18 June 2016

June status and writing side-effects

I was just checking my Goodreads records, and it says I've read 26 books so far this year (as we near the halfway point) and twenty of them were read before March (so six books between March and June).  By contrast, in 2011 I read 159 books in the year.

This is one of the big costs of writing for me - when I'm doing first drafts, I tend to stop reading.  It's too distracting.  I also tend to avoid whatever genre I'm writing, so I've read barely any fantasy (reserving what I do read to re-reads, graphic novels, or fave authors).  Mystery is a useful genre for me since I don't write it, and usually am more able to put it down and go back to what I'm working on.

Anyway, the lack of books read does indicate a lot of writing, and in a couple of weeks I'll be able to send all three stories for the 'side trip to France' off to be edited, and will start working fully on Snug Ship.  If I'm diligent, I should have three whole releases this year, which will be interesting!

Writing 'interstitial' stories is a new experiment for me.  I have a plot-line for the Trifold stories that will be covered in five books.  Stories in between the stories need to be worthwhile in themselves, and yet not substantially impact the main story, allowing the shorts to be optional.  Two Wings, Forfeit and Death and the Moon are all a combination of showing the reader France, and character stories where Griff, Rian and Eluned are all focused on 'who am I just now'.

But I enjoyed it!  I think I will do some more in between stories in Trifold - but not until Tangleways is done.

[Note that there is no story from Eleri's POV - she's a harder voice for me to capture.  Griff is very funny, though.]

30 May 2016

Interview with Intisar Khanani (Memories of Ash Release and Giveaway)

I admit, I first read Intisar Khanani's Sunbolt because her name reminded me of Inisar (the Nuran Setari).  I'm shallow that way. :)

I enjoyed Sunbolt thoroughly - it's a fast-paced novella about Hitomi, a street girl with a secret and a lot of trouble heading her way, and when I saw Intisar was releasing a sequel, Memories of Ash, I grabbed the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the world of Sunbolt, and her plans for the story's future.

So for fans of Intisar, and those hearing of her for the first time, here's a little background to a grand new world (and scroll all the way to the end of the post to enter a giveaway that includes a couple of my books!).

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Q: In Sunbolt you use elements that readers currently associate with paranormal/urban fantasy (vampires, weres) in a secondary world – but, of course, they have a long tradition in high fantasy as well.  Do you think there's more scope these days to do interesting things with well-known creatures in secondary worlds?

A: Absolutely. I think the advent of indie publishing has meant a freedom for authors try new things in a way that traditional publishing wouldn't have approved of--if for no other reason than that it would make it difficult to decide which shelf to put the book on. I think there's scope both for trying new things with well-known creatures in secondary worlds, and for bringing in cultures and their mythos and legends that have been traditionally ignored.

For example, in Sunbolt, both Hitomi and Kenta are from a culture that is built around historic Japanese culture. Further, Kenta is a tanuki--a raccoon dog known as both a trickster and a drunk in Japanese folk lore. As Hitomi continues to travel through the Eleven Kingdoms, she will meet with other cultures reminiscent of real-world historical cultures, as well as their attendant fantastical creatures.

The danger with this kind of approach, of course, is cherry-picking cultures for exotic elements. We see that happening in more than a few mainstream fantasy novels that claim the "diversity" label. It's unfortunate, because a culture is more than just a pair of chopsticks, or some unusual architecture, or a few key dishes--or that really cool fantasy creature. For example, jinn seem to be quite the thing nowadays, especially among authors who haven't researched them past the obvious. I find it incredibly frustrating as someone who grew up with stories of jinn and have lived in cultures that maintain a strong tradition of believing in--and even interacting with--jinn. So while there is definitely more scope for incorporating fantastical creatures in all different walks of fantasy, I do believe there's a responsibility on the part of the author to not only do their research, but to incorporate the diverse cultures they are drawing on as fully as possible in their works.


Q: Hitomi starts off her adventure as the classic streetwise orphan – but with established connections to the city's underworld.  Do you prefer your protagonists to have a strong social network, or face new beginnings with new people?


It really depends on the story and the character. In my novel, Thorn, the heroine is not only leaving everything she knows for a new land, but her identity is forcibly stolen from her along the way. She ends up without connections or support beyond a single, magical creature who witnessed the switch. Being on her own, and responsible for choosing her own fate, are critical in Thorn's development over the course of the story. So I guess I've already written both ends of the spectrum! I do really enjoy pulling characters out of their comfort zones and throwing them at a completely new situation. Even in Sunbolt, Hitomi is quickly pulled out of her social network to face some unpleasant situations on her own.


