Lightsaber Nunchucks

Writing a blog about writing a book is difficult to keep interesting at the best of times. When progress on aforementioned book has ground to a halt in recent months then it’s even harder. The noise of Christmas and New Year has now faded in the rear view mirror and I’ve suddenly became very much aware that it was one year ago since I started writing the basic outline and notes for the story. The actual task of putting words on the page was started in March and I made fairly steady progress over the summer months. Then in October, once the nights had started drawing in, I reached a part of the story in which the whole thing seemed to suddenly run out of steam. It’s been hard picking back up after that and I’ve constantly been saying to myself that I’ll return to it. That return keeps getting shoved back.

Reading what I have so far confirms the worst fear that it’s 30,000 words of utter nonsense. It’s a combination of small town Scotland, aliens, child abduction and people not quite seeming what they are. If that sounds like it shouldn’t hang together well then rest assured that at this current moment you are indeed correct. The overwhelming feeling is that even if I do charge forward and reach the end then the editing job to get it anywhere near watertight at the end is massive.

I seem to have spent the first two weeks of 2018 taking up other projects separate from the book which seems like a subliminal effort to avoid actually doing anything about the thing. I’ll write about video games over on Dragon In The Castle and I’ve had the mad notion to start a printed games fanzine. I’m also still involved in the pro wrestling podcast called Conquistabores. I’ve also had the pleasure of being invited up to Edinburgh on a fairly regular basis to talk about Doctor Who on another podcast called The Polis Box.

These things are all great fun and I look forward to participating in them. The strange thing is that I’m struggling most with the one that I’m solely responsible for. It seems just that little bit uphill at the moment and the hope is that I find a thread sometimes soon and carry on. I have a feeling that once I hit a rich vein then it’ll become far easier.

 

Good People Making Cool Things

The more I’ve got into writing this book the more I’ve began to appreciate and be inspired by others online who are trying to get their dreams and ideas into reality. I’ve usually never met these people (but would certainly try and say hello if I ever did) but their individual stories do remind me that, when ploughing through another thousand words or so, there might just be something really special at the end of all of this. For the last few weeks I’ve been thoroughly addicted to watching Games As Lit 101 on YouTube in which Samuel Gronseth casts a critical eye over interactive media. I’d been watching a lot of his videos (drawn in mostly be his remarkable analysis of Bioshock) when his latest video describing his personal circumstances landed.

Rather than waffle on about it myself I’ll just put the video right here.

Once again I’ve never met Samuel nor ever spoken to him but I wanted to go right ahead and sign up to his Patreon because I really enjoy what he’s doing and want to help him advance it to the stage that he obviously reckons he can. There have been so many times whilst watching his videos that he’s introduced completely new ideas regarding games I long since thought I knew everything about.

I’ve signed up to $4 a month which isn’t a huge amount (does four bucks buy you a coffee and doughnut over that side of the Atlantic these days?) but I hope it goes some way to getting to his target. If you like video games and don’t just regard them as junk, throw away entertainment then I’d certainly recommend chucking Samuel some money so he can expand his show and bring his ideas to life.

Also, he likes cats so that’s an automatic thumbs up from me.

Now I need to go and write more words.

Commander Jameson

Nostalgia and theory, that’s what this post is all about.

I’ve written before that some games require the player to be almost like an actor. You need to follow prompts given by the game, do the right things at the right time and the story will develop the way the developers wanted it to. Some other games though provide you with a stage and let you get on with it. The basic structure will be there but how you end up using it is entirely up to you. Your own stories are generated from this setting.

A couple of months ago we took a family trip up to Glasgow for a couple of days. The city was on a slight comedown from The Commonwealth Games which had finished two days beforehand and various locations were being dismantled. A trip around the usual places to visit whilst shopping in Glasgow City centre saw me in G-Force, a games shop on Union Street. Towards the counter they have a cabinet full of stuff that’s slightly off the beaten track. It was there that I saw a copy of Elite. Not just any copy either but the version for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the very same as the one I sank so many hours into back in the early 90’s.

