Today’s Art (31st January 2020)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting was originally a chance to practice painting realistic lighting. And, although it initially didn’t turn out that well, I was able to salvage it during editing (amongst other things, I digitally changed the palette/colour scheme from an orange sunset to something a bit more gothic and atmospheric).

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

“The Secret Staircase” By C. A. Brown

Top Ten Articles – January 2020

Well, it’s the end of the month. So, I thought that I’d do my usual thing of collecting a list of links to the ten best articles about writing, reading etc… that I’ve posted here over the past month (plus a couple of honourable mentions too).

All in all, this month’s articles went reasonably well – even if, behind the scenes, creating them was a little bit slower and more erratic (due to being busy with other stuff) than usual. Still, thanks to a large enough buffer of pre-written articles (seriously, if you’re starting a blog, you need one of these!), it didn’t affect the posting schedule 🙂

In terms of reviews, there were less game reviews than I’d expected this month (“Doom II” WADs aside, the only game I reviewed was the excellent “Dreamfall: Chapters”) but this meant that I could review twelve novels this month 🙂 My favourites were probably: “Deathday” By Shaun Hutson, “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman, “Rosewater” by Tade Thompson, “Lair” by James Herbert and “The Damnation Game” by Clive Barker.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – January 2020:

– “Three Things To Do If Your Story Gets Stuck On A Mini-Cliffhanger
– “Four Things Writers Can Learn From 1980s Shaun Hutson Novels
– “Three Things That Writers Can Learn From 1980s Clive Barker Novels
– “Four Reasons To Read Older Novels
– “Three Tips For Choosing A Book To Read Next
– “Four Tips For Adding Pop Culture References To Your Story
– “Four Thoughts About Writing Modern Noir Fiction
– “How To Use Signposting To Make Your Story Less Confusing
– “Why Dismissing The Past Is Bad For Creativity- A Ramble
– “Four More Tips For Making Your Thriller Story More Gripping

Honourable Mentions:

– “Using Themes And Focus To Innovate In Genre Fiction – A Ramble
– “Should Writers Take Influence From Films?

Using Themes And Focus To Innovate In Genre Fiction – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one way to make your genre fiction (eg: horror, sci-fi, thriller, detective, fantasy etc.. fiction) story stand out from the crowd. I am, of course, talking about using different themes and/or having a different focus than many other stories in your chosen genre.

This was something that I ended up thinking about whilst reading a really interesting sci-fi novel from 2014 called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers that I’ll probably review fully in a couple of days time. Needless to say, this article will contain some mild SPOILERS for this novel.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that, although it contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from a traditional sci-fi story (eg: futuristic technology, spaceships, alien civilisations, galactic alliances/politics etc…), the focus and themes of the novel are surprisingly different to what you’d typically expect to see in traditional sci-fi.

Whilst the main focus of many sci-fi stories is on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and maths) stuff, this novel tends to focus more on “the humanities” (eg: languages, empathy, culture, introspection, imagination, art etc..) and this makes a surprisingly large difference to the story.

It changes the atmosphere, mood, style etc… of the story in a really interesting way. To give one small example, when the main characters’ spaceship is boarded by space pirates, this situation isn’t resolved with a dramatic laser battle or through technological trickery.

Instead, it is resolved by the fact that the ship’s clerk can speak a second language and has just enough historical/cultural knowledge to come up with a way of persuading the heavily-armed pirates to steal much less than they’d originally planned to. It’s a really tense and dramatic scene that catches the reader off-guard whilst also coming across as more “realistic” than many things in the sci-fi genre do.

And all because the author made a decision to write a sci-fi story that focuses more on humanities than on STEM. It’s a brilliantly subversive take on the genre – especially given that we live in an age where STEM stuff often tends to be valued more and seen as more “useful” than humanities stuff.

