The End of Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gallery of Cthulu art.

A gallery of Cthulu art.

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

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

I think this will be a weekend to remember.

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Fantasy that Inspires

I think you can safely call me a fantasy racist. That might seem odd to say, but looking over the fantasy that inspires me, I realize that my interest in Tolkienesque race elements is rather low. I am frequently so fascinated with human elements that exploring other races, like Dwarves, Elves and Orcs, is pretty rare.

No, when it comes to fantasy, I am drawn to fantasy that mingles itself strongly with other common human elements, like economics and politics, religion and psychology. I enjoy the injection of horror into fantasy, the fusing of real world historic mythology. Truly gothic.

So here are several fantasy tales in various mediums that have inspired me. And if you’re looking for fresh materials to stimulate your muse, you can check them out too.

Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story

The Playstation era was a golden age for story telling. The mix of higher resolution graphics, more processing power and greater hardware capabilities was a mixed blessing in that some developers started to make their creations too scripted and cinema laden. But when they got it right, oh boy…

Vagrant Story was one such success story. Squaresoft (before it became Square Enix) created a few games set in a universe called Ivalice. Early games set in Ivalice, such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story were gold, but later Ivalice installments lost their touch as too many fantasy and political elements began to run way too rampant. But for a while in the PS1 golden age, it was unforgettable.

Vagrant Story was a blend of political intrigue in the battle between church and crown, set in the fictious and forgotten city of Leá Monde. The stunning architecture and history of the city meshed with with medieval scheming and grasping for ancient and forgotten powers hidden there. Yet in the depths and dark of the city were old horrors, age old fairy folklore brought to life and the dead who clung to the mortal realm. Meanwhile, the main character Ashley Riot struggles with illusive and untrustworthy memories.

Final Fantasy Tactics

Ramza_BeoulveSet in the same world of Ivalice, FFT was a masterpiece of tactically strategic gameplay and RPG elements. But the real meat of the game came from the real, thick plot. Rife with betrayals and backstabbing, political intrigue and a wide, motivated cast of characters, FFT was gaming meets Shakespeare. After the blood bath, you have such respect for the main character, Ramza Beoulve, for managing to survive such a world with his morals intact.

The story of FFT starts at the end of a war between two kings. A power vacuum has been left that various groups are trying to fill with their own chosen successors. But as it is set in a fantasy world, the leaders of the church choose to play with fire. The other reason the game is fantastic is because it also helps you think about fantasy elements from a strategic and battle point of view. Questions of how magic fits into a fight, the importance of terrain. These are things you don’t normally think about in fighting, but are factors that enrich ones view of pulp fantasy combat.

Try it if you can. You won’t regret it.

I promise you.

Berserk

Berserk

Any of my long time readers know of this manga series Berserk I go on about from time to time. Probably because it’s incredible. Probably because it positively screams ‘adult’ everytime I open it up. You see men and women at their best and at their worst in the story. The fantasy elements are just the side show to the important questions about man’s soul.

Nothing will make your writing feel so inadequate after you feast your eyes on this masterpiece of art and writing.

The story revolves around Guts, a mercenary who was betrayed by his father and falls into a group called the Band of the Hawk. The band’s efforts earn them prestige, and Griffin, their commander and Guts’ friend, is eventually made into a knight of Midland. But Griffin’s ambition proves his undoing when he sleeps with the princess of Midland, and ticks off the king.

The Band of the Hawk is almost destroyed. Guts manages to save Griffin, but all of this was the hand of fate in action. Due to events foreseen aeons ago, Griffin is offered the chance to ‘create his own kingdom’ by demonic forces. All it takes is a sacrifice… the Band of the Hawk. But Guts and another member survive the branding. And though Griffin is elevated to the status of a god, Guts sets out to take revenge upon him.

Guts’ quest for revenge is still on going. But events have conspired that have opened the door of fantasia. Old myths and tales that people thought weren’t true have begun to appear in all their glory and horror alike. Hydras, dragons, fairies. Some good, more for ill. Powerful questions of the human psyche and the belief in karma explain these events.

