Category Archives: video games

the romance AI

After editing some GHOST IN THE WINDS, I read a news article. Apparently Google is having its natural language algorithm scan romance novels in order to develop more “conversational” responses.

I dunno. Traditionally in science fiction artificial intelligence decides to destroy humans, but instead of the Terminator or the Matrix we might get a cybernetic version of the Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction.

I don’t think that would be an improvement. 🙂

-JM

FROSTBORN, computer games, and ICEWIND DALE

Now closing out the day with some classic ICEWIND DALE.

I really like dungeon crawl RPGs. If you’ve ever read any of the FROSTBORN books, this fact is evident given the amount of time the protagonists spend in dwarven and dark elven ruins. 🙂

Actually, in the first version of the FROSTBORN outline, the entire book series was supposed to be one massive dungeon crawl. In the original conception, Ridmark was a knight unjustly accused of murder, and sentenced to die by banishment to a massive Moria-like dungeon. In every book he would descend to a deeper level of the dungeon. I eventually decided that the idea could not stand on its own and so modified it quite a bit, but I still like the idea of a series of books covering one massive dungeon crawl.

-JM

Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition

I was excited to see that the Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate II is coming out next month. The Baldur’s Gate series – Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal – was one of the great classics of computer gaming. In fact, when BG2 originally came out in 2000, I walked four and a half miles to the nearest software store to buy it, since I had neither a car nor a functioning bicycle at the time, and I never regretted it.

The Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate had my favorite quality of a computer game – it doesn’t crash when I ALT+TAB away from it to a different program. My preferred method of writing a rough draft is to write as fast as I can for twenty to thirty minutes, and then switch to a computer game in the background for five minutes to clear my head via killing some orcs.

So, Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition is recommended, and I’m definitely looking forward to trying out Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition.

-JM

followers in Skyrim

I have to admit, I am surprised by how useful followers are in SKYRIM. This is a marked contrast from the previous ELDER SCROLLS games, where the followers either blew you up with their spells (MORROWIND), constantly got in the way of your attacks (OBLIVION), or died at the first hint of trouble (MORROWIND & OBLIVION).

They’re especially useful if you’re a mage and the follower is a warrior. That way the follower can charge into battle and soak up damage while you hang back and and hurl flame and lightning into the battle.

The kill-shot animation for dual-wield Destruction is particularly cool.

-JM

Traditional publishing is like Super Mario Brothers, and self-publishing is like The Sims

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers, whether veterans or just starting out, have a difficult time wrapping their heads around self-publishing ebooks. Or, more specifically, the mindset of self-publishing ebooks. Like, many writers want someone to set goals for them – someone to offer a Seal of Approval and say that the plot is good enough, the editing is good enough, the sales are good enough, and the book is therefore good.

I realized you can also see this quality is in recent college graduates. After all, in the modern Western world, a kid typically spends 18 years in some form of schooling or another before he’s released upon the world, and this transition from school life to real life is often a massive shock. In school life, everything is regulated, and there is a set of orderly and defined goals – pass this class, pass this paper, advance to the next level. In real life, by contrast, you can do pretty much whatever you want so long as you don’t get arrested and can cope with the consequences. And some people just cannot wrap their minds around that – interestingly, it’s often the kids who excelled academically who have the hardest time dealing with life outside of school. The same sort of dynamic, I think, is at work in writers who have a hard time dealing with self-publishing.

In other words, traditional publishing is Super Mario Brothers, and self-publishing is The Sims.

Super Mario Brothers is a side-scrolling, linear game. In his quest to rescue Princess Peach from King Koopa, Mario runs left-to-right through a world full of things trying to kill him, hoping to reach the castle where the Princess is held prisoner. Except at the end of almost every world, the castle instead holds this talking humanoid toadstool who informs Mario that “the princess is in another castle.” In the original NES Super Mario Brothers, Mario had to go through seven freaking castles before he got to the end of world eight, which finally held the Princess. Needless to say, only the terminally bored or the highly obsessive-compulsive ever got to the end of Super Mario Brothers.

