Game of Thrones – news round-up

The last few days have seen quite a few Game of Thrones-related news items. A recap below:

  1. A Game of Thrones will premiere in the US on 17 April.
  2. HBO has released new publicity photos, visible here.  I particularly like the bottom-most picture, which is of Catelyn; it makes her look wise, sad, and strong.
  3. Courtesy of Winter is Coming: a list of stations outside the US which will broadcast the series. In Australia, the series will be on Showcase, “possibly in July”.
  4. Also from Winter is Coming, a summary of a fifteen-minute, non-public preview video (SPOILERS for the first few episodes).

How to make dilemma effective: Stargate SG-1, “Between Two Fires”

In real life, how often have you had to make an unpalatable decision because you felt it was the lesser of two evils?

Characters in fiction, though, get off easy (especially if they’re the heroes). Often, they’ll find some way to weasel out of the dilemma, a “third way” that allows them to have their cake and eat it. So this makes me admire the courage of the odd story that doesn’t present that as an option, that forces the characters to choose and then doesn’t shy away from the consequences.

My example here is Stargate: SG-1. (Warning: spoilers for “Between Two Fires”, an episode midway through season 5.)


***

In this episode, our heroes are called in to investigate skulduggery on the planet Tollana. By this stage, we’ve been familiar with the Tollans for several seasons, seen their lovely planet, learned that while they are technologically superior to Earth, their society is peaceful as a lamb. So imagine the shock when SG-1 learns that the Tollans are building weapons capable of devastating Earth – and that they’re doing so at the behest of the Goa’uld, the villains of the series so far.

Now, why would the Tollans do this? Why would they even go so far as to murder one of their leaders who was opposed to the idea? Was their benevolence a facade a whole time? No. They built the weapons because the Goa’uld arrived in overwhelming force and told them to do it, or be slaughtered (the Goa’uld themselves, for reasons previously established on the show,  can’t directly attack Earth, so they need a plausibly deniable proxy).

Of course, SG-1 thwarts the threat to Earth. They talk one of their Tollan friends, another recurring character, into helping them sabotage the new weapons for the greater good of the galaxy. He does so knowing he condemns his homeworld to annihilation. The weapons cache goes up in flames. The Goa’uld see the Tollans have not lived up to their bargain, and so they begin their assault. SG-1 manages to escape, but their Tollan friend stays behind to fight. Back on Earth, they hear a last transmission from him: “I just want you to know that—”

Static.

And that is the last we ever see, or hear, of the Tollans.

***

The moral of the story is, for a dilemma to be effective, a storyteller must make the sacrifice matter. A hard choice must truly be a hard choice. “Avoid cop-outs” sounds so simple – but it works. And it made “Between Two Fires” one of my favourite episodes of SG-1.

Two very different characters inspired by the same person: Civ 4, The Curse of Chalion, and Isabella I of Spain

The name of Queen Isabella I of Spain should be familiar to any player of Civilization IV. And it will most likely not be a friendly familiarity. For in Civ, Isabella is a thoroughly unpleasant neighbour, a zealot with a penchant for declaring war on players who have adopted heathen faiths (i.e. anything other than what Isabella herself espouses) as their state religions. I get the feeling that while surprise might not be among the weapons in her arsenal, fear certainly is. In short, Isabella’s depiction in Civ is not a flattering one.

 

Contrast The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fantasy novel set in a land loosely inspired by late medieval Spain. One of the novel’s heroines is a young woman named Iselle, half-sister to the reigning monarch. Iselle is brave. Iselle is intelligent. Iselle believes in justice. Iselle, in short, is what royalty should be. And who seems to have inspired the character? None other than Isabella I of Spain.

 

Now, I don’t know enough about the real Isabella to comment on how closely Civ 4’s Isabella and Chalion’s Iselle resemble her. I doubt Civ 4 purports in any way to contain an accurate depiction of the real queen, and similarly, while Iselle and Isabella have similar backstories, I doubt Iselle was intended to be a fictionalised version of her namesake. (Although it is a funny thought to imagine Iselle growing up into the holy warrior of Civ 4…)

 

But the very fact Civ and Chalion aren’t trying to recreate the real Isabella is what fascinates me. This isn’t a case of two authors taking differing views of the same subject, this is a case of two works taking the same historical figure as a starting point and then going on to create two very different characters. And since it illustrates how the take on an idea is just as important as the idea itself, it’s food for thought for any prospective author.

