Saturday, April 30, 2011

Best. Conspiracy. Ever!

So it's a week late for a good Easter video, but I have to share this one. Be sure to watch to the very end!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wordcount Wednesday

Okay, so I've been lazy. I blame Lent. This year, that sacred season seemed intent on crushing me. I have no idea why, but I just couldn't focus. So I eked out a few words here, a few words there. But in many ways, my work on Hive ground to pretty much a halt.

The last time I checked in via these posts was two and a half months ago with only 2,997 words. That actually makes me feel pretty bad. Since then, I've gotten Hive up to 16,903 words. Yeah, it's an additional 14,000 words or so, but that isn't all that impressive. I should have done much better. And I will do better.

I think part of my problem is I don't have a finish line to aim for. When I wrote Failstate, I tried to keep myself motivated by setting a deadline for myself. Granted, I wound up moving it three or four times, but it kept me writing.

So that's what I'm doing. I am trying to reach the end of Hive by May 31st. Of this year (I would hope that goes without saying). I think I can do that. We'll just have to see.

Monday, April 25, 2011

From Darkness Won

So let's see here, yesterday was Easter, one of the busiest days of the year for us pastor-types. I was understandably tired by the end of the day, and yet I stayed up waaaaay too late last night when I should have been getting caught up on my sleep. And it's all Jill Williamson's fault, because I was finishing up From Darkness Won, the final installment in the Blood of Kings trilogy.

Okay, so it's really my fault, I'm not so brazen as to blame Jill for my own bad decisions (I'm willing to bet I'm going to pay for that choice throughout the day). But I simply had to know what was going to happen to Achan Cham and Vrell Sparrow.

Achan, the true crown prince of Er'Rets, continues to gather troops loyal to him to take on Esek, the man who tried to usurp his throne. But a new threat, a wizard named the Hadad, is asserting himself, making the battle that much more difficult. But throughout it all, Achan is distracted, because he doesn't know where Vrell Sparrow, the woman he loves, has disappeared to.

Vrell wants to join the fight as a healer, but as she tries to join the resistance, she is "stormed," her soul knocked free of her physical body. Achan must reunite her and make her whole, but after he does, she behaves oddly, as if she doesn't remember who she is or what she's been doing.

As long-time readers of my blog will know, I'm a huge fan of Jill Williamson's books ever since Marcher Lord Press published her first book two years ago. I've been looking forward to seeing how she would wrap up this series and I have to say, she did an excellent job (but I would expect nothing less). There's a lot of adventure, a lot of great humor, and some genuine gut-wrenching emotional moments. The action scenes were well-paced and, once again, Jill's world positively sparkled with detail. It's easy to tell that she's spent a lot of time crafting the history of each region. At the end of the book, there's a partial interview with the folks at Fiction Addict, and they asked Jill if we might revisit Er'Rets someday. She said it's possible. My reaction? "Yes, please!"

I was a little surprised at how much "winding down" the book did after we hit the climax. I'm not complaining about this by any stretch of the imagination. It was a nice reward to see how things worked out in the end.

That being said, I do have two minor . . . well, "complaints" is too strong of a word and I'm not really sure what word fits here. Anyway, here they are:

First, I was a little disappointed in what felt like a major change of character in Gren, Achan's childhood sweetheart. In the first two books, Gren was such a sweet girl that my heart just ached for her since she had an extremely difficult time. By the end of this book, though, my sympathy for her was pretty much gone. I wondered where the sweet girl had gone. She felt different. Maybe it's just me.

Second (and this is something that bugs me when it happens in any series of books) is the revelation of what the Hadad actually is, something that happens in the prologue of the book. Even still . . .

It's revealed that the "prime mover" in the plot against Achan and his family is a person called the Hadad, a wizard possessed by a demon called the keliy. It turns out that everything that Achan has experienced is because of the keliy's direction.

Here's my problem: there was no hint of the keliy's existence in the previous two books. This is a fairly major development that felt like it came completely out of left field for me. To get ready to read this final installment, I reread By Darkness Hid and To Darkness Fled to refamiliarize myself with characters and the overall plot. When I read about the keliy for the first time, I wracked my brain to remember if it had been mentioned or hinted at and I came up dry.

