Thursday, May 31, 2012

Audio vs Video vs Imagination

In spare moments here and there I've been working on scripts for both audio teasers and video teasers for Twixt Heaven and Hell. It's been a lot of fun.

The only problem is, I'm having trouble writing a good video teaser without any "special effects." That means pretty much anything beyond regular people in costume moving about in the woods. I can get a decent ways... but this book is about the eternal battle between Angels and Demons. It has wizards, and magic, and fortresses and a big city and I can't show any of that.

Hmm.... maybe I can still figure something out. Though basically it just makes me want to learn to do CGI.

On the other hand, the audio teaser is coming along well. I've just completed a 'proof of concept' recording that I think will do nicely. Even if I do manage to get a video done for one teaser, I'll definitely release this audio one as well. It has a significantly different feel, and a different narrator. One with wings.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Diablo III, Rant II: "The Lord of Error"

This won't be as long as the other one, I promise.

First of all, I was entirely correct in that, had Blizzard simply let me start playing on a higher difficulty level, I would have enjoyed the game far more.

Perhaps if I had stepped away from the game for a long while and come back and played it on the so-called Nightmare difficulty, I could have gotten a new sense of the story. Much like re-reading a book after many years, when you have forgotten many of the details. However, I wasn't about to do that. It's a new game and I'm gonna play it now.

I say again that the game and story are inextricably linked only on the first playthrough. On subsequent 'runs' nobody cares about the story. They don't stop and listen to the dialogue, and they probably don't even pause to watch the cinematic. Later playthroughs are not about atmosphere, or appreciating the finer points of the game - they are about loot and experience. The faster I can click on the hostile little bundles of pixels, the faster I can gather up both.

I covered a bit of how even the loot system feels cheapened in Diablo III, and I won't rehash the topic. Suffice to say that the blow to the story of Diablo III - which, while actually the least well-written of the three games, is still pretty entertaining - is almost unforgivable. I would have enjoyed it far, FAR more if I had merely been allowed to pick a higher difficulty setting from the beginning.

I know there are reasons for their choice. As a game designer myself I can see some of the logic behind it, but in my own humble, not-earning-billions-with-my-games opinion, I think they did it poorly.

Also, the permanent connectivity requirement is a horrible decision as well. I'm basically writing this because I can't log in to in order to play the game completely solo - because, despite its flaws it is still a decent game (and moreover, one I sunk $60 to pay for) and I'd rather be playing it than complaining about it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Over My Dead Body

It is Memorial Day here in the States.

As holidays are wont to do, it got me thinking about the reason for the celebration. Various pictures thrown about on Facebook and Twitter kept me on the subject. Even when I wanted to retire into alcohol and grilled succulents, my mind remained on other topics: Death. Sacrifice. Service.

Anyone familiar with the genres of fantasy and science fiction will know that the authors thereof do not shy away from war. In fact, they invite it. Most of our books are set against the backdrop of some world-altering conflict. People die by the hundreds of thousands to give gravity to some plot.

Hundreds and thousands of people. Of course, in our narrative they are not people - they are characters. Not even that, actually. To refute Bob Seger, they are simply numbers.

I wonder, how many authors really think about the number of deaths they invoke a grim feeling in their world? Every now and again, I think about them. The young men who die in my imaginary wars are no different than those who die in our real ones. They feel a sense of duty, either to their nation or to the men and women around them. It keeps them on the line, on the bounce, and on the job.


I have known many soldiers. In my capacity as a martial arts instructor, I have trained many of them. Is there one defining trait I have found in all of them? No. Is there one overriding belief? No. These men and women, who risk their lives for causes both just and unjust, have been as varied as any other class of people I have ever met. Why, then, do they do it?

Perhaps I could try and answer the question, but I will not. I believe that days like to day are best spent not simply remembering - but thinking. I myself once thought of being a soldier. Ultimately, I decided not to enlist. But I have nothing but the most profound respect for those who did, and my conclusion was that the service I owed to those people was to ensure that they never risked their lives for an unjust cause. The only way I can affect that is with my solitary vote and voice. If they are sent to defend something, I mean to make damn well sure it is me they are defending, else they should not be sent.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Music Drives the Mood

I love the internet.

