very radio-play feel to it, often using dialogue to set up a scene and describe what's happening. It's very sparse, and seeing this technique work convinced me good books don't have to be descriptive to draw a reader in. You don't have to describe everything to death for readers to understand.


5

Far-Seer
by Robert J. Sawyer


I don't have enough good to say about this series. It's so rare a storyverse draws me in so completely, and here I am nearly ten years after I read the books still talking about them. How do you help a reader understand an alien species? By introducing the reader to a different set of morals, laws and conventions in a way that they make sense in the context of their society. This has the side effect of helping us to understand our own. Yup, this is how it's done.


4

Dr. Identity
by D. Harlan Wilson



A book that truly opened my eyes to what is possible in writing: the impossible. It takes place in an impossible, distorted world, filled with impossible characters doing impossible things. It uses absurdity to tell a logical story. I get the feeling there's some kind of sinister scaffolding holding the story up beneath all the surrealism. Seeing this in action broadened my mind and freed up stories that otherwise would never have found release. Dr. Identity gave me permission to be weird.


3

Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass
by Lewis Carroll



The first book I read that made me laugh out loud. It was so inspiring I actually took the time to stop and figure out how to sing the various songs in it. Then I wrote songs of my own! I never had an urge to write songs until then, and I haven't since, and it was so magical to see it coming from me. It was the first time I became aware of just how much of an influence reading has on a writer. Whatever you put in your mind is what comes out. This is scary, and since then I have gone out of my way to read a broad spectrum of books on a broad range of topics because I want my writing to be influenced by that.


2

Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand



While it is a painful read, it has changed my perspective on life. From a storytelling perspective it is everything a writer should avoid: heavy-handed moralizing, preaching, straw man arguments, Mary Sue characters, soap opera drama...

It is a book published in the 50's during Red Scare that advocates 1) cooperation in any form whatsoever is equal to theft, which is equal to evil, which is equal to communism, which is equal to failure, 2) every man for himself is natural, and 3) a person's value to society can be accurately judged by how much money he has, therefore what's best for the rich is best for the country.

Before I read this book, whenever I heard someone say that taxes are theft at "gunpoint", or people are using the government to "take the product of their labor and give it to people who did not earn it", none of it made sense to me. Now all I hear is quotes from Ayn Rand thrown around like Bible verses.

I'm so glad I read it because now I have a greater understanding of the two prevalent philosophies competing with one another in the United States, one that advocates individualism is what makes America great, and the other pushing for cooperation. I only recognized the debate itself, and the differences between the two sides, thanks to Atlas Shrugged. The book taught me that one should never shut out someone else's point of view, for understanding theirs will help you understand yours.


1

1984
by George Orwell



It didn't fill my head with paranoia. It filled my head with wonder and clarity. The ultimate totalitarian regime. Unrealistic? Sure it is, but the book shows how things work and why they work so clearly that it is believable on its terms. It is the finest example of worldbuilding I know. It uses everything to set up the world: dialogue, character actions, narration, events, flat out explanation, and they work together so vividly. This is the book that gave me something to shoot for. To be breathtaking, terrifying, wonderful and so full of scope you can't help but see everything, even the things that are not shown. It is the book that made me say, yeah, that's what I wanna do.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lone Survivor



I didn't enjoy Lone Survivor the first time I played it. Combat is awkward, the story is obtuse and there isn't much to explore or to find.

Then I got to the end. It was obviously the bad ending. The game showed me why I got the bad ending, and I was put off. All that promotion of survival being up to you was bullshit. If you want the good end, you have to survive a certain way. So much for choice.

I was going to hang it up, but I was drawn into this strange story! I had to know what happened! I had to find out what was going on! So I played it two more times until I finally figured out how I had to survive to receive the good ending. It's still ambiguous, but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than Braid's, and provides much more closure, too. Satisfying closure.

Lone Survivor turned out to be the most satisfying game experience in months.

The atmosphere is creepy because of the retro graphics. The great music and sound design is a big factor. Makes the game feel like a cinematic experience. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Video Games that were begging for more.

Some games made me cry. Others left me hollow. Others made me scream! So what about the games that could have been good but were begging for more?



GARFIELD: CAUGHT IN THE ACT
In the late 80's through the mid 90's, everyone was a Garfield fan, so when a Genesis (Mega Drive) game came out starring that fat cat, I bought it just because of that.

It's an appropriate concept for a fat, lazy cat who doesn't do anything but eat and watch TV. A glitch sucks Garfield into TV land and now he must fight his way through multiple TV worlds to get home.

Worlds include an Egyptian level (a la The Mummy), a pirate level, a caveman level, and a black and white level set in the Casablanca time period. It resembles an episode of Garfield and Friends that parodied the Twilight Zone in which Garfield is zapped into various TV worlds.

