We’re Alive – A “Zombie” Story of Survival

werealive

Do you like zombies? I don’t. That doesn’t stop me reading, watching, or listening to the occasional zombie story.

We’re Alive is a solid zombie story. It’s told from a combination of two styles: personal reflection and conversation. Various characters from the story talk about events and setting as they write their various journals, and when action scenes take place, characters are constantly conversing, talking about what is happening, and generally going crazy. It’s done well.

For a fairly small publisher (as far as I can tell), Wayland Productions does a remarkable job with this story. It’s an audio drama that is complete with hundreds of sound effects and dozens of good voice actors. And a half-decent story.

As far as stories go, it is episodic, and therefore has to keep tossing bait to the audience to keep us invested. This appears in several ways: the “zombies” get stronger or smarter, which presents more challenges for the heroes; the vicinity’s supplies wear thin; heroes are kidnapped or get lost; criminals pose ever-increasing threats to the heroes – and each of these elements intensifies gradually, with each tension rotating focus per episode.

Character is a strongpoint for We’re Alive. Each of the heroes is told to keep a journal to both help them stay sane and keep each other informed about things they learn from the changed world. Some of the characters like this idea, others aren’t so interested. All of them do. Their opinions about other people and things are all different in unique and very interesting ways. Some of the characters are called to lead. Others wish they were in charge. Some of them resent the current leadership. All the characters have backstories and “start of the end” stories. Some of the characters are very attached to certain things they salvaged when the world ended. Every voice is different, and not just because there’s a different voice actor reading the script.

The setting is very much zombie-esque. Every corner is tense. Every abandoned car could be a death-trap. Every fuel station is pure horror waiting to happen. The cities are broken. Utilities are minimal if they exist at all. Something I found haunting was that even the water was dangerous. Two of the heroes step onto a boat at one stage. They never try that again.

The audio side of the story exceeded several professional standards. Everything was clear. Sure, some conversations were slurred – but when is conversation ever completely clear? The sounds were crisp, solid, gritty. It felt like everything was recorded specifically for the audio drama. No stock sounds. No Age of Empires owl noises. No Command and Conquer death cries. And the strongest point of the audio was the calls of the… uh… “zombies”. They were haunting. Their baleful howls still echo in the recesses of my mind, and I haven’t heard them for quite a while now. Think of something of a cross between a Jurassic Park tyrannosaurus rex and a wolf. Well, that was the big ones. The smaller ones had slightly different noises.

The “zombies”. They weren’t exactly zombies, which is probably why the subtitle is “a ‘zombie’ story of survival”. Zombies are overdone, so this was neat. Some of them are human in appearance, but from the characters’ descriptions of them and their noises, there are different mutations. My mind pictured an array of mutations: some like dinosaurs, some like wolves, some like people, and more. Definitely more appealing than the standard array of zombies who just need a good coffee to put them straight.

All in all, I highly recommend We’re Alive. It’s a chilling tale, but well worth the haunting. Everything feels fresh, and it’s professionally produced. Keep a good blanket nearby, and maybe leave a lamp on, but definitely have a listen.

The Witcher 3 – Pre-release

thewitcher3

I’m waiting for The Witcher 3. Earnestly. A lot of us are. Will it be worth the wait? I think so. I’ll get back to you on that in a month and a half. Or according to Steam at the moment, I should have started playing it yesterday. Unfortunately, it looks like Steam has an error that is displaying the release date as April 7, 2015, but the game is neither playable nor preloadable yet.

But let me discuss what hopes I have for the game.

Explorability. Skyrim was fun, but The Witcher boasts a bigger map. At least twenty percent bigger, according to an interview with game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz. Not only that, but Geralt’s world is a lot richer than Skyrim. Tons of people. Tons of trade, villages, and more. Quests and hunts everywhere. Tamriel is interesting, but the province of Skyrim is mostly barren. (No disrespect to Skyrim, though; still have plenty of good memories there.)

