Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On Writing Another Action Scene

A friend asked me for help with another fight scene in a book she's writing, so I thought I'd share the ideas and suggestions I came up with, in case any other writers are looking for pointers. So, jumping right into it, here are some of the things I do when coming up with a fight scene.

I think about the location. Indoors or outdoors? If outdoors, what sort of setting is it? Could be desert, jungle, a back alley, a city street, a park, or near a cliff. If it's a cliff that the characters are in danger of falling off, are there ledges or outcroppings they could grab onto if they fall over the edge? Or is it smooth with nothing to grab onto to prevent the splat at the bottom, like this one in the Mission Impossible: Fallout trailer? 

The rock juts out a bit way down below, but it looks like there's nothing to grab near enough to the top. Someone falling off would hit the ledge hard enough to be killed or at least injured so badly that they couldn't get back up, and since the ledge is slanted a bit, he/she would roll off and hit the next ledge and roll off it because it's also at an angle. Setting a fight in a place like that would give all the characters involved something to try to stay away from during the fight. If one of them isn't paying enough attention to their surroundings, they could fall or be pushed off.

If the fight happens in a place that has a lake or a stream running through it, that'd be a good place for one of the characters to try to drown the other, assuming they're both actively trying to kill each other, and not fighting the other off long enough to escape or subdue them.

If the fight is indoors, there could be all kinds of obstacles or objects that could be used as props, assuming they're not in an empty hallway or room. An image from the same trailer has a dude being smashed through a wall, for instance.

For another example, in the first episode of Burn Notice, the main character's narration points out that punching someone the wrong way can break bones in your hand, so he suggested finding a way to get the bad guys into a public restroom because it's got lots of hard surfaces to smash their body parts into. Also, in movies and TV shows we see characters get thrown out of windows frequently. Another bit in the Fallout trailer has a guy being thrown through a mirror, but he's launched at it from a downward angle that smashes his back across the frame before he tumbles through. You can probably imagine what that sort of impact would do to a person's body, in addition to cuts from the glass shards.

As a side note, the Mission Impossible movies are ridiculous, but the stunts are usually pretty creative, so they're worth seeing just for that. Also, the movie should be subtitled, "Tom Cruise Takes a Beating," because a lot of the trailer shows him falling off things or crashing into things, and during one stunt he pulled a Jackie Chan and broke his ankle.

Just for fun, here's the whole trailer.

Back to the fight scene, if there's any furniture near the combatants, it could come into play unless both characters are fighting by rules of engagement or a code of honor that prevents them from "cheating" by using whatever's in reach. As I've mentioned in another post, my Freelancers character Valeria Terakkis has no such code. For her, anything that isn't nailed down is a weapon, and if she can pry it loose, it's not nailed down.

As an example, a first-season episode of Agents of SHIELD has Melinda May fighting an enemy agent who is using a mask to disguise herself as May. Near the end of the fight, there's a rather interesting use of a coffee table.

Another thing I think about when creating a fight scene is, what types of weapons are they using? Depends on the story's setting, of course. In a medieval or fantasy setting, they're probably using swords. Do they also have shields or just swords? And are both the same type of sword, or different? I know very little about swords myself, and the only one I can identify with a glance is the katana thanks to watching the Highlander movies and TV series, and if I'm not mistaken, it was used just because it looks cool. I'm guessing different types of swords have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Also, if both characters had the same combat training, they probably have the same fighting styles, or at least similar ones. If not, they might have different styles, use different tactics, etc. Sort of like Ahsoka Tano's preferred fighting style is to hold her lightsabers with a reverse grip.

Also, back to the question of whether both fight by the same rules of engagement. If they both have a code of honor, then the fight will play out one way. If one of them doesn't hesitate to resort to dirty tricks like spitting in his opponent's face and then kicking him in the balls while he's distracted, then it'll play out rather differently.

Another thing I like to do is think about what happens during the fight, the moves the characters make, and how it'll end. Will it end with one of them being killed? Or will one of them surrender or turn and run when they realize they're outmatched? I think up a few bits of business that might be cool or amusing, depending on the tone of the scene (is it deadly serious or is there room for a bit of humor here and there?), then I decide where they'll fit in the scene and what needs to happen between each bit. Fairly often I'll come up with a new idea while writing it and then I'll have to go a few paragraphs back and rewrite a little to set it up.

I also play the whole scene, or at least the most important parts, in my imagination, over and over until I can "see" most of it. (I did this a lot while coming up with the fight scenes in Freelancers: A Personal War. I kept going over and over it in my head while doing other things -- grocery shopping, doing mundane tasks at work or around my apartment, and whatnot. Just always had it percolating in my mind, replaying it and refining it until I thought it was right.) Then I start writing it. I describe/show each move, each blow/stab/kick/gunshot/etc., while getting into the POV character's head and showing her thoughts where appropriate (such as her surprised reaction to a move her opponent pulls off, or momentary anger when he manages to land a blow on her), until the scene is over.

I'll give you a quick example. Brief setup for a fight scene: Valeria is facing off against a half-dozen big, badass mercenaries (the mercs are armed, but Val only has a knife and the others are unarmed), with her husband and her family looking on. I originally thought it'd be her husband and several friends, but then decided it might be more interesting if it's her parents since her relationship with them has been a little rocky and they're always a little unsettled when they see her mean streak come out during a fight.

Okay, they're in a corridor on a space station, so their maneuvering room is limited and there are only a few crates full of equipment and supplies resting against the walls. Val needs to get Irving and her parents from Point A to Point B, and the mercs are trying to stop them. Valeria doesn't like to kill people, but let's say either the stakes are high enough or she's been pushed past her limit -- either way, she's had enough of this shit and is ready to unleash her inner monster. Since she has a tendency to use psychological tactics to intimidate her enemies, after taking down a couple of her opponents in a quick and brutal manner to shake the rest of them up, she'll start toying with them to rattle them even more. It'll end with half of the mercs dead and the other half backing down because they're demoralized and all they can think about now is cutting their losses.

