Today’s Art (20th May 2019)

Woo hoo! I’m very proud to present the first comic in “Damania Resuscitated” – this month’s four-comic webcomic mini series. You can find links to lots of other webcomic mini series on this page.

And, yes, I really miss the days when charity shops used to be filled with novels from the 1980s/1990s rather than novels from the mid-late 2000s/early 2010s.

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE ]”Damania Resuscitated – Charity Shops” By C. A. Brown

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Three Tips For Coming Up With Realistic Fictional Videogames For Your Story

The day before I wrote this article, I happened to watch an old episode of “NCIS” on TV which revolved around online games. Bizarrely, the plot revolved around a fictional online multiplayer survival horror game called “Fear Tower 3” (god, I miss the early-mid 2000s!). Needless to say, this episode is hilarious to watch for how it handles the topic of gaming – with the stand-out moment being a gloriously silly videogame-like sequence at the end.

So, this made me think about the topic of fictional videogames. Writers, in all mediums, will usually come up with fictional videogames for a number of reasons. Not only can you make the game a better fit for your story, but you can also sidestep possible copyright issues, make various points about videogames and do all sorts of other things if you come up with a fictional game for your story’s characters to play.

If you’ve grown up with games, then you’ll have no trouble coming up with these (and, chances are, you’ve probably already got loads of ideas for games that you would make if you could). But, if you haven’t played many games, then I thought that I’d offer a few tips for how to include realistic fictional videogames in your stories:

1) Play games! It’s easier (and cheaper) than you might think: Simply put, you actually need to play some games. This doesn’t mean that you have to devote every waking hour to gaming or spend lots of money on keeping up with the absolute latest games (and the expensive hardware needed to play them) or even be part of “gamer culture”, but you need to be reasonably familiar with the basic features of the medium. You need to be familiar with the experience of playing games.

It doesn’t matter if you play old or new games, well-known games or obscure games, single-player or multi-player games, console/phone games or PC games, fast-paced action games or slow-paced puzzle games etc… the important thing is to actually play some games. Seriously, when it comes to inventing fictional games, nothing beats hands-on experience with actual games to show you what games are actually like.

But, if you’re totally new to games, then a word of warning. If a modern game (whether it is “free to play” or one you have to buy) starts asking you to pay real money for things like extra turns, extra in-game currency/items/weapons/costumes, randomised “loot boxes” etc… then avoid it like the plague! These games are designed to get you to spend, spend and spend some more in a similar way to a gambling machine.

So, if you don’t have a large gaming budget, but own a computer (no matter how old or low-spec) and want to play some honest free games that are actually free, then take a look at some of these games:

-“Beneath A Steel Sky” – a dystopian sci-fi puzzle/adventure game from the 1990s that was later officially released for free.
– “Freedoom” – A version of the classic 1990s sci-fi/horror action game “Doom” that adds new freely-licenced graphics, sounds and levels to the officially released free source code. You’ll need to use Freedoom with a free “source port” program designed for your computer’s operating system (eg: Windows, Linux, MacOs etc…).
– “Rosemary” – A short and free horror/gothic “point and click” adventure game involving time/memory manipulation.
– “Hurrican” – This is a freeware 2D action platformer game, inspired by the old “Turrican” games. It only exists in a Windows version on the site, but it is open-source, so someone somewhere could possibly make a Linux version.
– “Supertux” – This is a freeware “Super Mario”-inspired 2D platform game featuring an adorable penguin (the Linux mascot, Tux), which is compatible with Linux, Windows and MacOS.
– “Open Arena” – This is a freeware 3D first-person shooter game inspired by “Quake 3” that also includes both single and multi player modes. It will also work with Linux and MacOS as well as Windows.
– “Tyrian 2000” – A top down “shoot em up” spaceship game from the 1990s that was later officially released as freeware.

Likewise, if you’re worried about time or you’ve read the stories about “game addiction” that were in the press last year, then my advice would be to stick to single-player games (especially older ones). No matter how grippingly compelling a single-player game is, you can usually save your progress (so you can easily put the game down and pick it up later) and, equally importantly, there is also usually a defined ending to the game too.

2) Read up on the gaming business: As you probably guessed from the caveats I gave in the previous part of this article, the business side of gaming isn’t always the best thing in the world. Yes, games themselves are absolutely awesome. But, they are often expensive to make and this can sometimes result in some rather dubious business practices.

So, do some research into this. This will help you to add a bit of realistic cynicism to your fictional depictions of games.

