Category Archives: review

Review: Salvage by Carrie Vaughn

Let me tell you about the best story I’ve read in a while.

(Ok, maybe I’m not the most qualified person to decide which story is “best”. Maybe “favorite” would be a better word. But, whatever. It’s the best.)

Salvage, released in June by Lightspeed, is a dungeon-crawl in space. It seems like a pretty straightforward piece — go into the dead ship, get the black box, get out.  And yet….

Item A: Here’s the first sentence:

“You two ready?” I ask.

And, boom. Five words, lots of info.

  • Something’s about to happen. So, you’re hooked.
  • The narrator is in charge of at least two people.
  • She’s a no-nonsense type. It’s not “Are you two ready?” or “Are you both sure you’re ready to go? Did you check your hoses?”

This last item is the crux here. Aside from the very capable character introduction here, the narrator’s relationship with the crew is what this story’s all about. Five words.

Item B: Happy Birthday, Captain

The story plays out like a horror piece, all dark passageways and frozen corpses. But right in the middle, there’s this odd bit of description. First, it’s “all teeth and eyes, arms reaching”, and you expect to see a floating body. But it’s a photograph — a Happy Birthday sign on the Captain’s door. It feels like a bit of horror movie “oh, it was just the cat”, and you dismiss it as such.

Except that, once again, this is what it’s all about. Here’s a captain whose crew teases him and puts funny signs on his cabin door. No such hijinks on the narrator’s ship.

Item C: A thousand little events

No space zombies. No dripping aliens. Just a salvage. But at the briefing, we see that the event has changed the lives of these people. The two who were ready in the first line are now sitting close enough for their shoulders to touch. That’s new. And in the last line, we see the change in the narrator. (I’ll leave that to you to go and read.)

A small change. Minuscule. And that’s what resounds so deeply with me. This is a story about a  commonplace event which changed a person’s way of looking at herself. A brief moment, the kind which would go unnoticed by just about anyone. But something happened right then, and it made a difference.

The subtlety here is perfectly crafted. Kudos to Carrie Vaughn for writing a sci-fi story which any contemporary literature or writing class would do well to read.

Cosmic Humility: The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys

“We need to make blank scary again”, where blank is a classic horror villain.

We hear this all the time from those who grind their teeth over slapstick zombies and dreamy-eyed werewolves. Lovecraft is due for this treatment; a quick etsy search is all it takes to see that the Elder Gods have gone kawaii. The H.P. Hipsters are soon to follow. “The Cats of Ulthar? You’ve prolly never heard of it.”

But what was it that made Lovecraft so very scary in the first place? And does the mythos have anything to say to contemporary readers anymore? Enter The Litany of Earth, a novella by Ruthanna Emrys currently up on tor.com.

The state took Aphra away from Innsmouth. They took her history, her home, her family, her god. They tried to take the sea. Now, years later, when she is just beginning to rebuild a life, an agent of that government intrudes on her life again, with an offer she wishes she could refuse.

Firstly, this is a story which stands on its own. You don’t need to know the lore to enjoy it, though if you do, you’ll appreciate how skillfully the details of the world are worked into the narrative.

We are presented immediately with one variation from Lovecraft’s world (at least in my reading of his work). It is not tentacled aliens which make us build internment camps. No voice from the depths caused the atrocities of World War II. The author takes us out of the expected universe of musty tomes and eerie languages and brings us into a much more applicable world: one in which we are the monsters.

But those kooky old gods are still around; don’t worry. And Emrys handles them just as well.

Why were those adorable elders so terrifying to Lovecraft’s readers? I wrote a post on this a while ago, and it seems to me that the concepts in his work — that great and powerful forces exist which are either indifferent towards us or actively want us dead, that there is no benevolent God to protect us — must have been pretty creeptastic to certain readers back in the day.  But why are they scary now?

Here the author presents to us a post-Innsmouth worldview, in the form of semi-religious magic and ritual. This world will die. You will die. Maybe some stories of humanity will live on. None of it means anything. And that’s OK.

The protagonist describes this as “cosmic humility”, a phrase which I will be citing as often as I can.