US Versus UK Cover Art: Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

I usually prefer UK (and, by extension, Australian) book covers to their US covers (see Discworld for an example of good British cover art), and Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is no exception. Look at this UK cover: yes, it has an attention-grabbing axe and bloodstain, but the axe itself is almost photorealistically drawn and once you look past that, the detailed map says, “Fantasy novel!” without being garish about it. Now look at this US cover, and tell me it doesn’t make the book resemble a trashy slasher novel.

 

Which cover makes the book distinctive, in a good way? And which cover would you rather be seen with, in public?

Here comes the ten-minute look at Game of Thrones!

As promised by HBO, here’s the long “Inside Game of Thrones” video! It’s also up on Youtube in ten-minute and twelve-minute versions.

 

Mostly, it was the little things that stood out for me. Jaime Lannister’s ornate armour (go to 5:32 on the ten-minute video); it might not be golden but this is just as good. “Littlefinger” Baelish’s sly, mocking tone (2:13). Viserys’ creepy stare (6:19); here is the living, breathing embodiment of a mad Targaryen king. There are snippets that we’ve already seen or heard (such as Ned and Catelyn, and a certain confrontation in the streets), and a scene that I recognise from the leaked pilot script.

 

And we finally have a more precise ETA – April 2011! I look forward to hearing more about the series as we draw closer to April.

Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

 

If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.

 

No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.

 

What made SC2’s writing so good? If you were to read a synopsis of the game’s universe, you would find it pretty familiar if you had any previous experience with space opera (say, Larry Niven’s novels, the Wing Commander games, or even Star Wars). Your wondrous starship was originally built by long-vanished Precursors. There is a craven species, the Spathi, who echo Niven’s Pierson’s puppeteers. There are warlike species, the proud Yehat and humorously stupid Thraddash, echoing the Kzinti and Kilrathi.  There are space merchants, the Melnorme and the Druuge. There are even blue space babes, the Syreen. So far, nothing really out of the ordinary.

 

But what was out of the ordinary was the quality of the game’s writing and dialogue, which allowed SC2’s universe to transcend the dry summary I provided above. Most of the time, it was hilarious, often because it explored what a given space opera trope would REALLY look like. To name just one example, the Thraddash were not the first alien species to love a fight, but here, their entire backstory is structured around that trait, with… entertaining… results. For another example, try boasting to the Spathi about your “unique” Precursor starship. But SC2 could be serious when it wanted to. The tragic backstory of another race did not excuse its deeds in the present, but it did make me understand, even empathise, with why they chose the path they did. SC2’s writing proves that it doesn’t matter if someone else has used a concept before; the important thing is execution.

 

Beyond the writing, SC2’s gameplay also helped flesh out its alien species. Each species used a unique spacecraft in combat, with its own speed, defences, firepower, and special abilities. And these designs usually reflected the personalities established through dialogue. For example, the Spathi weren’t just cowards when you spoke to them. Their spacecraft’s most powerful weapon points backwards, so taking a Spathi ship into battle requires that you think and act as a Spathi would, in other words, that you run away. The slave-trading Druuge reveal the depths of their wickedness in battle, where their special ability allows them to recharge energy by throwing slaves into their ships’ furnaces.

 

But as good as Star Control II’s writing, dialogue and alien design were, ultimately it stands out for the gameplay-driven way in which its story unfolded. Most games that I’ve played will give you a clear objective and tell you what to do. Even in open-world games such as Brutal Legend, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, the main quest is clearly marked: Go to such-and-such a place and talk to such-and-such a person, who will tell you what to do next. Star Control II, however, gives you a scattering of clues and then makes you play detective. For example, you might be told:

 

1.     Strange signals were detected coming from the direction of Rigel;

2.     Humanity’s old allies discovered something interesting in a certain direction from Procyon;

3.     One species’ homeworld is in the Gruis constellation.

 

