Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't Fear The Reapers

For the past few years I’ve been afflicted with a modern condition known as ME. It can lead to bouts of extreme tiredness and a reluctance to move from the couch. Unlike chronic fatigue syndrome, these are entirely voluntary states and very much down to personal choice. I mean, if I stay up into the small hours and because of my condition, I have no one to blame but myself.

Although the developers at Bioware should share some of the culpability, since they unleashed ME on an unsuspecting populace. Yes, that’s right – it’s an artificially engineered virus that has been systematically released in phases by an evil corporation that put black ops research giant, Cerberus, to shame.

My own Mass Effect condition recently reached stage 3 and I know I’m not alone in this regard.

It’s addictive and habit-forming. The worst part has been the waiting between phases. And I’m an insomniac anyway, so what’s a little tiredness? Now that I’ve completed my first playthrough of this third and final (?) instalment, I feel I have a chance of keeping my habit under control. Although it would be useless denial to claim that it was over. There’s sure to be more DLC, I have other playthroughs with other characters to look forward to and while the story was always intended to be a trilogy, there is vast scope for further tales to be told within the Mass Effect universe.

In reviewing this closing chapter of one of the most significant video games to have graced any console system, I will endeavour to steer a spoiler-free course as much as possible. Story counts and I wouldn’t want to undermine that for anyone who’s not completed – or perhaps not even begun – the journey.

In many respects, the series has been an amalgam of everything that there is to love about scifi, borrowing elements from a host of other fictional universe to create its own. It’s what Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption did for the Western genre and that worked beautifully – and I don’t especially like Westerns. The developers poured in vast quantities of talent and the results have been spectacular, immersive and enduring.

Gorgeous cinematics combine with movie-quality score to beat most experiences you’re likely to get at the local flicks. One of the standout innovations of the original was its cinematic approach to dialogue exchanges and this feature has been retained throughout, while here in the crucial third instalment they’ve managed a key evolution in the flow between cut-scenes and gameplay action. It’s more fluid and more involving as a result.

Storywise, all I can safely say is, it delivers.

Being honest, I didn’t necessarily get the outcome I wanted for my character – a true paragon and hero, if ever there was one – but it was ultimately the right choice for her. And the path – or paths – taken to get there were fraught with challenges, difficulties, sacrifices, ups, downs, twists, turns, highs and lows – everything, in short, to ensure a satisfying dramatic journey.

The climactic finale is nothing short of an epic all-action movie in its own right. Fair enough, there was no absolute obligation to play it through all in one sitting but once I was committed I couldn’t break off. So, be warned and be prepared for a full-on battle through a war-torn urban landscape that makes the D-Day landings from Saving Private Ryan look like a Sunday School outing to the beach. It’s relentless and varied, which is a tough recipe to pull off, but utterly compelling.

Thematically, the overall story arc is up there with Alastair Reynolds, even if it doesn’t have his degree in physics. It’s a smarter, more mature Star Wars, with a reservoir of influences that includes the literary as much as movie and popular culture SF. But alongside the depth and gloom and serious galactic-scale menace, there’s a vibrant palette of colours and – SF authors take note – it never forgets to season it with a wonderful sense of humour.

The artwork and design work are second to none and in terms of visual concepts – aliens, spaceships, technology, worlds and environments etc - this is the most innovative, distinctive sci-fi universe to have graced my TV screen since Farscape. Even the biggest, baddest enemies – the Reapers - are things of beauty. And sure, there are disgustingly ugly creatures too, but they are drawn and detailed and brought to life with love. And more labour of love has gone on below the surface - if you bother to read any of the codex entries you find along your way, you realise how much craft and attention has gone into the encyclopaedic background that helps glue this universe together. It’s awe-inspiring before you’ve even started getting to grips with playing the game.

The architects of this playground care about your experience.

As to the gameplay, for this third outing there’s something of a return to the original for some elements – the upgrading and modifying of equipment, for example – while once again the game feels like an evolved version of the one you already knew. Which is exactly what you want. That sense of continuity – of adventuring in the same universe – is even more key to Mass Effect, with its facility for preserving the choices of a single character from previous instalments – but other series could learn a lesson or two from this one. The controls are immediately familiar, as are the ‘rules’ of the universe, while there have been definite tweaks and adjustments.