This whole situation reminds me of The DragonCrown series by Michael Stackpole. It's another fantasy series with a fantastic enemy, an evil sorceress who was awesome in her own right. Then, in the fourth book, Stackpole revealed that she worked for a group of powerful beings that were never mentioned or hinted at in the previous books. In his case it felt tacked on and off-putting. In the case of the keliy, it wasn't nearly so bad but it rankled just a little.

None of this was enough to dampen my enthusiasm or enjoyment of this book or the series as a whole. This is, quite simply, some of the best fiction I've read over the past few years and I'm a little sad that the journey is over.

But maybe I'm not quite done with this book yet. I actually have three copies of From Darkness Won that are looking for good homes. So here's what I'll do. Leave a comment on this post with a way to contact you between now and next Monday at midnight, CST. Next Tuesday, I'll put the entrants in a hat and have my son draw three names. Those three will win a copy of the book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

One more thing . . .

It ain't Easter until I've heard Toccata. And now, you can share in this awesome tradition too.

Allow me to explain why: when I was growing up at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, our organist played this as a postlude every Easter. It became ingrained in my psyche. After my father took a call to a congregation in Wisconsin, when the family gathered for Easter, we would listen to a recording of this magnificent organ piece before we ate dinner.

Now I'm very fortunate: the organist at my parish is very talented and has a top-of-the-line instrument. Not only that, but she also knows of my love for this piece. She played it at both services as a postlude and I found myself humming along with the pedal line (my family would "sing" along with the music and we took different parts; don't ask). But this is simply too good not to share.

A blessed Easter to you all, for He is risen!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Portal 2

Oh my goodness gracious. I just finished playing through the single player campaign for Portal 2 and I have to say, this was a great game, just as I expected it to be.

For those of you unfamiliar with this game franchise, well, shame on you. The original game was released as part of the Orange Box, a collection of Valve games, and I actually bought said Box specifically so I could play it. In the original, you played as a mute woman, being put through a series of tests by an insane, evil, and extremely witty AI named GLaDOS. At the end of the original game, you escape GLaDOS's clutches and kill her. Recently, the folks at Valve changed the ending. Instead of escaping, a robot dragged you back into the Aperture Science facilities.

Apparently said robot put you on ice. You awake once again as Chell, the silent test subject, many, many years later. Like centuries later. And your task is the same: escape Aperture Science. Slight problem: in your escape attempt, helped along by a little computer core named Wheatley, you wake up GLaDOS. And she's not exactly pleased to see you. And so things pick up pretty much where you left off: GLaDOS starts testing you.

Your only "weapon?" A portal gun. You place a blue portal on one wall, an orange portal on another, and you've got a tunnel. Think the portable holes in Looney Toons and you get the idea. As you navigate the test chambers and the depths of Aperture Science, you have to use the gun, various environmental helps (my favorite is the blue "bouncy" gel. I know that's not its name, but I love that stuff), and some outside-the-box problem solving ability to make it to the end.

The original game was short. This one is much longer but it doesn't lag at all. In some ways, the story reminds me a little of Bioshock as you explore the deserted corridors of Aperture Science's past testing endeavors.

But the thing that really sets this game apart from the rest is the humor. GLaDOS is hilarious, as always, and Wheatley is great too. And J. K. Simmons rocks as Cave Johnson, Aperture's founder. I laughed out loud a lot while playing.

So this is a great game, definitely worth your time. I haven't tried the co-op mode yet but I can't wait to tackle more Aperture puzzles. I think I'll be enjoying this game for a long time to come.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Could Star Wars happen today?

I just read this interesting article by Gary Kurtz, the producer of Episodes IV and V. Basically he asks and answers the question of whether or not we could witness a movie phenomenon like Star Wars overtaking everyone.

His answer seems to be: "Maybe not."

Here's the part that really got my attention:

Could Star Wars happen again today? It's hard to say because things were so different back then. The biggest difference is that it's now impossible to keep anything secret because there's too much information surrounding a film before anyone has even seen it. Even screenplays are published online prior to release.

