Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tanya Huff: An Ancient Peace

She sees the future and in it lay:

Space Marines. In that way Tanya Huff is like everyone else. From Halo to David Weber, whether they're front and center or part of ground crews, everyone sees the Marines breaking into the final frontier. What Huff does differently is her portrayal of psychics and magic as alien races. Swedes show through in dayglo colors as the di-Takyan, and Black American-Russo translators are the Krai.

The Elder Races are a bit harder to determine, although the H'san seem a good bet for the Welsh. The Elders are just as condescending and political about war as their real life counterparts- and just as full of secrets. They may have stopped fighting their territorial wars three thousand years ago, but their old ways of doing and being lie just beneath the surface.

When a group of Tomb Raiders begins to unearth their UnEarthly ways and weapons, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr is called out of retirement (and her mandatory Justice Department service, sucks to be ex-Corp). She and her small group of misfits, all that's left of the politically motivated band of heroes named Shu'Quo, heads deep into H'Sani space to find their burial planet, and the troublemakers who are causing trouble for the Younger Races after the War.

No one wants to be labelled as a war mongerer after the last War, least of all the Corps.

Curious? Buy it Here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Atlantic Ocean is Large (the Psychic Wars)

The War is over. That's what they tell us- that's what we say. Things have settled down after the marriage alliance. Between the two of us, England and the US control 104 countries. We're both sovereign nations. Still, China looms large to the West, and every psychic for the past decade has had visions of a global village that includes the East. Thankfully those vision take place far in the future.

I don't buy into the regular definition of a precognitive- to me that's just mysticism. I'm an artist myself, not that anyone would give me props for it. I know that we translate data, input, into something comprehensible and beautiful. Something that gives our emotions an outlet of their own, til they speak in colors with a voiceless mouth. That's all a vision is. Precogs are simply in the know, counters who track everything around us to a degree of certainty and, if we're smart, check with Intelligence to see how well we're tracking.

This was the longest year of my life. My gap year. The year between everyone eating Maenads and acting seeky for magic and the settle that comes after. I don't know what the middle class is doing to straighten themselves out and, to be honest, I don't want to. I've got my hands full smoothing over international relations between militaries. Try landing that for a job. I've always said that my Da was actually named Murphy and God uses me as a divine sort of Comedy Central.

Trying to mend the edges of millions of twenty year old men (and women) with guns, boots and, occasionally, gloves. It's a fun pastime, one that keeps me in the social status I've gotten used to. I have seen the top of the mountain. I regret nothing, I have lived as few men dare to dream. It's going to get me killed. The thought's comforting, it's better than anything else around that might get me killed- which is everything.

We're entering into an odd time, and we're moving slowly. Against all odds, psychic news is still passed only in doublespeak, and the military VR that is the Tron is still Top Secret- people don't even know what Life Neshing is. The latest drugs are tailored to Life Neshing, to connecting with VR and the In Between, but no one seems to know that. Most of our work is still underground. Pray for us.

(Previously in the Psychic Wars...)

Friday, July 13, 2018

Psychic Etiquette 101

"Mummy, Flute told me a story that England used to have different people in it," Gretel was on fire ever since Danno left, she'd asked everyone from the servants to the cats what was going on. She and Alexi would get together afterwards and do art. It helped them put things together.

We always said that Flute or Persephone "told us a story" because that was the way they explained things. Cats don't have the same emotions as humans, they purr when they're upset and hide when they're hurt- so we tell stories around things.

"Things were definitely different here," I hedged, continuing to fiddle with the raised tray of deli meats and cheeses we were having for lunch. We'd spread a travel mat on the playroom floor for a pretend picnic.

Did I really want to get into the people who walked into and out of the Rifts for almost five years? Was that really what she was asking about?

"I know that Mommy came through just fine, and I'm pretty sure I lost a few friends." I finally answered, smoothing the hemline of my shirt.