Gameplay. It looks from the previews that the combat is a lot like Assassin’s Creed Unity, which had a decent combat system – not perfect, mind you, but still decent. With the variety of creatures in The Witcher, that quality of combat (with a touch of CD Projekt RED magic) should be smooth and fun. And if the jumping/climbing is anything like Uncharted, it should be very unrestrictive, liberating gameplay. Nothing like the stiff movement and scripted movement (climbing ledges or dropping from them) from The Witcher 2. More believable than Assassin’s Creed.

Visuals. The Witcher 2 was one of the harshest things you could do to your computer before Assassin’s Creed Unity came out. And yet (unlike Unity), The Witcher 2 was playable, and could be scaled down to punish lower-end gaming rigs less. I’m expecting The Witcher 3 at high settings to be fairly straining for our hardware, but I think CD Projekt RED is smart enough to get it running on our hardware without burning down our neighborhoods. This developer seems to like its customers.

Setting. The Witcher games (and books) have delivered gritty settings. Powerful, realistic, motivating. Real people: characters who are witty, rude, gluttonous, dishonest, racist, etc. They aren’t grey people who kinda just eat and drink and sleep and say they are sad about things and then die. The Witcher unashamedly delivers very honest characters. It’s supposed to be a dark fantasy world, and CD Projekt RED definitely delivers just that. To its outstanding credit. Fiction keeps getting censored, and it really oughtn’t be. If you want censoring, go live in Australia. Even kids’ playgrounds are censored – it’s practically impossible to hurt yourself on one.

Music. I haven’t heard any of The Witcher 3’s music yet, but after The Witcher 2, I’ve got my fingers, toes, arms, legs, and absolutely everything crossable, well… crossed. I was blown away by songs like Dwarven Stone upon Dwarven Stone.

So, yep. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of what promises to be the most epic gaming experience yet.

Assassin’s Creed Unity

Yup. I know I briefly covered Assassin’s Creed Unity in a comment on my Assassin’s Creed post, but now that I’ve played it I feel that it almost falls into a completely different category. Well, okay, just remember that I said almost.

I never thought I’d get Unity. I looked at it, looked at the time period, looked at the price, shrugged it off, walked away. When I was given a high recommendation of it (in a comment on my Assassin’s Creed review), I looked for a sale and grabbed it. Sadly, I’ve quite a bit of trouble with the game.

I downloaded it, ran it, and it very nearly bricked my computer. That was partially my fault; I’d been running a dual-SLI 660ti Nvidia build on its minimum recommended power supply for nearly a year (700W). But it wasn’t just me. I’ve never had a game shut my entire computer down. Not even hard-pressing games like Crysis 3. Assassin’s Creed Unity, on the other hand, took one look at my rig, rubbed its hands together in glee, and blinked my computer into oblivion no less than five times. I’m lucky it survived, actually. Eventually I caved in and grabbed a new, 1050W power supply (at least it leaves more room for later upgrades), and those crashes haven’t happened since. But the game is far from smooth. I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried running the game at max settings. I’ve tried running it at minimum settings. Nothing (apart from anti-aliasing) seems to affect how the game runs – it’s choppy, it’s irresponsive, and it’s constantly flicking my screen around. I’m tech-savvy enough to know that my computer is good enough to run the game. I can out-rig pretty much all my buddies, and yet they don’t get the same issues. Assassin’s Creed Unity is terribly optimized (in other words, the development team probably just gave up on it). What gives me the most kicks is that Unity was released the same day as Assassin’s Creed Rogue – and Rogue runs beautifully on high settings for most gamers. Even high-end computers have massive trouble running Unity. Which is a pity, because of the next paragraph.

Paris is pretty. I liked Rome and Venice and Jerusalem more, but Paris is definitely pretty.

