Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Planned Versus Spontaneous Writing

It’s not a binary choice between planning and spontaneity so much as a spectrum, and there are advantages and disadvantages to writing in either way.

If you’ve got a very complex plot it can be easy to lose your way, even with planning. On the other hand, if you’ve got a simpler, single focus approach (such as Sir Edric) then spontaneity is easier to handle. Making stuff up as you go along can seem to save time (on planning) but it can also mean you spend more time redrafting (it’s important to get the storyline right first time, because correcting that takes ages. Improving writing quality or adding/cutting scenes is relatively simple, provided scene changes don’t alter the storyline).

The real advantage of spontaneity is that you can bring things out of left field, and instead of writing (even loosely) to a plan you’re writing in a more natural, less mechanical way.

Temple was the most spontaneous book I’ve ever written. I knew the premise and the final scene, and just about everything in between was made up as I went along (here and there I had vague ideas, but no more than that). This led to a not necessarily efficient or even use of time. Excepting one scene added later, I wrote chapter three in an afternoon. Chapter four took me something like a month (I massively rewrote it twice, completely changing the personality of one ‘guest’ character, and altering the identity of the second twice). That said, The Tower of Uz-Talrak remains one of my favourite chapters, and is proof that, even if you’re very dissatisfied with your initial attempt, redrafting can make a huge difference. If the basic storyline works, everything else can be polished after the first draft.

Journey to Altmortis was more planned. I had a brief outline of each chapter, using bold and underlining to ensure I had sufficient points of excitement and plot development (or both) throughout. Whilst I did deviate from the plan, particularly adding more scenes after the first draft, the finished story is very similar to the plan.

Kingdom Asunder (not yet released) is the first part of a trilogy, and presented a new challenge for me in that it has to work by itself, but also as part one of three. So, the end had to be both a conclusion, and open-ended enough for more story to occur. It reminded me of the first corner in an F1 race (you can’t win the race at the first corner, but you can definitely lose it).

I think it’s important not to nail everything down, and not to ignore a good idea that springs to mind because it wasn’t in The Master Plan. In Sir Edric’s Kingdom (not yet released), one chapter ended up being enormous, so I cut it into two. Likewise, one chapter’s pacing seemed a bit off, so I added a small scene which ended up including a reasonably significant character who made subsequent appearances in several chapters.

At the same time, knowing where you’re going enables you to write in such a way that can foreshadow future events, or exacerbate tragedy/comedy when you come to the climax. In short: it helps avoid the hell that is deus ex machina.

Temple was the most enjoyable book I’ve ever written, but the process was so slow and haphazard I can’t write like that for stories of any real size. A little planning, for me, does a lot to speed up the writing, and a plan can always be deviated from (or occasionally ignored). It’s very much a subjective matter, though, with no one rule that fits all writers.


Thaddeus

Monday, 29 June 2015

Blog update

After procrastinating for one or two years, I’ve finally (slightly) updated the blog. Axed a few links, and shoved in a few more (particularly recommend the ones to Goodreads, lots of lovely reviews there, Kraxon [which includes many free stories] and Chrons). There are also links to debut bestselling author Jo Zebedee, and LK Evans, who is both a top reviewer and writer.

I’ve also declunkified the Books tab. Currently my stuff’s only on Amazon, although I do plan to shove them back up on Smashwords at some point (probably with a discount as part of the run-up to Kingdom Asunder’s release).

Been posting a lot about videogames recently, but I will be swerving back towards books. Unsure if I’ll keep writing fantasy book reviews (bit worried about potential conflict of interest, if I write something positive it may be seen as back-scratching, if negative as jealousy/having a go at someone else) but history and other genres will definitely keep coming.

As far as book releases go, Sir Edric’s Temple should be re-released traditionally this year, and Sir Edric’s Treasure will hopefully also come out in 2015. Kingdom Asunder’s possible but not certain this year, and although Sir Edric’s Kingdom (which is larger than Temple/Treasure combined, at the moment) is quite close to completion it won’t be out this year.

Next post will be on varying writing approaches (spontaneity or planning).


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

E3 Round-up

Just a summary of the major points that interested me at E3 (mostly RPG-focused). There are minor gameplay-related spoilers, and very small plot spoilers (relating the premise of a story, not including anything I’d consider twists).

Not going into detail into all these games, but some which caught my eye were: Fallout 4, Mass Effect Andromeda, FFVII, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted 4.

Fallout 4

I had planned on buying this but waiting either until the price had tumbled or until a Game of the Year edition emerged. Got to say that it looked bloody fantastic, though. A warning: if you check out the videos from E3 about Fallout 4, you may well come across early plot spoilers.

