All posts in rant

The Liminal Man: An Interview With Todd Keisling

TLM_Cover

Today I have

a pretty awesome treat for you all, to take a break from all the science communications podcasts and job news. Over the weekend, I caught up with author Todd Keisling to discuss the recently-released second novel in his Monochrome Trilogy, entitled The Liminal Man. Before listening to the interview, you might want to read my review of the first book in the trilogy, A Life Transparent. ALT hit me, like it hit so many other people, right in the feels; it spoke strongly to my experience of working a shitty retail job and wondering where my creative aspirations had gone.

Now, The Liminal Man takes the journey of Donovan Candle and pushes it one step further, asking the question of what happens after someone has had such a wake-up call as Donovan had in the first book. And what happens when an alternate, twisted world you thought you had locked away comes back with a vengeance? Click the big ol’ play button up the top there to listen in for my review of The Liminal Man, followed by my chat with Todd.

Also! A Life Transparent is 100% FREE right now, and downloadable from Amazon. So why not have a look?

Also also! Todd is giving away a major prize draw for those who are following his blog tour. Just click on the Rafflecopter widget at the bottom of this post to start entering. I believe you can enter multiple times by following Todd on Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Best of luck!

Final also! Here’s a couple of links:

You can buy The Liminal Man from Amazon.

Check out Todd’s blog page for more behind-the-scenes stuff, as well as interviews and reviews from around the world.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

White noise

I ended my

last post with an assurance that if anything major changed in my life, I’d be back to update. For those few that do regularly visit here, it is therefore perhaps a little bit worrisome that I haven’t returned sooner than now. But never mind, you might be thinking, the fact that I am now reading these fresh words would logically mean that the aforementioned major event must have occurred. While I admire your logic, dear reader, I am afraid that I must both verify it and deny it at the same time. In other words: has anything changed since my last post? Well, yes and no.

The yes can’t be denied; Louise and I have, in the last two weeks, moved into a new house, ending a year’s worth of living dependently. That mystical quantity, “a year’s supply of ____“, turns out to be half-a-dozen when applied to houses. While I’m grateful, very, very grateful, for the kindnesses that have been extended to us by friends and family alike in asking us to take up residence within their homes, they weren’t our walls to live within or, in my case, stare at. So the advent of having a space to call our own, albeit per annum payable per fortnight, is a revelation; the importance of which can’t be understated.

So that’s the yes: firm, solid. Like a bass drum kick, it strikes and doesn’t stick around. The no is more like a guitar chord, played through a reverb pedal. It is made up of smaller fragments and repeated again and again, day after day. Uncertainty, frustration, pessimism, stress, pressure, and a rapidly diminishing bank account. The plan was to move cities. The plan fell through, and that was fine: P-town isn’t so bad, after all. And there was hope: a job was offered from work I had previously done with Curtin and an industrial partner. It would just take a little while to get going, as contracts had to be written and intellectual property sorted out.

That was three months ago. Since then my savings have dripped slowly out of my accounts, waiting for that regular injection that will/might come when whatever strings are holding proceedings up are either cut or brought into a fine bow. The worst thing is a lack of any starting date. If I knew a starting date it would be, as Louise put it, just like school holidays, in that you know when you need to go back and thus take every advantage of the time you have off. As it stands I am stuck in a house with no car, dreading the thought of having to talk to anybody because I know their first question will be something along the well-intentioned (and well-tensioned) lines of So Have You Heard Back About The Job Yet? The answer to which has already moved from a thorough explanation of IP issues through to a more uncertain hand waving assertion, and threatens to devolve into a series of grunts and pitching whatever objects are handy at the interrogator.

The temptation is to just write off two-thousand and twelve entirely and go…I dunno, work at a monastery or some such. Discussions about picking up temporary work or a casual contract have been entered into by Louise and I, but the aforementioned pessimism (and a severely irritating lack of Internet access) usually puts paid to that very quickly. There’s the feeling, no matter how self-aware I am of the fact that it is very much a Bullshit Privileged White Person Feeling, that events have been a touch unfair on me. That perhaps, after almost a decade of education, a job might not have been too much to ask for. Anyway, like I said, a BPWPF, and one I try not to rest on for any significant period of time, lest I become completely insufferable rather than merely depressing.

