Giveaway: Bull Spec #1!

We at Diabolical Plots have recently reached a landmark–our ten thousandth hit! Around the same time, Bull Spec, a new magazine of speculative fiction, released its inaugural issue.

So, to celebrate these momentous occasions Diabolical Plots and Bull Spec are teaming up for a giveaway! Editor Samuel Montgomery-Blinn has graciously provided an autographed and numbered issue from Bull Spec’s first print run. Also check back here very soon for an interview with Sam here on Diabolical Plots.

How do you enter, you ask? It’s simple. Just leave a comment to this post and suggest at least one person you’d like to see interviewed involved in speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, or horror). That can be editors, illustrators, authors, game designers, or a wide variety of others. No suggestion is too far-fetched. I’m not claiming I can get everyone that’s suggested, but suggesting is a good thing even if those guests are too busy or hard to reach. But you have to suggest someone that no one else has suggested before you.

And, you can get a second entry by posting a suggestion on the related contest thread at the Bull Spec Blog and leave a comment there. The same rules apply there–you have to suggest someone that no one else has suggested, and someone other than who you suggest here. If you do so, then you’ll have two entries.

You have until midnight Central time on April 15th to get your entries in. After that, we’ll put all the entries in a random drawing, and will pick one person to win a copy which we’ll mail to the address of your choice.

Have fun, and good luck!

Busy Fitches: David Thompson and Anna Schwind

Anna Schwind and David Thompson are the co-editors of Podcastle, a weekly podcast of fantasy fiction. It’s one of a trio of podcasts produced by Escape Artists, the others being Escape Pod (for science fiction) and Pseudopod (for horror). They’ve stepped up to fill the editorial position recently vacated by Rachel Swirsky. I’ve very much enjoyed the stories that Rachel has chosen, but I’m excited to see what new editorial directions these two will steer the publication toward.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these podcasts, you should check them out. My Best of Podcastle list would be a good place to start. They’ve carried stories by many of my favorite writers, including Tim Pratt, Greg Van Eekhout, Cat Rambo, and Edgar Allen Poe. Each podcast provides an audio story every week, free to download. They depend on donations to pay their authors, so if you like the story enough, you might want to consider dropping them a few bucks. I know both editors from the Escape Artists forums, where Dave and Anna are known as DKT and anarkey, respectively. If you like to discuss the good and bad qualities of stories, stop by.

When David Thompson isn’t editing, he’s also a writer, who wrote Last Respects (among other things) which made it on my Best of Pseudopod list. You can find him on LiveJournal as well where he talks about many things, including the new season of LOST.

Anna is also a writer who’s been published in Escape Pod and Every Day Fiction. You can find out more about her on her website.

David Steffen: How were you chosen to co-edit Podcastle? Had either of you expected it or was it completely out of the blue?

David Thompson: In August 2009, Rachel emailed us and asked us to come aboard and help with some of the details-oriented tasks at PodCastle like finding narrators for stories, scheduling introductions, manage the schedule, record feedback, those kinds of things. It was kind of hinted at that she might want to hand over the editorial reigns at some point, but then we got another email a little over a month later saying that time was now. We all kind of sat on it for a while, and convinced Rachel to stay until the end of the year, but that’s when we started reading slush and selecting stories. So it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it all happened very fast. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Schwind: I remember it exactly the same way! Except with talking trains and a rotting orange and the secret message in a bottle from that werewolf guy.

Thompson: Ben Phillips is a werewolf? That explains so much.

Steffen: Can you give any hints about the stories you’ve bought? How do you think the stories you two choose will be different than Rachel’s?

Thompson: For the most part, I’d rather keep what we bought and what Rachel bought slightly ambiguous. I can tell you that we’ve run stories that Anna and I have selected, and we’re still running stories that Rachel selected, as well. I’m not entirely sure how our selection will differ from Rachel’s. That might be a question better suited to our listeners a year or so from now.

Schwind: I can give you the following hint: we’ve bought some great stories. Stories which Dave and I are really excited, I mean hand-rubbing and cackling excited, to share with listeners. Some of them will be stories Rachel never would have bought, and some of them will be stories that are exactly what she would have bought.

Steffen: Is editorial work what you expected?

Thompson: I’m not really sure what I expected, to be honest. It’s certainly very satisfying work – we’re doing something we believe in, telling stories to thousands of people. And since we were both longtime fans of the Escape Artists podcasts, it feels like we’re really giving back. But it’s definitely more complicated than I thought it’d be – it’s more than just reading stories. There’s also looking for narrators, recording introductions, recording other stuff like announcements or feedback, scheduling. It’s a big job. But I love it!

Schwind: Pretty much, yeah, what I expected. I knew it was too much work for one person, actually, which makes the extensive work Rachel put into PodCastle all the more remarkable. I’m really glad to have someone to share the responsibility (and the joy) with. Oh, wait, did I write that? Now my co-editor is going to think I like him or something.

Steffen: What’s the hardest thing of the job? The most rewarding?

Thompson: Okay, I’ll cop to one story that was our pick: Samantha Henderson’s “The Mermaid’s Tea Party.” I loved it when I first read it a couple years ago, and blogged about it, and shared it with a few friends. But when we ran it at PodCastle, we got to share a story we loved with over 10,000 people. For me, that’s the best part – sharing stories we love. That it was well-received by our listeners was also nice. As I said before, the details of everything else is the hard part, at least for me. There’s so much more than just finding a story you love that goes into the podcast.

Schwind: Fishy bitches!

Thompson: OMG. “Fishy bitches” should be the logo on the next PodCastle t-shirt.

Schwind: Ok, on a more serious note: the toughest thing for me is knowing there’s stories out there which I adore, but because of rights situations or inappropriateness to audio or wrong genre or no ability to contact the author or whatever, we just can’t bring to listeners. And let me just insert a PSA right here: PodCastle solicits stories sometimes, and we can’t solicit your story if you, as an author, have not included a way to be contacted on your webpage. You’d think that’d be totally basic, but alas, no. You, author, go put a contact me button on your webpage RIGHT NOW.

Steffen: How do you split the duties? If one of you likes a story and the other doesn’t, how do you decide whether to buy it or not?

Thompson: We both read the stories that Ann Leckie, our incredible, tireless slush reader, forwards to us. If one of us likes a story and the other one doesn’t, we have a discussion on what’s working for us in the story and what isn’t and why. After that discussion, we’re usually on the same page. As for splitting the duties, I record intros once a month and record outros/feedback segments for every episode. I think that’s really the only thing that I do that Anna doesn’t.

Schwind: One thing I like about working with Dave is that we complement each other so well. Often he’s perfectly happy to do the aspects of running the podcast that I find tiresome. I believe he feels similarly, and he’ll ask me if I’d mind doing something that to him seems an onerous chore and I’m overjoyed to do it. Splitting duties has been relatively painless because of that. As to deciding on stories where we feel differently, it’s about – like Dave said – talking it through. We’ve not yet had a knockdown drag out fight over anything. I’m actually hopeful that we do, at some point, just to see what that’s like, but so far we’ve been able to make a case that sways the other or not about each individual story. That sounds civil and boring. I should probably have made something up, about a contest of wills or a platinum battle in the astral plane.

Thompson: I didn’t realize fights on the astral plane were an option. Now I’m going to have to go out of my way to pick a fight over a story.

