A brief explanation

I figured it was prudent to give some form of explanation of why I have been so inactive as of late in posting on this site.  Simply, I have been focusing almost all of my writing-related time and thought toward my horror novel, Dark Art, rather than any other project, including this blog.  I will still occasionally post– for example, I’m now just two books away from having read the entire bibliography of Stephen King, which will warrant a mega-post– but I don’t anticipate having any semblance of a regular update schedule until I finish this draft.  Right now just finishing my book so I can start sending it to agents and the like is at the top of my priority list.

If you enjoy my thoughts and still want a regular dose of what I have to say in short form, follow the link on the sidebar to my twitter.  If you want to read more of my fiction, go to my deviantART page.

-Nathaniel

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Published in: on August 26, 2014 at 6:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Westercon

The first weekend of July marked what was a wonderful, career-building experience as a writer: Westercon.  As you can probably tell from the last three letters of its name, Westercon is a convention, specifically for writers and artists of sci-fi and fantasy.  Because of the endlessly strange stigma attached to the word “horror” in the publishing world, my writing falls under the sci-fi/fantasy umbrella, so it was only natural that when I caught wind of this convention I bought a membership.  I had been eager to go to my first writing convention for some time.

I showed up at the convention sign-in booth early on Thursday July 3rd and chatted with another writer in line who writes under the name Thomas Fawkes (he told me about some of his fantasy projects and it sounds really cool, you should check him out).  Being of similar interest and experience, we decided to become con buddies for the day.  Adorned with our name badges we set forth.

The first Westercon event we attended was the release party of Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.  As I’ve mentioned before I am an avid listener of the Writing Excuses podcast.  It honestly as been a bigger help to my writing than the sum of instruction I received relative to my creative writing degree.  I’ve said this before, but it warrants repeating: if you are an aspiring writer of genre fiction that is serious about your craft, then you need to listen to the podcast.  It has improved my approach to writing.  Anyway, Shadows Beneath

The Writing Excuses Team

The Writing Excuses Team

is an anthology with a story from each of the podcast’s main contributors: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler.  Varying from most anthologies, this book has their stories up front and the deconstruction of the writing process of the stories (early drafts, notes, line edits, brainstorming, outlining, et cetera) in the back.  So this book serves as almost a textbook of the writing process– or just a good collection of short stories by great writers.  At the release party the Writing Excuses team all spoke briefly, then copies of the book were sold (of course I purchased one), food was eaten, signatures signed.  As I’ve posted before, I had met Brandon Sanderson previously at a signing, but I got him to sign my copy of The Way of Kings and chatted with him about Shardblades at the party.  I had brief interactions with Howard and Mary (primarily because I am not so familiar with their work) and then moved on to Dan Wells, who is one of m

Yes, Dan Wells is wearing a wizard's hat and cloak

Yes, Dan Wells is wearing a wizard’s hat and cloak

y personal heroes.  After all, the man has fulfilled what I want to accomplish– to make a living as a horror writer while being active LDS, religiously.  We chatted several times throughout the con (as shall be chronicled throughout this post), but the first interaction was quite funny as, after I told him a little about myself, he joked about being one of a tiny handful of Mormons who write horror.

After the party there was a two-hour recording session of Writing Excuses, which was great to be there for.  There was a Q&A episode, which I asked a question at (about creating frightening, unique creatures), which I will hold as bragging material with my writer friends when that podcast airs.

Most of the rest of day one was spent perusing booths at FantasyCon across the street (my Westercon badge got me

The FantasyCon dragon

The FantasyCon dragon

in for free), though I did jump back over for what ended up being one of the most productive things I did at the convention.  It was a class put on by Mary Robinette Kowal, Sandra Tayler, and the chairman of Westercon.  It was Schmoozing

101, intended to give some tips as to how to most productively interact with pros at conventions.  In a post soon to come I’ll give you a transcription and summary of this from my notes– it was very valuable.

I ended my first night for a guest of honor panel for Dan Wells in which he talked about his upcoming second John Cleaver trilogy (I love the first books– delightful supernatural horror), read from a book about cloning that he’s currently negotiating with Tor (I’m excited for it), and answered some audience questions.  The Q&A was very helpful to me because somebody asked where Dan goes to for his research on mental illness (something that has played a significant role in his books) and he recommended the self-help section books on mental illness intended for the loved ones of those afflicted.  I have been doing research on mental illness for Dark Art (the protagonist has severe PTSD) and until that suggestion, I had been wading through medical jargon and military transcripts.  Gathering the books he recommended has vastly improved my research.  Beside that, the best moment of that panel was when Dan, while discussing music he listens to in order to get him in the writing mode, mentioned She Wants Revenge and asked if anybody had any idea who he was talking about.  I alone raised my hand, to which he joked, “Of course, only the only other horror writer in the room knows that band.”

Day two began with more Dan Wells as I attended his release party for Next of Kin, his new John Cleaver novella.  It was cool to hang out, get a copy, get it signed, and eat pizza Dan bought for the event.  Then, another round of Writing Excuses recordings, during which I met my writing compadre (we critique each others’ stuff), J.A. Trevor, in person.  After that we hung out for a while in the dealer’s room where I bought a Cthulhu fish for my car (because what horror writer doesn’t want a dark Lovecraftian deity on their car?).  Later that day I attended a horror panel.  My attendance to that probably made Mr. Wells believe that I was stalking him.  Promise, his events just had the most appeal to me as a writer.  Really hope I didn’t seem creepy.

Me with Dan.  Be jealous.

Me with Dan. Be jealous.

Finally, day three of the con.  Bright and early, I headed in to a workshop that I had paid and submitted for in advance that was done by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, who moderates Orson Scott Card’s writer’s workshop on his site Hatrack River, and LDS writer Dave Butler.  They read “Charlestonian Monsters” and gave me some terrific feedback.  Their reaction was very positive to the quality of writing, which brought me great pride, and the majority of their concerns were around making the piece more cohesive in terms of theme and tone.

