Niche Game: Kingdom Hearts

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.

Kingdom Hearts is a parallel world story, with a twist. The game is a joint venture between Squaresoft and Disney, released in 2002 for the PS2. The main character, Sora, travels from world to world, and each of them will be very familiar, because each is the setting of a Disney movie, from the pride lands of The Lion King, Wonderland, and Neverland. Besides the worlds, there are also many cameos from Disney characters, and characters from Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series.

The protagonist of the game is Sora, a fourteen year old boy. His friends Riku and Kairi also play important roles. At the beginning of the game they are all living on Destiny Islands, and they want to leave the islands to explore the world outside. One night, shadowy creatures appear, the Heartless. He discovers the magical Keyblade, which is his weapon throughout the game, a giant key that he wields like a sword. He’s separated from his friends as the Heartless destroy Destiny Islands.

Meanwhile, in another world, King Mickey (yes, the mouse), heads off to deal with the Heartless and sends his knight Goofy and his mage Donald to go find the key to stopping the Heartless. They seek out Sora, and join forces with him. You always control Sora directly, never his companions, but you can equip them, and set their behavior during battle. Donald’s attributes are based around magic, as he learns various spells as he levels up. Goofy’s primary weapon is a shield–yeah I know it’s weird. Though Sora technically carries the same Keyblade throughout the game, he can add different charms to it that will change it’s attributes drastically, changing the length, the appearance, the power, and even adding extra attributes like extra mana for abilities.

In each world, the Heartless take on new and varied forms which match their surroundings. So, in the pride lands they take the forms based loosely on African animals, in Neverland they often appear as pirates. I like this variation, all tied together by the “Heartless” logo they wear as a badge. Besides the minor Heartless enemies, each world generally has a big boss, also going along with the theme of that world. The objective of travelling through each world is to use the Keyblade to seal the keyhole, the heart of each world that the Heartless seek to destroy.

Different from most Squaresoft games, the fights in the game are real-time, though there is a menu item for performing actions like casting spells and using items. There are also hot-buttons to help speed up these side actions. You never control your two companions, all you can do is set their equipment and attributes. When visiting other worlds, sometimes a hero from that world will travel with you, and can temporarily replace either Goofy or Donald as your fighting companion. In addition, some characters are available as summon magic, where you call them up (Goofy and Donald temporarily disappear while this happens) to bestow some powerful effect and then disappearing. I liked the real-time aspect of the fighting system. It kept the game much more exciting from moment to moment, and much of the challenge is figuring out ways to defeat each unique type of enemy and dodging their attacks.

The one element of the game I wasn’t really impressed by was the Gummi ship. It’s your method of transportation between worlds. The transit ways are filled with enemies that attack you as you fly through Gummi space. You build your Gummi ship from scratch out of spare parts you find or buy along the way, including armor, weapons, radar, etc… It wasn’t that it was a bad element, but it just didn’t really seem to relate to the rest of the game that much and was just a diversion from the important parts–all the different worlds.

There’s quite a cast of voice actors for this game, including Haley Joel Osment, Hayden Panattiere, Billy Zane, and Lance Bass. They all did a really good job at their parts, making the characters seem real and helping to bring the game alive. Many of the Disney characters are voiced by the “official” Disney voice actors for each part.

The theme song, Simple and Clean, was composed and performed specifically for this game release by Hikaru Utada. I love the original version of the song, and the graphics of the sequence (though unfortunately with a remix instead of the original) at the beginning of the game just make it even more awesome to watch. When I first played the game I sometimes just watched them over and over to hear the song and see the sequence.

The plot is a reasonably good, though the main character is a bit corny at times. I loved to see the Disney villains working together across movies, Captain Hook and Maleficent, among others. Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty) is one of my favorite villains of all time; I love her voice, her look, her power, everything about her. These villains were worked into the plot and blended seamlessly with the Squaresoft characters and the Heartless, despite their different animation styles.

Kingdom Hearts II was released in 2006 in the US, and used many of the same concepts, revisiting some of the same worlds as the first game, while expanding the ground covered. Despite their efforts to add fresh worlds and plot elements, it just came off as more of the same, so I give it a “meh,” despite the addition of Christopher Lee’s excellent voice acting abilities. It’s not a terrible game, and it was fun to see some of the new worlds they covered–such as Tron–but overall it just came off as more of the same to me.

Finding a copy of Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t be difficult at all, probably 10 bucks or less on eBay. It’s totally worth it. Enjoy!

The Best of Podcastle

podcastle-iconPodcastle is a podcast of fantasy stories, which I’ve been listening to for the past couple of months to get caught up on their backlog. They’ve provided a whole lot of great stuff for free distribution. They do ask for donations, but they are not required to listen to their fiction. Now that I’ve listened to all of their episodes, I’ve made a list of my top ten favorite episodes (and some honorable mentions that almost made the list).

If you like this article, you might also want to check out The Best of Pseudopod, in which I make a similar list for Podcastle’s horror counterpart, and The Best of Escape Pod, the science fiction counterpart.

1. Cup and Table by Tim Pratt
Read by Stephen Eley

Superpowered agents on a quest to find the Holy Grail. You can’t get much cooler than that! On top of that, the protagonist has a confused time sense, and Pratt’s writing of the story in non-chronological order works surprisingly well. And if that’s not enough, the ending was both cool and unpredicted (by me anyway).

2. A Heretic by Degrees by Marie Brennan
Read by Paul Tevis

Worldbuilding at its best. The strange world of Driftwood is revealed to the reader bit by bit. I know from experience that this is a tough balance to strike. Too much at once and it gets boring. Not enough and it’s confusing. Parallel worlds have always been one of my favorite fantasy elements.

3. Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery by John Schoffstall
Read by Heather Lindsley

This one starts out relatively normal and ramps up the weird as it goes on which, for me, made it easier to digest. I don’t particularly like the protagonist of this one, but she feels like a real person and that’s more important to me than likeability anyway. If you’ve never read any surrealism you might want to give this one a try just to see what you think. There are some lewd images and swear words–they fit well within the story, but just FYI.

4. Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters by Tim Pratt
Read by Matthew Wayne Selznick

Clearly Tim Pratt’s style is well suited to my reading tastes! This is a very long one, one of the Podcastle “Giant” episodes, and one of the few Giants that I’ve liked. Most stories this long are much longer than they need to be–they could benefit by cutting their length in half and they seem to be padded for word count. This one is worth every word, every second. I do love superheroes, and this story gives nods to old-school superheroes alongside more modern styles, and has some unique ideas I haven’t seen in any other superhero stories (which is hard to do in this day and age). Lots of good rip-roaring action, as well as some good mystery elements.

5. Come Lady Death by Peter S. Beagle
Read by Paul S. Jenkins

This is an oldie but a goody. First published back in 1963, it tells the story of Death in human form who attends a party. The setting is similar to Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, but the style and plot are all their own. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a female Death figure (Susan Bones from Pratchett’s Discworld series, for instance), but this incarnation is distinct and provides an enjoyable experience.

