Kickstarting Flames of Solsgard

volsark_kickstarter_3 - website

Vaeland’s tribes have finally been bowed by civilization.

Flames of Solsgard is a little collection of short stories that brings a dark fantasy world to life. The main character followed is Talmere of Nerida, a seasoned volsark. His existence was simple: stand vigil at druidic rituals and protect Vaelandic people from invaders. But when war saw the druids destroyed, Talmere and his remaining brethren were left adrift. Times are no longer easy for the once-honored volsarks; their defeat left their countrypeople with mixed feelings toward them. And as the druids foretold: blood is the beginning of even darker tales.

And Flames of Solsgard is a Kickstarter project. In other words, if you’d like to help me add free content (see stretch goals), you can jump on the pre-release bandwagon!

 

New Writing

Yup, like I said last post (which was a little while ago), I’m working on a whole new series. At the moment I’m writing smaller pieces, short stories and similar. I’m waiting on some cover art before I put the first compilation up on Amazon, but I’m also brewing something of a surprise as well. Interested?

The first short story collection about Talmere of Nerida (in eBook format) will be $4.00 USD. I won’t be hiking the price up at any time – that will be a solid and final price. However, something extra will be attached to this publication. I won’t yet reveal exactly what it is, but I’ll give you a teaser: your $4 purchase could give you completely free, open access to all my future writing! It’s something I’ve always dreamed of: writing endlessly and having people enjoy my stories for free. But even authors need to eat, right? I’ll be honest, though – there will be a condition that governs whether or not I will be able to make the future releases free.

So here’s to Talmere of Nerida!

The first collection of Talmere’s short stories (and, if all goes to plan, the only collection about him that will actually cost you anything) should be available on Kindle within the next few weeks. It mostly depends on how soon the art is ready. Be prepared for an awesome cover and map!

Here’s an early sketch; it’s not the image I’m going with for the final, but it’s a little snapshot of what’s to come:

early_sketch

Lost Lord

Three guesses who the title refers to. Two if you’ve read Imalion’s Tale.

New story! Check out Lost Lord, the next episode of the Knights of the Moon story.

Also, this story brings a temporary close to Rylacia and its inhabitants. Writing is still coming along fine, no worries there; I’m taking a break from the world I began with Imalion and his diary in 2011 and am starting an exciting journey with Talmere of Nerida. More info soon!

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3

I did a pre-release post, but now it’s time to ponder the game in all its finally-experiencable glory.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels epic and looks beautiful.
A few hours later: this is impressive. And fun. Oh wait, is that level 20 griffon supposed to be circling poor little level 4 me? That’s… disconcerting.
Ultimate realization (days in): can’t leave my computer. Can’t take off my headphones. Can’t even go outside or get food. Must take another witcher contract… and another… and another!

The Witcher 3 wanted to market itself based on the size of the world and the effects of quest choices you make. That would be all good and well, but while the choices and effects are interesting, the world feels super small. Granted, it’s probably bigger than all the worlds of other fantasy games that exist, but I’m a huge sucker for exploration. It’s mildly depressing to look at the map and see that the chunks of the world I can explore are only tiny little snippets of the world map. Seriously! But back to choices and effects. The Witcher 3’s choice system openly demonstrates that Mass Effect (and BioWare in general) has quite a lot of room for improvement. I knew choices could be presented well in games, and CD Projekt Red has stepped boldly in the right direction. It’s refreshing to 1) not be making massive, spontaneous ultimatum choices, and 2) to occasionally not even witness the effects of positive or negative choices until later.

I’m impressed. And possibly bewitched.

The game engine is well-optimized, and patches to improve things keep coming out. Not even sure why! Makes me think back to when I bought Assassin’s Creed Unity. The support chaps told me my computer simply wasn’t good enough. Funny that, because The Witcher 3 (much newer, and definitely prettier) runs like a charm on my rig.

The gameplay is good. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s close. Running, riding, hunting, swimming, diving, sailing, all seamlessly joined. The time of day changes. The weather changes. Combat is streamlined (so long as Geralt has figured out that he’s in combat). The world feels diverse and interesting because of the freedom of movement and the interaction. The one main downside to gameplay I’ve noticed so far is fall damage – if you trip over for some reason, don’t be too surprised if your health bar is cut in half.