The biggest pro for me about Assassin’s Creed Unity is its co-op element. Without that, I doubt it would have gotten as much attention. In fact, it would have fallen out of the sky at launch without co-op (see all other paragraphs). I suppose it goes without saying that I love co-op gameplay. And this is the only co-op Assassin’s Creed game. That’s right. Ubisoft broke its only co-op AC game. I’ve struggled through hours of trying various tweaks, guides, reviews, and more to get the game working. Why? Because I just want to get it to function on my computer. I have gotten a few hours of semi-functional-but-mostly-epileptic gameplay with my friend, and it’s super fun. The co-op, not the epilepsy. The problem is, I can’t seriously play the game with that kind of performance. The number of times I’ve tried to shoot a sharpshooter who is aiming at my buddy and somehow had the screen completely reverse (resulting in me shooting some random object – or civilian) is through the roof. That’s bad for teamwork. The amount of instances I’ve tried to stop my character from lagging into hugging a wall when I’m trying to run either away (which results in my death) or to save my friend (which results in his death) is unbelievable. But when it comes down to the basics of Assassin’s Creed in co-op, it’s a lot of fun to walk and jump around a city in unison. If only it wasn’t threatening to give me epilepsy every five seconds.

Story-wise, Unity is just another Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed game. The character is traumatized from a young age, he wants revenge, he grows up and turns into a killer. He kills people, questions people, etc. We’ve seen it before, and we’ve played it in games that run faster than twenty frames per second. It’s not a bad story, mind you; it’s just that Assassin’s Creed hasn’t tried anything new (until Rogue, but that’s quite literally another story). I haven’t gotten very far into the game, unfortunately, because I’m not a big fan of epilepsy (see above).

Assassin’s Creed Unity is different to all the other AC games. It plays slower. A lot slower. The combat feels less arcade, but is also less realistic. Sure, it’s harder to fight the guards. They can block, stun, drop grenades, and generally do anything we can do. And yet it’s not actually an improvement. In the older Assassin’s Creed games, if someone tried shooting you, you could move behind his buddies to break line-of-fire. In some of those games, holding enemies in front of you was an actual button-press counter to ranged attacks. In Unity, they just ignore their buddies and fire through them to stagger and severely wound you. I don’t care if this is some kind of compensation for player latency (due to co-op gameplay) – this is just poor game design. We can’t fire through civilians (or non-civilians) to hit shooters, so why can they fire through their mates to kill us? Also, even though the old “kill streak” combat option was removed from Unity, the combat still very much goes like this: watch for an attack and hit the parry button. And again. And again. And again. Apart from avoiding pistol shots, this works fantastically and flawlessly. If the combat was to be more challenging, why not allow multiple enemies to attack the character at once? That would present both more challenge and a more realistic feel. Overwhelming numbers means exactly that. Even in a ten-man battle we only have to deflect one at a time in this game. Except for that one shooter who is standing behind a mob of five of his allies and hitting us flawlessly every time.

Assassin’s Creed Unity needs a team to work on it. It’s not finished. It’s still about as functional as a beta release. It needs people to continue on it and make it work. After that’s happened, I’d like to play it.

 

Pros

  • Co-op gameplay
  • Relatively smooth combat control
  • Fluid freerunning
  • Historical locations and people
  • Decent musical scores
  • Beautiful scenery

Cons

  • Repetitive combat
  • Repetitive AI scenarios
  • Locked skills (really? I can’t sit on a seat or throw coins on the ground until I earn enough points?)
  • Disgusting optimization for PC (and, so far as I’ve heard, Xbox and PlayStation as well)

Question: why, in France, does everyone have a strong British accent? I don’t think I’ve encountered a single character with a convincing French accent yet, and – although my sessions have been sporadic – that’s a lot of gameplay.

The Pen of Joel

Thepenofjoel. Succinct. Short. Meaningful. It combines the ideas of “pen name” and “writing” and “written by” into a single, easy-to-remember nickname. It is the pen-name of a writer buddy of mine. (Oh, but don’t let anyone know that I suggested that name to him, k? That would be telling.)