All the sprites are drawn by Jim Davis, which makes it even more special. The ingredients were there for a stellar game.

Garfield has only two attacks, projectile and melee, and he doesn't have much range or agility, so no matter which you choose odds are you're going to take damage. The levels are imaginative, but they're short and linear. The enemies Garfield faces aren't much of a challenge, and don't take any thought or skill to defeat.

The bosses, however, can get interesting. My favorites are the Egyptian level's boss and the Glitch, the ending battle. Play the PC version to get the cool music and it's a memorable fight.



I love that laugh.

It's not a bad game at all, but even as a kid I was unchallenged because there are so many health fill-ups and ammo pick-ups lying around it's almost impossible to die. Just look how many pizzas are on that final boss. How can you lose? It's just plain too easy. I found myself trying to make the game harder by intentionally messing up on certain areas.

Fun levels, but they aren't big enough. Too linear, not enough variety in gameplay, and there isn't enough to do. This game needed more of everything.



SONIC R
The first PC game I bought with my new Dell back in 2002. I was hyped up because it was a game I couldn't have played on my previous computer and I was eager to see what the next step in graphics looked like.



Seems like a natural thing to do, putting Sonic in a racing game. The problem is there are only five tracks, and they're very short. The characters we know and love are rendered in 3D, but the polygon count is so low they look awful (almost forgivable at the time, though).

The game is also unbalanced. Knuckles is the best character to use as he has speed and stability, while Sonic has speed but no traction. Eggman and Amy are slow and useless. Tails' flying is so limited he may as well not even have it.

It's a tiny game, so it tries to make up for it with unlockables. They're a joke. Teddybear Tails? I hoped for a better reward than that!

The soundtrack is refreshing. Lyrics in game background music. That's unique, and it's decent...as long as you don't take the time to learn what the lyrics actually are.



can you see
the sun is shining on me
it makes me feel so free
so alive
it makes me want to survive!

...poetic?

Yeah, they're not the best written, but I gotta admit they are kinda catchy. Too bad the levels are so short you'll never hear an entire song in the game, which bugs me.

This is a half-backed Mario Kart. Needed more levels, longer levels with more variety and more characters and items. More of everything!



MECHWARRIOR 4: VENGEANCE
I was a Mechwarrior fan in the days of Windows 98. Mechwarrior 3 was badass! The graphics were killer, the controls were ridiculously complicated and counter-intuitive and the campaign was engrossing. Short, but potent. You play a lanceleader whose strike force is destroyed and now you and your meager team must complete an entire army's objectives alone. Absurd, but hey gamers like to be the center of the universe. I ate it up, and then played the game online!

Then Microsoft's game studio took over the franchise and produced a fourth Mechwarrior game. Mechwarrior 4 features a campaign about a duke whose family is murdered, and now he's fighting to retake the throne from the evil Steiner family that stole it from him.

Well, the opening video looks nice for the time:



Then you get into the game and what the hell is this?! The graphics are... cartoony. MW3 was realistic, but MW4 made everything look like a damn cartoon. It's difficult to show in youtube videos, but the graphics were a step down in realism. Maybe you can tell from this video:



As if that weren't bad enough, the campaign is poorly written, poorly acted, poorly filmed, boring and not much of a challenge at all. The so-called "cut scenes" are just people talking to you over the com system. Mechwarrior 3 had great voice acting. With only two exceptions (the mechanic, and one of the villains. Rolan is his name I think) Mechwarrior 4's acting is awful. Watching people talk to the camera is uninteresting and adds little in the way of story. It totally fails to add any sense of scope to the situation.

On top of that, the music is poorly used. Songs play once, then the rest of the level is silent. It's a step up from MW3's music (two tracks which play over and over through the entire game), but it's still awkward.

About the only reason anyone played the game was for the multiplayer, which was a major improvement over what MW3 had to offer. But the same problems still hit the game. People would just load a mech full of the most powerful weapon in the game, hide behind mountains and shoot you with it over and over. It led to sneak and hide battles, which I despised. I preferred infighting, but MW4's setup discouraged that. The only way to get a balanced, fair fight was stock mechs, but hardly anybody did that.

The Mechlab was greatly improved, but it's not enough to make up for a weak, poorly-acted, boring campaign, uninteresting multiplayer and cartoonish graphics. MW3 will always be my definitive Mechwarrior game. MW4: Vengeance needed a lot more of what MW3 had.

Perhaps I should check out the tabletop version. Find out what the original game was like.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I am a game music junkie

I am a game music junkie. I know this because a while ago I played some of my music through the Apple TV in the livingroom. The screensaver shows all your album art, and I was shocked when I realized that literally half my music collection is video game music. Some things you never grow out of.