6. Nine Sundays in a Row by Kris Dikeman
Read by Kane Lynch

I have a lot of respect for anyone who can do a nonhuman point of view well, and Kris Dikeman has done that with this story. It’s the tale of a deal with the devil with the point of view of the devil’s dog, sent to watch over the supplicant who must spend every Sunday night at a crossroads for nine weeks in a row in order to earn a meeting with the devil. The characters are great, and the ending is fitting. A great story.

7. Komodo by Tim Pratt
Read by Cat Rambo

Yes, another one by Tim Pratt! Apparently I’m a huge fan, though I made the list on the stories without thinking much about the authors. His style and subject matter must just be particularly well-suited for my tastes. So I’ll definitely be watching for more from Pratt. This is the tale of a very powerful sorceress living in the modern day, when she comes up against something that seems to be beyond her abilities. She’s a well fleshed-out character, and the magic system in this is really good, not like anything else I’ve read.

8. Colin and Ishmael in the Dark by William Shunn
Read by MarBelle

Usually I don’t like omniscient point of view, where the narrator is an apparently corporeal third party in the room, unable to affect, only to observe. But it works well in this story, describing an encounter between a prisoner and a guard in a pitch black jail cell. The story is told almost entirely through dialogue between the two, and because the scene is dark, the actual events that are occuring are not always straightforward to interpret. This helps keep the story as disorienting for the reader as it is for the characters, which is quite a trick.

9. The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change by Kij Johnson
Read by Heather Lindsley

The premise of this story is very interesting, with domesticated animals suddenly gaining the ability to speak, and it focuses on the interaction between dogs and their former masters. As the dogs develop a lingual culture, they develop (as the title states) trickster stories, which are interspersed with the narrative itself. I actually liked the trickster stories better than the main narrative, despite their short disconnected nature. I wish the world had been fleshed out a bit more, animals gaining the ability to speak didn’t have nearly the effect that I would’ve expected, but there’s still a lot to love about this story, and the trickster stories themselves made them worth the listen.

10. Castor on Troubled Waters by Rhys Hughes
Read by Alasdair Stuart

This is a ridiculous tale told by a character who has quite a story to tell in the time honored tradition of making stuff up to get out of paying people money. This is clear from the very beginning, which just makes his tale all the more funny.

Honorable Mentions

It was hard to pick out just ten, so here’s a few that were strong contenders to make the list.

The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe
Read by Cheyenne Wright

I know, it’s nearly a crime for Poe to be on the honorable mentions and not on the actual list. I’ve loved Poe’s writing since I first read them in English class, and this is one of my favorite authors. I love Cheyenne’s voice, and he narrated this quite well, except for one detail. The word “Amontillado” is mispronounced throughout, which drove me to distraction. One mispronunciation isn’t the end of the world, but since the word is used many times within the story, is in the title itself, and is in fact the central motivation for one of the characters, I found it hard to ignore. Even if it had been pronounced phonetically, it would have been better. In any case, Poe is one of my favorite authors of all time, I still wanted his story to be mentioned.

In Ashes by Helen Keeble
Read by Marie Brennan

The Twa Corbies by Marie Brennan
Read by Elie Hirschman

In Order to Conserve by Cat Rambo
Read by Mur Lafferty

Niche Game: Final Fantasy Tactics

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.

I trust in Squaresoft to provide RPG games with intricate plots, interesting characters, varied special abilities, lots of room to explore, and heavy but surmountable challenges. The Final Fantasy series is a particularly shining example of this, especially Final Fantasy III (titled VI in Japan), VII, and X. Each of those games deserves an article in their own right, so I’m not going to dig into them here. Final Fantasy Tactics is an offshoot, not included in the main numbering of the series titles, but the numbering doesn’t matter much anyway. Despite their numbering, none of the games really have anything to do with each other plot-wise. They do tend to share much in the way of game mechanics, NPC races, monster types, some character naming, and other aspects, but otherwise the games have nothing to do with each other in terms of continuity.

Most of the games in the Final Fantasy series have a very artificial battle system. I’m not saying they aren’t great games in their own right, but the battles generally consist of the enemies lining up along one side of the screen and the players lining up along the other. When each character’s or monster’s battle timer fills up they have the opportunity to perform some action. If they choose to attack, they run over to the other side, slash the enemy with sword (or whatever weapon) and then run back to their own lines, as though they could charge unimpeded into the midst of an enemy group like that.

Final Fantasy Tactics uses a completely different battle system entirely. It is still turn-based, but the real interesting part is the use of terrain. The layout of the level has as much effect on the outcome of the battle as the strengths of the enemies or the skill of the player. In particular, holding the high ground is very important if either side has ranged fighters. Archers and mages are incredibly effective if they gain a little height, as their attacks gain a great deal of range when shooting at a lower location. Also, they’re harder to hit–if they’re high enough off the ground, an archer’s arrow won’t even be able to reach them.

Using the terrain takes some getting used to. In one of the first levels, your enemy is standing on top of a house throwing rocks down at you. To really face off against him, you have to go around the back and climb some crates on the back of the house to get up there. Until then he’s a constant annoyance, pelting you as you try to fight other enemies.

As each player’s turn comes around, they can move once (the range dependent on their class and the terrain, among other things), and perform an action (such as attacking, casting a spell, or using an item). Use these moves wisely, as that character will be a sitting duck, stuck in one place, until the next turn.

Another strange thing about the game is your ability to hire fighters to join your ranks. Your main character is always involved in every battle, and is the center of the plot, but you can bring along 4 other units to any fight. Any human unit can change character classes between fights, allowing you to customize your little army to a large degree. And as you play the game you can unlock new and unique character classes, each with their own special abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. You unlock these by creating obscure combinations of levelling up other character classes–to get the more interesting classes I needed to look up hints online. I would recommend doing so, because some of the classes are fun enough to make the game totally worth it on their own.

The game is based around a really good skill system. You build up ability points as you fight, which can be applied to different skills for each class. You can get them all in the gradual cheapest first order, or save up for a whopper of a skill. Either way, I like purchased skill based systems like this, they make the experience building into an interesting resource management challenge in themselves.

By far the best class in the game is the Mediator class. He doesn’t have much in the way of offense or defense, but what he does have is the unique ability to talk enemy characters over to your side. This works on both humans and monsters (but not bosses). It’s a great double threat, because not only do you reduce your enemies’ number by one, you also add one to your own group. This is the only way your group can ever number more than 5, so that’s another huge perk. Also, this is the only way you can get monsters on your side. And once you have a couple monsters, they randomly breed and lay eggs, creating new monsters. And for the human initiates, once the fight is over, you can strip them of their valuable equipment and get rid of them. The mediator’s talk skill has a fairly low rate of success, so you’ll want to have a well-rounded party to be able to fight and heal and all that good stuff even if he accomplishes nothing.

Besides the hired hands you get along the way, there are also plot-important characters that join your party. These guys tend to have their own special skills, not held by anyone else, though you never know if the plot is going to kill one of them off or make them leave your party. These guys are the real powerhouses of your group, and you should make good use of them.