You can get pretty much anything you need on the internet, provided you're willing to be a little flexible. I'm recording an audio book trailer (still hoping to shoot a video one as well, but we'll see) and needed music. Sure enough, the wonderful Kevin McLeod has an entire site packed with high-quality, royalty free music.

Kevin, I cannot thank you enough.

Of course, that flexibility I mentioned comes in when I actually select a piece of music I want to go along with the audio trailer. The music, not the words, really determine the mood of the trailer, and I will need to change my delivery to make them work together instead of clash. No matter. I'm sure that somewhere within that library of work I can find something to match my tastes and deliver the proper feel.

It makes me realize, though, just how large a support network I'm going to need if I want to do this more often and with higher quality. Artists, actors, musicians... and that's just for the trailers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Some Comments on Someone's Advice

I recently read this article over using the search feature in word processors to find trouble spots in your writing. Some good points, and I especially agree with annihilating qualifiers. Words like "very," "bit," "quite," and "rather" occur far too often in my writing and it drives me crazy when editing.

However, I do take issues with some  of this advice. First, and more trivially, is that in her section on "weasel words" the author uses dialogue to show which of two passages is better than the other. I think it very important for writers to realize the difference between tightening narration and changing dialogue.

Here is the example:

With weasel words: Suddenly, she stood up and said, “Oh well, let’s retire to the drawing room and just stay out of his way.”

Better: She stood and said, “Let’s retire to the drawing room and stay out of his way."
 The problem is that, because this is dialogue, this change isn't a matter of refining the writing - it changes the way the character speaks, and thus how we read her. Dialogue should not be 'tightened' unless it suits the character.

The second point is a battle in which I am ever on the losing side, concerning adverbs. Again, here is the example used in the above article:

With adverb: “I’ll kill him,” she said ferociously. (Really?)

Better: “I’ll kill him,” she said.

To be fair, I don't think we can judge the 'proper' use of an adverb without more context, but taken alone these two are not the same. In the "better" example, she could be saying it calmly, jokingly, in a little-girl sing-song voice, whatever. Details like these could be established before or after the actual dialogue. The fact remains that the adverb changes how we interpret the quote, and thus affects both our knowledge of scene and character.

Adverbs are like any other tool - use them in moderation and they're fine. Use them too often and readers start noticing them. They are make-up: If you use them sparingly they enhance the overall beauty of your work without anyone remembering they were there. Use them heavily and you've only created another flaw.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Diablo III: When Storytelling and Gameplay Clash

*Diablo III spoilers ahead*

I just beat Diablo III. As it came out only a few days ago, and I only played it for ~15 hours so far, I definitely thought it went by too quickly.

It seems that Blizzard has designed this game experience to be like the 'high-level play' experience of World of Warcraft. That is to say - repetitive and grinding. To be fair, I have not looked into multiplayer very far, and know nothing about how PvP might work, but all in all, I admit to being disappointed with the end result.

The game itself was certainly fun, and I'm sure I'll continue having fun playing through on the higher level (Nightmare) difficulty. However, they should have given me the option to skip right to it. I didn't want an easy first run. I want to be challenged. Basically, they set up Normal difficulty as the tutorial - sadly, the tutorial happens to run through the entire game.

Had they let me skip the 'beginner' mode, I would have been far more satisfied with the game. It is hard to take the story (which is okay) and the grandiose cutscenes (which are phenomenal) seriously when I am tearing through the most powerful enemies Hell has to offer with a beam of destruction in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. I'm not even sure my wizard bothered to look at the terrible creatures he was annihilating.

One boss battle in the fourth act was especially laughable. I'm standing in the shattered ruins of Heaven itself while Diablo taunts me and tells me his most powerful servant, the Spikey Minion of Doom, lies ahead to stop me. I walk into the next room and said servant taunts me as well as our fight begins.

Spikey Minion died before his taunt had finished. Of course, the game didn't seem to expect this, as his coarse, arrogant voice kept playing even as I began to grab the magic loot off his spikey corpse. That sort of thing kind of detracts from the grandeur of the storyline. How am I supposed to take the fires of Hell seriously when I can snuff them like a match?