Personal achievements aside, Joel is a great writer with a keen eye for story. He does structural editing for Legends of Eisenwald (otherwise the game would be doomed), writes Daniel Roth mystery books (starting off with A Final Portrait), hosts The Morning Bell‘s podcast for emerging writers, and publishes intelligent, thought-out video criticisms of well-known computer game stories on his YouTube channel, thepenofjoel.

Seriously, check him out. Or, better yet, send him a question on his ask.fm page – he monitors it regularly, so go ahead!

If you want someone completely fluent in writing gobbledygook with a keen eye for the little things about stories that truly matter, Joel is your man. And he’s approachable, too. Let me demonstrate: Joel, what started you out on your writing career?

Mass Effect

Mass Effect. There’s an awful lot that can be said, some things that oughtn’t be said, and a few things that don’t need to be said. I’ll take the series as a whole rather than focusing on one game at a time.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels smooth and epic.
A few story choices later: this sucks. Everything feels locked in and alienated from us.
Sober realization (days in): hmm, that was okay. The game was not terrible overall; bad design choices stopped the game from achieving true greatness, but they didn’t completely destroy it.

Mass Effect tried to market itself based on narrative choice (freedom to design your own story) and a personalised character. Well, if freedom means a choose-your-own-adventure book (the kind where every choice we make you ends up with our character in a trap or eaten by wolves), sure. The only choices we can actually make are ones like:

  • Do you want to kill Character A or Character B?
  • Do you want listen to Character C, which will make Character B hate you forever and leave your story?
  • Do you want to destroy Nation A or Nation B?
  • Do you want to give an order that makes no sense and you know will kill either Character D or Character E?

You get the point. The choices are ultimately rigged, and not in “this could work out either way” kinds of ways, either – in blatant, “we know both choices are really bad, but to continue the game we have to choose one” kinds of ways. There are some choices in the game (such as inadvertantly rescuing a famous admiral) that allow us to open up more intelligent options when we make bigger choices, but saving the admiral meant sacrificing Group F to save him anyways. Same problem.

Also, the choices are all made during cut-scenes. In other words, if a cut-scene comes up, we know there’s going to be a choice. We don’t know anything about what the choice will entail or involve, but we know we will have to make one.

Oh yeah, and on the lines of a story sold based on narrative, the whole thing is a (spoiler) world-is-ending tale. Never been there before. And this one was even worse, because it made very little sense and completely took all meaning out of the choices and gameplay we had gone through. Come on, BioWare, did you just give up on the story? Why else would you implement an all-powerful, unrelated character who simply states that you made a bad game?

Did I start out hard? Yep. BioWare has such a grip on the market that starting out hard is necessary. And it’s not going to get a whole lot easier yet.

The gameplay was, well… amusing. If there’s one thing I’ve complained a lot about in Mass Effect, it’s the fact that combat was a glorified version of whack-a-mole. You heard me. We sit behind a bench, wait for the gunfire to calm down a little, stand up, wait for them to pop their heads up, spray a round, and drop back behind our shelter. This is 60% of the game. Oh yeah, and our guns create their own ammo, but somehow (in Mass Effect 2 and 3) they run out of it. BioWare liked to explain it by saying that we actually have to replace the heat pack in our guns, and we collect heat packs to replenish ammo, but hey – what if we only fire one bullet every ten minutes? How are our guns heating up so badly? I’m not against the idea of having players try options other than guns, but in whack-a-mole combat, melee fighting is completely out of the picture. Seriously. Also, the movement limitations were sad. Mass Effect played out in a beautiful sci-fi setting, but all we can do is kind of walk, kind of sprint, and kind of dodge. No jumping, no extra pathing (unless it was scripted), no swimming through void in zero gravity. Mass Effect 1 had an issue with repetitive planet surface scenarios (land, drive, drive, drive, get out, clean up enemies), but rather than improve on this element, Mass Effect 2 and 3 completely removed it. We could scan the planets, but that was it. No beautiful landscape view, just a planet on a screen.