Schwind: Eeeeexcellent, Thompson. We shall meet in the metaphysical arena of stars and infinite night, each wielding our ineffable auras as a finely honed weapon, and the first to fall shall give over the right to peddle one story.

Thompson: I’ve got dibs on the Possible Sword!!!

Steffen: What sort of stories have you seen too many, and what sort would you like to see more?

Thompson: We’ve seen a lot of stories featuring pirates. But I’m actually fine with that. I wouldn’t mind seeing more…weird stuff in general. New weird, I guess. I wouldn’t mind finding some Sword and Sorcery that really blew my mind, but I haven’t read it yet.

Schwind: Let’s see…we see a lot of stories where the implications of the worldbuilding aren’t acknowledged within the story and lots of stories where the author thought fantasy was an excuse to skip their research. We also see lots of run of the mill fantasy, with no distinguishing marks, whether it be urban or faux medieval or pre-columbian or whatever. On reflection, I’m considerably less interested in what I see too much of than in what I’d like to see more of. I’d generally agree with Dave that I have a strong attraction to stories that court the weird. Give me some Fortean phenomena, or some cockroach-shaped, lightning-emitting unicorn, or some vividly described but unusual setting and I’m there. I don’t think anyone’s sent us a story where the plot hinged on the outcome of a soccer game between centaurs, or one where their furniture is trying to murder them at the behest of an angel. We don’t get many stories set in Africa. It’d be nice to get a city story about Mumbai or SÃ’ o Paulo, instead of New York. We don’t get any fantasy set in the 1950s or the 1970s; it’s either current or in the far past. Cold war fae? Quetzalcoatl and the Sandinistas? I could get into that. Very few stories from the point of view of a bug have come to our inbox. In fact, since I’m on point of view, I will also say we don’t get many stories in omniscient POV. I like tight third and first person narrations as much as the next reader, but fantasy has a well-established tradition of omniscient POV and I really enjoy it, when it’s deftly executed. So, you know, there’s plenty of leeway for surprise and delight. There are innumerable situations I haven’t seen or read about, and those are the ones I want to see and read about.

Thompson: Come to think of it, I could go for more whimsy. I love the dark and gritty stuff. The fishy bitches and the goblin sweatshops. But we’ve got a story coming out by Merrie Haskell that’s very adult but at the same time completely charming. It’s not a kid’s story – it has some pretty mature stuff happening in it. But it’s permeated with whimsy, and we don’t see a lot of that in our slush.

Steffen: Besides the editorial change, are there any other changes in the works for Podcastle?

Thompson: Nothing major. We’re doing some smaller things, like running reviews. We have our first, full-length PodCastle original coming out soon. The other EA podcasts run originals regularly, but PodCastle’s run almost only reprints. So that’s kind of a new thing. But for the most part, getting out a feature-length story every week and a piece of flash fiction every third week keeps us pretty busy.

Schwind: Busy Fitches!

Steffen: When you’re not editing, writing, or reading, what do you like to do?

Thompson: Ha! I don’t think I have time to do too much else. Spend time with my family. I need to make more time to write – I haven’t had as much time to do that in the last six months as I’d like to.

Schwind: I’m strongly tempted to make something up here. I’ll tell you two lies and one truth: I like to watch TV, I like to fold origami, I like to bake cakes.

Steffen: Who do you admire most?

Thompson: To be honest, I’d have to say I think I admire my children most right now. They’ve both had some difficult times this past year, and yet they’ve handled it all with far more grace than I would have. I appreciate their grounding me, and I admire how much joy and wonder they both radiate.

Schwind: Most? Seriously? I have no idea. I admire the way my cats can sleep in uncomfortable positions and the way the sun glints on the Atlantic and the way Obama speaks in public and the way Suzanne Vega sings and the way Darjeeling tea tastes in the morning.

Steffen: In exactly 6 words, what is the meaning of life?

Thompson: Love everyone. Do not be afraid.

Schwind: Inhale. This, too, shall pass. Exhale.

Steffen: What was the last book you read?

Thompson: I’m listening to Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer right now. I’d read the entire Book of the New Sun series years ago, but I just found it online at Audible, and I’m having a great time listening to that on my commute and at work. It’s such a challenging, layered, weird book. I’m also reading Jim MacDonald’s The Apocalypse Door, which is fun. I’m crazy excited for Escape Artist authors who have books coming out: Greg van Eekhout, Tim Pratt (who is serializing Broken Mirrors online for free right now), M.K. Hobson, Samantha Henderson, N.K. Jemisin, and Mary Robinette Kowal – they all have novels coming out soon, and that makes me really happy, because I became a fan of all of them from listening to their stories at Escape Artists.

There’s always way too many things I want to read.

Schwind: The Book Thief by Mark Zusak.

Steffen: Your favorite book?

Thompson: Oh, there’s a few I love. I still remember just needing to take a few hours to think after reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in high school. Alex Garland’s The Beach really channelled the GenXer in me. In college, I wanted to escape and live in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I’m still kind of blown away by all the cool weirdness that China Mieville crammed into Perdido Street Station.

Schwind: I can’t fail but notice that all of these questions come in the singular. This makes me sad.

Steffen: Wait a minute… What do you mean “all of these questions”? It’s almost as if you know what questions are coming even before I ask them. But that’s impossible! What am I thinking of right now?

Thompson: Erm, who is your favorite author?

Steffen: I’m the one who asks the questions around here. Now, where was I? Ah yes, now I remember: who is your favorite author?

Steffen: Who is your favorite author?

Thompson: My favorite? That’s a difficult question for a short story editor to answer! Thinking more along novel-length stuff: Gaiman and Mieville, definitely – they’ve had the strongest influence on me.

Schwind: I am wallowing in sadness.

Steffen: What was the last movie you saw?

Thompson: Wow. The last one I saw in the theaters was the last Harry Potter, I think. The last DVD I watched was District 9. But it seems like lately, I’m watching a lot of TV on DVD like Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, and The Wire. And, of course, the final season of Lost.

Schwind: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. I love Terry Gilliam.

Steffen: What is your favorite movie?

Thompson: Empire Strikes Back, easily. I would love to carve out nine hours one day and rewatch all the Lord of the Rings movies. I also tend to quote Get Shorty randomly.

Schwind: Now I weep.

Thompson: You don’t like Empire Strikes Back? Or Get Shorty? I’m…not sure I can work with you anymore.

Schwind: As long as we agree that Han shot first, I may be able to stop crying over the tyranny of the singular favorite.

Thompson: Hrm. Guess we can keep working together, then.

Steffen: Incidentally, Anna, could you stop using my invisibility cloak as a hanky? Human tears make it all shimmery, and it costs a fortune to get it dry-cleaned. Now, do you have any upcoming publications you’d like to tell us about?

Thompson: Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe? I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

Schwind: No. I’m trying to be better about submitting stories, but well.

Steffen: Do you have any writing works in progress you’d like to tell us about?

Thompson: Oh, some short stories, a couple novels. You know, the usual. But at this point, I’d feel more comfortable just saying enjoy PodCastle.

Schwind: All my writing consists of works in progress. Very little gets finished or revised. I feel badly for whomever has the task of going through my papers when I die. That said, I expect to be starting a new novel soon, perhaps before the year is out. If you want to read it you’ll need to join my crit group, though. 🙂

Steffen: Thanks to both of you for taking the time to answer a few questions. I know you’ll keep doing a great job in your new roles. I’ll be listening.

Schwind: Thanks for taking the time to interview us. I believe this may be the first time I’ve ever been interviewed.

