Sunday, 29 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Graphic Novels

Digger - By Ursula Vernon

Digger is a story about a wombat. Certainly not something I had expected when I grabbed the Hugo voter packet. It is a story about a stranger in a land that is stranger still. A land that seems to have a lot more magic and gods interfering than any sensible wombat should feel comfortable with.

This entry is the complete Digger story, which makes it extremely long, the PDF is 830 pages, it is split into volumes with each volume giving a brief summary of the story so far, and also containing extra backstory near the end.

The cast of characters is quite varied, but my favourites are probably Shadowchild and Ed. Shadowchild is a pure innocent and manages to ask some really interesting ethical quandaries, it listens earnestly and has no malice. This in some ways makes it even more dangerous as it follows advice more closely than it possibly should, and Digger is not always the best teacher, though she tries her best her advice, like most people teaching when they are inexperienced is incomplete in ways that she does not expect. I like Ed because he gives a lot of interesting backstory and completes some of the moral picture, despite the way Ed speaks, he seems to have thought a lot about how people should try to act.

It has a good mix of drama and humour. Sometimes in would be very cheesy dramatic scenes there is effectively some colour commentary from other characters there. Otherwise very serious characters are occasionally tripped up by events that Digger experienced. It was a fantastic story well told. It also can be read online here.

Schlock Mercenary Book 12: Force Multipliers - Written and drawn by Howard Taylor

I have been a Schlock Mercenary reader for years, I actually have all of the printed books and am currently up to date with it where I am not with most of the webcomics I read. It is a consistent and funny sci fi series where the author has clearly put a lot of thought into the setting. This particular run features only a rather small set of characters from the series and a location that constrains Sergeant Schlock from using his plasma cannon, a move he finds rather upsetting.

It was an interesting story with various characters changing allegiance, strange deaths and antagonists that are both less and more sinister than they initially appeared. The first time I read this story I actually missed a late game reveal which reveals information about a character in Tagon's Toughs that has not yet paid off. I am going to have to keep a closer eye on that one.

It is the characters I like most about Schlock Mercenary, from the psychotic and cheerful Sergeant Schlock, the cheerful, dim and tough grunts like Shep and the hopeful and stable Dr Bunnigus. They all have something to offer and are a bit more multidimensional than those descriptors really indicate, I like they way they interact and also the way Schlock occasionally eats people and burns things down.

A quick note, if you do go to read Schlock Mercenary, the initial art is terrible, but it has improved much over the years. Also there is a lot of it, it has never missed a day (save for one instance of server troubles, and even there the strip was uploaded to an alternate site), and it has run for over 12 years now, Book 12 is somewhere around the 1 year mark in length.

Fables: Rose Red - written by Bill Willingham, various Artists.

I am not up to date with Fables, but it is a comic that I try to catch up on every year or so, grabbing the volumes if I see them in a store. I don't think I am too far behind, because in the Story So Far and Who's Who of Fabletown I don't really see anything new. As an aside, in the PDF provided for this, the text is a much higher resolution than the images, the speech bubbles must have been added digitally and it is initially surprisingly distracting, it probably isn't noticeable in the print version.

This volume is pretty cool, there is some further development of Mister Dark as the big nigh unstoppable villain, a lot more backstory for Rose Red and Snow White (and how Snow White appeared in the two seemingly contradictory fairy tales), and a really awesome fight. I also like the hints regarding the Mundy world, they really have not yet explained how the heck fairy tales come about, they are merely people in other worlds, but the series has always shown that the Mundy world is linked, stories that are popular here result in more powerful and resilient fables, even off world. Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf are both characters that can take a lot more punishment than other less popular fables.

I am pretty happy with the plot advancement, but like a lot of graphic novels, whilst progress is made, the stories are never quite self-contained, and not nearly as much is resolved as I would like. I guess it comes from their serial nature.

The Unwritten Leviathan - By Mike Carey and Peter Gross

I have to admit I am a bit of a sucker for meta-stories. It is one of the reasons why I like Fables, The Unwritten has the same themes brought by a different mechanism. A large part of it takes place inside famous books and stories like Moby Dick and Sindbad the Sailor. It even features Baron von Münchhausen, one of my favourite characters purely because of a game I like based upon him.

