Monday, December 21, 2009

Sandman Slim

I recently finished the novel Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey and liked it a lot.  When I step into a bookstore, it looks as if "urban fantasy" has come to be synonymous with "stories about women falling in love with vampires/werewolves/mummies/angels/ghosts/whatnot."  This is not one of those stories.  It's about a former magician who was betrayed by his allies and sent to Hell, and he's escaped and returned to the world of the living to get some payback.  In some ways it's a typical revenge shoot-em-up with a mystical edge, with a strong resemblance to The Crow in places.  In addition, the main character is not necessarily the nicest guy in the world, and there's some profanity and gore, which might put some folks off.  Still, I thought it was a diverting action story, with some cool setting elements and some humor, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes their urban fantasy crossed with some hardboiled crime fiction.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

WIP Screenshot

Here's a screenshot of a game I'm building:

It's at a very early stage, as you can see by the fact that the USS Blocky Untextured Ship is in a pitched battle against the Indistinguishable Blobs just outside the orbit of Boring Gray Planet.  Still, I'm having fun writing it, and if I keep at it, maybe something will come of it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

And Another Thing

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of my all-time favorite books.  I adored it the first time I read it and eagerly devoured the sequels as soon as they were released.  Unfortunately, past the second or third book, I think that some of the genius of the books became diluted.  By the time I finished Mostly Harmless, I was perfectly okay with the series coming to a final end.

However, it seems these days that it's all the rage to release sequels to books whose original authors are dead.  And Another Thing, by Eoin Colfer, continues where Douglas Adams left off with the Hitchhiker's series.  I was dubious about the idea when I first heard about it, but just the same, when I saw a copy of the book at my local library, I grabbed it and took it home.

It's ... well, it's not as good as the original Hitchhiker's Guide, but it's on par with some of the later books in the series.  Colfer does a fairly good job at maintaining the tone and the style of the previous books, complete with frequent footnotes from the Guide.  (Actually, I think that Colfer sort of overdid it in regard to these footnotes; in some places there's practically one on every page.)  And the main characters from the previous books are featured strongly: Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, and Trillian, as well as several other characters from some of the later books.  Ford is a little short-changed for time in the spotlight, but we get plenty of Zaphod in all his glory, and any day that has Zaphod Beeblebrox in it is better than a day without Zaphod (as I'm sure ZB would tell us himself).

Unfortunately, while the book is basically a fun, light read, it's not much more than a jumble of elements from the prior books, tossed together in one package and shaken liberally.  What I adored about the earlier Hitchhiker's books were the grand, unexpected, ridiculous, brilliant concepts -- the Babel fish, the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, the Infinite Improbablity Drive, the whale and the bowl of petunias, and, of course, the towels.  Colfer doesn't contribute much new to this amazing universe; he seems to limit himself to riffing off the elements that Adams already established.

You're not going to be quoting bits of And Another Thing to your friends for years to come like you did with the original Hitchhiker's Guide (okay, maybe you didn't, but I did).  But it's good to see the old gang in action again, so if you're a fan of the rest of the books, I'd say that this latest book is worth a look.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I've recently finished the novel Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. I'm of two minds about it. First of all, I think the worldbuilding in the novel is top-notch. It's a really interesting "not quite the world you know" setting, revealed gradually and naturally. Quite a few of the core concepts of the setting were not fully explained and I would have loved to hear more about them. In addition, the writing is witty, the story is well-paced, and I was fully prepared to love the book.

Except for the main character. She starts out likable enough, in an intriguing predicament, but as the story went on, I found it harder and harder to sympathize with her, until by the end of the novel, I really could have cared less to read about any of her further adventures. You see, despite the fact that the main character, Sunshine, is surrounded by a group of caring, supportive friends and family members, and despite the fact that a number of folks go out of her way to reach out to her, and to offer assistance regardless of personal risk, she basically lies to all of them throughout the entire book. She only confides in folks when she's forced to and when the truth of her situation is undeniable, and even then she only tells as much truth as is absolutely necessary. Even in situations where the people asking her the questions desperately need the information, not only to save their own lives and the lives of other, she still keeps her mouth shut and declines to offer assistance.