This ain’t no fan-fic. This story is a re-evaluation of HPL’s canon from a contemporary viewpoint, deftly handled by the author. So go read it!

Astrocetology: Why I Wrote A Space Whaling Adventure Story

It was as if I had no choice, really.

You see, I had to write about space whaling.

Moby

The Moby Dick game is brilliant. It is beautifully done, for starters, with a depth of artistic detail which makes the game a must-own for anyone who decorates their home with old papers, faded prints, scraps torn from books. You know who you are. Every single one of the cards is worthy of matting, framing, and displaying in a prominent locations around your home, library, book-store, boathouse, or secret society lair, as is the box itself.

Gorgeous, right?

All that aside, though, it’s the deft creation of a particular feeling which makes the game notable in this case. This is not a game about beating the odds, forming a briliiant strategy, or fooling your opponents, though these skills certainly come in to play. In this game, you combat the constant feelings of dread as you lower down to hunt a whale, and shore up your defenses as best you can against the inevitable face-off with the great beast himself. In the rounds I’ve played, the term “bleak” has come up several times. You’re a whaler — you’re as likely to die as not from thousand varieties of bad luck. And the captain is driving you towards a near-certain doom.

At what low value was held the whaler’s life. The player feels a detachment from the lives of the crew. They’ll all end up dead anyway, often even before facing Moby Dick himself; best not to grow too fond. And what an unusually various crew it is. Men from all over, regardless of race or creed, hauling alongside each other where on land they would not be allowed to eat at the same table.

It’s about risk and reward and risk and risk. And these elements translate very well into a space-faring adventure.

Black Flag

Where the card game is about staving off despair in a merciless  world, whaling in Black Flag is about high adventure and bare-chested virility.

I mean, come on.

Here, the feeling is excitement. You won’t die if the whale attacks you. A snapped line doesn’t whip anyone’s arm off. You want to land that harpoon throw and reap the rewards, Caribbean sun beating down on your back. It’s… a lot of fun.

Side note: I felt substantially more guilty for killing a whale than for plundering dozens of ships. Odd. 

Again, even as you glory in the thrill of the hunt, you feel as if whale oil must had value far beyond gold or jewels to be worth its pursuit.  And again, why would this not translate to the emptiness and danger of space?

Artemis

Tell me you’ve played this. A fantastic, home-grown spaceship simulation game which hooks everyone who touches it. My first experience with it was at a gaming convention, where the developer helped players through the basics and let us cruise around. And that’s when I first came across the rare space whale.

To the larboard!

 

A fun addition to the game, almost an easter egg. You don’t get anything for finding them, or indeed for shooting them down. They’re just there, making their way through the emptiness.

And they’re beautiful.

 

From the Void

With all of this percolating in my headspace, it was only natural my protagonist would find himself on the hunt, facing one of the great dangers of the nullity for a chance at a share of the valuable nano-oil which can only be found in the skull of the voidwhale.

Check it out if you want, and I’d love to hear what you think. You can subscribe here, too.

Writing Dreams

I like to write about dreams. My first text-based game, indeed the whole Waking Cassandra project is about dreams. So when I saw that Kat Howard (with whom I just finished a great class at Litreactor) had a story up at Apex about dreams, I had to check it out.

The best dream scenes are written in the language of symbol. In this story, we see this in three different ways.

Personal symbol: The things we see in dreams often have meaning to us alone. An oven mitt might mean nothing to you, but it might remind the dreamer of her grandmother’s house, representing safety and happiness. A frog could bring back frightening emotions from the time you fell in the ravine. Kora chooses a particular mask “for the desire for wings”. They symbolize something to her, something she wants.

Shared symbol: Stop signs. An S with a vertical line through it. Or, in this case, Tarot cards. The dreamer brings these symbols from the external world in with her – and they make recognizable signposts for the reader.

Archetypal symbol: The Horned Man. The Pomegranate. The Serpent. Whether you want to go all Jungian dreamcloudy or just consider these part of our cultural, literary, and folkloric heritage, some symbols have old, powerful meanings. They speak to the great forces of human life, of the life of every person in every time and each place. Poorly handled, they can seem trite. Read this story for an example of how to use them well.

