Little Victories in Spring

At 12:58 am last night, I leaned back in my chair and basked in the satisfaction of finishing the second draft of the synopsis for my novel. The first draft was completed a couple of days ago, but it was unbelievably bare boned and entirely unproofed. The last couple of chapters were nothing but a sentence long placeholder. The second draft fleshed them out entirely, explaining what was going to happen, and satisfying about 90% of what I want to accomplish. The total tally was 51 pages.

I know, I know. Finishing a synopsis isn’t anywhere near as interesting as finishing the novel itself. But in some ways, the synopsis is where the real meat of the work lies anyway. With its completion, I have my story and my characters fairly fleshed out. And the plot moves at the right pace, either jogging or sprinting, but never walking. I have assembled the skeleton, and the result is a piece of work with good bones. I’ve sent the piece to a few beta readers to eye over for any lingering plot holes or problems.

Once the beta readers get the synopsis back to me, I’ll glance over it one more time before I send it off. While waiting for approval or any final changes, I can turn my attention to writing a few short stories in the mean time and really, really get back into the writing game. The earliest story deadline coming up is on April 15th, barely a week away. I doubt I’ll be able to make that deadline, so instead I’ll focus on the next one, doing all my research and jotting down a one page synopsis for each of my tales.

Here’s hoping that 2014 is an incredible year.

April Tomorrow

This weekend we were hit with another round of snow. I can’t help but think it’s the last. I feel it, I just do. Today, the weather will be around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius). Here’s hoping it gets sunnier.

But I took advantage of the cold weather to stay in and enjoy some books, movies and television. I decided to challenge myself this month: I’m giving up alcohol until April 30th, trying to work out (even just 20 minutes) five days a week, and am brushing up on my French using Duolingo. If you’re interested in learning a new language, I recommend it.

The weekend wasn’t without challenges. I had some difficulties in formatting the print edition of Far Worlds. But thus far, I think I’ve got it and checked all potential problems. The formatting, at least on the preview screen, looks good. The details appear to be all there. I’m just waiting on the last bit of the cover and we’ll stamp out the proof version. If all goes well, I can safely say my publishing skills have gained a level.

The book has occupied my time with its complexities. It has increased my respect (again) for writer and publishers. Every little nuance and detail that we take for granted as readers was someone’s hard work and effort to learn how to do it.

But at the same time, I really do want to get back into story craft and writing. A few very interesting submission windows have come my way and I can’t wait to get started on a few new tales. It won’t be much longer and I’ve got a lot to make up for.

On the reading side of things, I’ve finished A Dance with Dragons. After some thought, I’ve decided not to read the freely available chapters on GRRM’s website. I’m looking forward to The Winds of Winter, but I don’t want to read a few chapters and then have to reread them when details change in the final product.

Because murder. That's why.

Because murder. That’s why.

Finally free to put down anything involving A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve returned to the Horus Heresy at last with Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Betrayer, burning through 100 pages in 2 days.

My absence from the Warhammer universe seems to have restored some of the wonder of reading the primarchs in action and some of the awe as to what the warp is capable of. There’s splendor and depth here, as our understanding of the Horus Heresy from the context of the 40k universe has always been the ‘what’, while the actual book series explains the ‘why’.

My weekend wasn’t without some lighter fare as well. Over at a friends’ place, we watched Pitch Perfect with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. The movie seemed to borrow strong elements from Bridesmaids, managing to be funny without coming off as a chick flick. It would have been possible to swap out the female roles for male ones with little lost in the translation. I suppose there was a little predictability to it, but it never loses sight of being fun and funny, so there’s nothing to complain about.

Finally, I broke the seal and started watching the third season of United States of Tara. The second season had proved so incredibly preachy that I was almost turned off for good. I had a hard time putting up with the judgmental sentiments and the overtly delivered political messages.

Thankfully, Diablo Cody and her associated writers seemed to have realized they had gone too far and tried (too late) to dial it back. The third season has been enjoyable and interesting, emphasizing what the second season should have been. All the family members get their own plots of which are satisfying, with the exception of Tara’s sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) whose thread is okay- not great.

