Flames of Solsgard

I’ve published a new book! Or at least it’s going to to be published very shortly. You can pick it up on preorder on Kindle before it releases on November 3, and there’s an already-available paperback version (you’ll need to be shopping through the US or UK site to see that though).

Flames of Solsgard is a short story collection that follows Talmere, a weathered guardian of Vaeland whose renown with his spear is almost as far-reaching as his rune-lore is secretive. Conquest has brought foes across the borders of his homeland. His duty is to his people.

Bullet Train

Silence. Astounding speed. Sheer, absolute calm.

100,000 kilometers to target.

The engineer pressed a button on his suit. Magnetic slivers on the center of his suit began, slowly, to reverse. The effect was two-fold: first, the color of his suit started to change from black to white. Second, the altered polarity reacted to the magnetic tunnel the engineer was traversing.

90,000. 80,000. 70,000. 65,000. 60,000.

More slivers joined the first strip, and the polarization started to spread out in a less linear – but still highly methodical – progression. Miniscule, spread-out changes presented minimal risk of injury to the high-velocity engineer.

The engineer’s eyes passed briefly across the view. While impressive for the first few hours, panoramas in space eventually lost their astounding charm. The stars were as beautiful as they were unexciting and constant. Planets looked more or less the same this far into nothingness. Smaller details of anything were indiscernible at such speeds. His eyes flicked back to his helmet’s screen overlay. The last information the station had relayed before sending him out was tagged red and locked at the top corner of the display. Anomalous vibration from left track of inward line. Cable slack at 0846 Earth GMT. Assigned engineer KL-33 to locate anomaly and repair if feasible, else commencing reel at 2030 Earth GMT.

KL-33 checked the time – 1858 Earth GMT – and then the distance again. 45,000 kilometers to target. A red light blinked on his right glove. The proximity light. KL-33’s eyes widened in horror. He flipped the safety off his brake button and slammed his whole gloved fist into it.

All the technology in the universe couldn’t have saved him – alone in a one-man space suit – from blacking out.

With magnetic protestation, his suit balanced itself in the magnetic field at 84% white and 16% black. He came to a complete stop. The top right of his display showed 43238.01868 kilometers. The proximity sensor on his glove remained lit.

After KL-33’s heart rate had slowed sufficiently, his suit recognized that he was unconscious, and delivered a quick pulse through him. A soft warning tone hummed in his ears as he regained consciousness.

He looked around. He told himself that it was too far from the target, and after checking that he was in no immediate danger, he very nearly resumed his trip. Then he saw the train.

The inward and outward lines were set two kilometers apart, and for good reason. Both were built out of thick cable, two tracks each, and had chair-sized magnets implanted at regular intervals in them at a forward angle. If the lines were too close, their opposing magnets would latch onto each other. The trains themselves were designed with loops on both sides of the front three sections. The track cables ran through these. Only the foremost section – nicknamed the engine simply because drivers and crew sat there – would actually be magnetized during travel; this helped avoid conflict if a carriage were to sway even slightly. The rear section was equipped for braking only, but relied on electromagnets to do so. Emergency brakes lined the entire train.

From KL-33’s perspective, though, one thing was immediately apparent: the train was almost completely horizontal. The tail end of the train was what had set off his proximity sensor – it was tugging at the magnets of the outward line KL-33 had traversed. The train wasn’t long enough to bridge the gap completely, but tug it did.

And all the lights were out.

KL-33 then noticed that the train was still moving. The front was nosing forward at an agonizing – he did a burst of arithmetic in his head – roughly 200 kilometers per hour. Judging from the train’s distance from his target point, the tail’s magnetism must have been slowing it for quite some time. At its current speed, the train wouldn’t reach Mars for another 5,600 days at least. Trains were usually equipped for a few months at best.

Then he caught a clear glimpse of the front of the train. It was thoroughly wrapped in track cable. The magnets had latched onto the carriage somehow. That meant that one of the cables had come loose or snapped somehow. With the lack of magnetic balance, it was no wonder the tail had swung out so far.

With his suit magnets balanced, KL-33 slowly pulled himself over to the line at his left – closest to the train – and wrapped his arms around it. He shifted his way around to the outside of the magnetic field, and adjusted his suit to cope with the change in polarity. Then he ran another calculation, lined himself up with the tail of the train, and pulled a trigger at his side.

A chemical reaction licked briefly out of a pack strapped to his back, and propellant sent him floating sluggishly toward the tail of the train. As he neared it, the magnets started to tug at him and pull him in faster. He compensated for the pull to avoid heavy impact.

When he connected to the tail of the train, he polarized his boots to allow himself to walk along the carriage. In this manner, he made his way to the nearest service hatch. He ensured no one was inside the transition chamber, then flipped open an engineer access panel and dialed a lock override for the outer door. The hatch slid open. KL-33 swung down inside, closed the hatch above him, initiated atmospheric restoration, ran quick verification that the air was safe, and slowly detached and removed his helmet. The carriage was empty of life.

The panels worked fine; the train appeared to be in working order. His wrist panel told him that the power levels were steady. He turned the train’s internal lights back on.

KL-33 went to the door to the next carriage and opened it. The first passenger carriage. The scene before him starkly contrasted from the one behind him; there were people in this carriage, and they were a mess. Blood, bones, and clothes formed a sickening heap on the forward-left side. Most would probably not be physically recognizable ever again. Nothing moved.

KL-33 staggered and squeezed his eyes shut. This was caused by the train’s sudden stop. There were supposed to be safeties for this kind of thing. Procedures. Knowing that those must have been in place on the vessel (the inter-planetary rail service was implacably strict) didn’t ease KL-33’s stomach. He took a deep breath and another step forward.

For the briefest of moments, a tiny eye blinked at him. His skin crawled. His heart battered his ribs. His mind flicked back to all the science-fiction he had read over the years, and he wished he had a weapon. Then he spotted the eye – a CCTV camera – and breathed again.

One of the twin chairs had a holographic board still switched on. A chess game. White’s turn. Four moves from white claiming check-mate, KL-33 noticed – if the player was cunning enough. He re-evaluated. No, not four. A single move. He considered making the move, to help settle his mind, but decided that the unfinished game might accommodate his mind better than the pile of corpses. He swallowed, and took another deep breath. He needed to find the train’s security footage.