Q: Hitomi obviously has quite an adventure still ahead of her.  Do you have plans for other stories within Hitomi's world, or do you like to create a new world for new stories?

I really don't know... I love Hitomi's world, and have put a good deal of time and research into building it. I suspect I'll want to place other stories there, though I sincerely doubt there would be any overlap in timelines. But I haven't decided yet--I'm still just trying to get Hitomi's story down!

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Thank you, Intisar, for the interview, and best of luck with the new release!  See below for details of Intisar's books, and to enter in a giveaway for a selection of SFF books - and a Kindle Fire.


15 May 2016

Uncharted 4 (no spoilers)

Uncharted 4 is the conclusion to a long-running action/adventure series that's been around almost as long as Tomb Raider.  I passed over the series when it was originally released because it had a greater focus on gun fights than I'm generally interested in, but when the first three games were released as a remastered collection I played through them (on "I don't care about combat" mode) and enjoyed the spectacular scenery, the strong characterisation, and the cool lost cities.




Story-wise, I'd say Uncharted is stronger than Tomb Raider (both old and new) because it sets up a small cast of 'good' guys and plays off the interaction between them over multiple games.  Uncharted 4 thoroughly delivers on a strong adventure story (and, happily, gets away from the supernatural element that made the conclusions to the the first three games feel...kinda repetitive).  There are two things pulling the story along - Nate's (previously unmentioned) brother, and the conflict between marriage/going straight and an in-born love of adventure.



It was the second point that worried me going into this story, and early on it seemed that my concerns would be realised, with Elena functioning as almost an 'anchor' keeping Nate from the stuff he loves.  Overall, though, I think the game managed to find a good resolution to the problem, and as a series I think it treats female characters reasonably well.


For gameplay (ignoring the gun fights, which still don't much interest me), this was a really well-balanced puzzler, mainly involving trying to figure out how to climb things, or survive buildings (inevitably) collapsing around Nate.  One thing that really stands out as a huge step forward was the companion interaction.  Nate has a companion with him at least half the time, and instead of passively waiting about, the companion will wander around, inspect things, kill the occasional thug, try out different climbing routes - sometimes even taking the lead - and make helpful suggestions if you spend too long faffing about.


Most of all, there was scenery.  Just, freaking awesome scenery.  And wondrous and completely unlikely ruins, soon to be recklessly destroyed by Nate, his friends and opponents - none of whom seem to understand that an object doesn't need to be made of gold to be valuable.


The one thing the game lacked was Chloe (a kick-ass lady from earlier games), but I guess you can't have everything.


23 April 2016

Goetia

Goetia is a point and click puzzle game where you play a glowing ball of light that rises up from the grave of a girl named Abigail, and spend your time trying to work out what happened to Abigail's family, and why Abigail's family home is abandoned.


Being a glowing ball of light has its advantages - you can pass through walls, for a start, though you soon encounter walls with demonic shields.  And a demon.

This is an eerie, interesting and enjoyable game that will give between five to infinity of gameplay, depending on how good you are at puzzles, or how quickly you give in and cheat.  It's a hard game, with no handy arrows pointing to where you should go next, but mostly logical puzzles that you can solve with a bit of work.  I was very proud of myself for solving the typewriter translation!  I cheated ruthlessly in other parts!

Recommended to fans to spooky point and click.

18 March 2016

Story status, and the Line between Appropriation and Erasure

I'm currently still working on The Towers of the Moon, the small collection of short stories in the Trifold world (showing what happens on the trip to France in between Pyramids and Tangleways).

I am so not a short story writer.

By which I mean I have so far written a novelette (Two Wings) and am halfway through a novella (Forfeit).  Then there should be an actual short story (possibly called The Queen of Hades if I don't outright call it Ned's First Kiss).

I started thinking about stories set in France while in Paris in 2014, walking along the Seine getting a feel for the landscape and wondering what would France look like in a world where local gods 'Answered' their people, effectively protecting and preserving many cultures that have been erased in our world?  Would it be steampunk Asterix and Obelix?

Okay, I never seriously considered steampunk Asterix and Obelix, but I would pay to see some concept art.

In the end, I chose for the gods of France to not Answer.  France instead was invaded - briefly by Rome, and then the people of the "Green Aesir" (which is what I've been calling the Germanic gods who are very very similar to the Nordic gods) - and later by the Cour d'lune, which are "sort of low gravity Fae dragon people", and don't call themselves gods at all.