The central conflict of the story is initially focused around her, but even though it becomes clear that the implications of the situation stretch far beyond her own life and comfort, and potentially impact the welfare of innocent people both near and far, she clings to her self-centered view, only exerting the effort necessary to save herself, and showing very little concern for what happens to anyone else. The exception is a single dark mysterious figure that she chooses to ally herself with, and you could argue that her defense of this dangerous companion demonstrates her altruism; however, she demonstrates rapidly that she is willing to trust this stranger much more easily than she trusts her friends, family, or lover.

It's Sunshine's whole attitude of "oh my life is difficult and complex and I have to keep it all inside because I'm all alone and can't trust anyone to help me" that made me wince more and more as the book went on. You could also argue that this is intentional; that Sunshine is meant to be a troubled young woman presented suddenly with a number of very difficult crises, and as a human being, she makes a few bad and rash choices. That's fine. But at the end of the day, I want my fictional heroes to be heroes. If I'm shaking my head and rolling my eyes at the decisions of the main character every tenth page, it really breaks my connection to the story.

From what I see on Wikipedia, McKinley may be planning another novel set in the same universe as Sunshine, but with a different story and characters. I'd be interesting in seeing such a book, especially if it's not a sequel to Sunshine. I'd be happy to pay another visit to the setting McKinley has built, but I could really care less if I hear another word from Sunshine herself.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Order of the Black Eagle

Imagine, in your mind's eye, a movie that is a combination of James Bond, the A-Team, and Where Eagles Dare. Sit quietly until the image forms. Got it?

I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you imagined was nothing like The Order of the Black Eagle.

I caught this movie on my digital cable's on-demand menu. The brief description suggested that it was a movie about a spy sent to investigate a Nazi presence in South America. This sounded like, at the very least, excellent inspirational material for roleplaying adventures, so I sat down and watched it. And I don't think I can effectively describe how astonishingly bad it is.

It starts out like a typical Bond film: the hero has a quick little mini-adventure that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, then reports in for briefing, gets assigned a new mission, meets an attractive young woman, gets his spy gadgets, does some spy stuff, falls in bed with the attractive young woman. And, of course, there's a maniacal mega-villain, and his horde of minions, and several menancing lieutenants. And an ancient South American temple with a proton beam projector mounted on top.

Right after the spy is captured and escapes (again, typical Bond stuff) he runs smack into a group of PC's from a roleplaying game. There's the "tough as nails but still beautiful" mercenary captain, the "high explosives expert" guy, the "likes to throw and use knives" gal, the "super immensely strong" guy, the "quick draw six-shooting cowboy" guy, and the "likes to fire an M-60 from the hip" guy. This is where the movie switches from James Bond to the A-Team. Good thing, too, since the spy has used all of his gadgets once, and by the rules of a spy movie, he can never use them again.

The spy and his new fighting buddies storm the Nazi camp and blow it up in an extended bang-bang boom-boom sequence. You can just about hear the A-Team theme while this is going on. The villain and his lieutenants are defeated, the proton beam is destroyed, and the Free World is saved for another day. This is where the Bond movie picks up again, as the spy flies off with his female lead to have an intimate little victory celebration of their own.

All pretty straightforward. As plots go, it's not High Art, but it's on par with most action movies. With the right script and the right director, it could have been pretty entertaining. Instead ... well.

The dialogue is stilted and cringe-worthy, and the attempts at humor are childish and weak. But what really sends this movie over the edge into "I cannot believe I'm really watching this" territory is not the plot, the acting, the script, or the props; no, friends, this time the devil is truly in the details. Details such as:
  • The spy's trusty sidekick - a trained baboon
  • The "neo-Nazi" uniforms (gray with bright red pockets and lapels)
  • The government-issue spy hovercraft, which for some reason has a bright orange paint job and a tiger-shark grin (and is probably a recreational vehicle one of the producers borrowed from a friend of his)
  • The hot-air balloon concealed in the camouflaged spy boat (why? who knows?)
  • The gelatin-mold Hitler
  • The baboon's armored tank
Every time you think this movie can't get any dumber, it surpasses itself. My jaw was on the floor about halfway through and stayed down until the credits. In fact, the only saving grace of this movie is how ridiculous it is; if you and your friends are into watching bad cinema together and shouting at the screen MST3K-style, this is the movie to watch.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Game Development: Unity

About a month or so ago, I was thinking to myself: "It would be interesting to build my own first-person shooter, or first-person adventure game. It shouldn't be that hard. First-person-perspective games are all over the place. Surely there's an engine out there that would be easy for me to add my own content to."

