Thursday, February 25, 2016

Video Game Review: Fallout 4

Dystopian futures are one of the bigger things at the moment. What with The Hunger Games, zombie apocalypse, and multiple other movies and book series out there. But, what if you could pretend you were actually in one?

Fallout 4 is that game. Set in Boston, Massachusetts after the world has been ravaged in a nuclear apocalypse, Fallout 4 puts you in the body of a survivor of a "Vault", a place where people fled when the bombs fell. Of course, the vaults weren't just bunkers, but I'll leave that for you to discover.

As you wander the wastes, you encounter allies, enemies, monsters, settlements, and ruins a-plenty. There weapons from handguns, to miniguns, to plasma and laser cannons. (And an actual cannon!). There's robots, androids (synths), and suits of power armor aplenty.

Fallout 4 is a role-playing game, in that you choose your armor, weapons, and you decide whether to hurt people or help them. When you come across a new settlement, you can help them rebuild and craft defenses, food and water stores, buildings, call more decent people to the settlement. Or you can murder them all and be on your merry way after looting everything they own. This even pertains to conversations you have with people. You typically get four choices of replies, ranging from kind, to blunt and cruel. Just be aware that while there is no specific endings for being good or being evil, your choices do have repercussions.

You also get companions throughout the game, like this handsome fellow here. This is one reason to be careful though, Many companions will have different moral compasses than you, and may leave you or even outright attack you if you do things they won't tolerate.

Finally, while there is a fairly intriguing main storyline to follow, it's not time based, and you can honestly spend HOURS just building settlements, exploring ruins, and doing side missions.

The controls are pretty standard, and you can switch back and forth between First and Third person point of view, which helps the game appeal to those who like a more traditional RPG, or those who like FPS more. The graphics are fairly standard for the current generation of consoles and PC as well, with backgrounds that stretch off into the distance and detail abounding in the environments, equipment and characters.

Of course, no game is flawless. Fallout 4 suffers mainly from the same problem as many other large, open-world games. There's just too much. Too many textures, too many options, too many chances for things to cross unfavorably and create glitches. This is just something we have to live with as games get more and more complex. Textures bind up and don't load, figured get trapped in loops or in places they're not supposed to be. It's not even uncommon to get caught between two textures like land and water, and end up falling out of the world. (How's that for surreal?)

My biggest personal issue with the game was its auto-save feature. The fact that it's there lets you get complacent with making manual saves, however when shit goes down, (and it will) the effort of going back and forth trying to figure out what went wrong means you're likely to trigger the auto-saves before realize you need to go back to a previous save, and when you go to use it, all of them will be after the point that you need to go back to. I lost multiple hours of progress SEVERAL times due to this. I was not a happy camper.

Still, this game will keep you occupied for weeks or months if you let it, and with DLC coming out in the coming months, dedicated players may want to put extra padding on their couch. You won't be getting up for a while. Definitely worth getting for fans of RPG's, Dystopian futures, and story-centric FPS players.

~ Shaun

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Horror Series

One thing I keep hearing from people is that I need to write a series. That's where the real money in writing is at. While I do plan to dip my toes into Fantasy or more into Sci-Fi at some point, my preference is still Horror. And in Horror, it's very, very difficult to do series.

There are some very good reasons for that. To start, a series is about the continuing experiences of a specific character or group of characters. Occasionally, you will find a series which revolves around different characters in the same world, but those are infrequent at best, and questionable in their success. So in a series, you need to have a set world, with set characters.

Then you have Horror. Horror is all about tension. It's about caring about the characters you read about, hoping they survive the monsters they have to face. It's about people experiencing Hell, and whether they come out the other side in one piece, as better or worse people, or even if they come out the other side at all.

Now, if you think about it for a moment, it should be easy. After all, obviously if a series is working, it means we care about the characters, right? We want to read more and more about them and their interactions with the events and environments around them. What makes it difficult, is that if you have a series with set characters, than no matter what happens, it's hard to make them feel like they're in real danger, because if something happens to them, BOOM, no more series. So, that kills a lot of the chances for tension in a Horror series. Especially if you happen to know there's more books after the one you're reading.

Of course, there's nothing saying it CAN'T be done. It's just very, very hard to do properly. And it tends to upset people. Just ask any fan of The Walking Dead.

This is just about the only Horror series I can think of with success. You have a group of characters having continuous experiences in a set world. They manage to keep the tension high through the constant threat of the dead, as well as the machinations of the living. And also because NOBODY is assured an appearance in the next episode, let alone the next season. The Walking Dead takes full advantage of there being a group of characters by being completely willing to kill people off. Even characters which are loved and that you would normally expect to survive. Which usually creates a bit of an uproar, as people don't really care for getting attached to a fictional character only to have their head blown off (or bitten).

