Archive for September, 2012

Roadside Picnics

A place where few people desire to tread – where horrible death and impossible riches are but a hair’s breadth apart. Isn’t it ironic that the gateway to a bright new future is rooted in a location that is so relentlessly dark and defies human logic?

This place is the “Zone.”

Perhaps like other recent North American SF fans, I was introduced to the Russian classic SF novel  “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky through the video-game S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl.  They share the same premise, but each have wildly different focus.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a game that mixes First Person Shooter action, Role-Playing Game character development and open world design with Survival Horror experiences. The player takes on the role of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R, a name derived from all of the miscreants that are kept out of the Zone – Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers.  The Zone refers to the exclusion zone around the ill-fated Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. After the initial incident in 1986, the Soviet military moves in to secure it, setting up the Zone. However, there is a second incident, which creates artifacts with strange powers and it is these that attract potential S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s.  On the black market, the artifacts can command immense prices, but the danger associated with their retrieval means that only a gifted few are able to find and bring them back. Over the years, a mythology of the Zone’s inhabitants has grown up as key artifacts and locations are mentioned briefly and through a surfeit of gossip, grow into legends; the Heart of the Oasis and the Wish Granter being foremost amongst them. The Wish Granter is supposed to make all your dreams come true, whether it be ultimate riches, fame, or even end of the Zone itself…

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Work continues on my in-progress novel, the first part of which mostly takes place aboard a space freighter. I find my best “world building” comes from writing about things and letting the ideas fall out as I go along, as I have previously written about here. I have found some of that very challenging during the course of the novel, mainly as I felt it required some aspects of knowledge that I didn’t have immediate access to and dealt intimately with the spacecraft the action takes place in and around. Its one thing to conjure up an image of what it might be like, but to “realistically” write say, an action sequence that is logically consistent with the layout, furnishings and equipment  one might find in such an environment took a whole lot more planning.

By the time I reached that point, I was still wrestling with “issues” of how the overall ship was laid out internally. I felt that I needed lots of answers in a very short time and because of this, progress became stunted and slow. I found myself in a mire of technical details that I might not really need.  The best constructed worlds aren’t full of intricate details of everything, they are full of the right details of the things that are important.

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I put my ipod into its cradle in my car, selected “I am the Law” by Anthrax, pumped the volume high and began to drive home. A few minutes later, I was pulled over by Niagara cops as part of their R.I.D.E. checks. I killed the volume, wound the window down. The car ahead was stopped, interrogated and asked to move along.

I thought I had gotten away with it – they weren’t going to ask me any questions. I was beaning and on a sugar high – a medium double double, double-choc donut and adrenalin pump from watching an awesome movie.  “How much have you had to drink tonight, sir?”

Every fibre of me screamed to pump the gas, careen onto the sidewalk and pull away, shouting out the window “You’ll never take me alive coppa!”

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” was all I could conjure.

“Where are you coming from?” Steel eyed cop glare.

I wanted to say with pride: “Coming home from the Judge Dredd movie, punk!”, but I acquiesced and lowered my excitement level, “Just been to the movies…”

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For The Love of FTL

Sometimes good things in pairs.

Firstly, this weekend I was surprised by the arrival of a little game called FTL by Subset Games. I had heard about it way back when in the year, taken a quick gander and went “hmmm…. meh!” Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for it then, I don’t know, but when mention of it showed up on the Dwarf Fortress Facebook page, my interest was piqued. The masochist in me that loved Dwarf Fortress tapped me on the shoulder and say “Hey! Losing IS fun! Get to it!”, so out came my $9 and down came the game, plucked from the aether. One tutorial later and I was playing the game I set out to try to make in ASCII/Unicode text graphics about three years ago, but never really got to doing any serious work  (I couldn’t get the Unicode thing working and a long time ago I figured that I wasn’t much of a code monkey anyway…)  This is not to take away from Subspace’s achievement and future success, or to climb on their shoulders, but it is interesting to see that some game ideas (though not the method of execution) develop in parallel.

Thankfully Subspace have taken up my slack and made an amazingly simple yet compelling spacecraft experience that is roughly modeled on a Rogue-like chassis.

Not today slavers! The FSM Gothmog wins the day! (FTL, Subspace Games, Mac version)

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“I Am the Law”

Classic Dredd cover by Mike McMahon, showing Dredd and Uncle Ump, probably the saddest Dredd story, IMHO.

With less than a week to the North American release of the new Judge Dredd movie, I felt like I should say something about the franchise, perhaps as a primer for North Americans who aren’t familiar with this very British gem.

As an early teen and subscriber of the comic 2000AD, I grew up with a weekly dose of Judge Dredd. It was pretty much everything a British teenage boy wanted: action filled, imagination expanding, great lines and amazing artwork. I enjoyed every week and the variety of story lines – it went all over the place. Gang warfare, controlled substances, game shows, democratic protests, superhero vigilantes, communist city states, alien invaders and Dredd’s ever-present sardonic one-liners gave the reader a connection to its craziness – as unemotional as he was, Dredd is the person closest to our sensibilities, the quintessential “straight-man.”

A casual reader, perhaps someone who bought the comic on a news-stand – or actually read it in the newspaper since Dredd was a syndicated comic strip in Britain’s Daily Star newspaper – might dismiss the real depth of the content. Judge Dredd is much more than a hard-assed cop in a futuristic world, but a commentary on a future dystopia protected by a fascist police state, a dissertation on culture run-amuck, as well as a parody/prediction about the future of United States of America.

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