Now, to flesh out the scene (bearing in mind that I slapped this one together rather hastily to use as an example). Off we go:

All four of them stumbled to a halt at the sight of the six mercs in their path. Three krogan, an asari, and a couple of batarians. Valeria, Irving, and her parents leaned against the wall and gasped for breath. They had been running for what felt like miles, and all of them were nearly exhausted -- and now this.
"No," Irv whispered.
Valeria glanced at the door at the end of the corridor. Just one more door and they'd be in the docking bay and within reach of their ship. The mercs laughed as she took another moment to catch her breath and push herself upright. She glanced at the others and said, "Stay back. I've got this."
Her parents shook their heads and reached out to her, but she strode toward the mercs, having already settled on a plan of attack. It was time to stop holding back.
The thugs stopped laughing and glanced at each other. Valeria wondered if her move had surprised them or if they'd heard about her reputation. The asari and one of the batarians glanced at the others, nodded at her, and motioned with their hands, as if trying to say, "You first." The biggest krogan shrugged, pulled out a knife despite having a hand cannon on his hip and an assault rifle on his back, and stepped forward.
Smart move. If they knew how she typically fought, they'd know she liked to get right in the middle of her opponents so they couldn't shoot at her without hitting their own buddies. If they didn't all attack her at once, she might have a chance. On the other hand, that guy's knife was the length of her forearm. One solid poke in the wrong spot and she would die right here, and so would Irving and her parents.
"What is wrong with her?" her father muttered. "We need to turn back and find another way around!"
"That'll give 'em time to corner us somewhere else. Once we get past these guys, we're home free." Irving took a slow breath. "Come on, babe. You can do this."
Valeria's muscles ached and felt rubbery from all the running, but she raised her arms into a defensive position and braced herself for the attack. The krogan sneered, then roared and charged her, raising the knife into striking position. Valeria snapped to the left and swept her right leg forward, catching the krogan's right ankle just as he thrust the knife downward. Grunting and snarling from the effort, she kicked upward before he could recover, and he pitched forward with a frustrated growl. She yanked her own knife from her belt as he regained his balance and turned to face her again. She backed up a few steps to keep the rest of the mercs in sight and not let any of them sneak up behind her. The krogan lunged forward, thrusting his knife straight at her heart. She jerked to the right and swiped her blade up, slashing his wrist as the knife hissed past her. Blood sprayed her armor and the huge knife slipped from his grasp.
He clamped a hand over his wound and roared a stream of profanity as he turned to keep her in front of him. Thanks to his physiology, his tissue would regenerate in minutes, so she had to finish him while she had the advantage.
She flung her knife backward, skidding it across the floor behind her, and dive-rolled, grabbing the one he'd dropped and coming up in a crouch. He lumbered toward her again. She sprang, whipped the blade across his neck, and plucked the pistol off his hip while he stumbled backward and clamped both hands over his slit throat. She shoved the barrel under his chin and blasted a half-dozen rounds through the top of his head before he toppled over. She popped the remaining thermal clips out of the gun and tossed it behind her while making eye contact with the other five mercs. They stared back at her, glanced at the guy she'd dropped, and then gaped at her again.
"Who's next?" Valeria snapped back into her defensive stance, gripped the huge knife, and tried not to breathe too heavily.
The mercs glanced at each other again, even the huge krogan, and Val laughed under her breath. Not so sure of yourselves, now?
One of the batarians drew his pistol and stepped forward. Valeria had to fight the urge to panic. If the guy started shooting, all of them could be mowed down.
He raised the gun. Valeria cocked her arm back and threw the knife. It hissed through the air and drilled into the flexible, weaker material in his armor's shoulder joint. He let out a startled grunt, then grimaced when the pain registered. His grip on the gun loosened and Valeria leaped at him. She swung her right arm up, clamped onto the gun from underneath, and twisted it until his trigger finger snapped. He snarled as she wrenched it from his hand and jammed the barrel into the soft spot just above his belt. She pulled the trigger four times before he could do more than open his mouth and widen all four eyes. He screamed and collapsed, reflexively grasping at her clothes on the way down. She batted his hands away and let him fall. He curled into a fetal position and continued screaming until she raised the gun and popped a round through his upper-left eye. There was no point in letting him suffer.
The asari whispered a curse and Val glanced at her. The woman's hands trembled and her wide eyes flicked back and forth from Val to the merc she'd just killed. Valeria ejected the heat sinks, tossed the gun behind her, braced a foot on the corpse, and pulled the knife out. 
Time to start fucking with their heads.
She dropped to her knees, placed the knife on the floor in front of her, and glared at the asari while taking on a meditative pose. She took a moment to get her breathing under control again, and then growled, "Step up."
The woman didn't move except to shake a little harder and flick a nervous glance at her three remaining companions. The others hesitated, as well. Finally, one of the krogan shook his head and approached Valeria. "Bunch of pussies." He raised his hands once he was almost in reach as if planning to strangle her, and she held in a chuckle.
Not too bright. Val threw herself forward suddenly, grabbed the knife, and then rolled sideways directly into his feet. He stumbled forward, tried to lift his feet over her, and she caught his left ankle and jerked it upward. He sprawled on the floor, grunted, and started to push himself to his hands and knees. Val jumped onto his back, jammed her blade under his head plate, and pried it up. He sucked in a quick breath and let out a scream at the sudden pain before sliding into a panic.
"No!" He flailed his arms and tried to shake her off, but she drew her hand back and rammed her palm into the end of the handle, ramming the knife in to its hilt. His body turned limp and he whimpered softly. Just to be sure, Val twisted the knife several times and ripped it out. The serrated blade pulled a few chunks of his brain with it and dropped them on the floor with a series of wet splats. The asari hunched forward, almost vomited, and took several long breaths to try to regain her composure.
Valeria pushed herself back to her feet, stepped away from the body, then dropped back into her meditative pose and put the knife down in front of her. She speared the remaining krogan with a cold glare. He stared back with his huge mouth hanging open. No one moved for several seconds.
"Well?" Val held his gaze without blinking and let a few more seconds pass. "I don't have all day."
He stared for a moment longer, stepped aside, and waved a hand at the door. "Bon voyage." He raised his hands slowly, backed up against the wall, and sidled past her and her family. The batarian nodded and joined him. The asari glanced at the bodies, choked back a sob, and followed the other two. Valeria kept her eyes on them as they moved past her. She stood, and the asari flinched and let out a startled squeak at the sudden motion. She turned, shoved the krogan out of her way, and ran through the door at the far end of the corridor. Val waited for the other two to pass through the door. Once it closed behind them, she slumped against the nearest crate and took a few gasping breaths. Irving walked over and put his arms around her.
"That was badass."
"Glad you enjoy it." She hugged him and sighed. "I don't."
"Well, if the survivors tell enough of their cohorts, maybe eventually they'll grow some brains and stop attacking you."
"I can only hope." She glanced at her parents, motioned at the door ahead, and clasped Irving's hand. "Let's get out of here before station security comes to investigate the gunshots."