When I first started playing this game, I had an idea for experience building that turned out to be a terrible idea. I hired several extra people for my party, and tried to rotate them all in and out of the current party to make them level at equal rates. In other games this would’ve worked fine, but the trouble is that the game-makers decided to increase the challenge level with the overall experience gathered by your party. The monsters are set to keep it challenging if your small party are the only fighters, so I soon learned that the more I tried to increase experience in a well-rounded way, the enemies got tougher at a much higher rate than I was. So my advice is to keep your active party small, and just keep those people around as long as you can.

One thing that really annoyed me in this game is the low success rate for white magic. Imagine you’re in the middle of a tough fight. Your archer is dead. Your knight is severely wounded. It’s your white mage’s turn, and he can either try to cast a cure spell on the knight or cast a life spell on the archer. He starts casting the spell, which takes a while–he stands in place and mumbles for a while. After this interminable wait, he finally casts it, and “Miss”. Well, your archer’s still dead and you’re knight’s soon to follow and your white mage has just wasted a turn. Arg! So I ended up relying mostly on items. Most of the character classes are only able to use items from one square away, which really limits their usefulness, but the alchemist class can throw items for several squares. Items always succeed, as long as they’re successfully administered (that is you don’t try to throw them through a wall or something). And the action occurs instantaneously. But an alchemist isn’t useful for much else, so I like to make one of my special plot-characters into an alchemist. He still keeps his inherent skills, but also has the ability to throw items, so he can be both a killer and a healer, as the situation demands.

Finding this game shouldn’t be difficult. A quick eBay search comes up with many hits, though if you want this particular game you will want to be careful not to get the PSP or Game Boy Advance or DS sequels. By using the following search string I was able to get a list mostly of just this version of the game:
“final fantasy tactics” -advance -rift -“war of lions” -“war of the lions”
I saw it on there for a Buy It Now price as low as $15 with plenty of open bidding going on for other identical items. And there’s always the possibility of getting a ROM for it, though I’ve never dabbled in Playstation emulators so I can’t give any advice on that route.

This game is definitely worth playing if you want an RPG that incorporates more battleground strategies instead of artificial “I stand over here and you stand over there and we’ll take turns” fighting style. Try it out. You won’t regret it. Enjoy!

Niche Game: Bart vs. the Space Mutants

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.

Bart vs. the Space Mutants is one of the first video games to be made based on The Simpsons. The game was released back in 1991 on various consoles–the version I’m familiar with was on the NES. It’s a side-scroller game probably best described as platform-jumper and puzzle combined.

In the game, Bart is the only one who knows that space mutants have begun an invasion of Springfield. He knows this because his X-ray specs let him see through the aliens human disguises, to see the tentacle-headed monsters beneath. No one believes him so he’s on his own to stop the alien invasion.

The aliens’ secret plans involve collecting certain classes of items, and your objective is to collect, hide, or destroy these items so that the aliens can’t use them. The first level takes place on the streets of Springfield, and the items in question are things that are purple. Bart, of course, comes equipped with his trusty can of spraypaint, thus giving vandals an ironclad excuse for their actions. “I was saving the world from aliens, man!” The spraypaint works on some things, like the purple trash cans, but not everything. Other purple things will require different strategies, like walking on the clothesline to drop the hanging clothes onto purple items in the lawn below. In addition to all this, you can get and spend coins in various ways in this level, including some bottle rockets. I’ll leave it up to you to discover the use of the bottle rockets. This first level also has a skateboarding section which will test your reflexes, and in the end you’ll face off against a water balloon wielding Nelson.

This game is really quite difficult, or at least I thought it was at the time. Bart can only withstand two hits before he dies, and he only has three lives. There are little jumping aliens all over the place as well as the boss characters and other potentially damaging things like dogs. I should replay this game, as I’m curious how far I would get with my much-matured gaming skills.

Later levels progress to different areas of Springfield, such as the mall (where you collect hats), and Krustyland (where you collect balloons). The style of the levels and the different sort of collectibles helps to keep the game fresh. I like the variety this game offers, as well as the familiar humor that will be appreciated by any fan of classic Simpsons.

Finding a copy of this game shouldn’t be too hard. If you want a hard copy, you can find one for less than $5 on eBay. Otherwise it shouldn’t be difficult to find a copy of a ROM to play on your computer. It’s worth the time to play for its platform jumping, interesting puzzles, and Simpsons-based elements. I hope you check it out. Enjoy!

Renaissance Woman: Nancy Fulda

nancyfulda_and_alexNancy Fulda is a mom, writer, assistant editor of Jim Baen’s Universe, and the creator of Anthology Builder. Anthology Builder is an innovative website that allows customers to choose a set of short stories that are then printed and bound into a printed anthology just for them.

Nancy, thanks for joining us!

David Steffen: You’ve got a lot on your plate with parenting, writing, and editing. How do you budget your time? Do you have to set aside a part of the day for writing time?

Nancy Fulda: Scheduling is probably the hardest thing about working with small children at home. The needs of the children change as they grow, so I’m constantly shifting the schedule to accomodate them.

For about two years I worked every morning from 10:00-12:00, like clockwork, while the older children were in kindergarten. Now that my youngest has started crawling (not to mention climbing the stairs and pulling things off of shelves) I’ve shifted to a “work while the baby naps” approach. It’s a bit helter-skelter, but after a while you learn to maintain your concentration despite frequent interruptions.

David: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned working on the editorial staff of Jim Baen’s Universe?

Nancy: That there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all story. Before I started working for Baen’s, I had this vision in my head of the perfect story, the one that all readers would adore without reservation. I thought if I just learned the right techniques, I could write a story that would sell anywhere, to anyone.

After working with the reading team at Baen’s, it became clear that there is no such thing. Even in a group as carefully selective as ours — we were all looking for upbeat adventure stories– we still disagreed wildly on which story out of a given set was the best. My top pick was often someone else’s least favorite, and vice versa. We did occasionally find a story we all loved, but that tended to be the exception rather than the rule, and even those stories would probaby have been instantly rejected at publications with a different editorial vision than ours.

David: With Jim Baen’s Universe closing, do you have plans to join the staff of any other publications?

Nancy: No. Getting into editing was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing, but if you’re not careful, editing will eat up your whole life. It’s time for me to narrow my focus and concentrate on my own writing again.

David: Where did you come up with the idea for Anthology Builder?

Nancy: It was kind of an accident. I’d just made my first few pro sales and was hanging out with a lot of other writers in the same boat. I wanted to keep up with what my friends were publishing, but they were selling to such a wide variety of magazines that I would have gone bankrupt if I’d tried to subscribe to them all.

“What I want,” I told them, “Is a do-it-yourself anthology web site where you can pick whatever stories you want and have them delivered as a bound book.”

The response to that quip was overwhelmingly positive and the rest, as they say, is history.

David: How has your experience with Anthology Builder compared with your expectations in terms of difficulty, popularity, and financial?

Nancy: It’s exceeded them on all three levels.

If I had known how much work AnthologyBuilder was going to be, I probably would never have done it. It’s a bit like childbirth, I guess. Starting the ball rolling is easy. By the time you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into, it’s too late to back out. *laughs*

I’m having fun, though, and we’ve seen far more sales in the first few years than I’d expected. Last year AnthologyBuilder paid all its own bills and generated enough excess for two large promotional campaigns. There wasn’t much left after that, of course, but I have high hopes for the future.

