Short story: Demon Hunter

17 April 2015

6a00d8341bf67c53ef0148c80f2a13970c-500wiSome of you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit quiet around here lately.

Mostly that’s due to me being bed-bound for a week back in March with a bad back. And mind you, when I say ‘a bad back’ I don’t mean that it was aching a little like as though I’d been lifting heavy weights. No, this was a whole new level of badness. I’m talking not being able to stand bad. I’m talking stabbing pains all across my lumbar region bad. I’m talking shuffling around like an old man everywhere bad… Yeah, it wasn’t much fun. Then my mother was over for Easter, which erased another week and all the rest of my free time has been eaten up by the new house, which I’m pleased to say now has paint on its walls and wood on its floors and a garden that is almost entirely weed free.

But never let it be said I’m one to idly lie by because I was able to get a new short story finished during this time and sent off to an anthology for submission. Which is nice.

Click here to read a sample of Demon Hunter (PDF)

Which anthology, I hear you ask? This one. It’s all about hunting monsters of the big and scary variety. Think Godzilla stalked by Elmer Fudd and you’ll be somewhere along the right lines.

Shhh! Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I'm hunting monsters!

Shhh! Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I’m hunting monsters!

My own entry for this anthology is a rather strange tail about an exorcist from the Catholic church who roams the galaxy looking for demons to kill. Except that this demon is a giant ball of corrupted flesh and this priest uses science and bullets to kill its prey rather than prayers and holy water.

It’s a silly concept, I know. But it’s nice to let yourself go once in a while and just write whatever nonsense comes into your head. And like with a lot of my stuff these days, the idea for this story is an old one. I’ve mentioned before that Warhammer was a big inspiration for me during my formative writing years. It helped me develop my world building skills. For all the hackery of the 40k universe (and the double hackery of its gameplay) Warhammer has some of the most detailed and interesting fluff of any fictional shared universe I’ve come across. There are some really interesting concepts in the 40k universe and lots of them ripe for exploring further in other media.

The 40k universe: damn does it do super sillyness with style

The 40k universe: damn does it do super silliness with style

One of the most intriguing ideas from this universe is the idea of the ‘warp space’. It’s how the humans in the Warhammer universe travel from planet to planet. The ‘warp’ is basically another dimension which (to oversimplify things) is literally the physical amalgamation of all the combined thoughts of every sentient life form in the universe. Traveling through the warp is extremely dangerous. Not only are there frequent storms that tear ships apart and scatter them across space and time at a whim, but it’s also home to the deamons who are creatures literally born out of our darker thoughts. Most humans go mad trying to navigate their way through it. Many others become possessed by the deamons who live there. But everyone agrees the benefits of being able to travel across the universe so quickly far outweigh the few negatives and occasional mass infestations that might occur along the way.

Like Nurgle here

Some awesome 40k art taken from http://warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Nurgle

This concept was one I basically stole hook, line and sinker for my story Demon Hunter, although, in my defense, I did try to make my demon a little more science-y and less all-out evil. My descriptions of the demon were inspired by China Mieville’s short story Familiar in which a tiny magical creature slowly grows into a monster by assimilating into itself the everyday things it stumbles across. I remember finding the story creepy as all hell when I read it about 10 years ago and something about the imagery has stuck with me ever since.

Anyway I hope you like it. It’s a silly story and far from my best work but sometimes it’s nice to let yourself indulge in your wilder fantasies now and again.

Oh and one last note on the priest’s name: Father Asakite. It comes from a very old joke I used to share with my best friend. He once told me that if he ever became famous he would change his name to Asakite. That way, whenever someone saw him in the street they would say “Hi Asakite!”. There was also Denseek (“Hi Denseek!”) and Hosilver (“Hi Hosilver!”) but they were never as funny for some reason.

Anyway, as always feedback is welcomed.


The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

9 March 2015

“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

lathe-of-heaven‘What if?’ It’s a question that lies at the heart of almost all SF.