Thompson: Yes, thank you! It’s a first for me too. Although I do feel kind of ripped off that there weren’t any cockroach-like unicorns to mark the occassion…

Steffen: You didn’t see them because they’re invisible. And pink. I know when they’re nearby because my nose hair tingles and I taste royal purple on my tongue at the same moment that I get a craving for garlic.

Thompson: Ah, yes. I see them now!

MiniCon Report (and my first editor pitch)

I’ve been meaning to make it to a science fiction convention for quite a while now. Even before I started writing they sounded like fun, lots of people with similar tastes all getting together and hanging out, swapping book recommendations, arguing about which authors write better books and why, and so on. But now that I’m writing, I figured I should check out the con scene from the fan side before people start knowing who I am.

For some reason all the cons in the Twin Cities seem to occur over holiday weekends, so for the last few years I’ve been out of town visiting family and unable to attend. But this year, I learned early that Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor. So I registered early and decided that this time I would go.

I asked a few people if they’d want to go with me, but no one took me up on it, so I ended up going solo. Which was probably for the best, because if I’d been there with someone I probably would’ve just used them as an excuse to not meet anyone. So to avoid just sitting by myself the whole time I struck up conversations with a few strangers, met a few writers I’ll try swapping story critiques with, and just got a chance to talk to people about all kinds of things.

I missed the opening ceremonies, including the keynote speech by Brandon Sanderson because we’d bought hockey tickets for that night long before I registered for MiniCon. So I didn’t get to MiniCon until Saturday, with the meetup of the local speculative fiction writers group Minnspec. That was nice to meet a few of the members. I’ve been meaning to get involved with them for quite a while but I’ve just never gotten around to it. I mostly stuck to the panels during the day, not the bars after or the musical guests or anything like that. I’ve been so busy with schoolwork lately that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Heather as I’d like, and since I was lucky enough to get a homework free weekend in the middle of the semester I wanted to make sure I didn’t neglect her the whole weekend.

For those of you who are used to the big mega-size cons, this is many orders of magnitude different, which is both good and bad. Bad because, of course, there are less guests, less people. But good because it’s so much more personal. At the big cons, if there’s a big guest, you could be one of thousands of people waiting around for a chance to get a glimpse, let alone any actual personal contact. But here, there just a few guests, and about four parallel programming tracks in four rooms. Even the guests of honor are extremely accessible. Most of the panels had a few dozen attendants, and a handful would hang around to talk to the folks presenting.

After the MinnSpec panel was an Editors’ panel with Moshe Feder (Brandon’s editor), Ben Bova (who should need no introduction), Eric Heidemen (editor of Tales of the Unanticipated), and Michael Merriam (slush reader for Fantasy Magazine). That was really cool, especially seeing Ben Bova was particularly cool. All four of them had a good sense of humor and had a lot of good interplay.

That afternoon I stopped at a Dan Dos Santos art exhibition. He showed a sped up video of him painting the cover art for Warbreaker, 70 hours compressed to 10 minutes or so. That was really cool to see it start at the vaguest shapes and down to finer and finer details, with layers of colors that look strange at first but blend into the vivid colors and textures of the final image. After that, he did a quick portrait of Brandon while everybody watched and while the fans could watch both of them. That took about a half hour and was really neat to watch.

Most of the rest of the programming I went to was Brandon Sanderson programming. He gave some interesting advice, told some funny stories, and was just generally good to listen to, including one panel dedicated just to telling the story of how he got the Wheel of Time gig.

But the highlight of the con, for me, was The Pitch. Anyone could volunteer to throw a three-minute novel pitch, for a novel that’s complete or incomplete, and give it front of Moshe Feder and Brandon Sanderson. I only heard about it a few hours ahead of time, but I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass out. So between the panels I wrote out a quick outline to help me when I was on the spot.

We volunteers raised our hands and Brandon picked one of us at random to go first. That random person happened to be me, so I got to go up and throw out my pitch before seeing what anyone else’s pitch sounded like or seeing how kind or cruel Moshe or Brandon were. So I gave my three minute pitch, terrifying, a bit awkward, but I made it through the whole thing with only a few ums and ahs. I didn’t have time to get out the whole plot, but I got about halfway through to a good stopping point. My characters, uh, need a little work, so I concentrated mostly on the plot.

Both Moshe and Brandon were simultaneously nice and honest. Both for my pitch and everyone else’s they gave constructive criticism and you got a pretty good idea of their level of interest in the story. Both of them had their points about my story, and they were mostly on target. I didn’t describe my characters much, which is an area that I’d had trouble with in the manuscript itself as well (it’s been quite a while since I worked on it, it could use some polish in that area). Brandon thought one part of the plot was too much of an idiot plot–that one I didn’t agree with, but I can see how he would’ve thought that from the short pitch. They also pointed something out which I hadn’t thought of at all–my beginning is very much a thriller beginning, an ordinary guy with his life thrown into sudden and immediate danger, and putting him on the run. But, despite the things they pointed out as needing improvement, Moshe said he’d be interested in seeing the manuscript. I’ve been concentrating on short stories for quite a while but it seems this would be a good time to reawaken the novel writer in me.

And after the feedback, Moshe gave me a Jelly Rat (like a Swedish Fish, but with a wormtail), which was a nice touch.

Some of the pitches were smoother than others, but Moshe and Brandon found something to compliment and something suggest an improvement for each one. I’ll list some of the more prevailing threads here, for anyone who might learn from it:

1. Don’t be too vague. Editors don’t care about spoilers when they’re hearing a pitch. One of the writers was afraid of giving away details that would be stolen, but it left the pitch so vague that it meant nothing. Sentences like “and they did something” means that you should probably either leave that out entirely or flesh it out to something more specific.

2. Tell something about the characters. Most everyone can come up with an SF idea, and there’s no doubt that SF ideas are important, but there need to be characters that have the problems, that drive the story, and it’s the interactions between the characters and the idea that make the story really unique.

3. Try to include as many of the relevant details as possible. Granted this is really difficult when you have such a limited time limit, especially when it was an impromptu pitch in the first place. For instance, if you explain the climax of the story, and it depends on some major plot point that happens earlier, you’ll want to make sure you mentioned that plot point.

So that was my first editor pitch. I thought it went well, and I’m looking forward to sending something to Moshe a manuscript as soon as I can.

Anyway, back to the con. Then, Sunday was mostly centered around doing the autograph fanboy thing. I bought a copy of Warbreaker, and got it autographed by Brandon(who wrote it), Dan (who did the fantastic cover art), and Moshe (who edited it). On top of that, I bought a print of a really great piece of art by Dan, a portrait of Moiraine Damodred (from the Wheel of Time series). I didn’t intend to buy any art, but it was just so beautiful I couldn’t possibly turn it down. I need to get a really nice frame for it and hang it in my office over my desk.

I’ll definitely be going again next year.

Free Game Demo: A Stitch in Time

I meant to post this a couple weeks ago, but life intervened. You remember last month we interviewed Matt Kempke, independent game developer? Well, the free demo of his next game, a puzzle adventure called A Stitch in Time, is now available for download! You can also download the entire first game for free at the same location. If you like the games enough, I hope you’ll consider paying for the full version of A Stitch in Time when it becomes available.