David: If you could go back in time and do the startup of Anthology Builder again, what would you do differently?

Nancy: The software. I’m very pleased with the way the system runs, but if I had it to do over again, I’d make some changes in the implementation, particularly the administration tools.

David: What has been the single most memorable moment in your writing career to date?

Nancy: I think it was reading the biographies of the other authors in the back of the first professional anthology I sold to. I remember reading those bios and thinking: “If I can make it into a Table of Contents with these folks, then maybe I have a shot at becoming a real writer after all.”

David: If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Nancy: Write what you love. Learn writing technique first, of course: Join an online writers’ group, give and receive critiques, hone your skills. But once you’ve done all that, clear your mind of the ‘Thou Shalt Not’s and just write a story you enjoy. If you love your story, chances are the audience will, too.

David: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not reading or writing?

Nancy: That depends on the day and, occasionally, the time of the day. Among the things I enjoy are ballroom dance, chess, painting, software development, and singing.

David: What was the last book you read?

Nancy: Tintenherz by Cornelia Caroline Funke.

David: Your favorite book?

Nancy: Isn’t that a bit like asking someone to pick a favorite child?

Some of the books I’ve enjoyed most through the years are Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, and Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Nancy: Lois McMaster Bujold. Not only because I love her books, but because when I read her keynote addresses she seems like a supremely sensible human being.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Nancy: Star Wars Episode IV. Amazing movie, that. 30 years since its original release, and it was still able to captivate the attention of my six-year-old.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Nancy: Today, right now? Evita.

David: Do you have any upcoming publications we should watch out for?

Nancy: “Knowing Neither Friend Nor Foe” is coming up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “A Song of Blackness” is scheduled for the Fantastical Visions V anthology.

As it happens, both of these are stories with a history. “Knowing Neither Friend Nor Foe” (originally titled “Kitjaya”, but as Scott pointed out, that title does little to hilight the primary conflict) is my first story from a completely alien viewpoint. ÂI never realized before how challenging such a story is, particularly because the reader keeps looking for humans to pop up. ÂDuring the critique process I had to rework several scenes in order to clearly convey that, no, there were no homo sapiens hiding behind the little green curtain. ÂI’m pleased that the effort paid off.

I wrote “A Song of Blackness” right after reading “Bethan’s Garden” by Sandra Tayler. ÂSandra’s story held so much warmth and human connection that it made everything I’d ever written feel like insignificant drivel. ”A Song of Blackness” was my conscious effort to write a story that *meant* something.

David: Can you tell us about your works in progress?

Nancy: I’m finishing rewrites on “Backlash”, which is a novelette about a man who discovers that his daughter is part of a terrorist movement. ÂLots of Bondian action, time travel, and a little family drama all get rolled into the mix.

I’m also working on a novel set on a planet with an extremely slow rotational period. ÂNomadic tribes circle the equator to stay in the habitable bands between Day and Night. ÂIt’s a very fun milieu to work in, and involves riding lizards, space ships, an evil technocratic society, and a plot to preserve all life on the planet.

David: Thanks a lot for taking the time for the interview, Nancy. For all of you out there, I encourage you to check out her writing, and to look into the service she provides at Anthology Builder.

Nancy: Thank you, David. ÂIt’s been a fun interview.

Niche Game: Black & White

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.

Black and White, released is in 2001 by Lionhead studios. You play a deity and your objective is to convert more and more people to your belief system. You can do influence the world through two mediums: your own godly self, which is represented by a giant floating hand, and through your creature, your physical avatar in the world. The creature’s AI learning system is one of the most unique I’ve ever come across, and that alone makes this game worth playing. More on that later.

The title refers to your ability to choose your own path. You can be good or evil and you can complete the game either way. If you choose to follow the path of good, then you might help people grow their crops, save people’s lives as often as possible, and make people feel good. If you want to follow the path of evil, then intimidation is the way, human sacrifice, flying fireballs, that sort of thing. And you don’t have to strictly choose one or the other, you can make every choice however you want. But I suspect your worshippers will give you more belief if they know what to expect. As you lean more toward one side or the other, both your appearance and your creature’s appearance reflect this. Your hand will become red and claw-tipped and veiny if you are evil, and will be glowing and golden if you’re good. Likewise your creature’s appearance will be affected.

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o help you consider the good and evil choices, you have a good and evil conscience which bicker with each other throughout. They also serve to provide missions to you, and which side you listen to determines your alignment. These guys did get annoying after a while, but occasionally they’re actually funny. If you leave the game unattended for a long time they will start talking to each other.

Your way of directly influencing the world is through your hand. You can manipulate objects directly, which includes carrying food, wood, people, rocks, which you can then set down gently or throw. You can uproot trees and plant them elsewhere or drop them at the village to be turned into lumber. And perhaps most importantly, you can perform miracles. Miracles are available in one of two ways, through miracle seeds or by casting them directly. Miracle seeds are free, but are not in wide abundance. Later on in the game, the villagers add extensions to the temple where they worship, filling up your mana which you can drain with spell-casting. If you want a quick boost of mana, you can drop a sacrifice on the altar, either an animal or a human. Benevolent miracles include healing (which works on both villagers and your creature), rain, wood, and food. Malevolent miracles are often attack spells such as fireballs or lightning spells.

The hand is quite powerful, but of course there’s a catch. As a god, you only have power within your own area of influence, an area defined by the number of believers you have and the locations of your towns. You can observe anywhere on the map, nothing is hidden from you, but to manipulate objects you must be within your own area. Your area is clearly marked by a thick red line drawn on the world, and if your hand leaves that area you can see the belief draining from it, drawn back to the worshippers.

This presents a problem, because your area of influence may not stretch all the way to the next unconverted town. You can try to grow your population of believers to stretch your area of influence over there. Or you can use your creature. Your creature is a supernatural animal under your influence. He starts out as a clean slate, only about two stories tall. Near the beginning of the game you can choose one of three animals: the ape, the tiger, or the cow. Each has its own advantage. The ape learns quickly, the tiger is a good fighter, and the cow is average in most stats and just plain lovable. I tend to choose the cow because, well, cows are awesome.

Your creature can do everything you can do, and in many ways can do it better. He can operate outside your area of influence, and once you teach him to cast miracles he can do them as often as he chooses without costing any mana. The trouble is, you don’t have direct control over him. You have to train him to do what you want, and training isn’t easy. You can direct him where to go by putting him on a leash, and you can tell him to interact with objects by clicking on them while holding the leash, but with any object there are more than one action he can perform on them. You can teach him the correct behaviors in two ways, teaching by example or by using positive and negative reinforcement. To teach him by example, put on the leash of learning (there is also a leash of compassion and a leash of aggression), and do yourself what you want him to do, such as casting rain miracles, watering crops, or throwing fireballs. If he sees you do something enough, then he’ll pick up the behavior and start doing it himself. And then there’s the reinforcement. If you tell him to interact with a villager, he might do a few things with it: eat it, throw it, set it down gently, or carry it around for a while. After each of these behaviors you can choose to punish it (by slapping it around) or rewarding it (by rubbing its belly). This will reinforce or deter its behaviors. You can also just ignore it and see how it turns out on its own, but don’t expect it to listen to your commands if it’s been living independently its whole life.

