Happy Halloween 2014

Today is Halloween. Tomorrow is NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been bad this year. I came in with a huge list of stuff I wanted to do for my New Years Resolution, and very little of it was actually finished. I’ve invested in other pursuits, most relating to writing, but not the path I set for myself.

I won’t beat myself up for this. I refuse to. Opportunities came up that didn’t exist in 2013. I wrote and wrote and haven’t been able to reward myself the same way one can with short stories. More than anything, I want to finish up these longer stories and get back to writing shorts for a while.

So, on that note. While I will not be committing to NaNoWriMo, I will be stealing its thunder and trying to do 1,000 words a day. An easy pace that shuts down a chapter every 3 to 5 days and puts me on the fast track to wrapping this up. I don’t like to feel rushed, but I cannot commit to any new assignments until it’s finished.

Happy Halloween folks!

awesome

Gauntlet

“The game is an intriguing study in the struggle between altruism, selfishness and self-interest.”

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From the get go, Gauntlet spawns nostalgia of my youth. My brother and I played Gauntlet on the NES in the 90s, a game of some mindless fun, in which he and I experimented to see how far we could get in the game with various combinations of characters.

Back in the day, the concept was pretty simple… one or two players pick a class that balances speed, damage and health, and tries to descend into the dungeon. Your health was actually a timer. Take a hit, you lose some time. Eat some easily destructible food and you regain time/health. Monster generators spawn endless foes, which you held back with thrown weapons. On occasion, Death himself showed up, forcing us to race to the exit. Of the four classes available, the Warrior had the most health and damage, the Elf moved the quickest and the Wizard and Valkyrie balanced both.

Since those days, Gauntlet has undergone a few reboots, such as the goofy Gauntlet: Dark Legacy and the grittier Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows. Now, Arrowhead tries its hand at the Gauntlet franchise.

And truth be told, they’ve outdone everyone else.

While the timer has since been removed, the overall appeal of the game remains a hack-and-slash fest for four people, including any combination of couch and internet players. This is awesome as I relish any chance to hang with friends, near and far. However, there have been some significant changes to how each of the four classes works. No longer do they each spam throwing weapons endlessly. Rather, each class fights according to their fantasy archetype. This is what makes the new Gauntlet so much fun.

The Warrior Thor, as you can imagine, is a melee murder machine, capable of going toe-to-toe with hordes of monsters using a wide reaching, area of effect slash that deals impressive damage. He also packs a charge attack that can knock back several monsters, and a leap attack that deals tremendous injury to a single target, great for taking out those enemy generators. His primary weakness is the lack of a ranged weapon. Thus, he can’t pull back and snipe when his health is low. On the plus side, his cyclone attack makes him invulnerable for a moment, a trick I’ve used to cheat death (and Death) more than once.

valkyrie_conceptart_layout_page_01The Valkyrie Thyra is a sword, spear and shield wielding powerhouse, capable of everything. Her spear-dash ability can be executed swiftly and damages several foes. She can take on the hordes with her overwhelming sword strikes. Her shield can deflect projectiles and force foes back, as well as be used as a projectile itself, killing several enemies Captain America style. The Valkyrie strikes me as a great choice for both beginners and advanced players, as her jack-of-all-trades abilities give starting players a sample of the kind of gameplay they like, while skilled adventurers can blend all these skills together into an unstoppable whirlwind of death, flowing from one tactic to the next.

The Wizard Merlin seems to be the game’s most controversial figure. Early in the game’s release, people avoided the Wizard like the plague because of the difficulty in switching between nine different spells, each with their own utilities. As I’ve discovered both personally and in teams however, Merlin may just be the most powerful character of all, if a player takes the time to learn all the spell combinations. His ability to switch from a few potent damaging spells to area of effect, teleportation, and area denial abilities makes him rewarding if one bothers to study him. In a way, I kind of feel like this is how a magic using character should be.

At last, the Elf Questor maintains all the speed and guile of his former incarnations. He can lay powerful bombs which can help clear out the enemy generators, and unleash rapid-fire arrows at the hordes to manage the masses. Interestingly, Questor’s arrow barrage bounces harmless off enemy generators. Thus, he must rely on either his bombs or his charged up, sniping shots to destroy them. His speed is further accented by a roll maneuver, allowing him to escape being cornered and snatch food and gold with haste.