This comic does not give any useful information for newcomers to the series, so I am not sure who most of these characters are or their significance. It is pretty clear that Tom is the protagonist, but I have no idea why it is significant that Liz calls him Tom at one point. The copy in the Hugo voter packet does not even give me a blurb to work from. It just gives me quotes from a bunch of writers and magazines about how great the series is.

Whilst I still remain a bit confused at the relations between the characters, where these abilities come from and what they are trying to achieve, I did enjoy the romp through those famous tales and I also liked how the art style changed with stores. Both colour selection and artistic techniques change. I don't have enough knowledge to really describe them, but each story brings their own voice into the tale through the changed aesthetic.

Locke and Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom - Written by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez

Unfortunately Locke and Key is a series that I do not follow, which means that I spent the first part of this book trying to work out who the various characters are and the basic concept. I really should have read the blurb (which is of course on the final page of the PDF).

It was an interesting story, the core conceit is a series of magical keys and doors found within the Locke family home of Keyhouse. It follows a group of children that now that they have found out about these keys are in mortal danger. The book focuses on a hidden internal threat within the group, all of the keys being used seem to have been previously established, but the concepts are pretty cool, there is one that lets you literally play around with another's mind, one of the characters has removed her fear and her ability to cry, there are various others that let you travel, change into an animal, etc.

It is an interesting concept, maybe sometime I will try to find the earlier volumes so that I can get more of a feel for the continuity. Plot was advanced during the volume, but nothing was really concluded.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Short Stories

I had previously listened to almost all of the Hugo nominated short stories as part of Escape Pod and PodCastle. These podcasts are great ways to get to listen to short stories, they release new episodes weekly and are my primary exposure to Sci Fi and Fantasy short stories. As such I am including links to the relevant episode of each podcast for the short stories here, so that you can listen to them for yourself.

The Homecoming - Mike Resnick

A son visits his parents in order to see his sick mother, his father is angry with him, feeling that his son abandoned them when he made choices earlier in life. The dilemma of pleasing your parents and achieving your personal goals and ambitions.

The Paper Menagerie - Ken Liu

A touching story about a relationship between a mother and son. A child who wants to fit in can be very cruel and make pretty poor choices. Especially since they often don't take the time to understand why others make the choices they do.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees - E. Lily Yu

I loved the imagery in this fantasy story, the different cultures of the wasps and bees and the way that wasps feel completely superior to the bees, they don't even consider trying to coexist as equals.

Movement - Nancy Fulda

This was an interesting story, it is written from the perspective of a child with a flavour of autism. Who should make choices regarding achieving normality, especially when steps have to taken early in life. It is the child's life that you are irreversibly altering, but they are too young to be trusted with making an appropriately considered decision on their own.

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One - The Dead City - John Scalzi

This is actually the prologue to a fantasy trilogy, the tone of it is very light hearted, but it does not shy away from implied blood and violence. An impossible threat against a fantasy kingdom. But the reason why it is impossible cannot be publicly acknowledged.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Novelettes

The Novelette is a category of fiction I had not heard of prior to looking at the Hugos, I had thought that it went Short Story < Novella < Novel. But the Hugos have the Novelette as another category between Shot Story and Novella, I guess this gives you more rewards to give out.

Here are my thoughts about the novelettes in the order I intend to vote for them.

Ray of Light - Brad R Torgersen

A single dad trying to raise his daughter in a underwater station deep in the oceans, where it is still warm. A wonderful tale about acceptance, loss and trying to regain what has been lost.

Features some very lucky kids.

Six Months, Three Days - Charlie Jane Anders

Predestination vs Free Will, a tale of a doomed relationship between two clairvoyants who each see the future very differently and yet still seem to agree on major points. Attracted to each other, yet both knowing that the relationship is going to last only six months and three days. One of them has to be wrong, but which one?

Fields of Gold - Rachel Swirsky

A tale about death and responsibility. It seems that death is a series of parties as newcomers keep arriving, got to find some what of spending the rest of your existence I guess. It is interesting to see the two central characters going trying to work out what they want, what they were really looking for all of their lives.

