Today’s Art ( 19th April 2017)

Well, although I was still feeling uninspired, I was able to get around it by making a new version of one of my old horror-themed paintings (called “Late Return) that was originally posted here early last year.

When I made the old version of this painting, I was just beginning my “limited palette” phase -and, although I’m glad of all I learnt during this phase, this particular painting certainly works well with a slightly more expanded palette. Likewise, I’ve also learnt a few new digital editing techniques that I didn’t quite know when I was editing the original painting.

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

"Late Return (II)" By C. A. Brown

“Late Return (II)” By C. A. Brown

Four Quick Tips For Writing Very Short Horror Stories

2017 Artwork Very Short Horror Stories

As regular readers probably know, I write these articles very far in advance. So, this is why I’ve only just got round to talking about the collection of very short horror stories that were posted here last Halloween.

Seriously, I’d written the first two of them the morning before I originally wrote this article. I finished the third one a couple of hours after writing this article. The first three short stories can be read here, here and here.

Different writers work best at different lengths and, with me at least, the shorter a piece of fiction is – the better. So, I thought that I’d provide a few tips about how to make the horror genre work in stories that are approximately 500-1000 words long.

1) It’s like telling a joke: The best ultra-short short horror stories often have a similar structure to a joke. After all, jokes are just very short stories that are designed to elicit a strong emotional reaction. They have a set-up and a punchline.

When writing a very short horror story – start with a slightly “ordinary” (or less-scary) series of events at the beginning, with only a dramatic opening sentence or two to hint at the horrors to come.

The first half to two-thirds of your story should almost be a different story altogether. Then, in the last part, introduce something new that either changes the meaning of the first part of the story, or which takes the story in a creepily different (but not too different) direction.

Or, just introduce something really shocking and horrific in the last few paragraphs (the horror writer Ryu Murakami is an expert at this, albeit within the last few pages of novel-length stories).

2) Descriptions: Because of the smaller amount of words that you have to work with, you can’t rely on an elaborate plot or complex characterisation.

As such, these kinds of stories work best when they are more descriptive than anything else – when the narrator or the main character is more of an observer than a participant in the events of the story.

So, write stories where the main character witnesses something unusual. Write stories that masquerade as newspaper articles. Write first-person stories where it feels like the main character is quite literally telling a short, and disturbing, anecdote. But, above all, focus more on descriptions than on anything else.

3) Writing style: Very short horror stories need to move fast. They need to grab the reader and keep them hooked for the few minutes it takes them to reach the shocking conclusion.

As such, your writing style should probably be very slightly more on the “basic” side of things most of the time. Kind of like it is in this article (as opposed to my usual verbose and rambling style).

This doesn’t mean that you have to dumb down your story – but it should sound a bit like an ordinary person telling a story, or a journalist writing a newspaper article.

The best way to learn how to write like this is probably to read at least a few modern thriller novels (which often make expert use of this style). If I had to recommend just one author whose novels will teach you all you need to know about this writing style, it’d have to be Lee Child.

Save the elaborate metaphors, scary similes and poetic descriptions for the really disturbing parts of your story. They’ll stand out more, when contrasted with the more basic prose that you’ve written.

4) Imagination: This is the oldest piece of horror fiction advice in the book, but it’s especially important in ultra-short horror stories. Things are scarier when they are left to the audience’s imaginations. Since you only have a few hundred words to work with, it’s often easier to only show a few details of something and leave the audience to imagine the rest themselves. It also makes your story seem larger than it actually is.

Even if your horror-writing sensibilities are fairly splatterpunk – you don’t have the time and the space to fill your ultra-short horror story with lots of elaborate grisly descriptions. So, choose the most shocking or most unsettling parts of what you want to describe and leave out the rest. Remember, your audience’s imaginations will fill in all of the other gory details.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (13th March 2017)

Well, thankfully, I was feeling at least mildly more inspired than I was when I made yesterday’s daily painting (if it can even be called a “painting” – it was a digital abstract picture salvaged from a failed landscape painting).

Even so, today’s digitally-edited painting ended up being smaller than usual (I had to crop it and resize parts of it, since the composition wasn’t quite right in the original painting) and took longer to create than usual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this painting ended up being very mildly influenced by Iron Maiden, as well as old American horror comics, various 1990s computer games and a whole raft of other cool things.

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

"Skeleton Catacomb" By C. A. Brown

“Skeleton Catacomb” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (26th February 2017)

Well, after finishing this webcomic mini series, I felt like making something fairly “quick” for today. Plus, since the next mini series will probably be set in Victorian times, I thought that I’d practice making gothic Victorian-style art (I probably need more practice at drawing paraffin lamps though, since the lamp in the painting looks more like a bong than a lantern LOL!).