‘What if’ the world’s population were spiraling out of control? ‘What if’ there was no racial division or war? ‘What if’ hostile aliens landed on the moon? ‘What if’ a sleeping man had the power to change the world with his dreams? The genre of science fiction has made a name for itself by taking such impossible concepts and running with their implications. It highlights aspects of the human condition that might otherwise remain hidden. It helps us explore issues that are often too large or complex to examine through any other means.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 Hugo-nominated SF classic, is unique however, in that it doesn’t just present us with one ‘what if’ scenario to chew over but a veritable smorgasbord of them with the very concept of the ‘what if’ itself being put under the microscope.

At its core, the Lathe of Heaven is a retelling of that classic fantasy trope of someone wishing for a thing only to discover that it isn’t as good as expected.

In this case, the tool for that wishing is George Orr, a seemingly ordinary man who has somehow gained the ability to alter reality with his dreams. Sometimes these changes are small, such as changing a picture on a wall from a photograph of a mountain into one of a horse. Other times they are world changing. No matter the change, however, George Orr is always the only person aware of the changes once he wakes up. As far as everyone else is concerned, things have always been this way and George is a madman for thinking otherwise. It leads to some interesting philosophical questions on the nature of reality and our place within it.

“If [you were to tell me] under hypnosis to dream that there was a pink dog in the room, I’d do it; but the dog couldn’t be there so long as pink dogs aren’t in the order of nature. […] What would happen is, either I’d get a white poodle dyed pink, and some plausible reason for its being there, or, if [you] insisted that it be a genuine pink dog, then my dream would have to change the order of nature to include pink dogs. Everywhere. Since the Pleistocene or whenever dogs first appeared. They would always have come black, brown, yellow, white, and pink. And one of the pink ones would have wandered in from the hall, or would be [your] collie, or [your] receptionist’s Pekinese, or something. Nothing miraculous. Nothing unnatural. Each dream covers its tracks completely.”

As you might expect, these abilities to change the world on such a fundamental level have left George Orr terrified of his powers and doubting the truth of the world he is living in

To be fair: I'd be terrified if I kept dreaming of these things too

To be fair, I’d be terrified if I dreamt this was natural too

In an attempt to curb his abilities, Orr volunteers for therapy with Dr. Haber, a dream psychologist who has developed a machine that can monitor and control brain waves. At first, Dr. Haber is understandably dubious of Orr’s claims to be able to alter reality but pretty soon he not only believes his patient but actively starts using his powers to change reality for the better. At first his manipulations are small, consisting of little more than promotions for himself and changes in living quarters. But later, he sets his sights on much bigger prizes.

So, as an example, at first the world is over-populated*. So Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream that there is no longer an issue with overpopulation.

Instantly, most of humanity gets wiped out by a global plague which sets the economy into downfall and sparks off a series of brutal wars. Overpopulation is no longer an issue, but it has come at a terrible cost.

So then Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream about humanity being at peace with itself.

Instantly George Orr dreams of hostile aliens arriving and landing on the moon. The human race unites together against this external threat. World peace is gained but, again, at a terrible cost.

So then Orr is asked to dream that the aliens are gone from the moon… and they leave, only to head straight for the Earth…

Each ‘what if’ leads inexorably to another, worse one. It isn’t long before what starts out as a plausible but hellish world for our heroes to live in turns into a nightmarish dystopian world of multiple ‘what ifs’ piled on top of each other that only becomes dream-like and transient as the novel goes on.

 

“You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job. Who has humanitarian dreams?”

A little confession here, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel universes and alternate histories. The reason I started reading this book in the first place is because I was hoping for a little mental titillation along these lines. I love reading about reality being changed on a fundamental level and then watching the fall-out from these changes. It’s one of the reasons why I loved the show Sliders as a kid. It’s one of the reasons why the Star Trek: TNG episode ‘Parallels’ has always been one of my favourites.

Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back

Sliders. Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back

I was hoping for more of the same here. But what struck me while reading was how quickly these ‘what if’ scenarios fall into the background of the novel. These are hugely unsettling dystopians that Le Guin is creating for us here, each one of which is fuel for multiple novels in its own right, and yet the book never lingers on its changes. As the book continues and these fundamental changes such as pink dogs and grey people, aliens attacking and global plague pile up on top of each other, they somehow start to fall into the background, becoming almost inconsequential to the novel. Both main characters know that the world they are living in is subject to change and is therefore only temporary and so the central conceit of the novel shifts from being about the changes themselves to the very reason for the changing.

This is where the book finds its voice.

The crux of the novel hangs on the psychological struggle between the characters of George Orr and Dr. Haber. The book is surprisingly stingy when it comes to giving us characters. We are only ever presented with three distinct personalities and one of those, the lawyer and love interest Heather, only exists to highlight the changes happening in the world as well as act as a motivating factor for Orr. With so few characters to focus on, this book turns into what can only be described as a work of theatre. Long, dialogue-heavy chapters are the order of the day with the focus on characterization and philosophy rather than action. Small wonder then that this book is said to be the only one of Le Guin’s works to ever successfully transition to the big screen.

I haven't actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I've heard good things about it

I haven’t actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I’ve heard good things about it

On one side of this philosophical struggle, we have Orr. Orr is an idealist. Literally a dreamer.

“Orr had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not.”

“He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see the connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections – like a plumber.”

Haber, on the other hand, is a stern pragmatist. He wants to change the world for the better and in Orr he has found the perfect means to do it.

“When things don’t change any longer, that’s the end result of entropy, the heat-death of the universe. The more things go on moving, interrelating, conflicting, changing, the less balance there is—and the more life. I’m pro-life, George. Life itself is a huge gamble against the odds, against all odds! […] What you’re afraid to accept, here, is that we’re engaged in a really great experiment, you and I. We’re on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!”

Some of the best moments of this book come when the two main characters are debating the morality of their actions with each other. Both come out with valid reasons for their position and while we are of course led to side with Orr (since he is our POV character), neither is essentially right on the issue. Both characters are believable and likeable in their own way.

Overall the Lathe of Heaven is a fascinating read and while things do get a little convoluted and bogged down by their own conceits towards the end (the climax in particular came way too far out of the left field for my liking), it’s a book that’s well worth your attention despite how laughable some of its ‘what ifs’ might seem to modern eyes.

I’ll leave with one final quote from the novel, perhaps the most famous quote in the book. It is a beautiful piece of writing and poignant too, both of which are words I would use to describe the Lathe of Heaven as a whole. Not perfect by any means but worthy of your time. A sweet, dream-like book which wears its ‘what ifs’ firmly on its sleeve and yet for the most part chooses to ignore them in favour of much larger goals.

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

_____________________________

* Six billion people if you can believe such an impossibly over-inflated number, with America suffering from extreme malnutrition, the destruction of almost all forest and parkland and the extinction of every large mammal, including the horse. I love how wrong SF writers can be sometimes when they are imagining the future. This is practically Jules Verne all over again with people walking to the centre of the Earth by foot and astronauts being fired into space out of a giant gun. Well okay, perhaps not that bad.


Our new house

2 March 2015

So it’s still not officially official yet – the bank hasn’t approved our loan application yet and the final documents are still in the process of being put together – but it looks as though my wife and I will soon be the proud owners of our very own house.

This house, to be precise.

A shot of our new house from the back

A shot of our new house from the back

As you can see it’s a brand new semi located outside the city. Owning a brand new house is cool because it means you can make everything fit your exact specifications, but it does mean a lot of work needs to be done before it’s fit for human habitation. I can already tell you that every weekend between now and the summer is going to be a slog of visiting showrooms and pouring over catalogs for everything from bathrooms to fireplaces. But hey, it’s a project, and it’s something my wife and I have been planning for a very long time.

Unlocking the front door for the very first time

Me unlocking the front door for the very first time

The house itself is located just outside Wroclaw, in a small village a few kilometers away. It’s close enough to the city that we can drive to Wroclaw in just a few minutes but far enough away that it feels like we’re in the countryside. It’s very quiet around us. There’s a park with a children’s playground opposite us. Our neighbours mostly comprise chickens and a small company that chops wood. There are no shops but there are a lot of domestic animals. We also have some friends living in the same village so that’s cool.