In 1977 only a few thousand people knew about Star Wars when it first arrived in cinemas, but it spread like wildfire and soon there were queues everywhere. These days you would never see that because everybody gets into the first screening they want to get into, even if the movie is doing really well. Back then a film might open in just a few cinemas nationwide. When I lived in New York we used to drive around and see if there were any queues for the latest [Ingmar] Bergman. If there was nobody outside you wondered if it wasn't any good.

It's an interesting read and it won't take you long either.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Sims Medieval

It's time for the Sims to get medieval.

Okay, so The Sims Medieval has been out for a while and, truth be told, it wasn't really on my radar. Part of that stems from the fact that I was a bit disappointed with The Sims 3: Late Night. Part of it was general ambivalence toward a stand alone Sims title. But my in-laws got me this for my birthday and, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised, mostly because, while this is a Sims title, it has a completely different feel.

Basically the player controls "hero Sims." These heroes fulfill certain roles within a kingdom. Each time you found a kingdom, you start with a monarch, either male or female. Once the game is started, the player accepts quests that the heroes perform. Successfully completing the quests gives the player points, which he or she can use to invest in more heroes, buildings that benefit the kingdom, or to forge alliances with distant lands. Some of the quests get quite complicated, requiring the player to keep tabs on two (or possibly three, although I haven't encountered that yet) heroes at a time.

Further complicating the game are the heroes' responsibilities. Every "morning," each hero is given two or three tasks that they must complete. For example, the monarch might need to write two new laws. A blacksmith will be given orders to complete. The wizard must gather herbs for potions. That sort of thing. Failing to complete these responsibilities can negatively impact the hero and their progress on the quest.

On top of that, each game has an overall focus. For example, in my last game, I was charged with creating an empire, which meant I had to focus on annexing my neighbors. Oddly, the game ended before I could annex them all, meaning I only achieved a silver for that achievement.

The game isn't as much of a sandbox as the other Sims games. The quests definitely drive the game, and that's both a help and a hindrance at the same time. On the one hand, it gives the game a definite forward feeling, a target to shoot for. But it also frustrated me on occasion. There was no way to get a feel for how a hero worked before I had to get them going on a quest. I still have no idea how the merchant profession works after playing through it twice. There were a few interactions I missed from previous Sims games, such as an "introduce" social. In my first game, I had noticed a young woman I wanted my king to marry, only he didn't know her, but another hero did. Try as I might, I couldn't get the king and my pick for him to cross paths and inviting them both over to see their mutual friend didn't help.

The one thing I think the game lacks is a quest editor. While there is a broad range of quests, I saw the same ones pop up in my two play-throughs. I suspect that, if I try to get all the achievements and see everything about the game, I'll see the same ones over and over and over. That will get old quickly. The game could benefit from an in-game quest editor, maybe something similar to what Maxis included in Spore: Galactic Adventures, a way for players to write their own quests and share them with each other. It's probably a pipe dream, but it would be cool and could add some variety to the game.

Something that surprised about this game was the rather adult nature of some of the themes. For example, in one quest, my bard had to . . . well . . . get intimate with someone to acquire inspiration for a grand work of art. Afterwards, she wound up both pregnant (not planned) and apparently with a social disease. No fooling. That really surprised me.

But what also kind of surprised me was the inclusion of religion in this game. Naturally, on my first play-through, I gravitated toward that immediately.

Basically, the Sims in this game can worship a deity named "the Watcher." Unsurprisingly, that's what the game calls the player. Anyway, there are two "flavors" to the Watcher religion, the Jacobians and the Peterans. The Jacobians seem pretty analogous to high church Catholics in the Middle Ages. The Peterans are more like monks. Both heroes from the different branches can pray, bless other Sims, and even give sermons. Sadly, my Jacobian priests keep getting booed, but seeing as they're rated on how much people fear them, I don't feel too bad about it.

All in all, this is a really fun game to play. While different from the other Sims games, it still retains the goofy humor that makes the franchise so much fun. While there are some things that are lacking that will limit its replayability, I suspect that there will be many kingdoms that will rise under my benevolent guidance.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Alpha Redemption

I've been wanting to read Alpha Redemption by P. A. Baines for a while. It was one of the entrants in the Marcher Lord Select contest a few years back and it caught my attention. It seemed like my kind of book: space travel, an AI, strong religious content. When I heard that the book was snatched up by Splashdown Books, I was excited that I'd be able to read the whole thing true.