The writers finally found ways to make the kids interesting. The son is working on a movie with his boyfriend and another kid, which buds into some intriguing conflicts of their own (the kind only Showtime or HBO would have the guts to try.) It took some work to make anything of daughter, but now that they’ve set her up as a flight attendant, her story lines actually seem to bring something to the table.

Still, we’re only at episode 6 and there are three hours of the show left. One can rule a season as bad and quit, but ‘good’ should be reserved until it’s over.

Here’s to April.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

The game frequently hits you with challenging moral choices so gray, you’ll forget what defines good . . . No matter what you do, you will feel a bit jaded after.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

How often is it said that a video game is “important”?

Entertaining, incredible, fun. Sure, we say that all the time. But important? Almost never.

So if you were told about a franchise universe that involves elves, orcs, cyberpunk, modernism, corporatism, shamanic mysticism and nature spirits, urban culture, grimdarkness (think Warhammer 40k), racial tensions, poverty, gang life and more, the very first question on your mind would be, “How could that be anything except a total steaming mess of science fantasy crap?”

The very last thing you’d expect is something so well written, it actually challenges the classics of today.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall approaches disturbing and harrowing adult themes and philosophies in an incredibly thoughtful way, without tiring melodrama or clichés.

Set in Berlin, the main character (your avatar) joins an old friend named Monika who runs both a clique and looks after an entire neighborhood. The game begins with a sordid data heist that swiftly goes wrong, putting both you and the team in the cross hairs of a shadowy and well funded organization. There’s no choice but to go on the offense and find out who they are and stop them before they stop you.

The main character (who you design from scratch) has a past, though you choose certain elements of it. Your race and your job both weigh heavy factors in dialogue options. Your first instinct might be to go as a human, but there are interesting interactions and results to be partaken if you choose one of the metaraces, like Orc or Dwarf.

But Boss . . .

Even better, you’re given a team of four individuals with their own back stories. There’s Dietrich, a former punk rocker with strong anti-racist attitudes, who felt the call of shamanism. Blitz, a smart mouth decker (futuristic hacker) with lingering problems of his own, mostly romantic. Glory, a chrome (cyborg) combat medic with one hell of a history that I refuse to risk spoiling. And Eiger, a troll woman hung up on military protocol after her career in the special forces came to an end.

I think Glory has earned a nomination for best video game character of the year.

If it were up to me, Glory here would earn a nomination for best character design of the year.

Besides the depth each of these four characters brings, I really appreciate that Harebrained Schemes only used half a formula for getting to know them. Between missions, you just talk to them, branching out into multiple paths that you can influence. As I played the kinder, understanding leader in the first go around, playing an uncaring ass in the second game is harder.

But sometimes during missions, you get to learn more about them too. It’s interesting to see the conflicts in the team arise from the choices you have to make. Dietrich had a particularly interesting story about a familial relation who happened to have been caught up in the Humanis Policlub, a hate group who advocates a human race “purified” of metahumans. And guess what? Never once did they use the four letter N-word.

That’s another point. The game frequently hits you with challenging moral choices so gray, you’ll forget what defines good. You can forget the Mass Effect “make everyone happy” approach because it doesn’t exist here. You’ll be forced to make decisions you don’t like, and you’ll discover that the seemingly “good” decisions you make have hard unforeseen consequences that aren’t as simple as being stabbed in the back. You’ll rarely see it coming.

No matter what you do, you will feel a bit jaded after.

That Thing’s Operational!

There are many elves out there. Magic elves, dark elves, Keebler and North Pole elves. Trust me, stay away from the party elves.

Party elf: There’s a party in his body and every drug is invited.

Fighting takes place on a grid board. Each character gets a certain number of action points to either move, fight, use items or cast spells. If you hold a defensive position for example, you can actually shoot twice in a round.

And the area isn’t just flat either. There are bottlenecks through doorways and hallways to take advantage of. Sometimes, there are static defenses like turrets, sources of cover with varying strength to reduce the chance of being hit, and terminals that can be hacked to give you an advantage. The setting is quite interactive.