Following up each of these clues would lead you, in turn, to a few more hints. What might you discover at the source of the strange signal? What would the aliens at Gruis tell you? And then there’s what you’d discover from exploring worlds along the way,  A warlord might give you a device you need, if you retrieve something whose location he can’t pinpoint with any more precision than “near a yellow star in a constellation shaped like a long, thin beast”. A trader might offer to sell you information about the history of the galaxy, which you’d then use to make sense of some of the other facts you’d learned. At each step along the process, you would take notes (this game was from the days before quest journals!).  Ultimately, while you would start with a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, it was your responsibility to look for the rest, and once you’d found them, work out how to put them together. In other words, you would do the things that a space captain would have to do in-world: exploring, interviewing, recording and then analysing data. And with that, SC2 conveyed what it would be like to be the main character.

 

When all is said and done, Star Control II offers one of the most unique storytelling experiences I’ve seen in a game. And it provides a lesson to all game designers caught between the two sides of an old argument: is it better for a game to be well-written and packed with snappy dialogue, or to provide gameplay mechanics that allow you to feel as though you’re telling a story of your own? By excelling in both areas, Star Control II shows what a false choice this is.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’d like to play Star Control 2 for yourself, you can obtain its free remake, The Ur-Quan Masters, here. There are install files available for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux.


To quickly find this, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Freebie highlight: The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve talked about the Vorkosigan Saga, the multi-award-winning science fiction series, by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fair bit on this blog, and especially in the last week. The novels are some of my favourites (and certainly my favourite science fiction), because while they raise some fascinating questions about where biotechnology and reproductive technology may take society in the future, ultimately they are about people: their journeys, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their loves, their lives.

 

And now, you can legally, and for free, download a CD containing most of the Vorkosigan novels (minus the most pivotal novel, and my personal favourite, Memory). You can find the CD here – click on either “View the Cryoburn CD” or the appropriate download link. Then, start with either Cordelia’s Honour (somewhat darker, more serious omnibus featuring the mother of the titular hero) or Young Miles (an omnibus containing two fast-paced, and very funny, adventure novels plus a more sober, moving piece of short fiction which offers a good quick way to preview the series).

 

This CD offers great, lively, intelligent, well-plotted, character-driven and thematically rich fiction at an unbeatable – zero – price. Well worth checking out.

A sneak peek at Lois McMaster Bujold’s upcoming “Ivan book”

EDIT: My review is up!

 

No heroic tale would be complete without supporting characters: Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, Franz d’Epinay, Lieutenant William Bush, Issun… Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan, Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin and sometime sidekick, is more than just comic relief. He is a point-by-point foil for Miles: tall and handsome where Miles is stunted and deformed, determined to be an invisible everyman where Miles wants to be a hero, lazy where Miles is hyperactive. Yet when the chips are down, he is a brave and loyal ally – and now, following on the heels of Cryoburn (which I reviewed yesterday), Lois McMaster Bujold is working on the long-awaited novel starring Ivan. (In fact, I understand she got partway through the Ivan book, then took a hiatus to promote Cryoburn).

 

Best of all, we don’t have to wait for the book to be done in order to get a sneak peek. (Spoiler warning, obviously.) There are Youtube clips of Bujold reading Scenes #1 and #2 of the Ivan book – and although I wasn’t able to make out what she was saying due to sound quality, a couple of people have transcribed those scenes! You can read Scene #1 here and Scene #2 here.

 

Those readings certainly served their purpose for me. I waited patiently for years for an Ivan novel, and even after I learned that one was on its way, I took the news in my stride… but then I read the transcripts. After laughing aloud five or six times during those two scenes alone, I have no doubt that the series is back in its usual witty form, and that the book will be a blast. Ivan, get out of the word processor and onto the page!

 

Update: The Ivan book now has a title and a release date! Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is due out on 6 November 2012.

Book review: Cryoburn

CRYOBURN

 

Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, is something of an odd beast. It lacks the sparkling wit and manic energy which I typically associate with the series. In exchange, it offers excellent worldbuilding as Miles ventures to the cryogenics-saturated world of Kibou-daini on an Auditorial investigation.

 

Plot-wise, this is probably one of the weakest novels in the series. Normally, in a Miles book, it is crystal clear what is at stake and what Miles must do. Not so here. The two principal plot hooks more or less resolve themselves, and the main plotline felt muddled and only tangentially connected to the other hooks.