What We Found - Geoff Ryman 

This is an examination about both science and the old ways, it features people growing up and ideas wearing out.

The Copenhagen Interpretation - Paul Cornell

I found this one pretty odd, it is a steampunk story featuring spaceships, theories about the weight of souls and thus the location of life on a grand scale and murky international politics balanced on a knife edge. It was kind of fun, but missed the mark for me.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Novellas

This is my ranking of the novella nominees in order.

Countdown - Mira Grant

Countdown is a prequel novella to the Newsflesh trilogy. It recounts the story of the Rising, the focus is primarily upon characters who are only mentioned in a historical context in the main trilogy, though there is also a fair amount from the perspective of the adoptive parents of Shaun and Georgia Mason.  

Being a prequel most readers will know what is going to happen, pretty much all of the events were mentioned in some way during Feed and Deadline, and Mira Grant provides a lot of foreshadowing for those readers.

I think that a reader completely new to the series would still be able to enjoy Countdown, but it feels very much written for the fans. I really enjoyed the story a great deal, it was great to be able to see and get to know Dr. Kellis and other characters which have such a significant and direct impact on the setting but don't really appear in the main series.

The Man Who Ended History - Ken Liu

I found this story very powerful, mostly because the science fiction elements are a framing device to discuss history, observation and the human desire to try to forget and diminish terrible things.

The central concept is that there is a technology developed that allows a person to directly observe the past, with the limitation being that this can only be done once for any given time and place. The mere act of observing destroys the ability to observe again. The very public test of this technology? The Pingfang district, where Unit 731 were located. This really is the focus of the work, what was done by Unit 731 was terrible, horrifying and astounding. Medical experimentation without any real ethical boundaries.

The story discusses the political ramifications, who owns the past, since control of land constantly shifts between areas. Similarly, this is a political conflict between Japan and China, Japan was clearly historically in the wrong, but China is not as well regarded by the West. Besides, what governments really want to allow any areas of their history to be closely observed? History is sadly filled with terrible atrocities that society for better or worse would rather forget than reflect upon. 

The Man Who Bridged The Mists - Kij Johnson

This is a fantasy story about civil engineering. The mist is a dangerous supernatural boundary that splits the empire. It runs over a river and makes crossing very dangerous and communication difficult.

The man who bridged the mist is about the first permanent bridge constructed over the mist connecting both nearside and farside. It is a complex, lengthy and dangerous task, but one that is not trully opposed by anyone.

The only people likely to lose anything are the Ferries, a family who make their living ferrying people across those dangerous waters, it is a calling and whilst they are extremely good at it, it is an occupation which will inevitably kill them after only a short number of years on the craft.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Kit and Rasali Ferry, they work well together and I enjoyed the talk that went into building the suspension bridge.

Kiss Me Twice - Mary Robinette Kowal

Kiss Me Twice is science fiction noir tale about a murder and a kidnapping. The story is told from the perspective of a police officer who is perhaps a little too attached to the police AI.

It was pretty cool to have a police department that is heavily assisted by an AI that mostly communicates with them via AR. I liked the twists and turns that the story took and the conclusion was one that I did not see coming though probably should have.

The Ice Owl - Carolyn Gilman

This is a science fiction story about the education of a young girl, forgiveness and a holocaust. I quite enjoyed the lessons that the girl was taught and the puzzles that she solved using that education. I didn't really get into the setting and the story was good, but just not one that I have much to say about.

Silently and Very Fast -  Catherynne M Valente

This was a very confusing novella about AI and the turing test. It swaps between modified fairy tales and the primary narrative around the development of an AI and its ties to a particular family. The swapping between these two perspectives really did not work for me, it pulled me out of the story and I found it harder to track what was going on.

I did like the point about the turing test though. Basically it indicates that we will only accept an AI when it limits itself to our level, when it thinks like us and has similar limitations. This is often seen in movies where bad robots and AI inevitably seek omnipotence and to strike humanity down for its hubris. Why would a superintelligent AI even care about us?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Completed - Dungeons of Dredmor

Dungeons of Dredmor is a humourous roguelike by GasLamp Games that I ended up obsessing over shortly after it introduced Steam workshop support and the associated "You Have To Name The Expansion" expansion back at the beginning of June.