When I was a kid, I didn't find any music I liked. I wasn't into anything that was currently out, like Michael Jackson or M.C. Hammer or Vanilla Ice or... whatever kids were listening to in the 80's and early 90's. Nothing that was popular caught my ear.

The closest I came to actually becoming a fan of any group was Shadowfax, but it was more of a "close enough" kind of relationship than being a real fan.

I was, however, a video game fanatic, so it's only natural I noticed the music in the games I played. It was the only thing I remember that actually caught my ear, so I did what any kid in my position would do: I took a tape recorder, propped it up to the TV and recorded my NES and Gameboy.

I made multiple tapes of video game music over the years. Some of the game music I recorded included: Kirby's Dreamland, Kirby's Adventure, Yoshi's Cookie, the Ninja Turtles games, Tiny Toon Adventures: Babs' Big Break, Tetris, Tetris 2, and on and on.

Later on I would take the tape recorder to my Sega Genesis and PC, recording the Sonic games, Ristar, Ecco 2, the Doom games, Dare to Dream, and so forth.

I even got my friend, Andrew, in on it and recorded some music from his Super Nintendo, such as Earthworm Jim 2, Star Fox, Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Kart.

In 1994 or 95, I finally found a musician that caught my ear, Mike Oldfield, and I gobbled his work up. In spite of that, I never stopped recording game music.

One thing that pissed me off about PC game music at the time was that it was all MIDI. This meant that if you changed computers, you changed soundcards, and that meant the MIDI mapping changed as well, so the music in the games would sound different. This was especially aggravating with Doom, because I liked the way the music sounded when I first heard it. Upgrading computers changed the music and I hated how it sounded afterwards. I made game music tapes to try to stop it from changing.

Too bad I didn't know about stereo sound back then, so I only got one channel of music on tape. This wasn't a problem until I tried recording PC music and some Genesis games. Hey, I was a kid. I didn't have the equipment or knowledge to wire the consoles into a stereo and record it directly.

In the days before computers, mp3s and the internet, kids had to innovate. I had to work for my music! These days you can download gamerips, and game music is so good it actually gets a CD release! No more holding tape recorders up to TV speakers! Now I'm downloading mp3s and full CD soundtracks of the games I play!

Some things you never grow out of. I've gotten to the point where I buy the soundtrack to a game I like even before I finish playing it. Sometimes I buy games just to have new music to listen to. (Thank you, Humble Bundle.)

Only one of the game music tapes I made as a kid survives to this day. The others were either lost to time or destroyed by tape players. I have not listened to this tape because I'm afraid of ruining it, too.

My collection of game music is vast these days. For those who might wonder, here's a list in no particular order:

Portal
Portal 2 (game review)
Ratchet and Clank (entire series, except All 4 One) (game review)
Bioshock 1 + 2
American McGee's Alice
Schizm (game review...sorta)
The Binding of Isaac
Darkstar: The Interactive Movie (game review)
Super Meat Boy
Mechwarrior 3 + Pirate's Moon
Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance
Botanicula (game review)
Kirby's Adventure
Myst (1 - 5) (game review)
Uru
Unreal
Unreal 2 (partial)
Dead Space
Dead Space 2 (one track) (game review)
Lone Survivor
Adventures of Batman and Robin (Genesis)
Sword & Sworcery LP - The Ballad of the Space Babies
Corridor 7 (game review)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1 + 3 NES, both arcades)
Ken's Labyrinth
Vault Archives (Fallout 1 + 2 soundtracks)
LIMBO
Microsoft Fury 3
Tr3s Lunas II (Mike Oldfield's Music VR project. It counts!)
Amnesia: The Dark Descent OST (game review)
Machinarium (game review)
Samorost 2
Battletoads and Double Dragon (SNES)
Earthworm Jim 1 + 2 (SNES)
Startropics (one track)
Wario's Woods (SNES, two tracks)
Yoshi's Island (one track)
Primal Rage (CD soundtrack)
Sonic 3D Blast (Saturn)
Sonic R (PC)
Doom (official CD release, + rips from Doom 1, 2 and Final Doom)
Donkey Kong Country
Garfield Caught in the Act (PC)
Jurassic Park (Genesis, one track)
Knuckles Chaotix (Game sucks, music sucks except for ONE TRACK!)
Ristar
Sonic CD (Japanese and US. Both are equally good.)
Sonic Spinball
Vectorman (one track)
Sonic Adventure (game review)
Sonic Adventure 2 (a couple tracks)
Sonic Heroes (the ONLY good 3D sonic game I've played)
Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, 3, & Knuckles
Ecco the Dolphin (Sega CD) (game review)
Ecco 2: The Tides of Time (Sega CD, Genesis) (game review)
Ecco: Defender of the Future
Blaster Master
The Neverhood
RAMA (gamerip)
Bastion