Even the fact that this is a novel (eg: a “low tech” storytelling medium that requires the audience to think, empathise and imagine) is a part of this change in focus – since the structure, style, pacing, tone, atmosphere etc.. of the story is designed specifically for the strengths of the written word. In other words, it does loads of subtle and large-scale stuff that can’t really be done in more “high tech” storytelling mediums like film, television, videogames etc…

So, one way to tell an innovative genre story that will surprise your readers and linger in their memories is to look at the themes and focus of your chosen genre and try to do something a bit different with them. But, not only does this require a good knowledge of the genre you’re writing in (so, get reading) but it also has to be done for a good reason too.

In order for your reader to not only get used to the change, but to actually consciously notice it, your reason for changing the genre’s themes/focus has to matter to you enough for it to shape the entire story in a profound way. It has to be something that is important enough to your story that your story wouldn’t really “work” without the change.

But, how do you think of an interesting change? Well, the easiest way of doing this is to look at what is wrong with the genre you are planning to write in. When you spot a large enough deficiency, oversight or problem that annoys you enough to actually make you notice it, then you have the beginnings of your story’s change.

But, although changing the themes and focus of your story can be a great way to innovate, you still have to handle this well. In other words, you still need to write your story in a way that people will still want to read even if they are a bit surprised or confused by the changes you have made. Things like characterisation, atmosphere, worldbuilding, good writing etc… matter even more than usual when you’re doing something innovative.

——–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Behead The Undead (v1.2)” (WAD for “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/ Zandronum)

Well, since I’m still reading the next book I plan to review and because, at the time of writing, I’d been obsessively playing the early access preview for “Ion Maiden Fury” (rather than any new full games. EDIT: Yes, I write these reviews very far in advance), I thought that I’d take a quick look at a really interesting “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD from 2019 called “Behead The Undead (v1.2)“.

Although this WAD (technically a “.pk3”) will apparently work on other source ports if you have the right spawner files, it works “out of the box” with the Zandronum source port. So, out of laziness, I used this instead of GZDoom.

So, let’s take a look at “Behead The Undead (v 1.2)”:

“Behead The Undead (v1.2)” is a nine-level co-op/single player WAD that includes new monsters, levels, weapons, player sprites, sounds etc.. and (despite apparently being inspired by “Timesplitters 2” and one of the “Call Of Duty” zombie modes) also seems to takes heavy inspiration from the “Left 4 Dead” games.

And, yes, it’s always great to see “Left 4 Dead” stuff in Doom II WADs 🙂 The only other example I can think of is “Aeons Of Death (v 6.06.1)

Since I have very nostalgic memories of playing the “Left 4 Dead” games during the early 2010s (back when I didn’t mind Steam’s always-online DRM and before they stuck their middle finger up at Windows XP users – of which I was one until several months before preparing this review) and since I enjoyed the “Timesplitters” games when I was a teenager, I was intrigued.

Although there are some “Timesplitters” references, this mod doesn’t have the precision aiming needed to copy the “Behead The Undead” mode from “Timesplitters 2” (which is probably a good thing, given how frustrating that game mode could be). So, it is more like Left 4 Dead 2’s “survival” mode, where you choose a level and then have to fight wave after wave of monsters for as long as possible. You get a ten-second break between rounds and ammo/health/weapons will also respawn too.

In terms of the gameplay, this is a challenging WAD (on single-player, at least. Unlike L4D2, there are no AI companions here) that can be enjoyed in either short bursts or for longer gaming sessions. Even on the middle difficulty setting, you won’t last more than a few seconds if you get surrounded by zombies. So, just like in games such as “Alien Shooter“, the best strategy is to never let yourself get surrounded – either by constantly running/shooting or by finding an area that the zombies can’t get to easily.

Of course, if you’re playing co-op, then you probably stand slightly more of a chance against the zombie hordes.