"Flute said that she did too, that's how she knew there were new people here," Gretel loved when Flute told her stories, and it was a safe way to let the kids in on the history of the Cold War. Most people were dismissive of a cat's intelligence- the same people who avoided service dogs, or threw the ward for the evil eye at them (or worse).

Telepathy was still more of an art than a science, we used cues rather than relying on voice alone, but the kids were well loved and took the time out, growing up, to learn falanese- cat body language- despite the fact that I'd had my family for twenty years before they showed up, and they got caught telling lies more than a few times.

"How did you know, Mummy? Alexis says that it's because you're a spy." Gretel bit her bottom lip, stopping suddenly. She knew she wasn't supposed to call me a spy. For starters it was impolite. We were past the days when people could claim that any bad behavior was an "evil psychic" and I opened my mouth to correct her when the door chime went off.

"We memorize energy signatures the way that some people remember the way someone walks, or talks, or even breathes," I told her, giving her a severe look to let her know she was still in trouble, and pushing myself up off of the playroom floor. I watched her little rosebud mouth purse in worry and absently noted Cato answering the door, and two sets of footsteps heading towards the sitting room.

"Yes Mummy, sometimes I'm awake when you check on me before you go to bed, and I know it's you." I had half a mind to put her down for a nap, but she and Alexi had just turned five, and it was already three o'clock. I pulled a level two puzzle down from the shelf in the playroom closet and handed it to her as punishment, before heading down the sweeping stairs and turning left into the sitting room.

"Old Brown," The words left my lips without me thinking them. I spent a moment wondering if that's how it felt to be a Normal while my emotions caught up with me. I'd never met the man in the antique style armchair, but I knew him like I knew my favorite necklace, the wheel of my car. My getaway past the tall tree up in the moors.

"Is that what you call me?" His face was a mixture of shocked and horrified- not exactly how I'd pictured this going. Not that I'd even pictured it, consciously at least. I was staring.

He was only about five nine, with unremarkable brown hair and hazel eyes. His cheekbones were high, but most of us trained our faces, and his chin was more pointed that I'd imagined. Not that I'd ever pictured him either. A penchant for nice shoes showed in the hem of his trousers, as well as the quality of the leather business shoes he was sporting, and he'd left on his jacket.

What was he, a professor? We never really talked. He was my escape, for when Domhnal ran off with another man. Another empath who chose to communicate without speaking. It dawned on me how damning that nickname was, as he sat there patiently. If I hadn't been trained out of blushing before I hit my teens, I'd be flushed red.

"Um, I don't really call you anything at all. How did you find me?" I asked, taking a seat in the other highbacked chair. I didn't encourage a lot of company, anyone who showed up with a group was forced to endure the awkward seating of my dark chaise lounge which held down the far corner of our elaborate Persian rug. The English got a lot of mileage out of the entendres implicit in using a chaise lounge for a couch, not all of them polite. I'd caught a member of SAS calling my sitting room "The Venus Flytrap" once.

"You're sending out a rather large amount of distress. After about five years of Not talking I figured I'd follow protocol and meet you in person." He'd either gone to boarding school in Scotland, or lived in the far northern part of England.

Personal notes aside, I was glad that some of us were still following protocol. You weren't to stalk someone in psychic, if you had communication it should be near the community, and shouldn't be telepathic. If you found you moved too close, you minded your manners and moved the conversation into the real world, where it could follow the real world rules of etiquette. A lot of us were upper class and we were extraordinarily stringent about the sociability of our psychic lives. Old Brown had been proper, as always. His eyes were on my casual, Japanese style house slippers, and I pushed the call button on my wristpiece for tea.

"Stay and have tea, we've never been properly introduced," I smiled politely, easing smoothly into the formal role of hostess. He smiled back, relieved- if peeved- to have been moved into a distant social position. This would be interesting.

(Previously in the Psychic Wars...)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Lure of the Temptress: Lost Gems

Essentially the story of how lowly peasants get fancy titles like "squire", Lure of the Temtpress follows a (for once) competent hero as he breaks out of a Skorl prison and searches for a way to free his homeland from the grip of an evil sorceress and her twisted minions.