The characters aren’t just flat, silent protagonists either. They compliment each other when they fight well, chide each other when someone destroys a meal, and remind teammates when they’re dying and need to feed. While this is functionally useful, the chemistry between them is light. There’s room for some rib-poking.

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Perhaps the thing that vexes me most about Gauntlet is the competition within the cooperation. Players cannot directly harm one another. But they can really step on each others toes if they so choose. Dying results in a portion of one’s gold being dropped for other players to snatch up. Food and potions can be destroyed, and thoughtless teammates have gobbled up all the turkey when others and myself had only a smidgen of health left. Some puzzles call for explosives (Yay!), which is all fun and games until your colleagues decide to light the powder keg you’re carrying (Boo!).

And all the while, you wonder if this is deliberate and intentional sabotage to get your gold, or if they’re just being ignorant boors. However, higher difficulty settings require communal lives, thus greatly discouraging this jerk behavior. The game is an intriguing study in the struggle between altruism, selfishness and self-interest.

So what good is this gold you race to collect from your teammates? Well, there are two major uses. The first is the purchase and improvement of relics, special ability-granting tools you can use once you obtain potions. Gold can also be used to unlock new outfits for your characters. I suspect that Arrowhead will be racing to come out with new content in the future, as what little they have in the store will soon be purchased. There’s just not a lot of rewards available right now.

Speaking of persistence, Gauntlet tackles a different kind of leveling system. Instead of flat experience, as you might expect from a game of the fantasy genre, character improvements are handled through an achievement-based mastery system. Kill a 1,000 mummies, and you’ll gain 10% additional damage against them permanently. Smash a few hundred props and the gold you gain will slightly increase over time. Even people who aren’t doing well gain bonuses from dying, thus reducing the sting of losing.

Gauntlet isn’t the second coming of Diablo II. But at only $20, Gauntlet is fun for four, a party game needing only beer, three friends and a dog. And I do hope that Arrowhead keeps improving on it.

The End of Summer

“In a peculiar way, Lovecraft’s work has become culturally ingrained in our understanding of horror, just as we make everyday references to Christian or Pagan concepts in our language, and may not even realize it.”

I’ve been too busy to write blog posts and I’m not sorry for that.

Between work being hard and finding time for writing, blogging had to be cut. Even reading isn’t going at any fast rate, although I am really enjoying my current book far more than I thought I would.

Cthulhu_and_R'lyehSo I’m finally wrapping up the very last of my novella for the quarterly me and the guys are working on. Jonathan thought I was spot on when I explained that the act of making a synopsis robs the actual writing process of some of it’s enjoyment. Something about the act of creation, infusing ideas into words on the page. That’s where the majority of pleasure is in writing. Doing half the creativity in the synopsis does allow for a better paced and plotted story, but it’s no where near as fun as drafting from the hip.

I’ve also been keeping my ear to the ground current events. The unfortunate passing of both Joan Rivers and Robin Williams (rest in peace, and you’ll both be missed), GamerGate, and the new Silent Hill game with Guillermo Del Toro, Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus. That game alone has pretty much sold me on the PS4, but I’m waiting until October before I buy. I am very much looking forward to playing Destiny in the mean time between then and Silent Hill‘s release.

Speaking of games of intrigue, the new Gauntlet really looks like fun. I’ve really been wanting a four player couch machine, and the fact that it can be played via both couch and online (combined if you want), puts it at the top of my to-get list. As far back as the Nintendo Entertainment System, I’ve had fun memories of Gauntlet. Me and my brother had a lot of fun trying various class combinations to stay alive as long as we can, as back their your health had a dual function as a timer, constantly ticking down. The more hits you took, the less time you had, hence the need for food all the time.

See, I’ve forgotten how much I love couch video games with many friends. Co-op beats competitive for getting everyone to have fun together, and having everyone in the same room is just so much fun. It’s a shame that consoles have gradually moved away from this while… for some reason, PCs have had more indie titles that move towards it. Yeah, I don’t get this trend either. But four-players on the couch are why Mario Kart 8 has done so well. That, and it’s fun as all hell.