This is just a rough draft, so if I were to use the scene in Freelancers, I'd go through it again and adjust some details and maybe add new bits and just generally polish it. Now that I've written the first draft of it, I might as well use it, so sooner or later I'll find a way to fit it into the story.

A few notes. A good way to make the scene more visceral in readers' minds is to use "sound effects" such as the "splats" and whatnot, though the degree of vividness depends on how graphic you want the fight to be, which depends on your target audience. A way to "sell" the impacts of each stab, punch, etc., is to show other characters reacting to them. Like, a punch to the face causes the "punchee" to grunt, cry out, etc. Any characters watching the fight can flinch or cringe or blurt comments at a particularly hard-landing blow or a move that breaks bones.

Also, the phrasing you use in the descriptions can add a lot of "punch" (heh) to the action. You can write, "She punched him and he fell." Or you can use a sentence or two to describe the way she swings her fist, the speed of her movements, the "crack" or "pop" when her fist connects with his cheek or jaw, the way the impact snaps his head to one side, the way he spins around and stumbles away from her and collapses. You could even have him remain conscious long enough to try to get back to his feet, but then he passes out and falls over again.

Another thing about characters using objects around them just came to mind. I've probably mentioned the web series Red vs. Blue and, particularly, the late Monty Oum's fight choreography, as a major inspiration for how I write fight scenes. Before I saw his work, I never gave any thought to characters using props in fights, aside from the weapons they already had when the fight started. Once I saw the scenes he choreographed, I started looking for ways to have the characters use whatever is within reach, as well as looking for ways to put a unique spin on the fight.

To show you what I'm talking about, let's take a look at one of the episodes. Near the end of the 10th season, a character named Agent Tex sneaks onto the ship her former teammates are using as a base and ends up fighting another character named Agent Carolina.

Let's take a look at a couple of scenes in particular.

Before they meet, Tex has to fight her way past a random mook in a tank. At one point, the barrel rotates around and hits her, and she ends up hanging by her hands from it as it swings back around. The guy in the tank throws a grenade at her. Instead of dodging, Tex flips herself up and balances on the barrel with her feet ... and then she punches the grenade back to the guy who threw it, and it blows up in his face.

By the way, if I remember correctly, the idea came from something Monty Oum did when he was on a panel at a convention. Someone in the audience threw a lemon at him, and instead of dodging or catching it, he punched it out of the air and sent it flying right back to the guy.

Later in the episode, Tex runs into Carolina in a corridor. The ship's gravity has been disabled, so everyone is floating, but both of them have armor equipped with magnetic boots (or "gravity boots") that allow them to "stand" on any surface. In the fight, Tex ends up on the ceiling and Carolina is on the floor, so both of them are upside-down from the other's point of view while they're punching and kicking each other.

This automatically makes the fight a little more interesting. If you want to make your fight scenes a little over-the-top or make them stand out in one way or another, throwing something like this into it is a good start.
They end up bursting through a hatch into the main control room, which has a huge window/viewport at the front. The hatch is ripped loose from the impact, and Tex uses it as a projectile. While Carolina attaches herself to a guardrail, Tex is standing on one side of the floating hatch. She flips herself over and stands on the end of the hatch, then kicks off, which hurls it at Carolina. It ends up slamming into the window and cracking it.

At this point, the ship has been damaged and is plunging into an alien planet's atmosphere. Tex and Carolina keep fighting, finally ending up standing on the window while the ship is approaching the planet.

Which really looks awesome when the hull heats up and all you can see through the window is flames while Tex and Carolina continue fighting.

Seeing things like this got me to start thinking about how to approach action scenes and look for ways to make them more visceral or compelling or just fun.

And one more thing that comes to mind is to think about the personalities of the characters in the fight. If the scene's tone is more lighthearted and the characters are just sparring, there's plenty of room for adding humorous trash-talking, for instance. If the tone is serious and the characters are trying to kill each other, any dialog between them will likely be more belligerent and threatening. If neither of them likes to fight dirty, they might allow each other time to prepare and approach the fight more as a duel. If one of the characters has a brutal side like Valeria, even if she doesn't like that part of herself and tries to suppress it, she'll do whatever it takes if the bad guys push her far enough.

Thus concludes today's lesson, heh. I hope it's helpful, or at least entertaining.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Some Thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery

I'm a little late with this, but after seeing months of such unbelievable negativity directed at Star Trek: Discovery, I need to get this off my chest. Unlike so many loudmouths who have decided to hate this new series, I actually like the trailer and I'm looking forward to seeing for myself whether the show is good or not.

One of the complaints is that it's set ten years before The Original Series, but the uniforms and technology don't look anything like TOS. Well, saying this as a fan since I was 4 or 5 years old watching TOS every day at 5:00 PM in the early 1980s ... I don't really care. I'm fine with it looking like something made in 2017 rather than something made in 1966. I've always loved the original, but I wouldn't be able to take the new show seriously at all if it had the 1960s look. To paraphrase Nicholas Meyer, these things are all products of the time in which they're made. A few differences are inevitable, and I'm not going to fly into a nerd rage over something like this.

Besides, Star Trek kind of has a history of contradicting its own canon, doesn't it?

Another complaint is that the Klingons "don't look like Klingons." The nearly-universal reaction was ongoing rage in the comment sections on Facebook and YouTube. My reaction? "Huh. I wonder why they look so different?" I'm curious to find out if it'll be explained in the show, and if so, what the explanation is. I'm not completely losing my goddamn mind and calling the show's producers "assholes" because they aren't exactly the same as the Klingons we've seen before.

Besides which, this wouldn't be the first time the appearance of the Klingons has changed. In TOS, they looked like humans with big eyebrows and huge mustaches that they could twirl with glee, but starting in The Motion Picture, they suddenly had bumpy foreheads (which gradually became the go-to design for almost any Trek alien -- just put some bumps or ridges on the foreheads, and we're good to go). The change was finally explained in Star Trek: Enterprise, but come on, let's be honest, that was a retcon.