elite

Elite looks simply now, the wireframe graphics off the time were more driven by the limitations of hardware rather than any artistic direction. This game however crammed so much into such a small amount of memory. You started alone in the universe with nothing but a few credits to your name and a basic ship that has a small cargo hold. There were no missions as such, the game had absolutely no main story which stuck all the part together, you were left to your own devices. The first thing any self respecting space pilot needed to do was make money. The task of identifying trade runs was a primary task in Elite, the entire galaxy was connected by an economy. Buying up food supplies that an agriculture based planet had in abundance meant you could sell them for vast profit at a nearby industrial base. Taking machinery back the other way meant you could make a fair amount of money even after the price of fuel was taken off. Repeating this process between different areas soon enabled you to afford bigger and better spacecraft and the decision had to be made if you wanted your cargo hold bigger to fit more items in or equipping guns to fight off those who might like to steal what you have.

This was far before online aspects came into gaming. Elite was played alone

The game had an ever expanding universe as planets were created by the game as you went along.

I've long since forgotten what all those dials mean.
I’ve long since forgotten what all those dials mean.

I resisted any purchase firstly because the £29.99 price tag seemed steep and that fact remained that I lack the console to play it on. The biggest reason was also that I don’t think I could face starting the game again. The vast amount of time, which I no longer really have anymore, I’d put into the game previously would be void. Part of me is happy at the thought that somewhere in the attic of my parent’s house is the cartridge with my save on. My ship, now armed to the gills with various missile launchers and laser cannons is docked at some remote planet and has been for the last 20 years or so. I usually forget controls to most games after not playing them for a month or so, I can only image how lost I’d be if I returned to Elite after a two decade long absence.

Elite has had sequels since then of course, the latest is the crowd funded ‘Elite Dangerous’ which is due out on PC fairly soon. The beta version was the subject of many a video play through from Jamie Trinca over on Videogamer.com. You can check out the first part right here. Sadly I dropped out of the PC gaming arms race a long time ago so I won’t be partaking in what looks like a rather fantastic reboot of the franchise but I’m pleased to think that it’s being brought back into the modern day complete with all the online multiplayer gubbins we’ve come to expect.

I Do Not Understand My Lord

Before I got into console gaming circa 1990 when I received a NES with the Ninja Turtles game for Christmas, my sister and I had an Amstrad computer. I recall it mostly for its green screen, unable to display any other colour.  It arrived with a bundle of games on cassettes with game quality varying greatly from title to title. Roland On The Ropes was a favourite as it seemed to feature a man who was raiding tombs long before Lara Croft got there. We used to buy new games at the brand new supermarket in Carlisle, they were situated next to the vinyl record section my sister always spent her pocket money on.

Rolandropes
It was all green when I had it, maybe I just had a rubbish monitor.

One major favourite is something I cannot find on Google even after a while of searching. My memory of the title is hazy at best but I think it was something like ‘Kingdom Of Spellbound’. It was a fantasy based text adventure in which you roamed the land as a returning king. Every instruction was given to your sidekick and he was mostly found to be saying he didn’t understand what you’d just told him. You obviously couldn’t get the staff.

I am unable to program anything that looks like a game despite playing them for years on end. It is however on the list of stuff to do and a text adventure is probably about my limit of ability. Obviously, with the graphical capabilities to be seen today, text adventures have taken a back seat as the years have gone on but I was reading an article recently on audio games such as Papa Sangre and The Nightjar. If these game which remove their focus from graphics can succeed then why not a well written piece of interactive fiction? If I could make a good and involving story, even a short one, would people play it?

I’m thinking that any story told this way should be something that was written at the time but forgotten about, only to be discovered again in the modern day.

This might take a while.

Urban Tumbleweed

So I return once more to work only a quarter done.  My Son went back to school yesterday in a alarmingly good mood about the whole thing and I had my first day alone in the house for what felt like a very long time. I’ve come to realise that it takes me a good while to get up to speed on writing. I don’t think I can just write for a hour here or there, preferring instead to concentrate for a good few hours straight. I haven’t had much of a chance to do that whilst my son has been around doing that six year old thing of wanting entertained.

It’s only a few weeks until the nights visibly draw in again and it gets colder (without wishing to sound like one of those old folks who looks to the sky and says winter is on the way) which probably means a whole lot more time will be spent inside hopefully getting some script stuff done.