This is a lot like how traditional publishing worked. Submit work to the agent, and get back the letter informing you that the princess is in another castle. Send out books and articles in cold submissions, and get back the letter telling you that Princess Peach is still in another castle. Keep at it long enough, and eventually you will find the Princess. And then it’s time to start looking for the next Princess – but make sure she’s 90,000 words long, and has a capable female protagonist, and shapeshifting sex wereotters because those are hot right now, and be sure to write the book in one specific genre, as well.

So traditional publishing, like Super Mario Brothers, is very linear, with a lot of talking Toadstools of Disappointment in princess-free castles.

Self-publishing is more like The Sims. The Sims is a “sandbox game”, which means that it’s not linear and there are no stated victory conditions, like rescuing the Princess or finding the TriForce or defeating the dread dragon Alduin or whatever. In The Sims, you control a simulated person, a Sim, and you can do…pretty much whatever you want. If you want to turn your Sim into a hard-driving career man, you can do that, or have kids, or expand your Sim’s house, or turn your Sim into a bum who sits around all day watching Sim Oprah…you can do that, too. There’s no princess to rescue, and you can do whatever you want.

Self-publishing works a lot like that. Have a 600,000 word fantasy epic? Go for it. Or a string of 45,000 word romantic novels? You can do that, too. A detailed guide describing how to clip your toenails? No one will stop you. You can do whatever you want for cover art, editing, layout, plot, and topic…and there is no final authority to tell you whether you are winning the game or not.

The thing is, there are people who find The Sims infuriating. There’s no plot, no goals, no quests, no point! You see a similar reaction with writers settling into self-publishing for the first time as they wrestle with the realization that there’s no official Princess to rescue from  King Koopa’s castle – save for whatever goals you set your yourself.

And that, I believe, is the key to self-publishing: the realization that no one is going to set goals for you, but that you must set them for yourself.

-JM

what can change the nature of a man?*

You might remember that “what can change the nature of a man?” is the central question to Planescape: Torment, a computer RPG that came along in the late 90s.

I have no time for computer games these days (I last played SKYRIM sometime in October), but this might make me find time – there might possibly be a sequel to Planescape: Torment coming along. 

I got Planescape: Torment in 1999, and did not actually finish it until 2005. Ah, but it was a twisty, complex, deep maze of a game, with layers upon layers, like a fractal onion. A definite classic, and there has been nothing like it before or since. It was really more of an interactive novel with occasional battles – if I remember correctly, something like 500,000 words of dialog were written for the game.

Because of that novel-like nature, there were scenes of remarkable power in the game, scenes that I still remember years later. Like the ultimate purpose of the bronze sphere. Or the Nameless One’s confrontation with Ravel Puzzlewell in her black-brambled prison. Or the inscriptions around the sarcophagus in the Nameless One’s tomb. And the fact that of all the potential combats in the game, I think only three of them are actually unavoidable – the Nameless One can literally talk himself out of anything else, up to and including the game’s final battle.

So if there is a Torment sequel, I will definitely be checking it out.

-JM

*In the game, the question has no right answer – the point of the question isn’t the answer, but how you answer, since it’s one of those questions that reveals more about the person answering the question than any sort of objective truth.

Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition comes out tomorrow! In 1998, I was playing more computer games than reading novels, so I think it’s safe to say that Baldur’s Gate had a substantial impact on me as a writer. Which is just as well, since those old-style CRPGs had very little spoken dialog, but walls and walls of text – it was like reading a novel, but you still got to blow up orcs and stuff.

This post from Black Gate sums it up nicely:

When Baldur’s Gate was released in November 1998, it quickly became one of the most acclaimed computer role playing games in history. It put those friendly Edmonton developers, an outfit named BioWare, on the road to stardom, and over the next decade they came to dominate the industry with titles like Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Baldur’s Gate, with its splendid story, characters, and revolutionary (for the time) Infinity game engine, still occupies a special place in the hearts of modern gamers. It was released for Windows 95/98 and doesn’t run well on modern machines — so for most of us, Baldur’s Gate is a distant memory, like those late nights playing Dungeon Master on an Amiga.

Needless to say, I’ll be getting it. Not that I’ll have time to play it, but there you go. I should also point out that if you want the game’s excellent soundtrack, you can get it via GOG.com.

-JM