Basically, I erased both France's true past, and her early cultural history, and replaced it with an invention of my own.

Writing the Trifold series - any alt-myth series - requires many decisions regarding appropriation and erasure.  I've been thinking this over lately after reading numerous thoughtful essays about JK Rowling's "History of Magic in Northern America", which appears to have involved conflation of multiple different traditions and beliefs.  The essays ask (or state an opinion on) whether it is ever okay to 'mine' other cultures for their beliefs in order to write fantasy.

Now I'm Swedish on my father's side, and Swedish/Danish/Scotch/French/English on my mother's side.  But mainly Australian.  I would not feel at all comfortable embarking on a series that used Australian Aboriginal cultures and beliefs as a basis - the closest I've come to that was a short story, Blue, that positioned the POV character as an outsider who is "welcomed to country" (a tradition that has grown up in Australia to acknowledge that we occupy a land stolen from its peoples).

But while I am not very French, my great-grandfather was.  Does that make France 'open season' for me?  I was born in Sweden: is Loki mine?  If a people runs around invading other countries and attempting to imprint its culture onto the locals (as Rome did), does that make their culture mine?  I'm using the Latin-based alphabet to write this blog, after all.  Half my language is based on Rome's.

And what of Hades?  Can I mine Greek myths, since Rome's gods apparently were rather strongly copied from Greek gods, just with judicious tweaks and renaming?  If I've had Rome's gods Answer, does that mean they're really the Hellenic gods?  And who gets to play in the traditions of Egypt, whose cultural disconnect was so complete that the language was lost - and yet Egypt is surely populated with the descendents of the people of Kemet.

At one point when thinking this through during the drafting of Pyramids I started wondering whether an alt-world/alt-myth series was really a good idea.  Or, at the least, whether I should confine the story very strictly to Sweden and England.  But that's a different form of erasure.  How could I start with our world, with its thousands of cultures, and only ever mention two?  That seemed rather the worse route to take.

The end result is a story that is primarily focused around cultures that I have some connection to, choosing to include cultures that have been part of the 'primary interchange' in Europe (eg. the Hellenes) while acknowledging that there is so much more world out there, and providing an outline of its shape.

This involves a heap of extra research.

The Trifold version of North America, for example, is called Stomruria (at least by the Norse, and the people who were first told about the place by the Norse).  For a book that does not mention that continent at all, I spent a lot of time researching First Nation tribal boundaries and beliefs, all because I wanted to acknowledge the place existed, and give a tiny glimpse of that vast continent by the inclusion of a Wabanaki fencing master (Wabanaki being a country in north-eastern Stomruria).

I don't intend for my characters to visit Stomruria at all in the series, but to write in this world at a point where all the continents are known and interacting with each other, I had to have some idea whether Stomrurian gods had Answered, which of them had Answered, what impact that had had on tribal boundaries, what those boundaries would be after a millenia or so, and what they would call themselves.

There isn't a way to get an alt world 'right'.  Not being completely, immensely, insultingly wrong involves much side-reading.  But I now know (or have at least read - my memory sucks) the names of many African kingdoms that I never knew existed.  I know which side of a continent 'Thunderbird' belongs to.  I now know about the Lady of Yue and her influence on the art of the sword.

Trying not to be insultingly wrong is a reward in itself.

06 February 2016

The Sleeping Life


Back in 2010, I was halfway through writing The Sleeping Life when I decided to embark on self-publishing my backlist, so I set it aside and distracted myself thoroughly in other worlds.  It's a pleasure to come back to this one - although, typically, by the time I had reached the end of this I had thought of at least three other stories I'd like to write in this world!  TOO MANY BOOKS TO WRITE!

The cover, as many of you probably already know, is by Julie Dillon (and is so gorgeous).

Anyway, for my blog readers, here are Smashwords 50% off coupon codes not only for TSL, but for SGM if you don't have it already.  Although TSL is technically a self-contained plot, it is so bound up in the aftermath of SGM that I really don't recommend trying to read it as a standalone.  The coupons are good until 14 February.

Stained Glass MonstersFE73P
The Sleeping LifeVY77R

Fallon DeVries has a sister who lives only in his mind.  Paying the price of magic gone wrong, Aurienne is trapped watching a world she cannot touch, only able to communicate with her brother while he sleeps. And it's slowly killing him. Fallon and Auri's best chance of untangling their lives is to win the help of a mage of unparalleled ability. But how can they ask for help when the warped spell prevents him from speaking? Besides, Rennyn Claire - once the most powerful mage in the world - is a shadow of her former self: ill, injured and unlikely to recover unless she can hunt down the monster who once tried to make her his slave. But that Wicked Uncle is nowhere to be found, and other dangers, once slumbering dormant, are stirring...