For reference, the defining characteristics of a roguelike are:
  • permadeath - Your character dies, they exist pretty much only as a high score entry
  • random dungeons maps - The layout of each level is procedurally generated via a random seed. The overall dungeon can have consistent themes (i.e. level 10 is always an ice level) but the layout, placement of monsters and treasures are all random
  • RPG levelling: You get XP and you level up mostly by hitting things with weapons.
  • Turn based: The entire game system is based on discrete units of time that only advance when you perform an action.
There are other common features found in games like ADOM, Dungeon Crawl and NetHack such as starvation as a motivation for continuing deeper, races and classes, and a default display based purely on ascii characters. Dungeons of Dredmor only fills the 4 characteristics I list, and even then only using the defaults, you can turn off permadeath if you so desire.

When you create a character in Dredmor, you pick a name (and a gender if you have the Diggle Gods expansion) and 7 skills. These skills are not all balanced and range from Swordfighting to Veganism and Vampirism, they determine your starting stats and equipment and when you level you choose to advance one of your skills. Some skills work really well together, others don't. I would be surprised to find a viable character that has both Veganism and Vampirism for example, since simply attacking in melee would trigger a significant debuff.

Dredmor's tone is very light hearted and silly. The skills are fairly silly and strange with each ability it grants having its own funny description. This is a game where the final level of the Perception skill is Eye-lasers, you can gain experience for "Heroic Vandalism" and being an archaeologist lets you realise a translation was off and fundamentally change the powers of an artifact.

The game also has achievements for many of the deaths you will face during the game, which is good because you will die, and you will die a lot. Winning the game requires a combination of persistence, caution and luck. Finding great gear at the right time will extend your character's life significantly, finding a monster zoo when you were looking for a place to hold up and heal will put a premature end to a promising character.

The game has a very simple graphical style, it does not even try to show your character wearing and wielding your equipment. It has a set animation for each weapon style and a set of generic spellcasting animations. It is fairly easy to mod, you simply need to know the right xml structure and this approach also makes it easy to add your own items with their graphics. The Steam workshop makes it really easy for players to find and add mods to their copies of the game, in particular Meltdown is fantastic for crafting based characters.

The aim of the game is to reach the final level of the dungeon, either level 10 or level 15 depending on your game mode and kill Dredmor, saving the world for now anyway. I found that the game outstayed its welcome with me on my winning playthrough; I had chosen the longest possible game settings and the dungeon simply went too deep and I felt that I was in the final hour or two of the game for the last 8 or so hours. This is a great way to keep me playing despite becoming increasingly weary of the game.

That said, I spent 69 hours and 30 characters in order to actually finish it. It was overall a fun experience, and definitely worth the $3 it costs to get the complete version on Steam right now.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Completed - Q.U.B.E.

Q.U.B.E. (Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion) is a first person physic based puzzler developed by Toxic Games. Like all games of this genre, the obvious comparison is Portal, but in Q.U.B.E. this comparison is even more apt, the game takes place in a sterile environment with the environment and walls composed of primarily of white cubes. There are occasional opportunities to peak behind the scenes and see something a little more messy and run down.

The game is split up into 7 sectors, each one introducing and teaching new mechanics in a gradual process and creating a theme for each section. The titular block extrusions are split into 5 different colours, each with their own properties. Red blocks can be extruded and retracted, blue blocks are retracted to become springboards for the next thing to touch thing, yellow blocks are always found in threes and extend to form stair structures, green produce a sphere or cube to move around in the puzzle and purple blocks rotate a section of room.

There is no voicework at all to be found in Q.U.B.E. nor text to explain the story. This makes for a strange contextless game, you are given no clue as to how you found yourself at the start of these chambers nor to what end you are completing these tests if they are indeed tests. The ending was particularly baffling. I won't spoil it, but it definitely caught me off guard and I given that I would love to play another game in this series to find out what the heck was going on, so on that level it certainly worked for me.

This certainly was an intriguing title and one I would suggest people pick up if it goes on sale during the current Steam sales, it didn't take me very long to finish and this is one of the rare games where I then went back to find the one achievement you do not get from doing a run through of the main game.