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

"By Paraffin Light" By C. A. Brown

“By Paraffin Light” By C. A. Brown

Review: “The Last Door: Collector’s Edition” (Computer Game)

2017 Artwork The Last Door Review Sketch

Well, it’s been a while since I played a horror game – so, I thought that I’d check out an indie game from 2014 called “The Last Door: Collector’s Edition”.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that this game is the first half of a continuous two-part series (I haven’t got the second game yet [Edit: I write these articles/reviews quite far in advance, so the second game will be reviewed in July]), so don’t expect it to contain a complete story.

I bought a DRM-free download of this game last summer during a sale on GoG for £1.39. However, at the time of writing, the game costs £7.99 at full price. The GoG version also comes with downloadable extras (eg: a MP3 copy of the soundtrack etc..) too. For comparison, the game costs £6.99 on Steam at the time of writing, but it obviously also comes with all of Steam’s “internet connection required” DRM.

I should probably also warn you that this review might contains some SPOILERS and some (unrealistic) DISTURBING AND/OR GRUESOME IMAGES.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Last Door: Collector’s Edition”:

The last door - Title screen

“The Last Door: Collector’s Edition” is a four-part point-and-click horror game set in Victorian England.

You play as a man called J.Devitt who is investigating the mysterious suicide of his old friend Anthony Beechwood. This investigation takes him on (the first half of) a disturbing journey, where madness is only inches away and malevolent forces lurk just out of sight….

Yes, when the opening scene of a game looks like THIS, then it probably isn't going to be one of those "cheerful" horror games.

Yes, when the opening scene of a game looks like THIS, then it probably isn’t going to be one of those “cheerful” horror games.

The first thing that I will say about this game is that it is actually a horror game! Don’t be fooled by it’s cartoonish pixellated graphics, this game is a proper, old-school horror game!

It's Forest! He's been pecked to death by ... Ooops! Wrong game!

It’s Forest! He’s been pecked to death by … Ooops! Wrong game!

Unlike some modern “designed for ‘Let’s Play’ videos” horror games, “The Last Door” actually contains a variety of different types of horror. Yes, there are a few well-placed jump scares, but they are merely the icing on a very bloody and very disturbing cake.

As well as a gradually building atmosphere of tension and mystery, the game also includes a variety of genuinely disturbing events, creepy background details, gruesome tableaux, ominous locations and chilling in-game documents. This is how you make a horror game!

So, yes, scenes like this AREN'T the only type of horror in the game...

So, yes, scenes like this AREN’T the only type of horror in the game…

The main inspirations for this game are H.P.Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and the developers do a good job at emulating these writers (thematically, the game is closer to Lovecraft – but many of the game’s events are closer to Poe) whilst also giving the horror in the game a slightly bloodier and more modern twist too.

Although the bloody writing looks like it's been drawn in MS Paint (using a mouse), this scene is significantly creepier in-game! Especially now that I've looked at the screenshot again, remembered the backstory, connected the dots and suddenly realised that it wasn't JUST a random "shock value" scene.

Although the bloody writing looks like it’s been drawn in MS Paint (using a mouse), this scene is significantly creepier in-game! Especially now that I’ve looked at the screenshot again, remembered the backstory, connected the dots and suddenly realised that it wasn’t JUST a random “shock value” scene.

One interesting feature in the game is that each one of the game’s four episodes begins with a short interactive scene where you control another character, who performs some kind of incomprehensible and/or disturbing sequence of actions (eg: you actually play as Beechwood in the first scene of the game).

Not only does this create an ominous sense of mystery, but it also helps to show that there are events that happen outside of the main character’s knowledge or control.

Some of the horror in this game is also counterpointed with rare moments of dark humour. Although most of these are fairly subtle Poe/ Lovecraft references (as well as a cynically hilarious fable about a rabbit), one stand-out moment is an old-timey film that you’ll see during one of the cutscenes, which somehow manages to be both extremely gross and extremely hilarious at the same time (probably due to the combination of jaunty piano music with the events of the film):

Yes, this is probably the only screenshot from it that I can show without spoiling the gross hilariousness of it.

Yes, this is probably the only screenshot from it that I can show without spoiling the gross hilariousness of it.

However, as creepy as the game is – the first half of the game is probably slightly creepier than the second half. Although the latter half of the game certainly has it’s fair share of creepy, disturbing and/or shocking events, they lack of some of the ominous sense of mystery that the first two episodes have.

The fact that the game’s Lovecraftian elements also get slightly more convoluted and “mysterious for the sake of mysterious” in the later parts of the game doesn’t exactly help either.