My first web searches weren't promising. I found Ogre, which is open source, mature, and full featured, but appears to require some hard-core coding to use. I found the Dark Places engine, which I know has done some interesting things, but the documentation appears to be somewhat lacking. In short, I found a number of tools that might help develop a first-person game, but all of them required a fair amount of elbow grease on the part of the developer.

Then I ran across Unity. Unity is a game development kit -- not just an engine that you have to link your code to, but a full development kit, including a GUI for assembling game objects and for writing scripting logic. It allows you to quickly assemble common gaming paradigms (such as an FPS) by drag-and-dropping some template objects into your game. It's not limited to just first-person games, of course; you could produce just about any kind of game you wanted very easily. The first-person controls are a drop-in template, and if you want to produce a real-time-strategy game or something else, you just don't bother with the first-person template.

The scripting engine is also very powerful, by which I mean that it allows you to accomplish significant tasks with very little code. I'm scripting in JavaScript, but the tool also allows you to use C#, or a few other languages. Once you've tossed your 3D objects and your scripts into the tool, you just click the "Build" button and it will produce a standalone executable (for Windows or for Mac), or a package that you can embed in a web page like a Flash application. Alternate versions of the tool will also let you build games for the iPhone or the Wii.

And the basic version is free, for both personal and commercial use.

There's a pay version as well, which provides more features, some of which you would probably want if you were producing serious professional titles. But the free version, which I've been toying with for a few weeks now, has just about everything you would need to produce a pretty slick game with 3D graphics, and pretty quickly as well.

When I say "just about everything you would need", I'm coming to the caveat, which, personally, I have no problem with. If you want to produce 3D objects that are more complicated than just cubes, spheres, and planes, you need to build them using a 3D modeling tool. If you want textures that are more complicated than just uniform colors, you need a graphics drawing tool. Unity is a tool that lets you throw a bunch of parts together and build a smooth, good-looking game ... but you have to provide the parts.

Fortunately, Unity doesn't force you to use any specific external tools. I'm using Blender for modeling, and GIMP for textures. It makes for an interesting development model. I can focus on the visual design of the game, and the logic that produces meaningful game events, without having to worry about pointers or linked lists or encapsulation or API's or what not. Unity turns me into a game artist instead of a game programmer.

I think this is a good thing. Producing a good game is about much more than managing memory allocation or putting together build scripts. It's about providing a game that appeals to the senses and is fun to play. The whole "writing a bunch of code to manipulate a bunch of 3D objects on the screen" thing is a solved problem. This sort of thing has been coded over and over and over. You can make good stir-fry in your own kitchen without having learn how to brew your own soy sauce from scratch; why shouldn't you be able to build a game without having to learn C++ or DirectX?

The next question, at least as far as my own efforts are concerned, is: can I make a good game with Unity? Practically all of my game projects get abandoned at about the 50% complete point. Is it because I'm spending too much time on the code, and then get burned out on the project just as it starts to produce something playable?

I have a small demo game in mind that I'm working my way through; something relatively simple, but something that should require me to build all of the features and game assets that a proper game needs to function. If I can finish it, and it turns out halfway decent, I may try something more elaborate. In the meantime, I'm having fun, I'm learning cool things about Blender, and it hasn't cost me a dime yet.

I should also mention that the Unreal Development Kit is also out now, and is also free for noncommercial use, but if you want to sell your projects, you have to buy a license. Why am I using Unity instead of Unreal? Well, a quick look at both tools showed me that I'd be up and running quicker with Unity. The documentation and tutorials provide for Unity were clear and straightforward and demonstrated how quickly you could get something playable. Unreal is full of state-of-the-art features, but it looked a lot less newbie-friendly to me.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adventures in the Classics: Wuthering Heights

I've been listening to Wuthering Heights on my MP3 player at the gym. Normally I would hesitate to express opinions about a book before I've finished it, but at this point I'm honestly not certain that the book will ever end. It seems as if the story is just going to go on and on, following generation after generation of ill-tempered characters as they meander between Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, and Gimbleton, trapped in some sort of 19th century pastoral Purgatory.