He briefly disabled the gravity compensation in the carriage, then gently pushed aside the sticky compilation of what seemed to be the remains of three passengers to clear the doorway to the next carriage. He returned gravity to the train before proceeding.

This time he was a little more prepared for the gruesome sight; it nearly mirrored that of the carriage behind him. He returned his thoughts to the game. If he was playing as both players, he… no, the result would still have been the same. White had the upper hand. Black had been foolish enough to lose both knights. He wondered what turn they had been at when they died, but the movement possibilities were endless.

Then his blood chilled. He heard something.

His breath staled in his lungs while he listened very, very carefully.

Thud. Thud.

The sound was muffled. Cushioned. It was coming from the middle of the carriage.

Thud.

KL-33 steadied his breathing, steeled himself, and walked straight toward the source.

Thud-thud-thud.

One of the safety pods was sealed: a Type-10 Kulov with a modified strap. A child seat! Only a god – though which one was up for constant review – would damn fortune such that a child should see the ruin of its parents before their time.

He ran to the pod and pressed the emergency release. A young boy looked up at him with pale green eyes and a stark white face. KL-33 flipped through the passenger records on his wrist panel. Daniel K. Sarthers. Born in France. Four years old.

“Speak English, kid?”

The child made no response, in English or otherwise. The only indication he gave that he’d heard anything at all was by blinking.

He then looked around the carriage. “Maman?”

“Come this way,” he said, and beckoned as he walked toward the next carriage. The engine. He hoped the boy wouldn’t go the opposite direction.

He checked the environment controls for the cockpit before opening the door. No breathable air. Pressure leak. Damn it. He motioned for the boy to wait, but found that the boy was still sitting in his pod. Glancing at the previous carriage to make sure it was closed, he put his helmet back on and sealed his suit, then opened the first door, stepped into the pressure chamber, and sealed the door behind him.

The second doorway hissed as the air was sucked out of the pressure chamber. The temperature dropped immediately. KL-33 stepped through the gap.

Debris clung to the back of the carriage. Shards of glass, dented metal mugs, a book, and the two drivers. A small cabin on the right housed the engineer, and a longer one on the left was for the steward, stewardess, snacks, and beverages. The front of the carriage featured the panels and instruments used to control the train. Most of these were shattered and splintered. The loose track ran across and through the middle of the train’s nose. The tail of this appeared to have pierced the engineer’s cabin, rending any emergency pressure system in that room non-functional.

KL-33 pounded his fist against the doors to the cabins. A faint ping returned from the left cabin. He opened the engineer’s door, pushed the floating corpse gently aside, and reached for a canister marked “Xeseal”. He then switched the environment controls to reboot and sprayed all the cockpit’s holes with the canister’s long nozzle. Air started to gush back into the room via the ventilation and hiss out through a couple of gaps he’d missed. He continued to layer the spray over all the shattered surfaces until the hissing stopped.

After half a minute, the environment controls beeped at him. He took his helmet off and opened the left cabin door.

A stewardess stared up at him from where she lay on the floor. Her left arm and leg lay limp and crooked.

“Do you know what happened?” KL-33 asked.

She shook her head slowly.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he recited.

He flipped open a medical pack on the wall, pulled out a stabilization needle – he didn’t know the technical term for the needles, only that they worked – and tossed it to the woman.

Then he went to the drivers’ seats and connected to a maintenance data port. He played the archived footage. Spinning, turning, winding through space. Hours of it. It had taken that long for the slack to be detected at the Mars port.

He rewound to until he found the crash anomaly. The train had been gliding along as normal, until – with the replay slowed to thousandths of seconds – he saw it. A snap in the track. The broken track latched onto the whole one. And the engine carriage hit it at full speed. A split thousandth of a second where KL-33 saw the jagged end of the track. He paused the footage. Impact damage. A comet, perhaps, or some other large debris. An unlucky hit. A near miss in the infinite expanse of space. A few billion dollars of repairs. Not to mention the cost in lives.

KL-33 set to work narrating his report while repairing what he could and preparing the ruined train to be towed home.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

There are few movies of late that I have dared hope greatness from. A movie set in Arthur’s, uh… Londinium… was one such movie.

 

Start of the plot:

Some powerful mage almost destroys some powerful kingdom which was supposedly protected by some king with some incredibly powerful magical sword. The mage is piloting some siege elephant (which is so incredibly massive that it shows that Guy Ritchie probably hasn’t actually seen an elephant before), but he then dies without even pretending to fight back, even though it was his siege against what was apparently some last resisting stronghold.

The night after this apparently-hard-fought victory, the charismatic, well-loved, powerful-magic-wielding king is betrayed by some guy who gets nosebleeds while watching battles from afar. The king somehow has no friends, and is defeated without any real fight. His queen is also murdered. His son, floating away very slowly in front of his father’s defeater in an unprotected boat, is completely ignored so that there can be some further two hours of film.

During a minute of decently-done growing-up montage, the escaped son becomes a formiddable street fighter and brothel protector. He then goes into the room of some prostitute and hands her a pouch of coins he took from some Viking who’d beaten her.

Some guard knocks on the brothel door and tells the son that he beat up some protected guy and asks why, in response to which the son provides a Sherlock-Holmes retelling of how he woke up and then had some breakfast and then talked to some people and then talked to some other people and then talked to some people he’d forgotten to mention the first time and then talked to some other people and then cut some Viking’s braid off and then gave some coins to some beaten-up prostitute.

Then some tide goes out very quickly and the nosebleed-usurper gets worried because some sword in some stone is suddenly visible. He talks to some strange slithering part-woman creatures (technically cecaelii, but listed as “syrens” – a misspelling of “sirens” – in the credits), who tell him that he probably has to to kill someone and that they’ll need some sacrifice if he wants some more power. He’s building some tower that makes him stronger as it gets taller, though, so he files the thought away somewhere for a while.

The son is woken up by some merry-man companion who tells him to run because some guards want to catch and maybe even kill him. He gets out and then is nabbed by some patrol who takes him on some boat to take him to some previously-unmentioned branding ritual.