And let's not forget the Romulans. In TOS, they looked exactly like the Vulcans (for good reason, as they were originally Vulcans who left their homeworld thousands of years ago and settled another planet). But when they reappeared in a first-season episode of The Next Generation, they had their own forehead ridges. And as far as I can remember, this was never explained. I've hardly ever heard anyone complaining about that, but because these Klingons don't look like the ones we're familiar with, that's somehow a valid reason to start frothing at the mouth and hurling insults and screaming that you hope the new show gets cancelled?

So why do these Klingons look so different? Some possibilities I can think of right off the top of my head ...

This particular group of Klingons are mutants. Or they're a different ethnicity, either from a part of Qo'noS we haven't seen before, or a colony planet where environmental pressures caused the local Klingons to end up looking different after a few thousand years. Granted, evolution actually takes far, far longer than that to produce major changes, but it wouldn't be the first time Star Trek's writers misunderstood evolution. Or they're ancient Klingons who were in cryo-stasis for thousands or tens of thousands of years.

Whatever. These Klingons look a lot more "alien" than the walnut-forehead ones, and I think they're quite intimidating. I'm curious about why they look like that, but even if it's never explained, I'll just roll with it. I'm sure as hell not going to predict or demand the show's cancellation.

And I'm not even getting into the idiotic screeching about "pandering to SJWs" and "white men aren't allowed to have lead roles anymore because of political correctness" bullshit just because two of the main characters aren't white men. Seriously, in the past couple of years, I've seen that kind of crap thrown at The Force Awakens,  Rogue OneStar Trek: Discovery, and Doctor Who any time the entire cast isn't nothing but straight, white men. The people throwing such a fit about this deserve only one reply:

I do have one big problem with the show: In America, it's only on CBS All Access, which I'd have to subscribe to and pay extra for. I already have Netflix and Hulu, so I'd prefer it to be on one of those. But it's not, and I really want to see the show. And I want to support it, unless I find out it's not a good show. And if it turns out to be crap, then I'll cancel my subscription and stop supporting it. But I'm actually going to see it for myself and make my own decision, rather than just jump on the same kind of bandwagon that's partially responsible for tanking another of my favorite series, Mass Effect. (And that's a whole other rant I'll save for another day.)

My other concern is more minor. The trailer looks like the show is going out of its way to be "dark and edgy." I'm partly okay with that because it looks like it'll be dark because that's the nature of the story it's telling, and I've always preferred mostly-serious storytelling. As long as it doesn't cross over into "dark and edgy" just for the sake of being "dark and edgy," I'll be willing to go along for the ride. I just hope there'll be enough humor to break the tension wherever it's appropriate, because if there isn't, it might become too grim to keep watching. If all the Star Wars movies were as grim and bleak as Rogue One, I would never have watched them all or become a fan.

Anyway. I'm just sick of the negativity being hurled at this show months before it premieres. Sick of all the assholes proclaiming, "It's gonna suck!" and "It'll be cancelled after the first episode!" or even worse, "I hope it gets cancelled!" Oh, okay, you want something other people might enjoy to be taken away from them? Fuck you, you fuckstain.

Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and being a part of the internet hate machine, I'll watch the new show and then decide whether I think it's good or not.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Time for another action scene from "Chaser"

Been slacking on this due to the depression mentioned in the previous post as well as a few dozen other everyday-life things hitting all at once over the past few months, so it's way past time to get back to promoting some of my work. So, without further ado, here comes another excerpt from my novel, Chaser, followed by a few updates on other stuff I've got going on. In this little snippet, the protagonist and her parents have joined the security team on the jumpgate construction station orbiting Io, and are in the middle of dealing with a squad of assassins who have slipped onto the station.