 Yes, when words like "zha'ilathal " start appearing, some of the horror turns into silliness!

Yes, when words like “zha’ilathal ” start appearing, some of the horror turns into silliness!

As for the gameplay, it’s fairly standard “point and click” gameplay. You talk to people, read documents, find items and solve puzzles. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

In the first episode, the puzzles are reasonably straightforward and logical. As someone who is terrible at adventure game puzzles, I took this as a good sign. However, by about halfway through episode two, I found that I had to consult a walkthrough on a regular basis.

Yes, some of the later puzzles can be solved without a walkthrough (and some of them made me think “duh!” when I looked at the walkthrough) but there are at least a couple of puzzles that border on moon logic:

Fun fact: To get this tree to grow to this size, you have to use a musical instrument in an unusual way in another part of the level.

Fun fact: To get this tree to grow to this size, you have to use a musical instrument in an unusual way in another part of the level.

However, THIS puzzle is the kind of annoyingly cryptic thing that used to turn up in the original "Silent Hill". Seriously, you'll probably need a walkthrough here...

However, THIS puzzle is the kind of annoyingly cryptic thing that used to turn up in the original “Silent Hill”. Seriously, you’ll probably need a walkthrough here…

The visual style of this game is fairly interesting though. Although the ultra-large pixels make the game’s occasional moments of “pixel hunting” significantly easier, they were initially one of the things that made me mildly wary about this game. Although I really love cartoonish 1990s-style pixel art, I vastly prefer this art style when it contains lots of visual detail (eg: with slightly smaller pixels). So, ironically, I was mildly reluctant to play this game because of it’s ultra-primitive graphics.

However, thanks to the game’s compelling and chilling story, I soon ended up ignoring the super-blocky graphics because I was too immersed in the story. In addition to this, I have to admire how the game’s designers can create the impression of some fairly detailed landscapes using only a relatively small number of pixels:

Yes, this somehow manages to look both extremely blocky AND extremely detailed!

Yes, this somehow manages to look both extremely blocky AND extremely detailed!

Wow! Just wow! Art made with gigantic pixels should NOT look THIS detailed!

Wow! Just wow! Art made with gigantic pixels should NOT look THIS detailed!

In terms of length, this game is certainly on the shorter side of things. Each of the game’s four episodes can be completed in an hour or less (possibly slightly longer if you don’t use a walkthrough).

Although the “Collector’s Edition” of the game also includes four additional semi-playable, non-playable and/or fully-playable vignettes in the “extras” menu, which help to flesh out some of the backstory, they are all extremely short too (each one is three minutes long at most). So, for length reasons, I’d recommend waiting until this game goes on special offer if you’re buying games on a budget.

For example, this bonus scene is literally nothing more than one medium-sized dialogue tree.

For example, this bonus scene is literally nothing more than one medium-sized dialogue tree.

I should probably also mention the game’s soundtrack too, which is the kind of wonderfully ominous and opulent classical soundtrack that you would expect to see in a game like this (despite the game’s visual style, the music is high-quality recorded music, rather than MIDI/ Chiptune music). It really helps to add a lot to the creepy atmosphere of the game. Plus, if you get the game on GoG, then it comes with a MP3 copy of the soundtrack too.

All in all, this is a much better game than I expected! Yes, it is only the first half of a larger story, but it is probably one of the creepiest horror games that I’ve played in a long time. Even though some of the puzzles are a bit too convoluted and/or tricky for my liking, it’s still an extremely compelling and disturbing game. It’s proof that you don’t need a large budget, lots of jump scares and/or flashy graphics to make a genuinely chilling horror game.

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

Mini Review: “System Shock: Enhanced Edition” (Retro Computer Game)

2017 Artwork System Shock Enhanced Edition mini review sketch

Although this is slightly more than just a “first impressions” review of “System Shock: Enhanced Edition”, I should probably start by saying that, although I have played a moderate amount of this game, I haven’t finished it at the time of writing.

Due to the game’s sheer length and complexity, there probably wouldn’t be any reviews here for months if I finished it before writing. So, I thought that I’d point out that this mini review only covers my impressions of perhaps the first 20-40% of the game at most. It’s more than a “first impressions” article and less than a full review (hence the “mini review” title that I only usually use for collections of fan-made “Doom II” levels etc..).

That said, I have a lot to say about what I have seen of “System Shock: Enhanced Edition”. The idea of a retro cyberpunk game from the early-mid 1990s intrigued me enough that I picked up a DRM-free copy for about two quid during a sale on GoG last year.