After that I went to FantasyCon, where I went to one episode worth of another Writing Excuses recording session.  I ducked out early for a panel with Simon Pegg, which was hilarious and awesome.

After that, I attended my final Westercon panel– one on worldbuilding that was led by Brandon Sanderson.  Considering how intricate and wonderful the worlds of his creation are, the fact that it was awesome really goes without saying.  During and after that panel I chatted with another aspiring writer, Aaron Hoskins, who I met during Dan’s guest of honor panel.  We became friends and it was cool to see how our exchange was mutually beneficial– I had more writing experience to share while he has attended more cons that I have.

So, in summary, Westercon was a blast.  I learned a lot, interacted with professionals and had a ton of fun.  So, writers, get out to a writing con!  It was worth far more than its cost.

The Delectable Second Season of NBC’s Face of Hannibal Lecter

Just a heads up: this post is going to contain quite a few Hannibal spoilers.  If you haven’t watched through season 2, I don’t recommend you read this.  Instead, watch every episode.  It’s so good.

Last week I watched the season 2 finale of Hannibal.  Incredible.

As you already know, I really enjoy the books and films that feature the character Hannibal Lecter, and I have a particularly passionate love for the television series.  After watching the first season I felt that it was easily some of the best television I’ve ever seen– some of the best television ever to have aired, honestly– and it was with great excitement that I watched the second season, excited each week when Friday brought both the advent of the weekend and a new episode.  I felt that it brought a very wonderful new direction to Thomas Harris’s characters.  I find Hugh Dancy to be a wonderful Will Graham, Lawrence Fishburne to be a powerful Jack Crawford, and of course Mads Mikkelsen to be an absolutely incredible Hannibal Lecter.  I’m on the verge of just giving in to my temptation to say that he’s better as the character than Anthony Hopkins was.

Blasphemous, I know.  But he’s so good.

On that matter my wife says that Hopkins is a better Hannibal, but Mikkelsen is a better Dr. Lecter.  A very good way to look at it.

Okay, so in my last “Faces of Hannibal” post I basically just said that the series is a piece of art.  Let me dig a bit deeper this time around, because I’m writing this more for people who already have a great appreciation for the show rather than to give a teaser of what makes it different from the other iterations of Dr. Lecter.

For starters, I just want to gush over the story for a little while.  Hannibal-season-2-posterThe arc of the first season felt very full– we see Will Graham kill a serial killer– the Minnesota Shrike– become a surrogate father for the Shrike’s daughter alongside Hannibal, and then get framed by Hannibal for that daughter’s death, which is done in a way that Will himself questions his own innocence.  So we see a good man be forced into madness– or at least what appears to be madness– by Hannibal.  The characters are very vivid, as are their motivations.  Will has a very powerful, very real sense of empathy.  This makes him an extremely sympathetic hero to cheer for because his life is full of pain and compassion for the monsters he hunts.  Hannibal Lecter is a monster in the truest sense, viewing his own power as making him a god– a power that he exerts as both a slayer and one who gains influence as others give it to him.  He is controlling and manipulative, and he loves nothing more than to set horrible things in motion to see what happens, or to set things in motion to get outcomes that change people to being monstrous.  He takes this monstrosity as a sort of worship.  (I’m sorry this is coming out in a rather stream-of-consciousness sort of way, but I have to jump from idea to idea because every element– plot or cinematic– of this show is so perfectly crafted to form a cohesive, powerful piece of art).  So, in the framing of Will Graham we see Hannibal finish the first season by showing just how powerful he truly is.

The second season then begins with Will Graham being incarcerated in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a place familiar both from previous episodes (such as the involvement of Eddie Izzard’s brilliant character, Abel Gideon) and from all other things Hannibal as where Will Graham and Clarice Starling eventually stand outside of the cell of Hannibal Lecter to get his advice in dealing with the Tooth Fairy (Red Dragon) and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs).  It is rather shocking to see heroic Will laid so low.  The first section of the season then deals with the evidence and legal proceedings against Will while he rebuilds his own memories and realizes who is responsible and how the framing was done.  Will begins to become darker, going to any lengths to try to bring down Hannibal– and in so doing he starts to become a monster himself.  This idea of his empathizing with the serial killers is taken in the direction the show has been hinting at from the beginning: that to defeat the monsters you must become one of them.  The show continues to deal with other killers, but from the first episode of the season these are clearly less significant to the story, in spite of how compelling they are.  Things get very intense as Jack Crawford’s assumed-dead protege is found alive and has been psychologically programmed to point the finger of blame for the Ripper murders on the head of the Hospital, Dr. Chilton, who has been framed in other ways as well.  She even pulls the trigger on him– which surprised me very much because Chilton plays a significant role in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.  This was the first major break from the established Hannibal Lecter canon (other than the premise that Will and the FBI all know Hannibal before he is caught).  Finally, Will is set free as it becomes clear that he was not responsible for the murders and Hannibal steps up his game, putting Will in monstrous circumstances and trying to mentor him to become what he is.  So, all of this is sublime, and then the stakes get heightened as Alonna Bloom begins sleeping with Hannibal as Will meets one of Hannibal’s other patient’s, a character familiar from the novel Hannibal, whose twisted brother is the key force trying to bring down the titular character in the novel.  We see the introduction of many major elements of that book– obviously the Vergers, and the man-eating pigs, but they are done in a way that is much more compelling than the novel that they’re based off of.  Then things get really crazy as it appears that Will has murdered the ever-annoying Freddie Lounds (even featuring a nice tribute to Lounds’ death in Red Dragon) and brought a cut of her to enjoy with his new mentor.  The conclusion of that episode left me really shocked, struggling to believe that the show was going in such a midnight-dark direction.  It was interesting, but it wasn’t anything I expected.  Of course, the next episode revealed her death to have been staged, all part of an intricate plan between Will and Jack to take down Hannibal.  Finally, Hannibal and Will try to force each other into killing Mason Verger but Verger escapes very damaged but alive (as he is familiar in Hannibal the novel/film) and Will unconscious.  Will and Jack try to force Hannibal into attempted murder in an entrapment sort of situation, but that plan gets shut down leaving the desperate men to proceed without a SWAT backup.  Of course, this leaves the pair bleeding out in Hannibal’s house with Alonna Bloom broken after being pushed out a window and the twist that Abigail Hobbs was alive but has just had her throat slit by Hannibal.  Cut to black, return with Hannibal drinking wine in a plane next to his psychologist, who previously fled an attempt on her life.