To say that there are no likeable characters in Wuthering Heights is something of an overstatement; however, though the narrator and the servant Nellie are relatively pleasant, this is necessary in order to fill their roles as Reliable Narrators. Young Catherine (or Kathy Junior) seems basically okay; I imagine that Emily Bronte had run out of variations of brooding/whining/sanctimonious/vulgar and thus was forced to insert a basically decent person so as not to repeat herself. Edgar is a decent sort, but is basically a wimp, and though he's in a perfect position to fix a lot of the problems in the neighborhood, he refuses to take an effective stand. Everyone else is more or less appalling, and either deserve or have outright caused the unfortunate events that are befalling them.

Since this is Classic Literature, I imagine I'm supposed to be extracting Valuable Life Lessons from it. So far I've come up with the following:
  • If you live in the countryside in the 1800's, you're better off as common folk or servants than as landowners. As common folk, you have plenty of work to occupy your time and to keep your mind and body strong. As landowners in the middle of nowhere, your only options for entertainment are to brood, read, wander aimlessly, throw temper tantrums, or die slowly of consumption.
  • Chicks go for guys who are either (1) mean-spirited, ill-mannered, short-tempered, vengeful bastards, or (2) weak, frail, whining, childish, petulant brats.
I don't hate this book. It's actually well-told, and the story is darkly fascinating, like some pre-Victorian episode of Jerry Springer. I just can't imagine myself writing something like this. I can't see how you could put pen to paper and construct page after page of such selfishness, deception, cruelty, spite, and injustice, and then put down your pen and go out into polite society and interact with real people in a positive, meaningful fashion.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Haunting of Hill House

I've just finished reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and found it somewhat spooky, and definitely worth the read. I'll try to keep the rest of this post as spoiler-free as possible, but if you have any intention of reading the book, you may want to do so first. Try it in a quiet place with the lights down for the best effect.

Upon finishing the book, I immediately went to the web to see if I could find some other opinions about it. I immediately came across mentions of the two movie adaptations: one in 1963 and one in 1999. It sounds as if the 1963 version is fairly faithful to the novel, while the 1999 version may have been written by someone who read a one-page summary of the novel and decided that it could use some spicing up.

In fact, it's difficult to imagine a modern movie being made that was faithful to Shirley Jackson's original story. There's just not enough gore and death in the book to capture the attention of a major studio. It's a psychological story, and in some respects an in-depth character study. It's the sort of story that would be done very well by an independent studio, get rave critical reviews at Sundance or some such, then get remade by a big studio as something far less intelligent.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule; I haven't seen Paranormal Activity, but from what I'm reading about it, it's fairly free of blood spatters and chainsaws and what not. I also see that Paranormal Activity is an independent film that rose to success from the ground up, in a way. I sort of hope that the constant advances in technology and communication will put more power in the hands of independent artists, so that folks with cool ideas can get them out to a wide audience without having to pander to the demands of large media corporations.

My other thoughts about Haunting of Hill House are that the book would also be very difficult to do in the venue of a roleplaying game. Roleplaying games should be marvelously suited to psychological horror, since, after all, there is no visual gore or scary soundtrack (unless the gamemaster delivers these things in the way of props). But the horror in the Haunting of Hill House is not about what the house does to its inhabitants physically, it's about what it does to them mentally and spiritually. If you took the supernatural events from Haunting of Hill House and threw them at a typical group of roleplayers, you would probably wind up with a rather lackluster adventure. It's not the reaction of the characters to the supernatural displays that makes the story effective; it's their reaction to each other, and this is very tricky to simulate or influence in a roleplaying game.

Again, I know there are exceptions to this (for instance, I understand that John Wick's Curse of the Yellow Sign adventures are supposed to be fairly successful in producing a collapse of rationality and order) but still, I believe that you would need the right GM and the right players in order to create the right atmosphere. My gamemastering style has been fairly traditional so far; I throw bad guys at the players and they knock them down. I like to encourage drama and roleplaying, but I've never really tried for outright horror, and I think I'd have to see another gamemaster accomplish it successfully in order to see how it's done.