Geekssential #20: First-Person Shooters

This week I’m doing a more general post than usual. (For reasons of current interest.) Instead of a specific (named) something, I’m singling out a whole genre of somethings. In this case, the video game genre known as First-Person Shooters.


id Software’s venerable Quake.

In the Beginning…

While a lot of credit is given to the games Wolfenstein 3D (which I played extensively) and Doom (which I played a bit) for launching the genre, the truth of the matter is that these two games were not the first examples of games which used shooter mechanics from a first person perspective. Games like Maze War (on foot) and Spasim (in flight) from the 1970′s provided the foundation upon which these later 1990′s games were built. In the ensuing decade plus before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom released the mechanics associated with maze War and Spasim were used in a number of games, including combat simulators for the military. (Vehicular combat is prevalent in a number of FPS games.)

So from way back, there were people designing and playing games based around the concept of being “the person” who was in the game, and in destroying your opponents. That conceit evolved most rapidly, of course, after the introduction of the two titles in 1992 and 1993. So rapidly, in fact, that the term “Doom-clones” was very popular for a number of years, much as people use “WoW-clones” now to describe MMORPGs…and in spite of the fact that both Doom and WoW were clearly predated by other games in their respective genres.

Eventually the (oft-pejorative) “Doom-clones” brand faded in the face of many new features and general advancements in the genre. It has, of course, given way to the phrase “CoD clone”—from Call of Duty, an extensive series of games which started as a WWII shooter and has since moved on to being a more modern day version—for any kind of basic military shooter or “CoD-with-blank” to describe any game with an obvious added twist.

The Big Bang

Credit was given to Doom for further defining and propelling the genre towards the mainstream in 1993, but for my money it was Quake’s 1996 release that was perhaps the spark that truly ignited the FPS genre on PC. I can remember playing the Quake alpha on the LAN at Sierra in the fall of 1995 and thinking about how much of a leap forward the game was. Spawning a series of its own, Quake is one of the two biggest names in arena shooters (the other being the Unreal series) and even outside of that sub genre, it is clearly influential even today.

On the console side of things (there is forever a divide between PC and console shooter fans) it was a British super spy that proved to be vital to the genre. GoldenEye 007 was released in 1997, included sniping and stealth, and sold so well for so long that by the mid 2000′s it was the single biggest selling N64 title of all time in America. It’s also the one reason I wish I’d ever had an N64. (Sorry, Nintendo…you lost me after the 8-bit…when I grew up.)

The Steady March of Progress

Once established as a big genre, there was nowhere to go but forward. FPS games enjoyed regular development and refinement throughout the late 1990′s and through the first decade of the new millennium. Half-Life took Quake’s technology and showed that story could take on an even larger role in shooters (plus boasted some pretty extreme AI) and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six propelled the idea of tactical shooters to the fore.

The impressively massive battlefields of Starsiege: Tribes introduced some truly unusual movement options to get around them (previously non-standard movement had really been the province of rocket-jumps in Quake), a fact which Unreal Tournament seized on and refined within their own series of arena shooters. Half-Life’s modification Counter Strike (which would later become immensely popular in its second iteration, Counter Strike: Source) focused on no-respawn, mission-oriented gameplay—with a basic economy to boot.

With the advent of a new player in the console market came a new shooter which featured lessons clearly learned from Half-Life and Bungie’s earlier successful Macintosh shooter series, Marathon. Halo’s release as a launch title on the XBox proved to be a system-selling one, and the series of games released since has continued its popularity and helped drive shooters in general on Microsoft’s systems. Online gaming for the console shot forward with the release of Hal 2 and its ability to play on Microsoft’s new XBox Live service.

Outside of the closed ecosystems, the PC space moved forward more quickly with online play as broadband access became more and more common, and dialup penetrated almost all households. PlanetSide, released by Sony Online Entertainment in 2003, was the earliest successful games showing that huge map sizes, persistence, and massive numbers of participants could work. (World War II Online was likely the first title to grasp at this goal, but was less successful due to its technological issues, and perhaps simply because it has come out a couple of years before.) Meanwhile, 2003 also saw the release of the first Call of Duty title, which in addition to being a fine shooter in its own right has spawned a dynasty of shooters (some acclaimed, others merely insanely profitable) which has continued through to the latest iteration, Call of Duty: Ghosts. (Which has a dog.)