What?  How did all that happen?

Okay, so this show is very complex.  There are a lot of interesting threads that come in, leave the show for a while, then turn up later as very important to the story (example, Jack’s cancer-riddled wife).  I’ve never seen a show where every line of dialogue, every character, every detail turn out to be so important.  It’s phenomenal storytelling that really demands the audience’s attention at a level that no other show I’ve watched has done.

The filmography of the show is just beautiful.  The way that every shot is framed, the camera effects, everything furthers the story and gives the series a very powerful tone.  It contributes to the piece rather than just being the way that the story happens to be captured.  It really deals with filmography in such a serious, artful way that is rarely matched in the finest of cinema let alone in television.

The special effects are unbelievable.  The CGI stuff with the stag and the horned man are really cool, but the murder scenes are both beautiful and horrifying.  tumblr_inline_n3mke3fY0Y1rnite0Take the tree murder– it is both terrible and lovely.  It’s the kind of thing that can give you nightmares because you just can’t stop thinking about it.  The same applies to almost all of Hannibal’s kills.  It’s no wonder that Stephen King joked on Twitter, “After watching two seasons of HANNIBAL, I think a new license plate motto is in order: MARYLAND, HOME OF EXOTIC MURDER SCENES.”

I really just can’t gush over this series enough.  It’s killing me that I don’t know what day season three will begin (if anybody knows, please comment), though I love that it has been officially renewed.  I honestly think that between Hannibal and the upcoming Constantine series, NBC is becoming my new favorite network.

Death of the Golden Ticket Wonka Bar

Okay, so I’m going to mix things up a bit here.  I’m going to post a poem.

You might recognize the format of this poem.  In fact, I hope you do.  It’s based off one of the best poems I’ve ever read, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell.  If you haven’t read it, go read it (it’s very short but powerful), then come back and read my piece.  It’s definitely parody.  I wrote it for one of my college poetry classes– an assignment called for writing a piece based on another work of art.  I decided to base mine on that poem and on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, dwelling on how insignificant the chocolate bar is that was wrapped in a golden ticket.

So, I give you “Death of the Golden Ticket Wonka Bar”:Image

From my factory’s clamor I fell into the store,

And I sat on a shelf with a secret golden wrapper.

Fifty-cent purchase, ripped open with exclaimed delight,

I woke to being cast aside in favor of shiny paper.

When I melted I was washed off the sidewalk with a hose.

Published in: on May 14, 2014 at 10:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

My (Very) Brief Stint as a Ghostwriter

calvin-hobbes-writers-block

For a good while I was really interested in finding a job that involved creative writing to be my day job when I’m not working on my novel. I love writing, I reasoned, so it only made sense that more writing can only be good.

It turns out that may not be the case for me.  I certainly have every hope to be able to quit my day job to work on novels full time, but working on projects that are not my own doesn’t seem to work very well for me.

So, here’s the story:  A couple months ago, I got an email from the Utah workforce services website.  I had used the site a few months prior to try to find a job (my wife and I moved at the end of the year).  Part of it involved inputting desired fields, so naturally I put in writing.  Move the clock forward, and I’m reading an email stating that there is a creative writing job that had just been put onto the site.  I put off checking it out for a few days, feeling quite content with my new job (a credit union teller), but curiosity won out.

The job was for a company that hires writers for a variety of book projects.  The company then owns the rights to the books and tries to sell them to publishers.  The posting specifically mentioned fantasy, mystery, and sci-fi projects, so I thought the job might be right up my alley.  After emailing back and forth for about a week (making sure, for example, that I wouldn’t be doing something like signing over the rights to my own writing projects) I got an interview set up.  At that interview I was told that the company had openings for writers of a few projects, but only one of those projects was fiction.  The rest were for a nonfiction project dealing related to business, drawing lessons from a wide variety of people or things depending on the project.  My interviewer told me that, if I was willing, that I could be hired on for one of those books and then could be moved to a fiction project when another opened up.  The pay was by page, and the nonfiction project paid a little more per page than the fiction projects, so I told him that should be fine– fiction definitely was more up my alley, but I thought that writing for money would make me content to matter what I was working on.  Plus, the company was expecting a minimum of 10 hours of work a week, which I thought would work out fine with my job and my own writing.

I wish that were true.  About a week later I was sent a project, partially complete, that I was to finish over the next few months.  I set to work, but the topic– lessons from the richest men in history– didn’t interest me, and in spite of my best efforts, the level of research I had to do on each individual I had to write about resulted in my production rate being far too small.  I was ideally supposed to be producing around 3 pages an hour, but I was realistically doing only half that.  That meant low pay for a lot of mentally strenuous work.  I quickly felt frustrated with the project and that frustration spilled over to my other creative projects.  Simply, by the end of my time spent writing I either didn’t have time to work on Dark Art or just was too burned out to do so.

Also, I was sad that with how the writing job was setup I had no real part in the business side of publication.  The material I was producing could very well get published in a year, or ten years, or never– and I wouldn’t hear anything about it unless I stumbled upon it at a bookstore while passing through a section I don’t peruse.  I took the job hoping to get a better feel for what I’ll be dealing with when my novel is complete and publishable, but that wasn’t going to happen.  I also hoped to gain some connections in the industry, but once again I just emailed my material to one person, who made sure it got edited and that I got paid, so networking was out, too.