A shot of what will eventually be the kitchen

A shot of what will eventually be the kitchen

My wife and I are both really excited to see how things pan out from here. As always I’ll be posting our progress here so check it out if you’re interested in keeping up to date on all things house-related. I’ve a feeling there are going to be a lot of updates on the subject.


Game reviews: Mario Kart 8

23 February 2015

mario_kart_8_box_artHere’s a question for you: what is the best-selling Nintendo franchise of all time?

Most likely your first thought was Mario. Who, after all, doesn’t remember the impact made by games like Mario Bros. 3 or Mario 64 when they first launched on an unsuspecting industry? They changed game design on a fundamental level, serving as a textbook for how create platformers for years to come.

Or perhaps your first thought was the Legend of Zelda. You remembered that almost every game in that series has been critically acclaimed, and that the Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask frequently appear in the top 10 games of all time. Any series with so many plaudits must have sold by the bucket, right?

What if I were to tell you that the correct answer is none of the above? The last three home console Mario games – Super Mario Galaxy (12.22m), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (7.41m), and Super Mario 3D World (3.79m) – sold well but hardly well enough to shock the industry. The last three Legend of Zelda games – Twilight Princess (8.58m), Skyward Sword (3.67m) and Windwaker HD (1.22m) – faired even worse .

In fact, you might be surprised to hear that the most recent Mario Kart game, Mario Kart Wii, sold almost as many copies as all of the above games combined. A staggering 35.11m units worldwide and the game wasn’t even considered that good.

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

When you look at things like this, you can see there are few priorities higher for Nintendo than Mario Kart. It is their golden goose. It’s that fun party game everyone knows about even if they’ve never play a game in their life. Its launch on the 3DS is partially credited with saving that system from an early death. The series appears six times in the Guinness Book of Records, with the original Super Mario Kart number 1 on the list of top 50 console games based on initial impact and lasting legacy. Simply put, see the words “Mario Kart” written on a game and you know that Nintendo have brought their A-game.

Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

From the moment you pop this game into your Wii U, you know exactly what you’ll be getting. This is a Mario Kart game plain and simple, and it comes with all the crazy mayhem and item throwing shenanigans we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Race around 32 fun, impossible courses as popular Nintendo mascots. Use crazy powerups to gain the upper hand. Try to come in first place. You can race alone or with friends both locally and online. There’s a single player time-trial mode to improve your scores and a Mario Kart TV mode where you can view other people’s races from all over the world. Throw in a battle mode and a bunch of DLC and you have yourself a winning formula for success.

As always, it’s a masterclass of game design.

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is almost nothing on the Wii U that compares with this game. 720p, 60 frames per second (actually 59 with the 60th frame being a duplicate of the 59th, but who really cares about a single frame?), which doesn’t drop even even while playing online. The game is slick and responsive with tight controls and fluid mechanics. It’s a real feat of programming and an absolute blast to play.

And THAT MUSIC!!! My God. Best OST ever.

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

Like many  Mario Karts, this one has a new gimmick to go along with all the shiny new visuals and in this case that gimmick is anti-gravity. For the first time in Mario Kart history, you can race your karts up walls and along ceilings. Tracks twist and turn in the most unbelievable ways. At various points in the game you’ll find yourself driving vertically up a waterfall, or on the underside of a giant mobius strip. You’ll find yourself driving along the ceiling of a haunted house or down through the twisting tunnels of a sewer. Simply put, nothing is off limits, leading to some of the most imaginative and fun course designs yet seen in a Mario Kart. Personal course highlights include Mute City, a homage to the F-Zero franchise, and Wario Mountain, a rare one-track race that has you racing from the very top to the very bottom of a slalom-style ski course.