If it sounds like a trope- that's because it is. Lure follows a lot of the storytelling and gameplay conventions of the late 80s, but was largely overlooked. For Point and Clickers, or Adventure Gamers in general, that's a huge win. We don't like to admit it, but we love spending portions of our week trolling through sales at places like GOG.com looking for exactly this sort of game. The graphics are good, the storyline is solid and the gameplay is straightforward.

On off days we really enjoy playing a hero with a purpose in life, the ability to overcome adversity is a surprisingly healthy outlet, and adaptive for the real world where you tend to face overwhelming odds when you're an introvert who likes computers. It's not that it's dangerous out there, it's that connecting to people who do the same things and feel compelled to force you into "socialization" in order to make a paycheck can be frustrating.

With a constant stream of casual NPCs and an interesting color palette, Lure is a great refreshing play after a long day of work.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

There's a Desert inside, Waiting to Happen (the Psychic Wars)

"It's good tea," Sasha commented, sitting up straight in his chair. Not that he'd been slouching, he never slouched, but he adopted an angular lean when he was in the American or English parts of Ophelia.

"It is," I agreed. I smelled the warm curlicues of steam rolling artfully up off the top and took a small sip. I knew he was waiting for an update, but the one nice thing about working with SF was that they were never in a hurry.

How to talk around what happened? Dove had been missing for five days now, but I wasn't one to hurry either. I'd waited 34 years in a deer blind once, just to hit my mark. I'd go to anything length to protect my country, my name, and my life. I'd waited those 34 years to protect my cause, Lady Diana's cause, to prove that psychics were real people and- in America- served in the military. This day, eight years prior, I'd finally saluted the flag. As a soldier.

"It's Independence Day, in America," I mentioned casually, and Sasha smiled tolerantly. SF hated politics, they only cared about the missions. They knew enough to understand that politics dictated those missions- for SF it was fairly direct, but they were like I used to be, they wanted everything handled subconsciously. It was a smart move, Russians didn't do well, politically, unless they had rank.

"It took a long time for psychics to be acknowledged, even during the war. But today, eight years ago, a number of us went out and saluted the flag." I'd actually managed to get Sasha to look surprised, it wasn't an expression you saw often on a Russian. I imagine they didn't like the emotion, but I imagine a lot when it comes to their culture. I don't understand it.

"We were an above Top Secret organization for so long it was an uphill battle to protect our rights." Sasha's face closed again. Very often SF, in every nation, was on the opposite side of that fight. It strained our traditionally close relationship. Every little psychic girl and boy in America dreamed of running marks for Special Forces, as they worked with military units. Not that we minded our every day, but the name was so flashy. Those of us who made it were far more proud than we had any right to be. We were forced to keep up with an all boys club that pushed you to your limit.

"It was a landmark for us, although I doubt anyone else noticed. The opposition was already crumbling. We didn't want to be under cover anymore. They were corrupting good people in our families, using that secrecy. It wasn't all the government, although they had a few institutions that went rogue, and one major oversight of thinking we were a peoples. It was time to protect our rights as citizens." Sasha hadn't moved, that stillness that was a natural quality of his culture humming slightly with discomfort. I studied the sharp planes of his face, and the set of his shoulders, and decided to wrap it up.

"Families are incredibly important to psychics. They're the only ones who understand us. We still don't talk directly to our psychic friends, we just send out messages like pen pals. During the war we had to move in opposition to parts of our families. We called ourselves Team God, or Team Good. Trite, but apt. We wanted equality. Ironically the space program distracted us after the Psychic War, and helped us through the fall out. It generated jobs for us to study, we worked well with Quanta, even those who didn't bother to educate themselves on it. They had a good methodology and the government was willing to work with it."

"So we're doing a space run?" Sasha asked, sipping thoughtfully at his tea. He, personally, didn't love the space program, but it was incredibly popular.

"Yeah," I flashed him a crooked smile, the left side of my mouth quirking up, "I'm going to do a space sim, it's not political and a bit of a right turn from most of our recent stuff, so I thought I'd give you a heads up."