The son shoulders his way through to the front of some long, long line of people waiting to be branded and finds out that they are all supposed to try to pull some sword out of some stone first. He walks up and grabs the sword and pulls it out and falls asleep.

Then the movie tries to convince us that it’s woven a pretty smart tale thus far by having some guys who want to kill the son decide to wait for a while until he wakes up and some rebels are ready with a plan before they try some public execution for the son after killing some people he was close to.

From then on, the son tries to defeat the nosebleed guy.

 

Reaction:

It’d be lovely to have something nice to say about the film. I suppose it was nice to see Eric Bana playing Uther Pendragon, but apart from reappearing in some severely-recycled footage, he’s probably only on the screen for five unique minutes.

The story should have been easy to write. Arthur and Excalibur have been written about extensively. Not all stories are equal, sure, but where big budgets lie… so, too, should at least decent writing.

Scenes and dialogues change allegiance mid-film; sometimes jumping to gaudy, self-infatuated stop-start action sequences, sometimes taking refuge in face-locked chase sequences, sometimes panning across Middle-Earth landscapes, sometimes stooping to drug-bend-accentuation cinematography.

Characters are unloveable, apart from the ones that die at the start. They also (apart from a sullen mage who never changes) refuse to adhere to the logic of their own selves. Arthur, who has been seeking ways to beat up thugs and bullies ever since he escaped his parents’ death, gets upset that bullies and thugs still exist when he gets Excalibur and thinks that throwing the sword away will help things get better. The people who say they care about Arthur decide to tie him up and blindfold him and smack him around while telling him how much they care about him. Vortigern keeps killing his loved ones instead of killing the person he claims to want to kill, even though he is constantly provided with situations where he has the ability and power to do so. A mage (because mages have never been in film before and druids certainly weren’t a thing in Arthur’s time) displays stunning levels of power that could have been used to help things long before Arthur was found. Merlin simply refuses to show up.

Even the magical logic was confused. Aside from the aforementioned ignorance of the fact that it should have been druidry rather than magecraft, references are consistently made to towers that, the bigger they are, the stronger a mage’s magic is. Destroying the antagonist’s tower is in fact the crux of the protagonists’ plan to defeat him. But of the three characters who wield magic throughout the film, one is a woman who (perhaps to include silent feminism commentary) does not appear to have a tower, and another is Arthur, whose incredibly powerful magic stems from a sword that is probably two hundred times shorter than Vortigern’s tower. And yet Vortigern’s magic never matches either of theirs.

The film had a great cast. It had solid visual effects. It even had a brilliant musical score. It shouldn’t have been able to go wrong. But somehow, the movie kept refusing to grab hold of and run with its strengths. It even ignored the opportunity to be a decent non-Arthurian story. More’s the pity – historical fantasy set in England can be a lot of fun to watch.

As a retelling of the Arthurian legend, it falls far short of any recognizable mark. As a piece of standalone fiction, it… could possibly be submitted as part of a first draft.

 

Pros:

  • The Lord of the Rings footage
  • Sherlock Holmes footage
  • Sons of Anarchy footage
  • Star Wars footage
  • Tove Lo’s “Habits” music video footage
  • Robin Hood: Men in Tights footage
  • 300 footage

Cons:

  • None of the pros in their respective films
  • No Merlin
  • No Camelot
  • Druids replaced by mages
  • Story/character logical inconsistencies
  • Flashback expositional explanations for every unimportant question
  • No explanations for any important questions

The Morning Bell Podcast 2016: In Review

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As befits review, I’d like to give honorable mention to a new addition to our little team: this year we welcomed on a new co-host, Ian (pictured above on the left), and he’s been a pretty swell (I think) chap to have along. Joel tells me he’s Luke v2.0, so maybe I’m getting the sack, but Ian’s fun enough to have along that you’d probably not really notice if that happened (#silentfarewell). Well, fear not, I’m not gone yet!
I’ve found The Morning Bell Podcast to be quite a fantastic opportunity. We get to talk to all kinds of writers, editors, publishers, developers and more about the cogs and gears of their jobs. It’s insightful stuff, and it’s all done in a laid-back, friendly atmosphere that lets everyone feel comfortable. We don’t (except on special occasions) dissect pieces of writing at great length; we converse about topics that (usually) are right up the guest-of-the-week’s alley, so that we can provide you (and ourselves) with a trove of interesting inside knowledge. Some days that means talking about what makes dystopian fiction so attractive to contemporary audiences; some days that means talking about how to write game narrative (and how different it is to normal prose); other days that means discussing subjects like relatability and inclusiveness in novels. It’s a lot of fun picking experienced people’s brains for information. I hope you guys find it as interesting as we do!
Joel is the dedicated constant of the podcast. Always there, always answering emails, always reliable and approachable, always making sure everything flows smoothly and everyone remembers when and where to go, setting up and maintaining the equipment – and then formatting and publishing the podcasts as well. My hat (if I wore one) well and truly off to him.
If there’s one thing I would like to see happen next year with the podcast, it’s some kind of industry funding. There are plenty of funds and grants that apply to what we do, and Joel (more than the rest of us) puts in so much work and money that I think he really deserves to get some back – but funding for The Morning Bell Podcast wouldn’t be as much about cash as it would be about career recognition by the arts industry. Whether or not that happens, though, Joel will soldier on and you’ll all get to keep hearing awesome interviews with interesting people.
All the best for the new year, and see you there.

Guild Wars 2

GW2_Logo

It’s time to tackle a big one. An MMORPG. Take a deep breath and relax.

To be fair, I’m going to approach Guild Wars 2 as a sequel to Guild Wars 1, even though the gameplay differs quite a lot. I’ve followed the trek of the Guild Wars teams since just after Eye of the North was released, and I racked up ~2k hours in the original before its sequel came out.

As a sequel to Guild Wars 1, the opening of Guild Wars 2 was a trip through story lane; lots of things happened and lots of things changed in the world. Many lands became inaccessible through politics or other means. Some kingdoms isolated themselves. Some races got over their differences (this began in Eye of the North). Some places (like Lion’s Arch) remained in the game for nostalgic/historical purposes. Lore-wise, the intro presented a pretty reasonable and curiosity-raising transition.