I lasted one pay period– two weeks– and was glad to get out.  It was a good experience in terms of learning what ghostwriting can be and learning that it is not for me.  I suppose I’ll be working something less exciting than writing until I can find a way to go full time as a novelist…

Transcendent and Terrifying Collective Storytelling – A Love Letter to the Bioshock Series

Anyone who has been in my house can tell you that I have a great love of video games.  There are four consoles plugged into my TV, several handhelds floating around my apartment, and there are video game characters incorporated into decor.  This love for video games has spanned much of my life– initially on a very limited basis through playing games at the houses of friends and relatives, and expanded as I bought my first handheld, the GameBoy Pocket.  In spite of years of owning it and its more advanced brethren, it took a good deal of persuasion to get a plug-into-the-TV console in my home.  My first was the GameCube, and it kindled my already-sparked love of Nintendo’s franchises.  In years to come, I acquired more consoles as I could afford them on my own, though I tended to be about half a generation behind, buying consoles such as the PS2 just as the PS3 was about to come out.  So, I continued to enjoy the newest games at friend’s houses well into college.

At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was hanging out at a friend’s house.  I arrived late to find gaming in progress, though it was a little abnormal: it wasn’t a multiplayer shooter being played.  Because I didn’t know what it was, I ignored the screen in favor of socializing.  After a while the controller was passed over to me, the game restarted.

I only played for ten or fifteen minutes, but it was one of the most incredible gaming experiences I had ever had.  I then didn’t have any way to continue to play it on my own, but it was regardless placed very high on my list of games to play.

The game, which should be obvious by the title of this post, was the first Bioshockbioshock1The brief brush I had with its rich world, buried under the sea in a city called Rapture, triggered a great deal of curiosity on my part.  While perusing its Wikipedia page I saw a reference to a book called Atlas Shrugged, which I had seen in libraries and homes for years.  I had long been curious to find out what it was, so learning it was connected to Bioshock was all I needed to pick up a copy.

Now, before I go any further, I want to state that I do not subscribe to Objectivism.  I find its principles and implications fascinating the same way that I find anything intellectually challenging fascinating.  I can see where Ayn Rand is coming from, but I feel that her perspective is far too radical to possibly achieve anything.  I feel that her philosophy stems from a bitterness toward communism more than from an honest worldview.

That said, I found cde8619009a083d7b5fe5110.LAtlas Shrugged to be a surprisingly compelling read, especially considering the fact that there is a monologue that exceeds a hundred pages that honestly just restated (and then restated again… and again) the points that everything prior to it in the novel had already made with abundant clarity.  Okay, I skimmed that part.  But regardless, the ideas were fascinating and the Objectivism-minded characters were fairly interesting.  The most important thing to glean from the fact that I read the novel is that I became quite familiar with Rand’s philosophy that praises selfishness as a virtue, endorsing the idea of a totally free market where individuals succeed based on their ability and nobody is carried on the back of another.  My proper interaction with Bioshock had that background, and I don’t regret that it took so long because I had built up my understanding of the groundwork of its universe.

I got to play through Bioshock properly because a friend lent myself and a mutual friend (my first college roommate) his Xbox 360 and a number of his games for about 9 months– he was going on his LDS mission.  Bioshock was fortunately among the games, and was the first to be consumed by both myself and my roommate.

Simply put, Bioshock is a masterpiece.  It brilliantly paints a city beneath the ocean’s waves that is built on the principles of Objectivism.  Rather than to praise this selfish ideal, we see that the city that its citizen hoped would be a paradise, their Rapture, has instead become a crumbling dystopia.  It has advanced rapidly in terms of science, art, medicine and has done so because there is no conventional governmental, social or religious morality placing restrictions and slowing growth.  The most notable advancement is the one from which the game draws its’ title: genetic modification.  The scientists of Rapture have created, by using a chemical found in sea slugs, ways to modify the human body to make it more powerful.  Now, by modification and subsequent injection of EVE, the slug byproduct, a person can perform amazing feats, from telekinesis to pyrokinesis, from creating electricity to growing bees from your own flesh.  Of course, these slugs are extremely valuable and rare, but a process was quickly developed to allow them to grow much more rapidly: my introducing them into the body of a human host.  Suddenly, there are little girls growing slugs inside them, guarded by biologically altered supermen in diving suits, and attacked by an increasingly dependent population of genetic splicers who will do anything to get a fix.  Throw in an all-out war in the streets between two masters of commerce, Andrew Ryan (note the Ayn Rand anagram) and Frank Fontaine, and we have the setting for the game.  The viewpoint character, simply known as Jack, explores the city as an outsider, with the confusing bits filled in over a radio by a man, begging for your help, who calls himself Atlas (also no coincidence there).  On top of it all, you are forced to make moral decisions yourself as you come in contact with the Little Sisters because you, too, quickly become a splicer to survive.  Do you save the slug-host children or do you harvest their bodies to boost your power?

There’s a lot there.  There’s even more to it than that.  That’s just the background.  Suffice it to say that Bioshock is one of the most well-written (yet refreshingly subtle), scary, action-packed, and brilliant video games ever.  It made bold strides for the medium to receive its rightful inheritance as an art form, not just mindless entertainment.  And that’s a point that I want to make here: video games are art, particularly when they are approached so masterfully as with the Bioshock series.  This actually was the subject of a college art-appreciation class project I did my first semester at Utah State.  Any video game is packed in with storytelling (in an interactive medium, which has such incredible implications!), characterization, visual design, landscape and architectural design, music composition, and much more.  The Irrational Games team (so unfortunately no longer in existence as of about a month ago) took their medium very seriously and made a masterpiece of video gaming.  I am very glad that the game received the acclaim it did– it really deserves it.