One of the coolest features about the Shadowrun Returns series is the capacity to have two separate yet connected fights going on at the same time: One in the real “meat” world, and one online called the Matrix. Certain missions revolve around your street samurai and magicians protecting a decker as he/she breaks into the building’s sub-net.

Fighting in the Matrix has its own quirks, from summoning special program allies, taking on guard protocols and trying to beat the “heat” a clock countdown that will summon defenses both online and off. The whole effect has a Return of the Jedi Battle of Endor feel to it, where one fight effects and is even dependent upon the other. Often, mutually.

Final Judgment . . .

While I want to brag about Dragonfall‘s fair price of only $15, the problem is that the game is technically a DLC, meaning you have to get the original Shadowrun Returns with the slightly less amazing campaign “Deadman’s Switch.” Maybe in the future, Harebrained Schemes will figure out how to branch off and release the game as an independent, standalone product with the Shadowrun Core libraries.

However, I can attest that overall, Dragonfall is an amazing RPG experience. It’s fun and rewarding, with an inspired story and campaign design that keeps things interesting. Unlike Mass Effect where we were given good vs bad choices until the end, Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall forces the player to really make hard, regrettable decisions that prompt great self reflection. It’s something you likely won’t see in AAA titles.

I already can’t wait to see what Harebrained Schemes cooks up next.

Titanfall

The Question: Is Titanfall Revolutionary?

Titanfall is long out and I’ve sat down with the game for six hours of play. For some reason, I think a lot of people haven’t quite heard about Titanfall. I almost ignored it myself. Now I’m glad I haven’t. The game consists of two sides, each with six pilots (players.) They fight it out over the map for various objects like any standard FPS. The catch is that a timer counts down for every player, and once it hits zero, the player can summon a Titan, a powerful but disposable mech, from the skies.

My only regret was not naming my Titan "Sloth" and my pilot "Chunk."

My only regret was not naming my Titan “Sloth” and my pilot “Chunk.”

Let’s start with the basics. If you have a PC with minimum specs, you really should upgrade or go for either of the XBox consoles. I have other games with identical minimal requirements and they look great, but I assure you that it’s not true of Titanfall.

When they say minimum, they mean it.

I have a Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT with 512 MB, and that has worked great for a lot of games for several years. With Titanfall, I can get it to run smoothly enough for game play, but the graphics look less than impressive during the shooting and downright horrid during many of the epilogue cut scenes.

We’re on the cusp of a new generation of games.This should be a surprise to no one.

But perhaps there’s something good about that. The 90s and the early years of 2000 were filled with questions about the importance of graphics to a game. Even today, all AAA titles require a warehouse full of artists to make it look great. Without oohing and awwing the visuals, I could only focus on the only thing that really matters. The game itself.

And it is damn good.

Many have made comparisons to other games. Mechwarrior, Call of Duty and Brink tend to be the biggest three I hear, combining elements of all three of these games into one.

From Brink, they took the parkour elements and perfected them. Respawn must have figured that getting this element right would satisfy the worries of fans who were burned by Brink. And it so drastically changes everything you think you know about FPS games. The most skilled players are constantly on the move. Dashing across walls, finding ways to play with your radar. Double jumping their way across rooftops and through buildings. Never before has looking up been so important. Each pilots gets three weapons, an ability and ordinance (explosive). The weapons include an anti-personnel weapon such as a rifle or shotgun, a sidearm (a pistol) and an anti-Titan weapon.

Then there are the mechs.

Rise of the Machines . . .

People make comparisons about the Titans to other fictional mechs. I’ve heard them compared to Landmates from the Appleseed series or good old Gundams. But in my opinion, the closest and most comparable examples have to be from Armored Troopers Votoms or Wanzers from Front Mission with just a dash of Zone of the Enders tossed in.

The Titans themselves are very dangerous, but far from unbeatable. Large, but not gigantic at about two stories tall. No built-in weapons but a hand held gun and an external mounted missile system. They’re fully capable of punching and smashing opponents, and sport up to three varieties of powerful shield systems. A Titan needs but walk over a player to step on them, killing the pilot instantly.