On a lighter note, be sure look online for information about how old game designers and/or modern low-budget game designers had to use all sorts of clever tricks to make their games seem more impressive, despite budgetary or technical limitations. Once you learn how to spot this kind of thing, then it can give your story a real ring of authenticity. A classic example of this are the old “Resident Evil” games – here’s a screenshot from one of them:

This is a screenshot from the 2000 PC version of “Resident Evil 3” (1999).

This game was produced in the late 1990s/early 2000s and it still looks reasonably good. This is mostly because, in order to get the game to run on old computers and games consoles, the designers used “realistic” pre-painted 2D backgrounds. As such, the only “moving parts” that the computer has to handle are a few basic 3D characters that are super-imposed onto these 2D backgrounds. This allowed the designers to create a cool-looking game that will run on some very low-spec hardware.

3) Learn about game design: In addition to doing some online research into all of the different types of games out there, also be sure to do some research into how games are designed. This doesn’t mean that you have to learn how to program (I mean, I don’t really know how to program), but a basic knowledge of game design principles can help you to add an air of authenticity to your fictional videogames.

The best places to find out this kind of information are on Youtube channels that are dedicated to this topic. Some of the more famous examples include channels like “Extra Credits” and “Game Maker’s Toolkit“.

Not only are these types of documentary videos absolutely fascinating in their own right (so, set aside time for binge-watching) but they will also help to train you to think like a game designer, which will help you to come up with more interesting and/or realistic fictional videogames for your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” by Agatha Christie (Novel)

Well, since I seem to be going through a bit of a detective fiction phase at the moment, I thought that I’d take a look at Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” today.

I found a second-hand copy of this novel online a couple of weeks earlier, after both getting nostalgic about binge-watching a DVD boxset or two of the old ITV adaptation of “Poirot” a couple of years ago and realising that it has been at least a decade since I last read an Agatha Christie novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid giving away the ending.

This is the 2013 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” that I read.

The novel begins three days before Christmas in a train station in London where a man called Stephen Farr happens to meet a beautiful woman called Pilar Estravados who has been invited to Gorston Hall in order to meet her long-lost grandfather, Simeon Lee.

Meanwhile, Simeon Lee’s middle-aged sons are talking to their wives about the Christmas invitations. None of them like Simeon very much, what with him being the kind of grumpy, cynical, rich old man who sometimes cackles to himself when no-one is looking. Likewise, many of his sons also harbour resentment about his cold demeanour during their late mother’s illness. Still, out of formality and tradition, they reluctantly agree to spend Christmas at Gorston Hall.

Needless to say, it is the kind of miserable family Christmas that you would expect. Something not helped by the fact that Simeon is brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, with his throat slashed inside a locked room. Luckily for the head of the local police, famed investigator Hercule Poirot is visiting him for Christmas….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read. Everything from the hilariously stuffy and formal bickering during the early parts, to the intriguing locked room mystery (where everyone is a suspect) to the scenes featuring the hilariously, cartoonishly evil Simeon Lee were just so much fun to read. This novel is a proper, traditional Agatha Christie mystery 🙂

Although the early parts of the novel focus more on the characters and backstory, as soon as the murder happens, the story becomes the kind of focused, gripping detective story that you would expect. Interestingly, this novel includes some vaguely Sherlock Holmes-style deductions made from evidence and experimentation in addition to Poirot’s more typical interview-based methods of detection. Plus, the fact that pretty much every character has a motive for murder really helps to keep things suspenseful too.

Yes, some of the plot twists and events of the story are a little bit contrived at times – although, like with every good detective story, there’s a subtle clue for every part of the mystery (which Poirot explains during his traditional end-of-story speech) and a few clever red herrings too. Plus, with something as intriguing as a locked room mystery, a certain amount of contrivance is to be expected anyway.

One amusing thing about this novel is that it is prefaced by a letter from Agatha Christie to her brother-in-law which states that she wrote this story because he expressed dismay about how “refined” and “anaemic” some of her recent stories had been. As such, this novel is – by Agatha Christie standards – surprisingly grisly (but, it’s pretty tame by modern standards). But, the bloody nature of the crime helps to lend the story a little bit more of a Sherlock Holmes-style atmosphere, which is kind of cool.