A gallery of Cthulu art.

A gallery of Cthulu art.

This weekend, me and my friends are heading to Westport in Massachusetts. I’ve decided to bring this board game with me, Mansions of Madness. This game is built around H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, an element that has an enduring quality… perhaps more so than Conan the Barbarian. The Cthulu mythos intrigues me as at least a portion of the writing is public domain, so it has subtly entered my cultural knowledge. Shub-Niggurath made an appearance at the very end of Quake. Alone in the Dark borrowed a few of the monsters, including Nightgaunts.

In a peculiar way, Lovecraft’s work has become culturally ingrained in our understanding of horror, just as we make everyday references to Christian or Pagan concepts in our language, and may not even realize it. That’s half my excitement for Mansions of Madness. The other half is that the game walks a fine line between being a pen and paper role playing game and a regular board game. The Keeper, who has elements akin to a Dungeon Master, is also a player and has restrictions to hold his power in check. I could not simply have a dozen Shoggoths and wipe them out. But I have a most excellent array of abilities, ranging from conjuring a variety of monsters to hitting them with traumatic injuries both physical and psychological.

I think this will be a weekend to remember.

July Reading List

Back in March, I compiled a list of reads I intended to tackle. Here’s my summer reading progress thus far. I am currently reading Descent of Angels by Michael Scanlon.

First, the stuff I’ve finished reading…

The Whitechapel Demon by Josh Reynolds
Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlusson
Ambassadora by Heidi Ruby Miller

Next, there’s what I want to read eventually. I treat these titles as rewards for accomplishments.

Death’s Legacy by Sandy Mitchell. After finishing the previous two books, I’m curious how the third is going to end.

Blighted Empire by CL Werner. The great start of the first book has me curious as to what happens in the next.

Njal’s Saga. After the Prose Edda, I’m looking forward to further viking readings.

In the mean time, there is the stuff currently in the queue to read first.

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Napoleon by Felix Markham
It by Stephen King
Heroes Die by Matthew Stover
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Finally, Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche was one I couldn’t finish. I may revisit a differently translation this autumn and try again.

Oh, P.S. I might move It to the fall to celebrate Halloween.

A Good Book, Great TV and Whining

“Tie-in has a whole extra level of stuff to get right,” Narry told me today.

And he’s right. I got the beta review back on a story I was preparing. While I feel the tale has some strong themes and solid action going for it, there were a handful of technical issues that need addressing. And there were a few other elements that need better delivery in order to stay true to the background. Best guess, it’ll take an hour of work to get right. Another hour to correct the synopsis and probably 30 minutes to an hour to revisit the cover letter.

Meanwhile, my conscience continues to Navi me over the novel. I haven’t touched it since the turn of the month, returning to the standard 1,000 words a day rate of my short story speed. I’ll be certain to return to it this week at some point, but as I’m so close to being ready on this story, it’ll be easier to finish it and have it ready.

The Whitechapel Demon

"The Whitechapel Demon" by Josh Reynolds.

The Whitechapel Demon by Josh Reynolds.

Over the weekend, I finished The Whitechapel Demon by Josh Reynolds. The book is the first of an upcoming series involving the duties of a figure entitled the Royal Occultist. Appointed by the queen, it is the duty of the occultist to investigate all strange and macabre incidents throughout England.

The current holder of the title (there have been several before, giving Reynold’s work a rich background to draw from) is a Mister Charles St. Cyprian, a veteran of the Great War. St. Cyprian is not alone throughout his efforts, as he works with his assistant Ebe Gallowglass, and both competes and cooperates with the Ministry of Esoteric Observation, his bureaucratic rival.

Mister Reynolds has certainly done his homework. Although I’ve yet to fully research it, many of his elements come from real world sources and references, such as Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, hyssop oil, ectoplasm and pentagrams. Although fiction, the big draw of the Royal Occultist is its reverence to historically-attempted applications of magic.