It was a few years before I had another chance to interact with Bioshock_2_boxartthe Bioshock series.  The first sequel came out while I was on my LDS mission, so I had to wait until I got home to play it.  Fortunately, shortly after I returned I purchased a laptop that was part of the “get a free 360” deal, so I quickly had the means to play it.  Also nice for me was the fact that Bioshock 2 dropped in price very quickly.

I’ve heard statements that Bioshock 2 is a crappy game.  I’d like to offer a contending opinion: though it is not as mind-blowing as the first one (primarily because it, logically, continues to explore the world the original set up) it is very good, and it’s equally stimulating on an intellectual level.  It’s no surprise that it has a smoother control and combat system, though those are the biggest boasts for the game.  I love the premise of the game, though– you are playing as one of the earliest models of Big Daddy, defender of Little Sisters, looking for a specific former-Little Sister who you are very close with, trying to free her from her socially powerful mother (who the ex-Little Sister, Eleanor, does not want to be with).   Eight years after the events of the first game’s good ending, Rapture has been reshaped, with some of the Little Sisters who escaped returning as young adults as Big Sisters working for the Rapture Family, run under the direction of a woman known as the Lamb, which is essentially the political backlash of the Objectivist ideals the city was founded on (and crumbled beneath).  Basically, the Family is communist, which really is about as far from Objectivism as any political ideal can be.  The Family has goals to totally eliminate the idea of the self, trying to become a totally united, internally selfless unit.  So, just from that brief description of the plot premise (it gets more complicated but all works quite nicely), it’s clear that Bioshock 2 is a very complicated game.

I loved revisiting Rapture in such a different context.  I loved being a Big Daddy, and thought that the powers and challenges of filling that role in the game were quite balanced and fun.  I loved the sections in which I had to defend Little Sisters as they harvested as they provided a unique challenge for the series to that point– defense and not offense.  When I finally became fully powered near the end of the game, I loved the waves of difficult enemies that I was able to face, though I had to often think outside of the box.  I think that’s what really shined Minervasden1with this game as opposed to its precursor– instead of just using a couple guns and plasmids in combat I had to come up with ways to make use of my full arsenal.  This wasn’t a chore, it was a blast, and really showed off what the game designers had in mind for the players in terms of creativity.  I love that they expected me to play with my brain, not just accuracy and a quick trigger-finger.

There is DLC for Bioshock 2 called Minerva’s Den.  It’s a unique Bioshock story that I’ve heard referred to as the best part about Bioshock 2.  I, unfortunately, am yet to play it.  I’ll make sure to update this post (and draw attention to the fact that I have) in the future when I have played it.  It’s high on my list, I just have a 360 with a small hard drive and limited gaming time in general.  I figure it’s safe to assume that it’s kick-awesome in every way, like the rest of the series.

Next up in the parade of amazingness is Bioshock Infinite.  Let me state this simply: it isOfficial_cover_art_for_Bioshock_Infinite easily one of the best video games ever made.  It’s in my top three of all time.  Depending on the day, it sometimes tops the list.  It’s up there with The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Chronotrigger for me.

It’s so, so good.

Okay, so I’ll give you a bit about this pinnacle of glory.  It is set in 1912 in a city that flies above the clouds called Columbia.  The protagonist is a man named Booker DeWitt, a private detective who is a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion and of the Battle of Wounded Knee.  He has been sent to the mysterious city to find and retrieve a woman known simply as Elizabeth, who is locked up in a tower and guarded by a creature called the Songbird.  Elizabeth, by the way, has supernatural powers that allows her to interact with alternate dimensions and other periods of time.  The game also features more widespread powers, quite similar to plasmids of the earlier games, called vigors.

Columbia is a fascinating piece of work, very unlike Rapture in many ways.  It’s based on the historical Columbian World Exposition from the 1890s.  It is built on principles of hyper-patriotism (having left the United States because the US wasn’t American enough) and religious leadership.  Essentially, Columbians worship the founding fathers of the US and are ruled by their prophet, Zachary Comstock, who receives revelations about everything from politics to industry to race relations.  Though initially seemingly quite paradisiacal, the rotten underbelly quickly is manifested with rampant racism and an angry, rebellious working class uniting as the Vox Populi.

I really don’t want to ruin the magic of this for you at all if you haven’t played it.  The world is breathtaking in terms of beauty, game mechanics, theoretical science, and philosophy.  The characters are compelling and their journey is difficult and wonderful.  The story ties to the other games in the series very well and in unexpected ways.  The tone is less horror than the others, though it’s scary moments are even more terrifying (when you get to the Boys of Silence you’ll understand).

Also, a pro tip– look for the more modern songs adapted into older styles throughout the game.  They’re wonderful.  [NON-PLOT MILD SPOILER] For example, while first walking the streets of Columbia you can hear a barbershop quartet singing for the festivities of the day…[END SPOILER]

IBSIDLC-Burial_at_Sea_Episode_One_KeyArt cannot recommend it highly enough.  But play the others first.

Then, there’s Burial at Sea.  It’s DLC for Infinite, in two episodes.  Using a rationale that works perfectly in the series (but that I won’t explain for the sake of avoiding spoilers) the story features the two protagonists of Infinite but is set in Rapture years before the first game, just before an event that started the all-out war between Fontaine and Ryan.

The episodes have a very different feel from Infinite, or from the Rapture games.  The visual and storytelling style is very film noir, which is likely apparent by the image to the left.  In episode 1 you play as Booker, who is a fedora and trench coat-wearing private detective.  A femme fatale Elizabeth knocks on your door and hires you to find a little girl– a little girl that you lost.

It’s fascinating as the first half of the episode shows Rapture at its highest point– brilliantly lit shops, parties, abstract art.  You interact with characters from previous games and see them as what they once were, before the war and splicing drove them into the darkness.

Just from the perspective of having played the other games, it was really interesting.