In the meantime we recorded a new Brake For Frogger episode the other night. It was a really basic episode with only two sections, the currently playing one and a retro one as well. It still felt good to be back though and we hit the moment when it became fun again. Usually this occurs when it’s just three or four friends all talking about games and being passionate about the subject matter. I’m editing the episode so I aim to have that done by the weekend and hopefully online for all to listen to soon.

Shooting Seagulls From The Ferris Wheel

I am a fairly useless hitman, I can only come to this conclusion after playing the first level of Hitman: Blood Money last night. I have always enjoyed the Hitman series despite being probably one of the worst players the game has ever seen but I think I hit new lows of gun related incompetence.

The first level of Blood Money sees the main character, Agent 47, being hired to kill an owner of a amusement park. Five years previous the ferris wheel in the theme park broke which resulted in many people losing their lives as the whole structure collapsed. Many court battles followed and the theme park owner was acquitted after many year’s worth of legal battles. The father of one victims wants the owner dead so he can grieve properly. It would seem like a slightly severe reaction to the loss of a loved one. Sadly, over time, this now abandoned park has also become home of possibly the most stereotypical gang of black drug dealers gaming has ever seen. It looks as though somebody just tried to make a whole group of people in the image of 50 Cent (Is 50 Cent still ‘a thing’? Is this reference horribly outdated? Am I like, so 2006?). So the theme park owner wants to open up again but has to find the money to get rid of the drug dealers off the merry go rounds. It’s tragic then that he’s not supposed to live much longer.

It’s safe to say I’m not delivering milk

The first thing to admit is that this is a training level, it features pretty much every possible action Agent 47 can perform just to get you used to it. It took me a good half hour or so so realise that you have to press the back button to be shown what controls you need to perform the task at hand. In this time I have missed the opportunity to thrown a coin across a yard to distract two guards. Instead I blundered into the yard, was asked what my ‘white ass’ was doing in ‘their yard’ and threatened at gunpoint. The only action I could take was to shoot them before they had a chance. I then had to stuff two bodies under the ticket office by the gates, it was a tight squeeze but they got there eventually.

I also completely fail to take one guard for use as a human shield whilst he’s taking a piss. I’m far too polite for something like that and a man should be given a chance to not have his penis hanging out of his trousers as he’s used in a gunfight. Instead, I manage to shoot the guy through the back of the head. The gunshot alerts the next room full of guards and they come bundling into the loo en masse. I had to shoot each one in the kneecaps and they all fell and bled to death. At least they had pants on.

Later, when the occasion arises to use the sniper rifle, I mistakenly depress the trigger when trying to find the scope. This results in me somehow shooting down a seagull which lands at the feet of a member of the tower patrol. He promptly opens fire in my general direction.

After I manage to poison the Diet Coke his secretary was drinking I find myself in the office of the theme park owner. He’s cowering on the floor in fear of his life. In my pocket I carry a photo of my employer’s son. He wants it to be the last thing the owner ever sees. I show him the photo but then I start to think the situation through a little more.

Fine, the owner didn’t maintain the park before the accident but, in the eyes of the law, he’s been let off and is now trying to rebuild his life. My employer would surely be wiser spending all the thousands of dollars he’s paying me on some therapy instead. I could throw this guy some money, tell him that Honduras is nice this time of year and tell him to never set foot in the USA again. I would then go back and tell my employer that the guy drowned in a pool of his own piss and tears and yes of course I showed him the bloody photograph.

It’s not gone brilliantly well…

The game doesn’t want that though, that’s overthinking it and not quite getting into the spirit. With a sigh I put a bullet into the owner’s forehead before escaping through the window. Some people just have problems, I’d personally love to modify Blood Money so you travel the world to simply sit down and talk to people rather than killing them. My pitch for Therapist: Session Money would probably fall on deaf ears though.

Dragon End

I’ve been writing recently but nothing script related. I chanced my arm on the possibility of writing something for a games website called Square Go. Upon emailing the editor it’s suggested that I write one commentary piece and a game review. I spent a few nights writing about Injustice-Gods Among Us and a small piece about how games automatically revert back to game related mechanics as a safeguard when they should be braver in their storytelling. I’ve yet to hear anything back but I was always aware this might take a while. I might not be able to contribute every single day but something small every once in a while would mean I was writing something other than scripts for a bit.