Buy Links (I'll update as I receive them):

Amazon US, UK, AU, DE, FR

Survey results and prize winners

Well, as the publication of The Sleeping Life rapidly approaches, it's time to draw the winners of the survey competition!  And the random number generator says: 3 and 55!

Congrats Nina and Kelsey!  Emails will be wending their way to you shortly.

I had plenty of fun reading all the survey results. I totally recommend to other authors that they ask their readers for their favourite moments/re-readable moments in your books, because so many of them are my favourite moments as well. :D

The answer to question 1 was totally unsurprising.



My fave is still Stained Glass Monsters. :D  But also, usually, whatever I'm writing at the moment, in between hating it.  There is always a "Wow, this is so much better than I thought" stage in re-reading a book you've recently written - while the current chapter is always The Worst Thing Ever.

Not long at all now before I can put up links to TSL!  Then onward, ever onward, to all the new books I decided I wanted to write while working on this one.

Edit: Expanding this post as requested to include a few more results.

Fave POV Character: Cass by a long way, but Medair, Ash and Rian also gained a fair number of votes.

Fave Non-POV Character: Kaoren, Aristide, Maze, Ys, Illukar and Illidian.

Story Element: Evenly scattered among categories I've already been writing, with some preference to not go in for too much smut.

Fanfic suggestions:
A lot of fun stuff here, including:
- Arden Ruuel falls in love.
- Daily life fluff.
- Setari School Stories.
- How Fish and Maddie managed to get together.

Fave moment:
My favourite question!
- Lots of people liking that elevator encounter. :)
- The scene where Rennyn calls the lifestealer.
- The crypt in Silence of Medair.
- Thornaster laughing himself into hiccups.
- Trolling the Secret War actors.
- Dragon conjuring!
- 80% mark on And All the Stars.

Looking forward to:


30 January 2016

January 2016 status

The Sleeping Life is off in edits, and unless some gigantic issue turns up I expect it to be out by the end of next week.  This was an interesting book for me - another of my morality of mages pieces, noodling around at the kinds of mages people can become.  Not something I can imagine being commercially published.

Up next should be a couple of short stories set in the Trifold Age universe, and then...well, so many novels to write, and I'm sure as hell not going to get all that I hoped to out this year.  I'll be working on Tangleways and Snug Ship, and probably a third unnamed project that I had to stop myself writing during TSL.

24 December 2015

Fallout 4 (some spoilers)

Fallout is one of the major game franchises that passed me by - primarily because I'm a hard sell on shooters, though the Fallout series did have more of a reputation for story than most others.  It's also what's known as a 'sandbox' game, which usually means there's a ton you can do, and a thousand different paths to get there.  It's a rare sandbox game that doesn't exhaust me long before the main quest ends (eg. Skyrim).

Fallout 4: There is no massive moon hanging in the sky in the actual game.
Still, I picked up Fallout 4 at least in part because of the slick graphics, and because of the positive reviews.  And also because of some of the cartoons going around showing the character creation process, where you get to design both yourself and your spouse (though cannot choose the gender of your spouse - and, minor nitpick, the child waiting in the next room does not appear to reflect any of the appearance changes you might make [though I've heard that the appearance is supposed to be generated according to the parental appearance]).

[I spent as much time working on my spouse's appearance as my own, even though I knew that character would die before the game got really started.  Not such a waste of time, since I had multiple opportunities to visit the corpse, or watch him die in flashbacks.]

Dressing for success in the post apocalypse. Lucky there's plenty of laundry cleaner scattered about.
Starting at the fourth game in series isn't a big bar to new players, since each of the Fallout games starts with a new character (dubbed "the Lone Wanderer"), who emerges from a vault after a nuclear war that has devastated a fission-tech Earth around 2077 (an alt-reality that seems to be going for a Stepford Wives vibe).  In Fallout 3 I gather you start the game as a child born in a shelter, but Fallout 4 adds a twist of cryo-storage and you go through a brief starting sequence of your family being frozen in their shelter, your character waking briefly to see their child stolen and their partner murdered, then frozen again before being properly released.