Female protagonist is confirmed, as is the fact both genders are voiced. Courtenay Taylor (Jack in Mass Effect 2) will be FemSurvivor, with Brian T. Delaney voicing ManSurvivor.

Dogmeat returns. He’s also invincible [although M. Bison thought that about himself too], so he won’t get killed. Instead, he’ll get knocked out, and you will get killed. Glad to hear this.

VATS returns but this time it’s slow-mo rather than time-freeze. Probably makes combat more exciting, but as I have the reaction times of a drunk giraffe I’m not sure it’ll suit me.

There’s a rumour (based on Pip-Boy footage) that there will be no skills, just stats and perks.

Mods will be coming to consoles. How it’ll work is unclear (although a console gamer I know that PC mods can be massive, and a lot are a shade risqué, so I guess some at least won’t be transferred), but it will happen for Xbox One in the early part of next year, and come a bit later to PS4 [probably, not sure that’s 100% confirmed].

Crafting looks like it’s had steroids applied, crack injected into its eyeballs and nitroglycerin inserted in every remaining orifice. Not only can you massively customise weapons and armour, you can also build and decorate your own house. And, in fact, your own settlement. Or settlements, to be precise. Generators, lights, turrets, traders, it looks very extensive.

The release date is 10 November 2015.


Mass Effect Andromeda

Not Mass Effect 4. The title, rather than number, helps mark a clean break for the series. Andromeda is a nearby galaxy to the Milky Way, and is used in the title because the human race is looking for more real estate. It’s unclear whether this is to escape the Reapers, or happens long (or soon) after the events of Mass Effect 3.

Sadly, it seems the protagonist must be human once again, but the usual male/female gender option will be present (unclear if we’ll get 2 or 4 potential voice actors).

Release is around Christmas 2016, which is fair enough given people might just have finished with Fallout 4 by that time.


FFVII

Final Fantasy VII is being remade. Not remastered. As well as graphics being enormously improved, it seems the combat will not feature random encounters and turn-based mechanics but instead adopt a more modern approach. More surprisingly, the story will not be exactly the same. No idea if that means little tweaks here and there, or a full-blown re-write. Whatever they do with mechanics and storyline will cause some people to be annoyed. I just hope they keep the themes the same.

As an aside, it’ll be odd hearing Red XIII’s name. I misread it the first time I played, and have thought of him as Red Eight ever since.


Not Indiana Jones

Lara Croft and Nathan Drake both get new outings (the former coming to Xbox first, the latter a PS4 exclusive, as per usual). I may look at the new Tomb Raider when the price drops (enjoyed the reboot, but I’ve always been off-and-on with the series). Doubt I’ll bother with Uncharted. Liked the first two games but they didn’t grab me enough to keep my interest.


Not a videogame, but glad to hear Xbox is bringing backwards compatibility to its console. Shame that hasn’t happened with the PS4 (and probably won’t). I hope the next generation is another story, but that’s some way off. Backwards compatibility is not only great for gamers, it’s good for the firms because helps lock in loyalty from one generation to the next.


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Review: The Witcher 3 (PS4)

Just finished my first playthrough of The Witcher 3. I left it a couple of days before putting up this review to try and decide just where on the scale of excellence this game belongs. Obviously I’ll be including some elements of the story, but I’ll keep spoilers to the absolute bare minimum.


Story

You play as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (professional monster hunter, and a mutant). Geralt’s searching for Ciri, with whom he has a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Unfortunately, the Wild Hunt is also after her, and your task is to both find and protect her.

One aspect that I really enjoyed was the secondary quests that branched off from the main storyline. They’re entirely optional, but by doing them (or not) you can affect the way the main story ends up going.

Geralt’s a neutral sort of character, and can be pretty harsh or relatively nice depending on the player’s preference (a small minority of dialogue options are timed, so you may need to decide quickly how to react to a situation).

There’s a strong cast of characters, including some potential romantic interests and old friends (such as Zoltan and Dandelion).

The side-quests are engaging and interesting, rather than escort/fetch quests (they feel like mini-stories rather than box-ticking or fetching X for Y). It’s quite possible to find yourself so preoccupied with side-quests you forget the main storyline for some time. I don’t think I’ve ever come across side-quests done as well as this.

This is my first Witcher game, and I imagine that’s true of many. A concern, given there are two prior games and a book series, was that I’d find it as incomprehensible as a cut-scene from Metal Gear Solid 4.

The initial part of the game starts in a good-sized area (which is nevertheless minute compared to the others), and you learn about the war and political situation through the interactions you have with ordinary people, rather than through lengthy exposition. It unfolds naturally, and avoids the videogame equivalent of info-dumping.

So, whilst I do think veterans of the series will get more out of it (particularly with minor returning characters), there’s no problem getting your head around the world if this is your first visit.