The novel’s characters are fairly good too. They’re given enough characterisation to make the reader understand their personalities and motives, with a lot of the novel’s funnier and more dramatic moments happening during their various arguments with each other. The stand-out character has to be Simeon Lee, who is this hilariously melodramatic grumpy old man (seriously, you can just imagine an actor really hamming it up when you read his scenes 🙂 ). Surprisingly, Poirot doesn’t actually get a huge amount of characterisation in this novel – then again, pretty much everyone knows who Hercule Poirot is anyway.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly good. The novel’s third-person narration is fairly readable and, although it is a little bit on the formal side (after all, it was written less than 40 years after the 19th century) it is still fairly easily readable today. Likewise, the novel also focuses quite a bit on dialogue too, which helps to keep the story flowing at a fairly reasonable pace too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a lean and efficient 268 pages in length, the novel never really feels bloated. Likewise, there’s a good contrast between the slightly slower dialogue and background scenes at the beginning and the slightly faster-paced and wonderfully focused detective scenes after the murder has been committed. Whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced novel, this isn’t as much of a slow-paced novel as you might expect either.

As for how this eighty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well 🙂 Yes, there are a few slightly dated generalisations (eg: about relationships, about the differences between English people and people from mainland Europe etc..), not to mention that some “modern” words (eg: “fantastic”, “batteries” etc..) actually use their completely different old-fashioned meanings in this novel. But, for the most part, this novel has aged really well. It’s still fairly gripping, fairly readable and filled with the kind of timeless vintage charm that you would expect.

All in all, this is a really enjoyable “old school” detective novel 🙂 If you want an intriguing locked room mystery, if you find stuffy aristocrats bickering with each other absolutely hilarious and if you want a reasonably focused, well-paced detective story, then you can’t go wrong with this one 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Two Ways To Spruce Up A Familiar Story

Well, for today, I though that I’d look at some very basic ways to spruce up a familiar story. This was inspired by a couple of things.

First of all, the novel I’m reading at the moment is an Agatha Christie novel called “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” (1938) – which seems to be a traditional-style Agatha Christie detective story, but has a rather amusing letter printed near the beginning of the story which shows that Christie responded to her brother-in-law who wanted a story ” […] with lots of blood” by writing this story. And, yes, by Agatha Christie standards, this is one of her gorier detective stories.

The other was when I rediscovered one of my favourite websites – a site that preserves and exhibits old 1940s-50s US horror comics, called “The Horrors Of It All[note: this site may technically be “not safe for work”]. Anyway, I noticed that one of the cool-looking comics on the site, called “Death Came Calling” seemed to be a thinly-disguised retelling of the famous “Appointment In Samarra” story.

So, naturally, this made me think about how to spruce up stories that can become old, stale or familiar in some way or another. Here are two of the many ways that you can do this.

1) Surrounding factors: Despite the rather familiar storyline, the “Death Came Calling” horror comic that I mentioned earlier still caught my attention thanks to Dick Ayres’ utterly amazing artwork. The story itself was nothing new, but the awesome, vivid and melodramatic artwork surrounding it really helped to keep it interesting.

So, one way to spruce up a familiar story is simply to change some of the things surrounding the story. For example, the narrative voice in a novel, the art in a comic, the lighting in a film, the emotional tone of a story etc….

The best examples of this sort of thing can, of course, be found in music. Whether it is musicians covering songs using a different style (eg: A band called Gregorian, who perform Gregorian chant covers of pop, rock, heavy metal etc.. songs) or musicians using very different instruments to play “faithful” covers of songs (eg: Paweł Zadrożniak’s “Floppotron ).

2) Add another genre:
Another way to spruce up a familiar story is simply to add something from another genre to it. The best way to do this is to see what two genres have in common with each other and then find a way to emphasise this to some degree.

For example, although it isn’t a horror story, Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” certainly takes some inspiration from the genre with it’s eerie locked room mystery and (by 1930s standards) gory crime scene descriptions. Since both the detective and horror genres usually revolve around the topic of death, finding a way to bring elements across from one genre to the other isn’t that difficult.

Still, a better example of this from Agatha Christie is probably “And Then There Were None”. About a decade ago, I binge-read this crime novel in a single night and couldn’t sleep afterwards. It’s a story about ten people who are summoned to a remote house and find themselves under threat from a mysterious murderer who leaves riddles and clues after each killing. In other words, it is a 1930s-40s version of the “Saw” movies…. and it is terrifying! After all, both the detective and horror genres rely heavily on suspense – so, they blend really well in this novel.

So, yes, another way to spruce up a familiar story is just to add elements from another genre to it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