Also unique to this version of Mario Kart is its heavy emphasis on DLC and integration with the new Amiibo range of toys. The DLC is fairly priced with $11.99 netting you 16 new courses and 6 new characters, essentially boosting the size of the game by 50% for less than one third of its price. This is in addition to other regular updates, more controller options than you can count and fully integrated off TV play. As I said before, Nintendo always brings their A-game with Mario Kart and if there’s a box that can be ticked on a list of Wii U features, you can be sure this game will be doing its best to tick it.

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

Of course there are always going to be downsides to any game and Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

The AI in this game is bad. No, worse than bad. It’s broken. Mario Kart has always been known for its cheap rubber banding but Mario Kart 8 takes it to ridiculous levels. No matter how well you are racing, no matter what short cuts you take or exploits you pull off, you will always find the number two racer breathing down your neck while the rest of the pack follow just a couple of seconds behind. Conversely, if you happen to race badly you’re only ever a couple of stars or a rocket power up away from being back in the race. I get the idea: Nintendo want to make sure this game is accessible to everyone, newcomers and old hands alike, but there comes a point when it’s too much.

And that's not to even mention how broken some of the power ups in this game are

And that’s without even mentioning how broken some of the power ups in this game are

The hallmark of a challenging game is one that’s hard but fair. Fail and you know it was your fault. Succeed and you know it was because of you mastering the game’s mechanics. It’s like with Hyrule Warriors which I reviewed last week. The more you practice, the better you get at that game and that simple fact encourages you to keep coming back for more.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with Mario Kart 8. The challenge is high, yes, but it’s been made artificially so. Random items. Random events. Rubber banding. Cheating AI. Unfair item distribution. If you’re in last place, the game does its best to put you back into the race. If you’re in first place, the game does its utmost to drop you back into the pack. Apparently Nintendo thinks this makes for a better game. It doesn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times I was cruising to victory in first place, driving perfectly, taking each corner with boosted perfection and using all the shortcuts I knew. I should have been cruising to victory. Instead I end up being hit by a lightning bolt on the final lap. Then a blooper and two red shells in the space of five seconds. You end up coming 7th because the RNG gods decided to gift a rocket to the guy who finished 6th. It’s complete BS and it leads to nothing but frustration.

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost and your living room may be in danger. You have been warned

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost. Your very living room may be in danger. You have been warned

The great thing about Mario Kart has always been how accessible it is. A complete novice can pick the game up, race and have fun in just a couple of minutes. However, this accessibility is a double-edged sword that limits Mario Kart as a competitive racer. There’s a reason no fanatical community has ever built up around Mario Kart like it has around Smash Bros. The game wants experienced racers to fail just as much as it wants novices to succeed. In this way everyone becomes average and the winning or losing of the game falls entirely down to the will of an RNG.

That’s not fun. It’s dice rolling.

RNG: the game

He’s 12th now but don’t worry he’ll get a rocket soon

And that’s not even to mention my biggest gripe with this game. For all its mastery and beauty, the game is simply too safe. Mario Kart’s formula is so tried and tested by this point it’s creaking at the edges. It’s such a cash cow for Nintendo that it’s almost as though they’re afraid to tinker with the formula for fear of breaking it.

Remember Diddy Kong racing? Remember its story line and boss battles? Remember Crack Nitro Kart with its track editor? Remember ModNation Racer with its customizable vehicles and characters? Playing Mario Kart these days feels like listening to a symphony by Mozart. You know that it’s beautiful and that it couldn’t have been better constructed, and yet you can’t help but get bored by it. It’s years behind the times.

Mario Kart’s formula is so ingrained in our minds by this point the games practically program themselves. But familiarity breads contempt and Nintendo really needs to try mixing up the formula soon or I doubt I will be buying the next Mario Kart as eagerly as I did this one (even though it did come with a free game. Another A-game publicity stunt from Nintendo).

Overall – B

bI so wanted to love this game. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hyped for a Mario Kart as I was for this one. Sad to say the end result is not what I was hoping for. ‘Limited’ is the word I would use for this, along with ‘safe’ and ‘frustrating’. I honestly think I had more fun with Mario Kart Wii than 8 and that’s a sad thing to say considering how hated Wii is by the community.