Game Review: InFamous (PS3)

written by Melissa Shaw

In 2002, Sucker Punch Productions came out with a cartoonish children’s game for the PS2 called Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus, the first of a trio of Sly Cooper games. The title character was a thief who snuck around cities, climbed up buildings, and ran across wires. Sly’s loyal companions gave him intel and assigned him capers over a radio connection. The various games in the series featured elements like a villain dumping tar into the water supply, our hero following specific NPCs through a city without being spotted, and a blimp filled with “spice” gas whose evil purpose was to drive a city’s denizens insane.

Fast-forward to 2009, and InFamous, Sucker Punch’s new action-adventure game whose main character, Cole, prowls around a city, climbs up buildings, and runs across wires. His companions — some friendly, some hostile — give him intel and assign him capers over a cell phone. Some game elements include a villain dumping tar into the water supply, our hero following specific NPCs through the city without being spotted, and several zeppelins filled with toxic gas whose evil purpose is drive the city’s denizens insane.

To be fair, both the Sly Cooper series and InFamous are highly entertaining, and both offer a great deal more than just those similarities. But the family resemblance is striking enough to make you wonder why Sucker Punch felt so comfortable blatantly ripping off its own games, and why they didn’t at least file off the serial numbers and change enough details to make those familiar elements seem fresher. Maybe they didn’t expect any overlap in the audiences of the two games; InFamous is certainly a far more grown-up and darker game. Where the Sly Cooper games felt like bubblegum comics, InFamous has the feel of a graphic novel. (The Sucker Punch games also share a stylized form of cut-scenes made up of largely still images, with a voiceover narrative.)

The premise of InFamous is that Cole survives a bomb explosion that imbues him with various electrical powers: shooting lightning bolts, throwing energy grenades, and a host of other abilities he gains as you progress through the game. The city Cole lives in comprises three islands, which are quarantined because of a suspected infection from the bomb. Cole’s purpose is to fight the evil gangs who were also transmogrified by the bomb, to help restore order to the shattered city, and to try to find out who set the bomb and why he was affected the way he was.

An interesting game element is that of karma and choice: Cole often has two distinct choices when faced with certain situations, one of which will enhance his good karma, while the other will enhance his evil karma. Heading down either karma path leads to consequences exclusive to that path, in terms of the abilities you gain and the missions available to you. While the overall story is the same either way, there are some interesting differences; the evil karma path leads to the city’s inhabitants shouting insults at you and pelting you with rocks, and to a deeper explanation of the backstory between Cole and an evil sub-boss character, his ex-girlfriend, Sasha. The pinnacle of evil karma is the game’s eponymous “InFamous” ranking.

One of the best things about InFamous is its gameplay, which is fun, varied, and exhilarating. You can climb to the top of the highest building and leap off without getting hurt; in fact, you can slam into the ground in a satisfying attack that sends out a shock wave proportional to the distance you drop. Combat is challenging and unusual, with great visuals of the lightning powers (blue if you’re good, red if you’re evil). A late power in the game even lets you glide through the air for a short distance on electrical currents generated by your hands. Added to the electrical abilities are the game’s climbing moves, which you use extensively. (As Sly’s friend Bentley says in the Sly Cooper games, “The view is always better from the rooftops.”) Almost every vertical surface is climbable, which leads to a great variety of ways to travel around the city. The only downside to the gameplay is that it’s hard to prevent Cole from grabbing a ledge or pipe when you want to just drop straight down, which can get a bit annoying.

Empire City, the game’s setting, is beautifully realized. Its undamaged buildings are varied and convincing, and the effects of the blast — a ground-zero crater area, shattered and toppled buildings, and lots of rubble — are appropriately sobering and affecting. You see the destruction and the fear of the city’s inhabitants, and you want to do something to restore order.

Cole’s relationships with the NPCs are interesting, and they help advance the story. The twist at the end is unexpected but reasonable; it shows that the game’s creators really put some thought into not just the events of the game itself but the history leading up to them.

Overall, InFamous has a strong story, exciting and varied gameplay, and a well-realized setting. Despite game elements clearly borrowed from earlier Sucker Punch games, InFamous stands on its own as a satisfying action-adventure game.

Melissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.

Interview with a Game Developer: Matt Kempke

Matt Kempke is an indie game designer, the mastermind behind the freeware adventure game What Makes You Tick? released in 2007. Download the game for free here. For anyone who’s a fan of adventure puzzle games like those created by Lucasarts (the Monkey Island series) and Sierra (King’s Quest, Space Quest, etc…), you’ve got to check it out. This sort of game was hugely popular in mainstream commercial avenues in past years (especially the 90s), but in recent years the genre has taken a back shelf. Like Hollywood movies, most big companies spend their time on games that are certain to be blockbusters, and the end result is loads of games that are exactly like each other. There are exceptions to this rule of course, like Katamari Damacy, but they are just that–exceptions.

Enter the independent game developers. What Makes You Tick was created almost entirely by Matt alone, using the Lassie Adventure Studio, a free program that acts as a game framework so that the developer can concentrate on the art, animations, puzzles, and plot. The official summary of the game:

A young man named Nathan is sent by his University to find the mysterious Dr. Coppelius who disappeared about one year earlier. While searching around Coppelius’ last known residence, Nathan discovers that he’s not the only person seeking the old man â€

WMYT has been reviewed favorably by the BBC Collective and described in PC Gamer as a “gentle, humorous game with a smashing ambient-swish of a soundtrack”. When my only complaint about the game is that it is too short, that’s a good sign. It is a short game–I finished it in a couple hours–but the art is unique, the music fitting, the dialog humorous, and the puzzles are just the right difficulty, not so easy to be trivial, not so hard to be impossible.

And, if you like WMYT, then you’re in for a treat! Matt is nearing completion of the sequel, A Stitch in Time. He plans to charge a reasonable fee to download this one. I’m definitely going to do so. There aren’t enough adventure games in recent years, and a small fee is well worth the chance to play. Also, I’d love if Matt was encouraged enough by sales of this game that he went on to make a third game, and a fourth, and so on. There will be a demo available to download for free on March 18th (I’ll post a link when it’s available).

David Steffen: At the risk of sounding cheesy, what makes YOU tick? Why did you decide to make these games?

Matt Kempke: OK, so we start with the complicated questions, uh? Well, let me see … If I had never played “the Curse of Monkey Island” when it came out back in autumn of 1997, if Greg MacWilliam hadn’t become my pen pal about one year later and if he had not made his own game engine (LASSIE) in 2005 I would not have made WMYT. But the urge had been there ever since I played “the Curse of Monkey Island”, simply because it merged hand-drawn backgrounds, great characters and sound design into something that hadn’t been there before … an interactive cartoon? Or a painting to walk around in and where you can peek around corners to see what’s hidden there? I don’t know, but it consisted of places that I loved to walk around or simply to BE in. That was back in school when I still had to do horrible things like math homeworks … the horror … the horror … but it wasn’t that bad anymore when in the background on the family computer CMI was running; me and my brother could hear the sound of Puerto Pollo in the background (capital of Plunder Island) … the music, the water, the clock tower playing a LeChuck theme chime every 15 minutes. And suddenly then life was good – despite school and homework and whatever things troubled me back then.

As I got more into drawing and a bit of animating and sound editing after I finished school I made some short videos and other projects. Nothing special. But when Greg told me that he was working on a game engine I promised him to make a game for him … IF he finished the engine. Being a strange character just like me, he really DID finish it. When he did I started building what in the end became “What makes you Tick”. It wasn’t easy, but I had the basic skills … and if you combine elements like background, character, story, animation, sounds etc. you really create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts: a small world to explore. Just like “the Curse of Monkey Island” did for me ten years before. Of course – it is not as good … but I did the best I could.