One thing I was intrigued to find out when doing a little research on this game is that none of the developers were programmers, the game was created using the Unreal Development Kit and at no point did any of the creators have to interact with the source code. It is pretty amazing that a game of this quality can be created using what are freely available tools even without low level programming knowledge.

Games list at time of post: 400+ unfinished titles     
Changes since previous post: Finished 1 titles, added more

Monday, 16 July 2012

Hugo Month - Embassytown

Embassytown is science fiction novel by China Mieville. It is written from the perspective of Avice who was born and raised in the titular Embassytown. A town that exists to maintain relations between humanity and a unique species called the Ariekei.

The Ariekei have no interest in spaceflight and so can only be found on this one planet but are significantly more advanced than humanity in terms of biotechnology. Their cities and most of their equipment are strange biorigged devices even the very buildings themselves are living organisms.

What really defines the Ariekei however is their language. They evolved with two mouths, making their language impossible for a human to speak independently, their speech is in many ways mixed up in their thoughts. They require another united mind to speak the words for them to register as language, this prevents the use of speech synthesis and language translation software. Whilst human can learn to understand the Language, they cannot speak it save in remarkably well synced pairs. The Ambassadors in Embassy town are specifically bred and raised as clonepairs for this purpose.

The Language is very literal and inflexible, at the beginning of the book Avice becomes part of it, she is a Simile, the girl who ate what was given to her, allowing the Ariekei to express ideas that were previously more difficult.

I found the events of the book particularly interesting as they related to the Language, what makes it special and the moral choices the characters are confronted with. Is it right to teach a species incapable of lying how to do so? How does that then change a society and its language?

This book hooked me in as it started exploring more of what the Ariekei were and what their language actually meant. I enjoyed it a lot more than I initially expected to.

My Hugo 2012 Novel rankings are:

1. Deadline
2. Embassytown
3. Leviathan Wakes
4. Among Others

I have chosen not to read A Dance With Dragons, the other novel up for a 2012 Hugo, it is the fifth book in the Game of Throne series and I have not read any of the other novels, I tried reading some of it but I was far too lost for my reading to be fair to it. Instead I have moved on to reading through the Hugo nominated novellas.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Death of a Laptop

My laptop, Ran11x, has alas ceased to be useful as a laptop. It is an m11x, a model of laptop that Dell has now discontinued. It served faithfully for about 2 and a half years. Like many 1st generation m11x's it developed hinge problems that resulted in it ceasing to be very portable and with an update last night, it ceased to display anything on its screen.

As a result I am currently extracting my data from it and trying to decide two things: What to do with it and what to replace it with.

What to do with it

The laptop still actually works, I can plug it into an external monitor and use the projector shortcut to get it to use that display. Given that I have a desktop I really don't need it on my desk, I don't have a spare display and even if I did, I would rather use that as an extra screen on the desktop.

That said, it is a separate machine which means I can use it to experiment with things, one idea is to install Windows 8 on it. I can format it and do a fresh install, I don't need to worry about update woes and I don't need to care if the new machine isn't quite so useful. I had actually already planned on doing this sometime during my holidays.

Since it takes HDMI I can plug it into the TV as a media PC. We already have one running Linux in my house and we have a spare wireless mini-keyboard and mouse. It seems a bit silly to have two machines set up to do the same thing, but this means that we can use them for different things. The Linux machine is there to play media and to access remotely via SSH, Ran11x can be used for gaming. It has a 500GB drive which isn't quite enough to fit all of my Steam games on it, but I can try to pick games that can either be played with the mini keyboard and mouse or games that can be played with a 360 controller. This is option is especially tempting because I can even use it for Artemis which is a game that I really would like to play with friends before I move out.

I should be able to do both of these. I can still play around with Windows 8 on the TV and have a set up for TV gaming. Does anyone have any other cool ideas? Everything other than the screen appears to work without difficulty.

What to get to replace it

I don't necessarily need to replace Ran11x, I could instead try to repair the screen, I would rather get the parts and try to do this myself if I can do it cheaply. The laptop is now old enough that this isn't really a priority, I probably won't really need a laptop until I head overseas later this year.