The list of innovative and impressive games in the genre goes on and on. From titles rich in story like the BioShock series to those whose visuals astound like the Crysis games, there have been a huge number of worthy titles throughout the years.

The Genre Today

Call of Duty remains the dominant player in the shooter market, having released a new version in the series on a yearly basis (developed by a number of different studios in order to keep up that schedule) since the second in 2005. There’s a rough divide between the CoD series and Battlefield, which is currently in its fourth “prime” iteration, but which has had a number of other games released in its series. While Battlefield doesn’t release yearly, the series is developed by a single studio, which lends a certain consistency to the game.

In 2014 the most notable new happening in the genre is that Respawn Entertainment is coming out with a new shooter called Titanfall on March 11th. The biggest reason this matters is because in 2010 the creators of Call of Duty (Infinity Ward) had a falling out from the top down with Activision (long-time backer and publisher) which resulted in the firing of the top guns and a mass exodus of developers. This new “CoD-with-mechs” (*cough*) is being closely watched for a number of reasons.

It is a Microsoft exclusive, making it available on the XBox One but not the PlayStation 4. The Call of Duty series has been in decline since 2010. Infinity Ward with the old staff developed 4 games for which the Metacritic ratings are CoD: 91; CoD 2: 86, CoD 4: 92, CoD MW2: 86 giving them a 4 game aggregate on PC of – 88.75. Since the large staff exodus to Respawn Entertainment, Infinity Ward has developed two games with PC Metacritic aggregate ratings of CoD MW 3: 78; CoD Ghosts: 68 for a 2 game aggregate of 73. (Note that these scores are higher if you take consoles into account, but I play shooters on my real computer because Glorious PC Master Race.)

The First CoD game I played was Call of Duty. I played it a lot. For months it was my online game of choice. The last one I played was Modern Warfare 3. I played for a couple of days. The difference between the two is stark, and not just for the setting. (WWII vs. Modern day combat.) The single player Call of Duty game was good. The single player Modern Warfare 3 game should never have been included, it was such an affront to good story. (Lest anyone think shooters suck at story anyway, I want to point out that Spec Ops: The Line is an absolutely excellent example of good modern combat storytelling, and that BioShock: Infinite is an amazing science fiction story. Both are worth playing through on easy difficulty settings for non-shooter fans looking for a cool story.)

I’ll be playing Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer a little this weekend (it’s free on Steam) just to see what the latest iteration is like. (Terrible, I suspect. There’s surely a reason for the awful Metacritic scores.) But I need something to compare Titanfall to, as I just came out of playing about 15 hours of that beta.

Because as it stands, I think Titanfall may just be the best thing to happen to shooters in a long while. But whatever the case, FPS games remain absolutely Geekssential, and if you haven’t played any, you should. ;)

Prepare For Titanfall

I’ll leave you with the Titanfall Angel City gameplay trailer. It’s a fun (if scripted) video, and shows what happens when you mix the odd movement of Tribes with the speed of Unreal Tournament and the weapons of Call of Duty while throwing in giant robots and creep (a MOBA term for automated opponents)…

This particular video is an example of what passes for the story mode within Titanfall. There is no single player game in Titanfall, but there is a two-sided multiplayer “Campaign Mode” which serves to offer up the backstory.

March 11th, I’ll be playing (on PC!)…

Titanfall on Amazon

Guest: Tracy Falbe on the Hammer of the Witches and a Brief History of Crime Investigation in Western Society

Another day, another guest post! This time up I’m welcoming fellow MAT epic fantasy author (of the Rys Rising and Rhys Chronicles series, for example) Tracy Falbe who is touring in support of her brand new book, Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale. Tracy has written up a look at criminal investigations in the West as it relates to her setting, 16th century Prague. Certainly an enjoyable read in my eyes, but you should read on and see for yourself. (And make sure to check out the sale codes at the bottom, good through the 31st of March!)