This is the story of Brett Denton, a man with nothing to lose. He's signed up to travel on an experimental ship called the Comet to Alpha Centauri. His only companion will be a computer named Jay, one with a capacity for learning and a lot of questions. But a problem on the journey threatens both of them and there's a serious possibility that neither one will make it back to Earth in one piece.

The story starts out very strong and Baines throws in some very good complications. Jay was engaging as a character and I loved the way his character evolved. Baines alternates between the trip to Alpha Centauri and flashbacks to Brett's life (told in reverse). As much as I got sucked into the story, it all kind of unraveled once the Comet reached Alpha Centauri.

I'm not sure what exactly the problem was. There was a new complication added to the plot that felt tacked on and underutilized. The flashbacks began to feel more disconnected from the overall plot (and I wound up skimming them so I could get back to the story that I wanted to read). And the ultimate redemption scene felt rushed and a bit unnatural.

My only other gripe is the British grammar. I realize that Splashdown Books is based in New Zealand and, by and large, the extra "u" in some words or spelling skeptical with a "c" didn't bother me. There were times, though, when the characters sounded like they were on the wrong side of the ocean. I think Brett and company are supposed to be Americans, but there were times when their voices rang false. For example, at one point, a character said, "You have post." Um, I've never heard anyone say it that way. Not a big deal, but it kind of futzed with my brain every now and then.

All in all, it was an okay read. Not spectacular, but I ultimately enjoyed it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Halos and Avatars

Halos and Avatars, edited by Craig Detweiler, is an interesting book. It's basically a collection of essays exploring how Christianity and video games intersect. Only this isn't exactly a book that decries the violence or graphic nature of some games. No, this book examines and explores why games matter, can games be art, what do they reveal about ourselves and the way we view God.

To be honest, I was a little hesitant going into this. I was worried that the essays would hit one of two extremes. On the one hand, I feared that it would be completely inaccessible, mired in technical jargon that I couldn't decipher. Or it would be a surface skimming that didn't delve deep enough into the subject matter. Thankfully, it was neither. Sure, there were some discussions of game theory that went over my head, but by and large, I really appreciated a lot of what these authors had to say.

The essays I especially appreciated dealt with Ultima IV and BioShock. In those chapters, the authors discussed the moral implications of actions within games. For example, in Ultima IV, the game was focused on the player's moral choices, only there was no handy bar to tell if the player was making the "correct" moral choices or not. A player had to muddle through it all and hope they were making the proper choices. Compare that to modern games, such as one of my favorites, Mass Effect 2, where you have a handy metric that tells you how moral or immoral you've been. It actually made me want to find a copy of Ultima IV and give it a spin.

Of course, any book like this has to include BioShock. I love that game, specifically because of the story and setting's moral ambiguity. The player is forced to make moral decisions, difficult ones. And this is on top of the game itself being a stinging rebuke of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy. If any video game has reached a level of "art," I'd say it's BioShock.

That's part of the reason why I appreciated this book. It's an acknowledgment that games are important, that they can have something to say about the world, and that Christians don't necessarily have to fear them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Littlest Sith

She chose . . . well, I'm not sure. I know I'd probably do the same thing. Maybe. Just check it out:

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Transformers Dance to "Thriller"

I have no words for this. I don't even know what my reaction should be.

Wonders Never Cease

Um . . . wow. Even I'm surprised at how fast I devoured Wonders Never Cease by Tim Downs. Seriously. I started reading this thing less than twelve hours ago.

Kemp McAvoy has a plan: he's going to be an angel. At least, that's what he wants injured Hollywood actress Olivia Hayden to believe. After getting in a serious car wreck, Hayden is in a medically induced coma in Kemp's ward. A little fiddling with the meds, a little help from Hayden's agent and a publisher desperate for a bestseller, and Kemp figures he'll be rolling in the dough. All he has to do is deliver a message from "God" and everything else will fall into place. Only things don't go exactly as planned, not with his girlfriend Natalie and her daughter, Leah, getting in the way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Oh, sure, the plot seems a tiny bit implausible, but Downs wrote it with such a great sense of fun that I found myself wanting to keep reading, just one more chapter, just one more page, just to see how everything played out.