Being a physical creature, it has needs. It must eat and it must sleep to maintain its health. What you want it to eat is up to you, it could eat grain from fields, cattle, or it could eat people. And its behavior affects its appearance and strengths. If you have your creature carry boulders around it will build muscle and get lean. As time passes, it will get steadily bigger and its appearance will be affected by whether you teach it to do good things or evil things.

And when there’s another god around, your creatures can fight! The fighting system I found to be rather awkward, you click a spot on the enemy creature to mark where you want your creature to attack, and then he does so whenever he gets around to it. The fighting is real-time action, but the lag between command and action is much too long. If he loses he disincorporates and reappears at your temple with low health. He never permanently dies, but it’s a big setback, as he is no longer around to impede the other creature. As a god you can still attack the enemy creature directly with miracles or by throwing things at it, but again, only if it’s within your area of influence.

Throughout the game the people make demands of you, more food, more children, more houses, more mercy. You can meet these needs by doing it yourself (like scooping up grain and dumping it into the village store), or you can create disciples to help you along. By setting a person in a field they will become a farmer dedicated only to producing food. If you set a man next to a woman he will become a breeder, etc… And there’s a lot more to these people than is immediately apparent. You can zoom in on any one of them, find out their name, their age, their current activity, their destination. Everyone grows from a baby into old people and die (if something else doesn’t kill them first). There’s a lot of processing going on that isn’t immediately obvious. And you can help construct various buildings to help things along, such as a playground to keep kids occupied (so their parents can work more), and a graveyard so people won’t need to grieve as much about the bodies lying around in the street.

I found this game to be extremely difficult because there is just too much to manage, between the creature and the people. In the first world, there is not much conflict. That world is mostly a tutorial, with no opposing gods, just some side quests and stuff. I think the way to go is to spend this first world tending to your creature, because you don’t need to worry too much about the people–nobody’s trying to steal them away from you. If you could get your creature trained to a sufficiently consistent behavior in the first level, then for the later levels you could spend most of your time tending to the people. For me, I tend to get impatient and move on to the next level, and maintaining the happiness of my people, trying to usurp the other god’s people, and tending to my creature all at once proved too much for me, especially when the towns are so widely separated geographically. And these needy little humans just annoyed me. I got sick of literally telling them where to place every building. If you need a house–build it! I’m not seeing the problem here. But I may just not have had the best strategies for playing the game.

In 2005 there was a sequel released, cleverly titled Black & White 2. I didn’t really like this one. It took a complicated scenario and further complicated it, adding different cultures that could be played as, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and adding human warfare. In the first game, humans are pacifist, or at least you never see them cause any damage on purpose. In this one you have to build and maintain armies, and it was all just too much for me, too much to juggle all at once.

If you want to play Black & White, it shouldn’t be too hard to find. I did a quick eBay search and found a few copies. Most of them didn’t have a Buy It Now price, so I’m not sure how much it would end up costing. There were many more copies of Black and White, with Buy It Now prices as low as $10 or so, so if you wanted to try that game out it would be easy to do.

If you want to feel the power of a god, and create good or evil giant animals which can shower love or destruction on your friends and enemies, then check this one out. Enjoy!

Niche Game: Deus Ex

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.

Deus Ex is one of my favorite single-player games of all time. Many others have promised to provide the same things this game provides, but every time the others fall short. It is really that good. The game was released back in 2000 by Eidos for Windows computers, and has been released for Macintosh and Playstation 2 in the meantime (under the name Deus Ex: The Conspiracy).

The year is 2050. The world is in a state of chaos. The Gray Death plague runs rampant, ripping through the populace. There is a vaccine, but it is in very short supply and is primarily used for the rich and famous. Riots occur everywhere, and anti-government groups are becoming more and more prominent. To combat this, the United Nations has formed a worldwide police force called UNATCO, the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition.

You take on the role of JC Denton, a rookie agent for UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition). You’re one of the prototypes of a new kind of enhanced agent. Instead of bulky and dehumanizing mechanical body parts, like your fellow agent Gunther Hermann, you are nanotechnologically enhanced. The title is a short version of “Deus Ex Machina”, which means “God from a machine”. This is a plot concept introduced in plays many centuries ago, where an apparently unsolvable situation is suddenly and miraculously solved by the unexpected intervention of a deity. The god was introduced to the stage at the time by lowering the actor mechanically from above the stage, thus coining the name. The title “Deus Ex” is particularly apt. The nanobots give you super-human abilities, which is one aspect, and also your character is the deus ex machina introduced to solve the world’s problems.

The game starts with your very first mission, which has been assigned to you as a test. UNATCO headquarters is on Liberty Island, the location of the statue of liberty. Terrorists occupy the statue with soldiers patrolling all over the grounds except the small portion of the island occupied by UNATCO. Sure, the UNATCO troops could mop these guys up with no problem, but they’d rather see what you can do.

The most unique aspect of this game is the way the missions are set up to allow multiple approaches to every scenario. These choices affect what you’ll want to carry in your inventory, how you want to interact with people, what skills you want to develop. This makes for enhanced replayability, because you can play it again with different tactics and have a very different gameplay experience. For instance, you can charge in the front door with guns blazing in classic FPS style. Or you can use lockpicks to sneak in a side door, only confronting enemy units when absolutely necessary. Or you can rely on your hacking skills, turn enemy turrets against their owners, unlock all the doors and just walk in.

Another thing that made this game great is the interweaving of dozens of conspiracy theories into one cohesive plot. The Illuminati, the Knights Templar, Men in Black, Area 51 and many others are all tied into the plot.

As you go through the game, there are so many incentives to explore. By picking a lock into a hotel room, you might find a note with an ATM code on it, a stash of money. You might find information. You might find a man with a gun ready to shoot intruders. Or you might find nothing of interest. You never know until you try. Not every area is hostile territory, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t break into shops, find contacts to buy black market goods behind hotels. You visit major world cities along the way, such as New York City and Hong Kong.

There are numerous ways to customize your game, which can make it different every time. First, you have upgradeable skills. At the beginning of the game, you’re given a set amount of skill points which you can allocate across a wide variety of skills. Many of these are weaponry skills: enhanced skill with pistol weapons, rifles, explosives, etc… Others are more general use, such as swimming skill that will help you hold your breath for longer underwater. But, to me, one skill trumps them all: hacking. Hacking is so versatile it’s useful for any situation and the more you upgrade the skill the more versatile it is. Every skill has four levels, each ascending level costing an increasing number of skill points to upgrade. At the lowest level, you are unable to hack. As you increase the skill level you’re able to affect more things when you hack, as well as have more time to do so. You can break into people’s personal computers and read their emails. You can hack into ATMs and withdraw money from other people’s accounts–although the ATMs do tend to malfunction after a single hack, never working afterward. Occasionally you come across ATM codes in emails and memos, so use the legitimate codes before hacking to maximize your cash intake. Most importantly, you can hack into automated security systems. From within the security system you can open security doors, disable laser triggers, and sometimes even turn automated machine gun turrets against their owners. You gain skill points by doing various things, such as completing primary or secondary objectives, and you also get them for unlisted objectives, such as exploring new areas to get “exploration points”

One of the things that makes this game the most unique is the upgradeable nano-augmentations. At the beginning of the game your augs are pretty basic. You have an infolink that gives you a popup comm window on your screen at anytime. Your targeting system can tell you if a person is a friend or a foe by color-coding the cross-hairs. And you have a light that you can use to see in the dark. But it uses up your battery systems, and enemies can see the light.