Trust me. Read it. You’ll understand why Berserk is the greatest fantasy work you’ll ever read.

Vampire Hunter D

Vampire Hunter DOh D, D, D… so much incredible potential. So much background and amazing world building. And yet, the barriers between America and Japan have made the transition so difficult for you.

Although there are more than two dozen novels, a video game and a couple of movies, few have been able to do this series justice. The video game was horrible. If I recall correctly, Playstation Magazine slammed it with 1 star out of 5. The novels from which the series originates were rich with story telling possibilities, but not well translated.

Believe it or not, the movies have been pretty good. The first, created back in 1985, was based on the first novel and filled with a great story even if the artwork is a bit dated now. The latest, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust drew from the third book and is a jewel of animated movie making.

The series takes place sometime in 12,000 A.D. Humanity engaged in a nuclear war, and in the aftermath the nobility (vampires) took over. Although there were some much kindlier vampires, the majority of which were horrifying blood suckers.

Humanity is trying to recover, but the remains of the nobility (they are dying out) make it difficult. D is the greatest of the vampire hunters, being a dhampir.

Castlevania

GabrielCastlevania has been around for decades, as far back as the old Nintendo Entertainment System. But around the Playstation 2 era, Konami has made a real effort to apply more and more story telling elements to their gothic, vampire slaying series. There was Castlevania: Lament of Innocence which details one origin of Dracula, and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, a side story revolving around Hector, a demon summoning man trying to escape Dracula’s legacy.

But Konami really hit gold with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. A reboot of the series, Mercury Steam and Konami refreshed everything, transforming the game into a thick, shocking origin story of Dracula and the Belmont clan. The ending was particularly well done. The story designers kept pounding you with plot twist after plot twist. Maybe you saw something coming early on, but they didn’t stop until they got you with something you didn’t foresee.

But the real joy is coming in the sequel… where you’ll be playing as Dracula himself.

Final Fantasy VI

Well, I almost made a criminal mistake here. As I wrote this, I was tempted to leave it at five franchises, when I remembered that there was probably one more I should speak up about. I suppose the reason I almost forgot about Final Fantasy VI was that it was first an SNES title, as I never owned an SNES, only borrowed. And that it was so long ago that it was released, back in 1994. The previous titles are either still on going or have been reference via other works. Final Fantasy VI stands well on its own.

So what’s it about? I’ll give you the short of it in simple words. An empire. Steampunk. Rediscovery of magic. Genocide for power gain. Madness. A broken world. Family. Friends. Survival. Hope.

FFVI conflicts me. On one hand, I want to see it remade because the current generation of gamers needs to know the powerful story, strong characters and unforgettable world. If there’s such a thing as required reading, then FFVI is like required gaming. But on the other, it’s very likely that Square Enix could not do the original title justice.

I suppose that someone could do the remake properly… but I simply don’t know anyone in this age who could achieve the rights, has the needed capital, and is skilled enough at game design and story telling to pull it off. But bare in mind I would prefer them not to even touch the story. They would have to figure things out like the importance of cinematography in the transition from 2 to 3d, but the script and events? Unless you carefully (and I mean carefully) add more incredibleness to the tale somehow, to change anything would be tantamount to artistic heresy.

So I leave you now with a piece of art by Jimo Hazard, a rendering of a piece by Yoshitaka Amano, for you to think about.

Final Fantasy VI

The Coming Year…

Ahh, Merry Christmas everyone. Although I write these words exactly at 12:00 am on December 26th. Well, whatever. So Christmas has come and gone, and the New Year is almost upon us. It’s a good time to talk about the books and games I’m most looking forward to in the coming year.

Gears-Judgement

I had just finished Gears of War 3 for the first time tonight. While it was a damn fine ending to the trilogy, and more than satisfactorily completes Marcus Fenix’s story, I found myself missing some elements that were more prevalent in the first two games. More paths you could choose, the campaign could have been a dash longer either through an additional act, or more portions from Baird and Cole’s point of view, like they did in the first act.