So, yeah. Go read Murdered Sleep. There’s a lot going on in the story, only a small bit of which was covered here. And pay attention to those dreams of yours – sleep isn’t always a restful state.

Final Fantasy II

Is this really a Final Fantasy game?

Sure, we’re introduced to such FF staples as Cid, chocobos, and dragoons, but where’s the confusing plot? Where’s the XP system? A very different feel from the first.

And then there’s the trick ending. Last night I spent altogether too much time running the the final double-dungeon only to find that defeating the undead emperor is impossible. I’m doing 200 damage a turn and he’s healing in the thousands with a move that both heals him and one-shots one of my guys.

Over to gamefaqs for some guidance, only to find that a sword which is otherwise completely useless is pretty much the only thing that can kill him. No indication given in-game that you’re supposed to hold on to this thing. Jeepers.

I whomped every baddie on my way to the boss, so grinding wasn’t the problem. So, what were the devs going for here? Keep every weapon, then try them one at a time as you die over and over again without being able to save. Or switch weapons midfight. Is that really the experience they wanted the player to have?

So, yeah, I watched the end on youtube. Screw that nonsense.

This game is grinder’s delight. Any character can learn anything you want — just keep ’em using axes, for example, and they’ll get good at axes. Since I was going for a plot play-through, this forced me to focus my guys on specific skills early on so they could keep doing damage at higher levels. But, if you like a lot of flexibility to customize your guys, you could make some fun combos.

On to III!

On The 7th Guest

A lot of folks read books during vacation. I played The 7th Guest.

I missed this game when it came out in ’93. This was the midst of the dark time of my gaming experience from late high school through college. Fortunately, the cash-printing iOS machines are bringing all kinds of old games out of the drawer.

So how does it hold up?

This game is essentially a series of puzzles strung together by a loose plotline. I don’t think anyone would claim that The 7th Guest revolutionized puzzle gaming, but the chess moves and mazes aren’t really the point. This game is creepy.

The reward for solving the puzzles is movement through the world of the house. Not trophies or harder enemies. Weird, disturbing sights and sounds conveying the story of a group of people trapped by a madman and set to a dark task. From this standpoint, assuming that the intent of the game was to present an interactive experience which put the player in the central role of a horror plotline and scare the hell out of him or her, The 7th Guest holds up better than I would have expected.

Retrogaming – Super Mario Bros. Crossover

By all that is holy, go and play this game. It’s Super Mario Brothers, but featuring a cast of NES greats. Play as Samus, Simon Belmont, Mega Man, the dudes from Contra etc.

Cool idea, right? Run around the Mushroom Kingdom as various characters. Maybe a ten minute thing, right? Once the nostalgia is over?

Nope. I settled in and played this thing to death over several nights. Here’s what keeps you coming back:

  • Choose. Will the screw attack work better than the spread gun here? What if I just scale the wall and get above everything? The characters have their strengths, and picking the right hero for the task makes for some cool gameplay.
  • Gear Up. Forget the Fire Flower. In place of the existing powerups have been left the various weapons of each character for your discovery and use. Double boomerang? Yes please.
  • Cheat. Nevermind the whole ‘achievements to show off to your friends’ thing. How abotu achievements which unlock new ways to play? Cheats which can be used to make the game easier, and unlock more cheats?

This game was definitely built by people who love games and know how to make them replayable. So go check it.

Simon’s Quest – Retrogame Review

I found myself in a debate recently about which of the NES Castlevania series is the best. Yes, it gets like that sometimes. One person insisted that 2 was superior to the others. The last time I had played that game was when it was first released, and I had finished it in less than a day. My memories of it were of the “meh” variety.

Worth a replay, yes?

Now, I’m guessing that I had the Nintendo Power mag (pictured right), because I just don’t see how I could have beaten this beast without some tips. What the hell are these crystals for? How do I know when to use the garlic to reveal hidden helpers? And just where am I, anyway?