A few minutes into the game, it becomes chillingly apparent that you are (apart from the occasional human you bump into) completely alone. This is less troubling in explorable areas, but story gameplay and the very way your skills are designed beg the question: where did all our little AI party buddies go? It was quickly made clear that to survive, we would need to rely on a single, profession-specific self-heal skill. No tanking DPS while a monk tops us up, no making conditions backfire on casters, and very limited capacity for restoring party health. Guild Wars 2 is a lone-wolf design. Sort of. More on that later.

Guild Wars 2 tried, somewhat over-ambitiously, to market the idea that each player could (to paraphrase) have a different story. It’s neat that they thought so, but it simply didn’t happen. The game is an MMO, which logically cannot provide different stories to its players. Not unless a lot more thought is put into the design. Sure, you can branch out and choose which race to play as (this gives you about two hours of slightly disconnected story gameplay) and then the sub-faction you want to follow the main story with. This allows you to hear slightly different conversations, but the gist and the plot remains pretty much identical to every other player’s. Don’t get me wrong – it was a neat idea, and I pick the The Vigil every single time – it just can’t feel as organic as it was marketed, because if your world instance looked different from other people’s, synchronization of the MMO world would be pretty tricky.

Dungeons are strange things. They’re fundamental to the MMO experience, and they’re challenges for the semi-educated gamers to hone their co-ordination and tactics… but I’m not convinced that GW2’s combat system is designed for them. I’ve yet to see a dungeon taken conventionally (okay, I did see it happen once, but I’m not sure if players are supposed to die quite that often in any game except Dark Souls). Dungeons are run using hack-style mechanics, like stacking in tiny corners or pulling single enemies at a time and praying (with crossed fingers) that ArenaNet has not buffed the dungeon mobs yet again. With the recent expansion, dungeons also (for no apparent reason) became unprofitable. When both unsupported by combat mechanics and unprofitable… dungeons became unpopular places. I’m not sure if ArenaNet quite understands that players choose to use hacks simply because the experience isn’t fun to play conventionally. They certainly didn’t realize people were primarily running dungeons for the gold.

To support my concerns regarding dungeon combat in GW2, I ought to discuss the combat system next. Combat changed heaps between GW 1 and 2. Some of the changes made things smoother – combat flows better in GW2, for instance, and combinations such as shooting arrows through walls of fire (which makes fire arrows) are nice features – but a lot of things were made worse or removed. There is less synergy and less customizability in GW2. Skills are determined primarily by our equipped weapon, which generally has a couple of decent skills, a couple of mediocre ones, and the “spam 1” – an attack chain that defaults with auto-attack as it has no cooldown and replaces the basic attack from GW1. Each character can equip three class skills, an elite skill, and a single heal skill. For most classes, this is strictly a self-heal (rangers are an exception). Guardians can strap on a couple of level-based sidegrades to add minor healing to some of their AoE skills, and they have an optional elite skill (more on these shortly) that fully heals themselves and up to four other players. Elite skills are a disappointment. In GW1, elite skills were these fantastic skills you could obtain by defeating an enemy champion (which involved both a hunt and a battle challenge). They weren’t the be-all-and-end-all in battle (they aren’t in GW2 either), but they felt like they made a difference and made your character significantly more useful. They also acted like improved versions of regular skills. In GW2, elite skills are obtained by leveling. They are useful, but generally underwhelming. Most particularly, though (and unlike in GW1), they take a very, very long time to recharge. You won’t be using them twice in a fight. Maybe not even twice in two fights. Your character’s usefulness is shaved by an entire skill slot every four to six minutes. Water combat is still viewed on the whole as something of a joke. It’s a 3D, weightless combat system that generally allows you to spend all your skills without hitting anything due to average visibility and could-be-improved targeting on AoE skills. But as to the feel of combat, it certainly plays smoother in GW2. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be able to cast/attack/use skills while moving. You generally don’t have to stand still unless channeling something big.

When it comes to teamwork, it feels like the ArenaNet chaps groaned and said “if we have to”. Apart from a few combo effects, characters are designed to function on their own. There are very few support skills, and there’s no way to target specific allies with your skills (any skills you have that affect allies will prioritize your squad, so long as they’re within range). Targeting, supporting, buffing, and assisting were all key elements in GW1. If you didn’t work as a team you’d likely fail. This was because mobs in GW1 usually came attached to groups. None of this “one wolf spawns in the middle of nowhere and waits to be killed” stuff; foes came in squads, and generally were capable of buffing/saving each other while your group tried its best to do them in. GW2 comes with a “live alone, fight alone, die alone” feel, which effectively kicks teamwork out the door.

The maps are quite pretty. Ascalon (and north of it, in GW1) was my favorite landscape in the Guild Wars universe until the Charr came along and conquered it and then settled it, but it’s still the most charming biome in the game. It’s the way a fantasy kingdom should look. Big trees with leaves that turn orange and red and purple around harvest, rolling hills, rivers, fields, castles, keeps built into the sides of cliffs. Praise aside, though, I feel like GW2 is small. A lot of the places we had access to in GW1 were removed, and only some were replaced. As an explorer gamer, I really want that space back – and some more places to visit! (Pardon the pun, but one reason I went from GW2 to Elite: Dangerous was to explore more – the game is, quite practically, based in space.)

To showcase the new (and controllable) jumping mechanic in Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet set up jumping puzzles. It’s a little challenge with a souvenir at the end (usually just an achievement and a chest of stuff worth a couple of silver). Nice idea, as they are completely optional minigames. There are a couple of jumping puzzles that take hours and hours to complete because of that one jump you can’t make, but that just makes it all the more worth it when you make it to the end. Pity the rewards don’t scale based on how many times you fell down and died or nearly died.

Crafting is the economy driver. Gather resources, sell them to crafters. Crafters take materials, make junk, sell it cheap, then level up and sell things of more value. Higher level materials are (generally) worth more, so the higher the tier, the more return for gatherers, and so on and so forth. Crafting isn’t foolproof (the workbench does not have the most user-friendly layout), but it’s fine. Average. Nothing worth any special praise.