David: What lessons did you learn while developing the first game that you were able to use while making the sequel?

Matt: The lesson I learned while making WMYT is that everything is a LOT more work in the end than it looks like in the beginning. So for the sequel after writing the story we went in and cut all locations from our room script that were unnecessary to tell the story, which was a hard thing to do for me. How nice for example would it be to have a small chapel there near the woods … what a nice place would that be to visit … but we had to keep things doable so it was cut. In the end “A Stitch in Time” became bigger than I had expected as well and I am still working on it – although I should have been done three months ago. The reason for that is that we really wanted the player to be able to visit the small town of Ravenhollow during day and night and to be able to actually switch between these two times of the day during the main act of the game. Of course that ended up to be more work than you could imagine it to be beforehand. Fortunately Greg had always a very realistic attitude and I learned to trust him on a lot of things. One of them is time planning.

David: What have you found to be the easiest part of game development? The hardest? the most rewarding?

Matt: The easiest and most fun part was the brain storming phase. When I talked to Greg or my brother about the story we came up with all these little details and connections that in the end make up a good story – which ours hopefully is. Also planning some character designs with my brother Sebastian (who did most character designs) on the phone and then him sending me a scanned sketch one evening later that looks just like I had imagined it – that is just great. It is really wonderful to work together with others on projects like this. When I made the first game I did it completely alone and for over a year I almost didn’t show anyone anything just because I was afraid that I started promising folks something that might never get finished in the end. So I really enjoy working together with others. The hardest parts during the development of “A Stitch in Time” were mostly those when I was overworked and exhausted and alone. The most rewarding is when all things come together in the end.

David: Since you don’t have a super-corporation with a marketing department to get the word out about your game, how are you going to spread the word? How will you convince potential buyers that your game is worth spending a bit of money?

Matt: Well, we decided to publish a relatively long demo, which consists of the first of four acts and makes up about 10 percent of the full game. This way gamers get a chance to play a bit and get into the game and the story – and if they are interested to see how the story continues and then at some point ends they will hopefully buy the full version. Greg does a great job building our website and also creating a streamable version of the demo, that people can play online in their browsers, while he is still programming for the game and doing his fulltime job. I am sure we will come up with some more ideas to spread the word, but from the experience of the release of WMYT back in 2007 I know that sometimes the news on the internet can travel much faster than one might expect. Back then we had published WMYT just on the Lassie website without much ado … and only a couple of days later it appeared in the “recommended free games” section of an online TV show here in germany, where I live. In one of the first months we had about 50,000 downloads… which was pretty surprising. Of course now we keep our expectations low since this larger second game is not free – but quite affordable, if I may add that.

David: Once A Stitch in Time is available for sale, at what point will you consider it a success? When you’ve broken even on the project? When you’ve made enough to live comfortably on the interest?

Matt: Well, we will be happy once the game is released no matter what – Greg and I both wanted to make this game and it is an amazing thing that we got to make it at all. Of course I really would be happy if Greg, who also produced the game, breaks even on the project. That is one of many reasons I am still able to keep on working after all these months. I really wish that does work out. And if then in the end we earn enough to keep on making games, that would be unbelievable … unthinkable even. I actively tried to ban thoughts like that from my mind when I started working on the game – simply because that might have a negative effect on the artist in me. I am making this game just because the story needs to be told and because we got the oppotunity to fulfill our dream of making an adventure game. You cannot pass on such an opportunity.

David: Will there be more games?

Matt: Yes, definitely. … but whether that will be something bigger and commercial like “A Stitch in Time” or just small games, that I do because I still feel the urge to make more and get better – I don’t know. We would love to do a third “What Makes You Tick” game, but that will depend on on how much of a “success” our game is once it is released.

David: If you had unlimited time and resources to create a game, what would that game be like?

Matt: It would be a collaboration of a lot of artists, creating a unique world with an exclusive soundtrack written directly for the game. That game should create a wide range of moods – like having a place that looks like a romantic Caspar David Friedrich painting connect to a Van Gogh like location … but gradually … merging styles and moods into something else that still feels like a whole. The process of planning and producing a game that combines many visions of actively involved artists must be a great thing. And if then you also add voice talents, animation and music – the sky is the limit. Well, but till then we will have to make do with what we can do.

David: When you’re not developing games, what do you like to do?

Matt: I like meeting friends, having a cup of coffee with them for three hours. Watching movies or Seinfeld. Listening to old Jack Benny radio programs. I also like hiking a lot … just walking and looking and hearing the sand under the soles of my shoes, no matter where. That might sound cheesy, but at one point I had always felt an urge to do something – to draw or write – when I was amazed by nature or life. It took me some time to JUST enjoy these things. That probably sounds like a quote from a 90-year old senior citizen – not that there is anything wrong with that.

David: If you could witness any event in history, what would it be?

Matt: I guess, I personally would just choose events in which I hadn’t been involved. As tempting as it would be to find out how it looked like from the outside when I was a kid or I did something good or something I regret now … I fear it would leave me scarred for life. Because it in the end might be too different from what I remembered myself … or too meaningless … or just too good to bare seeing again.

So – an event in history … (stares at the blinking cursor) … I really would have loved to see Nikola Tesla doing one of his presentations on electricity and other wonders. Or to sit in the audience during the recording of one of Jack Benny’s shows. (Obviously I want to be entertained.) Or to see the authors of my favourite books, comics and games during different stages of their work. I always wondered if they too have these days when they sit in between empty milk cartons … with shaggy hair … notes lying around everywhere … and they ask themselves: “What the heck am I doing here??” or “Darn … I need to go out there again to buy milk!”.

David: What is the sound of the end of the world?

Matt: Snake Plissken lighting a cigarette and saying “Welcome to the human race.”

David: What was the last video game you played?

Matt: You mean: “What is the last GOOD videogame you played”? Well, that is “Batman: Arkham Asylum”. Amazing. I was Batman. Finally. After suffering and playing all those Batman games since the NES days I was finally amazed, flabbergasted and speechless. Pure genious! And also I got what I always search for: a world to BE in. Even if it’s Arkham Asylum and full of screaming lunatics it was beautiful.

David: What is your favorite video game?

Matt: “The Curse of Monkey Island” is and will be my first and greatest love. But that aside it is hard to decide … “Uncharted” was fantastic – I hope I can play part 2 sometime!

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Matt: The last one was “O Brother Where Art Thou?” – I had seen it a couple of times already and enjoyed it as much as usual! The last movie I saw in the cinema was “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” and I enjoyed it for many many reasons. Just great.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Matt: The last movie that really astonished me was like a small enlightenment: “Werckmeister Harmonies” by Bela Tarr (Hungary). My top favourites that I usually show to people are “Harvey” with James Stewart and “Nobody’s Fool” with Paul Newman.

David: Matt, thanks for taking the time for the interview! I’m looking forward to playing the demo and then the final game (and hopefully many more).

David Sale #6–What Makes You Tick reprint

Sale #6 today! It will be a reprint of my story What Makes You Tick (which I sold for the first time to the upcoming War of the Worlds: Frontlines anthology). Brain Harvest is an online magazine which specializes in very short, strange stories (up to 750 words). It’ll be posted there for free some time after the anthology is printed, so if you’d like to read what sort of stories Schnarr bought for the antho, you can look at it as a free sample.