The pod slowed as it approached the hatch leading to the adjacent section. It eased up to the dock and came to a halt with a slight nudge. We took the elevator down to the fourth level, the hydroponics section. Two steps took us from shiny metal surroundings to a setting resembling a park resting on metal grates with vats of nutrients underneath, taking the place of soil.
"I don't come here enough," Omega muttered. "I just now realized how much I miss trees. It's been almost three years since I had real ground under my feet."
Our surroundings were definitely pretty, though that made the reason we were here all the creepier. I slid my helmet's visor down and scanned the area for heat sources. Nothing stood out from the background yet.
[How close are we?] Omega took a quick look behind us before resuming his visual sweep of the "park" ahead.
[The latest anomaly occurred three minutes before you went through the same door, but there's been no activity since then. Looks like your target's decided to make a stand.]
[We've got contact,] Asuka cut in. [Stand by.]
Before that had a chance to sink in, Omega nudged my shoulder and nodded at something off to the left. A red outline appeared in my HUD, showing me what he saw–a large, bulky humanoid shape moving toward us from the right. He'd pointed me in the wrong direction to avoid tipping the guy off that he'd been spotted.
The figure crouched behind a tree and aimed what appeared to be a sniper rifle at us.
We whipped our plasma rifles toward him and hosed him down. The nice thing about this type of gun is that it'd take a prolonged burst to burn through a wall or the hull, so we didn't have to worry about a breach. The only thing we really needed to worry about was what sort of weapon he had–whether he was packing something that could punch a large slug through the wall or floor, as well as three or four others beyond it.
For a moment it looked like we wouldn't have to find out. The outline lunged aside as a hail of plasma bolts seared into the wall behind him–and several drilled straight into his chest, partially melting his armor but not burning all the way through. Molten globs of it dripped off, sizzled through the grate under his feet, and plopped into the nutrient vat with a lingering hiss.
He hit the floor and rolled behind another tree, giving us a few seconds to find our own cover. In the corner of my eye, he popped back out and lined up a shot. A flash burst from his rifle's muzzle, and part of my armor's right shoulder piece glowed. Luckily, the armor's crystalline layer refracted the beam, but some of its intense heat still came through to my skin. I ducked behind another tree and pulled my wings in.
What the hell was that, anyway? Couldn't have been a simple laser to do what it had just done. It would've had to be a hell of a lot bigger than a sniper rifle. Whoever these guys were, they must've had some serious connections to get their hands on something like that.
[Boiler, you okay?]
"Yeah." I tugged on my still-hot shoulder piece. "Ow! Mostly okay."
A thing that looked like a hockey puck rolled past me and bumped into the wall before toppling over. I scrambled away from it, stumbled and picked myself up, and ran like hell. A nearly blinding flash washed over everything and a shockwave hit me like a freight truck. I vaguely remember reeling across the floor before being knocked stupid. Every sound was muffled and distant.
I opened my eyes. Everything was a blurry mess. I blinked and shook my head, and when my vision cleared, I found myself staring at the ceiling. A few more seconds passed before I realized that was because I was flat on my back.
I moved my arms and legs a few inches, being cautious in case I'd broken any bones. I rolled onto my side and pushed myself up slowly. Plenty of pain, but nothing that seemed bad enough to be shattered bones or punctured organs.
[Boiler? Are you okay?]
Voice in my head...no, the comlink. Shit. I shook my head again. Come on, snap out of it.
[Boiler! Talk to me!]
"Yeah, I'm here. I...he used some kind of grenade."
Clanking footsteps vibrated the grate under me.
"Aw, fuck. Hold on." I looked around, turning my head slowly to be sure it wouldn't snap off, because it sure as hell felt like it might.
[Omega, you okay?]
[Yeah, I'm in one piece.]
[Check on Boiler, make sure she's not hurt.]
[Sure thing.]
More clanking footsteps, this time from the right.
The first set seemed to be coming from the smoke in front of me. Through the smoke, I caught a glimpse of a huge hole in the floor, and flickering lights from the level below us. The smoke directly in front of me whisked aside, as if parting for something passing through it, but there was nothing...
It was only then that I realized my hands were empty. My rifle had gone flying off somewhere, and I wouldn't have time to draw my pistol. And there was no longer an outline showing me where the assassin was the link with Omega's eyes must've been cut off. Now I wouldn't even see the bastard pull the trigger.
The footsteps on the right increased their speed. Omega burst out of the shadows and tackled him, carrying him to the hole in the floor. Parts of the guy's armor blipped in and out for a second after the impact. Both of them fell through and slammed into the deck on the next level.
I got my feet under me, staggered over to the hole, and peeked over the edge. Omega appeared to brace his palms against the air itself. Then, suddenly, a man in heavy armor appeared out of nowhere, twitching and grunting, under him.
"What the hell?" A muffled voice groaned.
"Low-level EMP generators in my arms." Omega popped the latches on the guy's helmet and yanked it off, revealing a somewhat tiger-looking anthro. "I've got plenty of other built-in toys, so I suggest you roll over and put your hands on your head."
I sighed and spoke into my comlink. "Taura, looks like we've got this wrapped up. How's Asuka doing?"
[She's already bagged one. Morrison said she cracked the bitch's helmet wide open with one punch.]
I whistled softly as I sat on the edge of the hole and prepared to drop down beside Omega.
[Heh,] he said, [you just might have some competition for Top Badass around–whoooaaaaa!]
The cat-dude snapped his legs up, braced his feet against Omega's chest, and launched him down the corridor. The assassin did a backflip from his prone position, and barely a second later he was back on his feet.
I shook off the sudden surprise and heaved myself off the edge, landing right in front of him, catching an armored fist right on the end of my nose, and ending up flat on my back again. It happened so fast, I couldn’t even remember actually falling. Metallic hands grasped my shoulders, lifted me, and just as my eyes regained their focus, the bastard slammed me into the wall.
I raised my fist, planning to crash it down on his head, but before I could drop the hammer on him, he spun and threw me into the opposite wall. The back of my head struck metal and I almost blacked out again. Omega tried to pry him off me, but couldn't budge him. Must've had strength-boosting armor. The struggle with Omega did draw his attention away from me for a moment, though.
I sucked in a deep breath, leaned over, and roared directly into the assassin's right ear. He screamed, flinched, and clamped his hand over his ear. I cocked my fist back and drove it into his face, knocking him off his feet. Before he could recover, I threw myself on top of him and pounded his face a few more times.
"How d'ya fuckin' like that, cockbite?" I picked him up and slammed his head into the floor.
"I think he's had enough," Omega said with a chuckle. "He can't answer any of our questions if you turn his head into a lump of soft cheese."
"Yeah, yeah. Help me take his armor off."
"Sure." He kneeled beside me and we popped the rest of the latches on the guy's armor. Omega looked at me a few seconds later and cocked his head. "You okay?"
"My face hurts." I raised my hand to touch my throbbing nose, decided it wasn't such a good idea, and continued removing the armor.
"Looks like he broke your nose."
"Oh, that's just fantastic. Back to the med-bay again."

Chaser is available from Amazon, now only $1.99.

Now for an update on my other books, which I should've gotten to a long time ago. Due to almost nonexistent sales, I decided to take all my other books (except Reactivated, which is still on Kindle Worlds) off Amazon and the other sites. That's not the end of them, though. Load, Fifteen Minutes, Project Revenant, Elsewhere, and Game Over will be getting another rewrite and polish, and then I'll be submitting them to publishers. To be honest, I've often felt like giving up during the past few months, but I just can't. Not after putting more than a quarter-century of my life into this. If I pull the ripcord now, all that time was wasted. So instead of trying to make a go of it as an indie author, I'm giving actual publishers a try again. And trying not to be too pessimistic about it.

I'm getting into the home stretch on the rewrite of Load. I've got an eye on several publishers, and will soon need to decide which one to send it to first. Then I'll go right into Fifteen Minutes.

Meanwhile, not too long ago I managed to finish a new chapter of Harbinger, and will be getting back to work on Freelancers next. Haven't made any progress on Uncharted Territory in the past few months, but will be resuming work on that, as well.

And after more technical difficulties than I can count, I managed to finally get started on a series of videos for my YouTube channel, a sort of "Let's Play" of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Here are the first two entries in the series, with more to come soon.

Also in the works is a Let's Play of Star Trek Online, starting with its recent "Agents of Yesterday" expansion and a new player character created for this video series. If all goes well, the first video will be uploaded within the next day or two.