 

And while Bujold’s prose is as easy to read as ever, unfortunately this is also one of the least funny novels in the series. There are a couple of amusing moments in Cryoburn, but nothing compares to the dinner party, the bathtub full of ice cubes, or “Miles’ mad soliloquies”.

 

Character-wise, the book is in line with the rest of the series. As is usual for Bujold, everyone is vividly drawn, from series regulars down to the supporting cast. Jin the street urchin, Suze the tough old lady, and Raven the doctor all feel distinct, though nobody particularly resonated with me.

 

However, where Cryoburn really shines is its worldbuilding. In this book, Bujold gives us one of the most interesting settings in the series: cryogenics technology made its debut quite a few novels ago, but this is where it pays off. We see some of the implications of widespread use of cryogenics: a cranky old “revive” who can’t sell his story to the press, because there is such a glut of people like him; other revives who huddle together in themed communities set up to resemble the eras of their youths; and just what happens when cryo-storage equipment and know-how become cheap enough for anyone to get their hands on. And we see its economic effects, too, in the “cryocorps”, the industry that grew up around cryogenic storage. We see glimpses of the cryocorps’ business model, the extent of their profitability, their strategies and bright ideas. In both cases, the overall impact is perfectly tuned: not enough to drown the reader in irrelevant detail, but enough to add a lot of flavor to the world, and make it clear that the author gave serious thought to these issues and did her research (in the case of the cryocorps). And Cryoburn does so good a job with the concepts introduced earlier on, I can’t wait to see the next entry in the series explore one particular innovation from this book.

 

In conclusion, Cryoburn is not the pageturner that its predecessors are, and I certainly would not recommend it as a starting point for the series: not only would a new reader not be familiar with its characters, but so much of the book’s appeal to me was that it was the payoff for concepts introduced earlier. However, that same payoff – amongst other reasons, which I’ll not describe so as to avoid spoilers! – makes Cryoburn a worthwhile read for Vorkosigan fans.

 

You can buy Cryoburn from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

 

A Game of Thrones: the publicity rolls on and on

More appetisers for those of us looking forward to HBO’s Game of Thrones! On the Making Game of Thrones site, HBO has recently uploaded twelve large stills that were originally featured in Entertainment Weekly, plus another short (15-second) teaser. On Sunday 5 December, US time, there will also be a fifteen-minute “Making Of” video!

 

I have not analysed the images or the trailer in any detail, but they look great to me upon first glance. Ned and Catelyn look older and fleshier than I’d imagined them, but of course differences between my mental images, and those of the creators of the series, are inevitable. Jaime looks fine in the still image; however, I don’t think a still can really do the character justice. The key to depicting Jaime on screen is his combination of magnetism and arrogance, and this requires that we can see him in motion. So I look forward to future trailers/promotional videos that feature the Kingslayer.

 

(In other news, I’m back from holiday! I hope to post a review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn soon.)

Freebie highlight from my archives: “The Only Thing We Learn”, by Cyril Kornbluth

Do you like space opera, high fantasy, and other tales about bold heroes single-handedly bringing down mighty tyrants? And do you like story worlds that have been shaped by the ebb and flow of history?

 

If yes, then check out this short story by Cyril Kornbluth, “The Only Thing We Learn”.

Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep


Vernor Vinge
The galaxy is divided into Zones, different laws of nature applying in each. The long-forgotten Earth is in one where intelligences are tightly constrained, nanotechnology breaks down rapidly, and nothing can travel faster than light. Further out, FTL travel becomes possible, and ultimately, in the Transcend, godlike Powers live, post-singularity beings as comprehensible to us as we are to goldfish. One day, a foolhardy expedition into the Transcend awakens the Blight: a long-dormant Power, actively evil and mighty enough to drive all before it. Yet all hope is not lost: the expedition’s last survivors crashland a ship with the countermeasure far away, upon a world populated by doglike creatures with pack minds and medieval technology. Now not one, but two races are on. Two factions on that planet, each the beneficiary of technology from the wrecked starship, each asisted by a child survivor of the crash, engage in a war that will determine the destiny of their world; meanwhile, a rescue team speeds to the planet, one step ahead of the Blight’s agents.