The double-freezing leads to an obvious twist, though there is a nicely-done fakeout in relation to your search for your stolen child.  However, long before you get anywhere near your child's trail, you must deal with "the Commonwealth" (set around the ruins of Boston), where the law has almost completely fractured following the fall of the Minutemen.  They are the first of four factions you encounter and you can choose to help out, and start re-establishing protected settlements (and get lost in an entire side-game of clunkily building houses, decorating them, and setting up defences and supply lines).

The other factions are the Brotherhood of Steel (basically a variation of Nazis, always talking about purity and wanting to kill off everything not-quite-human), the Institute (a shadowy super-tech place which everyone in the Commonwealth is convinced is, for some reason, replacing people with replicants called synths), and the Railroad (a group dedicated to helping synths escape the Institute).

On the whole, I found Fallout 4 to be compulsively playable - tons of little quests, and a landscape seething with life.  I racked up between 4 and 5 full days played before I completed the main quest line and decided 'no more' (there is scope for continuing on with minor quests near-indefinitely).  At the same time, I didn't find the main quest particularly compelling - especially once you get to meet with the Institute.  Part of that is, I think, because I didn't find the Institute leader's actions at all believable (ludicrous, in fact).  There is also very little option to try to convince any of these factions to change their views, even when some of the leader's actions in particular suggest he's not nearly so firm on the major divisive issue as his words would suggest.

There are a ton of potential companions - so many I didn't even find them all - and the companion quest lines, unsurprisingly, are some of the more interesting segments of the game - and the voice acting overall there is just fabulous.  My faves were Dogmeat (the iconic german shepherd companion, who is just glad to be around you - I felt bad every time I swapped him out as a companion), Hancock and Nick Valentine.

D'aww!

The game is also swimming in bugs (some of them shoot streams of maggots at you, but the rest just mess with the gameplay).  Most don't cause major issues, but it's worth saving frequently.

Recommended for: anyone who has several weeks free, and doesn't have a book they're supposed to be writing.

17 December 2015

Star Wars: The Parallels Awaken. So many parallels (but no spoilers)

First, yes, very good movie.  Much fun, high pace, some tears, lots of awesome.  Star Wars as a series has a real thing about spaceship adoration, and spaceship adoration definitely gets lots of love.

As the post title suggests, there are a _ton_ of parallels, of similar events from the first movie happening to different people, but it's done very well.  Rey is all kinds of awesome, and I especially love her 'girl engineer' aspects, and where that leads her in terms of emotional resonance.  Finn is a great big sweetheart, and while I don't think Finn/Poe is where they're going, they totally should (though perhaps give Poe a little more plot-time so he gets to have a personality as well as a jacket).

I only have a couple of negatives.  First, could have done with more Leia and more Phasma.  Second, Kylo Ren's parallel is from the prequels, which is not a good thing: here's someone we're supposed to see in conflict, but instead we (or at least I) mainly saw a fairly stupid, temperamental jerk.

But still, definitely already looking forward to the next one, and especially finding out the things about Rey that we didn't find out in this movie. Will rewatch when it comes to TV.

08 December 2015

'Truly alien' aliens

One of the things I very commonly come across in SFF discussion is someone saying that the aliens/werewolves/angels/other things are 'truly alien' or 'look and behave just like humans', where one is a compliment and the other criticism.

Every time I come across this sort of thing, I stumble.  Not because I don't get what they're saying, but I wonder what boundaries they're intending to draw.

What makes an alien 'alien'?  While 'does not look human' is an obvious thing, here's my cat Cinnamon.  She doesn't look particularly human either.  Does that make her 'alien'?




Cinnamon and I are not much alike. She likes racing madly up and down corridors, scratching things, and has a magnificent twitch reflex should a string move suspiciously anywhere in her field of view.  She eats stuff that would make me vomit.  She has no command of English, though she's a rather verbal cat, and won't hesitate to meow loudly until her humans try to guess what she wants.  She isn't into computer games or reading.

And yet Cinnamon and I and thousands of other creatures are very alike.  Earth itself is full of things not so very unlike Cinnamon, and yet all theoretically different from each other.  All of them share a drive to reproduce (or, well, we wouldn't know about their species at all).  All seek food of some sort, and an ideal environment.  The more complex ones generally exhibit fear, aggression, curiosity, play and something that at least appears to humans as affection.  I don't think anyone is arguing that 'aliens' could not exhibit these qualities.

But these are animals, and not at the intelligence level of the type of alien that SFF readers are talking about – a being that would be able to communicate effectively with humans if given access to language lessons and whatever mechanical aids might be necessary, while remaining 'truly alien'.