The second half took a turn toward the darkness that is more familiar in the series as you travel to an area of Rapture that Ryan has separated from the rest of the city as a prison for traitors to his ideals.  You fight men going mad as you seek out the child, a Little Sister, who you lost.

I’m not going to go any further into what happens, but suffice it to say that it is brilliant and made me really want the next episode when I finished it.

Episode 2 CN3gnwPis incredible and somehow managed to tie together everything in the series very neatly and very unexpectedly.  I thought that the story already worked pretty well, but Episode 2 really drove it home.  It’s a masterpiece.

This game is quite different from all of its precursors.  Rather than being action-horror the gameplay shifts to survival-horror.  You play as Elizabeth, who, due to having significantly less upper-body strength and less ammo than Booker or Jack or Subject Delta, has to sneak up on enemies to kill them or often has to flee.  It changed the way I saw plasmids and the arsenal it gave me and made for a very fun and challenging playthrough.

I don’t dare tell you anything about the story other than that it amazed me, scared me, and gave me a strong desire to give everybody at the now-defunct Irrational Games a high-five.  I didn’t expect anything that happened to happen, but everything was perfect.

Just perfect.  It made me fall in love with the series yet again.  It made me appreciate little things in all of the games that came before it.

So, the question I’m left with: what is to become of Bioshock in the future?  Irrational Games has been disbanded (I’m assuming that after finishing Burial at Sea they had to disband as a sort of “drop the mic” sort of thing), but the franchise is officially owned by 2K, who has stated that the series will be continued under different management in the future.  Is that going to be a good thing?  Can such a thing really work, with the story so perfectly completed in Burial at Sea episode 2?  Those who have completed the series, let me know in the comments what you think about the idea of future Bioshock games without Ken Levine and Irrational involved.

Finally, let me state again just how incredible a piece of storytelling this series is.  And the best part is that I was able to play a role in the telling.  I made decisions and experienced the story.

I love it so much that the guy in these pictures is me:

bioshock_cosplay_1_by_fae_falor-d4esqwu

bioshock_cosplay_2_by_fae_falor-d4esr4a

Now I guess I just need to get around to playing Minerva’s Den, and then move on to Bioshock‘s spiritual precursor, System Shock

Silent Hill Sillies #2: Sundays

image

Another alternative life of Pyramid Head.

Forgive the so-so quality.

Me, My Wife, and Brandon Sanderson

Me, My Wife, and Brandon Sanderson

He’s awesome. Be jealous.

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Paranormal Activities

Warning: This post contains spoilers.  I tried to keep plot points fairly light but found that I wasn’t saying anything interesting.  So, I’m going to delve into the plot a fair bit.  If you want just my general thoughts on the series, stop reading this post in two paragraphs.

A couple months ago I promised I’d write a comprehensive post on the Paranormal Activity series. Paranormal_Activity_poster  It’s one of the biggest horror franchises right now, and due to some surprisingly effective scares brought about from the earlier entries in the series, there is soon to be a sixth entry.

In very broad strokes, I quite enjoy this series.  No, it’s not a masterpiece of horror, but it’s very effective with its light, minimalistic approach to the genre.  Many successful horror films rely on a heavy budget for special effects and costuming, but this series features primarily ordinary people in situations that would genuinely scare anybody given they were in the same scenario.  For the most part, the found footage really works to the series’ advantage and brings very realistic scares to the screen.

The first film is very sharp.  The very small cast is very believable– Katie and Micah are very real-to-life and their reactions to the mysterious and frightening events are believable.  The story unfolds very organically– we see a couple in their 20s living together who start setting up cameras around their house when some weird things start happening.  My wife and I did something similar to figure out how our cat kept getting underneath a couch he shouldn’t fit under.  Then, the weirdness escalates.  It goes from weird noises and things being misplaced to more violent acts– furniture being thrown about by an unseen force, doors flying open.  There is clearly a malicious, angry incorporeal creature in the house.  Micah goes from curious– setting up the cameras and using an Ouija board– to angry– openly challenging the entity, which just worsens the problem.  Katie goes from curiosity to denial to fear.  I also like that the mystery is also very natural– for example, when we see the burned picture of young Katie and her sister, we are as confused as the characters, and their discussion of it isn’t campy “What does this mean in the context of this current situation” dialogue.

Because the film does so little to give the typical polish that most film has, the found footage style works very well.  I felt like I could believe that this would be real footage– there’s no subtle score, the dialogue flows naturally, awkward pauses and broken sentences and inappropriately timed outbursts.  But, as I’ve touched on, the terror is real.  We can see it in how the characters move, how they speak.  It’s visible in their faces.  We have the blind rejection of what happens, we have the stupid curiosity, we can see the desires to run and the desires to fight back.  That is what I feel elevates this film over many other horror films: I believed their reactions.  I almost never yelled at the screen, “Run, idiot!” or “Stab him!”  Admittedly, Micah’s challenges to the being are pretty stupid, but when as pissed off as practically anybody would be in that context, stupid tends to happen.

Paranormal_Activity_2_PosterI’m also just going to throw out there that one of the alternate endings (no, it obviously doesn’t work to continue the series) is just exceptional.  Watching Katie stare at the camera, slowly smile, then slit her own throat… Haunting.  For some reason the version of the film I first watched actually had that ending, and it still sticks with me.  If it had somehow worked in conjunction with the remainder of the series I would have loved for that ending to stay.  Instead, we have Katie’s possession and murder of Micah, followed by fleeing to do… something.