It’s not the first time I’ve written for games websites either. The last time around saw me review ‘Bayonetta‘ which is a cracking game but there was a small moment when I was asked to write about how the Xbox and Playstation versions differed as far as visuals went. It was a tiny bit soul crushing, a bit like taking a classic book and being asked to write about the quality of the paper it was printed on. Reading the writing guidelines for Square Go reveals that they’re not bothered by technical details. This thought relaxes me greatly.

 

Red Dead Redemption

WARNING!

The following entry contains details of Red Dead Redemption including a discussion about the game’s ending. Therefore please be warned that spoilers will be prevalent. Also, this is not a review of the game as Howling In The Dark really isn’t the place for it. It’s more an examination of the game’s story.

For all the gunfights, bar room brawls, robberies and good versus evil battles of cowboy western movies it’s strange to consider that they didn’t really get a good hearing in a videogame sense until Red Dead Redemption. Maybe we were all too busy playing as space marines to notice that The Wild West would be a fairly good setting for a game. In the early 90’s when full motion video was ‘a thing’ in gaming we had the light gun game ‘Mad Dog McCree’ and 2003 saw the release of Red Dead Revolver but both seemed concerned only with the shooting. There wasn’t really much beyond ‘walk into a town and shoot outlaws’. Then Rockstar, the publishers behind Grand Theft Auto, had a go. The result was a definitive game which is true to its setting.

To explain something straight away I never got along with Grand Theft Auto games. They are praised on high by many for the depiction of living cities but it seems almost too busy, as if the developers were too scared to leave you alone for more than three seconds in case you got bored and switched off. In most GTA games, there’s just too much noise and flashing lights. Red Dead Redemption took the same game engine and turned the volume down a little, often with massive expanses of desert wilderness rather than built up concrete jungles. There are often times in Red Dead when you only have a horse for company.

Moments like these in RDR are stunning.

In the Grand Theft Auto games Rockstar often gave us main characters who were pretty undesirable. The structure of those games meant they often had to be as the story centred on the criminal underworld and running from police. Red Dead changes this slightly by giving you somebody who was a criminal but is trying to turn his life around and go straight. John Marston was formerly a member of an outlaw gang, responsible for robbery and murder. His efforts to rebuild his life upon leaving the gang are stopped in their tracks when the American government take his wife and son hostage. The only way Marston can see his family again is by helping them track down the remaining gang members and bring them to justice. John Marston does not want to work for the government, he also wants nothing to do with his previous fellow gang members but he’s dragged into this situation against his will.

Marston is likeable, a definite plus as far as having a main character in any medium goes. He has a world weary attitude and is miles behind the times even in 1911. The game portrays a time in which attitudes were shifting. Some form of civilisation is coming to the wild frontier and Marston is a relic of a rapidly vanishing era. He’s been staring down the sights of a gun rather than working out land deals or drilling for oil. At one point in the game Marston is a passenger in a ‘new automobile contraption’ and it completely baffles him why you wouldn’t just use a horse. Despite his past misdemeanours I warmed to Marston almost straight away, almost to the point when it became impossible to opt for the ‘bad’ way of doing things during my time in the game.

John Marston

In the opening of the game Marston rides to Fort Mercer, a gang stronghold led by his old colleague Bill Williamson. Whilst he stands at the gates and tries to talk things over Bill shoots John and leaves him for dead. Marston is collected by Bonnie MacFarlane and is nursed back to health during a stay on her ranch. There’s a certain level of sexual chemistry between Bonnie and John in this section of the game as they both try to outdo each other by shooting rabbits in the fields. Bonnie is certainly no shrinking violet, her speed with a firearm proves that. Back in the Grand Theft Auto games it was quite possible to pick up any prostitute for casual sex, it’s therefore surprising that nothing ever happens between Bonnie and John. The relationship between the two is very subtle making it seems that bit more real.

The fictional part of America in which Red Dead Redemption is set encompasses the Mexican border to the South. Once Marston heals from his wounds he travels across the land meeting a variety of characters both trustworthy and devious. None more so than when crossing into Mexico for the first time when the game soundtracks this moment with the Jose Gonzales song ‘Far Away’. It’s the first time you’ve heard lyrics in any of the game’s audio and I know many players who thought this was something close to game breaking as far as atmosphere went. Personally I loved it…

Eventually Marston tracks down the member of his gang and brings them in but it’s obvious he still regards this as some kind of betrayal. The final act of this mission is finding the leader, Dutch van der Linde, high up in the snow capped hills. Instead of having himself turned in by the authorities Dutch instead leaps from the cliff edge and kills himself. Before doing so he passes some words onto Marston, telling him that the government will always try to find another monster to chase simply to earn their keep. They are words that will come back to haunt Marston.