On that note, I’ll certainly be getting more of Cole and Baird soon. Gears of War: Judgment is on its way. That game will probably be second on my most wanted list.

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is yet another one worthy of mention. Unlike most die hard Starcraft lovers, I’m just looking forward to the story and campaign. Multiplayer just isn’t my thing for RTS. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. I’m almost finished playing the first one and I am considering getting the DLC as well. I almost forgot Dead Space 3!

Finally, last and probably best of all, Bioshock: Infinite. I think that needs little explanation. But just in case, take a look at the trailer.

Now, for books I am choosing both previous and to be released books. But on my ‘most looking forward to reading’ list is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. That latter was recommended by C.L. Werner.

Other books of mention include Ravenwing by Gav Thorpe, and Headtaker by David Guymer. Guymer I actually met at the Black Library Weekender. Having published a few short stories, Headtaker will be his first Warhammer novel.

Finally, movies. I’m going to be a bit conservative about this, and mention Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby. Truth be, there are many good sounding movies, like Oblivion, Thor: The Dark Worlds, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Man of Steel, Ender’s Game and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But truth be told, I haven’t seen most of the trailers nor done any research. I’d rather wait until near release to begin looking into them.

So that’s all for next year’s excitement. Stay tuned for my new years resolution, which I will immediately fail to keep.

Pen, Paper, Processing

A lot of the earliest pencil and paper roleplaying games have tended to ease their formulas to provide the right mix of complexity with ease. A lot of basic math is applied to calculate certain values, which are then the basis of desired values for an act of chance, the results of which are reflected for better or worse in the game.

“But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action.”

The appeal of these roleplaying games has always been the sense of legitimate adventure confined more by the scopes of human imagination than the limited scopes of a digitally designed world. Combine this with a sense of social interaction these games require and you have a fun and flexible product to be shared with friends.

The computer and especially the smart phone have opened up new possibilities of complex skill-based calculations, story telling and dungeon creation. This ease of use often comes at a cost, as many of the worlds created in larger titles have been the signature of someone else’s vision.

The ordinary dungeon master in his room often has access to some tools for creating his own world, such as dungeon designers and map building applications. But to apply one’s pure, artistic mark to the creation using these tools is overshadowed by the visions of the artists who created them in the first place.

There’s no real solution to this. The difficulty here is art and science versus engineering. The artists focus on creating something, the sciences on discovery. But the engineer is bound by these visions, working within the confines of what is available. These dungeon builders and systems are tools for game engineering, and they are useful if not necessary. But creating original art is much more challenging, and there is no real way to formulize it.

It requires a vision that the machine isn’t able to provide, at least at the moment.

“Exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling.”

Going back to my original point, I’ve noticed that people enjoy these complexities of game rules. Forums are awash with break downs of how the math of Diablo II worked. Some fans grumble at the lost RPG elements found in Mass Effect, taken away and replaced with a simplified system combat and no real adventure elements outside of where a conversation can take you. Discussion of the value of skills and stats in the Fallout series is a major consideration.

Simple and accessible is certainly nice. But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action. Fighting and violence is not going anywhere. But the explorative nature of alternatives can breath a lot of addictive elements into a game, as a result of discovery.

Why is this? Probably because exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling. Maybe hacking that terminal will give you easy access to your goal, or bring security down on your head. Perhaps there’s nothing in that cave, or a mountain of treasure. When you open that door, you have no idea what’s behind it. Maybe it’s an army of guards. Maybe it’s the princess. Maybe it’s One-Eyed Willy’s rich stuff. Maybe it’s a rolling boulder. Who knows? Absolutely no one, until you find out.

For a while, that’s the direction that games were evolving. Sometimes we’re still moving in that direction, or at least toying with the concept. But I have a vision to create a world of infinitely renewable adventures. Where there’s always a story oriented goal, another door to open, a mountain to be climbed. No attempt at it has satisfied me thus far. Call me mad, but I know it can, and will, be done.