In Soviet Russia, Titan rides you! ... Not even joking.

“In Soviet Russia, Titan rides you!” … It’s only funny until they actually try.

But intriguingly, they’re disposable if they have to be. Sure, it’s not encouraged (or maybe it is, considering you earn a little experience for every Titan dropped… hm.) But it’s not like Zone of the Enders or Mechwarrior where losing your mech meant game over. Hell, Battletech (the name of the extended Mechwarrior universe) has a lore point called the dispossessed who are warriors who have lost their battlemech and are very unlikely to get a new one.

A Focus on What Matters . . .

One point I noticed got me thinking that Respawn is, first and foremost, a company of programmers over artists. Many shooting games have come to reward players with visual options like new outfits. Brink or Space Marine have done so. But as a result many of these games tended to only have male character models to the point of some controversy, and I suspect that having to make options for both men and women would be a large artistic undertaking.

But Titanfall doesn’t bother with it, instead giving you the option to choose between a male and female model for all classes and nothing more. Kudos to Respawn for letting the girls play. And I actually prefer it this way, as although some visual choice is a fine reward, I’d rather the focus and effort be on the game itself.

The jury is still out on the game's "doll collecting" feature aspect. This player, for one, doesn't look to happy about it.

The jury is still out on the game’s “doll collecting” feature. This player, for one, doesn’t look too happy about it.

A recent interview at IGN confirmed that it will be a long, long time before we ever see any new mech designs. Personally, I don’t care. And that’s far from a bad thing. The three Titans we got are very balanced. I never feel like there’s any model I cannot beat, whether suited up or on foot. Adding more models would be either a slight reshuffling of speed and durability, or adding a new feature or ability that risks destroying core game-play. That latter point is something they’ll likely have to do one day, probably in the sequel. For the time being, three is enough.

Psychology has to be the game’s best hallmark. Most of the time, game developers focus on creating a satisfying experience through the single player game, providing that play variety that keeps it from getting boring. Multiplayer games always run that risk of being tedious. But Respawn has made a breakthrough in cracking the play-variety code for multiplayer. What begins as man vs man becomes machine vs machine, and even man vs machine. When the mouse can beat the cat, things get interesting…

The Verdict . . .

I think all this brings us to our final question. Is Titanfall revolutionary? Sort of. In a sense, there’s absolutely nothing about Titanfall that hasn’t been done before. The parkour, the objectives, the story driven multiplayer elements, the mechs. Even the whole rodeoing, or jumping on and riding mechs, occurred in MechAssault 2 almost eight years ago.

Titanfall is a success not because it does anything new or innovative (it doesn’t), but simply takes a huge helping of elements from other games, blends them together and delivers them in a polished and balanced product. We’ve seen parkour and deep maps and mechs before, and on paper the combination sounds both awesome and a technical disaster.

But against the odds, it works wonderfully. Titanfall itself is not a revolution. It’s the murmuring discontent with the authorities, the resulting product of true gamers fatigued with the industry standard. People will play it and enjoy it, and they will compare it with games to come and know that there is something better out there. Titanfall is like the philosopher whose writing foretells a new way of thinking, who makes people less satisfied with the way things are and want more.

No, Titanfall is not a revolution… but it’s sure as hell going to start one.

March Reading List

No pictures for you today!

I’m still not finished with A Dance with Dragons… I’m somewhere around page 400 though. My greatest complaint about A Song of Ice and Fire is the sheer length of the individual novels tends to eat into time spent finishing other books. At roughly 1,000 pages a novel, one could polish off three novels in the time it takes to finish just one.

As such, I’m supplementing my reading list with a few mythological books of much shorter length, usually 100 to 200 pages.

Thus Spake Zarathustra - A kind of “must read” for me. I got passed the first part and had to put it down for a while. I’ll wrap it up shortly.

The Whitechapel Demon - 2014 is really shaping up to be the year of indie games. Don’t Starve, The Banner Saga and both Shadowrun Returns and its DLC Dragonfall have wowed me. As such, I’ve decided to expand my efforts to consume more indie and small press books too. That, and it’s hard to go wrong with Josh Reynolds.