The book is a treat for anyone who loves Sherlock Holmes, the occult, The X-Files or perhaps Constantine. Or better yet, any and all of these blended into one. Although the novel is relatively short at less than 180 pages, its brevity helps the reader decide whether or not the forthcoming series will be for them, a wonderful change from the 600 page novels that begin too many fantasy series.

Halt and Catch Fire, “Landfall”

The latest episode of Halt and Catch Fire was the best yet. Hands down.

Perhaps the reason I like it so much is due to how it has stopped being so prudent. The pilot was great and set the stage perfectly, then the follow up episodes slowed it down a little, holding back the tide of plot. But as of the sixth episode, they changed course and let the chips fall where they may. Exactly how it should be.

On paper, the show seems to have a lot of similarities with Mad Men. There’s direct client interactions, a historical basis, the focus remains business drama, and a great deal of personal character dilemmas and conflicts. But in execution, the show has a faster pace, more sudden turns and borrows themes from David Fincher’s The Social Network.

What I like the most is the difference in how the two shows handle foreshadowing. Mad Men sticks to its tried and true subtle method of hinting the future. But while Halt and Catch Fire flirted with that, they eventually gave up and went bold. That is the ideal for a show about a revolution, with its characters persistently pushed to the edge and recovering with an ever weakening grip.

Which brings us to the awesome scene from “Landfall” where Gordon runs about the city, desperately trying to buy a Cabbage Patch doll for his children before a hurricane strikes. After being swindled out of $80 by a conman offering a wrapped box with a stone, Gordon finally comes to a toy store and finds it closed due to the storm.

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But while returning to the car, Gordon spots the doll on display in the window. Frustrated with seeing the prize taunt him, he takes (what I believe) is the stone from his conning and smashes the display. But before he returns, he hears something about the building and finds a body who eerily looks like his boss Joe MacMillan.

I don’t know whether the body was real or a hallucination. Gordon was who saw it. But the question is, was it foreshadowing, or was it simply a manifestation of his fears? Of the three main characters, Cameron has barely applied effort to anything in her life, and to our knowledge Joe has never failed. But Gordon, uniquely, has done both these things when he created and failed to market the Symphonic.

I feel this vision, real or not, will add to Gordon’s conservative sense and turn him into a greater obstacle for Cameron and Joe. And given his experiences, it’s a shame they probably won’t listen.

 

Steaming up the Summer

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The Steam Summer Sale is on. Go. Buy things. I highly, highly recommend the cheaper Don’t Starve as it’s getting a multiplayer version this September. I intend to buy like 3 copies to give to friends.

It’s been a productive month. Not crazy, “I just finished five books and learned the guitar” productive, but a steady progression of words down, pitches readied, business, working out and so on. A really balanced approach to problems and progress towards what I want to finish.

The super hero novella quarterly pitch, which we’re calling the Outlier Universe for now, has been fired to our potential publisher. It’s amazing what happens when you get five guys to sit down and come up with a shared story. But we’ve got it all: Realistic government agencies built in reaction to these strange events, a philosophically charged organizations whose splinter cells engage in anything from small time crime to straight terrorism.

We’ve got fleshed out characters with plenty of personal inclinations and reasons to be involved, big time “Billionaire’s Clubs” who find ways to turn the changing circumstances to their advantage. And a designer drug that causes new characters and dangers to come out of the woodwork.

And all of this takes place in the same universe. The events influence each other. Envisioned stories flow back and forth from smaller, personal pieces to address changing view points and philosophies to larger, meaningful epics. And whenever possible, connecting how the former relates to the latter. It’s kind of the ultimate power trip to see a person’s opinion on matters have such a potentially powerful impact.

What I love the most is that we don’t do run-of-the-mill origin stories either. The moral compass isn’t clearly defined, and many of our so called heroes have some shady backgrounds. But we haven’t reached that point in our timelines of introducing the ultimate evils yet. And I don’t know what will happen to our gray characters when that shadow falls upon them.