The Kinect compatibility, by the way, is pretty neat and being able to speak your dialogue options or bark commands at your squad members in the heat of a gun battle is as cool as a cryo round. To be fair, it worked better with headphones on, since in the noisiest and busiest of fights the TV sound output interfered some with the voice recognition at times and there were occasions when issuing commands felt like giving orders to a cat. “Liara: Singularity” might as well have been “Viola: Quit clawing the sofa”, for example. Still, for the most part it was impressive and handy, but for the particularly frantic battles I tended to revert to the control wheel for more effective control of the squad.

On Normal difficulty, the engagements are often tough but but do-able with a balance of skill, sensible tactics and a spoonful of luck – which seems well-gauged to generate a reasonable challenge.

Of course, another of the tricks Mass Effect is exemplary at is understanding that how the quiet spells compliment the manic adrenaline-fuelled gunfights and there’s similar scope here for peaceful exploring, shopping and quality personal time with your team mates. They’ve expanded the boundaries for interpersonal exchanges to some extent, in that you now get to hook up with your crew for chats on the Citadel (chats used to be confined to shipboard get-togethers), while at the same time they’ve limited some exchanges to the kind of non-cinematic button-press sequences that in ME 2 were confined to DLC extra characters. It’s something of a compromise, but the characters themselves are as richly drawn as ever – human or alien, they feel like real three-dimensional inhabitants of their universe – and the voice acting (the importance of which many games still underestimate) is top-notch. It’s worth lingering here and there to eavesdrop on some of the incidental background conversations too.

Interestingly, if I had to give vent to a gripe or quibble it would be in the interpersonal relations department. While everything else appears to have evolved with each game in the series, there was room for one improvement that has been entirely overlooked. Given that there’s room for your character to rekindle a past romance, it’s a shame there couldn’t have been more innovation on that front. The romantic objective is just that – you score an achievement for, well, scoring. Hence, if any given character takes your fancy, you’re free to pursue, but at some point – i.e. once you’ve won them over – it comes to a stop and all the talk is just business until just before the endgame.

So, if developers really want to explore some growth for the next generation of console-based RPGs, how about the idea of maintenance of relationships – whether that be for romances or friendships – or heck, even rivalries?

Dragon Age: Origins incorporated the idea of a sliding scale disposition for each character towards your hero(ine) and that was okay, although I’d have preferred it if the scale was invisible to the player. Imagine that: interactions based on your behaviour without being able to measure the results on a ruler. That would give the illusion of sophistication, at least, and instead of featuring getting laid as the ultimate goal and an achievement to be checked off, there might be room for further growth and development beyond that. Fair enough in a single movie, it’s acceptable for to close with lovers sealing the deal with a kiss, but in a series with recurring characters it’s customary to progress relationships. Maybe that’s a tall order, but I would think the secret lay in the writing and software development rather than the technology and – on every other front – the ME writers and programmers seem perfectly adept and capable, so let’s see an attempt at that.

Other than that, I’d have trouble finding anything to complain about.

There are, as with all major software releases, a few glitches. But only a fraction of those I encountered in the equally epic but somehow lesser (sorry, guys) Skyrim. The funniest one was when I’m introduced to a a floaty drone thing called Glyph and my character follows it around the room with her eyes. Then for the rest of the dialogue exchange she’s standing there with her head turned comically to one side, doubtless emerging with a severe crick in her neck. Amusing, but nothing crucial.

There’s a bit of a glitch in the importing of your character from previous games and I had to reconstruct my character’s face (not as painful as it sounds), taking care she looked the same. You might not be so bothered, but like I said continuity matters with this series – it’s one of the big selling points.

It’s why I’d have to own up to some disappointment regarding some of my earlier choices in the series that I felt weren’t sufficiently reflected. Again, resisting the way of the spoiler, they relate to what I did regarding the Rachni Queen and the fate of the Collector base from the second game. I’m not sure how difficult it would have been to program, but I was looking for those decisions to make a more significant difference.