Of course, The Walking Dead isn't the only series. The X-Files, has several Horror themes running through it, in spite of having a large portion of episodes having a lean more towards Sci-Fi and/or even Comedy. Even though we never really felt concerned for Mulder and Scully, there were times we weren't sure. Both of them disappeared for whole episodes at a time for various reasons throughout the series. Mulder was even gone for almost a full season later in the show's run.

So a Horror Series is certainly doable. It takes some real skill to pull off successfully though, and not a small amount of risk. After all, if you plan out and work on a whole series and it doesn't catch, that's a lot of work, not quite down the drain, but for a meager return and a lot of writers just don't have the time and resources to spend on such a major undertaking.

Still, maybe some people will be happy to take up the challenge. There is certainly a lot of room, and no small amount of call for it. Might even have a go at it myself someday.

Did I miss any good Horror series?

~ Shaun

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Are You Image Aware?

Even though authors tend to paint with words, and a lot of us delegate the needs of cover art and advertising to others, our profession and professionalism does require us to at least be aware of the images that are used with our work.

Images have copyright. While you can look up just about anything in Google and save the pictures you want to your computer for later use, you need to be aware that if the wrong people find out, you can be opening yourself up for some very costly consequences.

The most recent example that I can think of, is the controversy over the "Obama Hope" poster. The artist created a version of the poster with marked differences, and yet, because he didn't get permission to use the image from the photographer who took the picture for the Associated Press, he ended up with a $25,000 fine, and 300 hours of community service. And that is actually getting off lightly. He could have ended up with very real jail time.

There's two main areas where authors need to be aware of image copyrights. Cover art, and advertising.

A lot of us hire people to do cover art for us, but that doesn't let us off the hook. A lawsuit can claim multiple defendants after all. Of course, most presses have artists that work for them, so you don't usually have to worry about cover art if you have a publisher. If you're a self-publisher though, and you commission your own art, you have to make sure the art you get isn't some doctored piece lifted from Google.

I dealt with this myself. When I was looking for art for my book Class 5, I had a pretty vague description I passed along. I was looking for a crashed spaceship in the Arizona desert.

One version I got, in response to that description, included the ship Serenity, from the television series Firefly.

Yeah. THAT Firefly. The one with that huge cult following. I don't know if the artist just isn't a fan of Sci-fi, and thus didn't recognize the ship himself, or if he just thought I wouldn't recognize it, but I returned that version of the art with the comment that I couldn't possibly use it with such a well-known ship on it. My reasoning at the time was that readers would recognize the ship and then tear me apart, as my story had nothing to do with the Firefly universe. Then, there is also the problem of using a trademarked image, such as that of the ship without royalties or attribution.

Now, it may be that you just aren't aware that your art was stolen. That's more than likely. There's a ton of it out there. That doesn't get you off the hook though. To be honest, there's not much you can do if you're not familiar with the depths of the genre (although, if you're writing in that genre, I don't know what your excuse of that would be). The only thing I could suggest would be to take your cover, and plug it into a Google Image search. Otherwise, just try to make sure your familiar with as much work in your genre as you can.

The other thing is advertising. This is one of the things that really irritates me to see and that self-published authors have the most control over. This is also what I think can get you in the most trouble.

Specifically, I'm talking about people photo-shopping their books into the hands of celebrities, or onto billboards and such. Seriously, people, go back up and click on that link I posted to the "Obama Hope Poster controversy". Sure, you might slip under the radar with your little book, but what happens when a celebrity finds you're claiming their approval for something without their knowledge? What happens when you cut a still out of some movie? This is one reason celebrities and companies keep lawyers on retainer.

All that risk for an attempt at advertising which is, in most cases given the quality of some of the photo-shops, laughable. I saw one posted, which was Spock from Star Trek, holding some book and being quoted as saying "Loving this book is only logical". Honestly, rather than wanting to buy that book, it went on my shit list as a fan of Star Trek and given just how recently Leonard Nimoy passed away.

Also, there's a reason most big publishing companies don't hire celebrities to endorse books. It's likely either because it's not cost effective, or it just plain doesn't work. Go up above to the link and look again. That was a $25,000 fine for using that picture of President Obama, plus community service, plus probation. And there could have even been jail time attached to that. So, is it worth the risk?

I kinda doubt it.