The second film was also quite good.  It isn’t nearly as scary as the first– we know what sorts of horrible things to expect, after all– and we spend most of the film wondering how on earth the story is going to connect properly.  After all, it’s the story of Katie’s sister’s family being haunted by a demonic presence, presumably the same one that haunts the first film.  The story is clearly a prequel, and even though I was satisfied by how the connection to the earlier film ended up working out– it’s quite clever, actually, and quite dark– I feel like my first viewing’s confusion resulted in me being distracted by what I thought was inconsistency (even though, it turns out, it wasn’t).  This film also just moved at a slower pace, which took away from some of the scariness.  The characters also just didn’t interest me quite as much.  The baby was really the only family member that made me care about them at all.  I didn’t love Katie and Micah, but I sympathized with them more than I did with Kristi, Daniel, and Ali.

Essentially, we have the same formula again.  This time, instead of just weirdness it appears that there was a break-in– something was angry and destroyed a bunch of the family’s stuff– that leads to the filming.  The filming this time is primarily through security cameras set throughout the house, so that really does work quite logically.  Then we have things slowly get weirder and weirder in the house, from strange noises to furniture being suspended on the ceiling and then being dropped all at once.  So, a few new tricks mixed in with the old ones.  We also have another affirmation that whatever is happening is demonic in nature as the Hispanic housekeeper is very superstitious and states that she senses the devil in the house before the bigoted Daniel fires her for lighting religious candles.

So, it’s not to say that the build-up is boring, just familiar and a bit slower than ideal.  It still is quite compelling, though.

The final act of the film is very good.  The scares quickly brought up to a higher level than we have in the first film.  Watching Kristi getting dragged away by an unseen force, her nails scraping against the walls, is truly frightening.  As with the first film, what happens off camera relative to demonic possession is terrifying because we don’t know what happened.  There is so much that is left unseen, but unlike Greek tragedies, this just makes the unseen things all the more disturbing.  And it makes it harder to stop thinking about.  Also, to see what the events of this films lead the characters to do (and to a member of their own family) is shudder-worthy: they move the demon that is possessing Kristi to the home of Katie and Micah, which leads to the events of the original film.  The final scene was very well done, definitely making me want to continue to follow the story, as we see weeks later the results of Katie’s possession as she walks in, swiftly kills Daniel and Kristi, and kidnaps baby Hunter.

That is an effective ending when there are sequels to be had.

Paranormal Activity 3 is my favorite of the series.  ParanormalActivity3PosterAdmittedly, the constant cameras does feel a little forced by this point in the series, but I felt that the inventiveness in how the cameras were used made up for that.  This was especially true of the camera attached to the rotating fan mount, which really made for some powerful scenes.  Also, the story significance of this addition to the series was particularly interesting and important.  Once again, we have a prequel film, this time set back in the childhood of the sisters.  We have a good deal more context provided to us as to why there are angry demons haunting this family throughout their lives, and the reason is refreshingly believable: a coven of witches.  Yes, the later films kind of make the coven less interesting, but to get just the snippets Paranormal 3 provides is pretty awesome.  Simply, as a deal to gain more evil power, the coven of witches made a deal with some demons that they would sacrifice the bodies (for possession, presumably) of the firstborn males in their lines.  There is a lot of implication that the daughters are raised to be brides and worshipers of the demons.  So, we have a lot there to work with.  We are given the context for why the demon needs to stay in the family and keeps getting involved, and we have why Katie, possessed by a demon, steals Hunter.

Part of what made the third film so great besides filling in interesting and important plot points is that everything about the production is true to the era in which it is set.  No, it’s not like the 80s is super difficult to reproduce, but I loved that the quality of film and the technology available and the clothing and toys the girls play with all are very much true to that decade.  Also great is that the involvement of children in the peril is really interesting.  How the girls react to the scares and to the imaginary friend persona the demon initially tries to perpetuate, Toby, is very compelling to watch because it is so different than how adults do.  Also, with this film you care about the family quite a bit more than the families in the predecessor films because we have the mom, Julie, who is trying to do her best for her children, a live-in boyfriend, Dennis, who genuinely cares about the girls as well, and of course Katie and Kristi, who have lovable personalities.  Dennis’s quirky friend is also pretty fun on-screen.

The “Bloody Mary” scene is the film’s biggest gem.

The only downside to the film is that it fails to fill in the fire that is referenced several times in 1 and 2 and the trailer for 3.  I wanted to get a little more context for that.

Unfortunately, after 3 came 4.Paranormal_Activity_4_Poster

Ugh, what an awful movie.  The film isn’t scary, interesting, or even consistent.  It makes the coven seem cheesy and makes the writers for these movies seem like drunken buffoons.  I was honestly bored through most of my watching of the movie.  I’m kind of surprised I managed to get through it.

The titular activity in the film was stale at best.  The scariest scene was when the audience knows there is a knife in the ceiling but the character in the room doesn’t so we think it’s going to drop on her and kill her.  Turns out, it falls when she isn’t under it.  Booooooring.

The found footage aspect kind of stopped working this time around as well.  Instead of normal video cameras, we have webcams and an Xbox Kinect.  Having most of the creepy things happening in the context of stupid Skype conversations of a teenage girl with her boyfriend was almost painful to watch.  The Kinect had a few cool ideas (night vision on it which let us see all of its projected dots which sometimes moved where nobody was) but overall just felt like an interesting gimmick rather than a believable method for capturing the events.

Oh, and the story?  We’re in for a turd!

Basically, seven or so years after the end of Paranormal 1 and 2 we have a family who has a lady (Katie) who moves across the street from them who has a weird little boy.  We are to assume this is Hunter until otherwise informed (which happens later in the film).  Said lady gets mysteriously ill and calls to ask if the family who has the annoying teenage girl and a young son of their own if they can keep an eye on the little boy for a few days.  Then, weirdness begins, but all of it is tame in comparison to the previous films.  Also, the weird boy teaches the family’s son to draw weird symbols and crap.  Then, the boys go to play across the street at Katie’s house, the teenage daughter follows (still Skyping for some reason– and presumably with long-range wi-fi) and Katie is home from the “hospital.”  The house is creepy and totally undecorated, which wouldn’t seem that weird were it not for the fact that it’s the size of most grocery stores.  Katie says something odd about the girl’s brother– that he looks just like his mother.  We quickly learn through forced revelatory dialogue that it’s weird for two reasons: one, because Katie never met the mom of the family, and two, because the boy is adopted.