I have switched modes of interaction quite significantly, becoming almost exclusively a consumer. Writing has gone out the window, as has music production, and even the small concession I made while playing games of making video reviews (although that is mainly due to the lack of Internet). I have tried to occupy myself by learning a programming language, and the fundamentals of music theory, but neither have really captured my interest in a way that would allow me to throw myself completely in them. I feel that I am living in a vacuum, and that slowly, surely, that vacuum is sucking my will out through my pores. I’ve heard exercise helps a lot. Maybe that will be my next stop. At the very least it will alleviate the boredom-snacks I’ve been indulging in. There has to be a better word for those: something fancy like can’t-apés or bore d’oeuvres?

Alright, enough. Until next time, keep those glasses half-full for me.

 

Primeval: A Diablo III Review

(photo credit: Chimneys — Casa Milà — Gaudi by Shaun Dunmall)

Most of you

who occupy the same hobby space as me would have heard about the recent release of Diablo III: the third game in a wildly successful franchise for game company Blizzard which contributed to their current state of eminence in the gaming world. In fact, even if you aren’t a gamer you’ve probably heard about it, as the lead-up to the release was so widespread in the media that some very interesting marketing campaigns were created by those seeking to ease the suffering of those affected by its launch. Most of these were responding to the ability of the previous iteration, Diablo II and its expansion Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, to steal away nerdy boys everywhere for periods of time not seen since the Civilisation series. And it was expected that Diablo III would be no different. Gamers have waited patiently as Blizzard announced delay after delay, resulting in a development cycle that reportedly goes back to 2001, although the first real announcement came in 2008 at Blizzard’s Worldwide Invitational in Paris. This, I think anyone can agree, is a bloody long time for a game to be in development. And we’ve all seen what can happen when a game takes that long to be released. Unfortunately for Blizzard, it seems that Diablo III has suffered the same fate as the cigar-chewing, misogynistic protagonist of that other game franchise. Except in the case of Blizzard it’s not bad gameplay specifically, but a bad game playing experience that colours my interaction with the game.

If you’ve never played a Diablo game, let me paint a quick picture for you. The game is played from the perspective of a camera maybe 20 or 30 feet above the player character, whom you guide with a mouse around various sprawling areas replete with monsters for you to click on to attack. When these monsters die, they drop loot: standard RPG fare with gold and items being the primary currency. The loot is randomised, as are the area layouts, and the monsters. You work your way through four Acts, each with a different tileset of surroundings and monsters, before confronting the title beasty in an epic battle between good and evil. The addiction to these games comes through the endless quest for better loot. Since loot is randomised, and there are different rarities of items, there’s that pokey-style compulsion to discover what might drop* out the next time you split a cult fanatic’s head open with a broadsword.

To an outside observer, there isn’t much to enjoy about watching someone play a Diablo game. There are monsters on the screen, they get killed, the player picks up some text off the ground, and they move on to the next screen full of baddies. The storyline of the game is not only badly constructed and full of holes, but the actual method of storytelling is disastrously bad, requiring you to stop the flow of the game, return to town, and receive some poorly voice-acted dialogue that essentially just gives you the next cardinal point to go hacking and slashing towards. The CGI sequences of angels and demons going ballistic at each other are pretty to watch, very pretty to watch, but do nothing to draw you into the game. I think the ultimate example of how bad the storytelling in this game is comes from the fact that fully two main characters die, one of whom has been present in the games since the first iteration, and I didn’t feel a damn thing. Not a twinge! Now, I’d love to put that down to the fact that I’m a heartless monster who has no feeling, but unfortunately I’m a pretty big baby when it comes to emotional scenes in movies, books, even podcasts! For my heartstrings to not feel even a murmur when a kindly old gentleman who accompanied me on my fantastical journeys 12 years ago is struck down, means that there’s something seriously wrong with the treatment of the story.

But okay, okay, let’s make a concession towards Blizzard here. They know their target market. They know that the kind of people who religiously play Diablo aren’t even going to listen to the storylines the first time around, so feverishly will they be mashing the Escape key in order to make it to the next Act. So we’ll forgive them a farce of a storyline and focus on the actual gameplay. After all, in the 12 years since D2 came out, they must have managed some major improvements to the game mechanics, right?

Well, sort of and no.