And that covers everything, for now. Hope the excerpt from Chaser caught your interest. If it did, head on over to Amazon and grab a copy for your Kindle for only $1.99.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Some Thoughts on Mass Effect: Andromeda

So ... gradually pulling myself out of another depression, during which I got almost nothing done in the past week or so. I did finally finish Mass Effect: Andromeda, and I gotta say, it was a hell of a ride.
I really don't get all the negativity the game's been getting. It does have its flaws, and the problems with character animation has been well documented, though a recent patch has improved it a lot. The game has been getting a lot of hate, from complaints about game-breaking bugs to people simply stating, "It sucks," as if their opinions are fact. For me, it wasn't quite a home run, but it's a good, often great, game with characters I really liked and had a hell of a lot of fun watching, listening to their conversations, etc. Maybe a lot of people just decided to hate it because Mass Effect 3 was an almost total pile of shit, and I was in that camp when the game was first announced. I just assumed it'd be terrible because ME3 had become my gold standard for bad storytelling.
But the trailers and interviews and whatnot gradually changed my mind. The developers seemed sincere about wanting to make this a good game, and clearly put a lot of effort into it. So I decided to give it a chance. And I'm glad I did.
I didn't have the same experience with game-breaking bugs that many people seem to have had. The game crashed twice in 100 hours of playing, both times on the same side-mission. That's it. That's the only serious trouble I had, aside from one point where Ryder got stuck while trying to climb up a cliff, and I had to reload. And even then, the reload dropped me just a few feet from where I got stuck, and I was able to go on from there. Maybe it's because I played it on a PC. I dunno. Could be there's something about consoles that cause more problems. Or maybe hardware on PCs that couldn't handle the game.
Or, possibly, some of the complaints are exaggerated or completely made up.
I did have some issues with frame rate dropping and a few other things, with my previous graphics card. I decided to upgrade again to the one that was recommended for the game. Which, on the AMD side, was an RX 480 with 4GB. While looking for a good price on one, I found a 580 with 8GB for a lower price, and went with that. Still had some frame rate dropping with all the graphics set on Ultra, but once I turned it down to High, it still looked good at 4K and ran smoothly.
Story-wise, it probably could've been better, but I enjoyed the hell out of it anyway. Had some frustrations with the combat at the lower levels just because I suck, but once I leveled up a little and got my hands on better weapons and armor, I started having a much less rough time of it. I still absolutely hate the way the screen zooms in when I right-click to aim the weapons, because Ryder's body ends up blocking a quarter of the screen and it's impossible to see enemies approaching from that side.
Another problem is the lack of a mini-map in the corner of the screen, like the previous Mass Effect games and other games such as Grand Theft Auto V have. With the mini-map, you can see the red blips representing enemies approaching from the side and sneaking up behind you. Mass Effect: Andromeda has a bar at the top-center of the screen that's not exactly intuitive, at least not if you're used to the mini-map. Blips and waypoints at the far ends of the bar are actually behind you, but if you're not accustomed to the navigation bar, they look like they're just far to the right or left. It got quite frustrating, wandering around in circles like an idiot trying to find a waypoint off to the side when it was actually behind me.
Also, when trying to use the ability mapped to the "1" key, I keep hitting the "~" key which pops up the console and prevents me from even moving because when trying to move, I just end up typing in the little box up in the corner. And at higher resolutions, it's really hard to see when it pops up because it's tiny and there's so much else going on on the screen.
I also despise the puzzles you have to solve to activate certain Remnant technology. I ended up having to look up the solutions in walkthroughs, or use decryption keys found in the game. I just thoroughly hate puzzle mini-games.
On the positive side, I didn't find any of the side-quests tedious at all. With the first Mass Effect game, I found most of them to be something I just slogged through to get to a more interesting plot-related mission, but with Andromeda, all of them held my interest and I had no problem taking the time to do each one.
The characters were the high point for me. They're just fun. My fave's Vetra. My initial impression of her, from the few seconds she was on-screen in one of the trailers, was completely off the mark, but she turned out to be awesome in a whole different way. Unlike many turian characters in the previous games, she's friendly and casual right from the beginning, and is often downright adorable. So is her sister, Sidera. The romance subplot with Vetra is sweet and packed with "d'awww!" moments.
The two human team members you meet at the beginning of the game, Liam Kosta and Cora Harper, are actually interesting, unlike the human squadmates in the previous games. Kaiden and Ashley were so uninteresting that I didn't even care which one lived and which one died during the "big decision" moment in the Virmire mission in Mass Effect, though Kaiden was at least nice enough to be likable, whereas Ashley was kind of a racist asshole. Jacob seemed a friendly enough guy in Mass Effect 2, but was kind of bland, and Miranda was so cold, arrogant, and hostile until she defrosted after her loyalty mission that I never even wanted to speak with her. Liam was kind of a dick to the other squadmates, going out of his way to pick fights with them (and they all verbally raked him over a cheese grater, which was glorious), but in conversations on the Tempest he came across as friendly and very down-to-earth. And his loyalty mission was often hilarious and was one of the most fun parts of the game.
Drack was even more fun than I expected him to be. Badass, sure. At first glance, he seems like a typical krogan, but once you talk with him a few times, you see a whole other side to him. For instance, when one of the failings of his species is pointed out, instead of getting pissed off, he laughs and says, "Fair enough." PeeBee is not even close to the typical aloof asari. She's hyperactive, an adventurer, and likes to goof around. And Jaal isn't at all what I expected, either. I figured he'd be a stoic Proud Warrior Race Guy, but he's anything but stoic. It's a nice departure from the way a character like that is usually portrayed. His reaction when he found out what the kett really are was just heartbreaking.
And the ending. Unlike Mass Effect 3, this didn't derail into a load of pretentious, nonsensical, rocks-fall-everyone-dies horseshit. I thought it was thoroughly satisfying. It was the kind of ending ME3 should've had. There were a couple of blatant DLC/sequel hooks, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here.
Screw the haters. This is a good, solid game, and it's a step in the right direction after the previous game.
I'd started recording my first playthrough to post on my YouTube channel, but had serious technical problems with the recording software -- bad enough that I had to scrap the idea and just play through the game without recording anything. I've tried at least a dozen different programs for recording gameplay, and the only one I'd ever gotten to work was Fraps, but then I started having trouble with it, as well. Once I finished the game, I decided to try recording a NG+ with ReLive, and it actually works, aside from the image freezing every few seconds, seemingly at random. I'm still trying to determine if the problem is in the game itself, my computer's hardware, or in the settings.
I posted the first episode on my channel last night:

Anyway. Yeah. It was a good ride, and I want to see where it goes in upcoming DLC and sequels.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Another contest entry

This month there's another contest with a copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda as the prize. This one sounded fun, so I decided to give it another try despite missing the target in the two or three of these contests I've entered before.