What was never a feature before, let alone a selling point, was a multiplayer aspect. This was something of a contentious addition to the franchise, since the game never needed it and there were fears it would weaken and detract from the main game. Rest easy, because it’s an okay addition which takes nothing away from the central story. It’s still a bit unnecessary and while your efforts contribute to the outcome, apparently you can get by without it, just by amassing as many resources and forces in your favour as possible. But to be honest, I was a completist and I played enough multiplayer to up my state of readiness to 100% and I kind of wish my efforts had more of an impact – at least on the military cost of the end campaign. The absolute best you can attain for the final assault is a strategic assessment of, “Chances of success are even.”

There are, I’ll wager, no easy victories. No walks in the park. But then, if video gamers were into walks in the park they’d be outside enjoying some fresh air.
As it is, my ME condition is one of the reasons I don’t read as much as I used to. But I’m sure I’ve said before, the gaming industry seems far more open to innovation and originality than publishing.

As an author, Mass Effect worries me, because if games continue to evolve along these lines, you can't help thinking, books, thy days are numbered. In the grand ebook debate there’s always that question of whether folks ultimately prefer a physical book in their hands, but at the end of the day it’s story that matters most. And if video games can command that as effectively as the Mass Effect trilogy has done then fewer people are going to want to sit and passively read when they can get involved in the action and the drama.

Mass Effect resonates with an overriding theme of synthetic life versus organic. Never mind ebooks versus paper. This is the competition, right here.

The Reapers are coming.

If more game experiences were like this, I may well end up reading fewer books. But on the other hand, if more game experiences were like this, should I fear that?

It’s a conflict.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fairytale Factor

Back in 2010 (eek, how time flies), I had the pleasure of seeing Sheryl Crow live at the Hammersmith Apollo and I recall it feeling like quite an intimate venue for a major-name star of her calibre. It was the same year that saw Rebecca Ferguson just pipped by Matt Cardle to the X Factor win.

Now, I thought Cardle was good – a gifted singer with a distinctive voice, albeit I think he should be fronting a band rather than going solo. Anyway, suffice to say he’s sadly failed to realise his potential in the wake of his competition success. That’s the poisoned chalice of the contest right there – even if you’re talented enough to break the mould, the producers will force you right back into a mould of their own making.

Thank heavens then that Rebecca Ferguson, the long-haired diva from Liverpool, came in second. Runners-up, it seems, can escape the uber-commercial generic makeover attentions of the industry and craft a career – and sound – of their own. Her album is an accomplished, quality offering that really shows off her rich vocal talents and suits her individual style like a dream.

I was so impressed I bought a ticket to go see her live in London.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was a more intimate venue than the Apollo and perfect for the occasion. Also, it must be said, when it says ‘plus special guests’ on the ticket it usually means so special you’ve never heard of them – and as often as not, so special their music is so completely at odds with the main act you wonder what the organisers were thinking. However, some thought had gone into the choice of support here and, as big an unknown as he was to me until now, J James Picton was a strong vocalist whose musical style was a good fit. Of course, no offence to the guy, he couldn’t hold a candle to Rebecca.

As well as the depth and texture to her voice, the lady is gorgeous. There’s a warmth and a sparkle about her that is captivating. In some respects, I don’t think she’s a great performer – that shy quality holds her back to some degree and her attempts to engage the audience in things like standing and clapping along seem tentative. Back in her competition days, she used to be told she had no idea how good she was and I have a feeling that’s still the case. In a larger venue, I imagine any sense of that would be lost – which might well be a shame, because playing to the theatre crowd her coyness was all part of her charm.

The night was by no means flawless – there was a protracted delay between the support and Rebecca’s eventual appearance and if I was to give in to my cynical side I’d have to point out that while someone like Shakira can keep audiences waiting as long as she likes (which she did), fresher names in the business can’t get away with it quite so freely. When she did show she played for a tiny bit over an hour and although at this stage she has only the one album’s worth of material she might have treated us to a few more covers. Two of the songs were ill-chosen and saddled with a heavier sound that managed to drown her out – which is precisely what you don’t want when you’ve come to hear the singer at least as much as the songs. Maybe some of the numbers she did so well on her X Factor journey would have been more to the purpose.