Whilst I have my Transformer Prime, it is not quite good enough to be a laptop replacement. As I found earlier this year when going away with just the tablet, Android is simply too limiting to be my only OS. Having only mobile and webapps can be really painful. Especially if I am trying to use office. The mobile versions of Google Docs are awful. They are slow and have really strange behaviours at times and I have regretted trying to use them every time. The limitation of having only 1 application on screen at any time is surprisingly annoying even when using a small screen.

I really would like a PC of the same kind of size, about 11". Ideally one that can play a good selection of games (because it is my primary hobby) and one that can run real apps. I guess this is what ultrabooks are intended for. Does anyone have any recommendations for good 11-12" laptops that can run modern games at a decent framerate?

The other thing that I conceptually find really tempting is the Surface Pro, tablet form factors, still has the ability to use a physical keyboard, an OS with a fair amount of work put into the touch interface that still has a good keyboard and mouse interface that lets me run office, steam and any other desktop apps I want; provided that it has decent battery life and isn't too noisy or hot it seems like a great idea to me.

Ideally I would like to replace Ran11x with a new laptop before I head to Europe in December. Probably close enough to the trip that I can claim back the GST.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Hugo Month - Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes is a novel by James S. A. Corey which is published by Orbit Books.

It is the first book of the Expanse series, and it begins with a mysterious attack on an outer belt freighter.

The beginning of this book reminded me a lot of a version of firefly set within our solar system. There are the old established inner planets of Earth and Mars who nominally rule via a join space fleet. Then there are the outer belts, significantly poorer in terms of both population and military power but they have significant raw mineral resources which the inner planets are reliant upon. It quickly became its own story and the similarities with firefly quickyl fade away.

The novel is ultimately about the beginnings of a war that no one wants, the inner planets have a massive military advantage in terms of forces but being mostly planet bound are incredibly vulnerable to the comet drop offensive technique that would be the obvious last ditch response by the outer belt.

Outside of the prologue the novel is written from the alternative perspectives of two different characters, an earthborn independent ship captain and a corporate policeman. Their stories initially start quite separate but quickly overlap and intertwine for the majority of the book.

I enjoyed reading through this book, it was a much closer fit with me than Among Others but I was not quite as invested as I was with Deadline. Hence, my Hugo 2012 Novel rankings are:
1. Deadline
2. Leviathan Wakes
3. Among Others

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Note Taking App - Edit and Review Mode UI Design

In the last post I showed two different designs and approaches for taking notes in lectures. They both have their advantages and drawbacks. It was important to also consider that Andrew's needs are different in lectures and out of lectures. In lectures times are constrained and it is possible for important information to be conveyed while Andrew is trying to do something else. While he is trying to get a photo of a worked example on the board the lecturer may be talking about a related but different concept that also should be included in the notes. This makes it important that actions are not atomic, that a task can be temporarily paused whilst a higher priority task is addressed.

This is not true when reviewing and editing notes outside of a lecture, here Andrew has considerably more time to complete tasks and it probably is best not to encourage him to jump around too much.


Look ma! No Sidebar!The outliner approach does not really need any adjustment from inside to outside of lectures, the non-text elements (images and sound bites) can easily be covered in surrounding text. The only obvious visual difference is that the Outliner does not need the sidebar in this mode.

If I choose to go with the outliner process, it is probably not really worth differentiating between the two different modes of lecture creation. The only consideration is whether or not it is worth removing the sidebar to provide more screen real estate.

So many arrowsPDF Annotator

The annotator is a lot more hungry for screen space. In the lecture, new notes are created by tapping the screen, creating those yellow dots. Only the note that is currently being created/edited is expanded.

Outside of the lecture, the default is for all notes to be expanded, this also means the app automatically rearranges the notes to remove any overlaps. When the notes are expanded they should not obscure any elements in the original notes nor should they obscure other expanded notes. The idea here is that the yellow dots remain but an arrow is automatically generated pointing to the expanded note. Expanded notes are automatically sized based on the amount of information contained.

There are two differences between this and the previous image, can you find them?
A short tap will hide the expanded note. Which allows Andrew to hide information he is not currently trying to revise this will also cause nearby notes to try to automatically rearrange themselves.