So, here's what I entered.

My headcannon is that the Normandy crew started up a tradition to unwind between missions: Movie Night. And after watching certain really old vids, some of them keep quoting lines for days afterward.
Joker: "I wouldn't say this thing thinks it's Satan. I'd say it is Satan!"
Zaeed: "Well, Satan ... is in DEEP SHIT!"
Shepard: "We're gonna need bigger guns."
Garrus: "Very, very big FUCKING GUNS!"
... Which prompts Dr. Chakwas to wonder if a round of psych evals is in order. XD
Hahah ... and if anyone's wondering what movie they're quoting above, it's pretty much the last gasp of the 1980s-style bad (yet in this case, awesome) action movies.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Mass Effect: Andromeda's Second Cinematic Trailer

Another cinematic trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda was released recently, and since it's way past time I posted something here, I'll offer up a few things that have been percolating in my head since the first time I watched the trailer.

So, just a general note first. Looks like we're back to typical-action-movie-trailer territory again. Not that that's really a negative. The trailers so far have been a pretty good mix of action-movie stuff, gameplay, and story and character reveals. But it has one really terrible, clichéd line of dialogue, when Ryder says, "We're about to change the rules!" I really hope that's not what the rest of the game's dialogue sounds like.

Now, on to a few specifics.

Here, we have a cool shot of the Ark Hyperion approaching the Nexus. What's interesting is that the Nexus appears to still be under construction here and in following shots. It was partially built before being sent to the Andromeda galaxy, where construction would be finished, presumably using resources mined after arriving. It's possible that some of the game's missions might involve assisting in its construction, or at least gathering resources and delivering them to the Nexus. That'd provide some nice variety to the missions, as long as it doesn't get too "grindy."

Next we've got a shot of a planet and ... what the hell is that black shit surrounding it? Probably a weapon or some other sinister thing made by the kett, though I kind of think it'd be more interesting if it's a natural phenomenon or something created long ago by someone else, that's just running loose in the galaxy and is a menace to everyone.

Hmm. Now that I think about it, it reminds me of the Death Cloud, a planet-killer used by the Shadows on Babylon 5. Something like that would be ... challenging to deal with.

There's a voice-over of Alec Ryder, the player character's father, saying this planet is "New Earth, if we're lucky." From what I've heard so far, one of the main plots in the game will be the exploration of Andromeda and the search for a habitable planet, presumably one that's also rich in resources. One of the previous trailers stated that the galaxy's inhabitants are fighting constantly over resources, which aren't exactly plentiful ... which made me raise an eyebrow when I first heard it. The Andromeda Galaxy is more than twice the size of the Milky Way, so I can't help wondering why it's so poor in resources that everyone is fighting over them. One possibility is that, without the Reapers that wiped out all technologically-advanced life in the Milky Way every 50,000 years, Andromeda's galactic society could've been around for a very long time, maybe long enough to use up most of the galaxy's resources and splinter into feuding factions.

I'm wondering if finding a suitable planet will be one of the endgame goals, or if we'll find out that there aren't any left. That'd be a hell of a note -- travel 2.5 million light years, spend 600 years in cryonic stasis, arrive knowing it's a one-way trip ... and then finding out that there's nowhere they can settle permanently.

But then, that galaxy is more than twice the size of ours, so I wouldn't expect to explore all of it in the first game. New sectors or quadrants will likely open up in future games, if any more are made. Something I think would be cool is, if more games are developed, we could play as a Pathfinder on each of the turian, salarian, and asari Arks. Like, in this one, we play as the human Pathfinder, and if the next game has, say, the turian Pathfinder as its player character, and if the game imports your save from the first game, then you could interact with your previous character and he/she would be the same model you played after customizing him/her in the character-creation stage. And then any games that followed could do the same thing. Might be too complicated to program, but it'd be a fascinating way to approach this if it becomes a series.

Anyway, next we get a shot of the Nexus with an Ark approaching it, and here we can see the scale of the station. The Arks hold 20,000 people in cryo, if I remember correctly, so they have to be enormous. But you can see how the still-under-construction Nexus makes the Ark look like a fly that's about to splatter on the windshield.

 A bit later, the Tempest drops into normal space directly in front of what is probably a kett ship and ... wait a minute. Look at that thing. The ship has a fuckin' frowny face. Why does it have a fuckin' frowny face? I'm never not going to see that, now. Just like I can never watch Battle Beyond the Stars without staring at the huge tits on the front of that ship.

At least the ship looks like it's actually alien. I don't find it scary or intimidating thanks to the emoji on the front, but at least you can take one look at it and realize, "Yep, that's not one of ours."

The "mouth" is probably a launch bay for these ships. And I have to say, the T-shape design is something I haven't seen before, so credit where it's due. The devs have designed plenty of alien stuff that, as I've said a few times, actually looks alien.

Then we get a look at the Tempest's pilot, Kallo Jath, as he says the ship is pinned against ... I think he calls it "the Scourge," but I had trouble making it out. It might be that black stuff with glittery things in it, in the image up above, but here it looks like it's on fire. Not clear yet whether that's its function -- surround a planet and explode, maybe burning off the atmosphere or scorching the surface -- or if it's damage from weapons fire.

Next we hear a low-pitched, booming voice, and it's obviously the Big Bad. That's pretty clichéd, too, but I really like the "Oh, shit!" look Ryder gets on his face here. Commander Shepard never reacted that way to an enemy, but then, Shepard was in the Systems Alliance, so he/she already had the training and experience to deal with overwhelming threats without freaking out. Ryder, on the other hand, isn't really military and has inherited the Pathfinder job after something happened to his father, so it makes sense that he's a little nervous here. Also, this is a good way to set him apart from Shepard, rather than repeating the same type of character we played before.

Then we get our first look at two more members of the team, Cora Harper and Liam Kosta. What I've heard about Liam is that he's idealistic and from the bit at the end of this trailer he seems pretty friendly, which is kind of a breath of fresh air in settings like this one. I've seen so much of the "everyone snapping at each other and distrusting each other" thing that it's always nice to see characters who don't fall into that pattern. Also ... and this is probably a weird thing to say, but ... I really like his hair. In the previous games, everyone had short or close-cropped hair, or none at all. It's good to see more variation because it's just more visually interesting. And it makes sense due to the Andromeda Initiative not being an Alliance or military program. I'm hoping there'll be a wider range of hair styles in the character creator, to make Ryder more of an individual.