On the other hand... Rebecca is a star in the making who’d be better served by distancing herself from that TV circus. Yes, it helped launch her career, but if you want to travel places you don’t need to be standing on the platform. Get on the train of your choice and wave goodbye to the station, that’s what I say. She really is exceptionally good and the sad truth is she’ll probably have her detractors for some time to come purely by virtue of those X Factor associations.

Listening to her music should be enough to show how far she has moved on from there and really all it is now – or all it should be anyway – is the process that put her in the spotlight. She’s understandably grateful for that but she doesn’t need it anymore.

Here’s a young lady who can shine all by herself.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Who Am I To Argue With Anthony Horowitz?


Well, that answers that question. So now, what of the one Anthony Horowitz asked last week on the Guardian books blog: Do We Still Need Publishers?

(Read the full post here)

It’s a good article. We can’t doubt Mr Horowitz’s writing credentials and he peppers it with many a good turn of phrase. But, as with the Question – you know, the Question - of Life, the Universe and Everything – the answer is less than satisfactory.

By setting aside matters like marketing and promotion, it strikes me that the actual question being answered is Do We Need Editors? To which the response is such a resounding and obvious ‘Yes’ it may as well be followed by a meerkat in a smoking jacket declaring, “Simples!” in an amusingly foreign accent.

Unfortunately for those of us who have ventured into the realm of independent publishing – those of us who aren’t Terry Jones - the sample piece that Horowitz includes in his article seems a highly prejudicial gauge for comparing the markets. But, as a friend and fellow indie (Alexander McNabb) pointed out to me, he could have chosen any number of similarly woeful samples from the thousands out there roaming the internet landscape like the Walking Dead, desperately reaching out to grab you with their substandard prose and grunt-like dialogue. Sensible readers are running while the good books (and yes, they do exist, in both the indie and the mainstream worlds) shuffle nervously around in this overcrowded wilderness looking to hook up with some of those readers who might take them in and give them a good home.

I want to take up my shotgun – or perhaps, shotgun – and put the book to which that sample belongs out of its misery. It’s a shambling, mindless zombie of a piece and it’s only going to eat our brains, at best.

What the sample does is spell out the need for editors – nice and loudly. Which, like I said, earns top marks in the Basil Fawlty NVQ for ‘Statin the bleedin obvious’.

But to view traditional publishing houses as champions or perhaps guardians of quality might be tantamount to what Horowitz’s editor would call ‘over-egging’.

Horowitz asks, “Am I mad to think that if publishers were a little less interested in story, character, style, originality, design, typography, literacy, good grammar, education, enlightenment – and a little more interested in making money, they might have fewer problems?”

Well, no, not mad – just a little wide of the mark.

For one, they are more interested in making money than in the majority of those things. In terms of publishing credits, I can’t hope to match Horowitz – I’ve been allowed to swim in a few licensed fiction pools – Doctor Who and Merlin, for example - but (so far) have yet to find a publisher willing to sign on the dotted line for one of my original works. This is not a frustrated-author anti-publisher rant – far from it as, at the risk of spoilers, you’ll discover later on that I am very much of the view that we do still need publishers. Still, it’s been my experience in making submissions to publishers (and agents, come to that, who are endeavouring to anticipate publishers’ desires) that response letters have followed a consistent pattern: “This is original, imaginative and well-written, but we don’t know how to make it stand out in a competitive market.”

Now, at first glance this could be translated as “You’re clearly talented at your job, unfortunately we’re not very good at ours.” Cheap cynical humour aside though, it’d be unreasonable of me to assume I was the only author receiving this kind of response on a repeated basis, so what does it tell us about publishers’ attitudes to originality, style etc as compared to their attitude to making money?

It seems to me, they couldn’t be less interested in the former. (If any would like to offer a counter-argument, then I’m right here and ready for my contract, Mr De Mille.) And yet it mystifies me as to why ‘original, imaginative and well-written’ (from an author with a proven track record in delivering quality MSS to deadline for some big-name franchises) are not – apparently – the principal criteria for making money in an industry that is, according to its own insiders, in the doldrums and, according to many readers (who, like me, used to buy tons of books but don’t any more) stagnating.