Yeah, the boy in the family is Hunter.  Because apparently the demon’s course of action immediately after kidnapping the baby was to put him up for adoption, wait seven years, then put things into place to steal him again.  I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt that motivates it, not actually getting what it wants.

Head in Hands

Anyway, after a day or two Katie sneaks in, kills the mom and steals Hunter (deja vu?).  The dad and the teenager run across the street, dad gets killed and the film ends with the whole coven with demonic faces coming at the girl.

Notice I didn’t bother with names at all with that family?  That’s because I didn’t care.

Then finally we have Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  This film Paranormal_Activity_-_The_Marked_Ones_2014_posterwas overall pretty okay, definitely a step-up from number 4, but still nowhere in the league of 1-3.

This film is a spin-off of the main series.  The story follows an 18-year-old boy, Jesse, and his friends.  Jesse’s downstairs neighbor, who had long been rumored to be a bruja is murdered, presumably by a mild-mannered classmate.  Then, weird things start happening to Jesse and he starts to become darker in personality.  There is an unseen force that is protecting him– keeping him from falling, pushing away street thugs– as he gets more and more violent and meanspirited.  Then, after a couple of thrillseeking forays into the crime scene apartment, the family chihuahua disappears.  Somehow it gets into the trapdoor basement of the crime scene apartment, and Jesse follows the barking down to discover the chamber where there is pictures of both himself and the boy who killed the witch throughout their lives.  Suddenly, a dark figure appears and the film switches to focusing on Jesse’s friends, who are trying to make sense of Jesse, whose dark moods have intensified to the point of pushing everyone in his life away.  He then murders his grandmother, making it look like she fell down the stairs.  The friends do some research in the life of the boy who killed the witch, who I failed to mention later commits suicide, and see clues that lead them to get in contact with Ali, the daughter in Paranormal 2.  She tells them that the coven is making an army of possessed young men, and tells them where the final ritual takes place.  They get in contact with the witch-killer’s brother, a Mexican gangster, and head to the location Ali gave them.  It’s Kristie and Katie’s grandmother’s house, where the final act of 3 took place, where they proceed to look for Jesse.  The place appears empty, but they are quickly attacked by the witches who, disappointingly, show now sort of powers but instead just come at them with knives.  After taking out a number with shotguns Hector, who has done most of the filming, follows a demonic Jesse through a magical door that transports them through space and time to the final scene of Paranormal 1.  Presumably Hector is killed by Jesse.

Okay, so that’s a lot of stuff to take in.  In some ways, the idea of an army of possessed young men takes the edge off some of the more annoying plot elements from 4.  It appears that most of the young men are kidnapped as children and placed into families in close proximity to witches in the coven.  It still doesn’t fix the problems with 4, but it is moving things toward the right direction.  The last scene was a bit much, ending up in a different time, and for no apparent reason.

My biggest critique is that the entire film being found footage was quite forced.  The characters seemed to be filming for the sake of there being a spin-off to the series, not because they feel like filming is logical.

I did particularly like one element of the film– communicating with the demon via a Simon game.  Pretty good stuff.

I don’t know how I feel about what the future holds for the series.  They have announced Paranormal 5, which is coming out in October of this year, and I had some hope for it in the past (it had been stated that the director/writer of the first film was returning to the series for it, which later was amended to the series’ editor being the new director), but now I do not know how to feel about it.  I figure I’ll go see it, but set my expectations low.  I am glad that they’ve stated that there is an end-game coming, but it sounds like that’ll be in Paranormal 6 or 7.

Scrivener – An All-In-One Writing Tool

As a writer, there are many approaches to the actual writing itself.  Some people take pen to paper, some dig out an old typewriter, though definitely the most frequent method in this era is to make use of a word processor.  Obviously, Microsoft Word is a big one, though OpenOffice and others also have their proponents.

I wrote using these basic word processors for a long time– after all, they’ve served many writers well for the last couple decades, right?  I liked writing with them, though it felt like I either had to spend a long time scrolling and searching or had to break up my work into multiple documents, neither of which really were the best for my writing.  When I’m really in the writing zone but I need to pause to check a detail from previous work, I tend to get distracted and usually get much less done than I should.

Thankfully, a friend of mine once happened to have his book-in-progress open scriviconon his computer one day while I sat behind him in an English class.  He was using a program I hadn’t ever seen before.  I asked him what it was, and he replied “Scrivener!  Have you not seen it before?  It’s awesome!”

He was right.  Rather than the basic, all-purpose word processors I’ve spent most of my life using for everything from my books to essays to badly formatted birthday cards, I could see that Scrivener had a very specific sort of setup– one meant for writers, especially for long form fiction and nonfiction.

scrivenerFor starters, Scrivener is set up in a way that allows you to break up the writing of the story in any way you want.  You can have chapters, sub-chapters, whatever.  There is a note card view that allows you to look at all of the sections and lets you add notes that don’t show up in the text itself as to what is happening, or what you want to accomplish, et cetera.  It’s very easy for outline writers to thrown up a bunch of cards (which can be added to or re-organized as needed) and then write the text in each section without having to flip back and forth between the text and an outline document.  You can make a research section that is part of the Scrivener project to fill with notes, character sketches, photos, anything.  The whole writing process is streamlined wonderfully.  Also great is that if you jump to a different section of your text or notes, your cursor stays where it was in the section you were just working on, so no losing your place while editing or revising.

It’s honestly wonderful.  It’s made me more efficient, organized, and goal-oriented in my writing.  Plus, it’s like $40, and even less for students.  Check it out: if you are serious about your writing it’s much cheaper than MS Office and is much more helpful for your writing.

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