The ‘sort of’ comes from the fact that D3 plays with a lot less of the somewhat arbitrary limitations on player classes that there were previously. This includes the ability to re-spec** your character at any time; identification of rare items and teleportation back to town now only require a single, non-item-dependent click; some monsters use attacks that force you away from just mindlessly mashing your ‘do big damage now’ spell; and…

Oh. That’s about it. This is where the ‘no’ comes into play. The gameplay really does limp over the line that separates sequel from previous. And there are very few actual improvements to the game that was launched over a decade ago. There are ‘Events’ that you can trigger during maps at random times, but all they really ask you to do is kill things in a slightly different way than normal. Most of the skills available to players are almost exactly the same, or play no different, to skills they used in D2. The graphics are updated, but not to any mind blowing extent. In fact, one complaint amongst players has been that there used to be more different character models for when players are using different armour/weapons. And the thing is, when a game so hyped, and so deserving of an innovative sequel is released with such a resounding thud, it begs the question of what the hell they were doing in all that time?

I can answer that question with an immediate, “Not building a server for Australian players, that’s what they were doing.” To sidestep for a moment, the lag issues for Australian players are absolutely horrible. Actually, to sidestep again, I should mention that the game itself, played through on the first difficulty is ridiculously easy. I don’t mean easy as in ‘I’ve played way too many games in my life so I can beat this one maybe a few hours before someone else’ easy. I mean easy as in ‘I could have made it through the entire game using only my left mouse button***’ easy. And the thing is, you have to finish each difficulty in its entirety to unlock each successive one; resulting in the need to complete the whole game four times to be able to say you’ve beaten it at its hardest. Four times! I didn’t even finish Chrono Trigger four times, and it’s the best game ever made. And you’re asking me to drudge my way through the same gameplay in the same environments with the same enemies doing the same attacks four times? It’s ludicrous. Especially when, by all accounts, the hardest difficulty is impossibly hard, requiring the kind of chances of loot pickup that would make even a casino feel a bit guilty (remember this, it’s kind of important later). To sidestep back to that comment about Australian servers, I should note that the only time my character died during my time playing the game was when lag kicked in and I was forced to wait patiently for the few seconds it took for the data to catch up from the Blizzard servers (in North America) to send my computer the bits and bytes that would result in the huge, condescending lettering filling the screen and letting me know I died. And here, finally, we come to the importance of being online.

One of the most decried features of D3 is its requirement that you be connected to the Internet in order to play it. This means that even when I am playing single player (as in by myself, without any intention of letting another player join my game) I am required by Blizzard to be connected to their servers. As a result of this, any action I make is sent whistling down the series of tubes that is the ‘net, arriving at Blizzard’s HQ where their software says ‘Cool, he’s not cheating’, performs the action on the monsters on the screen, then sends it back to me. It’s roughly a 250 millisecond round-trip, and it’s a hell of an unreliable one. But! says Blizzard, it’s for the safety of the players. And I can see their point in this. After all, cheaters kill online games. People who hack in unimaginably powerful items, or go around killing other players without themselves being able to be killed are generally the sort of people you want to keep out of your system. But, and this is a very important but, I cannot see the point in enforcing this kind of digital rights management to the detriment of legitimate players. Literally every click I make is accompanied by a 250ms gap. This may not seem like much, but it is enough to be noticeable and it gets very old, very quick. Especially when that 250ms can vary up to around 10 seconds, or worse, to an extent where Blizzard’s servers drop you and poof! just like that, you’ve lost all the progress on the quest you were taking. It is frustrating to an epic degree to have to repeat a level in a video game due to circumstances outside of your control. And with a game like D3, where it’s not like there’s good dialogue or some clever gameplay elements to help you back through that part that you have to redo, it’s an even greater piss off.

Now here’s where, in a normal essay, I’d have to think really hard about an overarching reason why all of this happened to a game that so many expected to be great. Why is the storyline so needless? Why is the gameplay so similar to the previous games in its comparison to pokeys and the addiction psychology of random chance and reward? Why is the first playthrough difficulty so easy, while the final playthrough difficulty is apparently so frustratingly hard that it requires a dependence on item drops, not skill, to make it through? I would have to think really hard, but finally, Blizzard have made something easy for me. They’ve already provided a plausible reason for all these flaws, and it’s called the Real Money Auction House. The Real Money Auction House (RMAH) is a devilishly clever little bit of design that is plugged straight into the D3 interface. It allows players to buy and sell virtual items they find in the game world for real cash. Of which Blizzard takes a cut.