Guild Wars 2 has an average trade function (I’m pretty impressed by the paid-mail system in Elder Scrolls: Online). Trading in GW2 means either sending things directly to other players and not expecting anything back, or listing on the trading post. This is (amusingly) taxed heavily. In-game money, sure, but what in the world does ArenaNet do with the 10% of in-game money profit they tax on transactions (not to mention the listing fee)? In GW1 you could trade from person to person. Granted, you had to stand next to them, but that’s a small price to pay compared to 10% of a nice fancy 40-gold item.

Guilds are not as big a focus as the game’s title makes them out to be. Emblems are cool, guild halls are damned pricey, tiers are average and (nowadays) grindy, but it is nice to have guilds simply to collect your friends and fellow gamers. Guilds are chiefly hamstrung by one thing, in my opinion: items are one of the following: not bound, account-bound, and soulbound. There’s nothing for guilds specifically. There’s guild halls (kind of), but they don’t appear to be incredibly useful (yet?). Basically, guilds are just friend lists with politics.

World vs World is something I found to be a lot of fun. Ever wanted to play out a 100 vs 100 medieval fantasy battle? I did. And I had a ball doing so. Waves of allies crashing into banks of foes, pulling back, smashing into them again, popping buffs and consumables, crashing into them again, forcing them back, cutting off their retreat, circling and wheeling and crippling and knocking your foes down until the battlefield is littered with foes and little bags of loot (not kidding – WvW player kills actually drop items called bags of loot). Recent updates cut WvW back slightly, by replacing a nice map with an unattractive (well, some like it) and unpathable (I’ve yet to see someone say it’s fun to navigate)  map. Still, WvW is the focal point of guild fights, and almost lives up to the game’s title.

ArenaNet recently (well, last October) released the Heart of Thorns expansion for GW2. It added gliding and it added jungle maps. I’m not a jungle fan, but for the sake of somewhere new to explore I took them on. A lot of minigames were added to the new maps, as well as a lot of map restrictions (removed by progressing huge, map-wide events). It’s pretty tricky to get anywhere unless the map is highly-populated – and that brings us back to combat, which was not designed for teamwork. But gliding was a lot of fun. ArenaNet later added gliding to the vanilla maps as well, which is refreshing when traversing favorite old maps.

 

Pros

  • Good optimization for PC (this was hamstrung by the Heart of Thorns expansion, but hopefully that will be fixed by the time you read this)
  • Living World events and quests
  • Nice musical scores
  • Nostalgic locations reimagined and redesigned
  • Pretty landscapes
  • Solid, consistent, enjoyable setting
  • Smooth combat mechanics

Cons

  • Combat and teamwork hindered by restrictive skill design and capacity
  • Low focus on guild play (other than farming guild hall materials)
  • Poor selection of trade mechanics
  • The world feels small after its prequel
  • Tons of items that don’t need to be soulbound/account-bound
  • WvW has had some poor design choices, even though it is one of GW2’s most unique aspects

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Be forewarned: as with any review or reflective piece, this is wrought with spoilers. For better or for worse, I am making my position on the new Star Wars film clear.

I’ll start by explaining that there are two types of Star Wars fans: dabblers and live-ins. Dabblers watch the movies, sometimes, and maybe buy a Star Wars t-shirt or coffee mug. Live-ins watch, read, write, etc, and can cite various numbers of authors, titles and stories (not to mention countless film or book details word for word) from the series. The latter fans are now sitting in dark corners, sobbing their hearts out. Their world has been mercilessly obliterated.

Star Wars has lost its heart. Probably the biggest thing about any Star Wars story (this is why the X-Wing or Bounty Hunter spinoffs were so-so) was the sense of nobility. Whether it was sith or jedi, there was always something noble. Sith were coldly noble, something like Alexander or Julius Caesar. Powerful and cunning and aloof. Jedi were Arthurian knights, noble brothers in arms following an honorable and ancient code. But that’s all gone now; jedi, sith, droids, tusken raiders, they all act the same. Everyone and everything acts base and bland. It’s that beautiful Hollywood principle of flattening the playing field, I guess.

Next, Star Wars has turned to clichés and repetition. For a moment Han Solo brought his familiar, fresh feel and voice to the scene, but I guess the director got sick of letting him say non-bland lines, because a stop was quickly put to that. But what was with using the exact same lines to reintroduce the Milennium Falcon? Why did that even need to happen? Anyone watching the new film will either 1) know the ship already and be confused at how it got lost or why it was lost or what in blazes it was doing out of Han’s possession for so long or 2) not give a damn about spaceships and their general state and certainly not spare a thought about whether or not it is a bucket of bolts. Needless to say, there were many pointless lines that were directly stolen from the movies that directly prequelled this film. The Force Awakens uses countless recycled Hollywood lines (I mention this later as well) rather than original Lucas lines. This isn’t Die Hard X or Jurassic X.

Logic was spilled all over the floor and swept under the carpet from scene one. The very first glance we get of the stormtrooper, he is stunned by the death of his comrade. He goes utterly haywire about it. But two scenes later, without any misgivings, he’s blowing his comrades-in-arms away willy-nilly from the secondary gunning seat aboard a TIE fighter. What happened to the trauma induced by his dying partner tracing a (as in a typical zombie scene) four-finger trail of blood across his visor? But I’ve moved ahead of myself here – the first issue started with the yellow text. Luke has run away for no good reason – he’s fled! He was confronted by darkness (he’s faced that before as he’s had to face his own father in combat) but this time he fled, and for some unexplained reason left a map to his whereabouts (a galactic easter egg hunt) which all his friends and family have to solve if they are to survive the onslaught of their enemies. Back in Return of the Jedi, Luke learned pretty darned well that fleeing was not the way to solve anything. All his friends got in big trouble when he left. So now he’s done it again? The next thing that confused me was the swordplay. Everyone is a master swordsman. Several duels occur during the movie, and somehow sith have fallen beneath even stormtroopers in martial training. Not to mention that the lady of the story (not Leia, although it was nice to see her back) was even able to master a selection of force maneuvers after knowing she had force attunement for approximately a single day. It took Anakin and Luke Skywalker many years to even slightly channel their abilities, even though they were two of the most powerful jedi later in their lives. And why is the rebellion only four wings of X-wings big? They lose nearly ten X-wings and then everybody’s screaming that half the fleet has been wiped out! They’ve had more than twenty years without the emperor or Darth Vader around to build up their forces and contacts. The Empire was in shambles at the end of Return of the Jedi. Not to mention that they never brought in any Y-wings for the bombing runs – X-wings can stock a torpedo or two that can replace a bomb in a very tight pinch, but Y-wings are actual bombers. Any Star Wars fan knows that! And Ben (although Disney, you ought to realize that his name was actually Jacen), switched between two ultra-odd modes. Without his helmet, he cried and cried and cried all the time (very sith of him). With his helmet, he became stronger but for some reason his voice modulator was perpetually broken; it was nigh on impossible to understand anything he said. It’s not like he has voice issues like Anakin had when his body had been ravaged by flame until he had to be reconstructed, so what was that all about? I can go much, much further into logic issues here, but I’d better leave the rest up to you to find for now. This post would be a few thousand words longer if I included them all.