Relationships. This was almost the only reason Mass Effect was rated M, and yet it was brutally mechanical. A relationship is so much more than just following someone around with your tongue out until they turn around and say “let’s do it”. The relationships in this game reminded me of Harvest Moon DS. Just find the flower the girl of your dreams enjoys most (or, if you want to save money, a trinket from the mines you can dig up on the top level) and keep handing stacks and stacks of them to her until she starts blushing. Fantastic representation of reality. Works every time. Oh, but then you have to go save lots of pixies (by a lot, I mean more than a hundred) one at a time before you can proceed. Mass Effect made relationships a lot simpler. Just keep clicking the dialogue option that says “I want you”. Takes about three conversations.

Yep, that was harsh. But Mass Effect wasn’t all bad.

The scenery in Mass Effect was gorgeous. Much of the game was set on planet surfaces, where we got to see aliens, awesome panoramas, spaceshipwrecks, secret labs, ruined monasteries, and much more. It was (as I already said) gorgeous. The textures were done well. The game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Haunting, beautiful melodies. Sci-fi electronic tracks. Songs that seemed to complement the very stars in the sky. But was it too little too late?

In conclusion, Mass Effect was beautiful. But while aesthetics alone may suit drawings or movies, a game needs much, much more. The cultures and characters you encounter make for an interesting game. The story and gameplay strip that away. If you are looking for a game purely because you love sci-fi settings and music, definitely go for it. If you are hunting for fun gameplay and love a good story, don’t play it.

 

Overall layout of the game:

60%: whack-a-mole
30%: spontaneous, genocidal choices
5%: robotic, Harvest Moon relationships
5%: other (galaxy map travel, upgrading weapons, complaining about lack of ammo)

 

Pros

  • Smooth combat control
  • Science fiction locations and people in a fascinating setting
  • Beautiful galaxy views and scenery
  • Haunting-yet-charming musical scores
  • Decent optimization for PC

Cons

  • Repetitive, whack-a-mole combat
  • Extremely limited movement, no zero-gravity moments
  • Trainwreck ending

Writing App

Some of you may remember that I once blogged about Storybook. I was just trying the program again before I posted that blog post, and my article turned out pretty disappointed. Now it turns out that the program very nearly died – it only survived due to the charity of the lovely open source community. So it still exists. However, I’m not here to talk about that program. I never found it much fun (although now I’m curious about whether the community has fixed it).

I’m here to talk about another writing program entirely.

 

Subject

Writing App is smooth, portable, and – in my opinion – fun. It costs $3, and I’ve used it long enough for it to have earned every cent. If there’s one downside to the app, it’s that it is only available on the Apple store. That bothers me a tiny bit (what will become of me when my aging iPad dies?), because I’m not a fan of Apple policies, Apple prices, Apple cables, Apple formatting, Apple hype, or apples. Well, okay, apples are fine. This app probably means that I’ll be scouring eBay for an unused old iPad when mine dies, but if it continues to deliver, I’m okay with that.

The app lets you create a project. This can be either a short story or a novel. I only ever pick novel, due to the type of writing I do (I either write novels or collections of related short stories). Within your project you can add characters, items, places, notes, and chapters. Each item – except chapters – has sub-pages, such as eyes, hair, strengths, weaknesses (for characters), descriptions, etc. These are totally optional, but I use them to help me flesh out the stories and characters. It’s no secret that an author should know a lot more about his world and characters than the reader does. After you have whatever information you need, just add a chapter and start writing. (Oh, and it has a fantastic font for fantasy writing: Bradley Hand.)

Pros

Kudos to the app developer, Thomas Sillmann. I’ve chucked several comments (including bug reports) and compliments at him, and he has responded every time. Generally within a day or two.