The music for The Witcher 3 puts a good chunk of other games to shame. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Soule music, I don’t really think that fantasy should be dominated by orchestral music. So The Witcher 3 was a splendid change. Most of the score consists of Slavic-style folky tunes that capture the heart nearly as well as they capture the setting. Battle music is some of the best, but the three crones (no spoilers) are accompanied by the best tune. You’ll know when you hear it. Think dark, dark fairy tale music.

Questing is a real treat in The Witcher 3. There are regular quests that involve talking to people, finding people, killing people, and making choices. Pretty much every game has them. In The Witcher 3, though, we get to watch Geralt’s reaction to these quests. Fetch quests? Geralt doesn’t care much for being a delivery boy. Talking to people? He’s got a hilarious overdose of sarcasm that makes conversation amusing and interesting. Killing people? In style. Making choices? Fun mystery boxes of “what does this button do?” conundrums that make you pay attention. Don’t skip conversation if you want to make intelligent choices. Seriously. Your choice can be as clear as “Mhm”, “Really?”, or “I’ll commit myself to every word you just said and that is my final choice and so much for the other conversation options that would have saved my good friend such-and-such”. Sarcasm aside, I’d list that as a gameplay strength. But those are just the regular quests. In The Witcher 3, you also run into witcher quests – or, more specifically, witcher contracts. These are brillant combinations of hunting and mystery-solving. Geralt is equipped with a marvelous dose of Sherlock Holmes. He has remarkable senses that allow him to pick up details like what kind of liquid has been spilled, what type of claws gouged a wall, or even what kind of blood is at the scene. To accompany these skills, Geralt unashamedly talks to himself. A lot. Good for him, I say. But this sense-and-talk combination makes for interesting puzzle-solving. Geralt starts by talking to witnesses, then moves to investigate the scene, and then (often) follows a trail. Along the way, he spots clues that tell you what you’re going to find, how and where you’re going to find it, and usually also inform you as to how you’re going to need to defeat whatever it is. Hunting quests in this manner are a massive improvement to fetch quests or general kill-the-creature-that-lives-in-the-cave quests. It’s also interesting to learn about each little town and place through the monster(s) that plague the people there – for instance, wraiths appear when people have been cruelly murdered or wronged.

Relationships. Ultimately, you could say that The Witcher 3 does relationships like Assassin’s Creed does combat, which is to say that it’s simple enough if you know the buttons. However, it certainly isn’t Mass Effect’s yes-or-no relationship dialogue options. And the fact that you are playing a solid character makes the relationships more meaningful. Shepard was, well… a husk (pun intended) of a character. Geralt certainly isn’t.

The Witcher 3’s scenery is gorgeous. Fantasy at its finest. Ornate tomb carvings. Sprawling, grassy hills. Flocks of sheep, mobs of horses. Roaming giants. Ruins. The textures were done well. And the game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Charming, haunting, old-Scandinavia-esque melodies. Tracks that make perfect companions for traveling, hunting, and doing grim battle. But don’t expect perfection in every way the game looks. For some reason, 95% of Geralt’s armor options more or less completely fail to please the eye. Heavy armor is accompanied by a giant, round wok (yep, a Chinese frying pan) over the character’s belly. Light armor is bulky and has clipping issues with collars. Medium armor has great textures underneath – but is padded with ugly outer jackets that seem to always have the worst possible color combinations. The only chest armor that I have actually loved so far is the first one I ever crafted – the Warrior’s Leather Jacket.

That brings us to crafting. CD Projekt Red boasted that the crafting system would be innovative and interesting; it’s okay, I suppose, but nothing amazingly special. I will say this for it, though – I really appreciate the fact that once you craft a potion or oil, you never have to go scouring the land for ingredients again. Oils have inifinite use (which makes sense, given the amount you would use on a blade in the game). Potions and bombs have charges that replenish when you meditate (although this consumes hard alcohol in your inventory, so you gotta load up your pack like a boozer). Other than that, crafting is average. Find or buy materials, go to a craftsman with sufficient experience, craft or smith the items you have learned about. Swords generally look okay (certainly not as bad as armor), so it’s mostly about picking the best stats. Silver swords have worse skins than steel, but they’re still okay.