Acting. I’m not sure if this was due to the Star Wars acting competitions or not (budget talent), but so many of the actors appeared to be over-dramatizing non-dramatic scenes (adding unnecessary melodrama). Wide eyes, tense voices, urgent attitudes, all the time. Even in the dead calm of desert solitude, Rey acts sullen and pouty. Why? She might have been apathetic or losing hope. She instead looked like she just got rejected from… cheerleader tryouts? I’m glad for everyone who got to act in such a once-beautiful franchise, but maybe they could have used some direction and/or makeup? This wasn’t the first draft of a web series or a new series. It’s a new instalment into one of the most highly-acclaimed sci-fi franchises in existence. Edit (some years later): I’m fully aware now that acting issues are entirely directorial in nature. Directors choose what to keep, cut, reshoot, and more. I can’t fault the actors for directorial failings.

The canon decanonization was a brutal slap-in-the-face. Timothy Zahn wrote some absolutely incredible books for Lucas… The Hand of Thrawn trilogy, for instance. Jude Watson also wrote fantastic stories for Star Wars. Is Disney really so illiterate that its people cannot take good stories from the existing canon and have to instead blacklist them as unofficial to make their own (severely lacking) story stand on its own feet? Timothy Zahn already laid out thrilling, logical, exciting sequels to Return of the Jedi. The material was there. The story was simple. Instead, Disney scrunched lines from Die Hard and Taken and Jurassic Park (“you’re keeping raptors here?”) and other thriller films and needlessly crammed them into Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t need recycled lines. Words aren’t about to add to global litter or anything. People may have groaned at Lucas for some things, but originality was never one of those reasons.

Will I say anything good about the new film? Sure. The landscapes were gorgeous; the desert panorama of wrecked Star Destroyers, for instance, was simply breathtaking… but concept artists almost always do a good job, and special effects are (while still requiring skill and effort) pretty run-of-the-mill now – they stopped being special after around the time of The Matrix 3 and Transformers..

So come on, Disney: was this a joke? Should I have left the cinema laughing? You’ve trashed the most fantastic sci-fi fantasy universe that was ever realized. Just knowing that you’re in the process of making further sequels is carving me up inside.

George Lucas, please… can’t you take your work of art back? I adored Star Wars.

Laugh Tracks

Most of us have watched TV comedy at one time or another. The Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Hogan’s Heroes, The Good Life, etc, etc. They’re all filled to the brim with crowds of laughing people. Now… probably the oddest thing to me about laugh tracks is the fact that, unless you are aware or focusing, they can feel natural. It’s instinct – we see something slightly amusing or tickling, and then someone else laughs, and then we’re splitting our own sides as well. But what is a laugh track? It’s a pre-recorded excerpt. Some crowd of people was watching something super funny one day, and someone (Charles Douglass) had the bright idea of taking their laughter and engineering it into other things.

So again: what is a laugh track? It’s a dusty, overused copy of some random crowd’s laughter about something totally unrelated to what we’re watching right now. But the thing is, it still (usually) feels completely natural. It’s often quite hard to pick out the times when laugh tracks are used, because we’re laughing right along with everyone else.

I think the thing that really intrigues me about laugh tracks is really something very simple. It’s stand-up comedian rule #1: don’t laugh at your own jokes. If they flop, they flop – move on. Laughing at your own jokes is poor sportsmanship. Is it doable? Sure, but people think you’re a fool and start laughing at you rather than with you. But then comes another side to the definition of laugh tracks: they are the illusion of someone other than the writer laughing at the situation/joke. It’s one of the most important of the magician’s rules: if you’re doing something sneaky with one hand, make sure you are very strongly encouraging your audience to either think nothing of it or look somewhere else. Sure, it’s a laugh that the writer/director inserted, but does it sound like the director or the writer? Nope, it sounds like a general crowd of other people responding to the piece. And it’s that fact that does it for us. If there was only one person laughing, we’d not laugh along with it. We may scratch our heads and look for the source, discover that it’s Joe, then puzzle over him for a moment or two before making wisecracks at him or simply telling him to shut up. But if an entire crowd starts laughing, we’re sucked in. It’s peer pressure at its most curious – a couple of hundred invisible voices have cracked into laughter, so we feel the peasant-urge to follow along.

A simple flick of the wrist. A snapshot into human psychology. A minute observation that has made trillions of dollars for comedy shows worldwide. For years, stand-up comedians have been quite successful and side-splitting without laugh tracks prompting anything; laugh tracks are the cheapest and most effective way of persuading us to feel and think that even poor humor is simply hilarious.

One slice of comedy to two slices of peer pressure. Sometimes even worse ratios.

But will that prevent us from laughing along with everyone else? Probably not. It’s instinct. But now that you’ve read this post, I tell you one thing for sure regarding laugh tracks: ignorance was bliss. Too bad, eh?

The Four Divisions of Gamers

4suits

I used to think of gamers as simply gamers. Sure, there are angry gamers and full-time gamers and casual gamers, but still, they’re all just gamers, right? Well, not quite. It was when I recently ran into a little something called Bartle’s Test that I realized something: you can call all gamers simply gamers, but that’s about as accurate as calling all engineers simply engineers. Different people game for different reasons, and they get different things out of gaming. Richard Bartle’s article here goes further in depth about things, but I’ll highlight the main details I got out of it. Also, while Bartle was chiefly identifying them as types of multiplayer gamers, I believe it can apply to gamers as a whole.