In other words, this is a frantic, fast-paced WAD that is a lot of fun to play. The new weapons help out here a lot, with a balance between power, rate of fire, rarity and ammo supply that keeps you constantly feeling vulnerable. About half of the weapons are powerful enough to actually give you a fighting chance (eg: the dual pistols, double-barelled shotgun, sniper rifle, minigun and nuke launcher), but have some kind of disadvantage to balance them. For example, the double-barelled shotgun’s manual reload takes a second or two, the ammo-guzzling minigun has a “spinning up” delay, the nuke launcher appears very rarely and only has three shots (plus, a blast radius you can easily get caught in) etc….

This weapon is ridiculously powerful, but you can only use it three times…. on the rare occasions that it appears in the first place.

Likewise, this minigun is literally the only truly useful rapid-fire weapon in the game. But, it guzzles about ten units of ammo every second.

This feeling of vulnerability works surprisingly well because this is actually a vaguely scary horror game too. In addition to some ominously gloomy locations (which allow for lots of jump scares when screeching zombies rush out of the darkness towards you), some creepy ambient music and the eerie item pickup sound effects from “Silent Hill”, several of this WAD’s levels also have a very grey and desaturated look to them which really helps to add a bleak, hopeless atmosphere to the gameplay 🙂 Seriously, it’s a “Doom II” WAD about shooting zombies that is actually mildly scary 🙂

Yes, there’s actual horror in this WAD 🙂

As for the monsters, there’s a good – if limited – variety. In addition to hordes of fast, weak “Left 4 Dead 2” zombies, there is also the “Spitter” monster from that game (who is weak, but can fire projectiles) and then the game uses an enlarged version of the mummy monster from “Heretic” as the equivalent of L4D2’s “Tank” monster. These large, slow-moving projectile-firing monsters are absolute bullet sponges, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, they provide a formidable challenge that also adds variety to the gameplay. On the downside, the game will sometimes throw 5-10 of them at you during a wave, which can almost border on unfair.

Although only three of them can be seen in this screenshot, this level will often throw 5-10 of these giant monsters at you during the later waves.

In terms of the level design, it’s fairly good. The nine levels you can choose from are a good mixture between wide open arenas, claustrophobic smaller levels and sprawling corridor mazes. Each level type has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages that really help to add some variety to the gameplay.

For example, it’s easier to find ammo, health and new weapons in the smaller levels, but you’re more likely to get surrounded by zombies. It’s easier to run away and circlestrafe in arena levels, but more zombies/monsters tend to appear. Zombies tend to be more spread out in corridor mazes, but there are more “jump” moments and finding the last zombie of a wave can also be a challenge (even with the in-game radar). So, the level design is fairly good.

Interestingly, some levels also have “safe areas” which can’t be reached by the monsters. This doesn’t feel like too much of a cheat thanks to some clever design and balancing. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: The monsters can’t get into this building in the “City” level, but don’t expect to find much ammo in here….

Example 2: In the “Docks” level, hiding behind this crate will keep you safe during the earlier waves. But, when projectile-firing monsters start appearing, you’ll be trapped with little to no cover.

Yes, there are the dreaded invisible walls in some levels – but these double up as spawn points for the monsters, so this isn’t too bad. And, yes, some levels feature atmospheric custom textures whilst some others just use the ordinary standard textures (with maybe a new skybox), but the actual design of the levels is fairly good.

Likewise, I cannot praise the variety of sprites/textures in this game highly enough – in addition from being able to choose between about twelve player sprites (mostly from the “Timesplitters” games), the game also features graphics from several other games (eg: Left 4 Dead 2, Shadow Warrior [1997], Silent Hill 2, Blood, Heretic etc..) which helps to make everything feel a bit more unique. Yes, the styles of some of these textures clash with each other a bit, but I absolutely love it when modders convert stuff from 3D games into the 2.5D “Doom” engine 🙂

All in all, this WAD is a lot of fun and a is a bit like a trimmed-down version of “Left 4 Dead 2” for the “Doom” engine. Yes, it’s limited and the difficulty level can almost border on unfair in single-player mode – but, if you want a challenging, fairly well-balanced, fast-paced WAD with some genuinely creepy horror elements that can be enjoyed for both shorter and longer gaming sessions, then this one is well worth checking out 🙂

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