As for Cora, I immediately found her last name interesting. The Illusive Man's real name was revealed a few years ago to be Jack Harper. That could be a coincidence, but I doubt it. The Andromeda Initiative seems like exactly the kind of project that Cerberus would want to infiltrate and influence for their own purposes.

But then, having Cora be a mole or a saboteur would be the obvious way to go, and personally I'd prefer as few ties to the previous games as possible. I'd be okay with it if it's just part of her background, maybe something that comes up in a few conversations, where she reveals that she wanted nothing to do with Cerberus and its agenda. But making a big subplot out of it might be problematic.

Next we get a close look at the owner of the booming voice, and ... yeah. Combine that with his threat of "Surrender or burn" and ...

... it's no wonder Ryder looks like he's about to piss his pants.

But that leads to another look at Vetra. She only gets a single line of dialogue in the trailer, which is tragic, but her voice is perfect. Don't know who her voice actor is, but it fits the character. And she just looks like a badass. I've pretty much decided already to bring her along on every mission she's available for.

Next we get another glimpse of Peebee ... and I'm so thankful that's just a nickname. I'd never be able to take her seriously if that were her real name. I'm guessing her initials are PB and her name might be really long or difficult to pronounce, so it's easier just to call her "PB." Anyway, from what I've heard, she sounds like a fun character. Being "socially blunt" should get her into all sorts of trouble.

Next we see another distinct planetary surface while Ryder speechifies about being explorers, not soldiers. And that's another thing I see as a positive -- in so many stories like this, the protagonist is a soldier. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that when it's the go-to type of character, it's kind of refreshing when the heroes are something different.

Then we get another quick look at the villain, Archon, and he's appropriately creepy and sinister.

And then we get this, which is a cool shot of the team, though it would've been better if Vetra had been included. On the down side, this is the point where we hear that horribly clichéd, we're-gonna-kick-their-asses line, "We're about to change the rules!" I dunno, maybe it's the tone of his voice or something, but ... it's the kind of thing you'd hear in a direct-to-video action movie from the 1990s.

Next we get our first good look at another species native to Andromeda, the angara. Don't really have any information on them, though one of them, named Jaal, will join the team.

This is an interesting design for an alien species. They remind me a bit of the Twi'leks and Togruta from Star Wars, except the angara kind of look like they evolved from an aquatic species.

What follows this is a few quick shots of Ryder and Drack kicking ass, and Liam taking no shit. Standard action-movie stuff, but that's always fun as long as it isn't of the "We're about to change the rules!" or the "We fight or we die!" variety.

Finally, another kett ship chases the Tempest out of some exploding stuff. Again, that's a really cool design for an alien ship. It really adds to the "we're not in Kansas anymore" feeling of being in a completely different galaxy.

Couple of quick notes about Alec Ryder and another team member who didn't appear in this trailer, but was featured in the latest "mission briefing" on the Pathfinder team: SAM. First, the game starts with Alec Ryder as the Pathfinder for the Hyperion, but something happens to him early on, which thrusts Scott/Sara Ryder into the Pathfinder position. The obvious way to go would be for the father to be killed, either in an accident or by the story's villains ... which is why I hope they don't go that route. It's been done so many times, you can see it coming a mile away. I'd prefer something like, he's separated from the others, or disappears, or is badly injured, forcing his son/daughter to step up, but then he's able to come back and have a significant role in the rest of the game.

What I'd find really interesting is ... suppose he comes back, sees his kid handling the Pathfinder duties, and decides to provide advice and support instead of taking charge again. The father following the kid's orders would set up a fascinating dynamic that we don't see very often.

But then, there may be a good chance that he'll stick around for the whole game, or most of it, at least. It seems unlikely that they'd hire Clancy Brown just to give his character ten or twenty minutes of screen time and then kill him off. It'd be such a waste.

Another thing about Alec Ryder that I really like is that he's a scientist as well as an elite soldier. Too many times, soldiers are portrayed as clueless about sciencey stuff, so this is refreshing. He actually created SAM, who is a full AI. Finding out that SAM was an actual artificial intelligence was a surprise because creating AI is illegal in the Milky Way. Which also makes me wonder if this is a sign that Cerberus had some involvement in the project, since they created EDI and don't give a damn if it's illegal.

EDI turned out to be a welcome aversion of the "AI is a Crapshoot" trope, and her character development was one of the very few things about Mass Effect 3 that was actually good. So I'm hoping for something similar with SAM. The AI who decides to kill all humans is something that's been done so many times before, I've grown tired of seeing it again and again. Also, the conflict between synthetics and organics was already done rather thoroughly in the Mass Effect trilogy (though it was completely botched at the end), so I'm hoping they're moving past all that crap. It'd be nice to see SAM developing in a similar way to EDI, becoming part of the team instead of turning on everyone. I'd also like to see more AI characters, which seems likely. If the Ark carrying the humans has an AI, the other Arks probably have their own.

I'd also love to see some of the geth coming along for the ride, as well. A handful of quarians, too. It'd be easy enough to write them into the story. Given how things turned out with Legion, I can come up with several ways the geth and the quarians can be included, right off the top of my head. And it'd be nice to see them quickly learning how to coexist and work together ... possibly motivated by the understanding that this is it -- they can't go back home, there's no net to catch them, and if they screw up severely enough, it's all over. I'd prefer something like that to just rehashing the same thing from the previous games.

Anyway. I'm still cautiously optimistic that this game won't be a debacle like Mass Effect 3 was. From everything I've seen and heard, BioWare seems to be trying, this time. They appear to be putting in a genuine effort to tell a good story. They've gradually won me over, so I'm giving them one more chance.

I'm planning to either pre-order Mass Effect: Andromeda or buy it when it's released. The first playthrough will be just for myself (though I may take a few screenshots and post them, if anything really noteworthy happens), to see the story without any pressure and see for myself whether it's actually good, and also to start figuring out what to comment on when I record a playthrough for my YouTube channel. Right now, the plan is to do one playthrough as Bro!Ryder and then another as Sis!Ryder, to see how the dialogue and other things change from one to the other.

At least March 21 isn't too far off, now, so the wait won't be much longer. Then I guess I'll see how it goes.