According to Bartle’s theory, there are four distinct character types that define gaming. Anyone can overlap with any or every type, but (generally speaking) we all have a stronger leaning in one particular direction. The four types are as follows: achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers. Bartle goes on to further highlight what attunes those gamers to those aspects using the following chart:

Bartle_graph

This gives some insight into personality patterns that can decide the polarities of gamers.

But now let’s further unravel the categories:

  • Achievers (diamonds) are people who love to collect titles, awards, experience points, high scores, medals, and the like. They thrive on praise and admiration. They’re some of the longest-playing, richest, and most loyal gamers due to their long-term investments in the games they play. They have tendencies to be proud, and they like games to contain challenges that other gamers can’t (or won’t) necessarily overcome.
    • Planners have the big picture in mind. Long-term goals. Things to chip slowly away at for the next ten-twenty years. Weapons or houses to build or collect. You’ll probably mostly find them playing MMOs (or still trying to get the highest score in Tetris or Pong).
    • Opportunists tend to snatch up their achievements in bursts; seasonal events or peak or off-peak game times affect the frequency and intensity of their gaming. They’re also more interested in achievements that are relevant at the time (so that people around them are actively impressed).
  • Explorers (spades): although Wikipedia’s summary of Bartle’s theory suggests that only two sub-types of explorers exist, I’ll have to say that I disagree. There’s definitely at least three. Explorers are the people who run around absolutely everywhere. If you’re watching a Twitch/Youtube feed and you’re wondering why in blazes the streamer/uploader went into that room/corner/building when the quest clearly pointed another direction, they’re almost certainly an explorer gamer.
    • Scientists experiment. Scientist explorers try everything around them – all the buttons, all the books, all the combinations, all the options, all the shortcuts, and all the scenic routes as well. If it works, awesome. If it fails, at least they tried. No stone left unturned. No formulas left uncombined.
    • Hackers are looking for bugs and exploits. Some might simply be amused by such glitches, but others could be compared to achievers in that they try to get to places that others can’t (or skip the hard work involved in reaching certain achievements).
    • Tourists could be compared to scientists, but they’re running around more to see new things and places and characters and scenes and scenery than to experiment. They take it all in and then want more. They’re the most likely to jump between games, because unless the studio keeps tossing new places and lore for them to explore and absorb, they churn through everything quickly and are then struck by unquenchable wanderlust.
  • Socializers (hearts) are the glue of every community. They talk, they discuss, they pull people together, they repair breaches in society. They’re the heart of guilds or outfits in MMO games. They’re the kind guys and gals who stop to revive you when you’re downed in the middle of nowhere. They’re the group healers and buff-providers. They’re the people who spend hours beside (or in) a puzzle with you just to have someone to talk to. If they play single-player games, you can pretty much guarantee that they’re active and proactive on the game’s forums.
    • Networkers bring groups together. This usually involves bringing people from different character types into one place and gluing them there by creating bonds and loyalties and nurturing mutual friendships. They build and expand and maintain guilds and/or communities. They form teams and proactively schedule meetups/group events.
    • Friend gamers are the loyal buddies who are always willing to join you, wherever you are, whenever you are there. They’ll drop what they’re doing (“forget it, I can start again from the bottom of the mountain later”) to join their buddies. They’ll come to their friends’ rescues if they’re being confronted or abused on a forum.
  • Killers (clubs) are highly competitive players. They may or may not be as competitive in general as achievers, but kills and skills are their two favorite things. They’d sacrifice the score turnout for a bloodbath if kills didn’t mean wins (but kills are usually directly related to winning, whether by eliminating the opposition’s score-earners or through the kills themselves). They’re players with serious reflexes, and are either frontline brutes or veteran snipers. Some fight with honor, and are fun opponents. Others can be derisive and unpleasant.
    • Wolf gamers compete and hunt. They feed on flesh and bury their muzzles in warm blood. They compete with other wolves for the position of alpha, and they form hierarchies of mutual respect and understanding based on skill and strength. They’re generally just as comfortable hunting by themselves as they are in packs – and in some cases, when in a pack that simply keeps getting in the way, they separate and scour the battlefield on their own.
    • Griefers can be compared to forum lepers. Some of them may even be those. They’re in for the rush, the feeling of superiority, the chase. They’re the level-281-account players who create level-0 accounts simply to plow their way through low-level matches and watch dismay and despair seep through their opponents. They’re the group of five players who watches for ones and twos of their opponents to arrive – and then pounces on them, then waits for them to respawn so they can rinse and repeat.

There could be more sub-categories, so feel free to suggest them in a comment! I’ll even add them to the post if they stand out as unique or necessary.

I personally lean toward the tourist end of things. Sometimes I fancy myself in the wolf pack or trying to support my allies, and occasionally I reach for some low-hanging achievements, but unless I’m playing a game like Rainbow Six: Siege, I’m usually more interested in my surroundings. Getting from point A to B, C, D, E, and all the other letters. Seeing characters and scenery and worlds and stories come to life around me. That’s where most of my hours in Skyrim and The Witcher 3 come from.

What kind of a gamer are you?

Lost Lord

Three guesses who the title refers to. Two if you’ve read Imalion’s Tale.

New story! Check out Lost Lord, the next episode of the Knights of the Moon story.

Also, this story brings a temporary close to Rylacia and its inhabitants. Writing is still coming along fine, no worries there; I’m taking a break from the world I began with Imalion and his diary in 2011 and am starting an exciting journey with Talmere of Nerida. More info soon!

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3

I did a pre-release post, but now it’s time to ponder the game in all its finally-experiencable glory.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels epic and looks beautiful.
A few hours later: this is impressive. And fun. Oh wait, is that level 20 griffon supposed to be circling poor little level 4 me? That’s… disconcerting.
Ultimate realization (days in): can’t leave my computer. Can’t take off my headphones. Can’t even go outside or get food. Must take another witcher contract… and another… and another!