Hammer of Witches and a Brief History of Crime Investigation in Western Society

by Tracy Falbe

Most any person is familiar with formulaic crime stories. A crime happens. Evidence is documented. The guilty are accused, tried, and punished. Justice is served.

Except following a procedure does not justice make, and the bureaucratic methods of modern crime investigations have their roots in the infamous Inquisitions of the Roman Church in Medieval times.

In the book God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World the author Cullen Murphy wrote, “Looking at the Inquisition, one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform – the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight, and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite.”

The infamous witch hunting manual Hammer of the Witches or Malleus Maleficarum by German inquisitor Heinrich Kramer in association with Jakob Sprenger is an example of standardized communication explaining how to ferret out heretics and witches. Published in 1486 the book promoted the reality of witchcraft, insisted that women were more susceptible to it, and instructed magistrates on how to find witches, interrogate them with torture, and conduct the trials. Although the Church discredited the book in the early 1500s, its definitions and sadistic methods remained widespread, resulting in terrible tortures and burnings of thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of citizens throughout Europe until the 1700s.

Indicative of the increasing importance placed on making society obey a single worldview, in 1532 Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor decreed that torture was allowed to determine the validity of witchcraft accusations. Burning at the stake was the punishment. With the legal doors wide open to the use of torture, all kinds of fantastical stories came from the mouths of victims because torture will make people say anything, especially when led on by questions specifically meant to confirm heresy and allegiance to the Devil.

In my novel Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale, witch hunting is an important part of the plot because the werewolf Thal is hunting the men who tortured and killed his witch mother. The Jesuit brothers Vito and Miguel represent the educated elites promoting the persecution. For them it is part of their career ladder. By persecuting witches and heretics they gather more power onto themselves through fear and violence. I did not have them use the Hammer of the Witches. Instead I made up a title for Miguel’s witch hunting manual because it’s fun to do stuff like that when you’re a novelist. While administering a campaign of terror in Prague, he refers to The Identification of Heretics, Sorcerers, and Witches and Methods for Gaining Confession, which happens to be the newest title on the subject in my fictional version of 1561 Bohemia.

I’ve long been fascinated by witch hunting in Renaissance Europe because it is so horrifying. Imagine going downtown in your home town and seeing people, mostly women, being burned alive. What a vicious form of social control. The fear that people lived under must have been psychologically very punishing.

In Cullen’s book God’s Jury his whole point was that secular governments of the modern world have taken the Inquisition play book quite to heart. The criminal needs only to be codified as some horrible other such as communist, drug lord, terrorist, or protester and then “the unthinkable becomes permissible” like authorities reserving the right to torture the accused.

It’s all still going on today but not as often in public view. My novel Werelord Thal offers an engaging way to experience these historical realities while giving the accused real magic powers to defend themselves.

Werelord ThalThal is wanted for Devil worship and shape shifting but still boldly walks the streets of 16th century Prague. Jesuits hunt him. Mercenaries fear him. Musicians sing his praise, and women are captivated by his alpha swagger.

Born of a witch and a sorcerer, he is summoned when his desperate mother casts the werewolf spell before facing torture and execution. Burdened with her magical call for vengeance Thal seeks the men that killed her. His hunt is complicated when the Magistrate’s stepdaughter Altea Kardas crosses his path. Horrified that her community is burning women to death, she can confide her doubt and fear only to Thal.

He desires her greatly but knows he will bring ruin upon her. Across Bohemia and beyond people who are different are labeled heretics in a restless world hobbled by tyrannical ignorance. The Renaissance has thrown the Holy Roman Empire into turmoil. Printed books are spreading radical ideas. Firearms are triggering a new age of warfare. And the human spirit is shaking off obedience.

Thal embodies the ancient magic of the pagan past. He challenges a world conquered by a spiritual system that denies the flesh and forgets the Earth. And he awakens within Altea recognition of these truths. She believes any risk is worth loving him until she becomes the bait in a trap set by Thal’s enemies.

Tracy FalbeI was born in Michigan in 1972 and grew up in Mount Pleasant. It’s called the “Mountain Town” but there is no mountain and it’s debatable about whether it’s pleasant. They say it’s a party town and based on extensive research as a young adult I can concur.