In conclusion, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun. If you love wandering across open landscapes and hunting dangerous monsters, this game is totally for you. It’s certainly for me!

Pros

  • Gorgeous setting
  • Music to blow your mind away (especially combat music and town minstrels)
  • Enjoyable, weighty combat
  • One of the best fantasy settings ever written
  • Beautiful scenery
  • Good optimization for PC
  • Questing innovation

Cons

  • Combat hindered by unresponsive/unpredictable controls and the in/out of combat control changes
  • The world is – ironically – too small
  • Fall damage is incredibly lethal

Mother’s Day

High King Imalion Gildemar, lord of Brucia and protector of its client kingdoms, kneels alone at the foot of his mothers’ graves. On his right is the tomb of his birth mother, Reymala Gildemar. On his left is the tomb of the mother who raised him, Lillian Solayne. He lays petals of autumn begonias, tibouchinas, pansies, and clusters of lavender on each grave, one petal at a time.

To Reymala, the mother I never knew,
She bore me into a world she’d lost
While her lord husband
Was cold and dead.

To Lillian, the mother who was ever true,
Nurtured, cared for and loved me,
Never forsook her adopted son
Up until death.

 Both of you made my life my own,
Reymala’s secrets loaned me life,
Lillian died to save me
I owe you both my all.

Imalion makes a slim hole in each gravetop with one finger and plants a single seed in each.

A flower for each of my mothers dear:
An amaranth for royal Reymala;
Royal blood and ornate leaves to sway in gentle wind.
A iris for gentle Lillian,
No child for you but me, and you have my undying love.

Imalion buries the seeds and covers the holes. He kneels a while, humming an old lullaby.

Music Makes the World High

People used to say that love makes the world go round.

Whether or not that is still true, it feels like the world has mostly fallen out of love and has started taking drugs. Something like one of those classic stages of grief, perhaps. Music makes the world high.

I’ve listened to artists as different and unusual as Ladytron, The Knife, The Submarines, Imogen Heap, Paramore, The Birthday Massacre, Basshunter, Deathstars, Blue Stahli, Celldweller, Eluveitie, Evanescence, Nightwish, Two Steps From Hell, Clint Mansell, Jeremy Soule, Mogwai, and many, many more. There’s simply so much music out there. An absolute buffet of high.

Why do I say that music is a drug? The term “drug” can mean a medicine, an anaesthetic, or a full-on narcotic. All three apply to music.

One – and possibly the most interesting – reason is that music is actually prescribed. Music therapy is used as a treatment for heart disease, neurological disorders (such as dementia and amnesia), Psychiatric disorders (such as schizophrenia and depression), adolescent mood disorders, and more. And as much as Australians think Panadol can cure everything, it’s probably a lot healthier to go with music than overdosing on paracetamol.

Train stations and public squares in shopping areas (at least in Melbourne) use music to discourage criminal acts. I didn’t notice this until I a particularly notorious square near the place I used to study suddenly started playing loud opera music one day. It hasn’t stopped since. Apparently it’s helped, but it’s certainly not made life easy for local buskers.

Tried unplugging a teen’s headphones lately? It’s the unbottling of a a bitter wine – maybe you like that kind of thing, but it’s far from sweet. Rather than confronting their feelings and learning how to face life, they’re suppressing (or even feeding) their emotions with music. That used to be me. Celldweller’s “So Long Sentiment” probably hit 250 plays on my phone within two weeks back in 2010. Well, I say “used to”, but even now I sometimes put Evanescence on for a soul-calming morning. Evanescence.

So, yep. Music is a drug.

Do I think it’s a bad drug? Nope. Check my Twitter feed; I’ve high praise for quite a lot of music, and I’m not about to withdraw my comments.