By the way, you might’ve noticed that I hadn’t sent out a notice about sale #5. That was no mistake–I have made a sale #5, but it’s to a magazine that hasn’t been announced yet. I’ll send out the notice for that magazine once the magazine has made itself known. ,David Steffen

Niche Game: Earthworm Jim 1 & 2

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing mecause they’re something different, something special.

Earthworm Jim is a side-scroller action science fiction game with a ridiculous sense of humor. It was released in 1994 for the Super NES (and many other systems about the same time). The following excerpt from the story is typical of the style: “Psy-Crow is chasing a small renegade ship. The ship’s pilot has stolen an ultra-high-tech-indestructible-super-space-cyber-suit. Psy-Crow overtakes the renegade ship and they face off head-to-head. Psy-Crow pulls his gun. The renegade pulls an even bigger gun. Wrought with gun envy, Psy-Crow pulls out a huge monster gun. The renegade, realizing he has been outmatched, pleads for mercy. But Psy-Crow, under direct orders from the evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-behind, blasts the renegade and his entire ship to smithereens. The suit falls gently to a strange planet below. The strange planet is our planet. PLANET EARTH.”

As it turns out, the suit is indestructible as advertised, but the person wearing it can still be blown to smithereens (oops, bad design). The suit happens to land over the top of a typical earthworm. The suit is so powerful it mutates the earthworm so that it grows much larger and (somewhat) more intelligent worm. Even though he’s wearing a human-shaped suit, Jim is still an earthworm, which becomes obvious when he uses his worm whip. The hand of the suit grabs Jims neck and pulls the worm out of the suit, cracking it like a whip to attack enemies, before replacing it back in the suit. He can also spin the worm like a helicopter to extend his jump a bit. His other usual weapon is his blaster gun which regenerates ammo up to a certain level, though if you drain it the recharge time can cost you. He can also pick up gun power-ups like mega shot and homing missiles.

The stages and villains of the game are weird and varied, Psy-Crow being the least interesting of the group. “What the Heck?” takes place on a Hell-like planet called Heck, which is ruled by Evil the Cat (we all knew a cat was behind it, admit it). The background music for that one involves elevator music and tortured screams. The level is patrolled by briefcase toting lawyers who use their briefcase to block your blaster fire, and also snowmen. In the end you face off against Evil himself. Then there’s Major Mucus, a being made entirely out of phlegm. You have a bungee jumping battle where each of you try to knock the other into rock walls to break the other’s cord.

My favorite character in the game is Peter the Puppy. Peter skips happily along, oblivious of the many dangerous enemies and obstacles along the way. If he gets hurt, then he loses his temper mutates into a bloated purple monster, grabs Jim and chomps away a huge chunk of his health. Then he reverts to his cute puppy form and continues on. To make it through the level alive, Jim not only has to avoid danger himself, but he has to keep Peter safe as well. Besides destroying enemies, he also needs to use the worm whip on Peter, which will make him jump in the air. If timed right he will clear gaps and the carnivorous plants along the way.

Between each level, Earthworm Jim jumps on his Pocket Rocket (an actual rocket, get your minds out of the gutters) and races Psy-Crow on the ways between planets. This offers some welcome variety to the gameplay.

Earthworm Jim 2 was released in 1995, and was a very worthwhile sequel. Jim is back with some changes in play control. Instead of using the worm to whip and to helicopter down, he has a new buddy he keeps in his backpack called Snott who performs similar functions.

Many of the villains from the original game return here in different forms. This time instead of bungee jumping against Major Mucus, you are flying your Pocket Rocket, transporting a balloon-lifted explosive to Mucus’s headquarters. You have to keep the explosive in one piece despite enemy attackers, and blow up Mucus with it.

Again, my absolute favorite level in this game is the one with Peter the Puppy. In the year that’s passed, Peter Puppy has had a litter (puppies having puppies!). Psy-Crow has broken into Peter’s house and kidnapped the baby’s.

Being the evil creature he is, he is tossing the little doggies out the window one by one as Peter watches from the other end of yard in dismay. Luckily Jim happens to be carrying a giant marshmallow that he can use the bounce the pups over to their father who will catch them and set them down gently.

If the pups hit the ground they go squish, and too many dropped pups makes Peter lose his temper and chomp on Jim. You have to keep this up until Psy-Crow tosses out a bomb. When you bounce the bomb to Peter he will chuck it back at Psy-Crow again (You’d think he’d be blowing up his own children that way, but whatever). The concept makes no sense, but that’s okay, Earthworm Jim doesn’t HAVE to make sense, and it’s extremely fun and a good challenge.

Shortly after the second game, a TV series was spawned that lasted about a year. I’m afraid I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment on its quality. That sounds like a mission for Hulu!

1999 marked the most recent entry in the series with Earthworm Jim 3-D for Nintendo 64. It was.. okay. I liked the animation, which was a well-done 3-D rendition of Jim and his friends and enemies. The plot is silly as ever: a cow has landed on Jim’s head, fracturing his brain. The game takes place inside his damaged brain. Jim is tasked with collecting his marbles, and finding golden udders to allow him to give them to the Sacred Cow of Contemplation to unlock new areas. The levels were okay, definitely weird, though they got a little long. But the thing that really broke my enjoyment of the game was the boss battles. In the previous EWJ games, each boss battle is very different from one another. In this one they are all too similar and last WAY too long. In each you are driving around an arena, as is your opponent, collecting marbles. To complete the level, you must get every marble, including those held by your opponent. Attacking your opponent makes them drop some marbles, and vice versa. Each of these fights just lasted forever as you swap a few marbles back and froth. Way too much of a time sink, even when I was in high school and had nothing better to do with my time. I doubt I’d ever have the patience nowadays to complete one of the boss battles, let alone to battle through the rest of the game. Also, I reached a point in the game, where there didn’t seem to be enough marbles to pass on regardless of what I did. I don’t know if that was something I did wrong, or if there was a glitch in the game, but after spending days trying to move on with no success I gave up and had to return to the game to Blockbuster. So I wouldn’t go out of your way to find the 3rd game, but the first two in the series are rock solid.

Finding Earthworm Jim 1 and 2 is easy if you have a Wii, as both are now available for Nintendo’s Virtual Console. If you’re willing to pay a little money for it then you can download it onto your Wii hard drive and have it forever. An eBay search also came up with quite a few hits for various systems. So you shouldn’t have a problem tracking it down. Try it out. It’s hard, it’s fun, it’s totally worth it. Enjoy!

Review: The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials trilogy

My advice: Read the first book and watch the movie. Don’t bother with the rest, which betrays the characters created in the first book and is driven by a message as subtle as a bludgeon. If you’re a parent pre-screening books for your kids to read, do not judge on the first book alone. At the very least, get a summary of the rest of the series. This is especially true if religious beliefs are important to you.

His Dark Materials is a trilogy of fantasy novels written by Phillip Pullman comprised of The Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The first book of the series was adapted to a movie in 2007.

The series first came to my attention when The Golden Compass movie came out. The previews looked interesting enough, but what really grabbed my attention was the religious groups protesting what they saw as an open attack against organized religion, and especially the portrayal of this within a movie that’s being marketed to children.