Because I always had the childhood fantasy of running away and joining the circus, I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1995 and lived there until 1997. Those who only stay a week are wimps, but I will say that it’s the second year in Vegas that wears you down. Then I realized the pioneers were trying to get to California, and Nevada was not the goal. So I moved to Chico, in Northern California and lived there until 2009. I miss Chico dearly and value greatly the experience of living in that enlightened realm (local government excluded). My wandering has circled back and I’m currently residing in Battle Creek, Michigan. I think I adore the place, but that doesn’t make sense. I’m still California dreamin’ and fantasize about my return to the Golden State, but for now my existence within the post-apocalyptic Rust Belt is suitably fascinating.

In 2000, I earned a journalism degree from California State University, Chico with the conscious ambition of becoming a fiction writer. With the rapid demise of the newspaper industry and journalism in general, novelist is not such a daft pursuit after all. It’s not like I’m actually going to get a job that values my education. Luckily I’m cursed with the impulse to write in a popular yet competitive genre.

I consider writing a necessary activity that I enjoy. I have the most fun writing in the fantasy genre. I find inspiration in history and like to contemplate warfare before gunpowder and life without modern technology. Placing characters in an elder fantasy world fascinates me and allows me to explore age-old notions of bravery when combat was often done face-to-face. Magic is another story element that adds to the pleasure of writing in this genre.

Since learning to read and write as a child, I always knew that I wanted to write novels. The Rys Chronicles and Rys Rising represent the efforts of many adult years.

Werelord Thal ebook on Brave Luck Books (save 25% with code WLT25)
Werelord Thal paperback on Createspace (use CU9KJ3E3 for 20% off)

Writing in Character, Motivation is Everything

One of the biggest issues with writing is how you treat characters. Now, not every writer approaches their dramatis personae in the same manner. February’s writing-focused post is simply covering how I look at mine.

Ashland Shakespeare Festival

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
— William Shakespeare
Photo from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival

Agency, Not just a DOJ Lawsuit

When you look at characters within a work of fiction, you examine something called agency. It’s a common term used by writers, editors and critics to describe a number of things related to characterization. The easiest way to look at agency is this: it’s when a character is making decisions which then play out in the story.

This is most easily contrasted with writer’s fiat, or deux ex machina which is when what the author wants to have happen, happens. Even when things don’t make sense for a character, they take a specific course of action anyway. This is often referred to as a character “lacking agency” when the action is reviewed by others.

In Fiction, The Character Writes You

While not every author is best by unruly characters whose agency is problematic, there are no few writers who have remarked upon the ability of certain characters to always get themselves into (or out of) trouble. It isn’t unusual to have someone remark that a specific character “refused to die” when the time came for them to roll over. David Weber’s Honor Harrington (whose fictional arc was supposed to follow Admiral Nelson’s) refused to die at her own personal Trafalgar, known in Weber’s books as the Battle of Manticore.

In Avenging Angel, a secondary player was supposed to do something (and give the main character something to react to) but refused to do it when it came down to me writing the scene. It subtly changed the story as I’d envisioned it, simply because that character had agency.

The Plot Needs to Thicken, Damnit

These types of changes to the flow of a story aren’t unusual, but they can be difficult to manage when a plot-driven tale is turned on its ear because one or more of the characters refuses to cooperate. As I noted above, this is why it is important to remember that not every writer is the same. For some, the plot is the thing, and rogue characters are whipped back into shape.

In instances where something needs to happen in the plot, but a character refuses, it is the wise writer who considers how something will pay off in the end. Even if the plot is the thing, it can be jarring to some when a character does something senseless.

Many people have had moments while reading or watching a film or TV show when they’ve observed a character do something which seemed so strange as to be remarkable. Sometimes we say so out loud. “Why’d they do that?” As a writer, each one of those moments needs to be accounted for if possible. (And honestly, if you notice them, it is possible.)