Fortunately, there’s just enough that’s good in this game for me to give it a recommendation. Great track layouts, fun anti-gravity mechanic, beautiful visuals and a frankly phenominal soundtrack combine to make this a good game to wile away a few hours with friends. It’s a fun game – it’s a Mario Kart game – and you’ll have a lot of fun playing it.

I’m just not sure how long you’ll be playing it for.


Game review: Hyrule Warriors

16 February 2015

the_legend_of_zelda_hyrule_warriors_5_rawReviewing a game is always a delicate matter. On the one hand you strive to review things objectively. You analyze why a game is or isn’t good in relation to the rest of the industry. You look at the game in terms of graphical fidelity and smooth frame rates, the quality of its textures and the realism of its AI. When a game gets these things right, you praise it even if you don’t particularly like it.

It’s in this way that I find myself able to heap praise on a game like Bayonetta 2 or Super Smash Bros, even though I don’t actually enjoy playing either very much. I can recognize that they are well made examples of their genre and I’m sure a lot of people will get hours of fun out of them.

This is what being a reviewer means.

Bayonetta 2: a phenominal game, but not for me

Bayonetta 2: a phenomenal game, but not for me

But then there is the other extreme: games which you find yourself enjoying despite all their flaws.

These games are glitchy, buggy messes of hasty coding and poor optimization. These games have frame rates that dip more often than nachos at a house party and load times less reliable than most bus schedules. These games freeze on you or downright crash your system. Your inner critic looks at these things and despairs: “These aren’t Serious Games! This is generic shlock; the Michael Bay of video games! Give it a mediocre score and let’s move on…”

And yet, whenever you find yourself with a few hours free, it’s this later example that your find yourself returning to time after time.

Tell me: as a reviewer, which of the above scenarios deserves the higher score? Is it the game you can appreciate like a fine wine? Or the one you guzzle down like cheap lager?

It’s a question I never really considered until playing Hyrule Warriors.

Hyrule Warriors is something of a break-out experiment from Nintendo. As a fusion between Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise and Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series, the game has you thrown into large-scale battles in which you are a one-man army pitted against a literally endless hoard of enemies. The aim of the game is to capture keeps (areas of enemy territory) which once under your control will spawn more allies for your side. Once you’ve got a certain percentage of the field under your control, the enemy HQ will open up allowing you to take on the enemy commander for the mission in one-on-one combat.

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

This style of game is nothing new. Koei Tecmo has been churning out games just like this one for well over a decade now, and Hyrule Warriors (apparently) is just an average example of that series reskinned with Zelda characters. Critics of the game will tell you that it’s a mindless button masher. They will say that the missions are extremely repetitive, that there’s a lot of grinding and very bad AI. They will point out the stuttering frame rates and the graphical glitches and they will give it a mediocre score of 7 out of 10.

Like this.

Which is just further evidence as to why you should never buy a game based solely on its review score.

You can accuse this game of being a reskinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

You can accuse this game of being a re-skinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

Confession time: I love Hyrule Warriors. I can’t stop playing it. I’ve been playing it since it came out in September and I’m still nowhere near done with it. I’ve sunk over 100 hours into the game so far, played it at the expense of much higher-profile game releases like Super Smash Bros. (for which I’ve only played 10 hours) and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker (which I’ve yet to play at all). I’ve bought all the DLC for it. I’ve purchased the strategy guide. I’ve made Excel files with lists of the objectives I still need to complete and the order of how I will do it. I even bought a Link Amiibo just so I could unlock one of the game’s weapons.

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd (in a good way, of course)

In fact, I’m so addicted to this game that when my hard drive recently corrupted on me and wiped out my save file containing over 100 hours of progress, even that didn’t stop me playing. I was devastated, sure. But then I remembered how much of those 100 hours I had wasted getting to grips with the game’s mechanics. I was much better at the game now, I knew. It would only take me perhaps half that time to regain all that progress…

And so the next thing I knew, I was re-downloading the DLC once again (this time directly onto my Wii U to avoid any future hard drive issues) and starting it all again from scratch. 100 hours of progress lost… and I continued to play the game.