The only thing that made me hesitate a little is that the "spiritual payload" of this book is a little light. There's no heavy-handed preaching, no conversion scenes. You might even wonder if anyone in this book is Christian at all. But that's okay. Consider it "tiller fiction," prepping the soil and getting people thinking about why they don't believe.

I don't know. All I do know for sure is that I really enjoyed this book.


All Jim wants to do is die. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so. Jim was a student at a wizarding college who died when students from a nearby warrior college attacked them. Then, sixty years later, an supposedly evil wizard brought Jim and a whole graveyard of corpses back to life to be his horrific minions. But when the overlord gets himself wiped out by angelic beings, Jim finds himself on a quest: he needs to find out what's keeping him alive so he can reverse it. But on the way, he finds himself beset by religious fanatics, mindless heroes who only seem interested in "quest points," and strange communications from another level of reality who seem to think that Jim's life is nothing but a game.

That's the basic premise of Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw, a book that asks the question, what would an MMORPG look like from the perspective of one of the computer controlled characters?

From a craft perspective, this book isn't the best. Croshaw's voice is inconsistent when it comes maintaining a proper voice. There are times when he wants Jim and his crew to have a more epic fantasy feel but just as quickly allows them to lapse into modern-sounding jargon. The grammar made me wince every now and then (even allowing that Croshaw is a British man living in Australia now).

At the same time, as a send-up of MMORPGs, I found myself chuckling more than once. Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny and there were a few times when I was feeling nostalgic for my World of Warcraft account.

I guess the upside is, don't read this book if you're looking for serious fantasy (or even a parody of fantasy). This book probably could best be appreciated by those who, like me, are either recovering MMORPG addicts or those who are still playing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Hunter's Moon

A number of months ago, I received a free copy of Hunter's Moon by Don Hoesel. It sat in my to-be-read pile that whole time until late last week, I decided that it was time to unearth it and see what it was all about.

Best-selling author CJ Baxter faces some serious problems in his life. His marriage is falling apart, his career is in jeopardy because of his hot temper, and now, his grandfather has passed away. CJ must return to his hometown of Adelia, New York, a place he hasn't visited since he left for college.

This trip stirs up even more problems. He hasn't been in contact with his family since leaving Adelia either and his brother, Graham, is running for the Senate and his campaign is in a bit of trouble due to familial crises. Worse for both CJ and Graham, returning to Adelia has brought back some painful old memories, one that will set the two brothers on a collision course.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. I suspect that Hoesel was going for a more literary feel, which is fine. As a result, the pace is almost glacial. It took close to a hundred pages before I got even a hint of what this book was about and what kind of trouble CJ had found for himself. Hoesel spent that time building backstory and exploring some of the characters' lives. There were a number of flashbacks, some amusing diversions, that sort of thing. The story doesn't really kick off until CJ travels from Tennessee to New York for his grandfather Sal's funeral.

Once the story got going, though, it felt a little choppy to me. In some ways, it almost felt like Hoesel had put different subplots on a Twister spinner and every now and then gave it a good spin. That would be the plot that would take center stage, almost to the exclusion of all others. That felt a bit odd, especially given how large some of the subplots were.

Not only that, but there were some hiccups in the plot as well. CJ investigates some shady dealings his brother is involved in, but rather than show us what CJ finds, Hoesel instead tells us, often jumping over needed data. There were many times when I was like, "When did he find out that?" It felt a little like a needle skipping over a record and would jostle me out of the story.

The ending didn't quite do it for me either. Some of the subplots got wrapped up a little too quickly. Others didn't seem to be resolved at all, left as dangling threads.

So when all is said and done, I wasn't all that impressed. The prose was well done. The craft was (mostly) top notch. But the hitches in the overall plot left me unsatisfied.

Monday, April 04, 2011


So I was poking around on the Kickstarter page and I ran across this gem:

I'm a sucker for board games, especially strategy games like this one. It's a shame that this guy is so far from his goal with only 33 hours left (as of this writing). If you have the time, check out the video. If you have a few spare dollars you can pass on to a fledgling game designer, that'd be even better.