Often there comes a moment in the denouement which is given over to the explanation of that character’s actions. This is popular in TV series, where the action of the “situation of the week” needs resolution, and a character sacrifices what we think are their morals, ideals, or habits to drive the plot forward. In the wrap-up, we see a few seconds of a conversation which outlines the why for the faithful. “My grandfather was a cop,” the offending character might say, by way of defending his uncharacteristic handling of a situation.

Ask the Question

In the end, for my money, the writing I enjoy the most is character-centric. I can get into plot-based writing to an extent, and some of it is quite good, but the stuff which sticks with me is character-driven. So I encourage writers to simply ask the question:

What would my character do?

Geekssential #19: Dungeons & Dragons

Earlier this week I mentioned being a big role-playing gamer. It’s true. I have been for years, since first being introduced to pen and paper gaming in about 1980. I had my first experience at a slumber party during elementary school. There was a box, a blue rulebook, something called a halfling, and a scary hole in the ground filled with monsters. I was, of course, playing Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules

Literally the rulebook I played with that first night.

Workout for the Imagination

I was already a pretty imaginative kid by the time I stumbled into that dungeon (where I am fairly sure I ran away…it’s blurry, but I distinctly remember strong self-preservation instincts kicking in) but the addition of role-playing games to my life was a revolution. Now I could have adventures where there were ways to decide what happened when choice were made. It wasn’t all about arguing over what took place in a story I was making up with my friends, it was all about coming together with a framework where we could all see what transpired, and work together to build a tale. (Though in the absence of dice at school sometimes we had some moments of fiat as our impromptu Dungeon Master would declare something outrageous like, “you kill a god, so you become a god…”)

The stories I’ve told as a player and game master throughout the years have been both strange (the party—stuck in modern day California—visited Disneyland after becoming convinced that if there was magic to be found, they’d find it at the most magical place on Earth) and majestic (fighting off a demon horde led by the son of Orcus) and have everything to do with learning from an early age that it was possible to engage in shared story-building.

40 Years of Adventure

On a Sunday in late Jaunary 1974 Gary Gygax (co-creator of the game, along with Dave Arneson) invited people over to his home to play the game that would form the basis for Dungeons & Dragons. In the 40 years since, Dungeons & Dragons has spawned many editions of the rules (0e, 1e, basic, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, 4e, and soon enough, the new 5th edition called “D&D Next”) as well as books (*cough* Dragonlance), films, cartoons, comics, and much more. The popularity of the game may not be single-handedly responsible for the modern role-playing game, but it certainly played a huge role. In many ways Dungeons & Dragons is to the role-playing game industry what World of Warcraft is to online RPGs:

The biggest, most recognizable brand, that no matter what alternative you play, when you mention it someone ends up asking the question “oh, so, like Dungeons & Dragons?”

My personal experiences have included every edition of the game to some extent (though the 1e and 2e pen and paper versions were the ones I played the most), and many of the additional properties. Currently I can be found in the Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unleashed online game on a regular basis, playing on the Ghallanda server.

A Family Activity

I’ve played in multiple games with people who were related. My brother and I were part of (him on again off again, me constantly) the longest running campaign I’ve ever played in. I’ve played with parents and their children. I’ve played with my spouse. I look forward to playing with my own kids in a few more years. (I was 6 when I learned to play, so it’ll be a while yet…thankfully there’s some pretty cool prep games out there to get the kids ready sooner.)

But the reality is that Dungeons & Dragons (and these types of games) are very social activities. There’s a false stigma lumped on the heads of people who play RPGs, that they’re not good socially and that they’re some kind of sub-class of people. The reality is that playing RPGs encourages a lot of different skills from problem solving to compromise to math and dozens of others people need on a regular basis.

So really, I can’t wait until my kids really are ready to let their imaginations take flight and play. (Though who knows what edition of D&D will be out by then given how quickly Wizards of the Coast is making new versions!)

Perhaps The Most Epic D&D Video Ever

It’s possible that there is a better D&D video somewhere, but for the purposes of a blog on a fantasy author’s site, this is about as good as it gets. Here’s about half an hour of an array of authors playing Dungeons & Dragons. (And not only that, but playing the classic adventure: The Keep on the Borderlands.)