As far as drugs go, though, music is quite flexible and useful. When I listen to music (especially of one genre or style), I feel the effects of ADD less. It helps me concentrate. It also helps me get into certain moods – for instance, if I’m writing a lost-in-the-past character, listening to Within Temptation’s song “Memories” is an artistic aide. Or if I’m thick in a tribal setting, something more like Eluveitie’s “Omnos” or “Brictom” help me get into the feel.

That’s just a couple of examples of me on music. Some people use (often themed) music for exercise, driving, cooking, reading, shopping, cleaning, raging, and even sleeping. Take away their music, and most people are likely to cringe at menial tasks. Ever tried watching a movie or show without the music? Yoiks. Emptiness. Music seriously makes the world high.

Thoughts? Questions? Fire away!

Discrimination VS Overrepresentation

Discrimination sucks. Racial, sexual, intellectual, etc… it sucks. But discrimination is part of human nature. Everybody discriminates. Even the people who hate people who discriminate. They really need to pick up a history book or go to school or something. The most serious problem with discrimination, though, is the way it is applied (and how it is countered).

Should we show kindness to everyone? Yes. Do we have to like everyone? Nope. Do we have to tell everyone that we like everyone? Nope. Unless we’re super famous and want to make even more money. Doing so would be lying.

In my opinion, overrepresentation is a massive issue. It’s the way film and game industries tries to compensate the community for apparent discrimination. We’ve all seen videos where the sidekick simply has to be of African or (country-dependant) native descent. The world is swamped with videos and games like that. And we push that even further: the film industry is swamped with powerful women. Even when it doesn’t have to be. Not really sure why people advocate so strongly for leading female characters when there’s such a massive (and hooked) audience for Fifty Shades of Gray, but that’s another story altogether.

Do I have anything against African/native/female strength in film or games? Nope. What I’m against is games and film going out of their way to try and make such aspects fit. You don’t carve open a body simply to replace a functioning heart with another. Bodies go through initial rejection of the new part: “[medical science faces] problems of transplant rejection, during which the body has an immune response to the transplanted organ, possibly leading to transplant failure and the need to immediately remove the organ from the recipient”. The most obvious examples of this happening are when characters are remastered. Battlestar Galactica. Classic sci-fi series. The original TV show had a really good character named Starbuck. He was best buddies with the captain’s son, Apollo, and they went on many cool adventures together. A nice example of male comeraderie. For the new series, though, not only did Starbuck lose all of his characteristics, but he also underwent a dramatic sexual change. By some bizarre change of circumstances, Starbuck went from a cheerful, cheeky fellow to a violently aggressive young woman. Both characters are plausible and interesting in and of themselves, but neither needed to replace the other. I was devastated yesterday when I saw the trailer for Fantastic Four (2015) – Johnny is quite different. Obscenely so. In the original take (which really didn’t need patching), Chris Evans played a happy-go-lucky, cowboyesque Johnny. What was wrong with that? Purely the fact that he was white? Well, if that was what changed the character, that’s discrimination in and of itself. It’s also disappointing, because Chris Evans really did a fantastic job with that role. Sigh…

It doesn’t have to happen. Take a look at Game of Thrones – no transplant was made there. HBO usually handles fantasy very well. Does Eddard Stark’s captain of the guard come from the Carribean? Nope. If he did, a huge chunk of the story’s flavor would be lost. The cultures in George Martin’s world are largely racist. Transplanting characters for the sake of “political correctness” is a dangerous snare. I’m all for starting a story with many cultures and both genders planned in, but if we go back over a story and pick-and-replace characters purely to diversify things, that’s bad. A book where dinosaurs simply don’t exist shouldn’t add dinosaurs because a dinosaur complained of being underrepresented. (I’m not picking on Michael Crighton here.)

Oh, and the most amusing thing? People don’t need to pick on books or films or games for discrimination. There’s several million games and films to read, and there are too many books in the world to count. If you don’t like something, why discriminate against the author or studio? Go read, watch, or play something else!

In conclusion: if you want to make a story that promotes wider diversity, awesome. That’s great. But seriously, don’t just go around replacing characters in existing stories to do so. It’s way better to create a new story (yes, they do exist) than to rewrite old ones with transplanted characters. You can’t just use the same story model that perfectly fits one gender/race for everyone.

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.