 

Continue reading “Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep”

Another Ambitious Space Game: Shores of Hazeron

Last week, I mentioned Artemis, the starship bridge simulator. This week, I present another ambitious space game, spotted by DocLazy at the Quarter to Three forums. Shores of Hazeron seems to be a first-person cross between SimCity, Master of Orion, Wing Commander and Dwarf Fortress. You design, build, and skipper spaceships, land on planets and explore them in first person, and build the cities that fuel your interstellar jaunts. The game’s ambition impresses and intimidates me at the same time.

For example, consider the amount of work needed just to get into space if you opt to start your own empire.  First you need to hunt animals or gather plant fibres to craft your imperial flag. Then you need to build a city, mine stone, lay roads, set up farms, wait for citizens to move in… Eventually you bootstrap your way to an aircraft factory where you can build a space rocket. Mission accomplished! Or… not. Because if you want to build a proper starship, you have to gather two types of handwavium. And to do that, you need to jump into your primitive rocket ship, explore your home star system, and build a moon base to harvest the handwavium. After that, you will finally have the resources you need for spacecraft. Spaceward, ho!

You can see why I don’t have the time to jump in right now. That said, I still look forward to giving Shores of Hazeron a try after my holiday. Anything that sounds this cool on paper is worth a try!

(By the way, speaking of Artemis, the full game costs $60 but you can get a copy free if you send the designer a video recording of yourself and your buddies playing the demo. The media page is regularly updated with the latest videos, too. So if you have a buddy or five who’d like fifteen minutes of fame…)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn is out!

Glancing at my “What I’m Looking Forward To” post from September, I realised that I clean forgot to mention one of the novels that I was keenly anticipating — Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

 

Well, the anticipation is almost over, for Cryoburn has been released. But the key word is almost; not only do I need to buy the book (I know what I’ll be doing at lunchtime tomorrow!), but I’m going to save it for the upcoming plane trip. Well, if I waited all these years for Miles Vorkosigan’s latest adventure, what are a few more days

Calling all wannabe starship bridge officers! Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator

Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator is one of the more entertaining game ideas I’ve seen in some time. Six players get together around a LAN, with each player taking on a specific starship bridge officer role: Weapons, Communications, Science (sensors), Engineering, Helm or Captain. You can see gameplay videos here.

 

I also love the developer’s explanation as to why this game was designed for LAN, not internet, play:

 

I always wanted the players to be in one room together, just like a spaceship bridge. I want the captain to be able to push the helmsman aside and shout “Full power, DAMN you!!!”

 

Give it a look if you’re a space opera fan!

One sign that our geeky hobbies have gone mainstream

How do we know when a favourite, but hitherto niche, hobby has gone mainstream? I’m sure there are many indicators. The most obvious is, have its sales skyrocketed? There are others: has it featured on a talk show? Are our co-workers discussing it?

 

But lately, I’ve noticed one more: How widely is it being advertised? In particular, is it being advertised in public places?

 

Using this litmus test, gaming has definitely gone mainstream. In the last few months, I’ve seen the bearded special operator from Medal of Honor, the scowling cowboy of Red Dead Redemption, and “Super Mario 25th Anniversary – Part of the Family Since 1985” all staring down at me from the sides of buses. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing LittleBigPlanet posters at the train station, in which an adorable-looking Sackboy proclaimed, “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary.”  And I could be mistaken here – this was years and years ago – but I seem to recall seeing CivAnon brochures at university, in which case even turn-based strategy can be mainstream..

 

Speculative fiction movies and TV are also mainstream by this definition. Most recently, I’ve seen posters at the train station advertising vampire TV shows, but pretty much any speculative-fiction blockbuster would count.

 

On the other hand, speculative fiction NOVELS are most definitely not mainstream. Neither is anime (well, in Australia, at any rate). No real surprises in either case…

“The golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”: when do you have the most fun with a hobby?

There is a saying, attributed to one Peter Graham, that “the golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”.

 

Now, assuming “12” is a metaphor for “when you first discover it”, I can understand the argument. I discovered most of my favourite anime in the first couple of years after I came to the hobby: Cowboy Bebop, Crest of the Stars, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc. I suspect this is due to my relatively narrow tastes in anime – in other words, it didn’t take me long to come close to exhausting the pool of anime that are to my liking.