I don’t want to sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist (although I fear that’s going to happen regardless) but if I wanted to design a game that a) maximised the uptake of players willing to pay real money get the best items in-game, as well as b) encourage those playing the game to keep playing it over and over again to generate those items to be sold, and c) keep hackers from spawning items and ruining an economy…well, how would I design that game?

I don’t think I could do a better job than what Blizzard have done.

*’Drop’ is, perhaps, the wrong word to use here, as they fling upwards in a hilarious, unphysical arc reminiscent of bad guys dying in Spaghetti Western movies, to land on the blood-soaked ground and reveal their rarity/item type. As a side note, I believe it’s this fling millisecond-long pause between killing and receiving the reward that contributes to the sense of anticipation and therefore to the sense of just-one-more kill.

**Re-specialise: Player characters in D3 have a pool of skills that they can use six from at any one time. This means that different players that have the same character class (there are only 5: Barbarian, Wizard, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter, and Monk)  can have vastly different skill sets selected.

***Actually, there’s no disclaimer here. It’s that fucking easy.

Aspiration

The bronze race - La raza de bronce
Creative Commons License photo credit: Armando Maynez

It’s natural that

while I’m hunting around for a job, I begin to think about what it is I’m going to do once I have found one. This will be the first time that I am involved in what will be my career, rather than my education. Not only that, but this will (hopefully) be the first time that I command a wage that can be considered in any way plentiful.

Realising this, I’ve been mulling over the ways in which we, as consumers, spend money. I had a delightful (and enlightening and challenging, as always) chat with Laurie yesterday and we talked a lot about what we do with money, and why we do it. Specifically with regards to the pressures of marketing and aspirational branding/living.

Aspirational branding and its social implications is a topic that has interested me for quite a while. His Holiness Charlie Brooker has produced a very insightful piece of documentary regarding aspiration within television marketing and programming, which covers most of the bases more quickly and with cleaner lines than anything I could, so I suggest you check that out if you’re interested.

What the conversation with Laurie and I centred around was the idea of living independently, sans aspirational consumerism, while engaging and building a community. Translated, that means: not buying stupid shit, not owning stupid shit, and using your finances to support creative endeavours by friends and colleagues. The definition of ‘stupid shit’ is, obviously, a subjective one, but for me it includes such things as label brand clothing, expensive cars, expensive televisions, etc. And I’m keenly aware that list makes me sound like an old man, but I just fail to see the point of these childish things. Why aspire to follow the cycle of fashion which exists purely to make you buy more clothes? Why buy a $50,000 car which is speed-limited to the same pace as a $2,000 one? The mind boggles at the transparent surface-level thinking that must go along with the use of money in this way. I am earning money; I am big and strong; choose me as your friend/mate.

There are exceptions. I don’t begrudge those who have an active mechanical interest in automotives their passion, for example. But I would much prefer to commission a student of film, or ask an artist to paint my family and friends, than own a big shiny chunk of materialism. But what is it that makes other people, particularly those with a large disposable income, follow through with such purchases? This is the kind of stuff that will tie in with the project that I have planned for 2012, which may or may not be an attempt at a novel. Okay, well, actually, it is an attempt at a novel. But no promises as to a completion date.

Anyway, thanks again to Laurie for the great coffee conversation. I’ve just spent the day garnering answers to the question of Kindle Direct Publishing, so expect a small post about that soon.

 

Variance

Christmas #23 - One hundred sigma
Creative Commons License photo credit: kevin dooley

I’ve been back

from my holiday and mired in the depths of unemployment for almost three weeks now. It’s often thought of as a paradise, but in reality it’s a little bit depressing, this not having anything to get you moving once you wake up. Or perhaps I’m just not the right person to appreciate large amounts of hours with nothing particularly pressing to fill them up with. For the first week or so, I had the task of getting my thesis resubmission process completed. Which I did, after spending a painstaking day re-jigging some images and chasing down signatures from various faculty members. So that kept me occupied. After I’d done that though, it’s been pretty much been a week or two of very little at all.