Another thing the guys and I haven’t addressed yet is what happens when a character dies. Marvel and DC Comics have tendencies to resurrect the dead all the time, which seems to make all violent struggles nigh pointless in the long run. I’m more inclined to bury my characters when they die unless there is an extremely, compelling reason and a steep price tag to bring them back (and for us, that “price tag” will probably include nothing less than a complete story, which is expensive to the writer’s time.) What’s the point of death if it isn’t permanent?

But one way or the other, we’re ready for some damn fine story telling.

The novel writing however, is slow going. I got on a roll and finished two and a half chapters, but there are still 24.5 more to go. I’m fairly happy with the direction, but as I write I wonder, “What if I shifted this chapter here and this one there? Or cut up and reshuffled these chapters so they more evenly tell the story?”

Once the novel is through the beginning I’m happy with the way it flows. But the opening tends to be lump, preferring one group of characters over the others. But that’s an issue for editing and it’s more important to just get the words down for now.

By the way, have you seen “Expiration Date” from the Team Fortress 2 development team?

Food and Mythology

Far South Shrimp Salad

20 medium shrimp, uncooked
1 lime, small is fine
mixed greens
1 avocado
1 mango
1 shallot
paprika
olive oil
salt and pepper

Run cold water on the shrimp until they’re thawed. Carefully remove the shells, legs and tails (unless you prefer tails, as some do.) Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a skillet and cook the shrimp until they’re an orange/pink on both sides.

Meanwhile, cut the mango into bite sized cubes and dice the shallot into tiny pieces. Cube the avocado as well. Microwave the lime for about 10 seconds to soften it and cut it in half. Drop the shrimp, avocado, shallot and mango into a bowl with the mixed greens and squeeze the lime onto it. The toss the salad, making an effort to crush the avocado if at all possible. Afterwards, try it and add salt, pepper and paprika to your taste.

I suppose there’s nothing quite like a beach trip to make one wish to cut a few pounds. I’ve reached the point where I’m just no longer going to bother with the vanity of trying to earn and maintain a six pack or push my biceps to be 18 or 19 inches in diameter. But I also have no plans to ignore the importance of trying to be healthy.

A recent doctor check up told me everything I already knew: Less beer, less refined sugar, more exercise. The obnoxious thing about weight loss, as I constantly yo-yo weight, is that it requires total lifestyle changes. Lunch has to be a salad most of the time or soup. I have to swap out the doughnut or breakfast sandwich for a bowl of grainy cereal or fruit. Red meats get exchanged for lower calorie seafood. Rather than sit down for an hour of Titanfall or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it’s either some dancing game or throwing the television on while I lift weights.

Usually, the first two weeks are the hardest. You miss those foods, you miss being able to be lazy. There’s a constant hunger in the back of your mind that interferes with any concentration intensive tasks, whether it’s reading, writing or especially studying.

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Víðarr (Vidar) slaying Fenrir, after the wolf slew his father, Odin.

Speaking of study, my return to non-fictional reading has been interesting at the least. I had finished a translation of The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlusson. And to further examine the correlation between the Norse mythology and the actual pagan practices in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson whose work in understanding the Æsir is incredibly extensive (check out that bibliography…)

The reading caused great thoughts of pensiveness, and reflection of the underlying philosophies. A fair bit of Norse mythology has been lost to the kulturkampf of Christian revisionism. Even the word, myth, carries with it a sense of untruth in its modern context. The Christians of that age worked hard to brand the Æsir as an untruth, a once sacred religion reduced to mythology.

Of course today, Christianity struggles to remain a religion and not a mythology in the eyes of a skeptical, science-and-fact oriented society. The irony isn’t lost on me that Christianity finds itself the victim of the very cycle its earlier followers fought in mind and body to start.

Davidson’s best points seem to reflect a lot of my own thinking as with regard to the elder religions. That the gods and goddesses of the Æsir and Vanir were merely metaphysical expressions of our own desires. Like their Greek counterparts, the denizens of Asgard were welcoming of humanity in all his glory and failings alike. They had their war gods, their gods of sex and fertility. Their nature gods, fortune granters and tricksters… and ultimately celebrating humanity rather than chiding us or attempting to guide us by some vision of a utopia.

Hm. Will finish Davidson’s book this week. Perhaps 75 more pages left.