I think we can effectively divide aliens into 'physically similar to humans' and 'have a strong dissimilarity to humans'.  Cat-ancestry people, for instance, might claw stuff and have a tendency to pounce, but they're still mammals, with live births, milk feeding, and the food-in/poop-out process.  Then you have, say, the 'piggies' from Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead (where reproduction is…different from the standard mammalian process) but otherwise these are creatures that exhibit a similar range of drives and emotions to humans.  Thirdly the 'completely different' – living rocks, or energy beings that have little to no concept of many human physical experiences – but could still presumably produce fear, aggression, curiosity, play, affection.  No-one is arguing that 'truly alien' aliens must not have emotion, or biological imperatives.  If you don't go in for large physical differences, a lot of what people point to as 'alien' seems to be "non-Western culture" – and if you got into the alien's POV, they would read very much as humans of a different culture.

Different cultures are very interesting!  Altered experiences caused by physical differences are also very interesting!  But surely we're not arguing that beings with cultural and physical differences are intrinsically non-human.

Cognative differences takes us into more complex territory.  Humans have cognative differences too, and I'm sure no-one who is talking about "alien aliens" means to say that non-neurotypical humans are 'alien'.  Where does the line get drawn?  We have humans with synesthesia.  We've seen robots depicted with depression, or aliens who in theory have no concept of lying, or don't understand death or love or friendship.  And, to be honest, most of this latter type of 'alien' reads as extrapolated concepts to me, constructed to create a plot.  I am vastly, vastly more inclined to believe that if we somehow overcome the echoing hollows of space and stumble across a few intelligent alien species…we'll get a bunch of creatures that look an awful lot like Earth creatures – and probably act like them as well.  Aliens because 'not from here', and with some physical differences, and big cultural differences, and not 'truly alien aliens' at all.

What do you all think?  If we started planet-hopping, would you be all that surprised to find mammals?  Cats?  Bipeds with roguish grins, a taste for scotch, and a nice line in leather jackets?  At what point do you throw up your hands and cry: "These aliens may as well be human!"?

03 December 2015

5 Years!

On 1 December 2010 I published Champion of the Rose and The Silence of Medair (on the same day, to make the question of 'my first book' a matter of some quibbling).  While it would have been a nice bit of symmetry to publish The Sleeping Life this month, it looks like it's going to be a late January-at-earliest publication.

However!  I can still celebrate five years of being published, and as always enjoying writing and having people read my books, and even saying nice things. :)  I doubt I'll hit full-time author status any time this decade, but I'll definitely continue to put out one to two books per year just because I really like doing it. [And commissioning art for them. ;) ]

A giveaway is definitely in order - my entire back catalogue, plus my upcoming The Sleeping Life in whichever format you prefer (TPB or ebook), when TSL finally releases.  [If you have all my books, you can name a character instead!]

This time I'll combine it with a fun survey (well, fun for me).

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NFMS5YB

You can fill in the survey without entering to win (or enter without filling in the rest of the survey), and the competition will remain open until the day before release (whenever, sigh, that happens to be) is closed now.

Thanks so much everyone for reading me!  Whenever I'm feeling down about my writing or suffering from self-publisher's chip, all I have to do is read the wonderful reviews, comments and fan mail I've received these past five years and bask. :D

22 October 2015

Life is Strange (all the spoilers)


Life is Strange is a recently-concluded Square Enix game set in a US high school where our girl photographer protagonist Max discovers her powers of time-reversal and embarks on a journey of choose-your-own adventure and then erase that choice and choose again if you don't like the outcome.  I played the first episode of this some time ago and set the game aside because I'm not overly keen on playing through the teen experience of bullying and girls-as-victims of violence themes that the game seemed to focus on.

 
 
But plot curiosity is one of my traits – and since I'd already purchased the full series, I picked the game up again after episode 3's release.
 
The game is a type becoming more common: small to no combat (LiS has none), similar to visual novel games where you follow a primary plot while impacting secondary outcomes (how other characters feel about you, usually), with all those choices ultimately deciding which "endings" are available to you (often ranged from 'best ending', 'good ending' and 'bad ending').  These games are also increasingly broken up into a number of chapters, where at the end of each chapter you get a summary of the major choices, and a breakdown of what percentage of players made what choice.

 
 

LiS has many positives.  It's visually lovely, and the photography works nicely to make the player look at the world in even more detail.  It's well-scripted (the teens mostly talk like teens), well-acted, and has few dull or dragging sections.  If you're looking for a game that grips you by the feels and hauls, then you'll find this is a game that pulls you all the way under.
 