There's a ton more information and examples out there about why you should be aware of image copyrights. Go look it up. Being a self-published author is hard enough without opening yourself up to lawsuits worth thousands of dollars.

~ Shaun

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Movie Review: The Hollow

Recently added to Netflix, The Hollow (2015) is a creature feature/town overrun movie starring Stephanie Hunt, Sarah Dugdale, and Alisha Newton.

I don't really do a lot of movies reviews, considering how many sites and blogs focus exclusively on such things, but this movie just kind of screamed to me to write one up.

The Hollow is pretty standard SyFy channel fare. Pretty low budget, kind of made to be cheesy.

Except it's not.

Now, in no way am I going to claim this is equal to any mainstream movie. Certainly not equivalent to a big-budget Horror film, or even to the low-budget theater flicks like the Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.

But this isn't anywhere near the camp of things like Sharknado and the like. The Hollow harkens back to an age where SyFy tried to make legitimate Horror movies, even with low budgets and poor CGI.

SPOILERS start below the picture!

The basic premise is pretty familiar. Girls burned at the stake as witches curse the land with their dying wishes, and now every so several decades or so, on the anniversary of their deaths, a vengeful spirit rises up and slaughters everyone in reach.

Now, I'm not going to fault any story on how old and/or cliched it's plot is. Regardless of the plot, a lot of whether a story does well or does poorly is in the execution. The Hollow, actually, doesn't have a bad execution. I was curious what direction they were going to take in the plot up until the end, whether the girls all die, all survive, or even if they turned out to be related to the women burned as witches all those decades ago. 

Honestly, the main reason I wanted to write a review is to express that I think this could rather easily have been a very good Horror movie. The acting is very good, the monster fairly original, and the plot is pretty well executed despite being almost a cliche at this point.

I want to start with the title. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the title "The Hollow" refers to the fact that the monster burns people out from the inside. I pretty much have to infer that because there's nothing else about a hollow anywhere in the movie. I'm sure with a bit of thought, they could have come up with a better title.

As I said, the monster is pretty original, a golem of branches, vines, and roots, that is permanently burning at its core. It kills though a mix of stabbing people and burning them out from the inside. It's pretty well known that usually in good Horror movies, less is more. "The Hollow" pretty much ruins this by showing you the monster in full right at the beginning. If they had actually kept the majority of the monster off-screen until the final chase/battle it would have raised the suspense dramatically.

The movie also contains multiple sub-plots which could be cut as extra, or expanded upon. The character of the youngest sister especially could have been given more screen time to expand on the themes of her prophetic dreams, her guilt of surviving while watching her parents die, and her moment of change when she stops blaming herself for people dying around her and goes back to save her sister. There is also a subplot created by the monster "saving people for later". Technically, this is just a mechanism to explain why the youngest isn't automatically dead when she runs off, but this could easily have been expanded upon into an actual plot point with a little effort and imagination.

It also might have made it more than just a cliche story to have some of the other characters be more than just cannon fodder between the monster and the MC.

All that considered, "The Hollow" is just an okay movie, but it has just enough under the hood to make you wonder what might have been, in the hands of a better script-writer and director.

~ Shaun

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Third Type of Horror: The Terror

So, the last look at the three types of Horror brings us to The Terror.

The Terror is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest of the three types of Horror to describe.

(Click the links to see the first two if you haven't read them already.)

The gross-out was the stuff that makes your stomach churn and look away before you hurl your lunch across the ground.

The Horror was the monsters that devour us and evoke our primal fears of dangerous things. 

The Terror is the unknown. Now, that may seem like a bit of a cop-out, because that could mean so many different things. Like I said, though, this is the easiest and the hardest to describe at the same time.

Well, let's start with what The Terror isn't.

The Terror is not the Gross-out. It's not looking to hit your gag reflex and make you spew your lunch across the yard. You're not usually (USUALLY) going to find The Terror in descriptive scenes of copious spouts of blood, splattered viscera, and jellified bones and organs. You may find The Terror alongside such things, but that doesn't make them part of what makes The Terror work.

The Terror is also not The Horror. The Horror lives in the known. It's the giant monster that just wants to eat us. It's the psychopath that, in spite of all his nefarious motives, fetishes, and twisted goals, remains nothing more than human. It's the danger that we're aware of, and yet can't escape with ease or without a fight.

That just emphasizes, once again, that The Horror is based on the unknown. The things we can't understand or even be fully aware of. As Mr. King said, "It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..."