When you find your first nano-augmentation canister, that’s when things really start to get interesting. Each augmentation upgrades a specific aspect of your body, and can provide one of two enhancements, but once you choose one of the two, the change is permanent, and you can never go try the other one. One of the canisters, for instance, upgrades your eyes. You can choose “vision enhancement”: night vision at level one, infrared vision at level 2, short-range sonar at level 3 (see through walls), long-range sonar at level 4. Or you can choose targeting, which increases your accuracy and weapon damage as well as giving you info about your target, the higher the level the more accurate and the more info. Other upgrades throughout the game include the ability to heal damage, to walk more quietly, and invisibility. Choose wisely! There are two kinds of canisters, the augmentations which you have to choose between the two types, and upgrade canisters. The upgrades can be applied to any of your augs, but remember that these things aren’t just lying around everywhere–you’ve got to choose which augmentations are most valuable to upgrade.

Another way you make the game your own: inventory choices. You have a limited (though large) amount of carrying space. You can’t carry everything you come across, nor even every type of weapon. Myself, I like a wide an array of weapons to use in different situations. Others might like to tote around bulky heavy weaponry. Whatever you do, keep in mind that you might want to hold onto each weapon as long as you can, because of weapon upgrades. Each weapon can take numerous upgrades that can affect magazine size, reload rate, and the like, so once you’ve upgraded a weapon you may want to keep it around. Some items are must-haves: med kits, LAMs (like grenades), energy canisters, to name a few, luckily these things take up only one space in the inventory and are stackable (more than one of the same type fits in the same square). Lockpicks are a worthwhile tool as they are often an investment more than a cost, and you can use less of them if you upgrade your lockpick skill.

The difficulty of the game all depends on your decisions. I’ve heard it’s possible to complete the game without killing a single human being. That would be very difficult. There are several non-lethal weapons such as the tranq. crossbow and the stun prod, but tranqs are so slow-acting that the enemy often gets to an alarm button, and the stun prod requires a direct melee attack. And what augmentations and skills you choose to upgrade all affect your available strategies and the difficulty thereof. If I wanted to make the game harder, I could skip the hacking skill entirely, but for me that would make the game much less fun, because there’s nothing quite like the rush of turning an enemy’s trusted security system against them.

Also, you can save anywhere anytime, so if you constraint yourself in this ability, the difficulty will be raised. Otherwise you could pick every lock and just re-load an old game just before the pick if you don’t like what you find. While there’s nothing in the game to prohibit this, it does take much of the challenge out if you take this strategy.

There are multiple endings to the game, though luckily the objectives for each of them are given to you. You just need to choose which ones to complete. You’re not locked into any of the endings until you perform the final task for them, so if you keep some strategically saved games you can see all three endings without having to replay the whole game.

The graphics in the game are quite good, nice textures. My only complaint is that the faces, particularly the mouths, look blocky as people speak. The music is great, and the voice acting is superb. Some have complained that JC’s voice is too deadpan, but I think it’s appropriate given his character.

Hungry for more? There is a sequel, Deus Ex 2: Invisible War, but don’t expect much from it. It has some interesting ideas, but the core principles that made the first one great are dummied down to appeal to a wider audience. In addition, the graphics engine is needlessly vamped up. I ran it on a computer above the minimum specs and it would frequently stall as it tried to handle the rag-doll bodies and dynamic shadows. Those were fun effects, but reliance on pretty graphics is merely settling when looking at a Deus Ex game. Supposedly a Deus Ex 3 is in the works, but I don’t have high hopes for it. Warren Specter, the man that is given much of the credit for the first game, is not involved in this one, and that always makes me think it’s going to subpar, and usually I’m right. I hope I’m wrong. I really do. Hopefully I will be able to write up a separate Niche Games article later about how great it is. But I wouldn’t hold your breath. There have also been talks about movie rights, but again, I don’t have high hopes for anything worthwhile to come out of that.

If you want to find this game, it shouldn’t be too hard. A quick eBay search finds copies under 20 bucks, well worth the price of this one. Deus Ex has something for everyone. You will not regret it. Go buy it now, and enjoy!

Game Review: Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time

RatchetWritten by Melissa Shaw
Reprint from Fantasy Magazine

The new “Ratchet and Clank” game, “Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time (CIT)” for the Sony PS3, has a lot to live up to. The series is renowned for its quirky humor, vast array of gadgets and weapons, gorgeous visuals, and fast-paced, gleefully destructive action.

This installment picks up where the last left off: our favorite Lombax, Ratchet, is searching for his little robot pal, Clank, who vanished just after they won the big boss fight in “Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction (TOD).” (“Ratchet and Clank: Quest for Booty,” a short game that was released between TOD and CIT, was a Ratchet-only digression that, while it had a few entertaining moments, added nothing to the ongoing storyline.) Clank himself ends up becoming a caretaker of the Great Clock, a device that sits exactly in the center of the universe (give or take 50 feet) that maintains and repairs the stability of time. The main villain of the story, Dr. Nefarious (familiar to fans of earlier R&C games), is scheming to gain control over the Great Clock and thus time itself, so he can change history, wrong past rights, and rule the universe.

Like previous installments, CIT delivers lots of weapons (though the Quickselect menu is no longer customizable), enemies, worlds, spectacular visuals, and gadgets. The series’ humor is still firmly in place. Particular favorites include Mr. Zurkon, a homicidal “synthenoid” robot who loves to taunt your enemies (and sometimes your friends), and the battery bots, who complain bitterly every time their brief rebellions against being used as power sources are thwarted. The game also introduces mini-worlds with mini-games that feature various prizes, including treasure items and weapons mods. Clank’s role and abilities are expanded dramatically, particularly with an interesting self-cloning and time-manipulation gameplay mechanic that lends itself to some challenging puzzles. Story-wise, you finally learn more about Ratchet’s mysterious Lombax heritage (turns out he’s not the only one left).

The game is not without its flaws, however. You spend most of the game playing Ratchet and Clank separately, precluding opportunities for the character interactions that make up so much of the series’ charm. Also, the game is slow to get going. It opens with more than six minutes of cut-scenes, interrupted only by one brief training sequence in which you play Clank, not Ratchet. While the cut-scenes are entertaining and slick, they get between the player and the action, and the first four minutes can’t be skipped. The first third of the game feels a bit dumbed-down and slow compared to previous versions, more oriented toward the 8-to-10-year-old set than the older demographic it’s ostensibly intended for. (Minor spoiler alert ahead!) And while it’s likely supposed to be a pleasant surprise, discovering that not one but both of our titular heroes are essentially princes feels heavy-handed and too coincidental.