The Scoreboard

My first draft for our anthology is complete, but I have to craft a new draft and make several improvements. It will be an ardorous process, but will be more a matter of extending than rewriting. Only one scene (to my knowledge) requires tremendous effort. I also have a few drafts to review.

Aside from this, I have two more stories to work on, both for Cruentus Libri. One is for the surgical anthology, while the other is an extensive rewrite for the ‘War is Hell’ anth.

In truth, I cannot wait to be free of the Bolthole anthology. Although rewarding and I’m learning a lot, I’m also spending time chasing other writers down, bogged with edits and taking on a horde of other responsibilities that I’ve taken for granted. I have increased respect for the role of editor and publisher.

I’ve been thinking about a certain detail when it comes to awesome action and adventure movies. A little detail I call NITMA, or “Necessity is the mother of awesome.”

See, what I love and can’t get enough of in games and books and movies are these one-of-a-kind situations. I’m not talking about something as grand as, “Save the world” but wild moments you don’t do again.

For example, in the original Metal Gear Solid, there was the torture scene and the rappling game. Gears of War had an interesting segment where you looked for light sources in order to ward off the bat like creatures that ate your flesh. In Dead Space 2 when Isaac launches himself towards the Sprawl and you have to guide him through space. Or in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past where you had to try and figure your way around the other world, despite being changed into a rabbit and cannot defend yourself.

When you think about that formula, is it any wonder how the Avengers did so well? You have several fleshed out heroses, each of which had their own movie. And the sheer impact of what was happening forced them to work together. So unorthodox, so out of the ordinary from the usual super hero stuff, it’s no wonder it took third place on the highest grossing movie list.

What makes these moments so amazing and huge is the fact that they cannot be easily reproduced. That your character was so desperate that they were forced to do something unexpected and dangerous and you get to control them through it. I don’t want to watch a cut scene where my characters stradles a bomb on its way down! I want to actively guide the bomb! Just like in Dr. Strangelove.

I suddenly realize that this was kind of what made games like Final Fantasy XI so popular years after. Events. Events with friends. We stuck together through rough Burning Circle Notorious Monsters and garrison events. We hung together during the invasion of Aht Urghan. There was so much end game stuff, it’s no wonder people clung to the game years after its release.

Unforgettable events are where it’s at. That’s the wild ride we should be looking to build in our movies, games and books.

Ouya and London (No Relation)

You are so small! Is funny to me!

You are so small! Is funny to me!

I’ve been quietly watching the Ouya with growing respect.

The Ouya is a new console due out in about six months. Best described, it’s an attempt at a console revolution: free-to-play games, open source, no licensing needed for developers, hardware modifiability. It uses the Android 4.0 operating system, has a USB 2.0 port, ethernet and can allow for up to four wireless controllers.

Ouya got its start thanks to a promising Kickstarter campaign that brought in over $8.5 million in seed money from over 63,000 backers. So far, the list of confirmed games is somewhat small, but they still have six months to gather partners. They also have a few mentionable names thrown around, such as Square Enix’s Final Fantasy III (confirmed) and Minecraft (in discussion).

Ouya’s biggest selling point is it’s potential: the development creativity of the PC meets the accessibility of the living room console. You know those addictive flash games you play on Newgrounds? Imagine if you could play them on your television with up to four friends.

Skeptics are not wrong when they point to the long list of failed consoles, such as the Turbo Grafix-16 and 3DO as cause for concern. Ouya is competing with three major giants in Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, and that’s not including the diverse and somewhat independent PC gamer types. But Ouya has time to get its act together before its release date in March of 2013.

No promises as to whether I’ll get it, but I’ll be watching.

Oh, and I’ll be heading to London in November.

P.S. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Valve Software will open up its free-game selection from Steam to Ouya. If nothing else, then just Team Fortress 2. Given Valve’s recent move to produce for Linux, it’s safe to assume that the eggheads at Valve are at least scratching their chin about it…