 

But it’s not true when it comes to the games I’ve played. Oh, I whiled away endless hours playing games when I was a kid. And I was willing to spend more hours on any one game than I am now: the two that first spring to mind are Civilization II, which I played and modded ad infinitum, and the original X-Com, which I never bothered to finish because I was having so much fun stomping around on Earth, but there are undoubtedly many, many others. From an “amount of free time” perspective, any time you don’t have to hold down a job will be your golden age.

 

Yet many of my favourite games, or the games I would consider ‘the greatest’ or in some way the best, or those that had the biggest impact on me, are ones that I only played in the last 3-4 years: Fallout 3, Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters, Okami, etc. And I think coming to them with a grown-up’s eyes is a major reason why. For now I have had the benefit of years and years of reading books and playing games and absorbing stories. And now, I can better recognise originality. I can now dissect games well enough to see how they bring together individual building blocks, analyse them in terms of theme and character arc and worldbuilding. In other words, I can appreciate games on more layers than I could when I was younger.

 

Perhaps, then, the golden age of science fiction, or gaming, or anime, or movies or TV or any hobby, is when you’re sufficiently well-versed to understand why you like it.

Where are all the steampunk games?

Along with zombies, steampunk is probably the main wave sweeping through speculative fiction right now. Locus magazine (September ’10) and Tor.com (last year) have run steampunk months, and Tor.com is following up with a “steampunk fortnight”; more and more steampunk novels have hit the shelves in the last couple of years, such as Scott Westerfeld’s YA piece Leviathan (which has a new sequel, Behemoth), and even a steampunk/zombie hybrid (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker); and I even saw a steampunk table set aside at Kinokuniya Books, although it wasn’t labelled as such.

What I wonder, then, is how long this will take to trickle into other media – particularly games. Not only is steampunk cool, but more importantly, it doesn’t have the “how do I make a workable game out of this?” practicality problems of, say, hard science fiction. Good luck trying to make a game about interstellar space opera without FTL – but airships and steam-powered gadgetry should work in any genre of game. Yet I can’t think of that many high-profile examples. Arcanum (2001 RPG set in an high fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution) was the obvious poster child for Western/PC steampunk titles. Representing Japan and JRPGs, I can point to Final Fantasy VI (1994). And for upcoming games, there’s Bioshock Infinite (FPS). But all in all, steampunk is a drop in the gaming ocean compared to, say, space marines or Tolkienesque fantasy. Where are all the other cool steampunk RPGs that could exist in some other dimension? Strategy, too, could do with more steampunk: offhand I can only think of the Jules Verne scenario for Fantastic Worlds (the Civilization II expansion pack) and the Vinci from Rise of Legends. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we look at other genres, where’s my Sid Meier’s Pirates!/Space Rangers 2 with airships?

Game devs, are you listening? There’s a very rich vein to be mined, and it’s filled with steam…

Cowboy Bebop: How to flesh out characters in a single sublime moment

Characterisation is vital to a good story. And storytellers can enlighten us about characters and their relationships over hundreds of pages, in elaborate flashbacks, in grand, dramatic revelations.

 

But sometimes, a single eloquent moment can tell us as much as all the above.

 

My case in point here is the third episode of Cowboy Bebop, “Honky Tonk Women”. When we first see our two heroes in this episode, the freebooting bounty hunters Spike and Jet, they’re making their way into an orbiting casino:

 

Jet: “They’ll kick us out if you win too much.”

Spike: “Thanks, Mom, but if you didn’t want me to win, you shouldn’t have brought me here.”

 

Of course, trouble eventually starts. And when Jet sees that Spike is in the midst of the ensuing brawl, he lets out the groan of a frustrated parent: “Oh, Spiiike…”, followed soon enough by, “I told you not to win too much!”

 

And from those few lines, we can deduce so much about the characters and their relationship. We can infer Spike is hot-tempered, prone to getting the two of them into trouble. We can infer Jet is the responsible one. And, best of all, we can infer that the two of them know each other well enough for Jet to automatically assume that the trouble was Spike’s fault for not listening to his advice. It’s these touches that make Bebop, all these years later, still the best anime I’ve ever seen.