Not to mention that, in an earlier sale on GoG, I also got a complimentary bonus copy of “System Shock 2” – so I was eager to take a look at the original game first.

Although “System Shock: Enhanced Edition” is probably also available on other platforms too, the GoG version of this game comes with a few extras (like a downloadable soundtrack, downloadable manuals, a copy of the original 1994 version of the game etc…).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “System Shock: Enhanced Edition”:

System Shock title screen

“System Shock: Enhanced Edition” is a slightly updated version of a first-person action/adventure/horror game from 1994. Set in the distant future, you play as a hacker who has been caught hacking into a large corporation’s computers.

Instead of being carted off to prison, you are offered a series of cybernetic enhancements in exchange for travelling to a space station owned by the corporation. The space station hasn’t been responding for some time and there are fears that the Artificial Intelligence (called “Shodan”) who runs that station has gone rogue. So, it’s up to you to sort out the mess..

This is Shodan. It's always nice to see a friendly face when you nagivate the dark and creepy parts of the space station.

This is Shodan. It’s always nice to see a friendly face when you nagivate the dark and creepy parts of the space station.

The very first thing that I will say about this game is that you should READ THE MANUALS! I cannot emphasise this enough – read them all! Then read them again!

The controls for this game are complex and counter-intuitive to say the least. Yes, they allow you to do much more than you could do in other first-person games from the time and, yes, you can get used to the quirky controls after a while – but there is something of a learning curve.

This is just a tiny fraction of what you need to know in order to play the game...

This is just a tiny fraction of what you need to know in order to play the game…

Another interesting thing about this game is the fact that this level of complexity also extends to the game’s difficulty settings too. One cool feature is that you can have different difficulty levels for different elements of the game.

If, like me, you’re terrible at puzzle games – you can lower the difficulty of the puzzles, whilst keeping the difficulty of the combat on “medium” – or vice versa. The one thing that I would recommend – for reasons I’ll explain later – is setting the “cyberspace” difficulty as low as possible.

Unlike in this screenshot, remember to set the "cyber" difficulty to zero. Trust me, you'll thank me later...

Unlike in this screenshot, remember to set the “cyber” difficulty to zero. Trust me, you’ll thank me later…

In terms of the actual gameplay, the mixture of combat, exploration and puzzle-solving is slightly different from many classic FPS games. At some points, the game plays a lot like a traditional first-person shooter, with frantic combat and exciting exploration (with plenty of secret areas to reward curious players).

These are, by far, the most fun parts of the game – although they are let down by the long iteration time after your character dies (eg: before you can re-load a saved game, you either have to watch a semi-skippable death animation and/or go through a non-skippable regeneration animation depending on whether you’ve activated a regeneration machine in the same area).

One of the highlights of the combat early in the game is getting to shoot a Borg drone with a pha... Sorry, shooting a CYborg drone with a "sparq".

One of the highlights of the combat early in the game is getting to shoot a Borg drone with a pha… Sorry, shooting a CYborg drone with a “sparq”.

Yes, there is life after death. But, you'll have to wait a good 5-15 seconds for it!

Yes, there is life after death. But, you’ll have to wait a good 5-15 seconds for it!

At other points, it plays more like an adventure game – where you’ll be searching for game-critical switches, using in-game items, reading in-game documents and solving small puzzles in your heads-up display.

Unlike many other classic FPS games, there is almost equal emphasis on both puzzle solving and combat (rather than just combat with a few token puzzles thrown in). Likewise, although you are given a limited inventory (and have to make choices about what to carry and what not to), the inventory size is fairly generous.

Then there’s cyberspace. It’s a cyberpunk game – so, this part of the game is almost obligatory. However, what should have been a really cool element of the game is let down by some criminally terrible design decisions. The first is that the cyberspace areas use a totally different mouse-only control scheme, which is clunky and confusing enough even after you’ve read the manual.

Somewhere, William Gibson is weeping...

Somewhere, William Gibson is weeping…

Although the cyberspace areas include a few visual signposts (eg: arrows etc..), they can be visually-confusing and difficult to navigate with the clunky mouse-only controls. However, if you set the cyberspace difficult to “zero”, then these sections of the game are pretty much on-rails. Even so, just learning how to use the controls will probably take you a while.

In many ways, “System Shock: Enhanced Edition” was extremely ahead of it’s time. Compared to the more limited range of player actions in games from a similar time period (like “Doom), you have an almost life-like level of freedom. You can jump, crouch, look around freely with the mouse, climb ladders, lean sideways, throw objects and interact with the environment in all sorts of ways.