But the game steadily picks up steam as you progress, and by the second half, it’s worthy of its place in the R&C universe. The game gives you not one, not two, but three big boss fights at the end (although one is dependent on finding all of one particular treasure item, a time-consuming venture), and all are challenging and exhilarating.

The soundtrack is a mixed bag: sometimes orchestral and seamless, sometimes a jarring, retro 80s rock. Standout voiceover performances include Armin Shimerman’s as Dr. Nefarious, and Jim Ward’s as Captain Qwark.

Overall, while “Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time” gets off to a slow start, it ultimately delivers the humor, spectacular visuals, variety of weapons and gadgets, and lively action that fans of this series have come to expect.

10527_1187758026540_1606014926_30480607_3193812_nMelissa 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.

Technology and Writing

Technology is constantly changing the way we do so many things, and writing is no exception. How exactly? I’ve broken down the answer to that question into a set of categories. Keep in mind that all of this is through my own perspective on writing, which has been primarily speculative fiction short stories.

Is there anything I’ve left out, related to any sort of writing? Leave a comment!

1. Revising/writing

a. Spell Check-Many would be lost without spell check. Many programs, including Microsoft Word, even do a spell check as you type, and immediately mark an incorrectly spelled word the moment you type it. The spell check program can suggest alternative spellings, provide dictionary look-up. Still, spell checks could be improved–if the program could recognize a name through context this would prevent a lot of false alarms. Word also comes with a grammar check, but that is less useful because its grasp of grammar rules is shaky at best.

b. Revise and print-You decided you want to add a new paragraph on page one of a five hundred page manuscript? Or you discovered that all of your pages need a 1.5 inch margin instead of 1 inch? No problem! All you need to do is open up the document in your word processor, make your changes, and it’s ready to print. If you wanted to do this with a typewritten manuscript, it would not be fun at all.

2. Backing up your work

Imagine that, after putting weeks, months, or years of work into creating a masterpiece of prose, you suddenly lose your only copy of your manuscript. You remember the major plot points, but you’ve lost all the little details, and all the beautiful sentence-level work. It’s a terrible thought! Well, these days, there’s no reason to lose all your work if you just take a little time to prepare. Email is a convenient way to back your documents up. Many email services provide large storage banks for each account. I have a Gmail account that I started for free that makes a great aid to backing up documents. While I’m working on a new document, I email myself every couple of days. If I ever lost my other copies, all I would need to do is dig up the saved email. In addition to that, if someone plagiarized your work in the future, the timestamp on the email could help prove that you had a work in progress of the story long before it was in print. In addition to email, it’s always a good idea to back up a file in several places, each at different physical locations (so that a disaster like a fire doesn’t destroy years and years of hard work).

There are even programs designed specifically to help you keep your stuff backed up. Anthony recommend Carbonite.

3. Learning the craft

a. Interaction with pro authors-When I was younger, professional writers seemed to be a race of distant and otherworldly beings that I could never hope to interact with, lest my head explode (like when humans hear the voice of God in some belief sets). But now that illusion has been mostly dispelled. Don’t get me wrong, I still admire my favorite writers greatly for the amazing worlds they’re able to pull seemingly out of nowhere, but it turns out that quite a lot of them are quite nice people, and I’m even pretty sure that some of them are at least mostly human. Lots of them have blogs where they freely give writing advice to anyone who’s interested in listening. David Farland, for instance, has an email blog called Kick in the Pants–you can sign up for it at his website. Dean Wesley Smith is another favorite, providing great advice on his blog, including ideas for self-motivation like The Race. I’ve even added quite a few of my favorite authors as friends on Facebook–I enjoy hearing their writing updates and hear when they’re coming through my area for book signings.

No single writing method works for everyone, so if David Farland’s advice doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged. Just keep trying different methods until you find something that really clicks. Check out the sites of a few different authors. At the very least, their perspectives are entertaining. And if you have any questions, drop a comment to one of them. Keep in mind that they’re busy, but it’s not at all rare for them to take some time to reply to questions or comments.

b. Peer critique forums-Once I decided to start writing I spent more than a year writing a novel, mostly in isolation. I had just a few people who were willing to give me feedback on my stories, but these people tended to be inclined to tell me that they really liked the story, but not tell me much else. This was good for my ego, but not so useful to improve my writing skills. After that year, I decided to start writing short stories, and while doing market research I came across Baen’s Bar, a peer critique forum that doubled as a submission vehicle for Jim Baen’s Universe. You can post a story to their forum, and it is available immediately for feedback from others registered on the forum. Staff members of JBU often gave their comments, as well as other aspiring writers. Not only can you get feedback on your own work, many of whom are very experienced and have a good eye for picking out what’s missing in a story, but you can critique the writing of others. Of all the ways to improve your own writing, critiquing others is the best way, in my opinion. It allows you examine the stories of other aspiring writers and examine them with a cold eye without any emotional attachment to the story. You can decide what you like and what you don’t, and the real trick is to learn how to apply this to your own writing.

Jim Baen’s Universe will be closed as of mid-2010. There are no official plans to close Baen’s Bar critique forum, and the newsgroup it exists on will probably still need to be maintained for Baen’s Books and the Grantville Gazette magazine, so i hope the venue is around for a good long time.

c. Easy sharing-If you want to share a copy of a story with a friend, all you have to do is drop them an email. It’s free, and it’s quick, and a great way to share your work for feedback or just for fun.

d. Autocrit-Autocrit is a subscription-based service which provides automated tools to help watch for trouble spots in your manuscripts. It can look for potential flaws such as overused words and phrases, cliches, and overused dialogue tags. No tool is the end-all be-all of revising your manuscript, but this tool in combination with other techniques and tools can make a big difference.

4. Research

The effect of the Internet on research is obvious. Anyone with Internet access has nearly endless banks of information at their disposal, but one must always keep the source in mind. Wikipedia, for instance, is good for finding quick, interesting information, but because it is created by users, information provided there may not be correct. If a writer decides to write a story about doppelgangers, a quick Google search can provide a plethora of information in a fraction of a second.

5. Market info

1. Sites like Ralan provide submission information for a wide variety of publications.Â

2. Most markets have submisions page which describes exactly what they’re looking for, including any special formatting they require, required length, and preferred themes. Be sure to check out this page each time you send out a story to that market. You never know when some of their requirements will change. Many markets close to submissions from time to time, also, and it’s best to check here to be sure the market is still open as well.

6. Electronic submission/staff interaction

a. Save money-It costs nothing to send an email. That’s a major perk! Mailed submissions usually cost something like 2 dollars domestic within the US, including the SASE, and that’s not including the envelopes or the printing costs. Email submissions cost nothing. When you’re just getting started, those postage costs add up fast!

b. Quick interaction-An electronic submission arrives nearly instantly, ready for perusal by the magazine’s staff. My record fastest response was only 47 minutes (from Fantasy Magazine). That one was an outlier, but a few magazines consistently respond within 24 hours such as Fantasy, Clarkesworld, and Podcastle.

c. Geographically separated staff-A magazine’s staff members no longer have to be located anywhere near each other. In many cases, staff members may have never met in person, but members can interact easily with technology like email and online forums. This makes it much easier to find staff members, if you have the entire net-connected world to filter for candidates.

d. Competition fiercer every day! A downside to the recent ease of submission is that when submissions are both free and easy, more and more people will try it, which means more competition!