Of course, that means the wealth of the Paranormal can be found in the files of The Terror. After all, we can never really be sure what exists beyond the veil of death before we cross over ourselves, that alone puts it beyond our understanding, so anything from that side will almost instantly put us on edge. Even though some entities have become well known enough for us to understand what they do, poltergeists, for instance, and thus lessen their grip down to The Horror.

I believe The Terror also applies to things in this world that we can't understand, as well. Aliens fall under The Terror, because we have no way of knowing what they're capable of with their technology, and we can have no real understanding of what they want or why they do what they do. Even though they exist in the same world, on the same physical level, they are beyond us so far, and in so many way, that they are all but incomprehensible to us.

Now, I want to finish out by saying while none of these are really inclusive of each other (barring phobias and personal fears which may elevate or demote a subject through the levels), none of them are really exclusive in the boundaries of a good story.

An alien abduction for example (The Terror) may include graphic scenes of medical experimentation (The Gross-Out). And, in a really good Horror story, you will likely find all three types woven together to varying degrees. A story based on a subject which rests soundly in The Horror, may have scenes which evoke the Gross-Out, while other scenes stretch beyond The Horror and into The Terror, before coming back down again.

So, rather than these being sub-genre's of Horror, I think we should view these as tools. While you can certainly write an entire book under one of these flags, I think it creates better work if you can incorporate two or even all three levels, much like a good description will hit on multiple senses.

Lastly, I just want to point out a story which, I think, successfully hits on all three types of Horror. As this began with a quote from Stephen King, it will end with him as I wave my hand over this work Children of the Corn. The story hits upon the Gross-Out (The brutal murder of the wife), the Horror (The murderous children), and The Terror (He Who Walks Behind the Rows). Definitely worth the time if you haven't read it already.

Anyway, that does it for this little mini-series. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have anything else to add or want to berate me. This is all my opinion after all.

~ Shaun

Monday, February 1, 2016

SPOILERS! And why they don't bother me that much.

So, for those of you who don't know, I've taken to doing some self-advertising by streaming. I try to focus on games that have a powerful Horror, Sci-fi, or Fantasy element, such as The Evil Within, Alien: Isolation, and Outlast. Lately though, I've been spending a LOT of time running around in Fallout 4.

If you're unfamiliar with the game, it's an RPG based in a post-apocalypse where the entire world got nuked. There's monsters, mutants, robots, and giant cockroaches galore. It's also amazingly deep if you don't focus intently on the story missions. If I honestly had to guess, I've easily got between 100 - 150 hours into this game, just doing re-spawning missions and building up settlements. 

Anyway, while I was streaming last week, I had a random asshat pop in, ask how far along in the game I was, and then he proceeded to blow most of the big ending twists. He was banned in short order for such a transgression. 

Honestly, I don't usually mind spoilers. But these were some pretty major plot points, and the way he asked about where I was in the game made it pretty clear he was just looking to be an ass about it. 

But the bigger point I want to discuss here is WHY I don't mind spoilers. 

Part of it has to do with the fact that a lot of times, spoilers are accidental. People just get so excited about a book, a movie, or a game, and they just want to talk about it. They forget not everyone has seen it, and this is only exacerbated by people like me that don't usually mind, or people who don't really care and let them ramble on. 

Those kinds of spoilers can be forgiven, and particularly as a creator, it's exciting to see. That's exactly the response we want people to have when they read our books, watch our movies, or play our games. 

The other reason I don't usually mind spoilers, is that a plot twist such is usually given away as a spoiler, is nothing without the surrounding story. If there's not enough tension, not enough compassion felt for the characters, not enough build-up, then it doesn't matter how great your plot twist is. I appreciate the build-up to the plot twist as much as, if not more than, the plot twist itself, and that is why even when I know what the twist is, if the story is compelling enough, I'll keep going. I may not have that "OMG! WTF?" reaction, as much as a simple smile and nod, but that's okay. 

And even the people in charge of a story might accidentally spoil it if they're not paying enough attention. You can't just assume everyone knows the answer, even if most people do. For example, the cover of the home release of the original Planet of the Apes. Yeah. That's the plot twist. Right there on the cover, the big secret reveal. Nice job there 20th Century Fox. Hell, just look the movie up online. Most of the basic descriptions now tell you the movie is actually ** *** ******.                                                                                                                                             So, there you have it. Spoilers are just hard to avoid, even when you don't have some guy being an ass. Even when something gets spoiled though, you shouldn't let it be the end of your enjoyment of a story. Stories can be appreciated without that total shock value. Just look at how many people have re-watched Star Wars over and over and over again, in spite of knowing that one line. 

Still, if you can help it, don't be an ass, and keep your spoilers to yourself. 

~ Shaun