My initial qualm about the game – that of not really enjoying situations of female victimhood – is fulfilled in the final episode with a truly unpleasant visit to the "Dark Room".  But it's the final decision of the game that has me continuing to think about the game.  [Don't read on unless you're happy to be completely spoiled on this game.  Also note that this is a game that definitely warrants several trigger warnings in relation to bullying, abuse and suicide.]

 
LiS starts out with Max returning to her home town of Arcadia Bay to attend Blackwell Academy – particularly the class of a prestigious photographer, the hipster-cool Mr Jefferson.  Like many schools it has problems with bullying, of privileged and non-privileged students – and it's plastered with posters of a missing girl, Rachel Amber.
 
During class one day Max has a strange vision of climbing to a lighthouse during a tornado.  After class, a trip to the bathroom (and the inevitable butterfly-effect allusion) leads her to witness the school rich kid, Nathan, meet with a blackmailing, blue-haired girl – who he promptly accidentally shoots and kills.
 
Wanting to stop this event leads Max to discover she can rewind time, and she ends up back in her classroom, right after she'd had her vision of a tornado.  Naturally, she sets out to "fix things" by saving the mysterious blue-haired girl from being shot – doing so by setting off the fire alarm.
 
Max now has a dilemma – she knows that Nathan has a gun and is seemingly spiralling out of control – but she also has brand new rewind powers.  Unfortunately, Nathan's now suspicious of her, and confronts her in the car park, only to be foiled by a quick getaway in the truck of the blue-haired girl, who turns out to be Max's nearly-unrecognisable childhood friend, Chloe Price.
 
Where Max is shy and a little nerdy, Chloe is brash, rule-breaking and defiant – considerably changed from the girl Max knew.  Much of this change is put down to the death of Chloe's father shortly before Max's parents moved from Arcadia Bay: Chloe has been acting out from a sense of abandonment, her anger exacerbated by her mother's remarriage to an all-rules-and-lectures security officer, and then the disappearance of the friend who was helping her get through it all, Rachel Amber.
 
The relationship between Max and Chloe is the core of LiS.  Max's guilt and Chloe's anger play off each other as they renegotiate their friendship, and try to investigate Rachel's disappearance while dealing with the various crises that arise from a dysfunctional school – the bullying frenemy Victoria, the fragile Kate, the wants-to-be-more-than-friends Warren.  Max, with the advantages of time reversal, can help or hinder her fellow students, can accept or fail to notice Warren's romantic overtures, can uncover the spying tendency of Chloe's "step-douche", David, and anger – or kiss - Chloe.  There's a lot of joy in this section, this connection between two friends, but a couple of flies in the soup as well: Chloe is in debt, she's angry, she's messed up, and she's occasionally willing to throw Max under the bus for her own benefit.  But then, Chloe's had a dark few years, and Max's return is helping.

 




It's not until Kate attempts to commit suicide that Max really hits the limits of her power.  She can reverse time enough to try to talk Kate down, but she can't reverse it so far as to undo all the little choices and decisions that will make the difference between succeeding and failing.
 
Many players are unable to save Kate – an event so upsetting that quite a few players replayed previous chapters in order to be able to succeed – something that Max is unable to do – until she can.  Or, at least, Max discovers her time-travel abilities have expanded to travelling to any point of time in the past that's been captured in a photograph.
 
Naturally Max immediately travels back to "fix" the major event that seemed to cause so many problems: the death of Chloe's father.  And it works!  She visits the past, prevents a car accident, and returns to a future where Chloe's dad is still alive – and Chloe had a car accident instead, is paralysed, and dying, as her parents drown in medical-bill debt.  This is where the player might feel that the game universe is being a little unfair, as Max has to choose between undoing her "fix", and killing her best friend.  She chooses the friend, of course (not something players can alter), and the timeline reverts to the angry Chloe fixated on finding her missing friend.
 
Here the investigation steps up, but with a suggestion of a major cost.  Weird stuff is happening around town – snow in summer, whale beachings, doubled-moons – not to mention those persistent visions of a mega-tornado, and a clear physical toll on Max.  The story presses on, uncovering the truth about Rachel Amber – and the reasons for Kate's distress, and who is the bad person behind all this, which culminates in Chloe's sudden, shocking murder, and a not-at-all pleasant scene at the beginning of the final part of the game, where all players everywhere really want Mr Jefferson to just shut the fuck up, and Max is frantic to escape and go back and stop Chloe from being killed.
 