A long tap brings up the note into a much larger mode for further editing. It is here where the editing tools are found, primarily based around adding and formatting further text. The plan is to use pretty standard text editing settings, the ability to change font size, bold

There aren't any plans to include picture or audio editing tools here. A further long press on the non-text element in a note should allow Andrew to open the image/sound in another application on the device that has told Android that it is an app that can handle pictures or sound. Ideally he will then actually choose an image editing app rather than a gallery or music playing program.

Again, I would be very interested in hearing feedback on this design.

In order to try to encourage comments on this series, the best comment on any post on my blog with the design tag made before 11:59PM on 12/07 will get their choice of The Orange Box, The Ship or Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death. Provided they also provide me with contact details.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Completed: Alan Wake

I originally wasn't planning to get or play Alan Wake. I thought the concept, a horror writer in his own story, was interesting and I like the idea of rewarding developers who do good ports of console games to PC, but I tend to steer clear of horror.

The most recent Spoiler Warning covered the game however, and combined with a well timed sale early in the season I decided to pick it up and play it. I actually tossed up between buying it on Steam and buying it on, I ended up going with Steam because I feel that it has a better system for handling updates.

Alan Wake is the story of a popular writer and his wife Alice who move to a small town called Bright Falls to get away from the city and Alice hopes this will also allow Alan to get past a writers block he has had for some time. Things quickly go wrong as Bright Falls is situated next to a place called Cauldron Lake which has some strange properties.  Typical video game plot ensues, Alice vanishes, Alan then sets out to get her back. While doing so he starts to find manuscript pages in his hand writing describing events that either have just happened or events that are currently happening. The game is not particularly scary but has many horror references as well as apparently plenty of Twin Peaks references which I missed being pretty unfamiliary with the source material.

The game is split into 6 episodes, followed by 2 DLC episodes (which come with the PC version), which are complete with previously on Alan Wake segments at the beginning. I really like this concept, it provides the game with natural stopping points every couple of hours or so. It could have been handled better than it was, the previously on Alan Wake segments were completely superfluous when you literally just finished the previous episode a minute or so ago, the game should be able to tell when previous chapters were played and only play previously on sections covering information that is say at least a week old.

The game was entertaining but did not particularly grab me until about half way through. Despite the episodic structure my typical play sessions were around half an hour or so until I hit Episode 4, then I played through the next 2 episodes back to back until I realised that it was in fact 1:30am and I was participating in a karate tournament the next morning. It caught me quite off guard that Alan Wake was suddenly able to keep me so involved and interested in seeing what was going to happen next in the story.

A lot of the actual game content of Alan Wake is the combat, which is a pity because the game pretty much has 4 enemy types and 1 non-creature enemy, all of these are introduced in the first two episodes and the game merely throws these enemies at you in slightly different environments and in different amounts. Initially this works fairly well, enemies are pretty much invulnerable until the darkness has been burnt off them via either a torch or other light source, which means you have to juggle your positioning and your ammunition and the game does a good job and making sure that you typically have enough enemies attacking you from multiple angles that this is challenging. Unfortunately this is pretty much the only approach for most of the 6 episodes in the game, the DLC episodes manage to really play around a lot with the basic game mechanics and enemies which by then was a very welcome change.

I was kind of amused at the blatant in game advertising, it isn't as bad as other games I have heard of, but it is very obvious that both Energizer and Verizon did a fair amount of in game advertising along with a car company. There is even a very mood breaking optional TV that you can turn on in the midst of a fairly tense escape from an otherworldly horror that exists only to show you a dated verizon ad as well as a likely similarly dated car ad.

I ended have having a great time with Alan Wake, the story is sadly pretty backloaded, it only really picks up about halfway through and most of the early content could have been trimmed and reordered to significantly improve the game. I especially liked the DLC episodes which were surprisingly easy to miss given that the game doesn't automatically continue through to them nor does it remind you about them at the end, even though they come with the PC version. I definitely would recommend people look into it especially if it goes on sale on Steam or GOG.

