Tuesday Links (01/29/13)

To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe (Dinosaur Comics): “Okay, so we start with a superheated and dense force-unified space–”

The dystopian future of casual games: personalized, targeted pricing and mechanics: “This sort of thing is already happening in retail. Where you are could determine how much an item you view online costs. ‘A Wall Street Journal investigation found that the Staples Inc. website displays different prices to people after estimating their locations. . . If rival stores were within 20 miles or so, Staples.com usually showed a discounted price.'”

Book Review: Impulse

Steven Gould has a new novel out in the Jumper series, and I’ve covered it in the Free Press Book Review. This is an author whose career I’ve been following since around ’97, and a couple of his novels can be counted amongst my all-time favourites. It’s easy to screw up a sequel, but he’s in fine form this time around.

Tuesday Links (01/22/13)

Now Writers Can Drown Their Sorrows With Their Own Sorrows: Writer’s Tears Irish Whiskey. Learn what tragedy is, in liquid, alcoholic form.

I’m Mentally Ill, I Love Violent Video Games, And They’ve Never Made Me Feel Like Killing Anyone: “If we want to look at why Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and opened fire on a bunch of children and adults, it’s not video games we need to be looking at. We need to ask who was paying attention to him, and had anyone noticed something was wrong with him emotionally would the mental health care he probably needed have been both accessible and affordable?”

On Deep Sea Science Fiction

But I didn’t grow up in the Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s. When I was a child, as suffused as popular cultural depictions of SF still were (and continue to be) with spacefaring imagery, other themes, speculations, and what-ifs had begun crowding in at the edges. In fact, as a voracious and omnivorous upper-elementary reader, I read an enormous amount of juvenile science fiction without ever taking my adventures off-planet.

Instead there were contemporary riffs on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, and many, many deep sea adventures.

For those keeping track, it’s just about one year since my first time writing for the fine folks at the Canadian Science Fiction Review, and though my debut was an essay on Heinlein, I hadn’t returned to the form again before today. (Though my book coverage may have sometimes landed somewhere between a full-blown essay and straightforward review.)

There’s more upcoming. I’ll keep you posted.

2012 Statistical Roundup

Word Press, whose software powers this site, sent me my site stats for 2012, which included no big surprises. This site has grown modestly since its launch in the latter half of 2011. Reading the story behind the numbers, these are the main take-away points:

a) at least as many visitors are random Googlers as people who are familiar with my writing

b) the larger part of the site growth is from an increase in the number of evergreen items, thus drawing more of these random Googlers, who, therefore, rarely leave comments

c) I’m a writer but not a blogger and I know it, so I don’t expect that to change in the future.

What about my more general writing stats? I’ve started writing regularly at three major new markets this past year, and have published at least once at five or six additional “new” places beyond that. I think I’ve probably pitched my writing to 50 or more markets so we’re talking about a success rate only somewhat in excess of 10 percent, which could be worse, I suppose. For 2013 I have my eye on at least two additional writing spaces that I really hope to get involved in.

My best month in terms of sheer volume was January (while still in Costa Rica and not doing any other work besides writing), but my best month in terms of writing income was December (while working a full-time job). So by the end of the year my average pay per job, per word, per hour, however you want to slice it, had improved considerably.

As far as page views go, my writing at Care2 ranks highest, with one of my articles last month hitting close to 30, 000 readers, while the number commenting was less than 300. One of my all-time favourite pieces, listed under my portfolio page, received over 500 comments, but I don’t have any additional stats for that piece, and there isn’t always a direct correlation between comments and page views, so I can’t assume 50, 000 or more people read it. That said, I’m thinking my all-time most popular piece must be in that ballpark, even if I don’t know which one it actually is.

Number of times editors have fought over me because they simultaneously wanted me to cover the same thing for their own publications: twice. Different publications each time.

Number of things I’ve learned about improving my writing: lost count.

Game Review: Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two

In the last months of 2012, a well-known but failing department store chain called Zellers was acquired by Target. The inventory of Zellers’ stores had to be liquidated by their shutdown date, and I strolled its aisles with the other vultures, thinking to pick at the bones.

I went not once, but twice, each time seeing a pile of heavily discounted special edition boxes of Epic Mickey, for the Wii. Twice before I had almost bought a copy of the game, but for whatever reason hadn’t.  Here, once again I walked away, empty-handed. I had a few unfinished games at home already, and though I was intrigued, it wasn’t a must-play (if there still is such a thing for me).

The game’s been somewhat polarizing, and I think I have an idea why. Long-standing Disney properties bring a certain caché that can’t be whipped up out of thin air, and the company is careful how they leverage that. Putting Mickey in a mediocre game would be like making a bad sequel to a brilliant film. It’s pop-culture sacrilege.

Fan hatred is a scary thing. The mixed response to that first game meant that a sequel needed to fix everything that didn’t work, or replace it with something better.

I like the idea of this series a lot. I like that Walt Disney’s first cartoon creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, is Mickey’s bitter doppelganger, existing in a “Wasteland” of forgotten cartoon characters. There’s a very meta, self-aware quality to the whole idea of a real-life legal battle resulting in the fictional abandonment of a living intellectual property.