That, right there, is something I can honestly say I have never done in my entire history of gaming. Sure, there are games that I’ve done multiple playthroughs for but they always tend to be smaller and more episodic in scope like Super Mario 3D World, in which a new playthrough just involves revisiting your favourite levels again as if they were new. To lose so much progress from such a monster of a game and yet refuse to give up made me realize something very important:

Despite all of this game’s many flaws, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite game on the Wii U.

Game of the year. I'm not even ashamed to admit it

Game of the year. I’m not even ashamed to admit it

So what is it that keeps me coming back to this game? The content. There is a ridiculous amount of content in this game. It took The Completionist over 200 hours to get everything in just the base game alone and since then there have been three extra download packs which have more than tripled the game’s content overall.

Because of this staggering amount of content you are literally never without something to do. You are constantly working towards something, be it unlocking a new weapon or grinding out an achievement. It’s this constant feeling of incremental progress that keeps you coming back for more and keeps you pushing on for just one more level, just one more map square until the next thing you know it’s 3.00am and you have work the next day…

Unlocking all the game's weapons and content is one of the best things about it

Unlocking all the weapons and content is one of the best things about the game

At its core, the game is very simple. All moves in the game are controlled with the use of just two buttons — a normal attack and a strong attack — in varying combinations. As a result it’s an extremely easy game to pick up and learn the basics for but like all good game systems there is a lot of depth to master.

The game is frantic too. Not in the same way as Super Smash Bros., which is a game that just loves throwing as much as it can at the screen in the hopes that you’ll interpret the ensuring chaos as ‘fun’, but in a far more controlled way. You are continually bombarded throughout the missions with new objectives and messages from your allies. You find yourself constantly re-prioritizing your objectives. Do you push on and take that keep or hold back and defend your own? Do you head over to the other side of the map to rescue your ally, or just ignore him in the hopes that pushing on will indirectly save him?

It’s frenetic. It’s intense. And most importantly, it’s fun.

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here. And it's great

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here and it’s just as awesome as you almost imagined it would be

If this is what all the Dynasty Warriors games are like then I can’t believe I’ve missed out on them for so long. Damn the critics for not appreciating this sort of game more and damn me for listening to them.

Overall – A

aThe critics are right in everything they’ve said about this game. It is mediocre in a lot of ways. It lacks online play, its frame rate is questionable and glitches (like the one I mentioned above in which my entire save data for the game was wiped out) are not unheard of. And it’s true that the Wii U isn’t exactly short of this sort of combo-heavy hack’n’slash adventure style game right now. There’s the aforementioned Bayonetta 2 (and its prequel, launched at the same time), Darksiders II, and the Wonderful 101 released by Platinum last year. All of those games do many things which are better than Hyrule Warriors. All of them push their respective genres in new, interesting directions. Any reviewer worth their salt would give them all higher scores than Hyrule Warriors…

And yet not one of those games is sitting inside my Wii U right now. Not one of those games has had me playing it for over 150 hours. Not one of them excites me inside my gamer soul like this one does. Better on paper they might be but in my heart there is only Hyrule Warriors.

AND THAT MUSIC! My God it’s incredible.

If the point of a game is to give you a good time, to provide some mindless entertainment and wile away a couple of hours then Hyrule Warriors is without a doubt my game of the year and biggest surprise of 2014. It gets an A on sheer effort, fan service and content alone.

If, however, the point of a game is to be well made and interesting, like a sterile tech demo designed to please PC elitists, then this game is mediocre at best and should probably be avoided.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Wii U is calling to me…


Short story: Gifted (After)

12 February 2015

Marshall-AmpsA couple of weeks ago I posted an old story on here. I said I was going to redraft it and send it off to a short story competition about ghosts. The story had to be up to 5,000 words long and it had to have a ghost in it. Those were the rules. The rules said nothing about the story itself being scary, however, or even a horror for that matter.