Word of mouth remains the prime motivator when it comes to selling books (43% of book sales according to the last report I read), and surely those three qualities are going to be mentioned in passing if a book happens to possess them. You know, once readers have been enticed to pick the book up and read it, undeterred by the fact that the publishing house has chosen to make the cover closely resemble twelve other series in the same genre. (When Horowitz refers to Alex Rider lookalikes, he’s talking about performers, but it could just as easily be applied to a host of spy-kid books cluttering up bookstore shelves and offering readers a range of choice to rival Henry Ford and his Model T. In the vampiric genre especially, you can have any cover you like, as long as it’s black.) And, frankly, if a publisher confesses to not knowing how to make something original stand out, then yes, we do feel obliged to ask, what use are they?

But although independently published, I’m not an anti-traditionalist, by any stretch of the imagination. I guess I’d simply like traditional publishing houses to stretch their imaginations a bit more.

The fact is, they do (potentially) offer something that independents seriously struggle to command on their own.

Authors can – and should - enlist editors. They can market and promote themselves. And again, they should – and would have to anyway. It’s the side of the publishing racket I’m least comfortable with, but the truth is I would gladly be out there selling myself and fearlessly, enthusiastically talking about my books with the backing of a publisher. Because what they provide is this:


You know what I’m talking about. Respect is that elusive quality you’d love as an independent author, if only it hadn’t been so successfully undermined by the likes of whoever wrote that sample in Horowitz’s article. (Horowitz is disingenuous and polite about it, but we all know it’s rubbish – and I’m being polite too.) Respect is that quality that publishers undermined for themselves with all those umpteen-figure advances for all those celebrity biogs that end up remaindered in your local bargain book store and all those clones of the Last Big Thing going unwanted over in the fiction section of the same shop. Respect is also, unfortunately, that quality the media will accord to a book of comparable (or even lesser) quality to your own if it happens to have the logo of a mainstream publisher on its spine.

As an indie publisher, I’ve contacted book stores, sent review copies to magazines and newspapers to be met with only silence. (Including online magazines that relied on the same social media networking techniques for their independent launch and publicity.) And yet I see other books treated to reviews in the pages of the same publications. Sometimes bad reviews, so clearly it’s not quality that gets them noticed.

It’s the badge.

That’s what makes the difference.

My mum, rest her soul, used to be a bit embarrassed when telling friends about what her son did. Instead of proudly declaring “he’s a writer” to all and sundry, she often preferred to use the term ‘unemployed’. Admittedly, there are – too frequently for my liking – some grounds for confusing the two. Anyway, that all changed the day I presented her with a copy of my first ever published novel, Drift (in the BBC Books’ Doctor Who series). Despite thinking Doctor Who was daft and not liking science fiction one jot, she read it and loved it and from there on told everyone her son was an author. That was the validation, that made it real.

I’m not sure what she’d think of my self-published works – two volumes of the Evil UnLtd series so far, with a third and hopefully more to come. She was conservative (small c, big heart) and would probably have had issues with all this new-fangled ebook technology, so I would have had to hand her a real paperback version. Even then, leaving aside her horror at some of the choice language my villainous heroes use, I fear she wouldn’t have seen it in the same light as my licensed fiction output. Self-publication might not have had the same ability to impress.

We tend to have a mix of views on anything homemade. For flapjacks and chocolate cake, we’ll pay extra and we’ll often prefer a home-cooked meal over a microwave dinner. Despite these things generally coming without all the labels and quality assurances. There’s a degree of snobbery surrounding real ales over mass produced lagers and the like. Indie bands are commonly celebrated by critics and consumers over the ‘talent’-factory karaoke crowd. But when it comes to books we apparently interpret mass-production as a mark of quality and we’re willing to pay more. My mum loved home-baked goods – not so much the real ales – but I can’t shake the niggling feeling she might have considered a self-published book – of much less note than that first published novel of mine.

Maybe, maybe not. I can’t ask her. But what I do know is, she used to love her reading. Historical romances and the like were her particular cup of tea – Catherine Cooksons, E V Thompsons, Virginia Andrews. I can’t speak to their quality, since I’d never read any of them. But I did borrow one of my mum’s books once upon a time – it was some wartime family saga by Victor Pemberton, of interest only because of the man’s background in Doctor Who. He wrote my all-time favourite Doctor Who novelisation (of his own serial) Fury From The Deep. Picture my disappointment then when I read his original, non-Doctor Who work to discover it was – and I’ll be polite again here – drivel. Painfully dreary and dreadfully pedestrian writing at best. Evidently what passes for ‘good enough’ in the eyes of some mainstream publishers. It was a proper book and it wore the badge of a major publishing house so it found its way onto a real bookstore shelf and that’s what matters.