Gameplay

The combat has three major aspects: physical attacks, alchemical shenanigans and magic. You have at least basic abilities in all these areas and can develop them more as you wish. Combat did take me a little while to get into, and some enemies proved more troublesome than others (I’m rubbish against werewolves). Being able to customise your skills to match your fighting style (I went heavily for magic with a side order of melee) works well, but you will almost certainly use all three parts of combat to a greater or lesser extent.

The spells are powerful enough to be of use without making combat a doddle. Likewise, alchemical oils will help you, without being a silver bullet.

Difficulty (on the standard setting) was high enough for a challenge but I only felt overwhelmed (at the right level) a few times. Mostly against werewolves. Furry gits.

The levelling and skill allocation system is something intuitive to grasp, but a bit tricky to explain in a single line. Levelling is graded, so you only need 1000xp to level up to about 10, then levels 11-20 requires 1,500xp, and so on. Each level gets you one skill point. You can also acquire skill points from places of power (rare monoliths scattered through the world, a few of which you’ll encounter as part of the main story).

These skill points are then spent improving your melee, alchemical and magical prowess (or in a fourth, miscellaneous, category which has simpler enhancements like more health or faster stamina regen). Skills can be enhanced multiple times, and using a certain number of points is necessary to unlock the next tier of enhancements in a given skill table. For skill enhancements to become active they have to be placed in one of twelve slots (which gradually become available as you level). These skills can further be enhanced by use of the right mutagen (one mutagen per three skill enhancements). So, use a blue mutagen with magic to get a boost.

Quests are tagged with a recommended level and divided into main storyline, secondary, Witcher contracts and equipment hunting. It is possible to fail quests.

Crafting is entirely optional and you can get good gear without it. Crafting weapons/armour occurs only when you’re chatting to a smith. Alchemical crafting can be done by yourself, at any time.



Graphics

The world is beautiful. Not just in terms of graphics, but also in the way the mountains and hills, rivers and seas have been put together. Dozens of times, especially early on, I’d just pause the game to enjoy the view (and get a screenshot). Weather is dynamic, and a really nice effect is that trees/bushes will bend significantly in the wind.

Clothing mostly looks great. Textures are good, though there’s the occasional rough spot. Every piece of armour has a wet look, so if you go for a little swim and then come out, your clothing will be soggy.

The sea looks especially nice, although one of the first whales I saw did freeze, its tail forever sticking above the surface. Near the coast the sea is flat and calm, but further out the water gets choppier, especially in storms.

On rare occasions (a few times during the whole playthrough) textures took a moment to load, but it was just a moment. Pop-in did happen, but it was also rare.


Sound

Voice-acting is generally very good. Geralt’s probably got the best voice of a male protagonist since David Hayter was Solid Snake/Big Boss. Yennefer and Triss both sound great, and having Charles Dance as the Nilfgaardian Emperor fits very nicely.

The music’s brilliant, not just in that it’s well-composed, but each theme seems to really fit the situation. The fact that you get the music on a separate disc as a free extra for buying the game is just another bonus.


Bugs and Other Issues

In a game this size, there will be bugs. The question is whether they’re serious or comical. Mostly, they’re comical (I saw one dock-worker doing what appeared to be a river dance audition as he worked). Occasionally, they’re more serious. As well as floating characters and other minor issues, Geralt did once start jumping incessantly (which was amusing initially before it refused to stop). I eventually found that getting on Roach fixed the bug.

The initial load screen lasting forever (which has hopefully been patched and didn’t recur when I started a new game today to see if it was still a problem) was very tedious. I also came across two flying beasts that were invincible. At first I thought it might be intentional (I had to rescue someone and was thinking he might get the kills), but reloading solved the problem. And, once, the music just decided not to play (entering a cut-scene with music brought it back).

One thing which did irk me was that sometimes (but not always) it was necessary to be online to load my save (due to the DLC). I have no idea why it was sometimes needed and sometimes not.

There are some nuisances in there, but nothing game-breaking.

Not a bad thing but ‘another issue’ is the free DLC, which is still being released. There will be 16 in all (I think we’re up to about eight now). Some are toggled on/off in the main menu (alternate looks for characters/cards), most are quests or items purchased in-game (NB for game money, not real cash).


Conclusion

There are flaws, but they’re little niggles rather than persistent problems. When I look at it from another angle, seeking areas it could improve, there really isn’t anything.

The Witcher 3 offers the morality of Game of Thrones, the open world of Skyrim and the strong storytelling of Dragon Age in a game with around 200 hours of content. It’s a triumph of style and substance and may very well be the game of the year (I think only Fallout 4 may compete with it for the accolade).

Score: 9.5/10.


Thaddeus