Which she does.  But here we hit the real consequence.  Messing with time, as heavily foreshadowed, carries a storm of a price.  Max's mental situation starts to fragment, as we spin through possible alternate realities – or perhaps simply nightmares – until finally she – and the players – are faced with one final choice: go back and undo the first change, the one that set this all off, or watch the entire town be wiped out by a no-warnings tornado.  Let Chloe die, or destroy the town.
 
In other words, this game doesn't have a "good" ending.  This is a game where you kill the person you have spent the entire game trying, in one way or another, to save, or you become a mass murderer.  Where you kill fragile Kate, sitting in her hospital room.  Where you kill Chloe's mother.  Where you kill Warren, the science-boy who was so eager to play White Knight for you.  Where you kill Victoria, the frenemy you ended up kinda on-side with.
 
Where you kill babies.
 
And here's where those end-of-chapter choice statistics become fascinating.  Because (last time I looked) in this lose-lose situation, 50% of players save the town.  50% save the girl.
 
I'm hard-wired in the former camp: the Mr Spock camp, so to speak.  You don't kill hundreds of innocent people to save one, no matter who they are, no matter how much you care.  You don't kill babies.
 
So I, the player, watched Chloe's funeral, and cried quite a bit.  Then I turned to ever-useful YouTube to watch the alternate ending, where two friends – horrified, exhausted, stunned - drive out of town through the wreckage, leaving behind nothing but rubble and corpses.  Together at any price.
 
[I have to wonder if Chloe's surname isn't a coincidence.]
 
Anyway – an unusual, powerful and complex game.  I don't think it's an entirely fair dilemma – there was no option to let the storm hit but do your best to evacuate the town, for instance.  I also think that there's a mild logic issue with why Max's power woke at all – she didn't even know it was Chloe being shot, at first, and wasn't nearly so powerfully bound up in saving her until after they reconnected.  So why did the time-bending power waken?  But I still like how this ended, I like this choice between loss and being (basically) a villain.  And it says something for the sheer charisma of Chloe, the power of the friendship (or potential romantic relationship, if you followed that course), that so many players will choose the one over the many.
 
[Note: the game skirts into ableism in the alternate timeline (this skates by because Chloe is not only disabled, but a few months short of death, so the message that being paralysed is worse than anything is leavened).  Nor is the story's handling of David (does very iffy things, but ultimately forgiven because well-meaning troubled vet) entirely unproblematic.  Because Chloe is also fairly clearly signalled as a lesbian, the game also falls into the "tragic queer" territory.]

05 October 2015

Until Dawn (mild spoilers)

The point where I lost interest in Until Dawn was well over halfway through the game - after the First Reveal, and the Explanation Point.  At this point, the four characters I had not yet failed to keep alive (because you can, theoretically, keep all your characters alive in this survival horror game) have been told Just How Bad It Is and (mild spoiler) leave relative safety for, so far as I can tell, very little reason.


No, actually, it was when three of them (travelling in a group) not only bring no weapons, but they split up without hesitation.  And I just stopped caring.

The mechanics of the game are, in themselves, quite playable.  None of the teens in this teen slasher flick game are necessarily going to die.  They do, however, have multiple opportunities to die, depending on your branching choices, and your ability to hit triangle-circle-square in quick time action sequences.  NOT acting at certain times is also critical for survival - something that the game exploits, since you become very punchy about hitting buttons as soon as they're signalled on screen when that's usually the one thing keeping you alive.

The story is pretty par for the course for a teen slasher story - not very interesting in itself - and the characters are quite clearly deliberate stereotypes: jock, slut, sweet guy, geek guy, geek girl, bitch, dork-bro and ingenue.  It was fairly hard to like any of them (caught as you are between bland and deliberately off-putting).  Though I ended up very sympathetic toward Emily (the bitch) just because she went through _so much_.  After all the extended awfulness she survived (and apparently she has at least twice as many opportunities to die as the ingenue) I'm kinda glad I stopped before accidentally killing her.

If you can put up with the idiocy that killed the game for me during the end game build-up, then gamers might enjoy Until Dawn for the sheer challenge of not getting anyone killed (I don't even know what I did to get the first one killed), and seeing how the dynamics of certain scenes play out if more characters have survived to be present.

I was also quite interested in how close to crossing the uncanny valley we're getting, at least in the pause-scene close-ups of character faces, where many of the tiny movements of a living face have been mapped, making them look eerily alive.  Not so strong in the full-body playable scenes, but I was impressed otherwise.
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