So anyway, it’s been many long hard days since that last post and I’ve finally finished the redraft. The story is now called The Star, which is a much more fitting title for it.

To break things down a little:

  • Things that stayed the same from the first draft to this one: the characters, the setting, the plot points and the length
  • Things that have changed: literally everything elsetumblr_n2gqggvSsE1ryd41yo2_1280

The Star still follows the same basic outline as Gifted. Both stories start with the lead singer of a newly popular band passed out backstage just moments before the biggest gig of his life. In both we then get a scene of his band mates trying to bring him back to his senses, followed by a gig that goes disastrously wrong (though for different reasons). In both we then get to see the fall-out from this terrible concert, which results in the character hating himself.

For all that, however, this is a very different story to the first one. Its themes are different, its characterization and tone is different. The central concept at the heart of the story is perhaps the most different thing of all. And that’s one of the reasons why this was so fun to write. I was following a story template created by my younger self but I still had room to be creative.

It’s nice when that happens.

As always C&C welcome.


Short story: Gifted (before)

29 January 2015

Marshall-AmpsSo now that my novel is well and truly out of the way I’ve been thinking about the different ways I can utilize my time. Last year was a good one for me with two stories published and I’d like to see if I can keep that momentum going if at all possible.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to submit a bunch of stories over the next few months to various anthologies and competitions. Now before you say anything, yes I’m well aware that I already tried doing that over a year ago to little effect, but in my defense I was submitting to magazines at the time, of which there aren’t that many these days and those which do exist have very broad readerships. This time I will be specifically targeting competitions and anthologies, providing them with (I hope) exactly the sort of story they want to see. It was a strategy I tried last year to great success so I’m going to see if I can keep a good thing going.

So, to start with I’m going to submit a ghost story to this competition for The Fiction Desk. Here’s a description:

‘Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.

Sounds simple enough, right?

index

This is pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the subject…

Now normally I would be the first to say that ghost stories aren’t my forte. I’ve never written one, I’ve only read a handful in my life, and I don’t even believe in ghosts so it’s kind of difficult to take the whole thing seriously. However, in this case I’m feeling secretly confident about things because I trick up my sleeve. Namely, I already have a story written… kind of.

For this, I’m going to try retooling an old story I wrote many years ago for a university project. At the time of writing I got a good grade for it, but like so much of my earlier work, I find that time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s way overwritten, far too aware of itself and, yes, it’s absolutely in love with the idea of everything being as dank and gloomy as possible (because Goddamn it, if dirt and dim lighting doesn’t make things feel more real then I don’t know what does!).

Click here to read the original version (PDF)

As you can see, there’s no ghost in this story per se, but there is something very much like a ghost. You know how people sometimes say that really talented people were ‘born with a gift inside them’? Well, I tried playing with the idea that this is literally true. I imagined a gift as being a kind of spiritual creature that lives inside every person. As you would expect, every gift is different (just like every person is different). Some gifts are big and impressive, others are understated and shy. Some are well looked after, allowing them to flourish. Others are neglected or ignored.

For the story, I envisaged a musician who is, quite literally, wasting his talent. He has an amazing gift inside him – one of the best ever made – but he has misused it for years, using it only to produce quick and easy songs that are guaranteed to sell but which don’t test his talents in any way.

Then I imagined the gift getting super angry and trying to get its revenge…

internal-demons

Yeah, I know it’s a little convoluted as premises go but I have to say I do quite like it and I think it would transition well into a longer story, especially if it were told from the point of view of the gift a la the Screwtape Letters. But for a 4,000 word short story submitted to a writing competition…? Meh, it’s a little too fiddly to be workable in my opinion.

So yeah, the idea is that I’m going to be rebuilding this story with a much more straightforward premise. The main story elements will remain the same, as will the essential beats of the plot, but the gift will be swapped out for a more traditional ghost-like creature, which will hopefully result in a far more easily digestible story.

Check back next week when I’ll show you (some of) the finished version. Hopefully you’ll agree it’s a big improvement over this first draft.


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