Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: The Walking Dead [Game]

I've expressed my discontent with zombie fiction before. So many zombie stories are simply endless sequences of live people shooting dead people in the head. I also think that there are entirely too many zombie video games (although, as a genre, it's certainly outnumbered by "elves, swords, and magic" games, which leads to a whole different conversation).

That being said, The Walking Dead is a fantastic game.

It might be more accurate to call it an interactive story, instead of a game. Though it's a point-and-click adventure game at heart, there are only a few puzzles that could be considered challenging. The quick-time events ("click this hotspot NOW!") present more of an obstacle, but a couple of these are more frustrating than engaging. The rest of your interaction with the story primarily consists of walking the main character through a series of obvious steps.

Once in a while, though, the simple actions you're presented with leave you with a choice of options, and the decision you make has a significant effect on the rest of the story. If you have the hints turned off, it may not even be obvious that you've hit one of those branching points. And once your decision is made, you get to play through the consequences.

The game designers made sure to put some emotional weight behind those choices. There were several occasions where I was horrified at the decision that I was being forced to make, and given only a couple of seconds in which to make it. Those mouse clicks are far more gut-wrenching than any other game's "click here to kill a zombie" mechanics.

Even the sequences where you're just clicking through a series of fixed events are used to really drive home the mood of the story. Whether you're staggering through a corridor or wielding a gory axe, the interactive events put you into the middle of the story and make you feel that the blood is really on your hands.

The art, the writing, and the voice acting are all top-notch. This would have been a decent story even without the interactive elements. But the game gives you enough control to really draw you into the hope and the pain of the characters, and elevates it to a higher level.

I wouldn't say this is a "fun" game. It's certainly not a happy-go-lucky murder simulator where your character deals death with a quip and a wink. Parts of this game hurt to play. But I think this is the best zombie apocalypse story I've seen, and quite possibly it always will be.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Anachronox is on Steam!

Anachronox is one of my favorite games of all time, and I'm elated that it's now available on Steam. I still have my original install disks, secured in a hermetically-sealed safe in a secret offsite location, but now it's available to everyone for easy and convenient download.

I recommend this game almost without hesitation. The reason I hesitate is that it's a bit odd, and some folks might not care for it as a result. The graphics are surely dated and quaint by now (they were even a bit dated at the time it came out) and the combat system is not exactly a tightly tuned engine of tactical complexity. But the story, style, and humor kept me glued to the screen from beginning to end, and for that alone, I'm glad that more gamers will get a chance to experience this game.

At heart, Anachronox is a classic console-style RPG, a mixture of dungeon crawls, turn-based battles, character progression, and world exploration, with a strong focus on story. I love all of these elements, but for many console RPG's, the "story" is somewhat lacking. I don't need to play any more RPG's staring the brave-but-bland hero without a past, accompanied by his pure-hearted love interest and a cast of stereotypes including the gruff but loyal bruiser or the gorgeous woman with big breasts and few clothes.

The story of Anachronox is about a down-on-his-luck private eye who ...

Yeah, they had me at private eye.

Anachronox is primarily a mix of cyberpunk and space opera, in a world that never takes itself too seriously. One of your companions is a grumpy old wizard who can stun opponents with a powerful stream of gibberish; another companion is a miniaturized planet whose population has decided to send their homeworld off on adventure. At one point in the game you encounter a large organization of superheroes, whose detailed backstories include the issue number of the fictional comic book series they debuted in. (I wanted very badly to read these comics.) The game's humor can be found even in subtle details of the setting, like the vending machine you find in a lobby of the game's central space station, with a label on the side reading "Asnackronox".

One day, when I have some time on my hands, I hope to play through this fantastic game and enjoy it all over again. I still nurse an ambition of one day running a tabletop roleplaying game set in the Anachronox universe. But for now, I merely want to give the game a shout-out, and encourage anyone who loves a little humor and noir with their science fiction to plunk down seven bucks and let Sylvester "Sly" Boots show you around his world.

(Oh - and is a sequel too much to hope for? Maybe by way of a Kickstarter project? I'll be first in line to pledge.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Memory of Flight

So I had a very odd dream.

Mary Lynn and I were sitting on the roof of an apartment building, about three stories up. Above us was a blue sky, draped with several broad white clouds. One particularly large cloud bank was approaching, and as I looked at it, I saw that a large round hole had opened up in the bottom of the cloud, and something like a waterfall was spilling down from the opening's rim.

I immediately pointed this out to Mary Lynn. As we watched, the stuff (whatever it was) that was falling from the cloud seemed to level off, forming a horizontal stream, which began to drift by us at the level of the roof we were on. I expected to see just a horizontal column of mist, but as we looked, we saw that the stream was actually formed of innumerable floating feathers, about as long as my hand. Each feather had an intricate, delicate structure, and was colored white with grey touches.

One of us (I don't know who) reached out into this passing stream of feathers and brought back something larger. It was also white, gray, and fluffy, but was about the size of a soccer ball, with the heft of something that had been made of papier-mache. A point at one end that gave it a round teardrop shape, and opposite the point, a long feathery crest hung from the object, nearly as long as I am tall.

After staring at it a while, it became clear to us that we were holding the mummified head of a huge bird. This fantastic white-gray avian had, for some reason, disintegrated in the upper atmosphere, and its feathers and impossibly light bones had spread out into a cloud. This cloud had drifted with the wind until some twist of atmosphere and temperature had caused the feathers to suddenly fall, near the apartment building where Mary Lynn and I sat. Thermals near the buildings had temporarily halted the descent of the bird's remains, causing them to float past us where we sat on the roof.

Below us, an actual river flowed past the building whose roof we occupied. We dropped the head off the roof, and it fell into the river, along with the other feathers and remnants that had begun to succumb to gravity. The head, and the other feathers, turned black when they touched the water, sank, and dissolved.

I woke up shortly after that, knowing that I had seen one of the most miraculous and astonishing sights of my life -- and that it had only been a dream.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Stone of Names: Cover Art Preview

Karri Klawiter, the artist who prepared the cover art for Stone of Names, was kind enough to post a preview of the cover on her web site. Click here to take a look. While you're there, be sure to check out Karri's other projects as well.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Stone of Names: October Status Update

Rejection letters are still trickling in from literary agents, which means I'm on track to self-publish Stone of Names come December. I've commissioned cover art from a professional illustrator, and I'm overjoyed with the results. The cover looks so nice that it would be a shame to just sell it on the Kindle. I'm now considering selling it through print-on-demand as well, through CreateSpace at least. (For anyone reading this blog who's also shopping around for cover art, I highly recommend Karri Klawiter; she turned around quick, high-quality work, and was very accommodating when it came to tweaks and revisions.)

The conventional wisdom among self-publishers seems to be that sales will be slow until you have several books available for purchase under your name. Readers who like one of your books will be more likely to buy the rest. The more books you have available, the more books you're likely to sell to happy readers. A common strategy is to publish a linked series of books and offer the first one for free.

This suggests, of course, that my smart move is to turn Stone of Names into a series. I know what the next two books in this hypothetical series would be about, but I'm more interested in telling a different kind of story. Stone of Names, at heart, is a fairly traditional high fantasy story; I have something more original in mind for my next book. If I get good results from Stone of Names, though, I might be more likely to write those hypothetical next two books.