The Witcher 3 wanted to market itself based on the size of the world and the effects of quest choices you make. That would be all good and well, but while the choices and effects are interesting, the world feels super small. Granted, it’s probably bigger than all the worlds of other fantasy games that exist, but I’m a huge sucker for exploration. It’s mildly depressing to look at the map and see that the chunks of the world I can explore are only tiny little snippets of the world map. Seriously! But back to choices and effects. The Witcher 3’s choice system openly demonstrates that Mass Effect (and BioWare in general) has quite a lot of room for improvement. I knew choices could be presented well in games, and CD Projekt Red has stepped boldly in the right direction. It’s refreshing to 1) not be making massive, spontaneous ultimatum choices, and 2) to occasionally not even witness the effects of positive or negative choices until later.

I’m impressed. And possibly bewitched.

The game engine is well-optimized, and patches to improve things keep coming out. Not even sure why! Makes me think back to when I bought Assassin’s Creed Unity. The support chaps told me my computer simply wasn’t good enough. Funny that, because The Witcher 3 (much newer, and definitely prettier) runs like a charm on my rig.

The gameplay is good. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s close. Running, riding, hunting, swimming, diving, sailing, all seamlessly joined. The time of day changes. The weather changes. Combat is streamlined (so long as Geralt has figured out that he’s in combat). The world feels diverse and interesting because of the freedom of movement and the interaction. The one main downside to gameplay I’ve noticed so far is fall damage – if you trip over for some reason, don’t be too surprised if your health bar is cut in half.

The music for The Witcher 3 puts a good chunk of other games to shame. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Soule music, I don’t really think that fantasy should be dominated by orchestral music. So The Witcher 3 was a splendid change. Most of the score consists of Slavic-style folky tunes that capture the heart nearly as well as they capture the setting. Battle music is some of the best, but the three crones (no spoilers) are accompanied by the best tune. You’ll know when you hear it. Think dark, dark fairy tale music.

Questing is a real treat in The Witcher 3. There are regular quests that involve talking to people, finding people, killing people, and making choices. Pretty much every game has them. In The Witcher 3, though, we get to watch Geralt’s reaction to these quests. Fetch quests? Geralt doesn’t care much for being a delivery boy. Talking to people? He’s got a hilarious overdose of sarcasm that makes conversation amusing and interesting. Killing people? In style. Making choices? Fun mystery boxes of “what does this button do?” conundrums that make you pay attention. Don’t skip conversation if you want to make intelligent choices. Seriously. Your choice can be as clear as “Mhm”, “Really?”, or “I’ll commit myself to every word you just said and that is my final choice and so much for the other conversation options that would have saved my good friend such-and-such”. Sarcasm aside, I’d list that as a gameplay strength. But those are just the regular quests. In The Witcher 3, you also run into witcher quests – or, more specifically, witcher contracts. These are brillant combinations of hunting and mystery-solving. Geralt is equipped with a marvelous dose of Sherlock Holmes. He has remarkable senses that allow him to pick up details like what kind of liquid has been spilled, what type of claws gouged a wall, or even what kind of blood is at the scene. To accompany these skills, Geralt unashamedly talks to himself. A lot. Good for him, I say. But this sense-and-talk combination makes for interesting puzzle-solving. Geralt starts by talking to witnesses, then moves to investigate the scene, and then (often) follows a trail. Along the way, he spots clues that tell you what you’re going to find, how and where you’re going to find it, and usually also inform you as to how you’re going to need to defeat whatever it is. Hunting quests in this manner are a massive improvement to fetch quests or general kill-the-creature-that-lives-in-the-cave quests. It’s also interesting to learn about each little town and place through the monster(s) that plague the people there – for instance, wraiths appear when people have been cruelly murdered or wronged.

Relationships. Ultimately, you could say that The Witcher 3 does relationships like Assassin’s Creed does combat, which is to say that it’s simple enough if you know the buttons. However, it certainly isn’t Mass Effect’s yes-or-no relationship dialogue options. And the fact that you are playing a solid character makes the relationships more meaningful. Shepard was, well… a husk (pun intended) of a character. Geralt certainly isn’t.

The Witcher 3’s scenery is gorgeous. Fantasy at its finest. Ornate tomb carvings. Sprawling, grassy hills. Flocks of sheep, mobs of horses. Roaming giants. Ruins. The textures were done well. And the game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Charming, haunting, old-Scandinavia-esque melodies. Tracks that make perfect companions for traveling, hunting, and doing grim battle. But don’t expect perfection in every way the game looks. For some reason, 95% of Geralt’s armor options more or less completely fail to please the eye. Heavy armor is accompanied by a giant, round wok (yep, a Chinese frying pan) over the character’s belly. Light armor is bulky and has clipping issues with collars. Medium armor has great textures underneath – but is padded with ugly outer jackets that seem to always have the worst possible color combinations. The only chest armor that I have actually loved so far is the first one I ever crafted – the Warrior’s Leather Jacket.

That brings us to crafting. CD Projekt Red boasted that the crafting system would be innovative and interesting; it’s okay, I suppose, but nothing amazingly special. I will say this for it, though – I really appreciate the fact that once you craft a potion or oil, you never have to go scouring the land for ingredients again. Oils have inifinite use (which makes sense, given the amount you would use on a blade in the game). Potions and bombs have charges that replenish when you meditate (although this consumes hard alcohol in your inventory, so you gotta load up your pack like a boozer). Other than that, crafting is average. Find or buy materials, go to a craftsman with sufficient experience, craft or smith the items you have learned about. Swords generally look okay (certainly not as bad as armor), so it’s mostly about picking the best stats. Silver swords have worse skins than steel, but they’re still okay.

In conclusion, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun. If you love wandering across open landscapes and hunting dangerous monsters, this game is totally for you. It’s certainly for me!

Pros

  • Gorgeous setting
  • Music to blow your mind away (especially combat music and town minstrels)
  • Enjoyable, weighty combat
  • One of the best fantasy settings ever written
  • Beautiful scenery
  • Good optimization for PC
  • Questing innovation

Cons

  • Combat hindered by unresponsive/unpredictable controls and the in/out of combat control changes
  • The world is – ironically – too small
  • Fall damage is incredibly lethal