Wait, sorry. ‘After I’d done that’ is probably a little too glib for what it actually represents. I am now officially done with my thesis. It’s complete. Finished. Kaput. I never have to look upon its smug, papery face ever again if I don’t want to. Well, that’s a lie, I’m currently flicking through it for table scraps that I can try and mash together into some semblance of a meal that a journal editor might like to chow down on. But the main thing is that I have passed and I will never have to do something so incredibly hard ever again. So yay for that. Alright, back to the main point of the post.

In order to keep myself from going completely insane at home, I’ve been trying to make sure that I have goals to achieve each day. These range from the mundane (make sure I get the dishes out of the dishwasher and put on a load of washing) to the necessary (go for a run so that I at least leave the house once a day) to the creative. And strangely enough, the creative ones haven’t yet included writing. I have yet to write any new fiction since before I left for Sydney, back in September. This is probably the longest I’ve ever gone without writing something, anything, for a few years. And the urge still hasn’t taken me. I have no doubt it will come back eventually (and hopefully in time for my resolution to write a novel in 2012) but for the moment, I’ve got nothing going on in the writing department with the exception of a COSMOS article or two. Oh, yeah, I’m an occasional paid science journalist now (:.

Anyway, so instead of writing, I’ve been turning to other forms of creative output. One which has turned out to be surprisingly rewarding is that of programming. Now, I’ve tried to program before, and you’d think my background in disciplines that use logic as their main way o’ doin’ stuff would result in me being an apt pupil. But the language I chose to pop my “Hello world!” cherry was Fortran, and Fortran can be a little difficult for the newbie. So this time around I’ve been easing myself into it by adopting Python as my tutor. And so far, the results have closely resembled this xkcd comic. I’m following the excellent Python for Absolute Beginners book by Michael Dawson, which walks you through a number of game-based programs and teaches everything from basic programming workflow to more advanced techniques. It’s already got me dreaming of all kinds of text-based adventures that I could create.Of course, I’ll need to figure out a whole heck of a lot more stuff before I get that far, but the possibility is firmly embedded in my head now.

The other thing I’ve turned (or should that be tuned?) back to is playing around with sequencing. As previously mentioned, there’s a (FREE!) tracker known as Buzzmachines that offers a complete digital solution for making a song from beginning to end, with one of the most elegant graphical interfaces ever devised. And it’s been really fun to mess around with sounds and such. So far I’ve been playing around a lot and not making a whole heap of songs, but here are some little tunes that I’ve been happy enough with to upload to my Soundcloud:

Peachy keen — Trying to emulate the arpeggiated style and substance of chiptunes, though I did use a lot of sounds that are ‘illegal’ for the genre (i.e. delays, etc.). Still, I think it came out okay.

Shred test — I was linked by wauterboi to this excellent VST called Shred, which emulates guitars rather bloody well. So I ended up playing with that and a rhythm gate to make something a bit more driven.

Little mountain & Easte-reverb — These are part of an ongoing attempt to make some music that I can share with my fellow writers as songs that aren’t going to distract them. Kind of like the Ghostly ‘Music for creatives‘ album (which you should definitely get if you haven’t already).

So that’s a few of them. I’ll be trying to get maybe one per month done, as the mood takes me. But really its all about enjoying the process, rather than any kind of output.

And that brings me to another point I wanted to make in that, for me at least, I think it’s important to have multiple outlets for creativity. I don’t think I could exclusively stick to one way of bringing ideas into reality; I’d get either bored or stale in my methods. Even from just the two examples I’ve put here show how bringing learning into your life can result in new ways of expression: I now have the ideas of a text adventure and a themed album floating around my head. And who knows how those ideas will interact with the rest of the stuff that gets thrown in there? And before anyone gets any misconceptions, no, I’m not looking to make money out of these things. Of course I’m never going to get signed to a label or picked up by EA (not that I’d want to in the latter case), but it’s fun to try new things! And that’s what I’ve been feeling like doing lately, trying out new stuff.

Alright, well that’s enough rambling from me for the moment. I hope you’re all enjoying the lead up to the holiday season. Let me know your plans in the comments, or tell me some of your alternate creative hobbies, I’d love to hear whether your outlets have interacted with each other in unexpected ways.