As an avid fantasy reader, I’m used to this sort of reaction from certain groups, and usually these reactions seem to be based on the assumption that magic is inherently evil, and so a plot that portrays the side of good using magic is somehow blasphemous. The Harry Potter series is the most memorable such example. I’ve read that series and have not found a single thing in it that I see as damaging or offensive to religion in any way, so I expected His Dark Materials to be the same way.

So first I went to The Golden Compass movie.

The Golden Compass movie

The movie primarily concerns 11-year old Lyra Balacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon (Pan for short). Now, “daemon” in this context has nothing to do with evil creatures of the underworld. The story takes place in a world parallel to ours where every person has a daemon. The daemon is the physical manifestation of each person’s soul. Instead of residing within the body, it exists as an independently thinking animal familiar which can never venture far from its human. For each adult, their daemon’s form resembles their own personality. So a guard might have a dog daemon, someone stubborn might have a badger, and so on. Children’s daemon’s are ever-changing, able to take a variety of forms at will, due to the fact that the child is not yet the adult they will become–so Pan’s shape is ever-shifting to whatever is most convenient at the time. This idea of the daemon souls is one of the coolest things about the series.

Lyra has grown up an orphan raised by Jordan College in Oxford. She eavesdrops on a conversation with Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig) talking to the Magisterium (the church that controls much of the known world), discussing an expedition to the north related to Dust. Dust is a secret well kept by the Magisterium, one of their many secrets.  Soon after that she is placed in the custody of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) which seems to be a blessing, but events soon take a turn for the worse. Along the way she meets Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellan), an ice bear, one of a race of sentient armored bears and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) a Texan aeronaut.

The movie is well worth watching. The visuals are stunning and do a good job capturing the cool idea of the daemon familiars. The stars in the cast, while offering poster appeal, do not rest on their laurels. Each of them plays their part well, convincing me of the people they’re portraying. And it’s mostly faithful to the book, which is a rarity. Most of what is changed is that the book ends after revealing one more major plot point than the book (more on that in the spoiler section).

But throughout the whole movie, I didn’t see a single thing as objectionable. The church of this world plays a major villainous role but even in our world, regardless of what you think of modern religion, past religions have done some terrible things in the name of their god. To portray one religion as villainous, especially a fictional religion, does not imply an overall anti-religion message. After watching the movie, my only guess was simply the fact that the word “daemon” was used to represent the soul.

His Dark Materials trilogy of novels

My interest still piqued, I picked up the books. As I said the movie was mostly faithful to the first book. I enjoyed the writing style, the characters were rich and interesting, the descriptions were fun, the worldbuilding was superb, and still no anti-religious undertones that I could detect.

But starting with the second book, The Subtle Knife, the anti-religion message began to coalesce even as the quality of the story declined. The third book, The Amber Spyglass, has an anti-religion message as subtle as a club with nails in, which I might’ve been able to overlook with great effort except that the story was weak as well, serving only to provide the framework with which to hang the message. Major characters constantly take a 180 degree turn in traits without any warning or provocation, even including our protagonist, Lyra! They spend embark on quests with no clear goal and much of the time is spent with secondary characters in other worlds that end up having no appreciable effect on anything! More details after the spoiler warning just below.

Now, finally, the reasons why I hated the series (other than the first book):

1. Story vs. Message– I often like a story that carries messages inherent in it, but the writing has to be a story, first and foremost. But I don’t like tales where the message carries the story, or in this case, robs and leaves the story bleeding and half-dead by the side of the road. Pullman is capable of writing a really great story, as evidenced by book 1, but the quality of the story steadily declined as the strength of the message increased.

2. Betraying Characters– Not only does Pullman disrespect his readers, but disrespects his own creations by destroying the characters he took so much time characterizing in the first book. Nearly every major character makes a 180 turn in character traits without inciting incident or really for any reason whatsoever. I want to find out what happened to the real Lyra, not the doppelganger that takes her place for most of the series!

3. The Grand Con–But above all, Pullman’s plot is structured to fly under the radar of concerned parents. If a parent reads the first book of the series and sees no objectionable material, they may decide it’s okay for their kids to read. Above all, my main objection is not that I hate the message, it’s the fact that the story is structured to conceal the message for so long. The message is clearly anti-religion, and I can totally understand why parents with strong religious beliefs would not want their kids reading it. He’s pulled off the oldest con in the book–the bait and switch. My advice: concerned parents should at least read a synopsis of the series before deciding if it’s objectionable–do not judge based on book 1 alone. For this reason, I think that the religious groups’ protests are completely merited in this case, and serve as a warning to parents who would otherwise have been duped by Pullman.

I’ve heard that Pullman intended His Dark Materials to counterbalance C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is well-known for it’s religious allegory, particularly the Aslan to Jesus comparison with the self-sacrifice and resurrection themes. Pullman hates Narnia, and more power to him: he can dislike whatever books he wishes to. But, regardless if you agree with Lewis’s religious message or not, he was upfront about it. The religious themes are present in the first book, so any parent who didn’t want their children to read religious themes could easily see that and just set the book aside. Lewis’s story carried a message, but he managed to do so without having to resort to the bait and switch. Also, Lewis’s stories stay true to their characters and carry their message much more seamlessly than Pullman has managed. I can read Lewis’s stories and just enjoy the stories.

Begin Spoilers!

And, for those of you who don’t mind knowing the plot details, I’ll now give details to back up my claims.

As the series go on we learn that Lord Asrael plans to kill God. That alone doesn’t make the series anti-religious, of course. The character is not the author, and at the end of book one it becomes very clear that Asrael is a psychopath, bent on reaching his own goals regardless of who he hurts along the way. I hesitate to use the word “evil”, but he is representative of some of the worst parts of humanity: selfish, greedy, void of compassion. Where this storyline does become anti-religious is the portrayal of God. He is no creator, merely the oldest surviving angel who has succeeded in duping everyone into believing he is all-powerful and the maker of everything. And even angels are nothing particularly special. They are merely a species that happens to look rather human-like, and have very long lifespans, but otherwise are like humans in every way. God, in the story, has gone completely senile. He is a drooling idiot without any clue what’s going on around. He is merely a figurehead, a puppet in the hands of the Metatron. And, shortly after he’s shown, God dies. Not only that, but the death scene is so unremarkably, remorselessly written that it may have well have been a description of someone eating breakfast.

Another message that I absolutely hated was the lessons learned in the afterlife. In the second book, a knife is introduced which can slice gateways between worlds. In the third book, they decide to go to the land of the dead, which is reachable through this sort of gateway. Why they want to go there is never adequately explained, but it somehow becomes a major goal, and they pursuit it with great ambition and no point. Every soul goes to the same afterlife, a lightless place where everyone is tortured by harpies. Why this should be is never explained, this is just how it works. Lyra’s grand solution is to cut a hole into another world and strike a bargain with the harpies. When souls pass through the portal they dissolve into nothingness. The harpies gain nourishment from hearing stories, so they will let souls pass through the gateway if they have stories to tell. This is where one of Pullman’s grand morals comes from: Live your life with curiosity, ask questions, learn, so that your grand reward will be nothingness. If you live any other way, then you will suffer through eternal torture. I enjoy contemplation of the afterlife, but to determine placement in heaven or hell by such an arbitrary concept is very annoying to me. I’m a curious person who enjoys many sorts of learning, but I don’t think that incuriousity should condemn you to hell. It seemed to me this was just his further condemnation of religion. If you rely on faith for your beliefs then you deserve such a fate, he is saying. That is just as bad as religious groups claiming that non-believers will be condemned to hell for their lack of belief–odd that someone who so readily condemns fate is the creator of such an illogical theological system.