7. New publishing mediums

Printed words (either in magazine or book form) are no longer the only way to publish fiction. In fact, print may be the hardest one to maintain profitability with, and is probably the hardest method to start a new magazine with. Even a few years ago, print publications were generally considered to be more prestigious, but minds are opening a little bit more every year. SFWA recognizes professional markets based on pay and the circulation level, regardless of the medium.

Both of my sales to date have been to non-traditional publishing formats.

a. HTML-text format on a website. This can be provided for free (like Fantasy Magazine or Strange Horizons) or on a fee-based system (like Intergalactic Medicine Show or Jim Baen’s Universe).

b. Podcast-I’ve recently discovered audio fiction and I honestly don’t know how I’ve done without it. I can load up many stories on my iPod and I listen to them every day on my commute. Now I look forward to driving to see what the next story is! My first fiction sale was to Pseudopod, so I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for podcasts. And, even better, audio rights and text rights often do not overlap, so there is a large potential for resales for audio markets, as they are providing a substantially different product.

c. Print on Demand-Even just a few years ago, POD wasn’t really a viable option. Nowadays, if you have a good idea for a book or an anthology, you can publish it through POD and if you can find the audience for it, you can really do well. POD is not as risky as doing a huge preprinted print run (the traditional method), because you only print copies of the book that you have already sold. This means that once you’ve covered your artist/design and other upfront costs, each sale holds a share of profit. This is particularly appealing if the level of interest is uncertain or expected to be low.

Northern Frights Press was the publisher for my second sale. This was NFP’s very first anthology, provided via POD. Despite it being POD the printing is of a high quality that you could find in any bookstore, and it’s available to order from Amazon just like any other book. I’ve been very impressed with POD so far.

d. E-books-E-readers like Kindle are just starting to gain more widespread popularity. For a small fee, you can download books right onto the e-reader. With this technology you can grab new books instantly for less than what you would pay at the store, and you can carry your whole library with you wherever you go. I’m not sure that they will ever replace real books entirely–there’s just something I love about holding a physical book in my hand, the smell of the pages, the feel of the binding–but there are a lot of advantages to e-readers.

8. Social networking

In decades past, writing was generally considered to be a pretty lonely profession. Long hours alone with your typewriter were the norm, making a writer feel isolated from the very world she’s trying to write about. But if you’re writing on a net-connected laptop, you no longer need to be isolated. The importance of social connections in writing cannot be understated. There are many forums focused solely on writing, some geared towards particular genres, and they’re a great place to meet fellow aspiring writers. You’re not the only one struggling to be published. Together you can celebrate your successes, console each other for your failures, swap critiques, discuss writing techniques, and maybe just unwind a little bit.

#8 is closely related to #9 and #10. Read on!

9. Self-promotion

This overlaps somewhat with social networking in methods and tools, but the intent is different. Rather than meeting people for the sake of meeting people, this is working to spread your work to as many people as possible. Site like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit work as very powerful promotional tools. With each of these you can share links with huge amounts of people with minimal effort, and they’re all free. Most of the hits for this article were probably generated by these tools. With a little careful promotional work, like book giveaways, traffic can be driven to your site to advertise your writing and help with name recognition.

10. Availability of distractions

The flip side of the coin of all these advantages is that with the whole web at your fingertips, distractions are easy to find. If you’re stuck on a story, staring at the word processing screen, it is far too easy to pop up Facebook to go read your friends’ statuses, to hop on an online forum to discuss True Blood vs. Twilight, or to go read (or write) a blog post about writing. Those things all have their time and place, but if you want to write, make sure you get your writing time in too!

Niche Game: Blast Corps

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 because they’re something different, something special.

Blast Corps, released in 1997 for Nintendo 64, is based entirely around blowing stuff up. But it’s different from all those other blowing-stuff-up games, because you’re not destroying to kill, you’re destroying to save humanity. Two defective nuclear missiles are being transported cross country to a controlled demolition site. In transit, they start leaking, and the autopilot of the carrier kicks in, sending it on a direct path to the destination at a steady speed to the demolition site. A DIRECT path, completely disregarding any buildings or any other obstacles If it hits any bump, no matter how small, it will detonate. So the demolition squad called Blast Corps is hired to tear down everything in the carrier’s way.

Who designed this equipment? An autopilot system on a carrier hauling nuclear weapons? And nobody considered adding in the small detail in the autopilot of being able to steer around giant obstacles. Also, if nuclear weapons detonated from the smallest bump there’s no way they would ever have been deployed. And, hmmm, the guy who decided to cut corners on the budget by skipping the shock absorbers? That guy is SO going to get fired.

Yeah. The “plot” leaves something to be desired, but if you’re willing to set that aside, the game is original and fun. As the game progresses, you drive a bunch of different vehicles, each with their own demolition capabilities, and you have to clear the tiniest of obstacles out of the way.

The first vehicle you get is the bulldozer. It’s the easiest vehicle to use: all you have to do is drive it straight into obstacles. But it’s not very powerful, because it doesn’t have a lot of momentum behind it. It works pretty well for one-story buildings and small obstacles. When the bulldozer’s a bit out of its league it can push convenient crates of dynamite into buildings to pack extra punch. Who leaves crates of dynamite sitting around by civilian buildings? Why can’t more than one person be at a site demolishing? You’re asking questions again. Stop it!

My favorite vehicle is the Backlash, dump truck. It’s fairly slow, and can do a bit of damage by ramming head on, but it’s real power is the heavily-armored back end of the vehicle. By turning and jamming on the emergency break, or by hopping it over a bump, you can send the Backlash into a destructive controlled slide.

Some of the vehicles are just downright silly, though they’re still fun to use anyway. Such as the Sideswipe, whose destructive power uses its limited fuel to extending bashing panels out to either side. Its a terrible design for a demolition vehicle, but the fuel budgeting makes the gameplay interesting anyway. And the J-Bomb, which uses a jet pack to rise up in the air and then smashes down on buildings.

After you clear the path for the carrier in each level, you can come back for some playability appeal to knock down every remaining structure, activating beacons throughout the level, and rescuing survivors. Besides the main carrier levels, there are also bonus levels which don’t involve the carrier, but still involve blowing stuff up.

And, that’s about all there is to say about the game. If you think mass demolition with strict time limits sounds like fun, try this game out. If you don’t, then you should skip it. It’s as simple as that. Finding a copy of Blast Corps shouldn’t be a problem. I found multiple copies on eBay for less than 5 bucks a piece. Otherwise, you can probably find a ROM for it to play on your computer, though I haven’t dabbled in N64 ROMs. It’s worth a play through, especially if it only costs you a few bucks. Enjoy!