Articles, Reviews

My Year in Reading – 2016

I was pretty impressed to have accomplished my Goodreads 2016 Reading Challenge, even managing to get a couple of extra books in before the year was through, bringing my total to 37 books. It’s definitely been a stellar year for my reading and this is something I’m proud of; I recall the oft-quoted maxim that a great writer is a great reader.

I decided a while ago that finishing this would be a great opportunity to reflect on some of the books I managed to get through this year, both the good and the bad!

Hall of Shame

twilight

Twilight: I was bemused and concerned to find Twilight on my university reading list and, to be honest, was, I suppose, morbidly intrigued to see if Twilight was quite as bad as it was. I was not disappointed. Bella is an awful, soulless character who is the epitome of a spoiled brat, and worse seems to exist only to live off Edward, who is himself a particularly manipulative, creepy menace. The stomping over the conventions that can make vampires quite chilling and frightening to pursue this romance yarn was the icing on the cake.

50_shades

Fifty Shades of Grey: This was pure morbid curiosity; if it was borne as Twilight fan-fiction, it must be the pits? To be honest, I did think it a tiny bit better than Twilight; some potential character development between both Ana and Christian, though her naivety (and its rapid disappearance) was a somewhat problematic. Again, though, it focuses the story upon the male character and the young, impressionable woman’s focus on him above all else. There’s little point analysing the literary merit of Fifty Shades of Grey as it exists as a means to an end. Oh, and the constant sex got pretty boring!

the_road

The Road: This was a surprise at the end of the year – I was expecting an exquisitely-crafted story of two characters in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Well, it was certainly a nightmare; the characters were unrelatable and, while they undertake a physical journey, their emotional journey doesn’t even begin – they’re as cold and distant to each other at the end as they were at the start, we the reader learn nothing about them (not even names), we learn very little about the disaster that has befallen the setting, or much about the setting at all. I found the format of the book extremely contrived – no chapters, very little punctuation, which made the scant dialog a chore. What portions there were, presumably to stand in as actual chapters, felt very under-developed, almost like shopping lists, which removed any atmosphere. A poor effort.

ancillary_justice

Ancillary Justice: This didn’t work out for me at all. The concept of a spaceship’s AI inhabiting numerous “ancillaries” and the journey of justice the last remaining one to discover the truth was potentially very interesting, but the cold and mechanical prose didn’t help the story. The protagonist was utterly unlikeable, and the lore impenetrable as the book wore on. The author, like with The Road, decided to experiment with the form and use female pronouns for every character, which was probably very noble but was something I found confusing and didn’t aid with picturing the characters, all of which seemed identical cut-outs, at all. A failed experiment.

Hall of Fame

Jurassic_Park

Jurassic Park: I’d easily put this book as one of my favourites to discover this year. It was approachable but detailed, and intensely thrilling the whole way through. I particularly enjoyed the dusting of plausible, realistic but also forward-looking science that was contained but also left approachable and not at all condescending. I’ve started pillaging the Crichton back catalogue after reading Jurassic Park and I continue to be impressed with his body of work. Jurassic Park was a fine example of Michael Crichton’s crisp, intense and exhilarating prose coupled with a clear affinity and knowledge of the subject matter. I’ve also read The Lost World and Airframe since finishing Jurassic Park and found them to be a continuation of this type of precise but enjoyable techno-thriller.

leviathan-wakes-james-sa-corey

Leviathan Wakes: It would be a bit glib to describe Leviathan Wakes as “Game of Thrones in space” but it does tick all the boxes that GoT does – here we have a compelling and epic drama involving some memorable and distinct characters primarily, but with a rich and detailed universe that doesn’t make itself known for the sake of it; rather it acts as a grounding for the drama. There’s a sense of the colossal scale of the politics and factions within the politics but at the heart of it is the crew of the Rocinante who get into all manner of scrapes that get more and more epic and exciting as the book (and series) progresses. I’m definitely glad I discovered this series and Leviathan Wakes is a strong opener.

The_Rats

The Rats: I recently started reading quite a few of James Herbert’s work, given as I enjoyed The Fog quite a bit last year. His work is definitely enjoyable and lacks the pretention and is humble, which makes it so approachable. The Rats was a truly horrific story, well executed and exciting and, as a sign of its success. Even though it’s over 40 years old, I still found it visceral, gruesome, gripping and pacey, which is a mark of success given how desensitised society has become since it was published in the 1970s. I also read Lair, the follow-up, which continues the story admirably; however, The Rats is definitely a book I enjoyed a ton and I just wish I’d read it sooner!

christine

Christine/Misery: Continuing the thought of “books I wish I’d read before”, I finally gave some Stephen King a go. I suppose I’ve kindof been ignoring King in the search for other, less archetypal writers but I was wrong – King’s books, of which I’ve read two, were gripping and uniquely crafted, but still thrilling and, honestly, scary! There’s some original plots too and I appreciated how atmospheric both the books, Christine and Misery have been, definitely giving a feeling of something not being quite as it seems or right. Look forward to exploring more of King’s work!

Overall I think 2016 was a pretty fantastic year for reading and I certainly don’t regret pouring so much time and effort into it; I definitely feel I’ve gotten something out of it. It’s proved a catalyst to do equally as well, and hopefully better, next year. And I hope, too, that I’ve gained some insight, potentially subconsciously, that I can use to great effect in my own work going forward!