Geekssential #18: Dragonlance

Many years back I was (this will come as a shock, I know) a huge Dungeons & Dragons gamer. My friends and I played on a regular basis, and we even worked on our own rules for a game we called Warball & Chain. Around this time (the mid-1980′s when I was spanning late elementary and junior high) I first picked up another one of those books which helped shape my reading life. It was a story of a world destroyed, gods lost, and fearsome creatures returned. I’m speaking, of course, about Weis and Hickman’s classic series: Dragonlance

Dragons Of Autumn Twilight

A part of Larry Elmore’s painting for the original cover of Dragons of Autumn Twilight.

TSR’s Unexpected Hit

In the early 1980′s when Lake Geneva-based TSR (publishers of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games) decided to release tie-in novels for their latest campaign setting, they were anything but a literary powerhouse. The company released various books related to their games, as well as a series of interactive fiction books called Endless Quest. While certainly a company that had managed to get into the fringes of culture with their odd game which inspired love and hate in near equal measures, TSR hadn’t broken out in any real way by the time Tracy and Laura Hickman arrived in Wisconsin (where Tracy had just taken a job with the young company) with the idea for the Dragonlance campaign setting.

What started as an idea for a setting grew to a series of linked modules and expanded into the desire for companion novels based on the adventures. And so, the first volume of the Dragonlance series was written by Hickman and writing partner Margaret Weis, who had previously been involved in editing the Endless Quest series. In what was essentially a gaming group’s adventure dropped into novel format, the pair struck a kind of gold which has, to an extent, confounded critics and other writers ever since. (Partially, I suspect, because the first book isn’t nearly as good as the second and third in the initial series.)

By the 1990′s the books in the series never left print (something which no doubt contributed to their popularity, as legacy publishing has proven excellent at destroying their own sales by not keeping books available) and in fact inspired hardcover editions of what were originally paperback volumes. The quality of the writing, panned widely, was irrelevant to the readers of the series. Weis and Hickman had hit upon what most writers know (yet for some reason so often try desperately to ignore as they work to craft intricate twists and beautiful prose) …

Story matters.

Flawed Perfection

The strength of Dragonlance isn’t in the sweeping narration or excellent construction of the saga. To put it bluntly, the writing is professional but no inspiring, and the tale is hardly breaking from the fantasy mold. No, the power of the series lies simply with the memorable characters and grand adventure as played out against a rich landscape. Rather ,it is the adventure at the heart of the Dragonlance series which is so compelling. Adventure and the depth and love with which gamers breathe life into their characters, put on full display in the pages of the novels, which makes the series so magnificent.

While more mainstream (if SF&F can ever be called mainstream) publishers in the space worked with some amazing writers throughout the 19080′s and 1990′s, TSR’s success as a publisher came from relatively few breakout writers (literally only R.A. Salvatore comes to mind) and much more from the understanding of what gamers want: characters they can relate to (even if just as being similar to their own alter egos) and a big adventure which makes for amazing escapist reading.

Truly Epic

A series of three sizable novels with a sweeping story to them would have been enough to make for an impressive work. (It’s proven to have been enough plenty of times throughout the history of fantasy writing.) But the Dragonlance saga didn’t stop with that initial “Chronicles” series. It continued in “Legends” and “Heroes” and “Tales” and dozens of other volumes. To date there are nearly 200 full length works of fiction which make up the series. (That doesn’t count the numerous Dragonlance modules and sourcebooks.)

The world of Krynn has been detailed to an extent few other fantasy worlds have. The novels have looked across ages of the history of the land, and followed the greatest of heroes…as well as some of the most unlikely. Millions upon millions of words have been written on novels and short stories focused on Dragonlance in the past 30 years.

Worthy of an Epic Series?

And of course, I leave you with a video. This is the single animated film adaption of the series, covering the first book, released in 2008. It’s low quality, but it is the entire movie. It features the voice work of Keifer Sutherland and Lucy Lawless, among others. It is likely terrible. (You have been warned.)

The bigger question here is: does this property deserve a better treatment? It’s no Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) but it is truly epic…

Dragonlance on Amazon
Dragonlance on Barnes & Noble
Dragonlance on Kobo