This surreal, self-referential conceit continues into the basic game mechanic. Mickey, a cartoon, wields both a magic paintbrush and a bucket of thinner, giving him the power to create or destroy the very fabric of reality as he knows it. Obviously this works well with the Wii, though you can also play the PS3 version with an ordinary controller (it’s Move-compatible).

This unique gameplay mechanic carries over into the sequel, but is paired with the abilities of Oswald, who has switched from antagonist to partner. He gets a magic remote, with vague electrical/machine-controlling powers.

I love the idea of this world. It includes familiar as well as little-known characters and half-remembered cartoons from the ’30s that I remember seeing as a kid, all transformed into black-and-white 2D sidescrollers. Unfortunately, they tend to be rather tedious.

The game is two-player co-op, whether you want it or not. Oswald and Mickey must work together to progress, combining their powers to solve any number of puzzles. If you don’t find a friend to play with you, the AI will take over, but there’s no solo version of the game.

The upshot of this is that your partner switches between making the game tediously easy and frustratingly difficult. With the AI in control, you will sometimes bumble your way through poorly-designed puzzles without even understanding how you did it simply because one half of it was automatically completed for you. Of course, at other times you will want Oswald to do your bidding and get no help at all.

Either way, it can be frustrating to be left out of the driver’s seat.

There is a binary, morality-based system as in Knights of the Old Republic or Infamous.  Enemies can be defeated (and puzzles solved) through the use of constructive paint (good) or destructive thinner (bad), which I found frankly annoying, because it encouraged me to not make use of my full range of abilities.

They really upped the ante by adding more and more new ideas — more than they were able to deliver. The game is supposed to be a musical. In reality, it’s only the demented scientist (an enemy from the first game), who sings. Story scenes switch from being fully-voiced to text halfway through, as if they ran out of time or money.

I know they are trying to create a gameplay experience that is truly different, and a world that is completely immersive, but it doesn’t always come through. Ambitious is the word.  Ultimately, however, whatever difficulties there may have been behind the scenes, the result for the end user should feel finished and effortless, and instead, the whole thing feels unpolished and bland.

It is easy to make mediocre games by playing it safe. Here, they made a mediocre game that failed at greatness, and I think they perhaps deserve some credit for that, along with the blame.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two on Blogcritics.

Best of 2012

Sleeping Hedgehog, like most art and culture mags everywhere, has been talking about the best of 2012 (with most of the entries running New Year’s Day). I wouldn’t say there were a lot of huge stand-outs this year. What’s perhaps interesting is that a lot of my reading did not come from the usual suspects, or perhaps even that I may not even have any current usual suspects. I did say, and I’ll quote:

As far as brand-new works go, 2012 saw worthy follow-ups to a couple of individuals with very strong debuts in previous years. I’ve quite enjoyed both Hannu Rajaniemi’s and Howard Andrew Jones’ series continuations. But I’d have to give the nod to Jones for best new title for Bones of the Old Ones.

But as good as my best new book of the year was, it didn’t manage to surpass its predecessor, The Desert of Souls, in my mind, which was all the stronger for coming completely out of nowhere from an author I hadn’t previously heard of. In other words, it’s tougher when there are already high expectations of you.

So that’s new titles, of which, despite my myriad review gigs, I haven’t read that many this year. Most of my reviews at AE, for example, were re-releases of Canadian-written SF originally published as much as a decade ago. What of the “new to me” stuff? I’ll quote myself again;

Best new old title? I’ve read a lot of back-listed material that has seen new editions this year. This has included one of the all-time fantasy classics, T.H. White’s Arthurian work,The Once and Future King, which has to take the prize. Runner-up: Robert Charles Wilson’s excellent 2001 novel, The Chronoliths, was a happy discovery.

Besides several from Wilson, this was also the year I discovered (via my editor at AE) Geoff Ryman (whose short stories I soon realized I had read and enjoyed previously). I also finally got around to reading Peter Watts, though only in the last few days of the calendar year (the catalyst being an upcoming essay for AE, which will probably be this month since I’ve already handed in my first draft).

And we can’t forget the non-fiction, of which I’ve ready plenty, but I won’t single anything out at the moment. I’ll do another round-up of my Library Journal science reviews in another month or so, as I’ve already written a couple since the last posting.

Film: I wasn’t really thinking of this, but someone did ask me recently. After a moment’s thought, I cited The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises as my favourites this year. And I think I’ll stick with that gut, on-the-spot assessment.

Tuesday Links (01/01/13)

The Ten Essential Genre Films of 2012: There are a few here I’ve missed. Time for a rental or two, mayhaps.

Art History Through Sci-Fi Coloured Glasses: Nothing to add.

The Offer on Old Man’s War: A Ten-Year Retrospective: “Patrick making an offer on Old Man’s War quite literally changed my life, and almost entirely for the better. The eight novels I have written since are because of that offer and everything that’s resulted from it. . . . Professionally, I have become who I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s amazing.”