"Thanks," he replied, studying the teacup instead of looking at me. The crew didn't approve of Domhnal, but they approved of me abandoning him less. I was being as polite as I could about it, it was a family matter, and personal. They wouldn't pry directly and no one would get hurt, hopefully. The kids would give me a hard time, because I was directing all of the attention at us. They hated that. But they liked their nice clothes, nice toys, and nice position in society just fine, so they'd learn to deal with it.

People thought the upper class didn't do much. They couldn't be more incorrect.

(Previously in the Psychic Wars...)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Krondor, the Betrayal

If the name sounds familiar, well, there's a reason for that. Raymond E. Feist was commissioned to write a video game story, and release a book from the same script. While it was a collaboration with the team at Dynamix, the book is definitely Raymond's own.

With a good plot, driving storyline, and engaging characters, the Betrayal is a great standalone novel, you don't need to play the videogame to enjoy it. Some people will enjoy reading the book first, and some playing the videogame- as much of the dialogue is in both. They don't have to change the wording or plot as the two were commissioned together. Unlike videogame based novels later released by Wizards of the Coast, it's not "based in the world of" - it's actually the same story. In fact, it's in the same world as the Riftwars, Raymond's previous books.

If you're interested in gaming culture, it's a great study, and I'd recommend doing both to any literature or culture student, and possibly to one who's studying video games. As a novel it's in the style of English political fantasy, and is an enjoyable adventure. You follow Owyn, a young squire, through his traditional rise in politics. In fantasy that translates to an epic adventure.

You sympathize with the moredhel (the dark elves), are enchanted by the dwarves, and are drawn in by the entirely human characters that provide the landscape for Betrayal as you explore parts of the story that the game has left untold. We definitely recommend it.

Curious? Buy it here.

Interested in the game? We do a short review below.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Empty Spaces, GUIs, and Game Development Engines

Do you Indie? Whether the answer is yes or no, you more than likely just thought of video game graphics. Some gamers only go in for high end interactions- gaming was originally intended to be a virtual experience, a platform for entertainment that came with a user interface. Some of us are perfectly happy with a great story that has the emotional distance that 8 or 16 bit provides (or Flash).

Either way there is an artistic element to video games that is unique to computers- and that extends to other video game consoles in a strange way. Adult learners have the hardest time with a computer because they can't touch the objects they're working with (hence all the hype about hand eye coordination). Once they conquer that hurdle, the next problem is user interface. That's true for work as well as play.

Programmers have a real problem properly using empty spaces, because in the programming world they don't exist. What you run into time and again, causing parsing error after parsing error, is overlap. As a result programmers come up short when they translate polygonal interaction into a three dimensional video game.

The short version of the problem (also seen in 2D, although less so), is that programmers don't measure the distance from an object to the interface avatar (your character), they only measure the other way around. This creates a flat and unreal experience which causes the player to walk into things, makes for a herky jerky walking mode, and makes backgrounds lack depth. The fix is simple, you just take the programming formulas that create avatar reaction to an object and reverse them.

What you do with it is anything but simple. It gives you a tool to measure reaction- instead of just action. As the avatar approaches an object a threshold is reached which starts triggering flags- stored in the object, not the avatar. In turn the avatar reacts to the object. It's almost unheard of, but incredible for creating user experiences.

If you're wondering why your favorite games- Detroit Become Human, Dragon Age, Miitopia - didn't hit, this is part of it. They promise a fully emotional immersive experience, but fail to deliver because the avatar doesn't let you know how it feels about it's environment. It's an area where TellTale excels- because they substitute cut scenes.

Will we hit the point where developers create an avatar experience? No one knows. They stuck their toes in the water with Bioshock III and Dreamfall, but no one has really tapped into the idea fully. For now we're stuck in story mode- which isn't entirely unpleasant. We get bonus chapters of popular media like Game of Thrones as a trade off. Total win.

Love the article and video? Try "What's the Difference Between Indie and Mainstream"