One element that Pullman apparently meant to use for shock value is the presence of homosexual angels. I’m not objecting about the presence of homosexuals or homosexual angels. Historically, I think that angels are generally considered to be devoid of sexual organs or even gender differences, so the idea of them being homosexual is a little bit silly, but whatever. What bothers me about these characters is they have no other distinguishing characteristics other than their homosexuality, as if being gay is the only trait they have that is worth mentioning. I wish he’d taken the time to flesh them out a little bit more so that I could believe that he really meant them to be real people in his world, not just token gay characters who are present only to get a rise out of the more vocal religious groups.

As for how he betrays the characters: worst of all is how he treats Lyra throughout. She very well characterized in the first book, charismatic, a constant liar but not an immoral person. She’s very strong-willed and always willing to fight for what’s right, no matter the risk. The biggest change between the movie and the first book is that the movie truncates one huge plot element. At the end of the book, Lyra sets out to rescue Lord Asriel from captivity. That’s where the movie ends, but in the book she finds him, and he rewards her by kidnapping her best friend, carrying him away and forcibly separating him from his daemon. He’s discovered that the bond between a human and their daemon holds massive amounts of energy. By severing the link, the energy is released all at once. He harnesses the energy to open a portal to another world, remorselessly leaving her friend a shattered husk of a human being. This lowers my opinion of Lord Asriel’s character to a point that he can never be redeemed from, and especially since Lyra’s best friend was the victim, I would expect her to do the same. She’s mad at first, but as the books go on, she has more and more sympathy for Asriel, and seems to have completely forgotten what he’s done. This is never resolved in any way that makes sense for her character. Her feelings simply dissolve as if nothing had ever happened.

Worse than that, is the price she pays to get into the underworld. She is told that she cannot take her daemon with her into the underworld, when she boards the raft that will carry her into the underworld. After a shockingly short time of deliberation, she agrees. There’s no apparent reason that he couldn’t turn into a bird and follow along behind, but this doesn’t happen. Once the distant is too great, the bond breaks, and they are separated. This is her SOUL, for the love of Pete. And, in this world, the sould is a separate mind, so she is causing torture to this other individual for no reason. And remember, she had no reason to go to the underworld in the first place! I lost all respect for her at that point, and never regained it.

The end result is that I wasted weeks of reading time finishing these, and wish I’d read something else instead. But I hope this review will make the time somewhat worthwhile to share the information with others.

Niche Game: Super Smash Bros.

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing mecause they’re something different, something special.

If you’re like me, you got sick of playing those old tournament fighter games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat whose main difficulty was based around the user memorizing long strings of button combinations to trigger special moves. Like in Mortal Kombat, I still remember that Scorpion’s spear move was Back, Back, B. So anyone who has taken the time memorize dozens of these moves has a major advantage over someone who is a good player but hasn’t memorized.

Enter Super Smash Bros. (SSB), released for the Nintendo 64 by HAL Laboratory in 1999. The most unique feature of the game is immediately obvious: the fighters are all Nintendo-licensed characters from other games. Mario throws punches and fireballs. Samus Aran fires charged-up plasma shots, missiles, and drops bombs from her morph-ball form. And others, including several that characters that you can unlock. If you’re a Nintendo lover like me, it’s a lot of fun sending Donkey Kong in for a wind-up punch against Fox McCloud.

The damage system in SSB is one of a kind. Instead of having a health meter that signals how close to death you are, you have a damage percentage on the bottom of the screen. I’m not really sure why it’s expressed as a percentage, because it doesn’t stop at 100%, it just keeps going. The higher the damage level, the farther you fly when you’re hit, and the longer it takes you to recover. An enemy attack doesn’t kill you directly; to die, you have to leave the edge of the screen on any side. But the higher your damage meter goes, the more likely you will fly off the screen. This means that anybody can still have a chance to win even if their damage percentage is very high. A character with 0% damage can die by slipping off the edge, and a character with 400% damage can keep fighting (though he’ll have to be very careful not to get hit too hard).

Besides the obvious appeal of the Nintendo characters, the big appeal of this game for me is the simple play control. Regular moves, like punches and kicks, all involve the A button and some direction on the direction pad. Down+A might be a sweep kick, for instance, and forward+A might be a punch. Smash attacks are also easy to perform, and are more powerful (though often slower). These are done by “tapping” the direction pad in a direction at the same moment that you press the A button. These really pack a wallop, and are often the best way to send an enemy flying off the screen once you’ve brought up their damage level.

The special moves are no harder to perform than the regular moves, they are just combinations of the direction pad and the B button. so each character has 4 special moves. As an example, Pikachu:
B: Shoots a bolt of static that hops along the ground in front of you. It also climbs walls until it runs out.
Up+B:Â Pikachu jumps super-fast, no damage, but good for recovery
Forward+B:Â Pikachu charges up then fires himself forward like a cannonball
Down+B: Pikachu’s best move, and the easiest move in the game to spam. Calls a powerful lightning bolt down from the sky, striking Pikachu directly. Anyone in the path of the bolt or touching Pikachu himself takes heavy damage and gets thrown a long way.

Each character is lots of fun to play, each with their own special traits. Zelda is one of the most unique because she is two characters in one. Zelda has powerful magic bursts for her regular moves and has some nice long range and short range special attacks, but she’s pretty slow to move around. With her Down+B move, she transforms into Sheik, her ninja-like alter-ego. Sheik’s attack are weak but super-quick. In the hands of the right player, Sheik can run circles around her enemies.

Up to four players fight at a time in arenas themed around Nintendo games, and random items drop down. Food items allow fighters to heal their damage. The home run bat has medium reach and a decent damage when swung, but when swung in a smash attack it has devestating knockback ability. Also, there are pokeballs which summon a random pokemon to damage your enemies.

The original game was followed up by Super Smash Bros. Melee in 2001 for Gamecube and Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2008 for Wii. Each has some new mini-games and lots of new characters. Most of the appeal is the improved graphics, new characters, more and more each time. In Melee, Bowser and Peach (Princess Toadstool), as well as Ganondorf are major additions. In Brawl, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Solid Snake become some of the first non-Nintendo created characters to be added. Brawl also has the addition of a single-player quest style game, involving all of the characters. It’s a fun diversion in it’s own right. Most of the enemies in that section are unique to that, and the only way you can collect trophies for them is to use the “trophy stand” item against them. The stand appears randomly, and if you throw it and connect with a sufficiently weakened enemy they will turn into a trophy. The stand will appear more frequently the higher the difficulty, but you also have to survive the rest of the level without losing your lives or you will lose your trophy as well.

A lot of fan groups on the internet cry out for Mega Man as an addition in future games. I think he would be a good character. Between all the special moves he’s gained in all of his franchise games, he would have plenty of special ability opportunities. But there’s one character that I’d like to see even more than Mega Man: Earthworm Jim. He could use the worm whip for one special move, his blaster gun for another, maybe Snott for a recovery move. It would be so much fun to pit Earthworm Jim against Asmus Aran! Well, I can always hope, for SSB 4.

Finding a copy of this game shouldn’t be too difficult. A quick eBay search comes up with quite a few hits for around 20 dollars. But, really, you might be better off just getting one of the newer versions. All of the characters in the original game are present in both of the other two games anyway, plus the newer games have better graphics and are playable on the Wii. Check the series out. Enjoy!