Betrayer - I have badly, badly fallen behind on my Black Library readings. This is my first sincere attempt to catch up since White Scars. The rising cost of new Black Library titles is also prompting me to cut back a bit.

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Another as part of my effort to factor more non-fiction reading into my lists.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - A gift to me over Christmas. Really don’t know much about it.

The Lives of Tao - Same as above.

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe – I’ve been meaning to really catch up on some viking mythology so this may actually go up in the reading list if only because of its short length.

The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlusson – My boss actually came over and discussed this one with me when he saw it on my desk. Apparently it’s important reading but somewhat boring. We’ll see.

Water for Elephants - Because I need me some Americana.

Napoleon - By Felix Markham. I really should read more biographies given how much I loved the ones I read about Genghis Khan and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Yes, I’ve never read it though I am aware it’s one of the “must reads.” I’ll get around to it sometime soon.

It - I’ve written my fair share of horror, so it may sadden you to know that I’ve read nothing of Stephen King’s work. Time to change that.

Heroes Die (The Acts of Caine) - Recommended by a co-worker.

The Marchly Happenings

Monday night, I brewed my first pitch of mead with my buddy Dan. I opted for a very basic recipe of just honey with a kolsch beer yeast. The effort went with only one hitch: I couldn’t find the stopper for my fermentation lock. Fortunately, Dan had a spare I borrowed. If you’re reading this, thanks Dan.

I was forewarned that to make it great, it’ll have to sit once bottled for about 6 to 12 months. If I do this again, I’m going to get a smaller (say 3 gallon) carboy and do some experimentation with various yeasts. A lot of sites and people insist that wine yeasts are the way to go. Perhaps next time.

While we were waiting for a few odds and ends, Dan and took to watching episodes of Firefly. Something tells me that I’m going to constantly get, “Do you watch Firefly?” often in response to my most recent short story. I’m certainly enjoying the themes of the show, but every once in a while they kind of settle into a Bones like sense of whimsy.

During the last episode I watched, Christina Hendricks of Drive and Mad Men guest starred as a village girl who tricks our Captain Mal (Nathan Fillion) into marrying him. Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is desiring of this girl where as the captain is not, such that Jayne attempts to barter with the captain: A high powered, customized rifle for the doe eyed village girl.

You got to admit that pictures like this made the show look like some WB50 teen drama.

You got to admit that pictures like this made the show look like some WB50 teen drama.

I’m sure that anyone with an anti-slavery sentiment would be glad to know that our dear captain decidedly turned down Jayne’s awful offer, as well as pushed the girl to be independent and null the marriage. The offer was in the spirit of comic relief: not so much in the offer itself (if it had, it would have been in very bad taste), but because the offer was given following a tense, potentially violent moment between the captain and Jayne, followed by what would otherwise have been a commercial break (thank you, Netflix). It also served to highlight a moral difference between Jayne and Captain Mal, which relatively made Captain Mal look like a high angel.

I’m not entirely familiar with Joss Whedon’s work outside of The Avengers, truth be told. But I was left wondering how often he flirts with disaster. Done well, it makes for great fiction. But passion can be as blinding as anger if not guided. Based on his interview with the NY Times involving a cut scene involving Captain America and healthcare, it seems Whedon has the gift of discipline and moderation, knowing exactly when and where to draw the line.

Speaking of which, my thoughts turn to another show and drawing a line. Homeland. Currently, work is underway for season 4, but just about anyone who has seen the last three seasons knows that they’re at a great stopping point. Almost all the story threads have been closed and season 4 would have to be a reboot of the series under the same name and same characters/actors.

When I look at Homeland, I feel as though there was no forward thinking beyond season 3. There weren’t many new characters introduced, and no threat beyond Tehran. At this point, we’re getting a whole new show with the same name and likely the same characters.

When they wrote it, did they worry that they might be cancelled this season? Quite possibly. United States of Tara received several nominations and rewards and was well loved by critics before ultimately being cancelled.

Odds are against Homeland being good after this season. We’ll see.