Simon’s Quest took the action RPG genre several steps forward. The linear whip-and-slash of the first was gone, replaced by an open world approach. Feel free to gad about talking to people as much as you like, searching for clues about how to break this curse you’ve gone and gotten all over yourself. If you’re up for a little retrogame action, aren’t ashamed to use gamefaqs,com, and have a few hours, load ‘er up.

On Dragon Age: Journeys

 That’s how they getcha.

I’ve been avoiding Dragon Age: Origins.  Don’t get me wrong — I love Bioware as much as, or perhaps even more than, the next guy.  I even played Jade Empire.  But when I found myself choosing a new game, I settled on the devil-may-care wit of Nathan Drake over the blood-besmirched plate-mail of this fellow, whoever he is.

You know I’m right.

I’m more of a Final Fantasy guy, as you may have guessed.  All my occidental swords-and-sorcery needs are fulfilled by Warcraft.  And then this happened.  Dragon Age: Journeys, a well-designed casual RPG built by something called EA2D.   It’s pretty!  It sounds good!  It’s fun!  Dang it all.

While you’re watching The Biggest Loser, 
we’re gonna killify things and loot their steaming bodies.

(If there’s any doubt left in your mind that EA will someday control all of mankind’s dreams from atop a sheer platinum tower, please cast it aside.  Seriously, what else to Potter addicts, chop shop owners, and regular people have in common?  They have been right all along; it is, indeed, in the game.)

So fine.  I play their little flash romp through a few times.  No big, right?  No need for me to fall into the endless pit of expense that is DAO right?  One might think that, but no.  No, the sly devils at EA added a few achievements to this little gem, and once these are successfully completed, content is unlocked in Origins.  I am now the proud owner of a Helm of the Deep, an Amulet of the War Mage, and a snazzy little belt called Embri’s Many Pockets.  This for a game I don’t even own.

…yet.

Audiobooks and the Nintendo DSi

Perhaps this is what getting old feels like, when the people you idolized in college end up holding the mike on Morning Edition.

I went through my standard morning routine: breakfast, cleanliness, then the drive in to work listening to whatever I’ve DLed on to my flashcard and jammed in the DSi.  This time it was a Neil Gaiman NPR piece on audiobooks.  “Ho ho,” I thought.  “If only our dear Mr. Gaiman knew I was listening to his story in the same way I listen to audiobooks!”. 

Podiobooks, to be precisely correct.  Over the last few months I’ve been… ripping?  burning?  let’s just say “moving” Nathan Lowell‘s solar clipper series to my DSi.  Podiobooks breaks their content up into roughly 30-minute segments, which makes for very easy file management.

There are a few complexities involved in moving audio to the DSi.  My process is as follows:

1 – Download the desired audio files to my laptop.
2 – Convert them to the required mp4 format using Foobar.  (Vive la open source!)
3 – Drag and drop on to the flash card.
4 – Pop it (out of the lappy) and lock it (into the DSi).
5 –  Plug a male-to-male headphone cable into the “Aux In” port in the car.
6 – Enjoy some space-faring adventure. 

This is my first experience with audiobooks, and I have to confess to being completely hooked.  Lowell’s story, a melange of the high seas (think Master and Commander) and deep space, is pocked with memorable characters and is heavy on the dialogue, which makes for a listening experience somewhere between an old radio drama and a campfire story.  Reading it as a novel would be a very different experience; I would expect more detailed descriptions of the environments, and perhaps some of the more often repeated phrases (e.g. in Double Share, the protagonist shrugs.  A lot.) would fly past without notice like the ubiquitous “he said” does.  This begs a question as to whether or not the accessibility of the spoken word due to more developed technology is bringing about something akin to a revival of a near-dying art (which is addressed in Gaiman’s piece).  The listener certainly feels more of a connection to the author than seems likely via the page, at least not until PhD-levels of repeated readings. 

As for the DSi’s sound function, I call it a win.  I have had no issues with the sound quality, though admittedly spoken word doesn’t necessarily require hi-fi-phononess.  The interface is easy and seems made for episodic content.  So give it a go.