Sometimes the gameplay can be extremely fun, and sometimes it can be extremely frustrating. Since the game takes place in one large environment (divided into several “floors” you can travel back and forth from), it can be very easy to get lost or confused. Even though there is a very small in-game map (if you know where to look for it in the HUD and have picked up the relevant in-game gadget), it doesn’t exactly help all that much. A full-screen “Doom”/ “Duke Nukem 3D”-style level map with a specific hotkey would have been much more useful.

Still, the fact that you can traverse large portions of the space station relatively early in the game makes the level design even more non-linear than that found in other classic games like the original “Doom”. Not only does this add an extra sense of realism to the game’s environments, but it also allows for more complex game design too. For example, a malfunctioning lift on one floor might require you to go to another floor in order to restore power to it. This is both the game’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness.

The visual design of the game’s environments is varied enough to stop the space station’s many rooms and corridors from getting visually monotonous, and to make the player want to explore more (whilst also mildly reducing their chances of getting lost). Plus, as I said before, the “organic” nature of the level design (eg: you can go back to floors you visited earlier etc…) helps to immerse the player in the game.

These glowing pillars look really cool, although they're highly radioactive!

These glowing pillars look really cool, although they’re highly radioactive!

Likewise, many other parts of the station have seen better days.

Likewise, many other parts of the station have seen better days.

However, unlike classic non-linear levels in games like “Doom” etc.. if you don’t know where to go (or what to do) next then, rather than just having one medium-sized level to go over with a fine-toothed comb until you find where you’re supposed to go, you have to do this with large portions an entire space station. Needless to say, it can occasionally get a bit frustrating.

As for the game’s atmosphere and storytelling, it does this fairly well from what I’ve seen. Even with it’s cool retro graphics, this game still stands up as a horror game better than you might expect. Yes, although some of the game’s horror elements quickly lose some of their shock value through sheer repetition (eg: you’ll see lots of severed arms, severed heads, bloodied corpses, skeletons etc…) the game certainly has it’s creepy moments.

"Pick up severed head?" Yes, this game really is A HEAD of it's time!

“Pick up severed head?” Yes, this game really is A HEAD of it’s time!

For example, at one point, you find an audio log from a member of the station’s crews which points out that she and several other people have holed up in one of the ship’s communication rooms. She tells you that the corridor you need to find is marked with the word “gray”.

A while later, you find the corridor. The word “gray”, of course, is scrawled on the wall in blood. Which is never a good sign… When you finally fight your way through the corridor, you reach the communications room – only to find a large robot standing over the torn and bloody bodies of the besieged team.

After defeating the robot, you then find more audio logs scattered amongst the crew’s bodies that detail their last moments in the communications room. You even find the body of the character from the original recording in a nearby room. This is how to make sci-fi horror genuinely creepy.

The character in the audio log at the bottom of the screen is in a different room. However, she is speaking to you... from beyond the grave!

The character in the audio log at the bottom of the screen is in a different room. However, she is speaking to you… from beyond the grave!

In terms of reliablilty, this game can be a little bit unreliable at times. It might just be my computer but, sometimes the game’s controls would randomly change slightly for no real reason when I started up the game (although quitting and restarting the program often seems to solve this problem). Likewise, during seven or eight of the times that I’ve started up this program, the game’s music has refused to play for no real reason (only to later return again equally inexplicably).

As for the music, it’s reasonably good. Although the soundtrack is the kind of sci-fi MIDI music that you would expect from a game released in 1994, the game sometimes dynamically alters the soundtrack depending on how much danger the player is in. For something from 1994, this is way ahead of it’s time!

As for the voice-acting in the game, it’s fairly ok. One problem is that the game tries to add “interference” to the audio logs in an attempt to make them sound dramatic. Whilst some of the audio logs are still clearly audible, others end up being almost mangled beyond recognition.

Thankfully, there's still written text at the bottom of the screen, which comes in handy when the audio logs are a crackling, stuttering mess.

Thankfully, there’s still written text at the bottom of the screen, which comes in handy when the audio logs are a crackling, stuttering mess.

The voice actor who plays “Shodan” (the station’s AI) is suitably creepy though. However, the voice of one of the station’s other systems sounds almost exactly like an old text-to-speech machine (like the one used by Stephen Hawking), which was kind of surprising.

All in all, I have very mixed views about what I’ve seen of this game so far. Sometimes, it’s really fun, fascinating and dramatic. Sometimes, it’s extremely frustrating. Whatever it is, it is very much ahead of it’s time! I don’t know if this will be one of those games I’ll end up leaving unfinished or not, but it has certainly been fun.

If I had to give what I’ve played so far a rating out of five, it would probably get three and a half.