Poor Victor is by no means alone in having produced substandard generic drudgery and along with all the questionable indie material out there I’ve read other dire offerings – in a variety of genres - that wear the badges of major publishing houses. Pardon my French but not only does shit happen, it also gets picked up by commissioning editors.

In the eyes of – I think probably the majority of – readers, publishing houses have a reputation.

Obviously, that’s something they can capitalise on, but in order to fully exploit that in these changing times and keep their heads above the ever-swelling tide of cheap ebooks, it seems to me they need to evolve.

Their badge needs to be a badge of quality - professional editing, packaging and all the rest – yes, absolutely. On top of that though, it needs to be a badge of more than technical proficiency. It needs to be a badge that says, this is original, imaginative and well-written and that is the reason we published it.

I would happily trade independence to stand with a publisher like that.

In short, I’m a great believer in the future of the publishing houses. To my mind, if only they were more about all those things – story, character, style, originality, design, typography, literacy, good grammar, education, enlightenment – and less about making money, then they would probably make more money.

Case in point – all the major movie studios had a go at turning down Star Wars because they didn’t believe it would make any money. To be honest, it wasn’t the greatest writing, but it was born of a passion and drive to tell a story and although it borrowed from old Saturday movie serials (and Japanese cinema) it crafted something we’d never seen before. In that sense it was all about the creativity and originality. Meanwhile, we live in an age where over-expensive blockbusters flop because they set out to make money and word of mouth isn’t good because audiences emerge with the conclusion that they’ve just been subjected to over-commercialised, committee-written pap.

The best writers I know – whether personally or through their work – approach the art of storytelling with passion. Nobody (sensible) would deny that passion needs an editor to rein it in some, but too many great stories are being passed over by publishing houses because they come at story with accountancy. So we end up with too many books getting lost in a sea of unfiltered self-publishing and too many other commercially produced books about as engaging as a spreadsheet.

If publishing houses were to set themselves up as more than guardians of quality – as active champions of imagination, creativity and good writing – then as a reader I would buy more books.

As an author, I’d sign up with them in a heartbeat.

Actually I’d sign up with them tomorrow regardless. At least then my work would stand some chance of being reviewed by publications like The Guardian. It’s one thing for publishers to consistently recognise the qualities of your work, but without their badge – their stamp of approval – I fear it will remain tarred with the same brush as the woeful specimen included in Horowitz’s blog piece. And that doesn’t sit well with me. Only my mum gets to look down on me without being a source of annoyance.

Do we still need publishers? Damn straight. I want reviews, I want readers, I want signings in bookstores, I want prominence for my books on bookstore shelves. And I can’t seem to get those without the one thing that publishing houses still have to grant above everything else.


That to me, is worth more than the advance or whatever royalties are on offer.


(Note: In honour of the late great Douglas Adams, for this weekend only, we are making Evil UnLtd Vol 1: The Root Of All Evil available for half-price on both the Kindle - Amazon US and Amazon UK - and in all other ebook formats on Smashwords.) After that, in keeping with what we were saying about the price of quality 'homemade' (i.e. independent) goods the price will be going back up to more respectable levels.

From an (unsolicited) Amazon review:
"Evil UnLtd: The Root of All Evil is a genius space farce. It is a wickedly funny, extremely well-written sci fi comedy that reads like a mash-up of Douglas Adams meets the TV sit-com, Red Dwarf, and one of my favourite sci fi tribute films, Galaxy Quest. It's literate sci fi, chock full of humour and word play with some lovely nods to the genre and a wonderfully fitting cast of characters. Happily, as you'll also no doubt have noticed, The Root of All Evil is only Part 1 in the Evil UnLtd series... I can't wait to rejoin this band of villains on their next scrapes as they chase Evil domination of the Universe. I suggest you beam the first volume down to your eReader and buckle up for the ride. It's great fun being Evil."