The Dance with Dragons draws closer

The latest news on A Dance with Dragons is that GRRM has five part-chapters left to write, and that his publisher “[hopes] to have a finished manuscript by Christmas.”

My head knows I shouldn’t get too hopeful. After all, we’ve been here before: GRRM went on a roll in the middle of ’09, and A Feast for Crows came out back in ’05. My heart, now, that’s a different thing. My heart remembers the thrill of buying AFFC for myself, that I bought it on a Tuesday, that it was on my way down to class. My heart is what draws me to click on every ASOIAF-related thread in the hopes that it’ll contain an announcement that ADWD is finished. My heart is what makes me hope that this time, with 8+ POVs already done and good progress made on a particularly sticky plot element (the “Meereenese Knot”), it’ll be for real.

(In other words, this post could have been subtitled, “What it means to be a fan…”)

Stargate SG-1: The mysterious vanishing Jaffa helmets

In the Stargate movie, and in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, the bad guys are resplendent in animal-head helmets: Horus guards (from the movie) wore falcon-headed helmets, Apophis and his serpent guards from SG-1 make their first appearance in sinister snake helmets, and when SG-1 meets Heru-ur, their first new System Lord other than Apophis, his goons are wearing the falcon helmets again. However, after the first couple of seasons, the helmets disappear. Why?

Out of universe, I have a pretty simple explanation. As the later seasons introduce more and more Goa’uld System Lords, it would just not have been practical (or affordable?) to design and build unique helmets for each System Lord’s Jaffa. Thus, the vanishing helmets reflect real-world constraints.

However, I think I like my in-universe explanation better. Remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke rips off a stormtrooper helmet and exclaims, “I can’t see a thing in this helmet!”? Well, maybe the Goa’uld decided that SG-1 could regularly defeat whole armies of Jaffa because the Jaffa couldn’t see what they were aiming at. Of course, the Jaffa’s accuracy doesn’t seem to improve even after they start running around bare-headed, but perhaps the Goa’uld thought it was worth keeping up the experiment…

Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart

Crest of the Stars and its sequels (Banner of the Stars I – III) are some of my favourite anime of all time. Based on a series of novels (Seikai no Monshou and Seikai no Senki, by Hiroyuki Morioka), they succeed on so many levels. They tell a tale of conflict within the heart, against a backdrop that combines an epic clash of empires with an imaginative exploration of what humanity’s descendants may look like.

Continue reading “Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart”

Freebie highlight: “The Strange Case of Mr Salad Monday”, by G D Falksen

As part of its Steampunk Month last October, Tor.com published a piece of short fiction by G D Falksen, “The Strange Case of Mr Salad Monday“. This is a very cute and imaginative steampunk story that I like a lot. Go check it out — it’s free, free, free as a bird!

Discworld: Where monsters are folks just like us

One thing I love about Discworld is that its monstrous races, well, aren’t. They are ordinary people like you or I, and their “inhumanity” comes out mostly in the form of funny quirks.

The werewolves? Prone to that slight problem around the full moon, and to following instructions to “fetch!”, but otherwise not too bad. The vampires? Well, some of them have sworn off human blood – or, as they prefer to call it, “the ‘b’ vord”. The zombies? They have rights, too, and they’ll stand up for them! It’s perhaps the trolls who are the least “human” of the bunch, but that owes more to limited intelligence than anything else. And all of the above have integrated themselves into human, urban society, up to and including keeping the peace as members of the City Watch. Compare that to most other works of fantasy fiction!

So the next time you mow down Smouldering-With-Generic-Rage Skeleton #9345, think of what kind of life he/she/it might have been able to live on the Disc.

Discworld: fantasy cover art that’s actually good

Terry Pratchett is, I think, pretty much unique amongst fantasy authors in that he is blessed with good cover art for his novels*.

First came the covers drawn by Josh Kirby. Even before I started reading the Discworld novels, I immediately recognised them on the bookstore shelves, courtesy of the glorious, garish pandemonium of the Josh Kirby covers. For example, you can see his cover for Guards! Guards! here. While the characters don’t look much like they do in the text, the cover is true to the book in the most important sense. It hints at the kind of reading experience you will, in fact, have: a bellyful of laughs.