With the removal of the gang Marston is reunited with his family on his ranch. The final few hours of the game’s story sees you doing basic farm tasks such as shooting the birds away from the grain store and herding cattle from one field to another. It’s a definite change of pace to the gunfights that have come before and the response from many players at the time was one of confusion. Why, they asked, does the game suddenly slow to almost a crawl as far as pace goes? Why are we expected to take on menial tasks as opposed to hunting down criminals? The answer is simple and it’s fantastic that a game can have the confidence to do this. This simple life is what John Marston has craved for the entire game. Some games want you to rescue a princess, others want to you save Earth from an invasion of alien forces. Red Dead’s main character is a man of much simpler means, his desire has boiled down to this and everything you’ve been doing throughout the game is what he wants to leave behind.

The Rangers find their new monster and in a effort to rid the gang once and for all the very people Marston helped to earn his freedom come for him. It’s a bigger betrayal than anything Marston has ever done and his final stand remains, for me, one of the best endings in gaming.

I felt genuinely sad at this moment during my play though. I’ve heard it mentioned before that games cannot possibly tell a story which gains an emotional response from us. The belief is that games will never make us cry or laugh, that they are somehow just a tick list of goals to cross off instead of any kind of credible story telling device. The ending of Red Dead proves otherwise. Having been with Marston throughout the entire game and saw him essentially battle his past it brings a lump to the throat to see that same past be the end of him.

It’s possible to reload the game from this point and play as Jack Marston three years on from the ending of John’s story. The final hours of gameplay are spent trying to find out where the head bureau agent Edgar Ross is and take bloody vengeance. Doing this it’s apparent where the ‘Redemption’ part of the game’s title comes from but it feels like a hollow revenge. In shooting Edgar Ross, Jack Marston has become everything his father wanted nothing more of.

It’s been about three years since I finished Red Dead but the story still holds many memories for me. The entire gaming industry has a habit of being concerned only with big guns and fast cars. Red Dead took its time, there were moments of near silence during the cutscenes as the characters appeared to be considering what they would say next. The story was given plenty of time to work it’s magic. Despite being ‘just a game’ Red Dead had plenty to say about America at that time, how people use the power they are given and how one man deals with a past he’d rather forget. As such, it’s a phenomenal piece of work.

Another Castle

I’m not really wanting this to become a video game blog as such, I used to do regular video game reviews and podcasts over on ‘Brake For Frogger‘ (you can possibly still hear me prattle on during the podcasts if the server is still running) but there’s two main reasons why I’ll be mentioning games every now and again here. Firstly, I have probably invested more time over the years into video games than I have movies, music and books. To some people this might make me sound like some kind of sad loner but I’ve always valued the interactive experience highly. The second reason is that writing is all about story telling and story telling is much harder to get right in games. Consider a screenplay, you know that an audience will be passive and take in the story in the speed at which you dictate. The stories told by games have the double edged sword that you are placed directly central in the action. It’s basically like watching a play and getting up on stage to direct the actors when you think the performance is lulling a bit.  Strangely though, it’s something games have taken a long time get get anywhere near right.

Elite, probably the first game I invested a major amount of time in and one that allowed me to generate my own stories.

Some games will guide you through a story, never allowing you to change events and giving you a set list of goals to achieve. Others will bend the story slightly depending on your actions, often changing the ending and having very binary ‘good or bad’ responses to problems encountered. Some games meanwhile simply give you the environment and let you get on with it, making your own stories as you go. There’s no particular ‘correct’ way of doing it as there’s fantastic examples of each method. I’ll probably end up going through a few examples in blog entries in the near future as examples of the craft of storytelling via an interactive medium.

Obviously, there will be spoilers.

The Electric Potato

I’m reading back over the ending of The Unlocked Project and I’m still not sure. What part of me think leaving my main character wandering into a field of birds and green grass? I can only assume that I got it from playing this…