Even when playing through on Nightmare, if I decide to do that, won't restore the feel. I already know the story. I've seen everything the game has to offer. If the challenge had gone hand in hand with the discovery of the story itself, I would have been able to immerse myself in the titanic battle for the fate of all creation. As it was, I paid more attention to the magic items hemorrhaging from the holes I blew in the various demons than the demons themselves, even when they had fancy names and dialogue.

Some might say that collecting loot is what Diablo is all about - I'll even say they have a point. The story would have been great if I'd been challenged on my first play through (which is the only play through where story matters!) but oh well. As long as the rest of the gameplay is involving, I can forgive that failing.

Sadly, loot has been 'streamlined' to the point where it, as well, is boring. Magic items are now part of a harvesting system where you are expected to break most of them down for raw materials. That part ain't a big deal - they were common in earlier games too.

More damaging are the laughably named "rare" items, which by my guess drop about once every ten minutes. At first it was exciting to see those little gold names pop up, wondering what strange and powerful relic I had happened upon. By the end of the game they were no more exciting then any other item. Diablo III had managed to take the fun out of collecting loot. Rarity is a big part of the fun. If you remove that, you remove the whole point.

This post has gotten long... but I'm probably not done venting on the subject. I have been a fan of Blizzard since Warcraft (the original). I remember going to the mall for all seven of Starcraft's release dates. Though I quit World of Warcraft I still think it a well-done game.

Diablo III is, in my opinion, Blizzard's first stumble. Still a good game, had it come from any other company. But the bar for Blizzard is very high.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Getting Past the Big Dumb Thing

I recently wrote an article for The Roundtable Podcast (which should be appearing soon). I had to meander a little bit in order to find my topic, and a couple of those meanders produced some bits I still wanted to share. I turned them into this somewhat disjointed blog post.

We writers of fantasy have a dangerous fixation on the Big Dumb Thing.

BDTs are those objects, locations, and phenomena that carry a feeling of awe and mystery. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the Monolith of Arthur C. Clarke and The Wall in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. They wow the audience, and provide iconic images that serve as symbols for entire bodies of work.

Furthermore, a BDT can be abstract - such as Robert Jordan's system of the One Power, or countless fictional technologies present in science fiction. 

The one thing a BDT cannot be, is a character - and that means that a BDT can never be enough to drive a story.

You probably already knew this. Most writers of sci fi and fantasy come across this caution early and often - and yet still I meet writers who are ‘building their world’ before they write their story.

Wrong order! If you want to tell people about “your world” then you need to draw their interest with compelling stories and, especially, interesting characters. Until you weave it into a compelling story and demonstrate how it affects the lives of characters we love (or hate), your Big Dumb Thing is just a glorified prop.

Another common stumble for these world-builders is to 'design' their characters just like they design their world (sci-fi and fantasy is overrun with engineers, it seems). If you approach creating a character like assembling a robot, you’ll end up with something that shares a few traits with a machine: artificial, lifeless, and driven by the mission to destroy mankind.

You can't pick a bunch of traits and try to glue them together into a character. You'll end up with a monstrosity of hard angles and poorly fitting parts, where the cracks between his "brutal upbringing" and "love of puppies" are glaringly obvious.

Real people aren’t engineered - they grow. Let your characters do the same. You may have an idea for their personality, but then you need to decide how they got that way. It is a common quirk for writers that they know their characters' back-stories, even if the reader never finds out. This is a quirk of necessity - this history informs the character. In effect, it mimics the natural development of a real person.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

I do not intend to turn this blog into a movie review blog, or anything of the sort, but this movie was so incredible I had to say something about it. I want to find the person who came up with the concept and shake their hand. It was such a hilarious send-up of the horror genre, with so much respect and love for its material, that I was actually cheering at the screen (sorry, other people in the theatre). I cannot recommend it enough.

In fact, it was so brilliant that I can't help but suspect that its areas of predictability (even when they were so-called 'twists') were intentional, and meant to be guessed at rather than truly surprising. Or maybe I'm just smart... either way, go see the movie.