Josh Kirby died in 2001, and in 2002 Paul Kidby took over the cover art with Night Watch. Kidby’s covers don’t have the same manic glee of their predecessors, but they depict the characters very well and retain the comedic touch that the subject matter needs. My favourite Kidby cover is Going Postal, which wonderfully spoofs the “barbarian hero posing atop a mound of bodies”  (and I love the gothy Adora Bella Dearhart puffing away on her cigarette). And Kidby’s depiction of Sam Vimes as a Clint Eastwood-lookalike never fails to amuse me.

Truly, I would do both Pratchett and his cover-artists a great service to say I could judge the Discworld novels by their covers.

* At least in the UK and Australia; from what I’ve seen, the US covers aren’t quite so inspired.

Freebie highlight: “Firstborn”, by Brandon Sanderson

There is a lot of good, free fiction (and games, and other media) on the Internet, and from time to time, I’ll highlight something that I particularly enjoyed.

Our first freebie is “Firstborn“, a piece of short fiction by Brandon Sanderson (author of novels such as Elantris and the Mistborn series, and the guy who’s completing the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death). We’re used to galactic empire space operas, and we’re used to the swaggering, invincible heroes who normally populate the genre. In this story, Sanderson very neatly subverts the formula, and does so in a way that has a little bit of personal resonance for me. Check it out!

Is A Song of Ice and Fire really that bleak?

Now that HBO has released a new teaser, a behind-the-scenes video and a “making of” subsite for A Game of Thrones, and since I had my copy of AGOT autographed by George R R Martin today, this seems an opportune time to ask: is A Song of Ice and Fire really as grim as it’s made out to be?

I know — this seems like a crazy question at first blush. ASOIAF is one of the defining series of modern, gritty low fantasy. Its signature shtick is that characters who would have escaped the consequences of their own stupidity in any other work, by virtue of protagonist plot armour, here pay the price. GRRM has gone on record as saying that he set out to avoid the “roller coaster” feel of novels that create the illusion that their characters are in danger, but where you know the heroes will ultimately be all right.

But stopping there would overlook one vital point. In the novels, trying to do the right thing can get you killed – but when a characters does choose to take a stand, it is held up and celebrated all the same. Characters do change for the better. Life in Westeros is filled with tears – but also moments of joy and triumph. And GRRM has declared his goal of a bittersweet ending, not a horrific one. Compare this with, say, Richard K Morgan’s rage against the world, or Joe Abercrombie’s unrelentingly cynical view of human nature. Who is the bleaker?

Stargate SG-1 and the importance of creating a believable world

I’ve seen the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1, and so far, I quite like it. The pilot episode was as close as we’ll ever come to a TV adaptation of UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense, and although the following filler episodes were a big step down in quality, the series eventually regained its stride. It’s moved past Pre-Industrial Society / Monster / Mysterious Alien Plague Of The Week and now, it seems to be striving for epic space opera. That it does well, and intelligently.

The secret, I think, is how many things – some little, some large – make the world feel believable. The show avoids familiar howlers such as the “Always Chaotic Evil” alien species (admittedly, it is guilty of a few of its own). The characters are generally pretty intelligent when it comes to solving problems – and sometimes, this backfires, when they do something that makes in-character sense but turns out to be wrong, because they don’t know the full story.

And most importantly, the show has a sense of continuity, most obvious in its overarching story arc. But it operates in so many smaller, yet vital, ways as well. Real people remember what happened to them a week ago, or two, or three, or ten. They gripe if it was bad, crow if it was good. So do the characters of SG-1. Real people remember how they previously solved problems, and make preparations if they think they’ll encounter the same issue again later. So do the characters of SG-1. When the show needs minor characters – an ally has come with vital information; the heroes are saved because “the enemy of their enemy” has provided a distraction; a red-shirt to accompany the heroes – it draws on the world it’s already established instead of creating a wholly new disposable character.

And yet, it only takes this so far. Earth itself is locked in stasis; SG-1 never recovers any artifacts that would dramatically shake things up; alien technology never leaks out into the wider world; society remains unchanged. For all I know, this was intentional and the creators weren’t interested in telling a story about how contact with alien societies/advances/species, even in a gradual trickle, might change the modern world. But it disappoints me all the same.