The app has a clean interface. None of that messy jumble we get with half our apps these days (what do all the little buttons do?). The menus are easy to navigate, the sidebar makes swapping between characters/items/chapters easy, and saving is automatic (I had a lot of problems with that with other apps). As messy as we writers can be, it’s important to keep at least a reasonably clean writing space.

Dropbox integration. That means you can upload entire projects straight to Dropbox to access them on your computer. You can also upload each file individually to Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, or an email address.

Cons

The Dropbox integration is currently a little buggy. An update to the app did something weird, and Thomas is working on fixing it. Individual files still upload correctly, but project backup is out of the question at the moment. Bit sad, because I like to look over my project on my phone when I’m on the run, but I’m looking forward to the update.

The chapter-writing interface isn’t necessarily as pretty as I’d like. Some authors (myself included) get a little dazzled by blank white pages, and this is about as white and dazzling as they get. Put a paragraph or two on it, and it’s fine, but I’d really like some kind of border option (on the sides) or something. Or a slightly crinkled parchment backdrop. Ooh, that’d probably even kick a few extra dollars out of me. Well, anything but an absolutely blank page.

Overall rating

4.5 stars. I’m finding the app very clean, as well as helpful for sorting information and writing short pieces, and I’m impressed by the developer’s swift responses to my questions. Customer support is one of the most important aspects of the app market, but even more so when a writer is having trouble with an app and needs to keep his pen to the paper.

Story Structure

I’ve got this thing against people swearing by a single story structure. I don’t quite know why it is, but – oh, yeah, I do. Watched a new Hollywood release recently? Seen it before? I have. Seen it too many times before? Me too. And I just can’t get over the idea that while each and every release has a thread – or maybe even two threads – of potential, someone or something is throwing it away.

And then another movie comes out. Same story. Quite literally.

Cinema has so much potential, what with all the tech, all the costumes, all the actors, and the studio community. It strikes me as odd that production teams with so much skill and experience just settle for basic, over-used stories. I don’t like being able to predict absolutely everything that is going to happen during the film. Maybe I’d like to just think of myself as some kind of gifted prophet, but I can’t – other people seem to have the same gift.

It happens a lot with books, too. I used to like to say “it’s all the fault of our teachers”, but if they were anything like my teachers (that’s you, Earl), then they were giving us good structural advice for when our stories are in trouble. In other words, you’re going nowhere. Kaput. Not as an “if you don’t use this structure, you aren’t writing a story” statement. Writers who took any kind of course all heard the fantastic and miraculous tale of the ultimate structure: The Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell). We’ve probably all seen Kurt Vonnegut talk about three simple story structures. And then, if we still read books, we see it in action.

So when I bumped into the short stories about Geralt of Rivia (who some of us know as the witcher), I was thrown off my feet. They weren’t particularly fantastic. They weren’t extremely comprehensible. Heck, they didn’t even seem to be in any particular order when I first read The Last Wish. But they were interesting. They were unpredictable. What I saw in them was a kind of new potential for storytelling: little snippets of adventure. They felt more like events than structured stories. Instead of reading through them and thinking “ah, yeah, so now he turns around and goes sad about life for a few minutes before someone sets him back on his feet”, I found that the stories were organic. Sure, there were small overdoses of heroism, but that’s nothing compared to overdosing on story structure. I’d rather see a (kind of) invincible character doing interesting things than slog through a story where a true-to-life character runs through the motions (and yet, is that really true to life?).

That’s not to say that I like superhero stories. They are endurable, sometimes (except that most of them follow the same story structure anyways), but I’m talking about something else. I want to read interesting stories with relatable characters.

Hence the title of this blog post. I’m working on episodic stories. They are more for interesting content than any kind of structure. Sure, I might slip into some kind of clichéd structure for one or two stories, but my focuses are content, setting, action, world. Organic storytelling and interesting content.