Articles

Reconsidering Ender’s Game

I’ve pretty much finished the first year of my degree in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University. I’ve mainly been concerning myself with the creative writing aspect but one aspect of the literature side of my studies has gotten me thinking.

About three years ago I wrote about how I would not be reading the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game because its author, Orson Scott Card, was extremely homophobic and espoused personal views I found quite disgusting. I didn’t want to be seen to endorse those views by reading his work or support him by purchasing it.

Early on in my degree I read a literary essay published in the 1960s, The Death of the Author; this was before 4PM Friday lectures sapped my enthusiasm for dry literary theory, and, considering the essay, I began to rethink my approach to Ender’s Game.

The gist of the essay is that the “author” is merely a conduit for “work” to be created from, and that we must not consider a work as a vehicle for the author’s views and political standpoints but in the context of other contemporary works that existed at the time of writing; a work is not a singular piece isolated from the rest of the world. The responsibility is on the reader more to take their own message from a work than to try to decode the author’s intentions.

This, on first glance, does not seem to bode well for creative writers but I would argue that it allows a lot more freedom for writers to not worry about being psychoanalysed after the fact through their work and, on a personal level for me, anyway, means that the author does not become one with their work, and both cannot really be judged by the merits (or otherwise) of the other. One of the main reservations I have about my writing is being judged by what the fictional characters I create do, as if they’re always a representation or reflection on some part of my own personality.

What does this mean for Ender’s Game? For all intents and purposes, I have heard it’s a stellar piece of military science fiction. The book tackles themes such as inclusiveness, friendship and identity. Whether Orson Scott Card believed in this personally is, in hindsight, irrelevant; he however brought together this piece of work and, putting my reservations aside – I feel I’m being unfair on the book if I shun it wholly due to its author being a d*ck – I look forward to objectively taking Ender’s Game for its own merits.

I feel I was almost there when, in 2013, I wrote:

A book should be criticised separately from the personality of its author, though the personality of its author should be instilled throughout its pages. But with Ender’s Game this whole issue the proverbial elephant in the room and the scale of it means it really can’t be ignored. 

I’m happy to have finally found a personal, tangible use for all the dry literary theory I’ve been studying. Oh, and to circumvent supporting Mr. Card? I borrowed it from my local library, which is probably a far better cause!

Articles, Gaming

Reinventing Game Manuals

Being of a certain age I remember a time when games came in big boxes with an actual manual that took the form of a weighty book, a lot like this (from my personal collection):

Game Manuals

However, this golden age of bog boxes, CDs and manuals has sadly long passed, replaced by DVD slim-cases and digital downloads, and “proper” game manuals are a very neglected part of development of modern games.

SimCity 2000 Help fileThat’s not to say you couldn’t fit a decent manual in a DVD case; in the early 2000s a lot of companies did – and then digital downloads happened and you simply can’t fit a bound book onto Steam without breaking the laws of physics. Another innovative and user-friendly approach, in my opinion, was the usage by certain games in the 1990s of the standard Windows help format – Age of Empires and SimCity 2000 (example to the left) come to mind immediately. Why this practise died out is a mystery – it really did work!

Modern games tend to encourage learning as you play, either through dedicated tutorial or training levels or a gentle slope up in difficulty while exposing mechanics at a rate players can deal with – which is fine, but certain games don’t lend themselves too well to this. A strategy game like Civilization V includes a great training and tutorial system but is so complex, layered and in-depth that diving into the manual can be just the ticket when players encounter new or unfamiliar gameplay elements.

Civ V‘s manual is presented thusly when bought on Steam:

Civ V PDF Manual

This is an approximation of what the manual would’ve looked like if 2K Games had bothered to have the Civ V manual printed; the key part being that 2K Games did not have it printed, and thus the layout of this PDF (and that of many other games) is certainly not optimal to on-screen reading. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s less optimal than the Windows Help-style format that SimCity used above. Apple realised recently that such skeumorphism (that is, making digital things look like analog things for “familiarity”) is no longer needed these days, so shouldn’t the PC game industry follow suit?

How can this problem be addressed? Simple: instead of wasting time laying out a manual for print when it will only ever be confined to a PDF, create a universal HTML version that can easily be converted to an eBook. There are excellent software packages available, such as Scrivener which I use a lot, which can take “master” copy and transpose it into multiple formats with relative ease – if one guy like myself can create a professional-looking eBook, imagine what a resourceful games company can do. It’s not as much work as it may sound.

A HTML or eBook version would have all the benefits of a PDF – portability, compatibility  and hyperlinking for contents – with none of the needless visual clutter. It would certainly be a better experience to navigate too – I see the mid-90s approach from SimCity and Age of Empires as the on-screen gaming manual benchmark – it’s easy to navigate and use and isn’t afraid to be a “help file” or pretends to be a book.

In terms of cost to games companies, this would be negligible as the content for a manual is written before it is laid out and formatted to create the PDFs we know today. If anything, skipping that layout stage and going straight for digital formatting would save companies money.

I’m certainly not proposing that game publishers should go back and retroactively transpose their game documentation into HTML or eBook formats (though that would be nice), but going forward I feel it would be a very beneficial move for players.