Games list at time of post: 400 unfinished titles    
Changes since previous post: Finished 0 titles, added 0   

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Completed: Diablo III

Diablo III is a game that I bought after a fair amount of deliberation with the intention that I would play through it with my brothers. This never really happened, I have had 2 fairly brief play sessions with each of my brothers. Instead I played through most of Diablo III by my self and occasionally with friends. It is a pity and I would like to try to arrange to create new characters and play just with my siblings but we have fairly significantly different schedules which complicates things.

The story and gameplay are pretty standard fare, though admittedly more epic in scope. Diablo had you in a crappy little town, Diablo II let you travel from crappy little town to other crappy little towns or areas in significant decline, save for a brief spell in an outpost in Hell. Diablo III sees the player begin in a new version of the original crappy little town but progresses to have sections in capitols and large scale battles taking place that you are influencing the outcome of. The story was entertaining but not worth a great deal of examination and certainly not something that convinces me to play the game over and over again on higher difficulties.

I quite liked the art style used in the game, it uses colour without being too colourful and whimsical. It feels almost like it was painted.

The companions in this game are great, they are only available in singleplayer, but they are genuine characters that banter with yours as you fight and explore your way through Sanctuary, asking about what your character thinks of the other companions or commenting that this enemy is probably carrying something interesting. They are a massive improvement on the largely interchangeable companions from Diablo II to whom I never formed an attachment and also had an irritating tendency to just die on me.

There are some significant changes to the Diablo system introduced in Diablo III. Your character can hold a lot more stuff in their inventory as a result of reducing the size variation of items to two sizes, 1x1 or 1x2. There is free and unlimited respecing of your character, you can easily swap between different skills and suffer only a short cool down upon doing so, allowing you to try out new strategies when you find your character just cannot handle a particular boss.

The new leveling system especially encourages players to try out new skills and rune combinations as they become available, especially once elective mode is turned on and they can focus further on particular skill types. Each character is mechanically different, not just in terms of different skills but in the charging mechanism for their skills. Finally because it is always online the integration with friends lists makes it very easy to see what others are up to and invite them to join you or to join them in their quest.

The game's ties to BattleNet are also a weakness, the launch period was pretty laughable, predictably their authentication servers went down and there continued to be periodic outages for the next few days. Being in Australia means that any maintenance that occurs tends to hit right in a prime time slot, around 9pm or so, where I and my friends are most likely to want to play. My play session with my oldest brother was cut short primarily because I was getting about 3 seconds of lag whilst playing, which makes for a very poor play experience.

Despite that, Diablo III really managed to suck me in and get me playing and even just logging in 'to check the auction house' even for a week or so after I finished Normal difficulty. This is despite being released at a fairly busy time for me in the Uni semester. If it ever actually goes on a decent sale and you don't mind always online DRM then D3 is probably worth a buy.

Games list at time of post: 400 unfinished titles    
Changes since previous post: Finished 4 titles, added 8   

Monday, 2 July 2012

Hugo Month: Among Others

Among Others is a novel by Jo Walton that unfortunately just did not click with me.

This book is written as a series of journal entries by the main character roughly covering between 1979 and 1980. The main character has recently suffered significant trauma and has been transplanted from Wales to England, where under the care of her father and aunts she is then sent to boarding school.

This is a book about science fiction, fantasy and loneliness. The book contains a lot of talk about magic, where magic is a real thing with rules that are only understood by the main character when she encounters them. Magic is something that she has grown up with and is both self-evident and entirely unprovable where almost all magic that takes place is explainable by other means.

Morwenna has taken refuge primarily in science fiction, the book is filled with her thoughts on the books she has read, the ones she has heard are coming out and speculations about themes and plots. It is where she can spend her time to avoid dealing with her classmates who she doesn't really understand and the key to entering into a community.

As I said, this novel just didn't really click with me, there didn't really seem to be much in the way of threats, it was a young woman who might very well be a bit crazy, stumbling her way through unfamiliar circumstances. There were plenty of people who were sympathetic and willing and able to help her and she was able to get help where she needed it. I think that the constant naming and discussion of other SF works put me off, along with her apparently amazing talents most of her subjects (especially science) but apparently being terrible at maths.

As a result my current Hugo Novel rankings are:
1. Deadline         
2. Among Others